Interviews & Essays

They Killed Portland, You Know

Three years ago, I met Chloe Caldwell for lunch. I was two weeks away from moving out of Oregon for my husband’s job transfer. I was reluctantly going along because that is what spouses do and what marriage is about and all that bullshit.

Caldwell’s essay collection Legs Get Led Astray was a pivot point in my work. A true revelation in that marvelous MFA student tenure crammed with false prophets, when we are young and impressionable and mistake newness for inspiration. Caldwell’s relentless prose reconfigured the way I looked at a blank Word document. She excavated what was possible in essays and memoir. Like many other artists I’d recently fallen in love with, she was also local. This was the beauty of living in Portland. Writers lurked as thick as invasive blackberries. We were an insatiable force.

With only a few weeks until our U-Haul departed, I had nothing to lose. I’d already cried on my therapist’s couch about “losing the community” I’d come to treasure more than anything. I didn’t know when, and if, we would be back (“we might really love Tucson!”). So I emailed Chloe. Want to eat sandwiches with a fan?

I was used to writers taking me up on these random invitations because we were a small world and loved food. We were all loosely connected; friends or representatives of a person or organization that the other knows (or wants to). We met for lunch at Cheryl’s Café, built a few blocks up from Powell’s Books on Burnside Street, at the base of old-city stately apartments. Between a Hotel Cecil-esque hostel and Spartacus Leathers on a street that used to be sketch. Not so long ago, a belligerent drunk guy chased me down the block until I dove into a cab. But the cheery cupcakes and latte art of Cheryl’s was a tentative step toward changing that. A year and a half from this lunch date, when I move back from Arizona, my BoltBus driver will pull into the Portland station, where a mammoth mirrored condo building has risen as the restaurant’s new northern neighbor. The LEED-certified glass is a glimmering Silicon Valley warning, a beacon of transparency churning out the grit that used to quicken my steps in the dark.

That afternoon in early 2013, we talked for over an hour about finicky lit journals, small presses, Portland passive-aggression and our futures. “I’m actually moving away too,” Chloe admitted. Back to New York. Of her own free will.

“Will you come back?”

She shrugged through a bite of veggie and hummus sandwich. “I don’t know. It kind of doesn’t seem like the same city it was, you know? I feel like I may as well be in Brooklyn.”

I periscoped my vision down to my tuna-cado baguette, ignoring the creeping cranes and construction chain link fences that surrounded this corner that used to be known for riding crops and dildos, where the closest thing to brunch was Roxy’s twenty-four-hour hangover diner. The city was my heaven and refuge and muse. Portland was heartbeat. Portland was us. If we loved this place, if we stayed, if we kept making art, how could it change without our permission?

***

June, 2014. The Doug Fir Lounge, a Don Draper as Lumberjack bar in a converted roadside diner. The entire Jupiter Hotel is a 1960s Travelodge, gutted and lacquer-antlered into a hipster cove slinging Shiner tall boys and hosting bands in the basement.

I had a room on the second floor that looked like an Ikea “look what we did in two hundred fifty square feet” showroom. A futon bed, Austin Powers plastic chairs, free condoms flicked on the bed. I got green and red ones, like Christmas. My carry-on suitcase was propped open on the desk table next to a stack of Portland Monthly magazines. I packed nothing but my toothbrush, my MAC makeup hoard, and an interview outfit I revised a dozen times before tucking it into my cheap, cat-shredded suitcase. My navy belted dress and cardigan said business casual. My houndstooth stockings stamped my passport to Southeast Portland. Perfectly fashionable, edgy and pretentious. My vintage leather saddle purse hinted at the trove of creativity and whimsy Rogue Brewery would reap once they added me to the team.

In the fifteen months I’d lived in Tucson, I’d morphed from wistful adventurer to petulant southwest detractor. I hated the weather. The traffic. The snowbirds. The one not-Barnes & Noble bookstore. The lack of teriyaki shops.

The roots of my misery were slightly less superficial: I was doing tedious, unfulfilling work. The commute was a nightmare. I didn’t know how to make friends as a grown-up in a new place. We didn’t have kids or religion, the easy access points into young adult belonging. The manuscript I’d written wasn’t selling, and it was easy to blame that on being away from my Portland writing community. If only I were hanging out at Wordstock, I thought, Harper-Collins would HAVE to jump at this.

I can’t remember what the catalyst was. What passing comment or dark-hearted afternoon drove me out into the office parking lot where I hid behind a cluster of cholla and tapped out an email to an old friend. Nick, my boss from a few years back, a guy who’d always been in my corner. How are things at Rogue? Any way you’d want to work with the best copywriter on this side of the Mississippi again?

I hit Send, not expecting to hear anything back. Sometimes the smallest effort, a bit of betrayal against your current situation, is enough to ferry you through another day.

As I started-and-stopped through the thirty-three stoplights that stood between me and our rented house on the opposite side of the city, a response pinged in on my phone. Let me talk to HR!

Before I pulled into the driveway I was on the phone with the brewery’s corporate recruiter. A week after that I was on a plane bound for the Rose City, a claim of “family emergency” on my supervisor’s voicemail. My ticket home was one nailed interview away.

The night I flew in, Aaron Burch was touching down in the city on book tour. He had published a series of my essays on Hobart, one of those far-off people who’d changed my writing life. The reading was held at Ristretto Roasters, a sleek coffee shop owned by Nancy Rommelmann, who’d shared a coffee and one of those unexpected, random, beautiful AWP conversations with me in Seattle. The glass-and-hardwood space was Twitter come to life, crammed with people I’d yet to meet or hadn’t seen since grad school. I got my Aaron bear-hug. Nancy cupped my chin in her cool, soft hand and kissed my cheek. “Welcome home!” she said.

The after-party migrated over to the Doug Fir, where we took over the fire pit. Whichever cluster of people you leaned into, you heard the frenetic conversation of word nerds cut loose from their desks. McSweeney’s and submission fees and Ta-Nehisi Coates drifted into the smoke and cool, cloudless sky. One of my best writer friends Susan appeared beneath a garland of patio lights, and we didn’t stop talking until a guy in a plaid-and-Warby-Parker-glasses uniform broke in. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said, “but I just wanted to tell you—I loved your Hobart essays.”

I drifted back upstairs to my room high on midnight espresso, Mason jar cocktails and the warm elixir of belonging. The kind of night that makes you think that every other can be just like it.

The next day I kicked the shit out of the interview. Because my life depended on it.

***

While I was living in Tucson, I made promises. Portland resolutions. When I get back to Portland, I will:

Go to every event Powell’s has.

Attend each reading series like an auditory stalker.

Eat at all of the new restaurants instead of reading about them.

Never take this city for granted.

Here’s the secret, though. I didn’t live in Portland. Never did; at least not since my college dorm days in the early aughts, living off an Alberta Street with no artisan ice creamery, no Bikram yoga or collage supply shop. My husband and I worked in the suburbs south of the Multnomah County line. We bought a house on the cusp of Portlandian civilization, a rural town that grew the hops fueling the craft beer revolution and the free range chicken eggs shuttled in for brunch.

Three or four years ago, when I was still in grad school and uncovering the riches of the city’s lit scene, my masquerade as urban-dweller felt seamless. I could layer sweaters and book bags as well as anyone. I’d leave my office at five in the afternoon and in thirty minutes I’d pull into my favorite parking garage, the one between Anthropologie and Whole Foods, kitty-corner to Powell’s. I’d meet Susan at Fish Grotto for cocktails shaken by fellow MFA grad Drew. As a technical outsider I could still participate. I had everything—a burgeoning life in the city, a quiet home in the country.

While I was away, Fish Grotto was gutted and sold, part of an entire block parcel a few blocks from Cheryl’s Café. They turned it into a shopping boutique where people Instagram designer backpacks on pedestals. Drew stuffed his Subaru from floor to ceiling and made a hell run to Louisiana.

After majoring in literature and devoting my life to stories, I missed the most obvious inevitability on the page. You can never go back to the shire.

***

This summer, I went to a reading in southeast Portland. My office was fourteen miles away. It took me an hour and fifteen minutes to arrive. There was no accident or construction project. The bridges were not lifted. No brush fires or spewing volcanoes. Just a chokehold of cars serpentining around the city center, red brake lights chaining a scorpion tail tracing the river. My gateway from the suburbs to culture had become a wall.

I arrived late. The first writer was already on stage. Everyone was already two drinks in, unwound.

“You made it!” A friend from grad school caught me in a hug. “It’s been so long! I never see you at stuff anymore!”

That was the last time I went to a reading after work. It’s now February. I’ve planned on going to half a dozen in the time since. I wore my favorite sweater dress and boots to work. I brought my copy of the book for signing. I instructed my husband to eat the leftover casserole in the fridge.

Then I clock out of my office and I walk to my car, contemplating the left turn that every other car is making. I open Twitter and see a line so deeply red driving through the city, they had to invent a new, more severe shade for the mess we’re in. I think, there will be another time. I’ll catch that author later. No one’s going to miss me. I can get tons of writing done if I go home, eat dinner, stop fighting.

I tell myself, community is overrated.

***

It is difficult for me to parcel the fault of this disillusionment. It lies in the gray area between an adolescent city’s shrewd, lumbering awkwardness and my own slip into something inevitable: a woman who is no longer as young as she was in her twenties.

You’ve read it before. Portland is dead. Seattle is dead. San Francisco is a zombie eating our west coast brains. Blame the tech money, the foreign money; the newly rich, the ever-powerful. It’s not that the story isn’t true, because gentrification and housing instability and displacement are real, tangled, terrible problems.

But this isn’t a story about an eviction or homelessness, just like most of the stories you hear about livability’s decay aren’t; stories written by those like me with the luxury of time to write and the privilege of a platform to share. We are the ones who lament the closure of our favorite bar that we can’t, through the Vaseline-smeared lens of nostalgia, admit was kind of disgusting.

The changing, sometimes exploitation of a region hands us with an easy narrative—a boogeyman. No one is keeping me out of Portland, but it feels good to say they are. If I really wanted to participate in the scene, it’s there. Better than ever. Growing more diverse with writers from all over the country moving in and out and through, and incorporating new art forms and ideas. It might not be as easy or fast to get into the city from the outside, but it’s not impossible. The bar has only been raised a few inches.

A twenty-five-year-old writer is inevitably different from a thirty-one-year-old one. The glitter on my mind’s marquee has flaked as the novelty of being a “writer in a literary city” wears. I’ve done the things—the readings, the signings, the festivals, the workshops. They were marvelous in those halcyon days of discovering this world. They still are, on the occasions when I’ve got the energy and desire to draw back in. But unlike that girl at the start, who felt like she was contributing by witnessing, I’m no longer satisfied by simply being present at a place. I’m in the thick of the work; working on two manuscripts, keeping up with columns, squeezing in reviews and whatever hand I can lend my enduring and scattered tribe. Keeping pace with this load doesn’t grow easier with time and a full-time job to support a homeowning, Whole Foods shopping, new model Prius-driving suburban lifestyle I committed to years ago, and am too plump and coddled to part with. No one forced these obligations on me, and the universe will not mourn if I say “fuck it” to the writing part. The realities are the parameters I’ve drawn and the space I must now work within. Pretending otherwise is as fruitful as shaking my fist at every California-plated car that zips into the stopping distance I try to maintain on the freeway. They’re not going back to Los Angeles, and I’m not getting any younger.

Portland illuminated what I could do with a talent I spent much of my life not valuing. Leaving it for another city taught me to fight for my focus; moving back is the disquieting realization that success or failure is not geographical. It doesn’t matter how many cranes surround the café. Lunch is still served when you’re hungry.

***

Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program currently living outside of Portland, Oregon. Her essays have been featured in a number of journals including The Rumpus, Barrelhouse, Hobart, and Brevity. She reviews books for Bustle and Tweets excessively @tabithablanken. Her debut essay collection, Eats of Eden: A Year of Food and Fiction, is forthcoming from Alternating Current Press in fall 2017.

Photo credit: travelportland.com

What is HFR is up to? Read our current issue, submit, or sign up for a FREE subscription.

35 thoughts on “They Killed Portland, You Know

  1. I appreciate the personal inventory. Tabitha leaves me reflecting on my own experiences (or lack thereof) in San Diego, a city that, although hardly on the level of Portland, has a enough to feed all the hungry cranes. Bravo.

  2. Years ago, I saw Chris Cornell perform in Calgary, Alberta. At one point, he told the crowd that it was great to be in a city that still had a rock scene. His explanation was that Calgary didn’t have a TV show about it yet. He said, “Trust me, as soon as a place has a TV show filmed in it, or about it, the rock scene disappears.” He said “rock scene,” but he could have been talking about any aspect of culture.

    The thing about the zeitgeist is that you don’t know you’ve seen it until it’s already left you behind.

    • That’s a great vignette with Chris Cornell. We were just discussing the etymology of the word Zeitgeist, Americans living in Germany, and roots like “heit,” and “geist” (geist = spirit or ghost, the same as Poltergeist). My wife describes Zeitgeist as a time or era that kind of reaches a critical mass, like events conspire or coalesce to create it. I just missed that time when I lived in Seattle myself, moving there in 96 — but experienced it first hand on the south side of Pittsburgh in 94. And yes, it seems artists and great minds make that happen…and I love the notion you can never go back to the shire. The going away makes it better too, somehow: the idea we’re defined by what we’ve seen and lost, not where we are at the moment perhaps. Cheers, — Bill

  3. I found this sentence
    “Writers lurked as thick as invasive blackberries”
    To be brave, playful and surprising
    So I kept reading, hungry for more
    And I wasn’t disappointed.
    Thanks Tabitha

  4. I, too miss the halcyon days…your story reminds me of growing up in Minneapolis in the 80s and 90’s. Us punk kids had a secret the world didn’t need to know about. New York and L.A. could snigger at us and call us “snow cows”, but we were the ones laughing with our cheap rent and ample free time to work on art, writing, and music. It’s not like that anymore, it’s nearly as expensive as Chicago, where I live now. Most of the old warehouses have been either gutted and condo-fied or torn down. Independent coffee shops and book stores are hanging on by a thread. Seems to be happening everywhere.

    This was really inspiring, made my day. I’m looking forward to checking out more of your work!

    Question for you…if you could describe Portland in one word, what would it be?

    • Oh my gosh. I’m settling on “precocious.” Someone called me that when I first moved here and it caught me off guard. I think Portland’s been forced to grow up faster than it knows what to do with.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. Bravo, Tabitha for a lovely homage to an amazing city. I lived in the Rose City (SE Portland and Sellwood represent) for about 5 years in my early 20’s. The decision to move away back to my family is one I still wonder about all these many years later. My wife and I often wonder if we’d be “cool enough” to still live there. Now we find ourselves, with the addition of two kids (6 and 10), planning an adventurous move to the mountains of Arizona (Prescott).

    Do you think, then, that the gentrification, growth and sheer change of cities is just inevitable, or is it our attitudes and need to hold on to “how it was” that creates our discomfort?

    Perhaps we change and our favorite cities change, too. Maybe figuring out the common ground between the two and finding the happiness there is where it’s at.

    • I think it’s definitely a combination between the inevitable change in a city (either in a case like Portland where it explodes, or in other places where it decays and fades), and our nostalgia-tinted idea of what it was and meant to us. “Place” is such a difficult concept. There was so much in Arizona I did genuinely enjoy, but could never be comfortable there because I was too far from my family. There’s so many factors that go into what makes you feel at home. They’re difficult to align. I hope they do for you… I LOVED Prescott, Flagstaff and Sedona!

  6. Can’t believe how I miss teriyaki, since I left Seattle. I never even ate it that much but damn when you can’t find it. I live in Michigan for now.

  7. Great perspective! I live in Seattle and find myself sharing some of the same opinions. Traffic is definitely the worst and stops me from being a thread in the upholstery! Thanks for your thoughts.

  8. So smart, insightful – and beautiful writing. From my East Coast perch, I have a crush on what seems like a thriving, supportive Portland literary scene. But I too am prone to stay home these days, enjoying the cyber-space connections just fine.

  9. I stumbled across your blog and was intrigued by how similar your account of Portland is to mine of Seattle. I’ve recently departed my beloved city for a life on the road though. Check out myhopefullyepicjourney.com if you’re interested.

    I also have to admit that I disagree wholeheartedly with your belief that artistic scene in the northwest is still vibrant. There may be a greater volume of art enthusiast but in my opinion the tech money has squeezed the grit out of Seattle, replacing what once felt genuine with a hollow facade of corporate greed. The city may not be dead yet but it certainly doesn’t display the evergreen vibrance it once did. I fear only a few tattered leaves remain clinging to withered branches blowing in the wind of progress, ready to be plucked at any moment by the next overpaid tech contract breezing through town to make a quick buck.

  10. Tabitha, you have a beautiful way of storytelling. I have lived in Portland my whole life (with the exception of five years in Eugene), and I love it. However, I cannot help but wonder what else is out there. I have contemplated moving to California in the next year. Though, most of my friends who have moved away say they miss Portland and all of the uniqueness it has to offer, much like you did.

    • I think moves away are healthy. They give you a chance to discover what you missed and love about a lifelong home, or find a new spot that works well for you. Best of luck, and thank you!

  11. This is a great essay. I’m going to have to read it again. Just left DC for Seattle. Always late to the party! But I think it’s easy to think that about any great place. Geography and location often seem to offer so much potential, promise, and opportunity, it’s sometimes hard to remember that we carry a lot of that with us.

  12. I enjoyed reading your blog. I visited Portland for the first time in September as the destination in a cross country road trip. I need to return and spend time exploring more of what the city has to offer, other than beer.

  13. “You’ve read it before. Portland is dead. Seattle is dead. San Francisco is a zombie eating our west coast brains.” I thought this was beautiful.

    Also “Silicon Valley warning,” and ” Portland’s passive aggression,” – nicely done.

    I can see someone reading this a hundred years from now just to get a glimpse of that one moment in history that was Portland.

  14. Your perspective was interesting and informative. As someone who lives outside the United States of America, I often only see or am only presented with glorious ideals of freedom, equality, justice for all, low cost of living, cheap and good fare and prosperity.
    I am not denying that your fair land has these things in abundance, however, the above is not true for everyone. What most certainly is not mentioned in the majority of presentations of the US is the cultural degradation that is allegedly present. Another thing that is usually not presented is the replacement of “old-school” franchises-who have a familiar and genuine feel- with enormous corporations only interested in profit margins-who have a synthetic feel.
    It was refreshing to read an article about a place in the US and be presented with something other than an indirect (or sometimes very direct) boast of the US’s prosperity. I wish you success in your endeavour to succeed.

  15. I have the same thing about NYC, London and Dubai (where I live now, reluctantly…). There’s a grace to letting go of who we were and what those places have meant to us.

  16. I could chew on your writing for weeks. At the risk of yanking your prose out of context, I reverberated to this, “After majoring in literature and devoting my life to stories, I missed the most obvious inevitability on the page. You can never go back to the shire,” and the melancholy of the entire post. Thanks. I needed it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s