Not An Englishman In New York, An Australian In Portland.
By Kent Parkstreet.
About seventeen years ago I was at a sound check at The Punter’s Club, a groovy inner city music pub in Melbourne, Australia. To get away from the noise I slipped next door to the public bar. It was unusually quiet. I looked up to see The Simpsons was on the television. The cult was just taking on, but the debate as to which U.S. state Springfield is in had started. Someone suggested that the show’s creator, Matt someoneorother, was from Portland, Oregon. So it must be there.
Portland Oregon. Something in my imagination told me I’d go there some day. It took sixteen years, but last Spring I made it, and returned this summer. I figure that if Matt Groening spent an entire episode taking the piss out of my country I have the right to jot down a few of my impressions of his hometown.
I’m in a seedy late night bar, the kind where dreams go to die. On one side is a young, pale skinny celery stalk of a guy, on the other a truly vast bearded fellow. One has hitchhiked from his privileged east coast home to live an alternative lifestyle, the other has taken a few days off from cutting down trees for a living to go on a bender. I feel like the filling in a collateral damage sandwich. They are drinking in rounds, the greeny manfully matching the logger beer for beer, chaser for chaser. Their differences are ignored as they share their love of drinking heavily and singing along with Springsteen.
I’m at Tiny’s Coffeehouse. Twenty people inside, a dozen bicycles parked outside. It’s April but there is late snow. The discussion is of how snow makes it difficult to see when riding, the physics of prisms and how they distort light. No one mentions that snow is cold and wet and a fine reason to take the car. Pushbikes are a cult. I see a cyclist moving a small wardrobe on a front end trailer. Old enough to walk is old enough to ride on the road. I hear a band made up of upturned bikes fitted with contact microphones, the wheels are spun and the spokes feathered with found objects, creating dinosaur moans of music. Many things that are accepted as art in Portland may not be accepted as art in other towns.
The well oiled pushbike and the electric car are the enemy of the blind man who wants to cross the road.
There is a pair of dainty red pumps on the side walk, one in front of the other, as if the owner simply walked out of them. The next day the shoes are neatly paired together, a tiny silk dress folded perfectly beside them. The day after a vintage mirror and comb join the impromptu pretty girl installation. Then it is gone.
A dozen pairs of old sneakers suspended from a power line. I take eight attempts to add my walked out Converse to the collection. It’s harder than it looks.
Crossing the road a car on a sidestreet pulls back a yard or so to give me room. I’m utterly freaked out and wave a thank you. Motorists in Sydney will run you down rather than give an inch. This yard of grace is offered every time I cross a road, every time. All day I’m blessed with thank you, you’re welcome, wishes for a good day. A fellow down on his luck is unsure of the time, he lost track after what he describes as a black scorpion blackout due to whisky. his cigarettes disappeared in the overnight cell. For two cigarettes he wishes me a great day and night.
A local newspaper bemoans the lack of extravagant civic architecture. I walk through Ladd’s Addition, possibly the posh part of town when it was built. The homes, the gardens are perfect. There are no driveways or garages to distract the eye. Take away the power lines, add a horse or two and it could be 1909. Who needs pointy needles or scarlett bridges, the definition of civic is “of the people”, and the people live in timber castles with floral moats.
An elegant slender arm delivers my steelhead trout. A velvet bell of a voice announces it. The voice doesn’t match the tattoo sleeves on the young waitress. When I was growing up criminals and bikers wore tattoos. Tattoos were to be feared because of the fearsome men they appeared on. My brain has trouble interpreting them as sexy, but the evidence is all around. Pretty young girls in sundresses and dragons. I show my age by worrying what monsters will be born when that svelte figured lass is the size of her mother. I’m the only person I know here without a tattoo. I hope it somehow makes me interesting.
The Lloyd Center Mall is a time machine. I’m returned to suburban Melbourne in the 1970’s. I shudder at the thought. Two generous contributors to the obesity cause sneak out of Victoria’s Secret. I shudder at the thought. Two ladies who lunch stand in front of the mall map. They’ve run out of ideas on where to spend their money and it will be hours before they can ask a television. Shudder like Sideshow Bob. The Church’s “Under The Milky Way” comes on the Sears sound system just as the clerk asks me about Australian music. He doesn’t believe that song is from Australia because he has heard it before.
So I say tomarto instead of tomayto, is it that amusing? Just make the sandwich. No, I won’t say “crikey,” not even for money.
He’s wearing jeans, braces and a checked shirt, the classic logger’s outfit from the movies. I’ve never seen it in real life so I’m checking it out. Next thing I’m being hit on by a gay logger. I feel I have a certain Oregon cred now.
I’ve never seen snow falling before so I’m in the back yard trying to catch it on my tongue. The fellows fixing the roof across the road are cursing the sudden drop. One of them says,”it’s like that dude has never seen snow before.”
A park? This isn’t a park it’s a bloody forest. For sins in a past life I am the son of a property developer. All this land, so close to downtown, potential profit, potential profit, potential profit. Washington Park is just a beautiful, green, not for profit gem.
I’m crossing N.E. Flanders St. Simpsons reminders wherever I go, I’m taken back seventeen years. I’m taken back to the airport on the lightrail for two bucks, not the usual tourist fine for coming and going. The flight home is too damn long, I won’t be back soon, but I’ll be back.