MY LIFE IN PORTLANDIA SO FAR: THE CITY OF ROSES (OR NEVER-NEVER LAND)
POSTED JANUARY 2015
EXPERIENCED SINCE APRIL 2014
Ah, Portland. I’ve lived here for eight months. Do I fit in? Yes and no. I have wanted to live here for decades, so what’s my problem? Why am I not enthusiastically embracing my decision to flee DC and move here? Well, you’ve heard the saying “Keep Portland Weird,” I imagine. No worries there. It’s weird in fun and not so fun ways. And, much to my chagrin, as an anthropologist who thrives on other cultures, it’s a tad stranger than I bargained for.
Is there a different culture out here? That depends on how you define culture, with a capital C, in quotes, italics, or bolded. What is the scale of the culture you’re assessing: a neighborhood, a city, a socioeconomic stratum, a profession, an ethnicity, a region, a country, and a continent? In April, I left an upper middle class neighborhood in wildly diverse Washington DC. There was something for everyone--all classes, colors, religions, and nationalities. I fit in great!
I moved to Portland, Oregon, 3,000 miles and three time zones away on the “Left Coast.” My neighborhood—I’m on the edge of the Alphabet District—is similarly upper middle class. Why would I have difficulty settling into another upper middle class liberal bastion, when I moved from another upper middle class liberal bastion? Well, there’s more to the local culture than political persuasion and income. So, here’s what I know about Portland so far, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
PORTLAND IS VERY WHITE
I was homesick for Alaska where there is every stripe of Asian to be found, and I was looking forward to getting back to the Pacific Rim. However, although there are plenty of Thai restaurants, I have only met one Asian person not connected in some way to an eatery. He is a transplant from Japan and seems to keep to himself. No wonder. I suppose he has trouble fitting in, too.
Even more unsettling is the dearth of African Americans. Where are you? I got a big shock when I first went shopping. The clerks at Target, Safeway, Fred Meyer, Home Depot, you name it, are all pasty white. Not Hispanic white, but White white. The white people you meet behind a counter are mostly young, wholesome looking, and of fair complexion. Who knew I could get tired of blue eyes? And they’re helpful. They want to make your shopping experience a pleasure. What is in the water, people? It’s as if this is a city of Stepford People. How about an attitude? Do you really like being a clerk? I miss the surly, in your face attitudes of the east coast. If I were a clerk, I’d certainly be surly.
THERE ARE MANY STREET PEOPLE HERE
I had picked up on this over decades of visiting Portland, but I didn’t realize just how common the homeless are. Now I have to be very, very careful driving home over the Burnside Bridge into Downtown and the Pearl, homeless central, lest I hit someone pushing a grocery cart. I mentioned my observation to the person who sold me my car and said I thought it was disgraceful that there is such a large homeless population here. I was remembering the faceless, poverty stricken hundreds of Washington DC huddling over grates in wintertime. “Well,” he said, “Most of the street people aren’t from here. They come here because Portland is good to its homeless.”
I hadn’t considered that people flock here because it just might be better in Portland than elsewhere. This was a revelation to me. Perhaps it’s because it’s not that cold or hot in Portland, so if you live on the street, you won’t freeze in the winter or stroke out from heat in the summer. But I’d like to know what the hell they do in the rain.
I haven’t met a belligerent street person yet, although I suppose there are some. I certainly would be miserable. And yet, I’ve seen very few panhandle, and most are polite. So, perhaps Portland does take care of its homeless and the countless homeless from other states as well.
RAIN SHAPES CULTURE
It rains quite heavily here, heavily and frequently. People here complain about it all the time. As for me, I’m so happy it’s not hot anymore, that I can deal with it. By the way, 2014 was the hottest summer on record, and I had left DC because of the heat. And it was humid here this summer, and it’s still humid, now that the rain has settled in. They tell me it will rain until about April or May. Now, this is kind of like snow in Alaska. Sometimes snow banks wouldn’t completely melt until early June (in Anchorage no less), so I’m used to the concept of a long winter. Fact is, so far I like the rain and I love the dark. Again, it’s much better than Anchorage in the winter.
No activity is cancelled because of rain. You wear your rain gear and suck it up. Not to do so would mean you’re a wooss. Since I’ve been here, there have been a ton of sporting matches and lots of rain, and they coexist in harmony; well, perhaps they have a Yin Yang relationship. Yin, it rains; Yang, we play. Portlanders identify with the rain and their psyches are damp from its influence.
Rain is part of the culture. Just visit REI in the Pearl, a frou-frou neighborhood that I’m glad I didn’t move into. REI is two floors and has three storeys of an adjacent garage so you can park for free. The second floor is a shrine to foul weather gear. When I moved to Alaska in 1983, I had never heard of rain pants. In Portland, most people have a wardrobe of rubber, microfiber, Gortex, etc rain pants and fancy rain jackets to boot. Most rain gear comes with an attached hood because god forbid you should carry an umbrella. This is not cool downtown or in the hinterlands. Also, rubber boots are not common. There is, instead, a billion dollar industry in waterproof, water resistant, etc, footgear. Even my Bean boots don’t seem sophisticated enough for this town. So, I do what odd independent-minded malcontents do to buck the trend—I wear sneakers or plain old walking shoes. I’m sure they’ll get soaked soon.
WHITE PEOPLE LOVE THE OUTDOORS
Middle class educated white people have all the necessary accoutrements to play outside year round. Their suite of equipment includes, of course, the above referenced rain gear, but also the requisite climbing, skiing, swimming, kayaking, hiking, and white water rafting stuff besides. I have two friends who told me about a new and different sport—stand up paddling. This they do along the Willamette, the Columbia and out on the coast. They wear wet suits and tie one of their ankles to the board so when they ditch, neither they nor the board disappears out to sea. Another of their passions is parasailing. I’ve seen the billowing sails out on the Columbia. On a hot day, it looks like fun, but I have a feeling I should have started practicing this pastime long before I hit 60.
There are a multitude of companies that cater to the outdoors person. Columbia Sportswear is headquartered here, as is Nike. REI sells outdoor jackets with pockets for each item you might need on the trail—compass, carabineer, flare, hand warmer, a snack, bandanna, map, iPhone (natch), Swiss Army knife, hat, a spare pair of socks, etc. While there are several Eddie Bauer stores here, I miss the one enterprise that DC had—LL Bean. LL Bean dates to the 1920s and is especially beloved in Alaska because shipping is included. For a while, they did charge shipping, but they have gone back to their original ways, and we are all the better for it. But, if Eddie’s or Beaner’s or Columbia doesn’t suit you, not to worry, North Face, Helly Hansen, and Archteryx are also a big presence here.
EVERYONE ENJOYS THE PARKS HERE, NOT JUST THE FLEET OF FOOT
Portland has more huge parks than I have ever seen. Washington Park is my favorite. It’s nearby, and there are many attractions to admire while I am torturing myself on my daily walk. The International Test Rose Garden is world famous. The Portland Japanese Garden, almost as much. There’s the Oregon Zoo, the Children’s Museum, Museum of Forestry, the Hoyt Arboretum, and the Holocaust Memorial. It’s 400 acres large, with over 15 miles of trails. I love the trails. You are immediately out of the City and into nature. If the breeze is blowing right, you can’t hear any traffic. I put my iPod on and zone out.
Forest Park, the largest urban forest in the U S, is ten times as big as Washington Park. It has about 70 miles of trails and, I’m told, is far less developed and far more isolated than neighboring Washington Park. The two are connected by a trail system that wanders throughout the City’s green belt. I haven’t explored Forest Park yet because it is undeveloped except for the trails, and it’s a little forbidding to me to explore an isolated place when it gets dark at four p m. It’s a favorite of runners, and since I can no longer run, I would be easy pickins’. Yes, even in Portland, there is some crime.
People flock to the parks in droves, throughout the year. Every time an initiative appears on the ballot to fund parks, it passes handily. I believe this year’s initiative got more votes than pot. The one dark cloud? As of January 2014, you have to pay for parking. The only free parking I’ve found in Washington Park is along the main road that winds its way uphill from the Rose Garden, and then, only at trailheads. I guess one of the ways Portland makes its money in a state where there is no sales tax is annoying things like parking and the high property taxes which are far more annoying.
PEOPLE ARE “HIP,” TATTOOED, AND INTO NATURAL MEDICINE
OK, so I’m a cynic. I hate 60s stuff. Any mention of the terms “chakra,” “holistic,” or “naturopathic” raises hackles on the back of my neck. This stuff won’t work, I think. You mustn’t blame me; my stepfather owned a drug store. Where I grew up, you were healed by drugs and operations. Even physical therapy was a little out there.
There are easily five “wellness” centers within walking distance from my condo. I dropped into the closest one soon after I moved here in April. I have been seeing a chiropractor for my back ever since. Does it work? Kind of. Is it one of a suite of tools in my tool bag? Definitely. She sure knows her stuff when it comes to bones, ligaments and muscles, so I know she has an advanced degree or three. Most of the stuff she does to me is pretty much the same as physical therapy, with the exceptions of lasering my feet and hip, and stimulating my feet by stroking them with something that looks like a metal, toothless comb. She claims the joints around my grotesque hammertoes and bunions are loosening up. I think they are, but can she make good her prediction that I will have pain-free feet? Hahahaha! Every time I think she’s legit, my eye wanders to a tattoo behind her right ear. I thought it was some kind of medallion. It could have been miniature rendering of the Aztec calendar from the National Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City; you know the one I mean, the really famous one. However, I asked one day, and it’s merely a run-of-the-mill paisley partially lost in her hair.
Yes, the young and hip are tattooed. I was going to get a tattoo to celebrate my liberation from the federal government; a small rune on my shoulder blade, to commemorate my work with Eskimo ownership marks, NOT because I think runes are magical. However, I am surrounded by tattoos and the idea no longer seems special to me. Some people have a rose on a calf. Others have a word on a wrist. Many people are covered from head to toe with the most complicated and colorful designs. The most common ones I’ve seen are a combination of plants, flowers, and smashing waves stretching from wrist to neck. Christ Almighty, what happens when things sag? I’m sure, like the proverbial iceberg, I’m only seeing the most obvious tattoos—I shudder to think what the rest of some of these young ‘uns looks like.
AND THEN THERE’S KALE
Portland is not a meat and potatoes town, although you can still buy them at Safeway. The town abounds with a cornucopia of gluten free, non-GMO, and organic comestibles that would make some people’s mouths water. I did the kale thing when I first got here, at the behest of a friend. Who knew there were so many kinds of kale? So far, I’ve seen curly-leaved, plain-leaved, rape, red Russian, red leafed, and plain old kale. My friends put it in a stir-fry meal with many more veggies than meat. You have to look for the meat, but if it’s beef, you won’t find it at all. It’s OK in a cooked mélange like this, but in a salad, not so much. When I’ve been made to eat it raw, I imagine I look like a cow chewing its cud.
I’ve also been persuaded to try “gluten free” eating because it’s good for me. But, I can’t remember why. I think it has something to do with being recently diagnosed as pre-diabetic like half of America, and wanting those numbers to go down. I’ve made a few concessions, but damn it, white bread is best, just ask my Welsh cousins, or anyone who lives in the U K. So far, I’ve tried whole grain crackers, rye bread, and (sigh) more fruits and vegetables. I couldn’t get into baby bok choy, but Brussels sprouts are enough of a part of my genetic past, that I have grown to love them. I know they smell like really bad farts, but you don’t have to eat ‘em, do you?
I do not want you to think that there are only health food stores and restaurants in Portland. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There is something for everyone here, from the cheapest fast food to the most expensive and toothsome steak. There is an abundance of Asian restaurants, as well as seafood establishments where the regional specialty, salmon, is prepared any way you want it. I’ve been treated to some more obscure cuisines, too—fondue, Lebanese, and South American. The best slice of pizza I’ve ever had, I had here, and the toppings consisted of several cheeses and truffle oil. I can smell it now. Finally, there is the establishment that no one can resist, health Nazi or no, and that’s Voodoo donuts in Old Town. There’s always a line for the billion varieties of donuts to be had. I tend to avoid donuts because they have zero nutrition and beaucoup calories, but even I succumbed to the bacon donut provided to me not long ago.
FLYING INTO PDX IS BREATHTAKING
I have loved flying into every place I’ve ever lived, with the exceptions of my brief grad school stints in Storrs CT and Binghamton NY. Flying into Portland is a comfy feeling since it’s kinda, sorta home, and it can also be thrilling in a good sense. On a clear day (that’s a little joke), you follow the Columbia River toward its mouth, first passing Mt Hood to the south, then Mt St Helens to the north. Mt St Helens is the flat topped one that sprang to life in 1980. It’s still active, by the way. Mt Hood is as pretty a peak as you’d like to see, almost conical in shape. Beyond it to the south are the Three Sisters, mountains close to each other that are popular with skiers and ski bunnies alike. They are unceremoniously called North, Middle and South. By the way, ALL of the peaks in the Cascades of western Oregon and Washington are volcanic and none are completely “dead.”
If you’re really lucky, you’ll see Mt Rainier to the north, southeast of Seattle. There are bets being wagered that Rainier will be the next volcano to blow its top. Seattleites and the rest of us watch with reverence and fear.
The mountains and the rivers in Oregon are sacred to the Indian Tribes that have inhabited the area for eons. While they use the White Man’s names for them, each peak has its own native name; undoubtedly more appropriate than the names they’re known by now.
Mt Hood is commonly referred to as Wy’east by the indigenous population. I don’t know what that means, but I imagine it’s something like the Great One—at least that’s what Denali means in Athabaskan. Aren’t these names better than Mt Hood and Mt McKinley? I think so.
But, what is a typical arrival in Portland like? Well, you can’t see a thing. It’s foggy and the rain is blowing sideways. You pray you’ll see some lights below so you can identify where you are and guess at what altitude you are flying. But, not to worry, the pilots are used to it, and I’ve never had a bad experience flying into Portland. And, I’ve flown in often enough that I know where the mountains are if I can’t see them.
SO WHAT, AND WHAT’S NEXT?
Well, I don’t really know. I thought by now I’d have plenty of friends and lots of work but that has not proven to be the case. Yet, I’m not willing to give up on Portland just yet. Retiring, selling a beloved apartment, moving far away, buying a not as beloved apartment and trying to start a business have been daunting tasks, and, when done pretty much simultaneously, they can take a toll on a person. I am confident that my post efforts to volunteer, take classes, become a member of the local archaeology scene, etc, will pay off. Sometimes I am overwhelmed when I see Wy’east, and I know I’ve made the right move. Other days, not so much.
I’ll report back to you the end of April, my one year anniversary of coming to Portlandia