Category Archives: Portland

Why Portlandia Doesn’t Work

One of my favorite comedies right now is It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The central characters in it are all utterly horrid examples of humanity- each episode is about their various petty squabbles, arguments, idiotic schemes, jealousies, weaknesses, and manifestations of stupidity. The main cast fights, bickers, make horrible decisions, hurt each other, hurt innocent bystanders, and generally act in a contemptible fashion.

But, because the show is made by some very talented people, I still like them.

Even as the creators of It’s Always Sunny send up their characters as objects of ridicule and mockery, you can tell that they still quite like their characters. As nasty as Mac, Dee, Dennis, and Charlie can be- they still manage to grab a certain amount of my affection. I know that in each episode they will do awful things, but it’s a testament to the skills of the actors, directors, and writers that even as they are objects of farce they are also full, real characters whom I am capable of feeling something for.

Likewise, Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock is oftentimes toweringly evil and self-centered. Jack Donaghy is something like a better-coiffed Dick Cheney in his demeanor and outlook. However, as much as he’s portrayed as a villainous caricature of a certain type of conservative exec, Baldwin & Co. don’t forget that for us to keep coming back to 30 Rock, there has to be some humanity there. As much as I’d loathe Jack Donaghy in real life, he remains a real person worthy of empathy in addition to being a figure of fun.

The deft injection of affection and empathy into farce and satire- the streak of love that runs through ridiculous and mean humor- that is what’s missing from Portlandia. That absence of underlying reality- that the people on screen should be people in addition to jokes- is why the show will probably fail.

I’ve only seen the first episode and a few of the promo shorts, but what I’ve encountered so far is not inspiring, and so far I have a certain loathing for the show. This is not because Portlandia is insulting my hometown- quite the contrary, I would love it if we had our own version of Northern Exposure. The problem is that Portlandia doesn’t lampoon this place especially well.

The first episode starts with a clip that’s been going around quite a bit, a song about how “the dream of the 90s is alive in Portland.” You’ve probably seen it already, but here it is:

As far as a big opening number, this doesn’t work at all. Fred Armisen was born in the sixties, and Carrie Brownstein in the seventies. Both of them were in the twenties and thirties in the nineties, and, presumably, enjoying what the youth culture of the time provided. They seem flabbergasted, in the opening song, that some amount of youth culture is still extant, like an old hippie amazed that young people still listen to Led Zepplin.

Yes, current hipster/alternative culture grew out of nineties grunge. Which reacted to, and grew out of eighties new wave and hair metal. Which sprang from seventies punk-rock. Which owed a lot to hippie music from the sixties. Who were preceded by greasers in the fifties. Who in turn were preceded by beatniks in the forties.

Arguing that any kind of youth/pop/alternative/creative culture is similar to what preceded it is facile, annoying, and utterly non-funny. The best humor is smart, and hits upon unthought-of truths. When one says of a comedian “he’s saying what we’re all thinking!” we’re talking of comedy’s ability to express what was known, but never voiced. Portlandia‘s introductory song expresses the obvious and holds it up as if it’s some kind of profundity.

That was only the opener, though. Sitting down to watch the first episode, I hoped that there would be something more inspiring, something that would actually, you know, make me laugh, something that would make me go “yeah, that is true,” and nod in amused recognition.

This did not happen. The sketches seem clunky and joyless, and the whole show occupies a kind of forced, airless space. Not even a Steve Buscemi cameo was able to inject some life into the proceedings.

The central problem was that throughout the episode none of the characters portrayed by Armisen or Brownstein seemed to be real people. I had no sense of connection whatsoever with any of the people whom they portrayed. This is not because they were playing idiots- the crew from It’s Always Sunny have roundly proved that one can play an idiot and still connect with the audience- it was because they seemed uninterested in injecting humanity into their characters. (While on the subject of sketch comedy- there’s more drama, feeling and reality in a single College Humor sketch than any single section of Portlandia. The CH crew also prove that you can mercilessly mock your characters and still get the audience to like them.)

I do want this show to do well. I want it to dramatically improve, take on some new talent, and become a kick-ass sketch comedy show that makes me laugh. I want to hear jokes about how everyone has food allergies, wears stupid hats, has weird facial hair, and eats doughnuts that have bacon on them. My hometown is, I admit, filled with things that can be hilariously mocked.

But I want them mocked well, and with a little bit of love, and joy, and fun. I want to smile while I see my tattooed neighbors insulted. So far, prospects don’t look good.

In Which Elvis Asks Me Who I Am

“Who are you?” asked Elvis. We were sitting across from each other on the MAX and he was looking directly at me. He stared through his massively thick glasses, quizzically. “I’ve seen you around a lot!”

Given that my primary job is the walk tourists around Portland whilst gesticulating at buildings, landmarks, etc., this wasn’t too unusual. A few other people have also recognized me and asked who I am.

“My name is Joe,” I said, “I’m a tour guide.”

“Oh, that makes sense,” said Elvis, “You’re in Saturday Market a lot. I’ve seen your groups. What do you tell them about?”

“Oh,” I said, “you’ve probably seen me telling them about the Skidmore Fountain.”

“Ah,” Elvis smiled a bit, “You know, you should tell them about me. You tell them about some stony old fountain, but you don’t tell them about one of the best things in Portland!”

Portland’s Elvis is an old guy, maybe in his fifties, sixties, I’m not sure. I’ve also got no idea what his real name is, but he’s known as Elvis throughout town, so that name works well enough. He’s wearing his black and gold jumpsuit is holding a guitar case. I’ve seen his guitar- it is a beautiful guitar. It has waves and surfers and ships and Hawaiian scenery on it. Everybody recognizes Elvis. He’s a fixture of the town. His picture is outside Voodoo Doughnut.

“I’ve seen you,” I said, “but I didn’t want to put you on the spot.”

This is true. I am completely comfortable talking about buildings or fountains or geographical features. I’m also okay talking about dead people. Talking about a real, live person who is walking around, though, like they’re a piece of architecture seems a bit weird to me.

“Why not? That’s why I’m there. Next time you see me, say ‘hi.'”

I say okay.

“I mean it!” says Elvis, “I’m part of Portland just like that fountain is.”

I have to admit he has a point. We talk for a bit and he asks me how I got a tour guide job. I told him I was a teacher, got laid off, and then turned into a tour guide. He says that he’s been performing at Saturday Market for twenty seven years. That is quite a bit of time, and he is part of Portland. If I have the opportunity, I would like to say hi to him on a tour, but don’t want to treat him like a mascot. I snuff that thought out, though, on account that its a tad patronizing. He is a part of Portland. I’ll say hi, next chance I get.

It’s my stop and I have to get off the MAX.

“Hey, one more thing,” says Elvis, “I’ve seen you tell that story about the guy launching the airplane off the roof of that hotel. Is that really true?” He’s referring to Silas Christofferson, who in 1912 flew an early lightweight craft off the roof of Portland’s Multnomah Hotel.

“It’s totally true,” I say, “But he was later killed in crash.”

“That’s too bad,” says Elvis, “but I’m glad it’s true. You say hi, next time!”

“Yes, sir,” I say, and step of the MAX.

And I really will, too.

Regarding This Past Friday Night

Finishing work on Friday evening I was in high spirits- my tour had gone well, the weather was agreeable, and I was on my way to meet some friends for burgers and beer at one of Portland’s local hipster holes. The streets of downtown were crowded with people who had showed up for the Christmas tree lighting in Pioneer Courthouse Square, and every third person seemed to have a green blinking light on their person. (They must have been handed out as a promotional item.) I passed the Square, took a look at the tree, and a huge crowd of people were still there singing carols. Jogging a few blocks over to Burnside, the newly-lit White Stag/Made in Oregon/ Portland, Oregon sign lit up the night. All was wonderfully festive.

And the next morning I opened my browser to discover that someone had tried to blow all of that up.

The facts of the case are widely reported, so I won’t bother reiterating them here. I’m quite happy they got this guy, and all for stings, but there are two things that I can’t stop thinking about:

Firstly: As a matter of personal policy, I refuse to be frightened by this. Like the poster says, I’m going to keep calm and carry on.

Secondly: Law enforcement (at least based on reported anecdotes) seems to be targeting foreign-born individuals who have become radicalized. Most of the time, it seems that these guys probably couldn’t pull off their desired schemes themselves. The feds are with them every step of the way. Left to his own devices, I wonder Mohamud would have gotten the materials he needed.

Again, I like the idea of stings. It’s a great thing to keep potential criminals off balance. Potential terrorists don’t know if they’re talking to an actual Jihadist or a federal agent. Sowing that kind of overcaution, confusion, and fear among these criminals is great, strategically.

And yet, I wonder how many unbalanced guys the FBI would catch if they targeted the militias in Montana, the self-appointed border guards in Texas, or the white supremacists in Idaho. How many other Tim McVeighs are out there that could be stung into arrest? How many native-born, equally bloodthirsty, equally unbalanced white Mohamuds are there?

I have no kind of sympathy for adherents to radical Islam. They are, at the very best, foolish. However, history tells us that they are not alone. Prior to September 11th, 2001, the largest terrorist act in American history had been carried out by a radical white Christian. McVeigh’s kin, gun-toting religious radicals who are doubtless incensed by the very existence black president, are still out there.

What could we reap with a focused effort? Given the collaboration, encouragement, and resources of an undercover FBI agent, what kind of potential violence could we find welling from religious white America? I don’t doubt that Mohamud (may he spend his remaining days ingloriously in prison) has an equal and opposite out there, a kind of inverse brother born not in Somalia but in Kansas, reading not a Quaran but a Bible, and just as filled with impotent unarticulated rage, and dreams of violence.

Look! Horsey!

I’ve seen several of these around town, and the gag is hardly original, but I think it’s funny every single time I see it. Honestly, I kind of wish every horse tie had some variant of this going on.
Update: Apparently this is a thing! Like, an organized thing! A friend of mine on Facebook alerted me to the existence of the Horse Project. Check it out!

About A Certain Urban Nickname…

I’ve never liked the name “Rose City.”

Portland, to me, has never been the “City of Roses.” That name reeks of airbrushed idealism, it seems forced and false. The idea of this place as some sort of fragrant garden, some sun-dappled manicured lawn redolent of blooms and buds seems hugely false. The region is fertile, yes, it is green, certainly, but it has never struck me as particularly rosy.

The everpresent evergreens seem a better symbol, as do the layered and enveloping clouds. This city isn’t suggestive of brightness and perfumed plants. This place is rain-soaked. It is green and awash more with the scents of coffee and hops than any ornamental plant. Roses are an ignored ideal. Portland deserves a sobriquet.

“Puddletown” is more accurate, but there are rainy cities everywhere. Such a name is not terribly unique. A better fit is “Bridgetown,” a name that brings to mind our wonderful and inspiring urban infrastructure. “Stumptown” speaks to the actual history of the place, and is a reminder that we stand in the middle of what once was a dense forest. Even “Rip City” works better than the floral monikers. It is full of nonsensical bravado, reminiscent of Drexler-era games of NBA Jam. But, it calls to mind something real, a time when the Trail Blazers were a force to be reckoned with.

All of these are good. All of them are better than the too-cheery names “Rose City” or “City of Roses.” All of them seem to have more of that very in-demand commodity; authenticity.

I hope that the roses fade, that “Stumptown” and “Bridgetown” gain primacy. A stand of evergreens or the spires of the St. Johns Bridge are more real and more inspiring symbols of our metropolis than any non-native flower will ever be.

We are Stumptown, Puddletown, Bridgetown, even Rip City. Roses, it seems, just happen to grow here.

In Which the Front Wheel of My Bike Gets Stolen at a Busy Portland Intersection

For the first time in my life, I willingly approached a Greenpeace canvasser.  “Hello,” I said to her.

“Hi!” She was smiley and pixie-like and had red streaks in her hair.

“I know you guys have been on this street corner all day. My bike’s been parked over there, and someone stole the front wheel. Have you guys seen anything?”

She thought for a minute. “Yeah!” she said, “there was some guy messing with a bike over there earlier, but I didn’t get a good look at him.”

“Any idea of what time?”

“Maybe two. I don’t know. Three? I was watching the pedestrians, mostly.”

“Okay thanks.”

“Do you want to help save the environment today?”

“Look, I just had the front wheel of my bike stolen.”

“You ride a bike! Obviously you care about the environment.”

“I’m in a very bad mood right now, and have to file a police report.”

“Okay, but it’s a great cause!”

I walked away. The corner where my wheel was stolen, SW Broadway and Morrison, is an incredibly busy spot. Several retail spots, tons of pedestrians, a few buskers, some canvassers, and a handful security guards are nearly always there during the day.

I asked around to see if anyone had seen someone messing with my bike. I asked the Baskin Robbins, Abercrombie &, Fitch, Nordstrom, multiple security guards, a few buskers, and a great deal of Pioneer Courthouse Square. I didn’t know why. There was no chance that I’d get my wheel back, I suppose I wanted some sort of satisfaction, or wanted to know that it wasn’t possible to just go up to a bike in a public place and, you know, steal parts of it without detection. The presence of lots of people would be enough to deter you.

Unfortunately, no one had seen anything of substance. My bike wheel was crippled, and some thief has a new front wheel, along with an old tire and much-patched tube. I was annoyed at the thieves, certainly (I had some nice thoughts about weaponizing my U lock and bruising up their soft tissue with it) but I was also pissed at Portland itself. This was on a dynamic, well-trafficked intersection. I would hope that the light of day, the presence of crowds, and general feel of the area would be enough to deter crime. It usually is, but today I got to be the one guy who happened to get his shit jacked.

In a very, very public place. The whole incident reminded me how easy it is to slip beneath people’s perception, as this clip illustrates. Stealing is actually quite easy, as is sleight-of-hand, being unnoticed, and stealth in general. When I was in high school, a classmate walked into a McDonald’s, took the gigantic ketchup dispenser with him, and then walked out. Nothing happened to him (he claimed that it was a “social experiment” and subsequently had a ketchup dispenser in his locker all year.) The Willamette Week actually did a story on this, and a reporter was able to very easily steal his own bike. I don’t have any profound conclusion here, but I really do want to believe that the presence of tons and tons of people on an intersection an exert enough ambient social pressure to make people behave. It works, I suppose, most of the time, but every so often a crowd of people on a street corner are all too happy to see nothing.

The Price of Weirdness

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.

An elderly couple were in front of us.  They were looking about the room with grins on their faces.  I imagined that they’d seen this shop on the Travel Channel or the Food Network, this crazy pastry hut that puts bacon on maple bars.  At the counter was a young woman who fit right in to the whole tableaux.  She was young and pretty in a Suicide Girls type way, redolent with tattoos and sporting a spetum piercing.  The elderly couple in front of us looked at the Kenny Rogers posters and took pictures of those.  They took pictures of the pinball machines and Elvira.  When they got their doughnuts, they asked the young woman if they could take her picture, too.

“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.

I Have No Idea What These Are

I saw these costumes at Last Thursday on Alberta.  The majority of it was comprehensible to me- various bands set up at regular intervals, drum circles, people on stilts, fairy wings.  Normal stuff.  One particular performance, though, was rather mystifying.  I saw the figures pictured below, and found their presence genuinely enigmatic.  They were dancing, and, later one, stood utterly still.  I wondered if they were some sort of traditional costumery, or merely an invented weirdness.  Are the below-pictured a thing?  And, if so, what nature of thing?  I was perplexed.

Awesome Thing: The Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse Sculpture Garden

If you live in Portland, you’ve probably seen the looming ultramodern tower that is the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse (MOHUSC). Since it was built in 1997 it’s a building that I’ve consistently admired, a fact that I find continually surprising for two reasons. For one, many of the things that I thought were cool in the ’90s (black turtlenecks, Mortal Kombat, putting “2000” on anything) are, in retrospect, sort of silly. Architecture in particular seems to wear its age badly, though. The things that probably looked futuristic and cutting-edge throughout the twentieth century usually look hopelessly anachronistic now. Postmodern buildings such as the Portland Building were edgy once, but they now they’re the structural equivalent of a George Michael album; dead-end fashions that everyone involved wants covered up.

Paradoxically, the recently contemporary often seems even more aged than the truly old. The boxy Oregon State Capitol exudes the 1930s, but the much older Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. seems timeless and therefore more contemporary. (Total aside, but this reminds me of the probably apocryphal story of an English professor who, in the 1950s, decided to translate Hamlet into beatnik so that young people could relate to it better. The resulting text ended up being utterly impenetrable ten years later, but the original Shakespeare could still be grokked without much difficulty.)
The point is, that if you’re going to make something and have it look edgy and contemporary and neato, you run the very high risk of being passe in a few years. When making big, permanent things like buildings, this is something you want to avoid. People are going to be staring at these buildings for quite some time, and you really want these buildings to seem contemporary in some form or fashion long after their styles were “cool.”
So far, the MOHUSC is holding up. When I walked through its lobby the other day, it impressed me as much as it did thirteen years ago. It seems utterly futuristic in a classy, subdued kind of way. The interior is filled with stark, quiet lines and blocky structures that are somehow also elegant. It’s big and stark and empty, but also impressive, precisely the kind of thing that made the young me want to be a lawyer.

And it has a sculpture garden on the ninth floor.
Since the MOHUSC is a public building, anyone who wants to can walk right in, go up the elevator, and hang out in the sculpture garden. Granted, the sculptures themselves are sort of silly- a collection of animals and anthropomorphic computers that are collectively titled “Law of Nature” -but the space is highly neat. It is secluded, affords a great view of the city, and is open to the public.

It’s a nice space in what could otherwise have been an utterly utilitarian government building. I was alone for the entire time I was up there, which I didn’t expect, but was refreshing. Again, the statues aren’t great art- they’re silly little animals dressed up as lawyers, but I like it that tucked away in a large, ultramodern building is a little bit of flourish, and anyone who likes may admire the skyline, the surrounding buildings, and the greenery below.

Late Evening of the Living Dead Bicyclists

Last night I found myself wearing a Jesus costume and leading a coterie of bicyclists dressed as zombies around NE Portland. Our fair city’s (now annual) zombie bike ride was upon us, and for a number of reasons I suddenly found myself leading the thing. Needing to stand out from the biking horde of slavering cyclists, I decided to comport myself as the most famous zombie ever, a dude who shambled out of his grave three days after a rather nasty torture/execution session.

We met up in a park, and my friend L was good enough to show up with a batch of corn syrup, red food dye, and flour. As I’d only recently had the responsibility of the ride foisted on me, and didn’t have any fake blood, L was a lifesaver (or rather, unlifersaver) for bringing the hemoglobin. A few pictures-
Here’s L, devouring her somewhat chagrined boyfriend:

This gentleman did the “military guy gets zombified” thing. He had very creepy teeth.

“BEEEEERR!”

Slathered in L’s fake blood, this girl looked a bit more like Carrie than a zombie, but she certainly pulled it off. She should watch out, though, because the girl behind her seems to be contemplating Carrie-centric mastication.

Our attempt at a zombie last supper:

You can’t really see it in the picture, but these girls are covered in glitter blood. We decided they were Twilight zombies.

Zombie dance! We stopped at three places, and rocked out to Thriller at two of them. The night closed with zombie karaoke at a tiki bar where numerous zombies (as in the drink) were consumed. I decided that the best thing for Zombie Jesus to sing would be Highway to Hell.
As people went home, more than a few of them said “Thank you, Jesus!” I kind of love my lifestyle.