January 16, 2003 11:00 pm
This rooftop view of Portland's skyline portrays some of the elegant architecture, as well as the size and clutter, that many people expect to see in Oregon's largest city. (Photo/MARK HIGHBERGER).
This rooftop view of Portland's skyline portrays some of the elegant architecture, as well as the size and clutter, that many people expect to see in Oregon's largest city. (Photo/MARK HIGHBERGER).

By Mark Highberger

For The Observer

Because it is to be a journey into the wildest part of Oregon, our neighbor comes to say goodbye. "Be careful," she says, standing in our driveway and wringing her hands. "Come back alive." Then she blows her nose, turns and shuffles away.

But my wife and I are prepared for the journey, for we have packed as diligently as Arctic explorers, leaving nothing to chance: hotel reservations and museum tickets, street maps and restaurant recommendations, parking locations and VISA cards — these and other essentials we've stored securely in our luggage. After all, we're headed out to spend a week in downtown Portland.

That's right — Portland. The naked city. The dark side. Why? Well, in a twisted kind of Thoreauesque approach to living, we want not so much "to front only the essential facts of life" as Henry David set out to do at Walden Pond, but to see what happens when those essentials squeeze themselves down into concrete and neon and steel, to understand how they behave when buried beneath the cosmopolitan crush of anonymity. In short, we want to experience for ourselves what we have so long avoided. And so from the mountains of Northeast Oregon we drive away from the easy calm of our neighborhood, away from its sitting porches and picket fences and gravel roads and toward a rendezvous with the Big City.

The adventure begins as soon as we cross the Sandy River, the watery belt that cinches Portland's sprawl into a west-side bulge. Here we encounter our first "essential" of city living: speed. Furious, metallic speed. Nudging ourselves into a line of traffic, we run bumper-to-bumper and fender-to-fender like fuel-injected lemmings racing to the sea, the mass of steel seeming to carry us toward the building-crested skyline of Portland, until we cross the Willamette River, wedge our way through the wet darkness, and finally stop in front of our hotel.

"Th-th-that wasn't so bad," my wife says. Her hands still grip the steering wheel in a white-knuckled clench.

"N-n-no," I say. "Not so bad at all." From the back comes the thump of a tail, telling us that our Labrador retriever agrees. So my wife goes into the hotel to check in as I unload the Lab and the luggage.

"You staying here?" says a man standing on the sidewalk near a shuttle bus. I shift a suitcase, nod. He throws his head back, laughs. "Man, you're going to see all kinds in this neighborhood." Then he laughs again, climbs into the bus, and drives away.

Across the street from where the bus had been parked, a young man dressed in a black jacket and jeans stands swaying and smoking in the yellow haze of a streetlight. Beneath his black baseball cap his gaze, like his cigarette smoke, drifts toward the light and the night but settles on nothing.

Welcome to Portland, I say to myself. Welcome to another essential fact of its life for some of its people — escape. And as the week passes, more essentials reveal themselves in a number of ways, show themselves from a variety of angles.

For instance, take essential No. 3 — safety, the most basic of human needs, according to psychologist Abraham Maslow. Along city sidewalks this need can take the form of hunkering behind self-imposed walls. Want to give Portlanders the creeps? As you walk down the street, look them in the eye and say, "Hello." Drives them crazy.

In the city, of course, you can't say "hi-how-are-ya" to everyone, can't make the "nice-day-warm-enough-for-ya" small talk of small towns. So most pedestrians seem to have perfected the straight-ahead stare, the gaze that drifts past you, catching just enough of your size and shape and expression to answer the only necessary question: Are you a threat? But go walking with a dog and all that changes, for animals seem to supply at least one city essential that many people cannot — intimacy.

We discover this fact early because the central location of our hotel permits us to explore downtown Portland by foot. By day or night we stroll down the sidewalks and through the street-smells of cigarette smoke, fried meat, and after shave, of incense and diesel as we gawk at church spires and penthouse lights. And when we stop at a Safeway store for take-out Chinese, my wife goes inside while I stay outside with the dog.

As Labs do so well, she sits with her ears perked and her head tilted, her brown eyes catching every passerby, her gaze saying, "You are a perfect human being and I love you with all my heart." People come forward like sinners at a Billy Graham crusade, their hands and voices reaching out to her.

"So beautiful," says a woman with a pierced nose. Her black coat and black dress rustle as she leans down to stroke the Lab's ears. "It's the black that does it. Black. It's all I ever wear."

Others follow: a man wearing a New York Yankee's cap, a woman toting two kids, two paramedics carrying cell phones; one man passes by three times, says "hello" to the dog each time.

A woman crouching near the corner of the building watches the dog and smiles. But she keeps her place in the shadows. With one hand gripping a Styrofoam cup and the other a shopping cart filled with a garbage sack, its black plastic holding what is probably the stuff of her life, she seems to be hanging on at least momentarily to a fifth essential —freedom. After all, with night pressing down she has her coffee, she has her bed, she has her shadows and her corner that for now belong to her alone.

The next morning she sits on a bench in the South Park Blocks, keeping company with a statue of Teddy Roosevelt. Still gripping a Styrofoam cup, she sips coffee, smiles at its steam. Nearby, a group of Jehovah's Witnesses hand out post cards announcing the end of the world. "So you'll know what to expect in the future," one of them says to her. He holds out a card.

The woman glances at it, then turns away and lights a cigarette. "Future?" she says, breathing smoke. Then she sips again from the cup; this time her eyes dart side-to-side. "I just try to take one day at a time."

As she speaks, the man with the card listens, nods, smiles. Now the woman has her coffee, she has her cigarette, she has her bench and her momentary friend that for now belong to her alone.

The man's attentiveness may stem from city essential No. 6 — civility. Perhaps in a place where crowded sidewalks push us so close to the brush and touch of strangers, the manners of tolerance and compassion become a necessity. Leon Harrison called such manners the "oil that lubricates social contacts." And even though big cities bear the reputation for coldness, you have a good chance of hearing more thank you's and pardon me's, of finding more doors held open and tempers held steady in Portland than in many small towns not far removed from the days of plank sidewalks and hitching rails.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away in another park, a seventh essential of city life puts itself on display: sociability. "The art of unlearning to be preoccupied with yourself," is the way Oscar Blumenthal defined it. All along the Willamette River's Waterfront Park you'll see it in the cozy glide of in-line skaters, in the side-by-side step and stride of walkers and joggers, in the flurry and flutter of pigeons gathering about the man tossing them bread, in the rumble of an Amtrak train with the engineer waving from the window. You'll also find it the nearby side-street gatherings of the homeless for doughnuts and coffee as well as at the cafe-front congregations where street people smoke and talk as they begin making their way into another approaching night.

In other places, however, money outweighs companionship, and here a different essential raises its head — status. My wife and I find this beast in one of those kinds of restaurants; you know — the kind with three silver forks and a linen napkin at each table setting, with candles flickering and glasses clinking and with laughter tinkling from the mouths of well-coifed diners. But like fools we ignore the warning, slide into a booth, and flip open the menu.

Once the prices come into focus, I shudder, gasp, peer over the top of the menu to find my wife's glazed eyes staring back at me. "Your choice," she whispers. "We can either eat dinner here or pay this year's car insurance."

The waiter either sees our deer-in-the-headlight stares or hears us hyperventilating from across the room, and he steps to the table. "Excuse me," he says "I couldn't help but see your deer-in-the-headlights stares and hear you hyperventilating from across the room. First time here?" But what he probably means is, "Our fat prices too hefty for your thin wallets?"

"Uh," I tell him. "Uh."

Richard — that's what the waiter's name tag says — smiles and chats and recites a list of superlatives describing the greens of the restaurant's salads and the flesh of its cattle, and then smiles and chats some more until we order two steaks. And then we wait. For as much as this costs, I expect Richard to walk the cow to our table, hand us crayons, and ask us to draw on its hide the cuts we want. Instead, a waitress carrying a tray stops nearby. "Are those our steaks?" my wife whispers.

I glance at what looks like a lump of burnt brownie on each of two white plates and shake my head. "Must be desert for the next table."

But then the waitress plunks down on our table the two white plates, each of the burnt brownie-looking squares of flesh squatting tired and alone there. "Enjoy your steaks," she says, smiling.

The same game is played out in other restaurant arenas across town, but when the next hunger pangs lure us into a dining room where suit-clad, cigar-smoking men stand in corners and lecture each other on the size of their portfolios and the virtues of their investments, we refuse to play. Instead, we walk away from the testosterone haze and into the fresh air, onto the rain spattered sidewalk and around the corner, where through a cafe window we see people sitting at tables loaded with platters of nachos and mugs of microbrew. "There," I say, pointing toward the tables. "Our kind of place."

My wife peers through the window, apparently sees something I don't. "Are you sure you want to go in there?"

"Nachos and beer," I tell her. "Soul food."

"If you're sure," she says, and we start for the door.

Out on the street, a car slows and a woman rolls down the window. "Jesus loves you anyway!" she calls to us.

"And you, too!" I call back, waving. Then I turn to my wife. "Why do you suppose she said that."

"Maybe because we're going into a gay bar."


But it seems that if you gird your loins to go on a journey, if you decide to follow Joseph Campbell's advice and participate fully in life, then you can't say yes to this adventure and no to that, as though choosing from dishes laid out at a smorgasbord. So we step through the door — and into not only one of the friendliest places we've ever visited, but also an encounter with the ninth essential: acceptance.

Roy, the waiter-bartender-social director-matchmaker, serves beer and cooks hamburgers, slides quarters into the juke box and pecks customers on their cheeks. And it bothers him not at all that a couple of heterosexuals have wandered into the place. Sure, I have to turn down a couple of offers to dance, but the guys are real civil about it. (See essential No. 6.)

"You folks come back anytime," Roy says as we leave.

"We will," we tell him. And we mean it. Someday we'll return. But today is our seventh day in the city, and it's time to go home.

As we wander back to the hotel, a young man in a trench coat comes stepping down the street toward us; beside him walks a dog wearing a sweater. "Roscoe is the Almighty!" the young man says to us in a dialect that sounds like an Australian Mick Jagger.

"And he looks warm, too," my wife says, smiling at the sweater-clad dog.

"Come, Roscoe!" the young man says to the dog, and together they stroll on by.

It seems almost Biblical that on the seventh day of the adventure, on the last night of the journey along Portland's streets and among its people, we encounter this 10th essential of its life — spirituality. "An inward flame," Margot Asquith called it, "a lamp the world blows upon but never puts out."

For Thoreau, this lamp at Walden showed him "the wonderful and varied spectacle of this universe." For us in downtown Portland, it reveals a sometimes wondrous and always entertaining side of life. After all, on this city sidewalk we have seen the Almighty. And his name is Roscoe.