I grew up in Baltimore, and I’ve been here for my entire life, except for a few occasional travels and a year or two when I lived in Columbia, MD (I consider this a mistake). In fact, until this year, I had never been further west than Georgia. I had never seen the Left Coast. That changed in the final week of August. And so did I. I became Someone Who Has Been To Portland. You have to do things, like travel, or else you’ll just believe what people tell you about these places. Portland had been nothing but a myth to me, and the TV show Portlandia fleshed out that silken mythos in the most wonderful way. The comedy way. However, like every time I travel to a well-known place for the first time, I put that mythos out of my mind and decided I was not going to relate the fiction to the town. I knew they’d be different. I was wrong.
Portland has an image, and it was the first thing I noticed about the city besides the trees and the way the air smells clean or something (not sure what clean smells like). They are nice in Portland. The people, I mean. Not the drivers (drivers are not people). At least, that is what I was told everywhere I went. When I mentioned I was from Baltimore, and then was pointing out differences I had been noticing, people would tell me that “everyone is nice here.” Sure, yes, I had noticed that people were nice. I also noticed a lot of people were rude assholes (sorry, I was referring to drivers, not people just then). Just like in Baltimore, there were nice people and there were rude assholes. But lots of nice people, yes. Just, well, there was something off about it. I was only in Portland for a total of 3 full days (I spent the other six riding a bike along the dark, treacherous spine of coastal Cascadia, which is a different story) but I feel like I figured out what it was.
I know Southern Nice. I’ve spent some time in Atlanta, Savannah, Virginia and West Virginia, and I have gotten to know Southern Nice. It’s a kind of Nice that is pleasant and cordial and which accelerates as a person gets angry. Anger makes the Nice go up. It goes up into obvious fake-Nice territory until it is a volcano of politeness. But otherwise, Southern Nice is cordial. Portland Nice was different.
Portland Nice, like so many other things about Portland, is there to be noticed. I am sure plenty of Portlandians are super nice people, but the culture of niceness is a monument, not a societal backbone like it is in the south. It felt like people were acting nice because that’s just how you do in Portland, which is cool, and it sure beats the way we do in Baltimore, which is murder each other. But even in Baltimore I get a lot of Southern Nice. I get a lot of people who do not know me but for some reason, they want me to feel wanted, or cared for, and I’ve come to know it’s because they do care. They care about strangers. I didn’t quite get that in Portland. I got the feeling a lot of people cared that you thought they were nice.
My friends and I spent our first night in Northeast Portland in what we didn’t realize was a very Baltimore tear of the main strip. On NE Alberta Street, we noticed there were a shit ton of weird taco places, and a fuck ton of weird bars. Shitty tacos, dive bars, vegan tacos, pie bars, fancy-ass tacos, hammock bars. It felt like Federal Hill grew a massive tumor which killed off all the douchebags and left a weird kitsch structure in its wake. What we did was we did a “staggered taco and beer” crawl, which meant we would get one taco, then one beer, then one taco, and repeat until dead. It became more of a “staggering taco and beer and another beer” crawl after a few hours. And Portland began to take hold on us. When I noticed a maraschino cherry lolling around in the bottom of my marionberry tart amber pale lager, it occurred to me as normal, based on the way things had been going, and I didn’t even realize my friend Jared had just done that as a joke when I wasn’t looking. Out back in the beer garden, Aran was doing shots out of flowers. Portland was eating us alive.
That didn’t stop us from breaking out of its grip of hipness and Baltimoring the fuck out. Deciding the crawl was starting to stress out our wallets, we popped into the beer store and bought some weird stuff. Sixers of some stuff called “Rainier,” a sixer of something else beer, a “Marijuana Energy Drink,” and we totally avoided the clamato and Budweiser michelada because who are you even? We cleared a spot of gravel and broken glass behind the liquor store and brown-bagged it on our asses, chugging the sixers of mountain themed beers, getting real chill with the concrete and dark air. It was then that Aran’s friend Sam, a local Portlandian and our host, showed up, and he must have been confused because as he informed us, you don’t have to act homeless in Portland to have a good time. “You can just drink that anywhere,” he said. “What about cops?” I asked. “What cops.” Oh, so another thing about Portland is there are no cops. “You want to see Carrie Brownstein’s house?” he asked us. What is the answer to that question? “You want to throw stuff at the guy in Modest Mouse’s house?” he followed up. I was really beginning to like it here.
In Baltimore, you can have brunch on Saturday morning or afternoon if you want, but it’s more of a Sunday thing. In Portland, fuck that. Brunch 24/7. I’m not kidding. They own the word. Someone I know in Baltimore does something called “goth brunch.” If you asked someone about “goth brunch” in Portland, they’d be like, “yeah, Steve does that on Tuesdays at the ironically named Wall Street Café,” and you’d just be like, “cool, let me throw a curve ball at you then, is there anything called ‘flashlight brunch’?” and they would just be like, “Radio Room, second floor, every fifth Cransday of the month when they turn the power out and it’s more like a sleepover brunch kinda deal,” and that would not sound weird at all.
It came together for me after the brunch thing. Portland is about never growing up. It’s about turning a perfectly good town sitting on millions of treestumps into a place where you can carry your childhood ideas of building little Lego villages and making up ridiculous clubs into adulthood, and they’ve figured out how to do it and not collapse economically. Cultivating niceness is part of that. It’s one of the utopian ingredients. The REI being located right in the middle of downtown and being always full of people is a result of that, because people are always playing at Lewis and Clark. The former elementary school which is now a movie theater, four bars and a heated pool is part of that. Wait, what? Didn’t I write that idea in my Livejournal fifteen years ago? That exists. I bought a beer opener keychain in their gift shop to prove it.
The song goes, “The dream of the nineties is alive in Portland,” and while I’m sure most Portlandians hate that song (because it’s on a mainstream show and I guess because it makes fun of their microcosm), it popped up for me at least once an hour. I heard Modest Mouse and Nirvana back to back in a bar. Another bar with fancy prices and a photobooth hosted a pool of customers in quasi-goth punk getup who have probably not changed out of that since they put it on in 1996, considering how old they were. Your customary plaid outershirts were everywhere, but I’ll concede that may come from the fact that it’s close to tree-cutting territory. And I have not seen that many variations of my glasses since the last time I looked for glasses. I used to get told I “look like Weezer,” and here I was wanting to tell all of Portland that they looked like Weezer, which would be both ironic and true. A general feeling of subversion was present at all times, as well, which isn’t just a 90’s thing, but it was the 90’s version of it: slightly offensive kill-the-man t-shirts, stickers, feminism imagery that I remember from Funk’s coffee shop 12 years ago, and tasteful graffiti that I am sure was put on by the proprietors of the buildings it decorated.
I saw a couple take a kissing selfie with a film camera. Just gonna call that a paragraph and move on.
We bought weed from someone out in the open like it was no big deal, then we biked down town, stopping at a box of free stuff that included a felt flower pin and an Obama Chia Pet, shortly before being joined by someone on a tall bike asking directions, and going past a taxidermy shop that was open really late. And, which was across from the bar where you could sit on swings, and the bar was also a giant swing, and you could wait around for one of the sky hammocks to become vacant. This all happens in Portland. It’s cool, and also fuckin’ weird.
Did I mention you could drink beer in the pool? When can I go back, mom? Oh, that’s right, I don’t have to ask you, because I’m an adult, or at least, I think I am. Well, I don’t have to be. Not in Portland.
Portland is also a part of something I just learned about: Cascadia. It’s a region of Northwest land that includes Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and, depending on who you ask, part of Northern California. This is a region that kinda wants to be its own country and kinda doesn’t, and this is just like the Portland I discovered. It’s sitting in your room at 16, hating your parents, and deciding your room can just be its own country, and that you’ve got everything you need in your room to sustain the economy of your room (and more importantly, the ecology) and all you would need is your parents to come bring you dinner and pay the water bill and the heat bill and, oh yeah, I guess the mortgage. Now, I don’t know enough about Cascadia to make these generalizations, but they have their own flag, and that was the first thing I made when I declared my room a sovereign nation in 1995, so let me just put that out there.
I’d go back to Portland. I’d party there. I’d drink there. I’d go on bike trips there, and yeah, based on the vibe, I’d totally go on Tinder there. But I wouldn’t live there. I’m not ready to die just yet. I have a lot of work to do still, here, in Baltimore. But god damn did they have some good coffee. Just, like… let me think about it.