Who Knows What Downtown Portland Is Really Like? The People Working the Cash Registers.

“People long for the old days of Portland. They keep saying, ‘I wish for the old days.’ But OK, which part? The violence and the racism?”

STILL WORKING: Store clerks can’t use Zoom. (Brian Burk)

Store clerks can't work from home. Through the pandemic, tear gas, choking wildfire smoke and, most recently, ice, they've put in lonely hours behind mostly empty cash registers.

What's it been like for them? A clerk at a smoke shop on West Burnside Street gave a concise answer: "Hell," he said. He declined to elaborate.

On a frigid Saturday afternoon, WW dropped into stores in the city's core to hear more. We hit gas stations, boutiques and convenience stores.

Here's what we learned, edited for length and clarity.

(Brian Burk)

Danny Thomas
Chevron, Southwest 4th Avenue and West Burnside Street

"Third-world country. War zone.

"It's definitely gotten so you got to watch your back all the time. You've got to grow eyes in all sides of your head.

"We had a guy trying to rob an elderly lady. He pulled a machete out and threatened us with it. Then he smashed out the big windows [of the Chevron] with the butt of the machete. The boss said, 'I'm done. I'm just boarding 'em all up.'

"Three days later, a dude pulled a butcher knife on me. He just came in and started swinging it around. I said, 'Dude, you can't do that in here.' So he threatened me with it. Then I picked up my baseball bat.

"The police let him go. The police are just saying it's all right. There's no consequences for this bullshit. When I'm working, I'm representing my boss, I'm representing Chevron. So I gotta keep my cool. I live just down the street, at 4th and Alder. So they call me in all the time.

"The stress level has gone through the roof. Back in the day, downtown Portland used to be a beautiful place. Now it's hard to find anything that's open. Can't eat indoors. Nobody will eat outside in this stuff. [Gestures at snow.] My cheeseburger will get cold too fast.

"The rioting's got everybody stressed out, but the COVID's been going on the longest. It's causing us to live a lifestyle that's barely making it. And I don't like that feeling. My shifts got reduced. Right now, I can't just buy a new pair of shoes. I have to save up for them."

(Brian Burk)

Chris Holmquist
Plaid Pantry, Southwest Mill Street and Park Avenue

"On the street, there's been a lot of stress—like audible, visual, fresh from people. You can sense it. But for me, as a born and raised Portlander, it's like second nature working down here. I'm equipped to deal with downtown.

"People long for the old days of Portland. They keep saying, 'I wish for the old days.' But OK, which part? The violence and the racism? Which is a fact, that actually happened. You don't want that coming back. Northwest 23rd, Nob Hill area, that used to be a drug den. You don't want that back.

"I don't feel endangered at all. I'm obviously a big guy. So I'm always going to feel safe. Animals just love me. A lot of people bring their dogs in here. I can memorize people by their dogs. We have one guy who regularly comes in to buy jerky for his dog. That dog is so excited to see me.

"I've never actually seen anything bad here at this store. The protesters come by to buy stuff after the protest. I've always viewed stores that sell food as a melting pot. I feel like people don't want to mess with us during a riot. Because they need drinks and food from us. If you think about it, why would you bite the hand that feeds you?"

(Brian Burk)

Katherine Sealy
Owner, Event Cosmetics, Southwest Taylor Street and 10th Avenue

"There are literally zero-dollar days. I try to make them as productive as possible. We've been very creative, but numbers are nowhere near what they need to be.

"Most of the office buildings around here have relocated their staff. And they're not in a hurry to bring people back in.

"I am one of very few in my area that threw caution to the wind and took the boards down. It was getting closer to Christmas. It got darker earlier, which made this area look very unsafe. I have higher-income-bracket, middle-aged-to-older clients. Everyone was saying that they felt unsafe.

"I was also really strategic on when I took the boards down. I was fortunate because, what are they going to steal? Makeup? It's not something that's easy to hawk, like liquor. I did empty a lot of my store out to make it less attractive.

"The retailers that are here, we all talked, and we all have similar affinity for the center of the city. I'm a city girl. I just wasn't ready to give up and let this become a run-down wasteland of forgottenness. It just didn't feel right to throw your hands up in the air and say, 'I'm going to move somewhere else.'

"It all sounds dire, but I think we are coming out of the worst. I really do."

(Brian Burk)

Claudiu Viorel Ciocanen
Natural Mart, Southwest 4th Avenue and Mill Street

"I've lived a block from here since '99, and I've seen a lot of changes. And I don't think the changes that are happening now are necessarily bad. Shit's been boiling up and it was bound to happen.

"Hopefully, all the protests will be for a good cause. I was out there six nights in a row. I got gassed six nights in a row. One time after working a 13-hour shift, I went out there and got gassed. I was born in Romania, where unmarked cars picking people up under communism was a common thing. My dad escaped. That's how I ended up here. So, yeah: Trump got me out there really quick. 'Trumpski' got me out there.

"I see a lot more homeless people, but I don't see crime going up. Green Zebra, they've closed down, so that did help us out a little bit. Plaid Pantry closed a store. I don't mind seeing Plaid Pantry gone.

"The silliest thing about the pandemic is how people keep acting—like there's no pandemic. They will come in for one soft drink and, a half an hour later, come back in for one candy bar. I don't understand that. Two people have come in with face shields but no mask. And they're the ones that got attitude. There's a lot of people that feel really privileged and feel like they should be able to get away with shit. But I have to tell them, 'Hey, two new strains going around, you know. Even easier to catch.' It's just sad, having to educate grown-ups."

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.