by Danny Seim
I wish I could have hired a big-budget storytelling juggernaut like This American Life to do Jehri's profile. Every question I asked lead to an anecdote so rich and colorful, that it felt sorely inadequate to limit his story to shorthand scribbles in a tiny notepad. Here is what I could gather:
Jehri was born and raised here in Portland, in a house directly across the street from the immaculate, late 19th century cottage where he and his partner Jayson have made their home since 2010. This house was Jehri's beloved Mema's place before she passed. He speaks at length about how brilliant his grandmother's blue eyes were, his voice cracking as he describes her on her deathbed, how those eyes were fixed upon his even after she couldn't see him anymore and he accepted that it was only a matter of time.
We talk for over an hour on Jehri's porch swing. He gets up multiple times to adjust his outdoor air conditioner to make sure I'm comfortable. "The only problem with having this thing outside is that its exhaust was starting to kill the plants behind it. I had to fix that". He's disarmingly sweet and effortlessly hilarious. His deck is a masterpiece of flowers, benches and carefully arranged pillows. The décor is all patriotic, mostly left over from July 4th. It's August 1st now and his fingernails are still freshly painted red, white and blue. It must have been an amazing party, I think to myself. "It was an amazing party", he says proudly on cue, "though we had to set up a tent next to my 'hoarder's garage' where I keep all my decorations, because it was supposed to rain".
We step off his front porch onto Northwestern Parkway - the most beautiful street in the West End, if not all of Louisville - and naturally, he knows everyone. Cars stop to say hello and to blow kisses his way. Neighbors come outside to chat when they see him approaching. He points to every house in both directions as far as I can see and gives me an exhaustive family history of each residence, only pausing to introduce me to people and to reference architectural photos he's taken on his phone. He's rattling off names, events and personal memories so fast that I've given up taking notes. All I can do is listen and nod in amazement.
This is a man who works Monday through Friday at the American Printing House for the Blind, and then spends his weekend as a manager at the local Dairy Queen. He's served as treasurer for the Portland Now, Incorporated (PNI) neighborhood committee for the past three years, and has also done extensive volunteer work for the Portland Art & Heritage Fair. How he has any energy left over for community work is beyond me.
The monthly PNI meetings are always a productive atmosphere. There's usually at least one person presenting a new renovation project or proposing a neighborhood improvement idea. Does all this talk of revitalization worry a third-generation Portland resident like Jehri? "It bothers some people around here, but not me. The train is here. This is our chance. We need to get aboard it now or realize it may never come back."
He tells me, "People ask if I'm scared to live in Portland. I'm not scared. I mean, I used to run these streets barefoot as a kid". He says this while gesturing towards the sidewalk in front of his childhood home, "It used to look a lot better". The gutters have fallen off now, the siding looks spongy and it’s pretty clearly abandoned. He holds up his phone to show me a sepia photo of his father sitting proudly on the hood of a Brady Bunch-era station wagon directly in front of the house before me. I squint, and the smartphone falls like a puzzle piece into the scenery behind it. It's now a cute little home with a fresh coat of paint and a manicured yard. Jehri moves his hand and the illusion is broken; the house snaps back to its dilapidated state, the cool guy perched on the cool car fading into memory.
This interview is part of an ongoing series called Our Portland Portraits.
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