Twice Charmed by Portland, Oregon- page 2 | Travel | Smithsonian
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Portland has a "goofy, energetic optimism," says novelist Katherine Dunn, sitting on the city's Hawthorne Bridge. (Robbie McClaran)

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

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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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