Welcome to Portland: Hamlet on the Willamette

I find perverse pleasure in reading bad travel writing. The worst of the genre leans on the crutches of stereotype and generality.

The writer doesn’t say, “One rainy day in Portland, I watched a guy with a tattoo on his face listening to a trumpet player.”

Rather, he writes, “Don’t be surprised to bump into a Portlander with a tattooed face during your visit, especially if you pause (and you should) to listen to one of the many troubadours dotting the street corners in this perpetually soggy city some wags have taken to calling the Town of a Thousand Mariachis.”

Even the estimable local writer, Caryn Brooks, succumbed in a recent article she wrote for TIME, “Portland: 10 Things to Do in 24 Hours”, opening with: “Portlanders are perhaps the most self-satisfied city tribe in the whole United States. To pass for one of them (and who wouldn't want to?), here's a tip: do not carry an umbrella.”

My dear wife was born and raised in Portland and its environs. She carries an umbrella as often as she bristles at the cliché that Oregonians eschew such protection.

While not a travel story, a recent article on Portland in “'The Economist” typified the outsider view of our burg. The title? A New Model: Is Oregon's metropolis a leader among American cities or just strange?

I imagine the editor making the assignment thusly: “Give me 1,000 words on that Pacific Northwest city. No, not Seattle, the other one. Be sure to mention the gay mayor and bicycles. Make is sound like a nice place, but don’t give them any reason to feel more smug than they already are.”

My favorite sentence pops up at the start, when the writer mentions other cities to which Portland is compared, concluding:

Others pick Zurich, which, like Portland, has a view of snow-capped mountains, orderly (bordering on staid) streets with trams, even the same peculiar fondness for direct democracy and tolerance of assisted suicide.
Other choice selections are:

“The locals, in fact, enjoy feeling odd: ‘Keep Portland weird’, say bumper stickers on the city’s cars, which all seem to be hybrid-electric vehicles.”

“In Portland, ‘business casual’ means wearing a fleece.”

“... places like Portland, San Francisco and Boston have become ‘elite cities’, attractive to the young and single, especially those with trust funds, but beyond the reach of middle-class families who want a house with a lawn. Indeed Portland, for all its history of Western grit, is remarkably white, young and childless.”

“That is not to belittle Portland’s vision. It is a sophisticated and forward-looking place. Which other city can boast that its main attraction is a bustling independent book store (Powell’s) and that medical students can go from one part of their campus to another by gondola, taking their bikes with them?”

Here's the beginning of a little story I have woven from these fragments:

Chester stepped from the tram, glanced at the snow-capped mountains and pondered his peculiar fondness for direct democracy and tolerance of assisted suicide. As he crossed the street, one of the city’s cars roared past him. “Odd,” he thought. “That car seemed to be a hybrid-electric, but it wasn’t.” He chuckled at the bumper sticker that read, “Keep Portland Weird.” Though it appeared on every hybrid-electric in the city, the sentiment still made him feel odd--in a good way.

Chester had dressed in business-casual that morning. Donning a fleece made him feel Western and gritty, though he was a remarkably white, young and childless man. He hoped that the fleece’s pungent aroma of wool and lanolin wouldn’t overpower the trust fund manager he was to meet.

The stranger had called the day before, saying, “I don’t mean to belittle your vision. I like a sophisticated and forward thinking man.” The man proposed meeting at a bustling independent bookstore. “You’ll have no problem recognizing me; I’ll be the only one arriving by gondola who’s not a medical student with a bike."


Jenny Wren said...

Nice one, MTC. Let's go to Powells and find more Chesters. We can use cultivated lads like him at the theater...and he won't have to worry about non-profit pay, because he'll always have his trust fund to fall back on.

I've gotta admit, the "elite ones" quote with the "young and childless" add on irks me the most. Probably because it's just so blatently wrong—whereas the others are just overblown sterotypes.

David said...

Oh, MTC, you've done it again!