Reflections on Prison: ‘Freedom of Choice is a Beautiful Gift’

Nicole and I go way back – we used to sling sushi together at a restaurant in Portland, Maine. Shortly after I moved to New York City in March of 2007, she was arrested for possession with intent to distribute controlled substances (three different counts for the three different drugs she was transporting) and sent to county jail in upstate Maine. She was 24.

Soon after she was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut – the same prison of Piper Kerman of Orange is the New Black fame. While she never met Piper, she has met Sister Ardeth Platte (aka Sister Jane Ingalls), who was in and out of the facility several times.

Nicole was in FCI Danbury from February 2009 and was released June 24, 2014 into a halfway house. While she is still currently on probation, she lives in Amherst, New Hampshire and keeps busy teaching Pilates and yoga at a local gym, working at an accounting firm, and being a full-time student working towards her bachelor’s degree at Granite State College. Since being released a year ago, Nicole has already earned her associate’s degree. Her goal? To start a nonprofit that creates job training for former prisoners. Needless to say, she’s not one who sits around.

In this interview, I catch up with Nicole and ask her about OITNB, her last day in prison, and how she stayed positive during her sentence.

Overall, how would you describe the conditions of the facility?

I was at both the FCI and the Camp (an adjacent satellite prison camp that houses minimum-security female offenders). In the show (OITNB), she mixes the two together. Both of the buildings are fairly old and as a result things leaked, things broke. The mattresses are old, the place was always broken and the showers were disgusting. You showered with black worms that turned into flies and they would send these people around from the safety department with spray but it never worked. That was probably the grossest thing about the conditions.

During my time at the FCI I wrote a 30-page proposal about how they could expand programs, I wanted to create better lives for people in the same shoes as me. Certain parts got approved instantly, and one of them was the Career Center. I developed the idea at the FCI but I created it at the Camp (Nicole was at the Camp from March 2014-June 2014). The Camp had more white-collar criminals and deportable aliens couldn’t be at the Camp. It’s a different level of crime, women at the Camp were a lot more educated and were mostly Caucasian. At the FCI, there were more people of color. The Camp held a little over 200 inmates and the FCI held around 1100. There was a lot more to do in the city than in the village – more opportunities at the FCI. I was able to stay there because I enrolled in several programs at the FCI, people didn’t want to be at the Camp because it was very boring. But it was also beautiful there; more freedom and they never locked the door.

Nicole doing the dancer's pose at 4459 ft.
Nicole doing the dancer’s pose at 4459 ft.

How were you able to connect with positive forces in your life when there’s obviously so much negative energy around you?

I definitely had my moments. It was a challenge. Imagine living with a bunch of pissed off people. My biggest thing was I wanted to show people that we can still live in here. In the housing unit I lived in, every holiday we would create these parties and do fashion shows. It was one of the times in life where I thought, ‘I can either sit here and dwell in misery or I can make the best of what I have right here. I can attempt to work out, expand my mind, and make the best of it.’

You’re a vegetarian. How was the food for you?

It was definitely a step above county jail. It was worse towards the end. They did provide a nonmeat alternative – either soy or cottage cheese or peanut butter. Every day they served salad even if was just lettuce and carrots. At breakfast it was oatmeal, or grits or cereal and a pastry with fruit. Dinners were usually gross. I did work in culinary arts and they do feed their staff very well, so I got to eat what the staff ate while I worked there. My supervisor there was actually very interesting – Orlando Ortiz. He was a Grammy-nominated salsa singer who was once a semi-pro ball player.

What did you learn from your experience?

To appreciate the small things in life. I remember the days I would die to just open a fridge and decide what I want to eat. When I went hiking the other day, it was just so beautiful. I was thinking, even driving here, I am driving my own truck to go hiking right now. The freedom of choice. People don’t realize you get to go to your closet and pick out what you want to wear that has color on it. To choose what I want to eat, to choose what I want to wear, the freedom of choice is a beautiful gift.

Do you keep in touch with anyone?

A retired staff member, yes. On occasion I do email with one friend who is serving life. She’s been in 20 years and I feel like I need to be there for her. And there’s one other individual inside that I was a mentor to. I have to say a lot of people I did know have also gotten out and I am in contact with them through social media. At the Camp, I had a very difficult time dealing with people. A lot of them were straight up haters. The last few months they were jealous and they made my life hell. I didn’t want to stay in contact with them.

What was your last day like?

My last day, the girls made a little party for me. They got specialty food and made me fruit salad and hummus. The facility is actually on a beautiful piece of property overlooking mountains and trees. And that was how I spent my last night. You accumulate things. I spent my final morning giving things away to people and made sure everybody got a piece of me before I left.

Let’s talk about OITNB. During its first season, the series earned 12 prime time Emmy awards and the show is well loved by many. Have you watched it? What is your opinion of the show?

I’ve seen the first three shows. In a cumulative perspective, I have the experience she’s taken elements from both areas (the Camp and FCI) together. There is a slight exaggeration on some of the actions, but other than that she did a pretty good job at doing an accurate portrayal.

In the show, you see a lot of women wear makeup, – Alex, Morello, Red, these are characters who have statement looks – how realistic is this?

They do sell makeup in the commissary, you’re not getting MAC makeup, but definitely some Wet n’ Wild. That kind of stuff changes from who’s in charge and the warden. The selection is limited. People did sneak in makeup through visits or would get officers to bring it in. I couldn’t live without mascara; eye shadow I could live without but not mascara! Gangsta cops we would call them.

Alliances and friendships are also a theme in the show – usually revolving around race – do you find this to be true?

Obviously there are those divided lines, but I hear that happens more in the men’s facilities. Definitely people cross over the lines. I created a lot of my relationships through work. I met some of the worst people I ever met in prison and I met some of the best people.

What were your relationships like with the guards?

I have always been someone naturally friendly and that has gotten me far and I didn’t want that to change. A lot of people gave me shit for that. My attitude was: I’m going to need them before they are going to need me. I just tried to deal with them on a human level, and they were adverse with that at first. But I would be consistent. Respect goes a long way and through time you see who someone is. I was able to forge lasting relationships, I was a hard worker. It was a coping skill to stay busy. I did a lot of writing for staff at all levels and that earned me respect. Once I had the respect of the higher ups, the guys on the ground respected me. Just like on the outside, networking is going to get you further.

Nicole with Ivanka Trump at a recent event for the Donald.
Nicole with Ivanka Trump at a recent event for the Donald.

Recently, New York Magazine wrote an article about the lack of tampons available to female inmates. What was your experience?

They don’t provide tampons at all. Only pads. They are stingy with pads– you are only allocated so many per week, but most of the staff just kept it in their office. But they weren’t guaranteed since staff – they had to work in numerous units. At one point, they eventually stopped giving tampons out entirely; you had to buy them from commissary. People also used tampons to make strap-ons. You make the dildo with the tampon which is fastened to a pad using medical tape around a bra.

Do you think a show like OITNB is helpful or harmful about life in prison?

They do kind of exaggerate some of the staff, but there are some really nice staff people and there were people who helped me a lot. I feel worse for the staff that they are depicted like that. But does it happen as frequently as she portrays it? Probably not. I have to be in the right mood to watch the show and only if I’m with someone else. I won’t sit and watch it alone. People are kind of enamored with it and its funny to me because I lived it.

You’re in favor of the Donald for president. Why?

I am tired of politicians, America needs a businessman to tighten things up. He doesn’t owe any special interest groups for anything. He is paying for his campaign on his own. He is also telling it like it is. If he doesn’t have an answer, he tells you. Some people may call this ego, but I think a little bit of ego is necessary to run a nation.

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Finding fault in every workplace: Is this something personal to overcome or is the system totally broken?

I like to think that I’m right all the time. The truth is, I’m not, and I am always, despite my resistance, learning something new.

At 39, I’ve been working since the age of 12, if you count my first babysitting gig. I do. I had to be responsible, dependable, and resourceful when dealing with a 5-year-old boy and a baby. It was one of the best work experiences I had, actually, and it was because I had to be really real and honest to the kid I was watching. A strategy that ultimately proved to suit both of us.

It was probably when I hit the movie theater job at age 16 that I was starting to catch on to the powers that be, aka bosses. There were managers who wore different color polyester vests than my coworkers and me. They were serious and skulked around making sure we picked up the popcorn in every corner. I was onto the “them” in the power equation and just mainly tried to stay out of their way.

Since then my professional jobs have been mainly in editorial or communications. I’ve always been able to see a different or better, and more efficient way to do day-to-day things, or enhance the culture, but haven’t been able to effectively relay my ideas. The reason is fear and because speaking my mind – even with the best of intentions – feels like a risk for me.

I figure this is a double-edged sword, as a highly sensitive person I’m able to receive and perceive more than I’d like sometimes. And as someone who was surrounded by complainers most of her life, my ability to criticize and see fault is high. Add to that my anti-oppression perspective and I am looking at the workplace through multiple lenses.

On the flip side, however, many companies have blind spots and don’t understand why they may not be able to handle growth, see star talent leave after 12 months, and feel jealous of what their competitors are gaining attention for in the marketplace. Management needs to make sure that their people on the ground floor believe in what they are doing – not for the company’s growth, but for their individual growth as well.

In many cases, either management is oblivious to what employees are really talking about behind their backs while they practice mediocrity to ensure their security, or they don’t care about the morale and well-being of their people.

For the employee, however, that finds fault in every workplace they step into, they are going to be hard-pressed to find an environment that is perfection. No job is perfect, even the perfect job. Yet again, employees who are able to bring a critical eye carrying the company’s best interests to management, the result can dramatic transformation. Truth is power and success is collaboration at heart.

Don’t let star talent walk away because they are able to see your company shine in new ways. Because underneath that hard edge of information is a new surface to be discovered.

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5 Tips on How to Keep Your PR Program on Track

If you’re an accounting firm in a position to work with an outside PR agency, good for you! Working with a PR firm is a great way to expand your own firm’s reach, showcase your thought leadership, and create content through media placement for your website and social media.

Clips can be invaluable pieces of collateral when going out on pitches and create instant credibility. Just keep in mind that most PR firms are not magic makers and will succeed only if the direction is clear and expectations are managed.

As a journalist who went in-house at a midsized accounting firm and ran the day-to-day relationship with our PR firm, I can tell you this – be firm, be real, and make sure everyone is on the same page with deliverables. Here are five tips to consider when bringing on a PR firm.

• Know what you want. Seriously. Are you looking to raise your profile in the media? Do you need help refining your brand message? Do you need media coaching? Content creation? Assistance de-escalating a potential crisis? These are all different things. Think about what your goals and objectives are before getting you start interviewing candidates. It will save you time and energy in the end.

• Decide on deliverables early. Will your firm make a set number of pitches to the media? Will they target (and hit) a number of placements? Will they send you a placement and clip report quarterly? Yearly? Negotiate this up front and get it written into the contract. I recommend weekly meetings with your PR team so they can keep you updated on their activity. It’s not enough to say “we want the program to be successful.” Success, it should go without saying, means very different things to different people. Be clear about what you expect when, and get rid of any confusion.

• Know your partners’s skill set. We all want to showcase our partners as thought leaders and exceptional speakers and writers. That said, partners have different skills. Some will be ready to speak with members of the media, others won’t. Some will have no problem whipping up a bylined article, others would rather stick to the numbers. That’s OK. Figure out who does what best and use that information to build your program.

• That said, train your partners. I can’t stress this enough. Reporters want information. Your partners and experts need to know how to talk to them. Long, rambling stories are often not what journalists want. Make sure they answer the questions they are asked. Short, concise answers work best. Let your partners know that they may get questions beforehand, they may not. They may have an opportunity to fact check, they may not. This is all part of working with the media. And remember: Be accessible (reporters often work on short deadlines) and dependable – always, always, always keep any commitments you make with a journalist. You want to build your credibility, not disappoint and be unreliable.

• Have a realistic budget. We all know budget concerns are real and accounting firms in particular are conservative when it comes to marketing. If you are a midsized accounting firm, expect to pay at least $10K a month for a high level media relations program. Most PR firms will want to put an executive (managing director or higher) on the account and if they don’t, consider that a red flag.

Working with a PR firm has its advantages, but only if you are prepared. Be sure to vet your prospective team carefully and know what you want. Remember, it’s a partnership – set the tone for a collaborative relationship, create milestones for success, keep those lines of communication open and you’ll be off to a great start!

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6 Tips for Detoxing from Corporate Stagnation

Love it or hate it, Corporate America is a great place for people to go and learn. It’s a breeding ground for power plays, ego baiting, personality conflicts, and competition. In other words, it’s an opportunity for some serious growth.
But when you’re operating under “old school” philosophies – aka the traditional 9 to 5 grind, complete with lengthy commute, surrounded by gray walls with no windows for hours on end, and you spend more time with your colleagues than your loved ones, it can lead to major overload – emotionally, physically, and spiritually – no matter how much you appreciate your job.
Many companies are reactive and operate on fear – despite their (sometimes) best intentions. This we know. Unfortunately, management passes this down to every layer in the organization. This then manifests into indignant attitudes of those on the ground with fear and shame hanging close by.
The expectation of “do everything now” can exacerbate the anxious, rush the creative process into mediocrity, and result in an authoritarian undercurrent that just turns off employees and prospective talent alike.
A pressure cooker environment stirs up emotions and old patterns but it also accelerates insights if you are aware and able to catch them as they emerge.
Healthy boundary setting, more consistent self-advocacy, direct communication, and empathy can be the result of learning to see the bigger picture and take on a warrior stance. There is always opportunity to grow – even in a less than ideal environment – and many people pass it by.
As a sensitive person, living in New York City presents its challenges. I need day-to-day flexibility and exercise; a vibrant office aesthetic; and access to nature. I feel better that way, am more grounded, and can bring more of my authentic sensibilities to what I am doing. This should be non-negotiable, but it ends up falling to the side because of my pattern of people pleasing.
Springtime naturally lets us see things with fresh eyes. Those of us working the same schedule as the seasons change can do little things that welcome in the new, while letting the old fall away. This can feel empowering, inspiring, and provide relief to the hamster-wheel mentality. Consider these ways to detox and rejuvenate:
• Take a break mid-day to exercise. Whether that be a nearby gym or a brisk walk outside, move your body. Breaking a sweat will shift your head and energy. Thirty minutes is all it takes.
• Change your routine in the morning. Take a different route, walk a few extra blocks, start writing “morning pages,” or take a few minutes to set your intention for the day. I have a “morning before my morning,” so I feel like I have more ownership over my day.
• Relate to your colleagues differently. Notice the dynamics with certain people and if they aren’t as positive as you’d like, make small adjustments to how you interact. They may not change, but your reactions to them might.
• Pay attention to what attracts you. Whether you’re drawn to a particular book, article of clothing, piece of art, or TV show. Allow yourself to indulge in your own tastes. Sometimes you will find they are very different from what you have known. Let that be welcome.
• Rethink time. Many of us have very scheduled lives. If you’re someone who is chronically late, think about why that’s happening. If you always arrive 15 minutes early, ask yourself what would happen if you were just on time. Shake things up a bit.
• Allow for change. Change happens in different ways – sometimes abruptly and other times incrementally. Watch what claims you are making about your experience. Ask yourself where they come from and if they are true today.
While routine and work hours may bog you down, you ultimately have control over your own life. What can you do to experience it differently? Remember what Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

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(#11) Camping

So I went camping this past weekend.

Turns out, I don’t think I’ve been camping before quite like this.

I mean, yeah sure, I went camping at Salmon Falls in Buxton, Maine back in the day when I was straight and hanging out with the other counselors I worked with at the Jewish Day Camp, drinking Zima around the fire and wearing overalls. Or the time I went camping in Provincetown at a populated gay camp site and a skunk decided to sit underneath the lawn chair I was sitting in. Or when I stayed in a cabin in the Maine woods with a former girlfriend. All valid camping experiences.

None like this. Turns out I forgot that with nature comes critters and with camping outside comes darkness. Turns out I’m a bit freaked out by both.

V. took me to this really gorgeous campsite about two and a half hours away from Portland. While there were people occupying the sites, it was by no means crowded. We had a neighbor near us the first night, which I appreciated.

We took a walk to the edge of the lake, which was more like a large clear swamp, and as I was walking these creatures were jumping out of the dirt right near the shore. Turns out they are baby frogs. Baby frogs. Tiny. I mean, so SMALL. And blending in with the dirt. I was shocked. And then my shock turned into fear – what if they touch my toes, what if they jump up my shorts’ legs, what if they touch my skin? I tried to play it cool, but as V. was wading in the water and trying to entice me, I was like BUT I have to get through the frogs?! And I just couldn’t find a way to do that.

So we drank white wine out of coffee mugs later in lawn chairs near that same spot and watched the sun set over a steep mountain of trees that were left over from a forest fire. Geese were swimming on the lake and blue dragon flies were flickering their wings around us. It was genuinely beautiful and I was excited about the opportunity to be out there, out of civilization as we knew it. Out of the corner of my left eye I see a brown body moving. Turns out it’s a buck.

We have dinner back at our site and it’s dark and I’m starting to feel a little nervous. I’m not good in the dark, I like light and seeing what’s before me but I’m trying to remain open and just be present. I’m trying to bring my breath down. While we are eating, I see another deer off in the trees just in front of us. I feel my heart beat quicken and V. and I watch it as it moves and watches us. It’s dark now and I catch her eyes and we are staring at each other. Next thing I know she is closer, at a tree near our picnic table. We are saying hi and greeting her and also not trying to be too friendly as we are not going to feed her like many probably do.

At some point, I decide I’m going to bed. This is probably right after S’mores and I can’t take the anticipation of watching this deer circle our campsite. I get into the tent and V. finishes cleaning up the site and comes in to join me. We are lying down trying to sleep when we hear something brush against the side of the tent. There is stomping and heavy breathing and I can almost feel her snout inverting the nylon wall near me. I am freaking out. V. is trying to sleep. I’m trying to practice savasana and am still freaking out. Every time I heard something I would sit upright in the tent and say Did you hear that! waking up V. just as he was dozing off. It was not pretty.

Turns out I don’t like that kind of wildlife interaction. And it turns out V. has never had that kind of experience with deer. We came up with a variety of different theories about why she did what she did – the main one being our tent was in her path and because she has a baby, she saw us as an aggressor and therefore a problem. V. did tell me she had already experienced the deer last year when he was here before. Somehow that information was lost on me.

The next night we moved our tent to the site over and while she did return, and yes, sniff our tent, her energy was a lot less aggressive. She returned a third night and did the same thing. She was curious and it appears we may have been afraid of each other.

Our tent
Our tent

The experience actually taught me a lot – one, I think I have been operating out a fear place when it comes to new and uncomfortable things. This also maybe the influence of yoga on my life as of late, but instead of greeting the deer with curiosity and excitement, I was just scared and freaked out. Instead of thinking those froggies were cute, I just saw them as an obstacle to getting in the water. I think that says something about how I perceive and engage with life. While I did receive validation from a couple of different people that that encounter was pretty intense and uncommon, and that I probably handled it well given my own experience is limited, I did receive that message.

The trip was beautiful, though. We sat by water holes and sunned, drank beer, talked, ate good food. The simplest acts like washing my hands felt luxurious and it was nice to be able to experience day turn into night living outdoors, even if I was scared of the darkness.

Not one lick of make-up. Just bug stuff and sunscreen.
Not one lick of make-up. Just bug stuff and sunscreen.

On the third night we were there it was a SuperMoon in Aquarius. The next morning I wrote this in my journal:

“4th day camping or third night. Stayed up a little later last night and had two smores. The deer came early showing us her presence in the field. She later made her way closer and even later when I was in the tent, the deer sniffed V’s sneakers which were drying on the rock in our site. On the way to the bathroom (there was an outhouse in the area) we saw a big frog or toad that hopped out and then when we were done it hopped with us a little on our way back. I also saw a wood rat (a few). An inchworm was also on our picnic table at one point. V. says everything was out because of the moon. Maybe it was. The moon was the 3rd SuperMoon of 3. It was gigantic and so bright and had moved in the sky since we got here.

It really is beautiful here. I just wish I weren’t frightened of every little thing. Yesterday when we found that swimming spot and I was lying on the rocks/shore waiting for V. to park the car a flock of geese swam up pretty close. I didn’t realize it at first but I grabbed my backpack and walked up the stone stairs to wait for them to pass. Once I saw they saw the space occupied by humans they began swimming off. I was relieved.”

I’m back at home. We got back yesterday and I was in desperate need of a shower and some salve for my numerous mosquito bites. I got pretty tan. But I’m grateful for the experience. For the slow pace, for the pure enjoyment of doing basic tasks, for being in my body in a whole new way that made me feel sexy and alive despite wearing no makeup and having no shower, for hearing the sound of my old boots on the dirt road, for the sun at different times of the day and for quality time getting to know someone I love in a new way. It was all good.

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(#9) The number one question that I get asked here

Technically. I am not ranking the questions people are asking me here after they learn I hail from Brooklyn, but I will admit, it’s a question that strikes me in the moment and leaves me sort of dumbfounded.

I can honestly say I don’t know Portland well enough to answer that question to my liking. But if it matters, here are some things that I like about this city so far (in no particular order):

* The weather here right now is pretty fantastic. It’s nice and sunny everyday. I especially like right before dusk when it seems to get brightest and fuller in color.

* I like the food trucks. There are a lot.

Cute, right?
Cute, right?

* I like shopping in boutiques that are housed in vehicles.

* Sauvie Island on the Columbia River is pretty cool and beautiful and queer and naked. And there is an ice cream boat. We have not gone yet this year, though! It’s on our list.

* Pok Pok wings. They are am-a-zing.

* Bikram Yoga. Yes, I know I can do this in any large metropolitan city and probably some small ones, too, but I got into it here. It’s a friendly studio and they know me by name and I just completed my 21st class.

* Beer is cheap. I mean $3.50 for a pint of local IPA. In general, everything is cheaper here.

* Grocery Outlet, aka Gross Out. We can get good food here for cheap. Like decent $4 bottles of wine and a package of 6 Klondike ice cream sandwiches for $1.99.

* The air is clean. So are the sidewalks for the most part.

* The sky. I like looking up at it and seeing the expansiveness, the blue, the clouds (sometimes). The star and moon look different here.

* I drive.

* I regularly water a garden. (Again, both this and the last few are things that are not special to Portland, but I am doing them here so they are special to me.)

* Venae is here! I am saving the best for last. It’s so nice to be with him without the pressure or frenzy of a five day visit after weeks and weeks apart. We crack up a lot and have fun, low-key dates.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It’s a list in progress I’ll say. But it’s always an interesting question because it makes me freeze for some reason. What are the reasons I like Portland? I don’t know, it’s a new city? My boyfriend’s here? It’s not New York? All of those things yes and more.

I’m happy being here.

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(#8) Go see this.

By this I mean Frances Ha.
It’s a film about a 27 year old New York woman trying to figure it out.

Frances Ha.
Written by Greta Gerwig & Noah Baumbach. Gerwig stars in the leading role.

Basically Frances is best friends with Sophia. They live on Vanderbilt Ave in Brooklyn. They are like lesbian girlfriends without the sex. They have dreams of each making it big in their own right. Then Sophie decides she wants to move to Chelsea with a friend of hers. This begins the downward spiral of Frances’s life. It’s not really a downward spiral, though. Frances does accept Sophie is choosing something different for herself. And therefore she tries to make the best decisions she can for herself, albeit reluctantly and guided by faith.

I could totally relate to her epic aimlessness
I could totally relate to her epic aimlessness

Frances has a way of making her life sound better than it actually is (it’s a trait I admire actually) … she’s a dancer, but not really, dates but not really, but the thing is whatever she does, she’s present and vibrant and has this youthful quality … it’s a believable story, especially when she leaves this apartment she’s sharing with these two trustfund type artists in Chinatown for her parents’ in California. She’s totally being taken care of and living it up knowing full well she has to go back to her own reality soon. She’s sort of in denial about a lot in her life, but I see it as more hopeful. Hopeful things will shift in her direction.

I think Frances Ha is a movie about spirit and taking yourself seriously. It’s about love and friendship and jealousy and about how you just have to go with life sometimes. It’s about money and class and how that changes relationships and it’s just plain funny.

We saw this tonight at the Laurelhurst Theater where we got chicken pizza and beer and popcorn and watched someone’s vacation photos interspersed with the ads while we were waiting for the movie to begin. $4 for a ticket. I love Portland for that.

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