It has taken me too long, I realize, but I’m beginning to get a feel for Portland, Oregon and just generally the Pacific Northwest. There’s much still to be learned about the region, but I embrace the challenge. I had the use of my daughter and son-in-law’s car during my most recent week-long visit to Portland, which — among other things — allowed me to immerse myself more fully in the experience, make me feel (almost) like a Portlander. I thrilled, for example, that I was able to conduct a highly nuanced, scientific comparison; grocery stores and bakeries were my test subjects. The comparisons with New England are inevitable.
Each day found me, as well, doing daily strolls around the University Park neighborhood where I was staying, presenting me with delightful opportunities for discovery (despite invariably drizzly weather conditions). Keep in mind, my friends, I’m a country girl, so part of the challenge is learning how to navigate (comfortably) in a major city.
Observation #1: Once you understand that homeowners have the responsibility for the upkeep of the space directly in front of their houses in between the sidewalk and the street, you can’t help but observe how those intervals are tended. It becomes readily obvious which homeowners chafe at the responsibility and which ones view their assigned space as an artist’s canvas.
Observation #2: Skill in parallel parking is essential, as is threading the needle to manage the gap between the street and one’s driveway (if there is one), inevitably crowded by at least half a dozen cars parked impossibly close. Every night when I left my daughter and son-in-law’s house to head back to my rented apartment, I recited an impassioned dear Lord, please let me get out of here safely without hitting one of those cars. (Truth is, my appeal to the Good Lord sounded more like: The fuck’s wrong with people?! Why can’t they give you some fuckin’ room?! Fuckin’ dickheads!) By the end of my visit, however, I had learned the calculation well enough so that I didn’t have to apply the brakes countless times, and my exit took fewer than ten minutes. The memory makes me smile.
Observation #3: You can buy avocados and actually have faith that they’ll be perfectly ripe, and taste as one would hope an avocado should taste, not like cardboard or wallpaper paste, which is how avocados purchased in New England generally taste. (I’m only imagining what cardboard and wallpaper paste taste like. At least I think I am. There may have been a period in my childhood when I “experimented” with things not customarily earmarked for human consumption.) When I was unable to find nectarines, I asked one of the stockers at New Seasons if they had any. He replied, “No, they’re not in season; we won’t have them for a couple months.” Not in season! When has that ever stopped our Market Baskets and Stop & Shops from making attractive arrangements of imported, tasteless, out-of-season fruits and vegetables?
Observation #4: Through either peer pressure or inheritance, Portlanders eventually own an old truck. Said truck must be installed permanently on the street or as a yard ornament. They run the gamut of eras (70’s through 90’s, mostly) and can be found in various conditions, from the worst state of decrepitude to the most pristine. Walking through the neighborhood, I could easily distinguish between “proud truck owner” and “embarrassed owner of an albatross”.
So ubiquitous are these trucks, that over time they lose their sense of novelty. Through transmogrification they become part of the urban landscape. Until recently, for example, a little red Toyota truck sat mute and motionless in front of my daughter and son-in-law’s house. No one could say when it first appeared, and no one knew who owned it — everyone imagined that it belonged to some one else. Only when it became the casualty in a hit-and-run accident by an RV “behaving in a suspicious manner”, was one of the neighbors moved to call the city’s traffic division. The city promptly arrived to tow it away. The uncharacteristic speed and alacrity with which the city responded led all the neighbors to conclude that the little red Toyota truck must have been a victim of some high jinks and ultimate abandonment. Accounts such as these produce only desultory shrugs of the shoulder. It’s a Portland thing.
I’ll be back in Portland in May. At that time, just as we in New England will think to cheerily recite, “Mother’s Day, plant away”; bursts of color will already be everywhere. The spaces between the sidewalk and the street will once again be showcasing the creative talents of spade-wielding Portland homeowners, (or vexing the more reluctant stewards of the inter-spaces).
I’m very much looking forward to more opportunities to expand my understanding of the region.