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Portland Diary I

“Black Tiger milkshakes!” This my girlfriend exclaimed after I brought up my imminent trip to Portland. “It would probably be an exaggeration to say that a Black Tiger shake is made with vanilla ice cream, eight shots of espresso, and two pounds of ground coffee beans,” food writer Matthew Amster-Burton says about the drink about which she enthused. “But that’s what it tastes like.” Promising that night to pound one as soon as I landed in Portland, I proceeded to do just that a mere quarter-mile from my arrival gate. (Portland’s airport has at least one Coffee People stand right in there.) I worried that the cashier would look at me funny when I demanded a hypercaffeinated milkshake at 10:00 in the morning, but figured the same suspension of social rules applies to airport Coffee Peoples as to airport bars: who knows what time zone you’re coming from? (The very same one, in my case.) In the event, she looked at me a little funny.

Waking up at 4:00 a.m., I downed a French press of coffee to ensure alertness enough to catch my flight. On the plane itself, I accepted at least one further cup of coffee. Then the Black Tiger attacked soon after I set foot on Portlandian soil. I promptly made my way to an interview, at a coffee shop, where I naturally purchased an iced coffee to keep me on my game. A couple years back, Brian Eno gave a lecture at Long Beach State, and during it — apropos what, I can’t remember — he told of the severe panic attacks he used to experience. It turned out that they’d simply been brought on by his ever-intensifying coffee habit. This struck me as faintly implausible at the time, but on this particular day I internalized exactly what he meant. Watching my hands shake, it suddenly felt inexplicably urgent that I make sure the same lady who recommended I down the bulk of this caffeine megadose was still alive back home. I had no reason to believe she wasn’t (although I did find myself shaken earlier upon witnessing horrific auto wreck, featuring a corpse still slumped in an exploded-looking vehicle, on the still-dark highway to LAX), but she was off camping, out of cellphone range, which only fed the flames.

Lesson learned: Brian Eno is never wrong. Lesson reinforced, I mean.

Traveling solo, I demand little in the way of creature comforts: hostel bed, hostel shower, transit pass, and a decent density of wi-fi enabled coffee shops (which can make a cappuccino worth a damn) in which to work. Never one to eat at a real “sit-down restaurant” alone, I tend to limit myself to the fruits of trucks, stands, and whatever the sandwichcraft of those wi-fi enabled coffee shops can muster. Validatingly, a friend who lives half his year in Japan swears by that country’s convenience stores as a food source, and the frequency of my Los Angeles lunchtime visits to Nijiya, Marukai, and Famima! have set me in good stead to pick up that habit. In Portland, I have thus far relied upon the town’s recently famous food carts, not-especially-mobile trailers clustered into a series of parking lot-based “pods” throughout the city. The one near O’Bryant Square offered up a pulled pork sandwich on my first night. On my second, a tired-looking lady from the Philippines (“It’s been a long day”) served me up a heap of chicken adobo and whatever pancit she could find around. I have heard tell of Thai pumpkin curry. I have heard tell of poutine.

The caffeine disaster combined with the displacement of an early-morning flight combined with the mental bandwidth consumption of my still-forming interviewing schedule did, briefly, strike the fear into me that absolutely everything — everything — had gone to shit. You have known this feeling, surely, and you know that it tends to pass. But don’t you sometimes wonder if it simply comes as a function of diet, fresh air, and exercise? As soon as I’d had a night’s sleep, eaten something leafier than a milkshake, and rented a bike to ride around, I could hardly remember what had so distressed me before. We vainly pin our malaise on grander concerns, even as the evidence of terribly mundane physiology mounts behind it all.

(My traditional visit(s) to Voodoo Doughnut will therefore have to wait until my final day in the city. As for that poutine cart… I’ll try, sans promises, to hold it down.)

Hands shaking, words barely forming, I interviewed cartoonist and film critic Mike Russell mere hours after landing in Portland. Two weeks ago, he happened to make an illustrated blog post about travel; specifically, about having found and read “the Angst-Journal I Kept During A Eurail Vacation 20 Years Ago.” He draws ten lessons from this harrowing journey into his youthful mind, and I find number six particularly resonant:

Look around. Observe. Get outside yourself. I was disappointed during the re-read to learn that I spent most of my angst-journal dumping my sensitivities on the page instead of, you know, writing down the names and addresses and stories of the people I met and the incredible vistas I was seeing. “Feeling” might be less important than “looking,” as it turns out.

Having never done the traditional young American’s extended trips — Eurail zig-zagging, Southeast Asia backpacking, Central America-traversing — I often wonder if I’ve missed out on important formative experiences abroad. Then again, I avoided those prescribed excursions precisely because of the age-related expectation. I just couldn’t bear the idea of being another Freshly College-Graduated Early-Twentysomething (or worse, Freshly High-School Graduated Late-Teenage) American in Europe. All told, now that making up for lost travel time has become the order of the day, I suppose I prefer doing so as a late-twentysometing: one who has at least scraped together a serviceable amount of maturity, one who has shed the armor plates of identity that enable what Russell calls the “I-get-artfully-drunk-and-write-Linklater-scripted-poetry-in-my-journal, Ethan Hawke brand of angst,” and one who has awfully serious interviewing work to do. We get to know ourselves at this age, however tentatively, and as such — pace those C8H10N4O2 freakouts  — we don’t get so worked up and upset, not like before. It’s a good time to start things.

Despite expressing great general satisfaction with the city, nearly every Portlander I’ve talked to admits mild to great dissatisfaction with its lack of diversity. Los Angeles, by contrast, offers diversity as an advantage and perhaps little else. But damn, what an advantage.


[Previous diaries: San Francisco 2012, Mexico City 2011]

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