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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Portland and I have both changed over the decades, but this city hooked me back when I was a book-drunk adolescent with a yen for stories and adventure. This is the town I ran away to, and half a century later that skewed fascination still shapes my perception of the place.

These days Portland is liberal and green. We have recycling, mass transit, bicycles, high-tech industries and so many creative types that the brewpubs and espresso shops have to work overtime to fuel them. It’s still far from perfect. But despite the familiar urban problems, there’s a goofy, energetic optimism afoot. A popular bumper sticker reads, “Keep Portland Weird,” and a lot of us try to live up to it.

Back in the early 1960s I was going to high school in a pleasant two-stoplight village some 20 miles to the west. Portland, with its population of 370,000 people, was considered fearsome and wild. Folks from small towns and farms tend to see the only big town in the state as a paved jungle of noise, danger and depravity. That’s what intrigued me.

Weekends and after school I’d hop the bus into town feeling jubilant and a tad scared. To my young eyes Portland was a tough blue-collar town, scarred by labor clashes and hard on minorities. Supported by timber and crops, built around the railhead and the river port, the city was still recovering from the Great Depression and the closing of its shipyards after World War II. Families were moving to the suburbs.

Downtown was the older, densely built west bank of the Willamette River. It climbed toward the high, forested ridge known as the West Hills, where the rich had built mansions with amazing views. The seedy section nearest the river was my early stomping ground. Taverns and strip joints were off limits at my age, but there were pawnshops, pool halls, tattoo parlors and palm readers. There were 24-hour diners and cluttered bookstores where you could hole up out of the rain and read while your sneakers dried.

I saw things, both sweet and grim, that I’d only read about. There were drunks passed out in doorways, but Romany (Gypsy) families dressed in gleaming satin picnicked in the park. I was lucky. People were kind or ignored me entirely.

A Chinese grocer suggested pork rinds as chumming bait, and I would dangle a hook and line off a storm drain near the flour mill. I watched gulls swoop around battered freighters loading cargo for the Pacific voyage, and I pulled heavy, metallic-gold carp out of the river. Mrs. M., a tarot and tea leaf specialist who lived and worked in a storefront near Burnside Street, bought them for a quarter each. She always wanted what she called “trash fish” to stew for her cats.

My first city job was trying to sell magazine subscriptions over the phone after school. Four of us blotchy teens worked in a cramped, airless room in the Romanesque Dekum Building on SW Third Avenue. Our spiels came from smeared mimeographs taped to the wall in front of us. The boss wore suspenders, Brylcreemed his hair and dropped in occasionally to deliver pep talks.

I didn’t make a single sale the first week. But I was looking forward to a paycheck when I ran up four flights of stairs on Friday afternoon, opened the office door and found it empty. Stripped. No phones, desks or people. Just a torn copy of the sales pitch crumpled in a corner. This was a stunner, but given my allegiance to Raymond Chandler and the noir flavor of the Dekum in those days, it was fitting.

Other layers of the city gradually revealed themselves to me, and in retrospect it’s clear that the seeds of today’s Portland were well established even then. The big Central Library was the loveliest building I’d ever set foot in. I’ve seen the Parthenon and other wonders since, but that library, with its graceful central staircase, tall windows and taller ceilings, still sets off a tuning fork in my chest.


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