Portlandia II

[Read Part I]

I woke in a daze, curled up meekly beneath my motel sheets.  It took a moment for the outside world to register, and I fumbled for my phone. No messages. I reached for the TV remote and thumbed my way to the news without crawling out from under the covers.  I needed food and coffee.

I fished through my pockets for money and receipts, piecing the night back together.  The light was on, but it was throwing long shadows in my head. I looked at the time. I took advantage of Motel 6’s late checkout policy and washed up before I left.  I aimed my truck straight for a coffee stand.  It was only ten AM.  I had a lot of time to kill before Jack was out of work.

I shook out the cobwebs and drove to the 24 Hour Fitness where Jack and I shook off our hangovers.  We had a running joke about the “fifty dollar workout”; a consequence of me buying guest passes every time I was in town. We sarcastically increased the amount every time I went there.  By that time, the girl at the front desk recognized me.  She remembered my name and was nice to me as I fumbled with my debit card.

I detoxed on their equipment as I suffered through a workout.

I was supposed to link up with an old friend of Jack’s that afternoon.  He’d been down to Occupy once, and he offered to go back with me.  Trevor knows every inch of Portland.  Obscure monuments.  Weird iconography.  Real history.

This tree stump?  Look closer.  It’s made of stone.  It’s a grave-marker for a member of a forgotten Masonic order. That building over there?  It used to be a speak-easy.  They had an underground phone line straight to the local police precinct.

Trevor speaks in such a slow, deliberate manner, and in such a low tone of voice, that I have to listen carefully.  His whole demeanor is disarming.  He has a kind of fastidious, algorithmic intelligence that makes me feel like a small dog barking at cars. We wound our way through the city on foot.  A few blocks from the park, I stopped to tear a piece of cardboard off a discarded box.  I needed to make a sign.  I pulled a felt tipped marker from my pocket, one I’d swiped from Trevor’s apartment, and wrote:

Afghanistan is the world’s largest deposit of Lithium.

If you own an iPhone, you are a douchebag.

It was subtle, I thought.  Generation Apple had organized most of the Occupy movement via social networking websites, like an Arab Spring for spoiled suburbanites, I figured there was a good chance I would offend virtually everyone I passed. I didn’t want to debate the gross sociopolitical factors of their white, middle class existence or how it was or wasn’t fundamentally sustained by third world labor and exploitation at almost every level.

Their rhetoric was all neo-Marxist bullshit to me, wrapped in a disingenuous skin of Libertarianism by a bunch of people who had never actually read Anarchy, State, and Utopia. From where I stood, at the entrance to Chapman Square, it looked like a gaggle of junkies with nothing better to do.

“I was afraid this would happen,” Trevor said.  “It wasn’t like this a week ago.”

Trevor explained to me that the mayor had busted up an encampment of homeless wasters a few days prior.  Unfortunately, Mayor Adams had left the Occupiersalone.  It didn’t take long to figure out what happened to the displaced indigents.

“Portland tolerates the intolerable.”  Trevor mused.

I wanted to sympathize with the Occupy movement.  It was a bunch of people who had been sold on a lifestyle.  They got their university educations and graduated to a jobless America – an America that had long since ceased to produce anything but white-collar wage slaves.  Suddenly the world wasn’t just unfair in theory – it didn’t give a fuck about them in fact.

Peaceful public protest wasn’t going to change anything. If someone is lying to you, or dealing you an unfair hand, you don’t ask them for mercy, you call them out on the spot.  You tar and feather them.

If these people really wanted change, they didn’t show it.  They sat with their signs that identified them as the unappreciated class of Americans – a truly relative concept – and hoped that someone would save them. A politician.  An activist.  A champion. Meanwhile they were abusing their own Commons.

There was trash all over the park.  They hung ropes and junk from any point they could find purchase.  Monuments were reduced to clotheslines and backstops.  The park’s inhabitants posted whatever political message suited them that day. A plastic bag fluttered on a bronze statue. War memorials listing the names of locals who died in the service of their country were buried under rubbish.

Trevor and I strode through the crowd.  Any desire on my part to be disruptive faded.  These people needed no help discrediting themselves.  Many of them were too fucking stoned to care.  I cradled my little sign.  A few bullish looking broads sneered at me.  Occasionally someone would laugh.  I lingered deliberately by anyone I saw texting.

We took a few laps.  Trevor shook his head at the squalor and the open disrespect the protesters had for their own space.  We came out on the other side of the park, by a ring of brick steps.  No one was camped out on this side of the park.  Trevor pointed me to a plaque on a bolder that commemorated Vietnam as America’s longest war.

“ . . . No longer accurate,” he said.

“Yeah, no shit.” I replied.

A young man approached us and asked if we would like to start a group discussion.  I turned and stared at him for a moment, wondering how long it would take to make him uncomfortable.  I debated how much entertainment value he was worth.

“No,” I replied, and turned back to the monument.

Trevor and I headed back into Chapman Square. I decided that I had seen enough.  I pitched my sign on the ground and suggested we leave. Trevor and I walked a few blocks, with him educating me on the particular histories of downtown Portland’s buildings.  For such a young city, it has a lot of beautiful architecture.  I wanted to like it, in spite of the squatters. We came upon another small public square.

“This place,” he said, “has always been a sort of place between worlds.”

Trevor explained how that particular spot was where Portland’s wealthier inhabitants mingled with the poor to score drugs.  Two hipster-looking twenty-somethings, a male and a female, sat on a bench.  A guy wearing a cheap suit and a fedora stood by them. I was struck by a sudden impulse. I stopped mid-stride.  I turned and called over to the three.

“Excuse me . . . Can I ask you guys a question?”

They looked at each other, uncertain.  It felt like a role-reversal.

“Any of you own an iPhone?”

“No,” each of them replied, in sequence.

“How about an iPod?”

“Uhh . . . nooo . . . “

“Laptop?  Nothing?  Anything with batteries?”

They just shook their heads at me.  They were lying, I was certain, ducking my obvious lead to avoid whatever I was really getting at.  I had no desire to engage them.  I just felt like prying.  I was about to walk away and stopped myself.

“. . . Do you support the troops?”

The seated male and female looked at each other, discomfited.

“Uhm . . . yeah . . . sure,” they replied, in turn.

“No.” said the one in the suit.  “My whole family was in the Marines.”

“Guess the apple does fall far,” I muttered.

“Why?  Do you serve?” he shot back.

“As I live and breathe.”

I flashed them a “peace” sign and walked away. That evening, I went with Jack and Trevor to Horse Brass for dinner.  We talked about the events of the afternoon.  We talked about Portland.  Jack and Trevor are both transplants to the city.  Jack tried to leave it once, only to end up moving right back.

Thirty minutes outside of the city, most of the inhabitants around Portland are hardly more than a generation removed from lumberjacking.  Head downtown and the sidewalks are lined with sad-faced addicts.  These are not aggressive East Coast junkies.  They sit with their hands cupped, eyes to the ground, begging.

We had a few beers and Trevor retired for the night.  Jack and I hit the sidewalk.

“We could go to a titty bar . . .” I said.

A short time later we were at an ATM, hammering down caffeine.  We walked over to the mall to see our girl Angel Wings.  We sat at the bar, while I stared down the bartender’s shirt and stole from Jack’s basket of tater tots. Jack is carb-o-phobic, apart from beer.  I was saving him from himself.  He told me what a remorseless pain in the ass I am.

I sat staring at a lone tot.

“Tater tots are the perfect bar food.”

“Yeah, they are…,” Jack agreed.

“No, I mean . . . nobody ever had their first tater tot after a divorce,” I said, breaking down the psychology of the tater tot in my mind.  “Tater tots are a child’s food.  They teleport you back to a better place.”

We settled back to watch the girls.  The mood was eventually soured by what looked like a woman’s softball team.  They filled up all the seats at the Rack, whopping and hollering and raining singles.

Jack began to tire. It was written on his face.  He decided to bow out for the night.  I stayed to finish my drink.

Angel was up on the main stage, showing off her acrobatics. She was in the middle of an inverted split on the ceiling when another girl flittered up alongside me and slid into the seat.

A woman in four four-inch heels is a question begging an answer. I already knew how this conversation would go. I glanced at her, looked back at the stage, and sipped my bourbon. She said hello without introducing herself. I asked her what Angel’s “dancer” name was, without looking over.  She told me, although I promptly forgot.

“She’s awesome . . .” the girl confided.

She made small talk.  She sounded uneasy, attempting to fake interest.  I wasn’t trying to stonewall her, although I could feel myself doing it.  I was tired.  I wanted to tell her that she could drop the routine, but I let her finish her pitch.

“So . . . I’m up on stage next.  How about a dance after?”

“Sure . . .” I said, making eye contact.

I could have walked out, but I didn’t.  She sounded like she needed the money, and I was lonely.  I ordered another drink instead.  She was physically outgoing, if a bit on the bulimic side.  She finished her set and came back over to me.  I emptied my glass and followed her in back.

She was grabbier than the girl the night before.  It didn’t matter to me.  I just sat back and tried as best I could not to breathe bourbon in her face when she leaned in close.

“You took dance classes when you were little,” I said as she dressed.

Her face brightened.  Tap and ballet, she replied.

It’s a default question – most girls in places like that have – but it lightened the mood.  She was all smiles.  I tipped her and she led me out by the arm.

I hit the sidewalk and checked my watch.  7/11 was open for another fifteen minutes.  I hustled down the street.  I bought a tallboy and wandered aimlessly for a while.

I was restless, and I couldn’t shake it.  No one was out at that hour.  Not even prostitutes. I stopped by the window of an auto shop to stare at a pair of vintage Camaros.

My reflection stared back through the glass.

2 thoughts on “Portlandia II

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