The night before last I found myself in line at Voodoo Doughnut with Seph and his girlfriend L. Neither of them had ever been there, and Seph was keen on getting a doughnut as an early birthday celebration. Standing in line at Voodoo’s east side location, we were surrounded by plenty of self-consciously weird and kitschy decor- Kenny Rogers posters, pinball machines, and a cardboard cutout of Elvira. Sundry other bits and pieces decorated the area, and Voodoo’s trademark pink wall filtered out from behind the posters and ephemera.
“Uh, yeah.” She smiled nervously. Perhaps she was weirded out by having an older guy suddenly take her picture. She tried to laugh a little, and look candid, but was obviously slightly uneasy. The old couple in front of us, though, were quite happy with their whole experience. They left with a bag of doughnuts and a camera of pictures, satisfied that they had indeed found something that makes Portland as odd as it is.
I enjoy it that Portland is self-aware about its weirdness. If anything, it pays a significant chunk of my own bills. In my capacity as a tour guide, I take people to see things like Voodoo and the 24 Hour Church of Elvis, all marks of oddness that allow us to maintain distinctiveness. On an abstract level, it’s a nice source of regional pride to know that one lives in an easygoing and fun place, but more practically it’s great for our tourism industry. Visitors, obviously, want to see something they can’t see at home. We can give them that. We can give them weird doughnuts and Elvis worship and signs that are really big double-entendres. Tourists will come here and pay money to see these things, and spend money while they’re here. That’s great. But, there’s a price.
The price is the nervous laugh of that Voodoo Doughnut employee, out of towners gawking at us and ours and saying “Wow! You guys are weird!” I get it all the time. I mention to tourists that I ride my bike to and from work every day, and a few have asked incredulously if I’m afraid for my own safety. I find such questions hugely naive, but understandable if you come from somewhere where everyone drives. When I’ve mentioned Portland’s penchant for vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, I’ve been asked more than a few times about alleged attendant health problems- another set of questions I think are naive.
Upon reflection, though, I know that these questions are not dumb, and that that older couple wasn’t wrong to gawk at Voodoo Doughnut. I joyfully provide people with information, and Voodoo joyfully dresses itself up to be weird. Most of the people that this brings in are not naive gawkers, but there will always be a few. There will always be a few old people taking tourist pictures of the local tattooed populace, or wondering with disbelief how one could ride a bike everyday. This reaction is aggravating, but unavoidable, and ultimately part of something much more positive and entirely worth it.