Twice Charmed by Portland, Oregon

The Pacific Northwest city captivated the author first when she was an adventure-seeking adolescent and again as an adult

Portland has a "goofy, energetic optimism," says novelist Katherine Dunn, sitting on the city's Hawthorne Bridge. (Robbie McClaran)
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One summer I gave up shoes for philosophical reasons that escape me now, and went barefoot everywhere. I was exploring a student-infested neighborhood behind the Museum Art School and Portland State College. It had blocks of old workers’ cottages with half-finished sculptures on sagging porches, drafting tables visible through front windows, and the sound of saxophones drifting through a screen door. I was busy soaking in this bohemian air when I stepped on a broken bottle and gashed my left big toe.

I limped along, rather proud of this heroic wound and its blood trail, until a curly-haired man called me up to his porch. He scolded me with neon-charged profanity while he cleaned and bandaged the cut. He said he wrote articles for newspapers and magazines. He was the first writer I’d ever met, so I told him I wanted to write, too. He snorted and said, “Take my advice, kid. Go home and run a nice hot bath, climb in and slit your wrists. It’ll get you further.” Many years later, we met again, and laughed about the encounter.

I went to college in Portland and met people from other places who saw the city with fresh eyes, calling attention to things I’d accepted without a thought.

“Rains a lot,” some transplant might say.

Yes, it rains.

“Everything’s so green. A lot of trees here.”

Well sure, this is a rain forest.

“Drivers don’t use their horns, here.”

They do in an emergency.

“If one more store clerk tells me to have a nice day, I’ll throttle him.”


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