Three Views of Competition (From the Street)

I have a friend who writes a syndicated newspaper column, offering her readers financial advice. I asked her once about her three houses in three states. She paused, as if formulating a different answer for me than she might give to others. “It helps,” she said with a wink and a smile, “when you eat your own cooking.”

I don’t think she was telling me that most people eat out too much. I think she was saying that her financial advice wouldn’t be very good if she didn’t follow it herself.

I recommended to readers a few weeks ago that they could unlearn a childhood “stranger danger” fear and acquaint themselves the world around them a little better if they bought or sold a few incidental items, using the classified ads or craigslist.

I took my own advice the last couple of weeks. I learned a lot. I’ve fudged a few details to protect anonymity, but here is a short report.

I bought some unused lockers a Ducks athletic department surplus sale about 20 years ago. I used them as a fun alternative to doorway drawers for hats and gloves, but I eventually grew tired of the joke. So I placed an ad. The woman who called wanted me to verify the dimensions, which I did.

She rolled up to my house, cash in hand, and asked me to help her load the lockers into a small school bus she had converted into a mobile fashion store. The lockers fit, just barely, and we chatted for a moment in the street. “Funky stuff like this is impossible to find in Portland. It gets snapped up so quick!”

She’d recently arrived in the Whiteaker neighborhood, looking for the Portland funk at a slower pace. Her vehicle and vision were nothing if not unique, but she can’t find a way to stand out in Portland. Everyone can do their part to “keep Portland weird,” but it helps if you have a full-body tattoo or a three-legged dog.

I then bought a television from a young man who needed money to make rent. He and his girlfriend had just moved into an apartment on a busy road near campus. He’s out of a job. I agreed that it “stinks,” using that softer word, in case I wanted to reprint the exchange in a family newspaper.

“It’s not losing the job that (stinks),” he told me as he wrapped the cords. “It’s when the unemployment runs out. That’s what makes it hard.” He lowered his voice when he said it, perhaps not wanting his girlfriend in the next room or neighbors though the thin walls to hear.

I asked him what sort of work he wanted. “Pretty much anything, at this point.” I think I passed five “Help Wanted” signs driving home, but this young man hadn’t connected with any of them. I didn’t learn exactly why. I’m sure there’s more to the story.

The next day I met a young woman whose story was very different. She had an end table that fits my decor, so I was at her door with the amount she requested. Her living room was mostly empty, because she and her husband were moving to San Diego.

“We have no jobs or friends down there, but it’s where we want to be,” she said. “We’re young. We’ll work it out. It will be an adventure.” She smiled. “We’ve always been the ones with a little more faith.” I didn’t ask the object of her faith. It didn’t matter.

I congratulated them for taking the risks to realize their dreams. I’ll admit I was contrasting her with my TV friend, who had exhausted his unemployment benefits.

Reflecting back, if I had seen these three in the grocery line ahead of me, I might not have noticed much difference between them. But I had opportunity to ask each a simple question: “What’s your story?”

Stories shine in ways statistics can’t. Everyone strives differently. You can welcome, dread, or mitigate competition, but you cannot escape it — at least not for very long.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.