Sunday, March 21, 2010

Portland in March

My friend Ty was driving me to the Portland International Airport and we swung into the dropoff area for departing passengers. 24 years ago, we had made a similar dropoff run as I left for Los Angeles, and I had returned after all these years to the city where I made my first entry into US soil. There were vivid thoughts to juxtapose to, for the first foreign land leaves behind a pungency of memory, like the first inhalation of a cigarette. I had flown in for a large physics conference, and spent a few days in the downtown area. This evening I had taken the light rail from downtown Portland and headed towards Beaverton and Hillsboro, the suburbs where I used to reside. The train route starkly separates the downtown cityscape and the greener suburbs with a large tunnel near the Oregon zoo. Threading out of the tunnel, you leave behind the concrete city buildings and abruptly emerge into a parallel suburban world of rolling meadows with dandelions, connifers, and big high-techy office buildings with large parking lots.

Ty picks me up at the 185th. Station, a narrow strip of platform with a parking lot full of cherry blossoms that sparkle white against a clear blue sky like a Nirma ad, and we go for a ride. The suburbs have changed much in 24 years. Two lane blacktops are now four lane freeways, little shopping centers have been torn down, replaced by megalith chains. Arriving from the India of that time, Tanasbourne mall was my very first shopping mall. To me this was a monster of a shopping center, with shiny floors, high ceilings, and a polished antiseptic politeness--a whisper quiet machine of commerce where people bought and sold things as if in auto pilot with barely a transactional conversation; a Levi’s shop that ran row after row after row of blue denim, grocery stores that ran entire aisles full of wines. Like an old ship that had seen better times, it was scuttled some years ago, and the entire area revamped into a larger enterprise to cater to the growing population..

Driving around, travelling in the train, it is visually apparent that the homogeneity of the suburbs of the past have altered dramatically. 25 years ago, there was one Chinese restaurant that I knew of in Beaverton. Today, at the crossing of the once desolate NW Bronson and 185th, not far from where I was picked up by a passing police car a quarter century ago because I was an out of place long haired foreigner, there is a Vietnamese grocery shop. The restaurant where we ate dinner, in the midst of rural countryside, amid the crafted beers that are the staple of Oregon establishments, we nibbled on pita bread and hummus, and chickens cooked with habanero chillies.

Portland is very different from the East Coast or California, and is in a state that was progressive enough for Jesse Jackson to win in 1988. A mix of part coffee, part Pacific Northwest grunge, part upscale USA, downtown Portland is a mix of high end shopping, 19th century west coast architecture, and trendy coffeehouses with untidy wide spaces and high ceilings. Coffeeshops sprout on every corner, as Portland tears out of Seattle’s giant shadow. Stumptown Coffee is the jewel of Portland coffeehouses, and the subject of a recent Time article anointing it as the flagbearer for the “third wave” movement for coffee (isnt it fascinating, our obsession with the odd number to emphasize an exotic differentiation--“third wave coffee”, “third world country”, “fifth horseman”:“first” is unique, but “second” smacks of failure, and “fourth” feels just too complete; the odd number, with its unpaired entity, is more inspiring).

Downtown Portland, with its free light rail system for commuting feels vaguely European. There are many pedestrians and bicyclists: this is one of the few American cities where bicycles appear to be a serious transportation mode for conveyance rather than recreation. The light rail cars have spaces built into them for transporting bikes, and I see many cyclists hop in and out of the light rail which is free within the limits of the downtown. I walk up Broadway and there is a man walking alongside me at a brisk pace, panhandling oncoming pedestrians. Most people are curt in their refusal , the man swears under his breath as he walks on. One “accostee” gives away his plastic bag of toiletries. Those who oblige do not receive much of an acknowledgement, the man is busy surging forward eyeing his next kill. I time this exhibition of speed panhandling. In a matter of a couple of minutes and a couple of city blocks he is richer by a few dollars and a bag of toothpaste.

Portland airport late at night, as I prepare to take the redeye, is still small and quiet as I remember it, and the people in Oregon remain helpful and friendly. Honed by years of New York living, I am tentative at first to their willingness to converse. “Dont fuhget to putch yo’ laptop on the biyen”, the guard cautions me at the security check. A coffee store proprietor takes the time to spend a few minutes describing the emergence of single source coffee in Portland. Pacific Northwestern accents have decidedly Midwestern influences, carried in by the wagon trains of 19th century settlers to places with lyrical names like Walla Walla, Umatilla, and the Dalles. They retain their dry sense of humor, I recalled the bus driver wryly commenting, in the mid-eighties on an Oregonian who blew himself up —“I have no problems if he wanted to kill himself, but there wus no need to take the neighborhood with him”.

I prepare myself for the redeye flight back to New York. I have enough reading material, picked up from Powell Books, a city block sized, gigantic bookstore in Portland where one could get lost in for hours. A middle seat has magically been changed to an aisle, in the exit row, by the generosity of a kind airline representative. Onwards to JFK.

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