Friday, 29 March 2019

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Portland, Oregon

Ann sat at the kitchen counter contemplating the daily squares of the More Time Moms Family Organizer calendar on the wall above the erasable magnetic bulletin board. Outside, February was crawling over shards of shattered ice into its fifth week.

She said, “We’ve got to get out of this place.” I agreed. I thought travelling for an early and extra week of spring was a great notion. Ann asked me where we might like to go, somewhere close, somewhere south and west of Edmonton. Ann flung a figurative dart at a mental map: “Portland?”

Powell’s City of Books, I thought, the mother overload. I once spent a lot of time and money at the Powell’s on the south side of Chicago by the university, a multi-level warren of shelves, but I’d heard shoppers required a map for the mother store in Portland because it’s storeys of stories, an entire city block of books. Certain niggling gaps in our library needed to be plugged. It occurred to me too that possibly, maybe I could shopput a copy of my latest novel onto Powell’s shelves and wouldn’t hilarity ensue if I got caught doing that?

I said, “Let’s.”

The unofficial motto of the actual city is Keep Portland Weird. That pithy tourist t-shirt slogan while true is also something of a slight as it suggests a laissez-faire attitude on the part of Portland’s civic administration which pretty much seems to have got things right for its 650,000 citizens. The inland port, once the terminus of the Pioneer Trail, is divided east and west by the Willamette River which meets the Columbia about ten miles downstream. The Pacific coast is another 50 miles distant. Downtown is on the west bank of the Willamette. By my calculation its core stretches from the Portland State University campus in the south north to the funkier Pearl District. The scale is human and the place is designed for people.

For a pedestrian Portland is Nancy Sinatra’s boots. The west waterfront is an extensive and scenic ribbon of manicured green. The core is peppered with parks or greenways, some of which extend for blocks, and public squares. Bike lanes are painted on the roads and green signs indicate skateboard routes. Commuters are served by three trams which run in loops, light rail MAX trains which reach all quadrants of the city and extend to the airport. All these tracks are criss-crossed by busses. Visiting riders can utilize the entire system all day long for just $5.

Ann and I stayed downtown on Clay Street, steps away from Portland State, the city’s arts district and the great stone edifice that is City Hall. The Hotel Modera is retro-hip, a refurbished travel lodge evoking the days of land yachts with fly-away fins and lots of chrome. Its earthy two-tone hallways were dimly lit. The carpet pattern suggested enlarged fragments of broken records. From time to time we felt as if we’d walked into the nightmare sequence of a German silent film.

That disorienting cinematic effect was often enhanced by extensive sampling of local micro-brews. On our second visit to the Yard House on Fifth Avenue, I was cavalier, I ordered a Proletariat Red. The establishment’s literature boasts its collection of beers on tap is the world’s largest. The bartender said they didn’t have that one. I was mildly mystified because I knew I’d enjoyed a couple somewhere in the vicinity, somewhere within staggering distance.

Ann and I were enchanted by the barroom of Jake’s Famous Crawfish. The fridges were wood framed with see-through doors, misty with condensation. We were detective noir characters, me and my moll. A man wearing a mesh ball cap who was part of a party of three waiting for a table in the restaurant ordered a Bud Light. The bartender straightened his two-button white waistcoat and stared at his customer; eventually he sneered, “Really.” The blue tap was at hand but swill was not served. About 15 minutes later another drinker sidled into the recently evacuated space beside Ann and me. He couldn’t decide what he wanted. I suggested a Bud Light.

Years ago when I was a university student the syllabus for one of my English courses included two works by James Joyce: ‘Stephen Hero’ and ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,’ the former being a first draft of the latter. The professor noted that the main character also appears in the pub scene in Joyce’s masterpiece ‘Ulysses.’ He said ‘Ulysses’ was a problematic book: “I either mention it in passing or we devote an entire semester to it.” I cannot remember the gentleman’s name but I could picture him as we stood before 1005 West Burnside. Powell’s is problematic: you either walk on by like Dionne Warwick or like the Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan Show, you spend some time together.

Ann had a list on her iPhone. I had a paper list in my pocket and a second one from an envious friend. We browsed the green, blue and gold rooms before agreeing to split up. I went upstairs into the red room and then like a magpie in the land of shiny objects wandered into the purple room to examine the books about baseball. Immersed in that aisle I remembered what it was like to collect O-Pee-Chee cards: “Got it. Got it. Got it.” I did eventually purchase a Modern Library edition of Raymond Chandler whose prose both created and transcended his genre of detective noir. My other find was a Library of America collection of Philip K. Dick whose groundbreaking short stories and novels introduced an everyman, workaday element to science fiction. I purposely avoided Powell’s orange room where the music books are shelved.

Down by the river in a neighbourhood promoted as historic called Yamhill, Ann and I stumbled upon Second Avenue Records. We flipped through the bins of new and used vinyl. I was a Bruce Springsteen character in the shop, not a boy prophet walking handsome and hot so much as wanting it all or nothing at all. I didn’t possess the pre-scribbled constraint of a list nor did I ask the two hipsters behind the counter if they, like Powell’s, shipped large orders. I was afraid the answer might be yes. Ann and I lingered but not for very long.

When we travel Ann and I habitually establish an unofficial headquarters outside of our accommodations. Riding the B tram we spotted an inviting dive on Montgomery, a short walk from our hotel, where the tracks begin to twist down toward the Willamette and the bridge over to its industrialized east bank. Schmizza Pub & Grub had picnic tables outside arrayed by the rails and they were rife with drinkers, smokers and dog owners. We visited three times. The craft beer was palatable and the pizza was delicious.

But something was bugging me. I’d noticed a corporate lunch hour Schmizza sign downtown on a street named for a dead president near the Court House. I collared our Montgomery manager and asked him if there was a legal conflict what with two such disparate pizza parlours using the same name. He said, “It’s a franchise.” I’d already investigated the borderline sanitary toilets; I looked around at the shabby d├ęcor and at the regulars, skaters under slouch toques, eccentrics under fedoras or baseball caps, who owned their barstools. I said, “Really?” I thought, ‘The franchise fee must run around $5 and the brand manager is either a burnt-out case or dead.’ He swept his arm toward the beer taps and the shelves of liquor, “My difference is the wall. I don’t really pay attention to head office, they leave me alone.”

Unfortunately, a couple of more important things are neglected in Portland. Nestled between Chinatown and the Old Town and within a triangle whose vague points are the Greyhound station, the University of Oregon team store and Voodoo Doughnut (sweet-toothed doughphiles swear Blue Star Donuts is better) is a skid row the likes of which I’ve never before encountered where I’ve lived or visited. Portland’s homeless population, some of it nomadic given the temperate climate, seems alarmingly disproportionate to the city’s size. People wrapped in crusty tarps and filthy sleeping bags live under bridges, on sidewalk corners, on the greenways and in central Pioneer Square. Portland is justifiably renowned for its food truck scene and vibrant weekend market but eating and drinking on the street in front of the hungry and the desperate strikes me as inadvertent taunting.

If the homeless are invisible to locals, so too is life in the state prior to the United States of America’s westward expansion, its manifest destiny. The various public statues and especially their inscriptions constitute something of a whitewash of history; the first settlers seemingly encountered nothing and no one in the timber except critters. Those curious about First Nations’ history in the territory will have to dig a little deeper than the Wells Fargo museum – which was closed during our stay but apparently still tallying up visitors. The Oregon Historical Society’s main exhibit examined the wondrous legacy of beer.

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