Saturday, December 06, 2008

Around Burnside

Portlanders are justly proud of their city. They would be the first to realize that I'm talking about Portland, Oregon and not Portland, Maine, though they have only the kindest regard for the Portlanders of Maine, somehow believing that if Maine Portlanders were to discover Portland, Oregon, they would of course feel at home there and instantly make preparations to set up a new residence, if not year-round, then for an uncommonly lengthy season.

Portland is wonderfully hospitable to pedestrians. You probably don't need an automobile to get around downtown, and in most cases you wouldn't want one. In fact, public transportation is free downtown in an area known as fareless square. There are numerous buses and a light rail train, called Max, that you can freely ride up through town and across the river all the way to Lloyd Center, a shopping mall in Northeast Portland. Max riders are courteous, indeed kind, even to shoppers with bags from Lloyd Center or Pioneer Place–these kind of shopping bags easily mark one as a tourist, perhaps from Gresham or Tigard, or points further out, and probably not the most discerning tourist at that. Portlanders as a rule are about as far from hostile to tourists as one can imagine. They harbor suspicions about anybody who would not instantly pack up and move to Portland, but they would never let their suspicions rise to the level of discourteousness. On the Max they hold doors, make way, tuck in elbows, swap seats, don't stare, avoid crowding as much as possible, talk quietly when there's talking to be done, and so forth. They practice an ethos of civility in every situation, but it is a rather situationist ethos, a kind of ethos that calls for the liberal interpretation of laws in each situation in order to discover and put into practice an almost utopian civility. Portland's urban planners know this ethos, know that it flowers in nearly every citizen, and plan accordingly. On the Max there are seats reserved near the doors for elderly and disabled passengers. However, anybody is free to sit in them until they are needed by somebody who is old or physically impaired in any way. It is not believed that the practice of civility could be improved by extending courtesies to those who are not present, or would not be able to appreciate the gesture. On this ground it is obvious that Larry David would feel at home in Portland. Surely the reason he hasn't yet moved to Portland is because he would rather satirize the mores of other cities than live in a city that suits him. It's his profession that keeps him away. Portlanders recognize that as a reasonable excuse, though, in the most civil tones, they might entertain a few doubts about what the business actually requires, you know, the business, the business Gus Van Sant is in.

Every city has its own unwritten rules about crossing streets. Portland is no exception. Whereas jaywalking is strictly frowned upon in Seattle, for instance, in Portland jaywalking is widely practiced. However the Portlander does not jaywalk willynilly. At every intersection or between intersections the unwritten rule is that if your crossing the street won't bother anybody you are free to cross the street. Otherwise you give way, or simply abide by the suggestion of the lighted traffic signals (red suggests stop, green suggests go.) The law applies when it needs to apply. It's almost as if you were required to interpret the law at every step. Almost. In practice you learn to categorize situations as requiring such-and-such kinds of interpretation: hearing sirens calls for a cautious interpretation, seeing a friend may excuse an obtrusive jaywalk, partially. Although many store fronts have awnings, Portlanders are in actuality ambivalent about whether escaping the rain excuses anything, even anything so trivial as improperly jaywalking. After all, one wants to live in Portland. On the other hand one mustn't be unkind to the bedraggled, and Portland is home to many bedraggled people.

Every day I like to drink espresso made with organic, shade-grown, arabica, dark roast beans. Stumptown Roasters–every decent city needs an abundance of appellations to suit various moods and styles–roast organic beans, but they won't make you an espresso with those beans at their coffee shop downtown. I called Kobos on Market (this is kind of between Forecourt Fountain and Lovejoy Fountain which is a nice place to walk during the day, though for most people pretty far to walk from Burnside; you can take a bus to Forecourt and then walk) and Kobos likewise would sell me the beans but not make me the espresso. I was beginning to think that I would have to break down and purchase my own espresso cart, but the nice woman who answered the phone at Kobos began to make inquiries on my behalf and learned that I could get what I was asking for at the Coffee Plant on Washington between Broadway and Park, a shop I had ruled out because they use Stumptown beans, but of course, there's no reason they can't grind Stumptown organic beans and make espresso from them, which they are happy to do. Another strategy for drinking espresso I have learned in my travels is to order a mocha because it can mask the flavor of a less than pleasant bean, and because I love chocolate as much as I need espresso. At Pioneer Place you can get a dark chocolate mocha from Moonstruck which is pretty delicious, but the standard is one shot of espresso. You have to ask for two.

Speaking of Pioneer Place, there is a real sense in which Saks Fifth Avenue ought to be about Fifth and Yamhill, thereabouts. Portlanders feel this. They know what I'm talking about. It's like Southpark, which could only possibly refer to being on the edge of the South Park Blocks, and nothing else. The world outside of Portland always provides only secondary points of reference, secondary associations. The primary associations of any term are naturally understood to be local.

Intellectuals who find themselves in Portland will gravitate towards Powell's, the City of Books–every decent bookstore needs a few appellations–on 10th and Burnside. Much as Pine and Ankeny seem to converge on Powell's, and Stark too, within eyesight, the streets themselves lead the pedestrian as if by centripetal force towards the best bookstore on the planet. Powell's is like the Smithsonian, or Disneyland. You need to set aside several days to see all the books. In truth Powell's is better than Disneyland because you can sell back your old books to fund buying new books, or new old books, though truth be told this service is of limited use to me since I both destroy the resale value of my books by writing in them, and prefer to have old books handy for rereadings or consultations at any time.

Across Burnside from Powell's is the Living Room Theater, which shows second-run arthouse films like Man on Wire. Naturally there is a market for second-run arthouse films in Portland, and it feels just as natural as a market for second-hand books. Perhaps this is a place to finally feel nostalgic for the petite bourgeoisie. Just perhaps.

I can't say anything about the food at the Living Room Theater, but I can recommend that you dine at the Alexis on Second and Burnside, if only because the service is so friendly. As for the food, the melitzano is superb, even if you think you have mixed feelings about eggplant. Definitely eat the bougatsa for desert, and trust your waiter to recommend a wine.

Portlanders, when they have to buy things, prefer to buy things made in Portland. They buy furniture made in Portland. They buy beer brewed in Portland. Alameda Brewery, to name one, makes a Black Bear Stout, which is probably what Dubliners would drink, and even Bostonians, if they only knew. Portlanders like to direct tourists to Saturday Market, even if they're not in the mood for shopping themselves. They understand that sometimes one has the impulse to buy things, gifts perhaps, and since it is possible to buy things made in Portland, or, as a distant second, things sold by local retailers, then it is acceptable to go to Saturday Market and buy a few things, just a few things, in moderation, and without a superordinate glee.

Saturday Market is located under the Burnside Bridge. The Max announces a stop at Skidmore Fountain, but everybody understands the circumlocution, the little bit of discreet misdirection. Being under the Burnside Bridge is a difficult topic, as everybody knows. The Burnside Bridge is the topographical center of the city, neither Northwest, nor Southwest, nor Northeast, nor Southeast, but dead center. For that reason it is the most prestigious place in all of Portland, and, by rational extension, the known universe. On the other hand, the people who actually take shelter under the Burnside Bridge, men mostly, having no other fixed address, are not among the most celebrated people in the city. One likes to believe, though it could hardly rise to the level of a firm conviction, that the men who find shelter under the Burnside Bridge and the environs aren't merely drawn downtown by the hot meals provided by the Portland Rescue Mission, one likes to believe that the spirit of adventure has led them to occupy the absolute center of the most beautiful city on Earth, but in fact Portlanders are aware that "Third and Burn" is synonymous with "Down and Out," or perhaps "Mentally Ill Homeless Man," and sleeping under the Burnside Bridge isn't, in the plain light of day, so to speak, all that desirable.

There was a time in Portland when one could say "Dammasch," implicitly pointing a finger at President Reagan's spending cuts, and everything made sense. Of course there was a cold-hearted Californian to blame for the homelessness of the paranoid schizophrenic or the veteran suffering from PTSD. Time has shown, however, that neither Democratic Party governments nor Republican Party governments have been willing to house people who suffer from mental illnesses such that they can't quite take care of themselves. Over time, in fact, the streets have become much more ecumenical, much more hospitable to people who suffer from a variety of illnesses, major and minor, from the horrible to the merely painful.

Although homeless people are frequently victims of violence, particularly late at night, the streets of downtown Portland are basically friendly streets. If you're down and out, and you're not too pretty, you can let your guard down for a moment or two each day. You might even find yourself on the receiving end of diverse acts of kindness. Portlanders aren't quite sure whether their general indifference to the homeless amounts to malice, but, since they mean no malice, they have no problem treating the homeless with civility and, occasionally, a kindness that couldn't in any way be mistaken for indifference. Perhaps the weave of such kindnesses into the fabric of Portland life accounts for the exceptional civility of Portland's beggars. Nobody who has been to Portland will disagree with the statement that Portland's beggars are the kindest beggars in the world. How much this overt kindness owes to an explicit law against uncivil begging cannot be determined, as Portlanders of every station in life excel at the practice of civility.

Back in the day you used to be able to sell your blood plasma at Alpha Therapeutic just around the corner on 5th between Burnside and Couch. Though selling you blood sounds quintessentially American, very can-do, you may see the blood trade described as a "global" industry. Do not be surprised, however, if in your travels you meet somebody who has no idea that the poor can exploit their own blood in this way. "Global" means such different things to different people, and there are many ways of learning about the globe, just as there are surely many ways of learning about centrifugal force. Really though, this business of exploiting oneself is only one facet of a lapidary city, the true jewel of the Pacific Northwest, the City of Bridges, and any criticism must be tempered by an appreciation of facts, such as the fact that the gentrification of the Pearl District has finally put an end to a few of the more unsightly displays of misery in Northwest Portland.

Is pride ever just? Is pride a civic virtue? You see, I lack even the basic vocabulary for communicating an intelligent critique of civic life. I leave that to you.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 12:47 PM.


Anonymous Living Room Theaters said...

Althoug some of our movies are move overs from other theaters, we also show a large number of first run and new releases. We focus exclusively on art, foregin and classic films but I think it does us injustice to label us a second run theater.

December 17, 2008 9:58 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I always like it when people read my posts carefully. I spoke of "the Living Room Theater, which shows second-run arthouse films like Man on Wire." Had I said "the Living Room Theater that shows second-run arthouse films, or "the Living Room Theater, a theater that shows second-run arthouse films," then I think you would have some cause for objecting to being labeled as a second-run theater. I like your theater, and I would gladly visit again. I'm glad to know you also show first-run movies. However, I will not correct a demonstrably true statement in the name of justice. In my book justice is serious business and probably shouldn't be invoked so casually.

December 17, 2008 10:53 AM  

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