Real Life In Portlandia, Global Province Letter, 31 October 2012
Escape from San Francisco. Since 2000, more and more folks have been fleeing San Francisco, always in search of a new Paradise where the women are beautiful, the food is bountiful, and the skies are balmy all day. For 40 years or more, a host of wistful Franciscans have said that Vancouver is like San Francisco was 80 years ago: it isn't. But a few have gone over the Canadian border, looking for the same joy that once hung over the City by the Bay. Others go closer, deserting San Francisco for Napa or Sonoma: they have sold off their digs in town at unimaginable prices, such that they can buy a handsome house up in the country and still have money left over for wine. Others have slipped into Santa Fe, which was once rather vibrant and offbeat, but now is an old age home housing Texans and Californians.
A large contingent has gone to Portland, Oregon, which has been painted by some as America's best city. It has tremendous virtues, not the least of which is that it is the home of Pink Martini, an eclectic, charming band that took America's middle classes by storm a few years back. The town has a host of similarly safe and bemusing curiosities, which make it into a sprightly regional capital. Its affection for the bicycle and some ritual green activities suggest that it is leading us where we as a nation have to go. But enough sharp eyed people, including many of its own citizens, know that it has an underside that can be downright unpleasant and unworkable.
We are lucky that writer Linda Peterson has moved there from the East Bay. A writer of mysteries and more, she has been able to lay her hand on its essence, to capture the small-town, communal, brotherly feeling there, a warmness which used to adhere to Herb Caen's San Francisco. San Francisco, too, was once a very small town which thought itself the center of the universe, but did not take itself seriously most days. Now that light-hearted community is gone, along with its economic core which was as a port and banking center. There's a feel-good quality to Portland where you probably will know the guy you bump into, or you will know somebody that does know him. It's a town of familiarity. Mrs. Peterson expands on that for us below, having recognized that Portland is an affectionate state of mind:
Real Life in Portlandia. It is late on a Thursday afternoon in October and the Dolph Park Dirt Dolls have been called to order. The Dolls number three: My next-door neighbor Laurene, a retired dancer-turned-yoga teacher; Nanwei, across-the-street neighbor, trained French baker and part-time translator for a social services agency; and me. Our meeting spot changes each month – we move from garden to garden and work together for a couple of hours, thereby providing a total of six hours of fairly expert gardening for each other's gardens. The idea emerged as we each confessed our grouses about gardening alone. Two of the three husbands aren't so interested, nor are they particularly skilled. Hiring a willing but unskilled neighborhood teenager usually resulted in some precious plant getting weeded right out with the dandelions. And besides, gardening alone can be…..well, lonely. And hence the Dirt Dolls were born, alliteratively named to recognize our historic Portland neighborhood, Dolph Park.
We work hard for a couple of hours, and then retire to a shady spot in the yard to drink iced tea and congratulate each other on all we've accomplished.
But for this particular October meeting, truth be told, it's Portland. It is pouring rain. Pouring as in sluicing off our hoods and running directly into our boots. My husband comes by to watch for exactly one minute and says, "You guys are crazy! Come in out of the rain."
Yes, well, that's the thing about Portland. You have to be crazy to be the city that is home to The Annual Naked Bike Ride, VooDoo Doughnuts (which charges less if you let them tell YOU what doughnuts you want and offers anatomically correct pastries that celebrate male genitalia), and people so polite that all the gracious intersection hand-waving ('you go,' 'no, please, you go,' 'oh, no, after YOU,') causes mid-intersection auto-paralysis on a regular basis. This last phenomenon was featured in an episode of Portlandia, and is not only true but is deeply confusing and often enraging, to anyone born and bred as a California driver. But this is friendly-and-polite Portland, so I resist the urge to hang my head out the window and say, "For the love of God, just go, willya???? "
Three years ago, after 60 years as Californians — 42 spent in the San Francisco Bay Area —my husband, Ken, and I packed up lock, stock, and bicycles and moved to Portland. It was the long-planned Chapter 2. Ken had retired from his job as a judge. I had scoped out every flight to and from Portland's delightfully civilized airport so I could continue my work as a marketing consultant for higher ed, environmental groups, arts and culture institutions and academic medical centers. We had found the dream house and hired a contractor to design a suite for my 85 year-old father so he could live with us. And as long as we had the house torn up, we threw in a kitchen remodel to accommodate our tastes for cooking together – but not too close together! When the time was right, we tuned up the bicycles, bought umbrellas, sang our last notes with the local choral group we'd joined 10 years previously, and went to a long series of wonderful, emotional, and exhausting goodbye events.
The night we arrived in Portland, our daughter-in-law was waiting with a delicious meal in our new home. There was a camp table set with flowers. We lit the candles and sat down. Life was going to be exactly this wonderful.
Well, almost. Life has a way of being far messier than anyone can predict. My dad was diagnosed with a condition that meant he needed constant vigilance, so he moved to an assisted living community a mile away. Oh, and then there was that pesky house fire, caused by a heat-stripping paint contractor, on the very first post-remodeling day. We had to move out for seven months while repairs went on in every room of the house. But they were finished, and thanks to a rara avis, a spectacularly fair and kind insurance company, there was not a single disagreement about benefits. Not one. And we didn't even have to leave the neighborhood during reconstruction. The insurance company simply rented us a lovely house around the corner.
Now, we're Portlanders, as goofy over our town as the folks who were born here. Our California friends all come see us partly because each and every one has an adult son, daughter, niece, or nephew who's moved to Portland. We do, too, of course, which was part of the draw. Our son, daughter-in-law, and grandson live here. They're homeowners of a small but charming 100 year-old farmhouse, the kind of place a young couple in California could never have purchased without major equity support from Mom and Dad.
So, in answer to Qs from Californians and others, here's the 411 from the Portland newbies:
What about the weather? It rains. A lot. From mid-October to April. But as a California gardener who spent most of my dirt career rationing water, and learning to love Mediterranean gardens, there is a definite upside. It's green here. It's beautiful. Everything grows. And grows and grows and grows. I ignored the Dirt Dolls' advice when I first put in a garden, post-fire, and planted too much. Our garden looked like Green Thumb-on-Steroids.
Plus, we have seasons. It snows most winters, but not much. Just enough to look pretty and then, conveniently it melts. Of course, our first winter the streets were snowed in around the 'hood because the city only plows the main boulevards. I didn't care. We've moved into the city, so we could walk or bike to the store. And cafes. And our neighborhood Tiki Bar, which is a very convenient place to stroll after participating in a local church's Sing-it-Yourself-Messiah.
And spring. Holy Cow! People get drunk on sunshine. Apparently no one has real jobs because on the first sunny day, the whole city comes out to play.
Is the food and wine scene all it's trumped up to be?
You betcha. Like most Californians we worship at the altars of Bacchus and Alice Waters. But here's the thing — delicious food and well-made wine are in abundant supply here, and the choices are embarrassingly value-priced. Actually what they are is cheap. It's a food truck mecca and one can dine on cuisines from places known and unknown around the world. It's not free. But close!
And to drink? Oregon is Pinot Noir Territory, but there's wine of most varietals available at friendly wineries up and down the state. And craft distilleries scattered throughout the city. My husband has become such a fan of Portland's artisanal Aviation Gin, he lovingly bubble-wrapped a bottle to take with us to Europe last year so he could (a) have his preferred gin in his evening martini and (b) introduce Italian bartenders to an American treasure. They were surprisingly good-natured (and complimentary upon tasting) when the pazzo American showed up with his own bottle at our hotel bars.
The good taste and value-pricing extends to restaurants of every degree of elegance, from down-home and funky to white table cloth special occasion. And then, there are the happy hours. A friend who moved here a few years before us gave us her personal counsel, "Take it from me, it makes no economic sense to cook. None. We go to happy hours all over town (4-6 and 9-close) get a beautiful salad, a few orders of mussels, a couple of glasses of wine and go home. I can't possibly make dinner for what we're paying for happy hour."
But cook we do, because our Farmers' Markets are irresistible. And dog-friendly. If you don't like dogs browsing the eggplants with you, then you go to the market from 8-10 in the morning. After that, it's all comers, the Dalmatians and the dowagers. And the music! No lame time-warp hippies playing bad dulcimer music. Our market features actual bands — bluegrass, swing, retro-40s crooners, country, salsa, and indies. Plus, our market is very near our local library branch, so we also benefit from Free-Range Librarians. They roam the market and will chat you up about what you like to read and offer suggestions.
We have the luxury of upscale, artisanal, organic everything at both New Seasons and Whole Foods, but our three block away local market is wonderful as well. They host wine-tastings on Friday night, and Mike, the seafood czar, knows precisely my husband's criteria for perfect crabs in season. I'll point to something and he'll shake his head, "Nope, Ken likes 'em heavier, and not one single claw missing." Oh, okay.
Isn't it hard to start over?
When you've lived in one community for many years, you've got a life. You have keys to the neighbors' houses and have felt free, for years to supervise each other's kids. You know the butcher, the baker, and the nice produce manager who will fetch you the best-looking figs from the back. In California, we lived on a block with its own book group, progressive dinners, and next-door neighbors out of central casting. Not only did they host the bride and her party for lunch and primping the day she and our son were married, but they threw them a baby shower a few years later when they were expecting. Plus, the lady of the house was an ER nurse, which comes in mighty handy when you're raising kids.
In some eerie (and wildly un-deserved) twist of fate, we moved into the same 'hood in Portlandia. Hence, the dirt dolls, the block parties, the local book club, the baking consortium (populated by my husband and two of the three Dirt Dolls. The third Dirt Doll, not a gifted baker – that's me, is not included in the consortium, but gets to enjoy what's baked and carry out occasional assignments.) We get invited for latke parties and Chinese dumpling-making and Halloween parties; we host the Academy Award and Big Game and debate parties.
Despite all the cautionary tales (Oregonians HATE Californians; Welcome to Oregon, Now Go Home!), we have found Portland to be open, friendly, and weirdly relaxed.
My husband is up to his elbows in local politics, serving as the land use chair of the neighborhood association, which represents 2000 households in neighborhood. He started showing up at meetings just to get a sense of what local issues were, and the next thing he knew he was on the board. Now he's got pals all over the 'hood. He's an assistant coach for our grandson's T-ball team. Getting integrated into a place like Portland turns out to be just like stepping into a warm bath. Rubber duckies (or Oregon Ducks, whatever you prefer) provided.
And what about that Naked Bike Ride?
It's a considerate and thoughtful after-dark Naked Bike Ride, very Portland-ish. The days leading up the ride the official and unofficial media remind folks that if you're bringing your bike to the starting point on public transit, it's good manners to bring a towel to place on the Max or bus seat. You know…just so, well, you know.
It's the bike-iest city I've ever seen. (Bicycling magazine just ranked Portland #1 as bike-friendliest city in the country.) And, we are happy to join that culture, from running errands on our bikes to the Sunday Parkways, which close a different neighborhood six times from late spring to early fall to all but bicyclists, walkers, stroller-pushers, and scooter-riders. The rides are organized around parks where you can stash your bike (or stroller) for food truck cuisine, massages, dance bands, Shakespeare-in-the-park, and picnic games. It's a chance to see different neighborhoods, eat curry or hummus or Italian sausages and hand-made ice cream sandwiches and fool yourself into thinking that the calories expended biking equal what you've just consumed.
But what about music and art and theater and sports?
Portland takes all that seriously, but not too seriously. Dance is a local passion, and the 160+ amateur dancers (age 9-70something) who rehearsed for 10 weeks to perform Le Grand Continental in Pioneer Square one recent sunny afternoon are a perfect example. The performance was a celebration of White Bird's 15th anniversary and it was a lovefest.
There's a vibrant chamber music scene, decent symphony, adventuresome opera, and a darn good art museum. Theater is good, with two significant companies and several plucky small ones. And some of the best theater on the planet is just a few hours south to Ashland, where the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival holds court.
Sadly, Portland lost its minor league ball club a few years ago, but the Timbers have a fierce following. And everyone in Portland chooses sides in the Civil War, the Oregon Ducks vs. the Oregon State Beavers. It's really a sport-playing town and rain or shine, there are amateurs out there playing, running, swinging rackets or clubs. And of course, walking dogs.
Best of all, it's a city that loves books. Book Nirvana, otherwise known as Powell's City of Books, occupies an entire city block in the hipster neighborhood of The Pearl. Pick up a map to the store when you come in. You'll need it.
So that's the story, morning-glories. I rationalize the gray, damp season by thinking about Englishwomen and their beautiful complexions. Surely all that moisture must be good for aging skin. I love the scale and spirit of Portland. It's a place that manages to keep libraries open six days a week even when budgets are tight (They're closed Monday, a day of rest for tired eyes). It's place where our kids could afford to buy a first house. It's a place that welcomed us with nary a California joke. It's a place where, the night our house caught fire, neighbors we knew and those we didn't yet know kept offering food and shelter.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, one day you, too, will have a young adult child, niece, or nephew living in Portland. Portlandia jokes it's where young adults go to retire. I beg to differ. It's where adults of all age go to make a life, in a city that is human scale, loves dogs, bikes, books, food, wine, and the great outdoors. You'll visit and see what all the fuss is about. And you'll get on the plane home with a big pink box of VooDoo Donuts and start wondering where you can find the name of a good realtor.
P.S. The complete Mrs. Peterson has also contributed a sketch of Sandy Koufax and a chapter to our unending novel to the Global Province.
P.P.S. Happy Halloween! And yes, as expected, there is plenty of creepy going on in Portland.
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