Portland has a lot of stuff going on. I picked up a copy of the Willamette Week after I got there and found a long list of shows going on that week (because everyone in Portland is in a band), many of them free. As I was reading this I was strolling down Hawthorne, the place where all the crazy Portland stuff happens, and as I was walking I also saw a bunch of places advertising interesting events, like a coffee house advertising that Wednesdays were “Psychic Nights!” (it would have been worth it to drop in just to make snide remarks). Unfortunately, when I took this stroll while reading this weekly, it was much after I got there, and I had already blown my budget of Portland time.
I was visiting my friend Will, who was two years under me at college and studied linguistics too and now does programming while planning how to be a rabbi and draws comic strips and writes role-playing games in his free time. I don’t generally summarize a person so thoroughly and, uh, summarily when I mention them, but lately I’ve been thinking it might be handy for people I know to have a little list with brief summaries of people I talk about all the time, because I mention all these names casually and I’m never really sure if people have much of an idea of who I’m talking about when I do. So that’ll be Will’s entry on the list. Check mark.
Anyhow, I had great weather in Seattle, but when I got to Portland it started getting a little gray and rainy, and despite myself, I ended up spending more time than an adventurer really should sitting in Will’s house and reading comics and books and stuff. His parents said I could stay as long as I wanted and to make myself comfortable. That was a dangerous thing to tell me. Will and I talked about languages a bunch, and also about books and comics, and we watched old Star Trek and made fun of it, and we drank some of Portland’s plenitude of good beers.
But, no, I did get out of the house now and then (because Will has a job, like a chump, and couldn’t hang out with me all the time). It’s true that most of the places I went to were Powell’s Books. But I went to a few other places too. For instance, I went around downtown to get my bearings. Portland has a very tidy, well paved, neatly gridded downtown, with modern light rail stops and glass-fronted office buildings. A block or so of this downtown has been ceded to homeless people. I was on foot that day and walking from one quiet block to the next, and then turned a corner and there they were, incongruously encamped right there on the corner of the sidewalk, with their bedrolls and sleeping bags and big backpacks and dogs and all their other earthly belongings. At the time there were probably a dozen of them, maybe less. I assume the number ebbs and swells. There was no bridge they were sheltering under (just a big glass awning), the neighborhood didn’t look particularly rough or poor.
I was to learn that Portland is a very homeless place, and sort of uniquely at peace with that. On another day I rode along the Willamette River a bit, under all the bridges. (At Powell’s I found a book called This Is Portland: The City You’ve Heard You Should Like, and one thing in it was a section on all the many nicknames of Portland, with a detailed explanation of each. However, for the nickname “Bridgetown”, the author concisely wrote: “Here’s the thing about Portland: It has a lot of bridges.”) Each one, but especially the Steel Bridge, had its local population of drifters and homebums. I never really talked to any of them, but they seemed like decent enough people, if maybe a little more enthusiastic than most people about big black dogs. There’s even someone else who’s a raccoon:
I found a place called O’Bryant Square, which is conveniently located right next to an entire block of foodcarts. This is another Portland thing. There were food trucks selling food from countries that I didn’t even realize had a distinct cuisine, like for instance Kargi Gogo, the Georgian foodcart. People get some lunch and then go across the street to eat in O’Bryant Square. And then if they don’t finish, they leave the food out in its container, plainly in fine condition, so that any of the square’s homeless can pick it up and have a little lunch themselves. This has clearly been going on a while, and no one does anything to stop it. Some people will give the food to a homeless person personally. I thought the whole thing was just heartwarming, and it also saved me money on food. (Don’t worry. There was plenty to go around, even taking into account the short Asian woman who gathered container after container of food each day in big plastic bags, presumably to take back to wherever she lives, and when talked to by anyone, even someone trying to give her food, would yell at them in broken English.)
Something Portland’s better known for, though, and probably at least in part because it prefers it that way, is that it’s a very creative city. Everywhere there are people being creative. It’s almost too much to handle, but not quite, although you do kind of end up looking at everything with a constant low level of mental sarcasm, because Do these people have jobs? How long can they live off their parents’ money and keep creating all this creativity? Who buys it all if everyone in this city is so contently underemployed and poor? But if you can put that aside, you can just appreciate it all. There was a guy in front of a Starbucks with a big smile playing a drum set made entirely out of buckets, except that his cymbal was a nearby light pole. There were book readings at Powell’s practically every day. There were so many bands that they ran out of stages and concerts were now being put on at non-intuitive places, like the hostel on Hawthorne. On a suburban corner among anonymous-looking houses (though between the famous Hawthorne and slightly-less-famous Belmont), there was an elaborate shrine made out of bike wheels to the memory of a cyclist who’d been killed there a few years prior. But the hub, of course, would be the poorly-named Saturday Market (I suggest: “Weekend Market”). Will and I went there on a Sunday and admired knit hats, wood-veneer barrettes, refillable oil lamps made from slabs of stone, homemade barbecue sauces, and T-shirts saying Breakfast: the most important beer of the day and Gluten: the new al-Qaeda.
Stuff like this has been going on for a while. Even the city’s cherished institutions are a little off-the-wall, not very much so, but definitely when you compare with the stuff that’s well known in other cities. There aren’t a lot of cities that can say they have an enormous, scientifically run rose garden, but Portland is home to the International Rose Test Garden, and it’s not even a privately run thing where they keep everyone away from their precious roses, as you might expect. They run it like a park. After all, why barricade the roses? It’s not as if people can steal bottles of rose scent from you. So here you can see all the hundreds of varieties of roses that breeders around the world have created, and learn such factoids as: There are no truly blue roses, only purple ones (and ones that have been impregnated with blue dye), because a gene to make blue pigment has yet to be discovered in rose genetics.
Or, if roses aren’t your thing, you can go a short ways away to the Japanese Garden, which was once called the best Japanese garden outside of Japan. There are actually a fair number of cities with Japanese gardens (Seattle has one in its arboretum), but this was the city where I finally went and saw it, and man, is it ever well done. It was raining steadily when I visited (it does that a lot in Portland), but that didn’t ruin the mood, it just changed it to somber instead of rejoicing. The Japanese aesthetic struck me just right. They used nature as an art form. Moss is a paint for gardeners. Koi are moving brushstrokes. And everything there is placed according to no grid, but still always somehow in exactly the right place. The whole garden was a refuge of utmost tranquility, a place for reflection, meditation, while staring into a quiet pond, while watching rain drip off the moss at the edges of the roof of the shelter I was sitting under.
And what the heck, I even managed to get out of the house with Will a little while I was there. I went with his family to Sukkot at the Portland Jewish Museum where his mom works. She said it’s amazing how little most non-Jews know about Jewish holidays and traditions, but in the case of Sukkot they can be forgiven, because it’s usually a quiet backyard thing. It commemorates the forty years of desert wandering under Moses, and so they build these little huts (sukkot), to remember the seat-of-their-pants lean-tos that the Jews would have slept in in the desert. The main rule when you’re building a sukkah is that you have to build the roof out of leaves and branches and be able to see through it, but other than that you can make it however you want. Since this is Portland, they got all creative, and so there was one that was elaborately made out of spiraling wires, one that was made out of lots and lots of cedar pallets, and so on.
We went and there were a bunch of people standing in the museum’s parking lot with the sukkot, eating sandwiches and challah, drinking beer and wine. I didn’t know anyone there, of course, and I wasn’t even Jewish so I was a little bit clueless, but somehow I didn’t feel too badly out of place. I talked with people, even hammed it up with a guy named Boas about his travels, where he took a ten-week trip making a point of using every method of transportation he could that wasn’t a car. I had a good time even so far out of my element. I guess maybe you could chalk that up to Portland being a pretty welcoming city too.
Oh, by the way, when I was at the Rose Test Garden, I took some data. They have a Rose Queen Walk there: each year they choose a Rose Queen, and then they have her sign her name as queen (“Queen Eleanor”, “Queen Mary Ann”) and make that signature into a brick on the path. Thus I had a unique set of data: cursive Q’s dating all the way back to 1907. Remember when you were learning cursive in elementary school and they taught you that the capital Q was this bizarre thing that looks like a 2? Did you ever wonder if the cursive book was just messing with you, imposing an archaic, artificial Q on your impressionable mind? Well, here’s what the data say:
As you can see, the two Q hasn’t been the most popular Q (if we take this sample of Portlandian women interested in roses to be representative of all cursive) since the 1940s, and the cross-bottom Q has always been around to at least give it a run for its money. In the 1920s there was a strange vogue for the big-lowercase form of Q. From 1976 to 1987, the cross-bottom Q enjoyed a twelve-year uninterrupted streak, and in the last decade, nine out of ten Q’s have been cross-bottom. What we can conclude is that if you don’t use a two Q, you’re not wrong or weird, no matter what your fourth-grade teacher might have said, and also, it’s clearly time for schools to start embracing the cross-bottom form. Or at least, it would be, if American schools hadn’t decided to stop teaching cursive altogether. At any rate, write whatever comes naturally. You have a write to.