“I’ve lived at the Rainier for five years, since September ’09. I’m one of the second residents. I had previously been nine years a crack addict in the Downtown Eastside here, hanging out in the back lanes. I used to hang out in that bottle depot lane: in my window, I can see it.
Where You'll Find Me - the piano room at the Rainier Hotel
“When I came here, I only had 28 per cent lung function. I quit smoking and it went up to 50. I started playing with the street soccer team and got off all crack, all drugs. I bummed out my knee so I don’t play soccer anymore, but when I started, it went up to 64 per cent. Now, I’m still active with yoga.
“It’s proof that being in a healing, supportive place—and exercise—can change your life. And there is hope. I feel a sense of community down here I didn’t know existed when I was using. You think you’re alone out there; I didn’t know there were so many people helping.
“In 2010, one of the Rainier staff rented a piano for Christmas. We had it through December and January. So I bought Christmas books and played piano for everybody. On Christmas Day, they had carolers come, and it was Vanessa Richards from the Woodward’s Choir— her and some singers. They were caroling on Christmas Day to all the Portland buildings. There were 20 people around me. I’d never played in front of people before.
“I used to escape into the piano as a child; it was my escape from my reality. I grew up in Winnipeg. We couldn’t afford lessons, so my dad bought me a book. He was a professional banjo player. I grew up on all that Dixieland stuff and jazz. He had the music fake books where it has the guitar chord and melody line and you just fill in the rest—that’s how I learned. So now I can play anything in any key. I like jazz. I play the old ‘20s, ‘30s music. Even Gershwin, Cole Porter out of the ‘50s. I play the Beatles, James Taylor, Cat Stevens. I can play anything if I have the music right in front of me; I can sight read real fast!
“Then, with the restaurant [Rainier Provisions] opening next door, one day I walked by and there was a piano in the middle of the restaurant. There was a sign, “piano players wanted.” They feed us every Thursday, and on the Thursday, I got my books and asked if I could try out the piano. I played while we were waiting for supper. After supper, I went to the manager and asked, what are you looking for in a piano player? She said, you’d be just fine. It was my first paying gig. I played Tuesdays and Saturdays, noon til 2pm. I was shaking during the first gig, but I loved it. I played there ‘til they closed [temporarily for menu development].
“Eventually, the Rainier staff bought the piano from Long & McQuade. I’ve always wanted to perform, but I never made those decisions. Now, piano is not an escape any longer. It’s a joyful pleasure that I want to share.
“Coming to the Rainier afforded me the opportunity to get back on my feet— not just back on my feet, on new feet!
“I’ve realized life doesn’t have to be any more complex than getting up, brushing your teeth, making your bed, eating. That’s called life. And I didn’t get that before: to be human. It doesn’t have to be complicated.”
by Paula Armstrong
I had a dream where I had stopped smoking I quit alcohol, drugs and
other mood changers
My body was becoming trim
and muscular again
Running up and down the stairs
did not leave me breathless
My piano playing invited me to sing to my heart’s content
I loved life and noticed the simple
pleasures of being in the now
A quiet mist of confidence filled my insides
Where there was only fear and sadness before I believed that anything was possible
I could achieve whatever I set my mind to
I lived at this Rainier Hotel place
Where there were endless possibilities
And even God loved me!
Wow, what a dream.
But then I awoke...
to find I wasn’t dreaming
This is my new life
Paula Armstrong is a longtime resident of the Rainier Hotel. Her writing has been published several times in Megaphone. Her poem, “Dreams” (right) was published in Voices of the Street, Megaphone’s 2014 literary anthology.