40 Is The New Portlandia: Spring 2015 PNW Junket Omnibus Edition
I had no plan.
Well, I had a plan: bug out of town for the 40th anniversary of my mother birthing me ("...it was the last big blizzard of 1975, your father drove me through a snowstorm in the dead of night...").
Yes, thank you, mom and dad. Here's to all moms and dads.
40. The big four-oh.
The number weighed down on me.
I packed my "go bag" and fled for Oakland, had a few drinks with friends, grabbed a burrito for the road (and a bottle of Jim Beam), and then hopped on the Coast Starlight – blasting along into the dead of night with its big diesel engine to points north.
I check into the motel, the Campus Inn Eugene, after scarfing down a French dip at the Jackalope Bar and Grille (conveniently across from the Eugene Amtrak Station).
There's about a half-mile walk between the motel and what locals refer to as "The Barmuda Triangle" in "downtown" Eugene.
I made the walk every evening to head to The Horsehead, slowly, playing Ingress along the way... smashing and capturing portals, linking and fielding.
About 3/4 of the way there is a small courtyard where the local gutter punks and vagrants congregate – usually runaway teens, some aging into their 20s, often from disparate corners of the country coming into Eugene, usually by rail.
A young man stops to ask me if I worked for Union Pacific, and so I look up from my Ingress scanner (ahem, iPhone), confused, and tell him no, I don't work for Union Pacific.
The man seems relieved and lifts his hat revealing a nasty scar where, he alleges, railroad employees gave him what appears to be a pretty ruthless beating for hopping freight trains.
The man, maybe just barely 19, or maybe even 17, carries his body like a 40-year-old. He refers to himself as a hobo and proudly describes his preferred method of transit: illegally hopping freight trains.
Teens from around the country jump on freight trains just as they pull out of the depot, a risky proposition that often results in injury and worse; with those injuries and deaths, a great deal of liability to the freight operators.
Hopping trains is "discouraged" by swift and brutal punishment meted out to would-be train hoppers, so the legend goes. If this is true, it explains the man's questioning my employment status with the rail operator.
"I'll trade you my hat for yours," says the man, presenting me with a dirt-crusted ball cap I avoid inspecting too closely.
"I'll pass," I offer the kid a few dollars to buy a tall boy of domestic lager and make my way toward the center of the Barmuda Triangle, adjusting my Union Pacific cap as a light springtime drizzle breaks out momentarily, bringing with it a brief gust of wind that smacks cables and ropes into flagpoles and against the sides of buildings, shaking the leaves with a hiss.
"Who is General Shinseki?"
I spend the whole next day nursing a mild-to-medium strength hangover in the dark; working, watching Jeopardy on the hotel television.
A work project would keep me tied up for a couple of days... which suited me just fine, not wanting to turn the remaining days until my 40th birthday into some sort of marcia-funebre to the death of my extended adolescence.
When the clock officially ticked past midnight on my birthday, local time, I found myself sitting at a bar in an "adult entertainment establishment" with my platonic she-bro, Meenk, splitting a plate of pretty excellent fettuccine Alfredo made in the kitchen adjacent to the bar.
I ordered a round of rye whiskey for the occasion, toasted Meenk and her friend, a bouncer at the club, then raised a glass toward the main stage where a young gal was showing off an impressive array of upside-down twirls on the pole.
No disrespect intended to the hard-working gals in strip clubs, but I was more interested in the pasta and gossiping with Meenk. Some of the best bar food I'd had in my life came out of the kitchens of these sorts of establishments.
'Why would you go to a strip club?' and 'ew, you must be a pervert' are thoughts that have occurred to some of you reading this. As for the former... I don't know, seemed like an interesting thing to do (turns out it wasn't, other than the excellent fettuccine), as for the latter, you're damn right I am and what's it to you?
Not that it matters, and certainly not in my own defense, I do not frequent those sorts of establishments – but when my former roommate, a cook, and an ex-Marine, worked as a bouncer for a strip club around the corner from my day job, I went directly to the strip club from my office every day to meet him near the end his shift.
I would sit at the bar, have a drink, chat with the cocktail waitresses and dancers, listening to their stories.
My relationship with the women who worked there was different than the relationships those women had with the sales team at the office, all men, who would have two-hour liquid lunches at the club and would show up again promptly for happy hour. They called themselves "the five-oh-one club".
Some of the relationships that developed between the dancers and a few of our lead salesmen were strikingly complex – that is to say not merely the exploited and exploiters (who exploits who depending on your perspective), but a depressing yet almost endearing interplay of needy people seeking affection and validation.
Make no mistake, the strip club scene is rife with abuse and exploitation. Still, the most indignant and prudish among us tend to immediately shame those who make a living as sex workers (and it is, legal or otherwise, sex work). Sex work is an easy target for people to point at and feel superior about while totally ignoring the abuse and exploitation going on in all other aspects of modern life.
So if you find yourself in a strip club at least be nice to your cocktail waitress, tip the bartender, and give some cash to the women who are dancing – even if you are politely declining the solicitation of a lap dance.
It's a tough job.
(As an update, an armed terrorist has just recently committed a racist and sexist hate crime that left eight dead in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Six were Asian women working at massage parlors.
This attack follows an alarming trend of increasing violence not only against Asians but the ongoing violence against sex workers.
Or it's always been there but people have overlooked it.)
Part of me just wanted to be back in the blackness of my hotel womb, and besides, I had a train to catch the next day to go to Portland for a few days.
That's as far as I had planned.
I had not booked a return trip to California.
For a moment, I wondered if I would ever go back.
Meenk and I closed our tab at the strip club ("...bartender's singing Clementine...") and I went back to the hotel, where I would toss and turn until 6am when the hot tub reopened.
I donned my swim trunks, left the room, grabbed my coffee from the hotel registration office, and soaked in the spa for 10 or 15 minutes before going back to my room to get everything ready for check-out.
|The Patty Melt, my mother's favorite sandwich and one of mine, here sadly overcooked and lacking enough caramelized onions.|
First hangover breakfast of 40, at the pancake house that was torn down and turned into condos. Even Eugene isn't safe.
Even the onion rings disappointed, here just a touch past overcooked, like the burger, which I suppose is better than limp, which is the usual mistake made when transferring onion rings straight from the big Sysco box in the walk-in freezer to the fryer.
|A Manhattan and oysters on the eve of my birthday at Marché in Eugene's Market Square.|
|Charlie, who I met through a mutual friend at the Horsehead, has been making a life-size papier-mâché human bone by bone, tendon by tendon, and muscle by muscle.|
|A Czech motorbike and sidecar owned by a high school friend.|
I've been to The French Laundry. I've been to Atelier Crenn. I've been to Gary Danko, Harris Steak House, Lola, and many, many more fancy-pants restaurants.
What I wanted for dinner on my birthday was pizza – not just any pizza, but the best pizza on the west coast.
I wanted Apizza Scholls.
I have had 40 years to contemplate which foods I love and why... and one of the foods I love more than anything else is bread, another is cheese. The addition of sauce and just a few scant toppings gives you food that is one of humankind's greatest achievements: pizza.
Pizza, like sex, and beer, is good even when it's not so good; when it's bad, well, at least it's pizza.
Breaking pizza down to its constituent components, again, we have bread, sauce, and cheese.
I could easily go on for paragraphs, pages, volumes about the impact bread has had on modern western society (include the noodle, and you encompass the entire globe practically).
Bread is hard, and yet easy.
All you need is milled grains, water, salt, and the very air you breathe – full of invisible-to-the-eye spores and microbes ready to consume the starches and sugars in any grain, fruit, or vegetable whose path they might cross.
For humans emerging from the last ice age in and around the fertile crescent near modern-day Iraq cultivating grains was the hardest part. Milling the grains, mixing the flour with water, discovering that the paste would ferment, bubble, and rise – that was the job of nature.
All dough was sourdough until just a few hundred years ago, when (in my opinion) to our great detriment we discovered the exact microbe responsible for converting starch into two useful byproducts: carbon dioxide and alcohol. Fast-forward and you have a plethora of mass-produced commercial bread, some of them containing no yeast at all but instead a litany of unpronounceable ingredients. What is enriched flour? We stripped all the nutrients out in the production process and then added them back in.
Better living through chemistry?
Well, it wasn't all bad – the discovery of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (from the Latinized Greek "saccharomyces" or "sugar mold" and the Latin "cerevisiae", "of beer") led to the industrialization of alcohol production which on one hand gave us abominations such as Coors Light but on the other hand, took the "roll of the dice – maybe this will get you drunk, maybe it will make you blind" impurities out of the millennia-long craft of brewing and distilling alcohol.
A surplus of cheap grain whose shelf life and salability could be extended by torturing those raw materials into canned American lager and white bread became a staple in households across America. We forgot how to make beer and bread, all in the name of progress.
(Checks the clock) How am I doing for time? A couple more minutes to talk about bread? Okay...
The metabolic output of yeast (carbon dioxide for lift, and alcohol for, well, alcohol) and a friendly neighborhood of acidophilic bacteria such as Lactobacillus produce a myriad of chemicals that interact with their surroundings.
One of the most interesting side-effects of this feeding frenzy of wee beasties is the formation of a much-maligned substance called "gluten".
Gluten, first and foremost, is a term describing a variety of non-water-soluble plant proteins... what's that? I'm out of time?
Shit. Okay, don't take my word on it, more reading here.
So where was I? Sauce? Cheese?
I feel as though I've run out the clock talking about bread, a food near and dear to my heart and waistline.
So bread is an endlessly complicated topic, as is cheese, and let's not even get started about the tomato – a savory fruit once thought to be deadly poisonous, and according to some scholars thought to be the forbidden fruit of Eden from the Book of Genesis.
Clearly, we now know that the tomato is not poisonous, and as for the degree to which it is an instrument of evil temptation... well, we've all had pizza for breakfast once or twice, no?
Cold, stale and coagulated is not at all how the people behind Apizza Scholls intend folks to experience their finely crafted product. A cold slice of left-over Apizza Scholls pizza was, however, exactly what I had for breakfast the next day. Because I was now 40: I do what I want to.
I do want to mention, briefly, that my good friends Lisa and Kay joined me for dinner, as well as a high school friend of mine who I will not name.
I won't name him, but anyone willing to do a little research can probably deduce who he is.
He and I were scheduled to graduate in 1993 from Shaker Heights High School, and neither of us managed to do so.
This fact is unremarkable. I was a fuck up and so was he.
What is remarkable is that every year for his birthday he would receive a call from none other than Julia Child, who worked closely with his mother along with other notable food luminaries such as Jacques Pepin and Thomas Keller.
His mother co-wrote with none other than Michael Ruhlman, another Clevelander.
All of this hardly impressed my friend growing up – elaborate Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners cooked by Child, Pepin, and an army of eager James Beard wannabes.
"That food was too fussy, too fancy," he would tell me, as my blood boiled internally.
Birthday phone calls from Julia Child? Thanksgiving dinner cooked by Jacques Pepin? You ingrate, you Philistine!
To his great credit he has in his old age (mere months younger than myself) come to appreciate the magnitude of all of this; but more to the point, he appreciates the joy and simplicity of a perfectly made pizza.
It was my pleasure to share the experience of enjoying it with him... although I remain envious about Thanksgivings with Pepin, Child, and Keller.
Territorial Gen-X Pissings.
Kay and I went on what can fairly be described as a "hipster tour of the Alberta Arts District" in the northeast quarter of Portland.
Kay and I are separated only by a couple of years – to the week – but she definitely considers her younger brother to be a "millennial".
As far as I am concerned hipsters are all millennials and therefore born 1985 or later and I feel confident in drawing this delineation because the definitive characteristics of hipsterism can be reduced to the naive, younger sibling-like mimicry by a younger generation of things Generation X held as sacrosanct within the confines of affluent suburban culture.
What a Gen-X suburban teenager did to rebel, a millennial take a step further and turns into an abject fashion. Punk becomes pop, pink hair becomes de classé, and all of the sudden Americana, waxed mustaches, French-cuffs, and pickles are all the rage.
In attempting to define herself or himself the millennial resorts to outright plagiarism that doesn't stop at a few decades in the past but reaches all the way to the late 19th century for inspiration.
Generation X is certainly guilty of crimes of misappropriation – most of it cultural, a good example being the gas station work shirt I proudly paraded around in at my high school, complete with a stitched-on name tag that said "Tony."
Poor, as the famous song by Pulp went, was cool; and my suburb was especially fascinated with the "urban" aspects of poverty, at least the cultural ones, elevating hip-hop and rap music to the most popular forms of music since a generation before my own appropriated rock'n'roll from the poor, and jazz and the blues before that (and bluegrass, folk and country should anyone accuse me of focusing solely on those cultural artifacts we stole from African slaves and their descendants).
Hell, even Anton Dvorak swiped a melody from a black southern spiritual song for the slow movement of "From The New World." Prior to that, he'd been busy appropriating Czech folk music. Mozart and Beethoven gleefully stole from their peers, the latter taking an improvisation by a rival virtuoso, inverting the notes and using the resulting melody as the theme for the finale of his third and arguably most influential symphony (at least in the eyes of music geeks, the rest of you can have the Chorale but I know that the Eroica is the most important piece of that era).
So I do not fault hipsters or millennials for theft, but I do often shake my fist in the air as if to say "get off my lawn" to their annoying affectations, mannerism, and so on.
Kay and I had stopped for Spanish Coffee, the sexier cousin of the Irish coffee that has become a Portland staple. It was midday. Our hipster tour of SE Portland is well underway, and walking down the street I spot what appears to be a familiar shock of bleached blond hair with roots noticeable from about 20 yards away. The woman is pushing a stroller.
I think it might be a friend of mine so I make the sometimes uncomfortably awkward gamble that the person I am looking at is not a complete stranger and yell out "Tasia!"
Her head whips around. Thank Christ. I am not an idiot after all.
She apparently has better vision than I, instantly recognizes me, and yells back "Chris?"
I cross the street to chat, awkwardly acknowledging her toddler. This is a period in my life, as I write almost a full six years later when children terrified me because I rightly knew that they saw and spoke the truth.
I didn't like who I was at age 40, and I knew deep down I was up to no good and had been for quite a while. I didn't like what I felt was captured in the gaze of a child, I was ashamed.
"What are you doing in Portland?"
I ran down the recap – I was 40, running away from the misery of yet another alcohol and drug-fueled Aries party in San Francisco. Instead, I had an alcohol and drug-fueled birthday in the Pacific Northwest, albeit much smaller.
I told Tasia about the fettuccini in the strip club, which amused her to no end, and that I was on LSD at the time.
That's what happens in Eugene: you step off the Coast Starlight and within 36 hours someone will give you psychedelics.
For that I feel no shame, to be honest. Everyone should take acid at least once in their life.
I wrap up my Eugene recap with a quip about how Voodoo Donuts and Sizzle Pie are basically next to each other and that must be by design.
"You should try Blue Star Donuts, they are waaay better than Voodoo."
I had learned some time before that chance encounter that trusting Tasia's advice on most subjects but especially those related to eating and drinking pays enormous dividends.
"And if they have the blueberry, bourbon, and basil donut, you have to try it."
As per usual, she hit this one right in the bull's eye.
Tasia and I met online. Kinda.
I have a friend, Paige, who moved from Oakland to Portland just around the time of the great diaspora of folks priced out of the Bay Area in the late aughts. Essentially people like me were spilling over into the East Bay and driving up rent prices, so the folks who could uproot themselves moved outward and often north.
I think Paige also wanted to reinvent herself but that isn't relevant to this story.
This may have been back when Friendster was still a thing, or MySpace or even Orkut. Maybe, just maybe, early days of Facebook.
I am not sure exactly which proto- social-media platform we were using to keep in touch but both Paige and I were super into a browser plug-in slash web portal called StumbleUpon which would essentially send you to random web pages that matched your interests. If you found something you liked, you could give the page a thumbs up, and you could share this with other users you were friends with.
(Sub-plot: I had an online "romance" with a woman in Canada I met on StumbleUpon. We got pretend married on Facebook – I guess this must have been 2010? – and some of my friends who were not in on the joke congratulated me in earnest; I haven't talked to her in a while except on her birthday. She got married in real life and has a couple of kids. Sylvia is her name.)
Anyway, Paige and I would share links of weird shit we'd stumble upon on StumbleUpon, often tasteful and sometimes not as tasteful nudes.
One day I came upon a photo of a young woman, naked as the day she was born save for one leather high-heel boot on her left foot. Where was the other boot?
She gazed pensively at the camera, lips ever so slightly parted, her fingernails painted black, swirls of black text inked into her skin. A couple of paragraphs of Nabokov's "Lolita" could be made out on her left shoulder and upper arm.
Everything about the photo was white blazing hot: a naked woman tattooed with literature with gothy eyeliner; it checked all my boxes.
I had to share this one with Paige, knowing that she would definitely appreciate the photo.
Paige's reply? "That's my personal trainer Tasia!"
It's been a brilliant friendship ever since.
You only live a day, but it's brilliant anyway.
There are more stories in my treasure chest for blogs later involving me yelling at people for playing Gotye on a bridge over the Willamette or pocketing oysters from secret bougie cocktail lounges, chicken chicharrones, pig's ears nachos, and more.
And of course Blue Star Donuts. We'll always have Blue Star Donuts.
|"I love you baby but all I can think about is Dianetics, your butt cheeks is warm..."|
|Deliciously forbidden foie gras.|
|Cult of the Dead Cow forever.|
|The author, probably after ingesting a non-trivial amount of Jim Beam.|
|Redding. Another story, for another time.|
Three or Four Lifetimes Later.
To the week, all of this was six years ago.
Six long years, the last one particularly long.
40 was the "new I don't know what", but the intervening, and let's face it, previous six years had been a roller-coaster of ups and a lot of downs.
I'm not sure whether to say about turning 40 in a strip club (on LSD... did I leave that part out? I was on acid in a strip club in Oregon on my 40th birthday). Nadir? Apex?
Whatever that was it was, as the kids say, "peak Dottore". Puns intended.
As I write this in March of 2021, more than a year since bars and restaurants shut down, a year away from friends and family, a year without any galavanting around on trains, and an endless March – today is March 381st!
Six years in 12 months.
I got my first vaccine shot last Sunday and my last shot of vodka on October 23rd, 2020. Not a drop since.
That is going to have to be a story for another time as well.
Stay healthy, stay safe. Wash your hands. We love you.