My Portland Story
I believe in love at first sight. For me, Portland was it.
I was eighteen years old, moving from southern California to Washington with my high school boy friend, and it was my turn to drive. As I navigated my dented white hatchback through the labyrinth of bridges on Interstate 5, I was taken. I was somehow home for the first time in my life. And yet in reality I was just passing through. The boyfriend said in an authoritative way – because he’d driven through Portland at least once before – “You’ll get tired of it. It’s an old city.” About many things, he was wrong.
The only cities I’d seen in my life were Los Angeles and San Francisco, both with unique qualities. But Portland was unlike anything I’d ever experienced; the preponderance of bridges, the freeways snaking across a wide swath of river, providing an elevated view from the east, and the buildings; the architectural wonders that sprout from the west side of the river creating a veritable man-made forest on the west bank of the Willamette. Portland has both the allure of a big city, and the familiarity of a smaller town. If somebody, upon finding out you live in Portland, asks if you know “so and so” because this random individual lives there too, the possibility exists you might actually know this person. Or at least be familiar with the quadrant in which they live. Perhaps you too share their love for The Bread and Ink Cafe on Hawthorne or have a distinct opinion regarding the superiority of Thai Spoon relative to any other Thai food restaurant on the east side.
And yes, Portland is weird. An apt description for a town in which seeing a uni-cyclist meandering along the sidewalk in front of my house is no particular rarity. The nearby park I walk by with my children, on our way to the neighborhood coffee shop, is sometimes a practice area for jugglers. Yes, jugglers. It is my understanding that local liberal arts school Reed College is into juggling. They produce jugglers, Hare Krishnas (I am referring here, specifically to my own uncle), and allow their undergraduates to maintain a nuclear reactor on their southeast Portland campus. I am not making this up. I stumbled across this bit of information while trying to rationalize and better understand the juggling. Ah, yes – and the weirdness.
I could go on for pages about the weirdness. And yes, I do embrace it. I paint it, I write about it, I sing along with it, I live in it, I work in it, I teach my children about it. Portland is uniquely and deeply a part of me. I am but a naturalized citizen, having lived here officially since 1993. But my father is a native. His Hare Krishna brother is a native. They grew up in a Jewish home in northeast Portland, with their Yiddish speaking parents, and attended Grant High School in the early sixties. They were both musically inclined, and as such my father went on to make a living playing piano, while his brother went on to be-friend George Harrison and become his Krishna guru. The deeply felt religious convictions and musical identity of my family could only have been cultivated here, in a city that embraces and nourishes such artistry, compelling diversity, and iconoclasm.
The music scene in Portland is a microcosm for the city’s diversity in general. Any genre of musical taste can find a like-community of revelers here; any skill level of musician will be accepted and a soft landing negotiated. The plethora of professional musicians I’ll simply give a nod to – you can find them, you can follow their career, introduce yourself to them in-between sets. They are accessible yet their talents unequaled. But it’s the lesser known musicians I’d like to explore further; the street musicians attempting to eke out an existence doing what they are passionate about. I make special note of them because secretly, I aspire to be a street musician. If I had an ounce of the talent I see and hear on my lunch breaks downtown, I would be out there with my own guitar singing and strumming, making my guitar teacher proud. I wouldn’t be there for money – save it for a more worthy street musician. But to contribute to that melodic scene, to add to the depth of our diverse musical culture on a dry, sunny day would be oh, so satisfying as a small human in this universe.
I am inclined to make a distinction, between the homeless pan-handling with their sometimes clever signs, and the occasionally homeless street musicians who add flavor and soul to the sidewalks. The melodies cascading between the buildings, wafting down the streets, around corners and mixing with the cacophony of street sounds, are the very breath and life of this vibrant downtown. As such, I try and lend my support when I can. I want them to know how deeply they are appreciated. Some are just emerging from homelessness, renting a room on a monthly basis. I give when I can.
My friend Cory is just such an example. He was homeless last year he says, and as the seasons change and colder weather takes hold, with fewer dry days, I worry if he can earn enough money to pay for his rented room. He plays an acoustic guitar that always appears to need the strings trimmed off at the ends. They splay out in wild directions past the end of his guitar neck while he strums away intensely with such vigor that his fingers often bleed. And this is with a pick. Strumming is probably not the right choice of words for what he does to his guitar strings with his right hand. He attacks his guitar playing a blend of blue grass and folk and blues. Sometimes he rapidly flips the pages in a songbook he acquired, which sits on the ground held open by his foot. He rapidly plays through a song and then moves on to the next. All the while people are dropping money in his guitar case as they happen by. I sit next to Cory and I listen while I eat my slice of pizza. I watch his blue eyes as he sings, and his long blond hair hangs in his face. He can’t be much older than I was when I first drove my dented hatchback up Interstate 5 past this city where we both now reside under very different circumstances. We come together here on this bench in downtown Portland and breathe in a moment together.
There are vast layers of musical talent on the streets of Portland, in addition to the variety of street people. Homeless sit with their signs and often, their dogs. Not everyone possesses the talent, even if they were handed a guitar, to make it sing. Learning an instrument is hard and takes time. It occurs to me suddenly, those with no ear for music, could take up juggling. It’s just a thought, one which brings me back to the beginning as I drove up the freeway, catching only glimpses of this fascinating city I now call home. At that time I had to keep driving, my destination lay further north. But now, aside from the occasional trip to far off places, I could never just “pass through” Portland. This is my ultimate destination, my home, my one true love. And I knew it the moment I laid eyes on it.
Hannah Goldbaum has called the northwest home for 17 years. Her essay "I Am Half Jewish: The Wrong Half" recently appeared in the 2011 edition of Drash. Writing is what she does instead of watching television. For more about the author: www.hannahgoldgaum.com