Driving downtown to work on Burnside Street is like a short tour of Portland’s most famous icons. It really does look like it does in the postcards and travel websites. When I drive to work it is still light out, and if I’m lucky the sun might still be shining. The skyline of downtown Portland is impressive. I moved here in 1996 and never thought I would ever work downtown, but here I am.
I head out from SE Portland and drive across the Burnside Bridge. Underneath the bridge is the famous Burnside skatepark, immortalized in the Tony Hawks video game. As I cross the Burnside bridge I see big pink looming ahead of me. This is the tallest building that Portland has to offer so far. It’s 30 stories tall with the equally famous Portland City Grill restaurant on the top floor. It’s called ‘big pink’ because of the pink hue of the panels. It’s like the monolith from 2001 upsized and made of shiny salmon fillet. That beast of building just needs some lemon juice on it, and I’m ready to feast.
Off to the right is the big Portland Oregon White Stag sign. This has been here forever and recently became a historical landmark. There is the outline of the state of Oregon, the words, PORTLAND OREGON OLD TOWN on it, and a white stag. Around Christmastime the white stag gets a glowing red nose. I often see models doing a photo shoot right on the side of the bridge with this sign in the background. The Suicide Girls movement also began right here in Portland, Oregon. So sexy alterna-models seem about as frequent as stop signs. Pale-skinned divas with brightly colored dyed hair prance around the bridges and loading docks with their photographers. Piercings, tattoos, and body modifications are the norm, the de rigueur of downtown. Now you are actually unusual and original if you DON’T have any of these things. I know about labret piercings, nasallang, septum piercings, Marilyn piercings, venom bites and snake bites just becaue I live in Portland. And from a few girlfriends. Remember the scene in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta asks Eric Stoltz which one is his wife?
“Which one’s Trudi? The one with all the shit in her face?”
“No, that’s Jody. That’s my wife.”
Jody totally moved to Portland and invited all of her friends.
I often joke that every single person in Portland is 1) in a band, 2) writing a book, or
3) a stripper. And yes, I know several who are all three. The near-constant rain and gloom here makes all of these trades very understandable and logical. I’m guilty of 2 out of 3 myself. Oh, I almost forgot about being a DJ. EVERYBODY in Portland is a DJ. It doesn’t even need to go on the list because it just is. If I had to add to that list of most common Portland professions I would say 4) barista, 5) tattoo artist, and 6) IT person. Computer technology specialists seems to actually be how people make the big money here, while trying to make those other artistic jobs work. I know that when I was a kid I always dreamed of being a social media influencer. Just about as much as I dreamed of being a bouncer, I suppose.
On the right I drive by the Portland Rescue Mission. This is a soup kitchen that offers free cafeteria-style meals to anyone who shows up. There is always a large group of hangry homeless people congregated outside. And mentally ill people. And junkies. And just hungry people who need a free meal. When I worked as a mentor to at-risk youth, we would take the teenagers here for community service to show them the pride of giving back. We would all be behind the food line serving up portions of hot food to everybody coming through. The best message came from a man in line for food who seemed pretty healthy and normal looking. When he learned that we were mentors and the kids were our mentees he laid this wisdom on us. “Hey kids, be sure that you do what you can to always stay on that side of the food line. I have two masters degrees and I’m here regardless, because sometimes things just fall apart. I never planned on being here. We all need to eat. There are no assurances in life.”
Just a few blocks away is the original Voodoo Doughnuts. I remember when they first opened in 2003. It was pretty much a closet that served doughnuts. Doughnuts with breakfast cereal on them. Doughnuts with a slice of bacon on them. I would sometimes show up in the afternoon to find them closed with a hand-written sign saying, “We ran out of dough. Will reopen tomorrow.” Hard to imagine that ever happening, especially now that they are open 24 hours with lines down the block. They used to have musicians perform up on what I would call a shelf just feet above us. Usually acoustic or electric with a small amp. You waited in line and were literally in danger of a guitarist falling on you. They also did weddings of the small variety. Shelf weddings, if you will. Now they have expanded to several other locations in Oregon and other states. I’m happy for them, but I honestly never thought that they would be anything more than a tiny Portland doughnut shop. Their marketing plan truly helped catapult them to something special. Wooden coffins full of a hundred donuts, coffee mugs, pink boxes, sassy t-shirts, weddings, special memorial doughnuts for famous people who pass away. It’s all helped make them a world-wide phenomenon. I’ve heard stories of the elite flying their personal jet from New York to Portland, grabbing two dozen Voodoo Doughnuts, and flying back to New York. I can’t confirm if this is true, and that sort of behavior seems beyond wasteful, entitled, and just old-fashioned stupid. Again, they are just doughnuts with all kinds of shit on them. Much like Jody with all the shit in her face. Maybe there is a pattern here.
Around the corner from Voodoo is Kit Kat Club. This is one of the better strip clubs in Portland with lots of space and big stages. It used to be an amazing music venue called Berbati’s Pan. I have great memories of going to shows here. The best show I saw at Berbati’s was Queens of the Stone Age in June of 2002, just before they blew up. Dave Grohl was their drummer. Berbati’s probably only held 250 people, and just a few years later QOTSA would be playing the Rose Garden, which has a capacity of 20,000. Stoner rock band Kyuss is my favorite rock band, and QOTSA was the band created by Josh Homme in the ashes of Kyuss’ breakup. I do miss Berbati’s, but Voodoo Doughnuts bought their kitchen space so they were able to expand beyond their closet space. And then the main space of Berbati’s became the Kit Kat Club, so all is well with the world. Grizzled rock musicians now replaced by naked women. You used to be able to drive down Ankeny Street right by these locations. Now the street is permanently blocked off and just open to pedestrians.
Right across the street from Voodoo is Dante’s, one of my favorite live rock clubs. I’ve performed there many times and seen many great national bands there. This is where I first saw Storm Large and the Balls perform. They had a weekly gig there before she made it big. They showed me that you totally can play altered versions of famous cover songs and still be entertaining. She would do lyrical mash-ups of loungy, jazzy versions of famous pop or metal songs. Most people don’t know that prior to becoming Dante’s in 2000, it was a great buffet restaurant called Chang’s Mongolian Grill. I ate there numerous times in the 90’s when I first moved here. Other Chang’s locations still exist, but the one on Burnside was the first one from 1985-1999. You would choose thinly sliced meats and vegetables from the deli line, add noodles and sauces, and give the bowls to the cooks who would dump your food onto a huge griddle to be flash-cooked. The mythology is that ancient Mongols would use a huge metal shield over a fire to cook all sorts of food for their traveling warriors. The griddle represents the warrior’s shield of old. The small fire table in the back corner of Dante’s is a remnant of the griddle that so much food was cooked on back in the day. I am still obsessed with hoisin sauce (plum sauce) from my frequent trips to Chang’s in the 90’s. Every time I go to Dante’s for a live rock show I look back at the fire table and feel wistful. And my mouth waters a little bit.
On the right as I drive through the intersection of 4th and Burnside looms the Chinatown Gate entrance. Two massive concrete Chinese Foo Dogs stand guard on either side. I often look around for Jack Nicholson’s bandaged nose and whisper to myself, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
Off to the left we have Mary’s Club, which is Portland’s oldest strip club. It’s a family owned place where the dancers choose their own songs from a jukebox onstage. It’s been a popular strip club since the 50’s. It may not be as flashy or fast-paced as some other strip clubs in Portland, but dammit it’s got history and personality. And in a city that can claim to have the most strip clubs per capita than any other city, you definitely want a place with style and charm. This is the club were the dancer will lay down at the edge of the rack and have an actual conversation with you.
Sometimes you will hear the sound of distant bagpipes and see a flicker of fire. Then you hear the unique sound of the Imperial March from Star Wars being played on bagpipes. You look closer and see a man riding a unicycle as he plays this music on his bagpipes. Further, he is wearing a Darth Vader helmet and cape, and has somehow rigged the tenor drones of the bagpipe with a flame unit. So little poofs of fire are actually shooting out of those tubes on the top of the bagpipes. And he is wearing a kilt. This would be the Unipiper, a staple of downtown Portland. He has also appeared on tv shows and made appearances at sporting events. I do love Star Wars and fire. Working the door downtown somewhere I’ll hear the bagpipe music and watch the tourists get all excited and get their cameras ready. I’ve never spoken to the guy but I commend him for taking something so odd and making himself a Portland celebrity out of it. The force is strong with this one.
I remember the clubs that aren’t there anymore as I drive down Burnside Street. The Ash Street Saloon closed while I was working there, after a 24 year run. I wrote a lengthy piece about that called Farewell to Ash Street. The X-Ray Cafe was a successful underground club that allowed all ages. Only around from 1990 to 1994, it left a huge mark on the Portland music community. The small gated entrance is still there, it’s the backstage entrance to the Paris Theater now. Satyricon was also nearby and was a fun, albeit seedy, punk and alternative venue. Everybody from the Northwest played there early in their career. Rumor has it that Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love met there. Satyricon was open from 1984 until 2010. There was an adjacent restaurant called Fellini’s that I frequented a lot. My college band in the early 90’s would drive up from Eugene to play shows at both Satyricon and Ash Street. We even had our cassette release party gig at Satyricon. When Satyricon closed in 2010 people were rightfully devastated. When it was bulldozed to rubble on 2011 people came by to grab a brick from the pile as a souvenir. Music fans want to preserve a piece of musical history, and their experience with it. I’m sure that I have a few friends with a Satyricon brick on their mantle at home. Perhaps they used the brick as a weapon to throw at riot cops during a violent protest downtown. That would actually be a perfectly fitting use of a piece of Satyricon’s punk history. But most people probably just display the Satyricon brick near their vinyl record collection. A person’s relationship with a band, a song, or a just song lyric can be as important and meaningful as a relationship with a person. I can chart important moments on my life’s timeline with the release of certain albums. The songs are permanently burned into my brain. Those albums become totemic markers along the shore of the river of your life.
And, of course, Portland’s most beloved literary attraction is Powell’s Books. This behemoth of a bookstore takes up an entire city block and is four stories tall. I have been coming here since the mid-80’s. I lived in Eugene at the time and would drive up to Portland for concerts. I would stop in early at Powell’s and buy a dozen used books before going to the show. Then I moved here in 1996 and would come hang out at Powell’s on a weekly basis. I’ve attended some pretty amazing author readings here. I have spent hours delving into the graphic novels, memoirs, horror, science-fiction, and fantasy sections. I loved the detective work of researching books on my lists, tracking them down, and buying them here. This was before the internet and Amazon.com existed, so finding obscure or out-of-print books was harder and more fun. More recently I’ve We bring our kids here and I spend time in a section previously never explored…the young readers section. I can only imagine the thousands of dollars I have spent here over the last 30+ years. And it was probably the best money that I’ve ever spent.
If you’ve seen the comedy show Portlandia you probably already know most of these landmarks, and something about Portland. They show some of these in the introduction to the show. The Burnside skatepark, Powell’s Books, Mary’s Club, and even McMenamins Crystal Ballroom and Ringler’s Pub are visible in the intro. I currently work there. The Burnside Bridge drawbridge closing is the final image of the intro. I think it’s hilarious when coffee shops intentionally play the song used in the Portlandia intro. It’s by chillwave artist Washed Out and it’s called “Feel It All Around.” You’ve heard it. It’s like those snarky hipster Portland baristas are being ironic and trying to make you feel like you are in actually an episode of Portlandia. People who have lived here for years have a love-hate relationship with that show. Personally, I found every season to be hilarious and a spot-on parody of some of the silliness that does indeed go on here. But also, I understand how it probably caused a lot of people to move here under exaggerated expectations. Thereby altering our population, straining our infrastructure, and raising rent and increasing real estate prices. Us locals who have called this our home for decades can barely afford to live here now. Between the skyrocketing cost of living, terrible traffic and gridlock, and housing overdevelopment, Portland is becoming Los Angeles. And don’t even get me started on the gentrification of this city. Please everybody, stop moving to Portland. We’re full up here, thanks. And if you are from California and consider yourself a ‘real estate developer’ please just fuck the hell off.
There are definitely many ghosts of the Portland spots no longer with us on my drive to work. It’s just 14 blocks from the Burnside Bridge to the Crystal Ballroom, where I currently work. But lots of memories flash by in those 14 blocks. I do miss the city that I remember from the 90’s. Every big city evolves and changes and grows larger. I just don’t have to like it. Portland often feels like an ex-girlfriend that I still live with because both of us are too lazy to move on. She broke my heart and isn’t the same person anymore, but I kind of like how the house still smells like her.
Times have changed in so many ways since I arrived in Portland. I was in my 20’s when I moved here and was full of optimism and naive expectations. Nobody had cell phones and the internet was a new and mysterious thing that not everybody had. This was before 9/11 so fear and security measures were different. Smoking had not yet been banned in every bar/restaurant/venue, so clubs were a haze of cigarette smoke. Two decades later, 5 rock bands later, 5 jobs later, numerous girlfriends later, 25 more pounds later, quite a few gray hairs in my beard later, here I am. Now I’m happy and settled with a wife and kids and dogs. In the 90’s I went to every live concert I could for fun. Now I go to live concerts for work every night. I miss Portland. I love Portland still. And I still live for music. I’m headed out to a concert tonight as a patron instead of a bouncer.
I am reminded of a scene from the Sam Peckinpah western PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.
“It feels like…times have changed.”
“Times maybe. Not me.”