Portland is the shit.
It’s got a hint of suburbia with neighborhoods like Hawthorne in the SE where you most definitely need a car, but it’s easily navigable by bus, the MAX, walking or some combination thereof, like I did.
The food is impressive, to say the least! Yup, this snotty New Yorker foodie (pardon the overused word) said it. The Portland food scene is quite spectacular. 5 of my 6 meals were plate-licking delicious.
Most notable: The raw oysters and the octopus at The Aviary. The mignonette was magic.
The Cha Ca “La Vong” at Pok Pok transported me right back to Bangkok, even though its a replica of a dish from Hanoi. From the menu, it’s “Catfish marinated in turmeric and sour rice, fried in turmeric oil with scallions and dill, served on rice vermicelli with peanuts, mint, cilantro and mam nem.” Other notable dishes were the Khao Soi, a mild curry noodle soup dish from northern Thailand, Papaya Pok Pok, a green papaya salad, and so many more! The Fish Sauce Chicken Wings looked so delicious that it made me momentarily wish I wasn’t pescatarian.
The Catfish meal at Muscadine for $14.95 is THE ideal southern brunch dish I’ve been craving ever since I left Oklahoma 20 years ago. I mean, the grits don’t have cheese! Why the f—- does every grits dish in New York City have f—-ing cheese?! This is not how it’s done in the south. Butter and salt, or maybe sugar (if you’re a weirdo).
Ugh, I’m stepping off my grits soapbox. Spicy fried Catfish strips, a warm, buttery biscuit with strawberry preserves (why use jam to cover up that buttery deliciousness), crispy fried breaded okra, and scrambled eggs was pure heaven in a mouthful.
Portland’s Weirdness, and I vs We
Okay, so Portland is definitely weird. If you’ve seen the show Portlandia, you get a sense of what Portland is like. What I found the weirdest though is that people totally buy into the cliché. In the attempt to be unique and cool and individualistic, people end up looking and acting virtually the same.
Of course, it’s not just Portlanders who fall into this. Those of us in western society, particularly Gen Xers and younger, all think we’re special, God-given jewels, encrusted like sparkling ornaments on this earth. We each have special gifts to contribute to the world and it’s up to us, and us alone, to make our mark. It’s finding one’s purpose through the framework of ‘I’ instead of a culture of ‘We’.
We expect marriages to last 40+ years under the burden of kids, full-time jobs, and mortgages, all without a community supporting the couple. We no longer think of our group beyond ourselves or our family and tight cluster of friends; my success becomes mine alone born out of my hard work. My failure results from my foolish mistake, or worse, my shittiness as a human. Regardless, my failure is my personal misery to bear alone.
Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, Portlanders. A liberal oasis filled with creative souls who differ slightly in interests, talents, and troubles but ultimately have amassed into a tribe of wonderful eccentrics who have cultivated superb food, music, and culture on the backdrop of a forested mountainous landscape. There is nothing wrong with the aspiration for ‘I’ evolving into a tribe of ‘We’ when the results are on the right side of history and are simply sublime.
Disclaimer: I get the sense that my evaluation of the Portland music scene is somewhat lacking because I didn’t catch any Indie-folk shows. I love Indie music but tend to stay in the sub-genres of Indie Pop, Indie Electro, and Indie Dance/Nu Disco.
On my first full day in town, I stumbled into the most darling gift store that doubles as an Indie Record label. How typical Portland! As I fingered the vinyl albums while reading the slips underneath suggesting which bands I might like based on bands I already know, I realized that as cliche as it might be, it’s fun. I even got a tip on where to see an album launch later that night but opted for a hip-hop show instead.
Yes, that’s right, a hip-hop show. It’s equal to leaving NYC to find the best pizza in El Paso, Texas. But what hip-hop head can resist seeing the Queen of Seattle rap plus a couple of the local talent?
Kelly’s Olympian is a cool venue, with an elaborate, spacious bar for chilling before the show or getting hit on by middle-aged, possibly homeless men. Tricked out motorcycles hang from the ceiling. The entertainment space is a bit bare bones with a decent size stage, minimally elevated above the crowd with ample seating/standing room for about 100 people or so.
The Queen of Seattle rap, Gifted Gab, came to slay and delivered on that promise. Of the openers, Mic Capes came strong with the truth. Rap was born in the 70s in the Bronx as fun dance music to beatbox to, but rapidly became the path for expressing the voice of a silenced generation of young Blacks and Latinos. It became a way to bring light to the struggle. The struggle for equality has evolved but rages as loud as ever, so it is the obligation of some (or most, really) rappers to reflect this. So big shouts out to those that do, like Mic Capes.
On a whim, I headed to Doug Fir, on my last night in Portland. This bilevel sprawling venue contains a huge outdoor heated patio and a couple of slick indoor lounges upstairs with a neon bar and big concert space and stage downstairs. Gold Casio was rocking a room full of music heads decked out in head to toe golden gear complete with gold stickers and face glitter. There was even a photo corner where impromptu golden photo shoots were happening. Wtf, Portland?
Hustle and Drone wasn’t to be outdone. This Indie Pop band had a big following in the crowd and absolutely killed their act by getting everyone on stage to dance behind them for the last song.
Culture and a bit of Black Portland
I could go on and on about the music but here are just a couple of important notes about Portland instead.
Portland (and Portlandia) is very white, like so white I want to put sunglasses on but then remember I’m from Oklahoma and therefore, can adapt.
But, I found the black people (hint: we’re everywhere)! I stumbled across Black Hat Books (no link because they don’t have a website) on NE MLK JR between Stanton and Graham in the Eliot neighborhood. What a rich collection of books of African, African-American, Latino, and Native American poetry, fiction, essays, non-fiction and children’s books! The warm oak beams and rocking chairs strewn about the small store felt like a relaxed, Afro-centric version of The Strand.
I wished I’d had the whole afternoon to thumb through such divine works as the collection of Baldwin leisurely strewn on top of an upside-down wooden crate. The store owner is a very kind, white male war veteran with a keen knowledge of most of the works in his store. His dutiful (and biracial) granddaughter helped him out behind the counter.
I mention their races because, well, we don’t live in a colorblind, post-racial utopia and a white person owning a bookstore showcasing black literature has implications. In this case, the venture is overwhelmingly positive. Stepping into that bookstore felt like stepping into a comfortable home made of spirituality and safety.
I support black-owned businesses but am compelled to support this white-owned business giving a home to voices that need to be heard. It’s done in a way that completely honors the work without pretense. The owner’s authenticity is made plain in just the few sentences we exchanged. And lastly, and most importantly, there is zero evidence of exploitation. This is the issue that is most feared when the powerful majority intersects with a marginalized minority.
Not the case here! If you happen to be in PDX on a Monday or Friday, visit Black Hat Books!
I happened to meet a couple of black Portlanders in my hostel late on my last night. They were dope af, weird enough to be from Portland which also means they were intriguing enough to keep my attention. No small talk here.
The night turned interesting when we started conversing with an annoying out-of-towner ‘researching’ for an essay and his local, bright, plugged-in, yet tolerant childhood friend/host. But, the story of the insecure “geniuses” of the world is one for a different article.
I’m not going to get into the wondrousness of legal Mary Jane in PDX as that is not my area of expertise. I will note that it is as amazing and intimidating in its intricacy as the vineyards and wineries of Napa Valley are to an aspiring oenophile. NY, hurry up and get with the program.
In short, Portland is the shit.
If you enjoyed this tour de force through weird Portland and the weird corners of my brain, we should be friends.