There is a teeny email group of us in about the same demographic who seem to also be connected to Portland. This morning two of us let me know that “Portlandia” is back on the air. At the same time I heard that a street kid on the East Coast is so beguiled by the show that she’s trying to figure out how to get across the country.
This is from a story on CBS: "It's more a mind-set than a place," muses Brownstein by phone from Portland. "It's an exemplary city in how befuddled it can sometimes be by its own attempts at progressiveness and kindness. Here, your biggest battle is whether something is local versus organic. Or whether your coffee shop provides you with whole milk or half-and-half.
"We try to explore how absurd these kinds of choices can be, and try to ascertain the meaning underneath these silly struggles. Portland is a great microcosm of all this."
“Portrayed as well-meaning, forward-thinking but self-deluded, a place typically intent on doing the "right" thing even when it makes no sense, Portland lays bare great comic possibilities. But the show's writers aren't looking for easy gags.”
My teeny group is retired. We remember a LOT of Portlands. We remember when the Galleria was Olds and Kings and the escalator there was made of wood and clacked. We remember when the waterfront was piers and warehouses instead of a yuppie jogging trail. I’m going to record here a few of my memories.
1952: My mother kept trying to make a swan out of what was essentially a goose. (Mother goose/daughter goose) One effort was ballet lessons. Mr. Oumansky on NW 23rd would advise me: “Send a Western Onion to your feet to listen to the music!” They would not accept delivery. When directions for a tutu to wear in a recital were sent home, my mother sewed on the gauzy part upside-down. It did not stick out as tutus should.
1953: Second try: Ballroom dancing lessons. I never quite got it, but I was very good at hiding in the bathroom.
Reed College, main building
1957: I discovered the library at Reed College and by this time had mastered the bus system. I sort of hoped that I would run into one of the famously nude students or at least one draped in a sheet to be Greek, but it never happened. However, I did see the famous bathroom graffiti. (“God is dead”, Nietzshe. “Nietzshe is dead”, God.)
1961: I left Portland on the train with the trunk my father had taken to college in Winnipeg many years earlier. I was going to Northwestern University in Chicago. When I told people, they wrinkled their foreheads and said, “I never thought of you as the business type.” They thought I meant Northwestern Business School. They said, “But Chicago is not the northwest. PORTLAND is the northwest!”
Lee Brown, Mayor of Houston
1973: After many Montana adventures I came back to Portland and was hired as the first female dog catcher in Multnomah County. Technically, I was a deputy under Sheriff Lee P. Brown, a tall African American man just three years older than myself who went on to Atlanta just in time to face the serial Atlanta child murderer or murderers. (It was never completely resolved.) Brown eventually became the mayor of Houston. When I knocked on doors, I got a mixed reception. On night shift a woman demanded to know whether my mother knew I was out this late. (I was thirty.) When a barking dog complainant turned out to be my high school counselor, she demanded, “I thought I got you a scholarship to a good school!”
My beat was SE Portland from the freeway to Powell, from the river to 82nd. If the man who had Powell to the Clackamas county line was ill, things got more interesting. From the hippies of Hawthorne to the goat that haunted the Reed campus, from the transvestites over by the river to the hillbillies of Errol Heights.
Mike Oswald, the present excellent director of Multnomah County Animal Control
I trained him as an officer when he first came.
In parts of SE things were pretty much the way the Portlandia troupe portrays them: soooo idealistic. The lesbian cafe had a prob with their big dogs (every woman had a big dog for safety and friendship) so I had to persuade them to build a hitching rail. The lovely big park called Laurelhurst that had once been a farm was a refuge for gay guys in the rhododendrons and the park foreman asked me to drive my truck through now and then, but not to be too aggressive about it. He later “came out” as a teddybear gay, married another like himself, and wrote a charming book.
I went to an edgy movie house that showed experimental film in what had been the backstage area. The seating was big second-hand squashy couches and armchairs. I came late, walked into the dark, felt a strong hand take my wrist, and was pulled down to sit alongside a very nice black guy who had perceptive things to say about the film. I never saw him again, but then I never really saw him in the dark either.
A guy who belonged to my “people’s consciousness raising group” was an artist who created by pouring thinned veils of lacquer down canvasses held on a tilt -- sort of like Helen Frankenthaler. He asked me to write him some publicity and since he had been born in the New York City Bellevue Mental Hospital to a woman named Mary, I made it sound as though he were like Jesus and believed in the redemptive power of play. He got mad.
First Unitarian Church of Portland, front side
I went looking for a church and found a square brick building that simply said “First Unitarian Church of Portland.” I thought, “rational, utilitarian, plain.” That turned out to be the back of the building. The front was Georgian, rather elegant. The north side was an old house that provided social services for street kids. They fought the social workers but loved the house, climbing up onto the roof to sleep, treating it like a mother hen.
1978: I went back to Chicago, to attend seminary at the University of Chicago.
1991: More adventures later and after more years in Montana, I returned. This time there was Starbucks and I went to one of the higher-end ones on a Sunday morning. My goal was to read the Sunday Times. Every page. In solitary grandeur. A woman came to sit by me -- her goal was to make friends. “Can I borrow part of your newspaper?” Big smile. Same demographic as me. I didn’t want to make friends with my demographic. Scowling, I gathered up my paper and flounced off. Since then, I’ve repented.
Charles Moose, with Maryland journalists
The Chief of Police was black, Charles Moose. He was earnest, emotional, and had a white wife, a former cop herself. He was born the year I graduated from grade school and he finally left to go to Montgomery County, Maryland, just in time to be faced with the Beltway Snipers.
This time I had a job with the City of Portland as a clerical assistant in the Bureau of Buildings, taking complaints and maintaining databases. The person next to me was a young Maori man who listened to didgeridoo music on his Walkman and parked the headphones on my head if he had to leave his station. I loved it.
Once I went on ridealong with an inspector in NE Portland where I grew up and which had since turned black when urban renewal took down the worst oldest housing along the rivers and in the north. The most memorable call was an apartment house where the plumbing had gone wacky and was siphoning wash water from down in the basement upstairs to the sink taps. The occupant was a young black woman who was so fat she was absolutely round, lying nude on a rollaway bed in the middle of the front room. When we came in, she pulled a sheet halfway up herself. The only other furniture was a scatter of crib mattresses on the floor and the only other occupants were babies too young to walk but good at crawling -- some with droopy diapers, some without. Cockroaches scurried everywhere. It stunk.
I always thought the dark side of liberal Sim-City improvements was most vividly illustrated in the little pocket parks they had worked hard to create around that part of town. Carefully landscaped until money for maintenance ran out, they were designed to provide secluded peaceful spots for meditation and respite. They turned out to be the perfect locations for rape. I'm told there are no black people in Portland now. Huh?
The Portlandia building itself was so wretched to work in and so in violation of basic standards of air exchange and electrical best practices that the building inspectors raised hell. The solution was to move them to another building. “Portlandia” is actually about a demographic, not a place, and they get closer to the truth than they think. But they walk on by without ever seeing it. On the other hand, I haven't been back since 1999. Maybe it's changed.