“The blocks are unusually short in Portland, making for pleasant serendipity,” writes Jan Morris. “The architecture is mostly genial, there are plenty of coffee-shops, not all of them insisting that you drink their cappuccino out of plastic cups, and the gloriously rambling Powell’s City of Books must be one of the best bookshops on Earth.” No need to sell me on it: I read this sentence in Portland, at Powell’s City of Books. During the first book-shopping excursion of three we would make during our brief stay, me and my lady took a coffee break — my cappuccino, alas, came in paper — to review our prospective purchases. She carried a stack including Italo Calvino, Thomas Mann, and Kazuo Ishiguro; I hauled in, aside from an uncommon edition of Alexander Theroux’s Three Wogs, a predictable heap of books on places — places, even more predictably, like Japan and Los Angeles. My book-buying rules dictate that I only leave a store with novels I’ve read before, a distinction Three Wogs has earned thrice over, but that I may buy essay collections indiscriminately. Having long considered the essay my form, how could I deny myself a well-stocked library of forerunners?
The essayist’s mandate, it seems to me, demands the transformation of any given subject into a nexus of subjects. Taking a place as your subject sands down the edge of that challenge: start writing about a particular city, and soon you can credibly discuss its food, drink, technology, architecture, nature, culture — its manifestations of nearly every area of human concern. I’ve mentioned the name of Theroux, which may ring as the last word in the essayism of place. You’re thinking of Paul Theroux, Alexander’s younger brother and surely the best-known American name on the “travel writing” shelf. While both of them make literary use of wide curmudgeonly streaks, Alexander tends toward fiction of flamboyant vocabulary, grotesquely exaggerated reality, and deliciously savage bitterness. Yet you might read Three Wogs, a comparatively mild early entry in his canon, a book thoroughly about place: specifically, as an almost too-sharp observation of the perilous decrepitude and disoriented racism of seventies London. I enjoy Theroux-style indictments of place, just as I enjoy Pico Iyer’s dispatches from cultural and literary liminal places, just as I enjoy Bill Bryson’s calculated stumblings, alternately knowing and self-deprecating.
Jan Morris, now. I’d heard the name, I’d seen promising citations, and I’d received any number of recommendations from trusted writer friends, but never had I immersed myself in her worldview. Snatching a cheap but thick copy of her anthology The World: Travels 1950-2000 from one of Powell’s high “OVERSTOCK — EMPLOYEES ONLY” shelves, I decided to take the plunge. Flipping first to her essay on Los Angeles — my own city also being my means of writer-of-place calibration — I then moved on, favorably impressed, to her essay on Portland. “What with the cleanness and sensibleness of everything, the evident prosperity and the prospect of a late lunch at the Heathman Hotel (red snapper, perhaps, with a glass of one of the excellent local whites),” she continues, “I thought what a lesson in civility Portland, Oregon offered the world at large.”
True enough. Portland’s cleanness, sensibleness, and civility, for their parts, make it my favorite city in America to visit. What’s more, the hipster cottage-industry boom of the past decade has flooded the town with artifacts appealing to the very emotional core of someone my age. How would my high-school self have reacted if I knew I would, just over a decade hence, enter a store selling hand-crafted, oversized Nintendo Entertainment System controllers? Whose clerk would then proceed to play New Edition’s Heart Break — on vinyl? And from where I could cross the street to the library, or go right next door for a cappuccino — in a proper cup? Yet in my heart of hearts I feel that little good can ultimately come of being catered to quite so directly. Morris sensed a dark side of Portland, too, though of a less Millennial stripe: “Following the tourist signs towards the Old Town District and Chinatown, and expecting the usual harmless flummery of restored gas-lamps and dragon-gates, I crossed Burnside Street and found myself in a corner of hell. Suddenly all around me were the people of Outer America, flat out on the sidewalk, propped against walls, sitting on steps, some apparently drugged. [ ... ] They did not look exactly hostile, or even despairing, but simply stupefied, as though life and history had condemned them to permanent poverty-stricken sedation.”
A master essayist (as I, Johnny coming lately, have discovered her to be), Morris also sees on her eastward walk a greater national malaise. “The gods have loved America, but I sometimes think they are already making it mad,” she writes. “One expects insanity among those poor huddled masses of the sidewalk, but every time I come to this country I feel that the neuroses and paranoias are spreading, across all the Burnside Streets of the nation, into the amiable neighborhoods over the way.” This she ties into the fact that, by the nineties, “the Americans, even those civilized Americans of the centre, have gone half-crazy with legalism, feminism, and political correctness. They are well on their way to the asylum with sexual obsessions.” It often takes an outsider to diagnose a country’s ills, and the insistently Welsh Morris has proven a wistfully astute observer of the United States in winded retreat. But she also has the outsider’s gratitude for America’s cultural fruits, citing right here the Declaration of Independence, Bob Dylan, Hollywood, John Cheever, dry martini, and the Freedom of Information Act. “They have been, though, the gifts of a culture supremely confident and logical, recognizably the culture in fact that Jefferson and his colleagues created. What is emerging in America now, still to be exported willy-nilly around the glove, is a jumble of philosophies so distracted, so uncertain, that they seem to lack any cohesion at all, and are more like the nervous responses of hostages than any body of ruling values.”
Halfway through our visit to Portland, I received an e-mail from the producer of Monocle magazine’s podcast The Urbanist. He asked if I’d like to come on the show for a conversation with the magazine’s editor Andrew Tuck about how Los Angeles has been misunderstood, especially by Europeans. This sent me right back to “The Know-How City”, the Los Angeles piece from Morris, a European who certainly didn’t misunderstand. She means “Know-How” in the sense of the now-disused (and even then-disused) term for the pure scientific and technological elbow grease that washed over postwar America. Los Angeles she sees as a monument to that discredited era, just as Florence remains a monument to the Renaissance. But what a monument; few aerial experiences match the glory of coming in for a Los Angeles landing. Jan Morris knows it. My girlfriend, a resident of the greater region since coming to the United States over twenty years ago, knows it. My every return reminds me of it. How lucky that the Urbanist interview ended up scheduled for less than a day after our flight back from Portland, when the elaborate physical totality of the place — more than any other city, its own map incarnate — would stay clear in my mind’s eye.
But what to tell Monocle? In my Podthought on The Urbanist last month, I suggested that Monocle‘s reliance on “livability” indices, for which I’m as much of a sucker as anyone, allows a blind spot over cities like Los Angeles, those perhaps less outwardly humane but as fascinating as or more fascinating than the Sydneys or the Zurichs or Copenhagens of the world. One of the very first questions that came up in the conversation asked what, exactly, livability rankings failed to capture about my “adopted hometown,” and here I had just returned from Portland, perhaps the most livably ranked American city of them all. We’d taken the light rail straight from the airport to our rented apartment! We’d enjoyed reasonably clean streets! We’d walked nearly everywhere, basically unbothered by the January chill! We’d eaten the latest in modestly priced west coast cuisine, out of carts and otherwise! We’d waited forty minutes for brunch and loved it! We’d ridden an aerial tram! We’d sipped a variety of local roasts! We’d shopped for books!
I find myself hard-pressed to answer these exclamations on their terms, even when they come from my own mouth. Tougher still to respond when the woman I love suggests, as she often does, moving up Portland way. Yet I fear that losing Portland as an easy place to visit would come as a blow, and that gaining it as an easy place to live would come as a hollow victory. Los Angeles challenges me on a number of levels, and only yields its experiential riches when I can meet those challenges. I tried my damndest to get this across to Tuck, conceding that the trilinguality my own neighborhood of Koreatown seems to expect may strike some as a bit much to ask. We talked about how anyone, from anywhere, no matter how recent their arrival or how thin their familiarity with the place, can become an Angeleno. But only those willing to learn to use the city can expect to engage with it, to learn from it, to enjoy it. I approach Los Angeles as a know-how city in a different sense: if you don’t know how — or, more commonly, don’t want to know how — forget it. (You can listen to the podcast here, by the way.)
Only after throwing out as many scattered points as I could come up with did I realize that I should simply have quoted Christopher Isherwood, another U.K. person who locked right in to Los Angeles, on the futility of explaining the city to its detractors: “Either they understand it’s the only place or they don’t.” Some people will continue to object to my unfathomable preferences (“What, you don’t like New York?” “What, not San Francisco?”), but at least I don’t suffer a lack of writers to point them to if they genuinely want to understand, a stable which now includes Morris. On our final night in Portland, on a walk down the block to pick up a gluten-free mushroom-garlic-goat cheese pizza from Sizzle Pie — ah, livability — I ducked into Powell’s for one more glance at the travel lit. There I found a four-dollar copy of her Hong Kong, a book on a place that has recently come to intrigue me by a writer who has done the same. And finally, I thought, a name to refute friends’ charge that I don’t read enough female writers. Let’s hope they never find out she was born James.