Tag Archives: Portland

Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The Speakeasy of Main St Oregon


It’s taken me a while to be able to write about the day that ended in the evening above. It was a whirlwind day on a whirlwind trip to Portland. I stayed one night at my friend Jaynee’s house, drinking her expensive cognac and talking and laughing. The next day, I sorrowfully expressed my displeasure at not having visited the coast while in Oregon. The weather was taking a turn for the worse, and it was unlikely that I would make it there, as the coastal roads were likely to be solid sheets of ice. But I must have underestimated my old friend. She is afraid of nothing and is almost too willing to take off on a whim. I make no understatement when I tell you she’s the most extroverted person I’ve ever met.

Soon enough, we were headed to Eugene. No, you don’t have to tell me — Eugene isn’t a coastal town. We drove to Eugene via the coast…or after the coast, I should say. And the coastal highway was, indeed, beset by solid sheets of ice when it wound under the overhanging trees. The beach itself was covered in snow; this is unusual for the Oregon coastline, at least when I lived there. It was always cold and damp in the winter, but it didn’t often snow.

Needless to say, we didn’t spend much time frolicking in the waves or running like young does over the sand. We pulled off our gloves in order to take a few pictures. We waxed poetic while staring out at the vastness of the thunderously gray Pacific, and then we jumped back in the car and took off for Eugene. It escapes me now why we had to visit Eugene. It was Jaynee’s errand, not mine. But as I have some good friends in Eugene, I scheduled a meetup with one.

Eugene had been hit hard by a snowstorm. My meetup was, therefore, a little unusual. Jaynee dropped me off at Perk coffeehouse, where my old friend Sallie works. I’ve dedicated at least one of my coffee memoirs to Sallie; she is the epitome of a coffee girl. She’s a coffee girl after all these years, still jerking espresso while attending university classes and raising her children. The meetup was unusual because the coffeehouse was closed and Sallie was stranded there. She’d been stranded in town for some time, and there she sat, bleary-eyed, in day-old clothes and, yet, still willing to jump up and give me a hug.

While the storm had passed, the streets weren’t clear. Eugene is, apparently, not used to sudden swift bouts of snow. So we sat there for some time and drank tea together, until I casually wondered if there was any where in this universe or the next I could eat. I’d been on the road with Jaynee all day. Was there any place nearby we could eat a hot dinner? Yes, there was a place behind us, in the back alleyway…

Oregon has become known for its food culture. Not only that, but because of the state’s libertarian bent, it’s become known for its back alley repositories of organic and fresh-from-the-farm foods. Many of these places are unregulated, in the sense of health inspections. As such, an ordinary storage space is transformed into a dinner party, and people show up due to word of mouth and drop money in a donation jar. A few days before, I’d read all about such places in a food memoir at Powell’s Books.

To be honest, the restaurant in the back alley behind Perk is a regulated restaurant that takes credit cards. But you couldn’t have convinced me of that as Sallie and I scuffed out way through the snow and slid over ice, around dumpsters and recycling bins, to arrive at a nearly invisible restaurant. This was what the book at Powell’s had written about. We slipped in, and I stared up at the menu on the wall, quite incredulous. See, it really did have the organic and fresh-from-the-farm food. And yet it had something else I like to call “white-trash gourmet”. Actually, my husband coined that term. He went through a brief life stint in which he wanted to write that recipe book.

I think he lost the desire when he realized that kind of food was already popular in many venues…and especially in Oregon. It was certainly part of the back alley mystique. As I don’t eat wheat, my options are always limited. Nowadays, I eat no grains of any kind nor any starch, but in those days, I still ate potatoes. There was, therefore, about one item on the menu I could eat: fresh from the potato french fries smothered with an elegant cheese sauce made with white wine and topped with homemade corned beef and chopped parsley. I ordered a decent glass of cabernet to offset the grease.
Then Sallie and I sat on tall stools eating this…this…over-the-top cuisine. It was a noisy and crowded place, despite its obscured location. After a second glass of wine, the adventures of the day hit me hard, and I can’t remember much else except the buzz in my brain caused by too many people and too much action.

If I were to write a song about the day, it might follow this model: I remember girls in hats, big bananas, and loony chats. I remember snow. I remember snow. Okay, that might need a little work. I’ve never yet come out as a singer-songwriter, and there’s probably a good reason for that.


The Downtown Portland Scene: Escape is Directional

DSCF0115Years ago, I escaped from Portland. I can’t say I’m altogether happy about escaping from city life. I’m married to a small town boy, and a small town is where he gravitates. While Portland isn’t the city I would like to make my home, I would prefer a city over a small town any day. Cities have resources. They have green spaces and museums and tall buildings–old buildings up against new architecture. They have a variety of shops and businesses that offer variations on a theme, whether that theme happens to be clothes or medicine or books. Small towns are hit and miss–mostly miss. If, for example, an herb shop exists in a small town, it’s likely to have a limited selection of dusty vitamin bottles and herb bins and not likely to sell whatever the customer had in mind to purchase at a given moment. Living in a small town, mail order and lengthy, expensive trips to the nearest city become the norm. In other words, the nuisance that shopping is (and, yes, it IS a nuisance) turns into a greater nuisance of long shipping times and expensive shipping rates or just doing without because the gas needed to arrive in the grand metropolis is outside the budget.

Although I’m currently living in a small-town island that contains little more than a Wal Mart, and although I bemoan its lacks, I acknowledge that city life isn’t perfect. Traffic is hell in most cities, and not all of them offer adequate public transportation meant to ease the burden of cars on the roads. In addition, most city water sources must be filtered to rid the tap of chlorine and fluoride–cities are, in general, difficult for the health conscious individual. I’m living in a kind of Promised Land of clean water and air, above the agricultural run-off and smog of rural valley or city living. I’m living in a place where the enormous sky meets the horizon in a distant one-point perspective, no matter where I’m standing. While I sometimes imagine how our family life would be in a city, I can’t deny that I live in a beautiful environment that is low on stress and devoid of the kind of drama I avoid like the plague.

It may sound as if I’m checking the scales of small town life against city life and seeing how they balance, but that wasn’t my goal when I sat down to write. My goal was in remembering that I don’t want to mentally regress, except in memory, to where Portland lives and thrives inside me. Escape is sketchy. Environment plays a role in mental health, but it can never create a situation in which a person is able to escape himself. I won’t ever be able to escape who I am–an outsider in any world. I will never escape my own mental landscape, formed only in part by my childhood in Portland.

My niece works at the Portland nightclub pictured above. In describing it to me, she said it was meant to be a place where people could be themselves without judgment, even if only until the wee hours, with dancing and artistic open mic shows. I get that. I do. Escape is vital for humans. For that reason, people eat and drink together and seek out entertainment after work. But from birth until death, escape is a transitory concept that is as easy to cling to as wind. And sometimes, it’s better to live in the moment–this moment, in the daytime–and face it. I look up and hope for escape. I mull over the past; I plan for the future. Yet, how often do I take on the present and live in it? How often do you? Escape is an upward trajectory, but until death, it’s a finite ideal. I applaud my niece for her work at the club. In her own way, she’s taking on her present reality and creating something positive with it. She’s creating a tangible, albeit temporary reality in the midst of city life and attempting to find health through it all.

DSCF0111This is only to demonstrate that an upward trajectory, a lack of regression, a moving forward is impossible. A life is made of layers, and the outermost layer isn’t the only reality. The past peeks through and, sometimes, the outer layers are intentionally stripped off in order to reveal the past, to lay it bare. This is a necessary occupation for even those who aren’t detectives or psychologists. Escape moves inward before it turns back around. In some cases, exposing the past reveals its beauty, rather than its degradation, as in this building. Somebody made the decision to expose the beauty of its past. What if, upon investigation, a detective were to discover unexpected beauty in human populations, rather than heinous crimes and the perpetrators and victims of such?

DSCF0116Escape is more than a reflection of our environment. When I peered in these dark windows, I could see the hint of decay in the building. As opposed to the uncovered facade of the previous building, this one was dirty on the inside, in need of cleaning and repair. Yet, when I stepped back and took a picture of the windows, the camera caught only the reflection of a functioning world outside the gritty interior space. The city continues to function, just as homes and humans do, for better or worse, despite ignoring interior work. What if, upon entering the interior space, we were to begin to clean and repair rather than walking past and imagining that those reflections we see (including those of ourselves) are, in fact, reality?

DSCF0127Ah, well, I suspect you’ve already guessed I saved the best for last. This is Powell’s. This framework is the same Powell’s I knew as a child. Wandering through the aisles, up and down stairways, I recognized the basic construction, even though the inside had transformed itself throughout time. For example, upon entering, the dreadlocked and pretentious intellectual elites, who used to work there and shout at you if you didn’t immediately check in your backpacks and bags, were nonexistent. It’s a friendlier place, an open place, but still full from floor to ceiling, upstairs and downstairs, with books. As I walked through with my camera, surreptitiously snapping pictures, an uncomfortable feeling stole over me. It was as if a pretense of friendliness and openness had subsumed the place, but it was a big, fat lie. The interior space was, is, and always will be about books and a cramped literary life lived in them. You might try to repair the past, but you can’t change it, nor can you change the core essence of what something or someone is. Escape is moving outward. Look: down the dark aisles covered in books, there’s a world outside. It might appear small from this perspective, but trust me when I tell you it’s much bigger than it appears. Your repairs may seem to overshadow it, yet they are minute compared to the grand outer workings, the mechanical scheme of the universe.


Portland is a Dream Memoir: Life Seen Through a Tangle of Trees

DSCF0143Portland is a land viewed through shadows and trees. Portland is an image: a stark white house brilliant through the branches. It evokes a certain melancholia, a nostalgia for a life not lived–at least, not there. I lived there in an actual sense. Yet, I grew up with no real notion of how dense the shadows were, with no real understanding of what lay behind the dark windows of those houses–the ones lost in the trees. If I were to enter in through the gray door, what would wait beyond it? Would the house give up its mysteries?

Portland is a place of scenes. Everybody must belong to one. But for those who skirt the edges of society, observation is the only way in, and it isn’t a way in so much as it is a way through to the exit on the far side of the house. Last week, I visited Sellwood, which is a Portland neighborhood arrived at via the Sellwood Bridge. We crossed the bridge, my sister and her daughter and I, into a world of large old houses on a bluff. In the best spots, these houses are perched as beacons above the Willamette with clear views of the river and the city scene that lies across from it. As the afternoon was already darkening when we arrived there, a turn around a tight curve could suddenly open us up to the glow of the distant waterfront lights. If you’ve ever descended into Portland at night, you’ll remember the winding river lights, and you will–if you still carry a childlike joy–gasp at the memory. Portland, as seen from above the shadows of too many trees, is a place that glows. It glows because there’s a river below and heavy clouds above, and the lights in between reflect and refract in the water. And so it is in Sellwood when the streets take a turn to a view.

sellwood bridge

What kind of scene is Sellwood? Ten or more years ago, it was a place largely cut-off from Portland proper. According to my sister, who once rented a house in the area, the buses didn’t run there regularly, and there weren’t many stores. Nowadays, it’s an upscale neighborhood and very much a beating-heart-of-Portland with its New Seasons organic grocery, its antique shops, its yoga studios and sushi parlors and microbrew houses and espresso bars. While there, we visited a small but bright old house, where my sister’s homeschool friend lived. Just across the polished wood floor, sat a table decorated in lacquered pennies and, on top of that, a tray with homemade hummus and cut vegetables and dried chips made from various vegetable parts and seeds leftover from juicing. Next to that sat a glass tea dispenser that appeared to contain tea–and it did–except, of course, it was not the usual sweet tea, but kombucha. If I hadn’t recognized the feathery, floating mushrooms, I might have thought it was a homeschool experiment that involved caring for exotic sea-creature pets in a tea bath. I wouldn’t have been surprised; I can’t remember the last time I was surprised by anything. On the cookbook shelf all my questions were answered, as if they hadn’t been already: Nourishing Traditions. Every good homeschool mom has one, except the ones who don’t. This particular mom appeared and sounded to be the kind who would nourish you in any way she knew how, whether with food or words or pleasant laughter. Oh, yes, I can’t move on without mentioning that my sister has a particular affinity for people with silvery laughs. I loosely based my character Mary and her silvery laugh off one of my sister’s friends, who became mine, as well, when I worked with her at Coffee People. That’s, however, another story entirely; it serves merely to demonstrate my sister’s affinity for people with a laughing talent.

Still in Sellwood, we skipped from the tiny house of Nourishing Traditions to the New Seasons organic grocery for a few potluck items, to a million dollar home, complete with four stories. This was the meeting place for the homeschool Lego robotic group, where we watched the children perform a practice demonstration of their robot project before having a potluck. As one might expect, the potluck dishes were not casseroles. Rather, they were the dishes of middle and upper class Portlanders, which involved baked potatoes and trimmings, elegant salads and sauteed vegetable dishes and bean dips. Black beans are all the rage in Portland, to be found in mall food courts and even in the OMSI cafe, but if there were any to be had here, they were long gone before I arrived at the marble-top buffet island. Instead, I chose a white-bean and tuna salad.

I didn’t know any of these people, and so found myself standing in the corner studying everything as I usually do. I’ve been in fine homes before; this one had a particularly nice feel to it, as if the people there were just that–nice. And I think they were. Without overly assessing them by their Alaskan artwork and books in multiple languages–their stacks and stacks of Scientific Americans and their shelf that contained numerous biblical translations, I would say they were normal intellectuals who managed to work hard and make a lot of money. My last image of Sellwood, aside from the misty night trip back across the bridge, was of the father of the household peacefully relaxed on an expensive couch, watching the rambunctious children horse around in dangerously close proximity to expensive, breakable things, and smiling. Yes, smiling.

That was Sellwood, as seen through the trees–as seen in one door and back out another.

Photograph credits: The first is mine from the hills above Portland, not quite to Terwilliger. The second I found in Wiki Commons. I don’t know why, but I didn’t take any pictures the day we traveled to Sellwood.


Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: The Terse Edition

Now that I’m done with editing Anna and the Dragon* forever and ever, amen, I’m ready to reveal the side of me you don’t know. To be fair, although I forced myself to read through my book one last time because I couldn’t handle the thought of replacing the book cover without searching for typos, I didn’t find that many errors. [Where did that last sentence come from? This was supposed to be the terse edition. I can’t stop myself from writing long, complex sentences. I can’t change my thought processes. I can’t do it. Yes, I can. Apparently, this is the subliminal version, meant to combat cognitive dissonance.]

Underneath it all, I’m terse. At the abominably bad age of sixteen, which also happened to be 1990, I took up exercise. I bicycled around the neighborhood. I ran at the track down the street from my home–barefoot, of course, because running barefoot is poetic. Then, I discovered jumping rope. My parents’ den was covered in a peculiarly hardy linoleum product, which meant I could skip to my heart’s content. And I did. I would play the longest Bob Dylan songs I could find and hop on my toes to the last minute and last note of the harmonica, guitar, or organ. I would revel in the euphoria only Dylan could evoke in my heart. Trust me when I say that Mr. Tambourine Man is one of the best songs ever written. Add to that a few Scorpion songs, such as Rock You Like a Hurricans (which I’m currently listening to), and you really, really won’t want to be around me.

When I packed up at age eighteen and moved to Linfield College for a short jaunt, I couldn’t believe my good fortune at having a weight room almost solely to myself. There were always a few bulky wrestler/football types hanging around, but they ignored me, as I did them. Jocks aren’t too terribly fond of thin women–or they weren’t in the nineties–and that gave me the space I needed to focus on my terseness and my OCD rep-counting habits: 50 presses and pull-downs and curls and crunches; 20 min stationary bicycle with moving handlebars; 8 laps around the track; bar work in the large, empty gym; 25 min Stairmaster while holding a book [as you can imagine, the last was my favorite].

This post, however, isn’t merely about me. That’s a lie. Of course it’s about me. It’s my memoir. But it’s also about the Pacific Northwest in the nineties, in which grunge-influenced wannabe poets pierced their noses and took their dogs to outdoor cafes, where they soaked up the few hopeful rays of grayish cloud-sun after having just spent their last fistful of ones on double cappuccinos. [Be terse, Jill. Be terse.] At the same time, the gym-goers had revved themselves up. Not being much of a team-player, I couldn’t have cared less about the grunge scene or anybody else’s gym habits, good or bad. In the days before Curt Cobain put a gun to his head, I attended a Nirvana concert because somebody I knew had an extra ticket. That moment of grunge was somewhat life-changing, but that’s a story for another post at another time. It’s a heroic love story and has nothing whatever to do with Nirvana and my intense lack of interest in grunge boys and girls.

Once, while I wasn’t at the gym, a friend brought up a box of old magazines from one of the dorm basements. Students could use the basements to store their boxes of junk over summer holidays, but they often never returned to retrieve them. Life moved on past college in the old days, I guess. In this case, the box contained magazines from the sixties. My friends and I were thrilled to find a short story in a (Life?) magazine about a girl called Jill who was thin, blonde, lugubriously gray-eyed, and misunderstood. She was a poet who let slip silly, yet enduring words. She would stomp barefoot in mud puddles and proclaim it was beautiful because the word puddle sounds just like what it is! To the unaware–that’s called onomatopoeia, which sounds just like what it is, too! Wasn’t that a coincidence? I, too, was a thin, blonde, lugubriously gray-eyed poet called Jill who was misunderstood because I went around proclaiming stupendously stupid drivel about puddles. Splash! Doesn’t that sound exactly like the first cosmic sea crashing against star dust?

Except I wasn’t. Story Jill bore a strange kind of through-the-looking-glass resemblance to me, and that was all. I wanted to be a poet, even deluded myself into believing I was, but when it came right down to it, only the gym could calm my OCD tendencies. I suppose I was the other kind of nineties girl, the kind with a gym habit, except I wasn’t that either. Women with gym habits, in those days, bought expensive workout suits and managed to collect big rocks for their hands, which I didn’t. Now is the moment to tie this oh-so terse memoir into my coffeehouse world. Obviously, after I quit that short jaunt at Linfield College and went to work at Coffee People, I immediately purchased a gym membership at Nautilus. I’ve always been stingy with money, which meant I had only to scrape a little off the top of my bank account to pay for six months in advance. But still, I was the one selling the beverages, not the one on the other side of the counter, buying flat and skinny lattes with extra vanilla in order to effect a sugar rush after aerobics class. [Terse!]

Now you know something about me, and why I never wanted to look at Anna and the Dragon again. Writing Anna doesn’t quite give me the energy that exercise does. Yes, of course, I still exercise obsessively! What do you think? It’s so habitual after all these years that it’s as necessary as my morning coffee. Even at my busiest and poorest, I’ve soothed my exercise soul with a system of threes: 300 jumping jacks, 30 sit-ups, 30 push-ups.


Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Project Whimsy Part II

This morning, I had a strange sensation. And I gave into the turn of the mind, turn of the weather, turn of the dream scape. It was cloudy out and had been for days, so I put on the coffee and sliced garden zucchini; I battered the slices in raw milk and rice flour and cooked them into little pancakes, which I heaped on a platter. I turned on the living room computer and found a copy of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s eponymous album on You Tube.

Then I sat back, closed my eyes and listened intently to the scratching record sound somebody had imported to mp3 technology. I took one bite of zucchini, and another, and I drank my coffee, the enchantment fooling my senses. With a few tricks of cooking and technology, I could time travel to the days when I spun vinyl on record players. I could consider the enchantment in the music as a yet more distant conceit, since Crosby, Stills, and Nash recorded the album before my birth. It was retro even in the now retro days of the nineties, when the songs’ atmosphere caught me up in dreams of wooden ships on water and tangled little circles of alliteration. Wordlessly watching, [I] wait by the window and wonder at the empty place inside.

I fill the empty place with life in the Northwest: I carry my AM/PM coffee mug with me to the 57 bus stop on the corner. Native Portlanders don’t use umbrellas, and I’m a native. Instead, the rain drizzles on my head, and the afternoon disappears into an early evening. After the bus swallows me in its brightly lit interior, I stare out the window and see only my own white face staring back at me, which bores me because, as a stoic, I can’t make myself smile. It’s part of my philosophy: sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Happiness isn’t something to grasp, though, and smiles don’t suit me. I have a book–a journal. It’s one of my senior year projects, and I fill it with little stories and essays until I fill up the last page. I’ve never written in a journal before (and have rarely done so since). Writing in little books isn’t my style. But it is today. Or it might be if I had any interest in writing words or any lines left to write them on. I flip through and read an excerpt about my sister, whom I’m off to visit at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

In the excerpt, I’m watching her work in the pottery shed. It’s an abominably cold metal building with rain leaking through the roof. My sister spends too much time here, and it’s no wonder that she’s always wrapped in scarves and fighting off respiratory infections. The rain leaks through the roof, and it runs in rivulets of muddy clay on the floor. The rain taps and taps and eventually beats its way in. Due to the damp and mud, my sister is barefoot, her feet in puddles, as she models clay into perfect formations with her fingers. Her fingers are able to accomplish what most artists can’t form with the help of a wheel or machinery. She has delicate fingers, too. They’re slender, small, tapered. Her wild red hair somehow stays out of the muck. Even with her pottery and mud, she’s more pristine than I’ll ever manage–nails like the moon, skin carefully freckled, as though she ordered the placement. Boys tend to bend over backward to catch her attention, and she’s blind to them, and I can’t understand this. If a boy were to give me a second look, I would be so astonished I would wonder whether I had entered an alternate universe. But that’s the way it is. I’m a watcher, and not a person watched.

The rain hits the top of the bus. It slides down the bus windows, and I’m reluctant to leave the muggy warmth and enter into the dark afternoon. Forest Grove is the end of the line, though, and the Pacific University campus waits with its cluster of important brick buildings and overbearing trees and shadows. I’m to meet my sister at her room, and I hurry there, to a charmless dorm building, where the smallness and darkness hover in strange corner rooms. I knock on her door and stand waiting in the dreary hall. My sister is the one with the vibrancy; I’m there for her and not the atmosphere. As it turns out, my sister has forgotten me. Her roommate peers out and looks as though she doesn’t quite know what to do with this forlorn little sister creature who has appeared from the shadows. The roommate’s name is Andrea, and she’s the type of girl who carries grace with her everywhere she goes–it’s embedded in the genes that have created her elegant bone structure. Of course, she’s a ballet dancer, and that’s the point.

Andrea invites me in and, after I let go of my backpack, where does the enchantment go? Where does it direct itself, but to the outdoor world of a night campus, where rows of trees catapult us into a fantasy realm? Stoicism forgotten, sudden and unplanned whimsy captures me when I run outside with Andrea. I can’t explain what comes over us. We invent stories and run through the grass and twisted trees. We crawl through the shadows, and, for my part, forget disappointment. We’re as children in a pretend world, except the world is startlingly real. We really do spin through the grass and land in a fairytale.Sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy. Add to that: happy and yet happy. I’m neither a watcher, nor the watched. Rather, we’re both in the moment and (obviously) out of it at the same time.