OF HOT COFFEE IN THE RAINY CITY, A GUEST ENTRY
Don't write me an email wistfully remembering your times in Portland or I'll make you write me a real story. Lucky for me and you, gentle reader Killarney wrote up a wonderful and rich piece about her time here. Drop her an email and tell her what you think and then go check out her website and journal, Ones and Zeroes, which aside from looking pretty sexy has some wonderful writing and a strong voice. (And her cats are named Clarence and Alabama!) I hope you enjoy it -- send her your comments!
I found myself in Portland after leaving school for the first time. Somehow, something just wasn't right about my being there at that university, even though I'd wanted to go there for two years, and even though it had been understood throughout most of my teenage life that I would attend university right out of high school.
It was the first of many choices I'd begun to make on my own as the result of being forced to do something that I thought I wanted. I was living out in Oregon City (a small, rural town about 40 minutes drive from the heart of the city) with family friends because I was utterly broke. My parents were angry with me. I couldn't go home to San Jose, and I couldn't stay in Seattle unless I wanted to live on the streets. I'd thought for years that Seattle was where I was supposed to be, and my heart was felt almost literally torn apart when I had to leave.
I was 19 years old, and I was living on 15 acres in the middle of nowhere. It was 8 miles to the nearest general store; it was 15 to any sort of place resembling, to me, civilization.
I got a job in the city, at the Starbucks in Lloyd Center Mall, and made the trip every day in an old blue car that I borrowed from the family I was staying with. I had another job working during the day for the son of the woman I was staying with at his family business.
My third weekend there I decided to do the thing that I did every time I hit a new city: I got on a bus and rode it until my surroundings looked interesting. Then I got off and hoped I'd be able to figure out my way home.
On this Saturday, I hit Portland's Saturday Market on the waterfront, although I was in that space where you don't really recognize the things you do, because you don't know the city. You have, really, no idea where you are, and that makes it all the better. This band called The American Girls was playing by a fountain and I was standing there in my thrift store olive-green trenchcoat, my wild curly hair dyed freshly blue, with my black boots and black clothing, watching this band and watching the people around me, and thought that maybe, just maybe, I might be home.
I was able to get online at the day job I had, and I got back into IRC-ing. I hit #portland to see if there was anyone interesting about, and upon my asking what there was to do in town, someone recommended a local internet cafe to me. The Habit. I fell instantly in love with the name, called the woman I was staying with, and told her that I'd be home late because I was going to go to the cafe.
The first time I ever went to the cafe, I think I drove by it about eight times before I actually saw it. It was in southeast Portland, which is notorious, of course, for little cafes and bookstores and antique shops stuffed into old houses with porches or without them, and I drove right by this tiny cafe in the bottom floor of a corner house again and again until I saw the sign: The Habit C@fe.
It catered perfectly to my then-infatuation of all things online (still some of that lingers with me now). I stepped in, feeling the warm air, heated slightly by the outside sun and also by the warmth coming off the espresso machine. They gave me a slip of paper with a password on it so I could log on and the perfect glass of iced coffee.
I was hooked.
Over the next few months, I spent hours online there. I started hanging out in person with the people that I met on #portland and #oregon. I eventually got around to convincing the owners to give me a job there. I moved out of the house in Oregon City into an apartment with this chick I met on #oregon, and started in on my choices.
There were about three distinct stages to my life in Portland.
During the first, I chose to drink a lot, I chose to stay up late, I chose to give IRC parties at my house and corrupt minors with copious amounts of alcohol. (Hell, I was a minor myself, so what did it matter?) I thought I was in love with about six different people. This was the very distinct first phase of my life there, the one where I had broken free from everything I'd known in my life. My cousin told me once when I was almost 17 that as soon as I got out from under my parents' thumbs, I'd go wild. Self-fulfilling prophecy, I'm sure, although this wasn't so subtle. I knew what I was doing. I was relishing it.
I don't like to talk much about that time. That wasn't me, and it wasn't Portland. It was in Portland, so I figured I'd better mention it, but it wasn't Portland and what it is to me now.
The middle stage was the best summer of my life, the summer of 1996. I had several friends that I'd met at the cafe and others that I'd met through them, and we were all inseparable. I was the youngest of the group, and for the first time I really felt like I had friends that wanted me to be around, that cherished my presence and my opinions, that considered me an important part of the things that they did. I remember working late at the cafe and having all of them come by to hang out, all of them helping me close up, all of them waiting for me to finish so we could go the The Jolly Inn and play foozball against stoned Reed College students. We were there so much that I was never carded. I never drank while I was there. I just was happy to be there with my friends. We would bring our own music; we were all into a lot of the same bands: Cake, Soul Coughing. The guys at the bar would play our music, and we'd dance around the pool tables like we owned the place. I loved that bar. I felt grown-up for what I might consider now the wrong reasons - just being in a bar and being around scary-looking bikers with big bushy beards playing 50-cent pool on the small tables. Walking around that place like I owned it.
I bought a Vespa scooter because a lot of my friends were in the local riding club and had them. I think my friend Doughnut tried to teach me how to ride it once. I guess my biggest Rainy Day Story is the one where I bailed off that scooter, flipping over the handlebars and landing on the neighbor's lawn.
The only thing I remember was that I was frantically yelling, "My bike! My bike! Is my bike okay!?!"
Phase two started to end when my friends started falling apart. A few of them had these romantic trysts and some of them didn't, but soon it became difficult to get any number of them together because there were certain people that couldn't be in the same room. I quit my job at the cafe after the conditions became too difficult to deal with. I ran away to New York, trying to duplicate Portland on a much grander scale. A friend got me a job at an internet cafe there. I think it was my downfall in New York. Cafe, my ass. No espresso machine. Just a couple of stale bagels and some brewed coffee in the top floor of a copy place across the street from The New School. There was no life in this cafe. The owner was just hopping a trend. He didn't know anything about the internet, unlike the folks that ran the cafe in Portland.
New York didn't work out, and every time someone saw me in my baggy thrift store cords and grey hooded sweatshirt and Vans, and said, "You don't look like a New Yorker, you look like a West Coast person," I would cringe a little bit.
I came back to my beloved Portland in February, got another internet cafe job in the same building that I'd worked in before (The Habit had closed and The Millennium Cafe sprouted in its place), and set myself on phase three.
This last phase was the best and it's how I'll remember Portland in my blood, forever. I was living alone in low-rent housing downtown, and I decided to make the most of it. I would walk around downtown, walk up to 12th and Washington to go visit Doughnut and his Vespa at the garage where he parked cars, hit the little discount second-time-around record stores and get good old CDs for $3.99, drag my friends to the Roxy (best club sandwich & fries on the face of this earth), go to the little bookstores and galleries and all the little shops down there. My friend Shannon worked in a gallery on Broadway and I'd go over there once in a while to see the beautiful stuff they had. I loved the feeling of my boots hitting the pavement with that satisfying stomp. I loved how I looked in those days, my hair cropped close and dyed a different color every other week. I survived on two-day-old bagels and macaroni and cheese and large quantities of coffee and nicotine. I spent a lot of my time online. I would stare at the pipes outside of my window in the center of the building, I would look up at the teeny square of sky I could see from my 2nd floor apartment. Lots of candles. Lots of incense. When I made a lot of tips, I would buy myself a bunch of daisies.
I started writing in Portland.
I wrote about all of these things, and I wrote about all the friends that had gone away. I didn't feel completely empty, because I was still coasting on the memories I had of them, of the silly impromptu parties that we would have in the cafe, cranking Cake's cover of "I Will Survive" while mopping the floor and dancing around in that teeny bottom-floor cafe. I remember going to watch X-Files at my friend's apartment above the cafe, the place torn apart as the owner was in a constant state of remodel, half the wall painted blood-red, you know, "as a test".
I wrote about the me that I was getting to know. And I think, because of that, no matter where I am in my life now, I will never forget her. I will always aspire to find her again if I lose her for a little while, and I will always know where to start looking.
Go, walk around the city sometimes. It's easy to navigate. North, south, east, west: pretty much all you need to know is where Burnside is and where the river flows. Go over every one of the bridges. Go into every shop on the main streets in the Southeast area of town. Go to the Jolly Inn - it's a dive, but that's where a lot of my spirit is. Go to the Bar of the Gods. Go to the little theatres downtown. Go the Henry Building on SW 3rd and Oak: I lived there. Walk into the little corner store across the street; I shopped there every day for my mac & cheese, for my cheap shampoo, for ramen. Go up a couple of blocks to the bus mall and look at the places I waited a lot. Walk down into Old Town towards the train station - that was my primary mode of out-of-town transportation. Look at how beautiful it is. Go inside and breathe the air of travel. Go up to the Roxy Cafe and sit in a booth in corner and smoke several cigarettes and drink all the coffee they have and order some of their fries. Go to the head shop and buy a container of stopsign-red hair dye. Find a kid with a Vespa and ride on the back of it for a while, holding tightly to his old jacket with the fraying patches on it. Walk into dusty bookstores all over the city and trip over stacks of old tomes of Irish poetry and treatises on existentialism and 50-year-old collectible magazines. Dance in that pouring rain near the bridge. Watch the movie Foxfire, set in Portland, and compare the discrepancies, and then hope you're living like those girls.
Try not to laugh with glee when you realize where you are in your life.
I've been back to Portland a few times since moving back up to Seattle to live with my betrothed. Every time I cross the bridge to get to the city center my heart starts to skip a little beat. I've been back less and less the farther and farther I get away from that year and a half that I spent there, but every time I'm on the waterfront, every time I drive down Hawthorne or Division, every time I go to the Saturday Market, I remember that third weekend when I first started to live, with my steel-toes, that blue, blue shade in my hair. My eyes were clearing.
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