In the earliest hours of this year I sat at a plastic table with something close to what I’d ordered. Happy New Year’s from the joyous confines of Javier’s where the food might not be warm or good but it’s here. A scuffle broke out at the end of the counter. Women——friends too deep in the drink at the end of an unfulfilling night or complete strangers——were grabbing hair and whacking one another with purses. Some guy wearing a Fubu track suit tactfully and quietly soothes everyone’s sore feelings: Let go of her hair and Why don’t you just sit down for a minute and Everyone calm down. I almost asked him if he had a handle on things, but it was three in the morning on New Year’s Day and I barely had a handle on myself.
This was the first outbreak of violence I’ve witnessed in Portland. Like everything else here it was a sad imitation of what you see in other places.
‘I’ve got your weave! Happy 2014, bitch!’ rang out across the restaurant.
Why not? Let’s grab this year by the weave. I was excited. I was galvanized. I was going to own this fucking year.
But here we are in the buckshot of February and I’ve lost my grip on the horse hair. After a long couple of hours struggling to stay seated for bouts of spreadsheets and e-mails which comprise my part-time employment I can’t seem to focus on scribbling down thoughts or reading up on the world around me. Once a certain hour chimes I settle into reactionary drinking and staring off into space.
I have been bowling twice, and only fell down once. I crossed the Columbia River to check out The Brautigan Library and was underwhelmed by its collection of unpublished manuscripts. Sitting along the riverbank watching thousands of birds explode into the deepening night sky was time better spent. I worked some shows at the infoshop, bored by watching the door and worrying whether another fuse would blow before the night’s end, or trying to guilt trip spoiled kids into throwing more than a crumpled dollar in the till for whatever band was failing to raise my spirits. I’ve spent untold hours arguing and pleading with various agencies to straighten out my Obamacare, although I’ve spent more untold hours listening to the hold music of various agencies. Sometimes no one answers. I’ve gone to see a couple of movies, and I’ve picked up movies from the library, and I’ve met people for drinks. Sometimes it’s nice, but it doesn’t get me anywhere.
Nick and Chad threw a launch party for the second issue of Nowhere is More Important Than Here, and even if he looked like he’d rather be anywhere else rather than standing behind the microphone I was happy to catch my roommate doing something he cared about. Sam fucked off to Hawaii for several months to help his job expand, bequeathing us Matt and Gina who eat insane amounts of food in between insane bouts of race training. Edward finally sold his house. Kendra got a promotion. Pete came back from Philadelphia where he curated an exhibition and met with social justice activists and photojournalists. Aaron and Harmony came back from Los Angeles where they rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous. John and Jamie spent the night in a tree house near White Salmon. I took a trip to the hospital to have one of my little problems put under the knife.
I haven’t played guitar for months. I’m not sure what I’ve been doing for months. I can’t check. I haven’t written in my journal for months.
But I do know that I don’t got your weave, 2014, and I need to get a grip on that.
Kaleidoscopic maps of blue and green keep twisting me up. Blue is for the dedicated lanes criss crossing town, commuting corridors guiding overgrown children from their sleepy hamlets to the downtown office blocks and commercial strips. Green is for less trafficked streets winding through neighborhoods. They never go where I’m going but I follow stencils of bicycles running away from my destination over broken asphalt until the bastards turn a quick corner and I find myself surrounded by confused Suburus angry at me for making them so nervous. The promised safe passage over freeways dissolved into concrete walls, and the only path which doesn’t promise immediate vehicular slaughter is in the wrong direction. Look at the candyland map, ride up a hill for three blocks just to ride down it again.
Abandoned when I most needed help carving out a path into the hated hinterlands of Southeast Portland where the bars and boutiques grow thick and people live to spend hours in line for brunch. Scott H. Biram, countrified folk blues mutant, has been tricked by some asshole agent into playing The Hawthorne Theater and I’ve come to bear witness despite the double digit cover.
Southeast Portland is the promised land for emigres seeking a life free from responsibility and self-awareness. Hawthorne is the sparking clean strip mall heart of a funemployment promised land. The Hawthorne Theater is a venue that places expensive full page ads in the anaemic weekly papers drawing starry-eyed newcomers and cultureless suburbanites to a pasturized variety of entertainment. It is not my scene. Greasers who’ve never stepped foot in a mechanic shop and truckers who have never sat behind the wheel of a rig are not my people. Tattoos and Pabst and beards and me, with no appreciation for the fashion or even a guidebook. There was no risk of anyone coming up to talk to me in my big ass backpack with a bike helmet strapped to it.
Everyone had imprisoned themselves behind the ironworks delineating official patio from sidewalk, ignoring the opening acts within. Heartland rock bounced around the empty room, played enthusiastically but without the misery and despair which defines open spaces and roads to nowhere. The keyboardist couldn’t stop smiling. But they don’t wear Hank III t-shirts or pretend to be anything other than well-rehearsed fans of a genre genetically different than their own cesspool. I clap along with the dozen weirdos unpopular enough to have no reason to be outside. After the set ended it was too dark to read the two issues of The Asian Reporter I’d brought to keep me company. The temptation to duck the alienation of being surrounded by strangers killing time by pounding beers was overwhelming but I sat on the floor milking a tallboy consulting my bike map by the light of my cell phone.
Months ago I went to see Eilen Jewell play The Alberta Rose Theater. I didn’t know if it would sell out so I showed up early, found the venue filled with seats and people my parents’ age. Itchy and affecting whatever antisocial demeanor I could muster to keep people from sitting next to me I drained four beers on an empty stomach and left the place reeling. Almost $20 for the ticket, $20 for the record that the drummer confessed wasn’t even recorded analog, $20 for beer and then probably another $20 for the pizza and beer I hoped would restore my ability to walk afterwards. I wouldn’t even have sex with myself at the end of the night, so it was a horrifically expensive wash and not one I cared to repeat.
I’m not sure if I was trying to avoid getting wasted at The Hawthorne Theater or to avoid spending the money it would take to get wasted.
The second act tested my abilities to keep cool under-hydrated under pressure. I’m sure the singer really is from Oklahoma but that’s no reason to wear a guitar strap that says ‘Oakie’. When I saw Merle Haggard he just wore a black turtleneck. Kicking the set off with ‘a song about titty bars’ didn’t help. Two guitars aping the same chord with little licks spilling out made me feel better about my own musical abilities but even the passionate exertions of the harmonica player and bassist couldn’t hold together songs that took their sweet time getting nowhere. Their best numbers followed the tried and true hyperactive chickenscratch cow-punk approach, the lyrical themes too tired to keep up. But these were hometown heroes and an audience began to form, abandoning the patio and karaoke lounge to testify in between shots of whiskey. I played along, clapping politely, and somehow managed to make that first beer last through the hooting and hollering of the crowd.
Biram is a solo act who takes a handful of guitars and a kick drum barnstorming around America. I just took it for granted that he rolls around in a beat up car plastered with coffee cups and fast food wrappers but the fact that he had a guitar tech setting up the amps throws my personal mythology out the window. When the stage was set the headliner muttered something unintelligibly Texan before banging out his stripped down and tweaked rock, caterwauling like a defrocked preacher possessed half by the spirit and half by spirits. White trash chic mixed with wandering frat boys in a swirl of drunken introductions and gossip. Trucker hats swirled around print dresses with tall boys in the air, convulsing to the incessant, cardiac assault of the amped kick. It looked like an embarrassment of social dilettantes who had picked their evening by throwing a dart at the show guide but people were singing along more often than not. They hooted at opening lyrics, knew about the bullhorn and other inside jokes.
Still, on the slow burning tear jerkers it was hard to hear above the spectacle of people talking about their tattoos, reintroducing themselves and friends, yelling poorly timed nonsense at the stage.
Off-stage moments were few and fleeting:
A drunk couple who’d been lurking around all night took the front of the stage to flail around like Pentecostals. He was wearing cargo shorts and sandals, grinding and freaking without the benefit of grace or rhythm. Cool kids in coonskin hats and officially licensed urban cowboy ephemera pointed fingers and laughed, but the couple couldn’t even see them. Between songs she was standing alone staring up at the stage, then suddenly whipped around without provocation. He was returning from the bar, and she could feel it. Psychic connection. Fuck the giggles. Fuck the jokes. They danced.
During the encore Guitar Tech appeared in the crowd and asked a woman to two-step through a ballad. This magical nothing was quickly seized upon and sullied by every piercing eye in the crowd, narrowing at the realization that maximum fun was actually not being had. Imitation consumed the mold, something inspired was ruined.
Generic mid-size concert venues are safe employment for aging rockers still falling short of musical immortality. Two dudes in metal t-shirts with matching receding ponytails tapped the shorts and sandals wearing dance maniac to take their picture. They stood with Biram pummeling a guitar in the background, hands on each other’s shoulders, and gave toothy grins. High fives all around.
The bartender couldn’t come up with a place for me to get pizza. Portland’s law compelling bars to operate kitchens repeatedly fucks with my ability to get cheap food on the run. I ended up walking the dozen blocks to Sweet Hereafter only to find that it was spilling out into the street and crawling over the picnic tables of the neighboring pizza place that was, of course, long closed. Wednesday night and there’s fifty fucking college kid birthday parties going on. I didn’t want to stay squeezed onto a barstool elbowing my neighbors, drink orders being yelled over my head. The back patio was only half full but then I would have to risk walking out, asking if this seat was taken, convey through body language that I wasn’t trying to pick anyone up or creep anyone out or even involve myself in anything other than the beer in my hand and the food on its way. I just wasn’t up to it. Sometimes I feel like I need an interpreter more in America than I ever did living overseas.
People kept yelling drinks over my head and I watched them argue over who paying, order five dollar chips and salsa, and then cram themselves in the most tightly packed corners available. A glass shattered somewhere off in the distance and the room erupted into a unified Kindergarten ‘woooooo’. The bartenders looked like they wanted to die. I cut out as quickly as I could and tried to follow the damn map, but my little stencil friends ditched me within a couple of blocks and I got turned around trying to find them again. Fuck it. All I have to do to get home is ride straight lines and not give a shit what the bike routes say.
Chrome countertops and dark corners, vinyl booths and neon highlights. Chinese delegation across the the Japanese and everyone just keep cool for a minute—Jimmy Carter’s at the bar ordering tequila shots and pitchers of High Life.
Once the yellow ribbon had been tied and the Chevy is in the Levy someone’s going to do Elvis. Everyone’s going to do Elvis. After last call drunk Asian men will be falling over each other in a tangle of laughter and tears and a half-remembered conspiracy involving escorts. No more Diaoyu. No more Senkaku. The islands are now the premiere free port Chinese restaurant and karaoke resort. Let the Taiwanese run the place if it’ll shut them up.
No more Chinese, no more Japanese. The Ambassador embodies the technicolor dreamcoat promise of our melting pot society; your culture Shanghaied and bled dry. While eating at a steakhouse in the backwaters of Kansai I stared at lassos on the walls and sizzling platters of beef at every table. It wasn’t insulting. Every salaryman staring at John Wayne on TV paid a deeply confused reverence to a mythology of the west.
Here in The States we don’t believe in the Pioneer corporation or MSG. We ravish them for cheap pleasure and cannibalize our own idealized past by rigging black lights over a crumbling malt-shop aesthetic and soaking everything in Jägermeister and yesterday’s vomit. John was holding up an entire race of people on his shoulders and my two-bits of Japanese heritage proved more authentic than the ripoff salt and pepper calamari churning in our guts. On stage a white girl bust out Biggie while her friends raised the roof. The staff was a uniform shade of pasty and if there were any Chinese in the kitchen they had been warned about showing their faces. Everyone is welcome, I’m sure, if they’ve got five bucks for the cover. Or if they’re underaged. Teenyboppers get stuck in a segregated juvenile detention center where the lights are brighter and you don’t have to wait for tomorrow’s hangover to feel ashamed. Read more…
Spring, that little coquette, has been flirting with us. An hour’s worth of sun lures you outside but the clouds are quick behind and then you’ve got hail in your pockets. There’s cherry blossoms and baby birds chirping in the leaves. They’ll litter the ground when the next cold snap hits—we’re not out of this thing yet.
Everyone knows better but after months of being cooped up complaining about the cold and the grey no one can control themselves. Throw on some shoes, some useless thin scarf, tuck the lapdog into an old sweatshirt and go, go, go!
Our brains haven’t caught up, or maybe our brains have a better grasp on the situation than our impulses and refuse to be roused for these midday walks. A woman was dragging a baby carriage into the street while trying to guide a freewheeling toddler from corner to corner. There was a car waiting for this confused tangle to clear, allowing plenty of room for the trickeries of gravity or the momentum of plastic wheels. The woman stopped and began to wave the driver on, who wasn’t really sure how to respond. Babies in the street, not taking my foot off the brakes. But the woman kept waving and waving and finally the driver decided to inch forward, hugging the opposite curb. The woman threw her arm out to stop the car, which somehow managed to screech to a halt while rolling forward. After some confusion a window was lowered. “I was wondering if you have any napkins,” the woman asked. Read more…
Baba has it all figured out. Her cremated remains will join Jiji’s and their mingling ashes will be divided between two desktop sphinxes formerly filled with cheap whiskey and presented to my grandfather for being a damn fine Mason. There’s already fake gold nameplates glued to the bases, no muss no fuss. My mom would get one, Lindy will get one, and Sugie… Well, Sugie didn’t make it to the family Christmas gathering this year so she’s shit out of luck.
Not everyone has their final resting place sorted out, but this is America and we’re a nation of innovative entrepreneurs. Convenient Pre-Purchase is a company that specializes in mail-order burial real estate, except when they’re specializing in ‘Pre-Pruchase’ as stated in the introductory paragraph of the letter. Which immediately follows my landlord’s misspelled name.
What locations! Convenient Pre-Purchase is partnered with over 250 franchise boneyards across half of the country. Gleaming mausoleum or eternal rest beneath a row of maples? Ordering your space today avoids the cost of inflation tomorrow and spares your idiot children from overspending to compensate for taking advantage of you their entire ungrateful lives. Everyone is pre-approved for a payment plan and you’ll never have to meet with a cemetery representative, unless you choose to. Twelve months of interest free financing will get the ball rolling. Perpetual Care Grounds Maintenance! Happy families beam at the camera, safe in the knowledge that they won’t be forced to make difficult decisions when Granny kicks the bucket.
‘If you are prepared in advance, you are not at the mercy of strangers during a difficult period in your life’ says Wendy B. from beyond the grave!
There’s checkboxes for veterans and folks who have family planted in the local grounds—no mention of a discount but no harm in asking. Unfortunately they don’t offer a 30-Day money-back guarantee (mail back the unused portion of your grave and keep the digital egg-beater as our gift to you), just their absolutely no obligation, free Cemetery Space Pre-Planning Information Kit.
We sincerely apologize if this mailing has come during a time of bereavement. Read more…
Plastic bag in hand, ready for any bilious torrent produced by the next round of respiratory fits. I couldn’t tell if her moaning was due to the racking cough which shook the two chairs she had pushed together to make a bed or to the moonshoe protecting her tibia from trauma. Please don’t puke, please don’t put me in a situation where I’ll have to decide whether it’s more polite to pretend I haven’t noticed or to find some way of fetching water. The self-service malady station offered tissues and barf bags and hygienic hand gel but no cups. I should spray my neighbor down with the provided antiseptic.
I never would have taken the seat, alone against the wall of an examination room, had I know the woman was retching. She waited for the raging drunk falling out of a wheelchair to lurch after a pregnant woman and her young daughter, leaving the sanitation kiosk unguarded. The drunk’s sudden departure alarmed reception and a stray nurse who debated going after him until they became distracted by the viscous black fluid he had left to seep through his former seat and onto the floor. A call to maintenance was interrupted by a girl in pajamas who was angry at having her pathetic groans ignored. Yes, you’ll be seen after the gaping head wound who swears he’s not drunk but can’t remember his name, the guy with chest pains, the woman who can’t walk on her own, the five or six people who sleep here when it’s too cold and wet on the street.
These people aren’t sick, the triage doctor told me after I waved away her apologies for the wait, they just think they are. Her bitterness clashed with the spunky hair and Chuck Taylors, and with her adoration of the little girl who had hit the panic button. A SWAT team burst into the lobby all body armor and light weaponry, peering through windows and signaling each other across the room. Little girls are cuties. I’m tired of telling the staff I’m not a junkie. Read more…
Concrete hides under an earthen shroud behind the bulldozed clearing. A couple years ago kids were squirming through ventilation shafts and roaming the murk of a by-gone era, but we were late to the party and could only poke sticks at the slab laid over the escape hatch.
Cold War paranoia gave birth to the Kelley Butte Civil Defense Center, first installation of its kind on these shores. At any moment Russian planes could cross the arctic and unleash a holocaust, so the people pitched in to build a subterranean city hall stocked with rations, generators and showers safe from the blast winds of a nuclear attack. Portland organized and conducted Operation Green Light, a mass evacuation exercise which cleared downtown of a hundred thousand souls within an hour. The citizenry believed that if the mayor, city council, the police and emergency services continued functioning behind 26 inches of concrete then they could survive anything.
As the arms race raged on faith was lost. Russia and America amassed enough armaments to ensure that the human race would be eradicated a hundred times over if either side reached for the button. In 1963 the city council suspended funding for local Civil Defense and slowly the Kelley Butte facility was dismantled. Police used the site for training and an emergency communication center until Kelley Butte closed in the early 90’s when a new downtown 911 office opened. No one had any use for the 18,000 square foot relic. The radio antenna is gone. One hundred years worth of public records imprinted on microfilm is gone. The threat of annihilation is gone. All that remains is the frustrated graffiti of kids and walls leading nowhere.
The mayor will never run to Kelley Butte for cover, but others seek the sanctity of its trees and isolation. The couple sitting at the top of a terraced wall were either stoned or residents of one of the encampments scattered throughout the park. Pete employed his foreign accent and natural charisma while I slipped and tumbled down a hillside following drainage ditches and trash. In a joint where man and nature had called a truce someone had carefully cleared the land and transplanted shrubs. Stones were laid to define paths and a hedge of weeds had been sculpted to distinguish a garden from its surrounding wilderness. Domesticity pried from the clutches of someone’s lost dreams. In its own way Kelley Butte remains a refuge for people who have lost faith in the surrounding world.
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