Portland: Now and Then and Later



When I left Portland ten years, two months, and twenty four days ago, I could have cared less if I ever returned. I mean that rhetorically, because my parents still lived in the city of roses and I had just booked a film which I would be returning to shoot only a couple of weeks later, but regardless, I flew down the I5 like a bat out of grey-clouded hell. I was so ready for my new life as an actress and college student to begin in LA that I literally left the day after I graduated from Lincoln High School. I had had enough rain and green and clean air for one lifetime. Bring on the glittery smog and the land where stars are in the street instead of the sky!

It wasn’t so much that I wanted to escape my childhood – I had been very happy in my single digit and teen years – but rather that there was so much else I wanted to do. I had experienced the Great Outdoors, grown tired of seeing the same buildings while riding Trimet, gotten bored of doing the same bridge runs, drinking the same awesome coffee, smelling all those damn flowers and pine trees. There were 49 other states, 196 odd countries, 7 billion more people beyond the perimeter of my hometown. I had big dreams, Huge Dreams, and they did not include a minute longer in worn-out, thread-bare Portland. The city had reached its expiration date in The Book of Amy, and I was beyond thrilled to begin Chapter 2: Los Angeles.* No looking back, no strings attached.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when I started packing last Wednesday for Portland and felt genuine, schoolgirl-esque excitement. It had been five years since my parents had moved down to Rancho Mirage, California, and consequently five years since I had returned to Oregon. I had scarcely even thought about my hometown over the past decade, except when people asked me where I’d grown up (and of course when Portlandia debuted on IFC.) But over the last few months, Portland had been on my mind more and more, mostly as a result of all the reflecting I was doing while writing.

In following Rilke’s advice, I had been probing my childhood, “that jewel beyond all price,” while stuck in Writer’s Block Prison, and spent hours digging up memories from the past, flipping back the pages and mining the text of my life for further meaning. I had stumbled on people from high school, my childhood best friend, my grandfather, moments with my mom and dad, flashes of joy and pain and juvenile angst. I had unearthed an early sexual experience with repercussions I had previously left undefined, and struggled to see those long gone years through a more highly developed lens. The clincher was reading Niall Williams’ exquisite History of the Rain, a meandering novel narrated by the fictional Ruth Swain chronicling her family history in another water-logged part of the world: Ireland. I suddenly felt desperate to return to my rainy roots and see it the way Ruth saw her small town Faha, with humor and insight and poetry. I had to get back to Portland. I got online and booked a flight.

* * * * *

It’s a weird feeling, being a stranger in the city you grew up in. In some ways I was prepared for it – after all, I knew how much I’d changed. I’m a true California girl now, an honorary LA native having achieved my ten year (terrible pun). But what I wasn’t prepared for was how much Portland had changed. I shouldn’t have been surprised, having read and heard about the city’s thriving culture, yet I was. That first evening out on the East Side, driving alone on the way to meet my brother, I felt a rush of emotion: these were the same streets as my youth, but they felt so different. Burnside was peppered with new restaurants and bars, filled with throngs of 20 something hipsters enjoying craft brews and adventurous bites. I’d run up and down this street hundreds of time and never remembered it being this… cool. I felt a sudden fondness for my hometown, but also a disconnect. As I tasted IPAs at a local brewery less than a mile from the house I’d lived in during high school, I felt like a tourist. I was a tourist.

Over the next several days, I experienced a bizarre combination of nostalgia and novelty. From the runs I took to the places I ate to the people I saw, everything reflected this dichotomy of old and new. I’d never been in Gabriel Park before, and that first morning run the ground felt alive and the forest enchanted as I wound my way through literal backyard trails. A couple of days later I ventured down to the Waterfront to cover old cross country ground, and my mind flooded with memories with each pedestrian bridge lane, each piece of street art, OMSI. I made my way up to my high school, and the building – empty for summer – came alive with my old classmates. There was Lydia, running across the quad at the end of freshman year, Lauren and Stephanie with their Boyd’s coffee cups in the crosswalk, the quarterback I unfortunately had a thing for in his letterman jacket. It felt surreal, another lifetime ago, like I may have dreamt it. But no, there was the statue of Lincoln on the second floor, there were the dressing rooms where I transformed for my theatrical debut, there was Matt Groening’s sidewalk carving of Bart Simpson I hadn’t made up. It was real. It had happened.

Or maybe it hadn’t. Eating lunch over in NE Portland on Williams there was almost no trace of the past. Gentrification had rendered the once impoverished and dangerous neighborhood trendy and fashionable. The process was so complete that there was even a New Seasons welcoming baby-toting yuppies. Were it not for the 4 bus rambling along the street I may not have believed that this was the same highly suspect route I used to take home from school everyday. But it was, and if the meal we had at Tasty & Sons was any indication of the quality of the new no-longer-ghetto hood, I was 100% on board. Let bygones be bygones. (On the other hand, not a single thing has changed since 1969 at The Stockpot Broiler, my grandmother’s go-to restaurant, not even the clientele.)

Meetings with old friends and family dug up even more of the past, while also illuminating just how different our lives now were. Mikie and I reminisced about Monopoly and Now & Laters and camping at Bench Lake, while I oohed and awed over her two beautiful daughters. Sarah and Ashley and I gossiped about senior year boyfriends, while marveling at how much we had all been through, how little we knew of our current selves. Hanging out with my brother and his friends, I hardly recognized him, and yet I’d spent more of my life in his company than anyone else’s, save my parents.** Not even my grandmother, that stalwart of tradition, failed to surprise me, as we chatted with her 94 year old boyfriend. What a difference a decade makes! From the native to the tourist, the old paths to the new trails, the classic salmon to the Burmese Red Pork Stew, the infants to the nonagenarians- I relished in the blended realities of the past and present.

* * * * *

Driving down Sunset Blvd this morning past the 405 and UCLA, I thought about what I had learned. Had I had a Ruth Swainian, Rilke-like, earth-shattering realization about the meaning of my life after my five days in Portland? Probably not. But what I can say is I no longer feel the same sort of self-imposed distance from it that I did before. If I once needed to separate my identity from Portland to prove to myself that I was a Big City girl with Big Dreams and Big Ideas, I’ve grown out of it. I’m no more defined by Portland that it is defined by me. I’ve shed those old judgments and that adolescent perspective and can finally see the city for what it is: pretty frickin’ awesome. And weird. And green. And a formative part of me. And some place I’ll almost certainly never live again, but am sure to keep visiting (and seeing anew) again and again.***

* Or maybe it’s Chapter 3, since I was born in Everett. Or Chapter 4, because there were those couple years in Thailand. And then there was Seattle, so maybe Los Angeles is Chapter 5? But then again, it’s not like I changed that much there in the beginning, so– Ah, who knows, it could all change in the final edit.
** The good news is I like him a lot more now. The bad news is now I hardly ever see him.
*** I will live in Portland if Chris Pine wants me to. Or if I become a series regular on Grimm. Or if global warming reverses the 9 months of cloud coverage and 50 degree weather.


On the Sunset Strip

A funny thing happened to me last night, something I never would have predicted: I missed working at a restaurant. I was walking back to my car, slightly intoxicated from my charming date and a couple of glasses of Pinot Noir, when an intense wave of nostalgia washed over me. In fact, the feeling was so strong, I actually had to take a moment and sit down part way up Sunset Plaza Drive. I planted myself on a ledge, overlooking the Strip, and allowed the warm July air to whisk me back.

I started working on the Sunset Strip 10 years ago. I was 18 years old, fresh off the I5 from Portland, Oregon, and eager to experience the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles. I had no restaurant experience to speak of, but when it came to being a hostess, that mattered much less than my youthful enthusiasm and barely-legal attractiveness. When I applied at Cravings, the owner didn’t even glance at my resume, asked zero questions, and I started the next day. I was beyond excited – I had a job! A real fill-out-a-W2 clock-in-clock-out job! And on the famed Sunset Blvd! My adult life had officially begun.

The experiences I had that first year working at Cravings were like none before or after. Not that it was some sort of pinnacle – my life has improved dramatically since then in pretty much every area – but there was a novelty in the way I was seeing the world and a spontaneity in my behavior that I doubt I’ll ever fully recapture. It’s like those first sexual discoveries in adolescence: learning the shape of someone else’s tongue, feeling your chest tighten and your breath get short, the almost painful buildup to the first time you were ever touched. Now, I understand my sexuality in a far more complex and meaningful way, but nothing can ever replace that initial exploration into the unknown.

During that year, I met more people, took more risks, and went on crazier dates because of Cravings than at any other point in my life. There was the F1 racer and the night at House of Blues, when I ended up back at his 37 year old friend’s dingy apartment and he cried to me until 3 in the morning about the mistakes he’d made in his life. There was the Turkish popstar, and the crazy Mafia guy, and the Russian med student who turned out to be engaged. There was the guy who owned a luxury car dealership and let me take a Diablo from Cravings out to Geoffrey’s for a piece of chocolate cake. There was the recent college grad who picked me up from work on Halloween, took me to Aahs for a costume, then flew me to Vegas to party all night at the Palms. I met my best guy friend in the world through Cravings, and one of my best girl friends. Even the first guy I loved in LA was a result of that restaurant – he saw me as he walked past with a group of friends to Il Sole, and came back after dinner to get my number.

I eventually outgrew Cravings, graduating to the position of a waitress at Pace on Laurel Canyon, but my time on the Strip wasn’t over. Two years later, I was back on Sunset working at Ketchup, a trendy LA hot spot that enjoyed a damn good run. For all the complaining I did while I worked there (and it was a lot), Ketchup was about the best restaurant job a struggling actor could ask for. Management was young, fun, super relaxed, down to get drunk towards the end of shifts. The clientele was hip and excited to be there, with deep, loose pockets. The staff was beautiful, smart, on the cusp of starting great careers. The overall energy buzzed and crackled; even the red lighting reflected this- the restaurant was ablaze. Like Cravings, I walked away from Ketchup with a mountain of stories and friendships and connections. We created a family there, and not just the staff, but also with our regulars. I still hang out with people I served- I even had lunch with two of my customers, a mother and daughter, in Paris!

I know it sounds like I’m glorifying waiting tables in my trip down memory lane, and I don’t want to discount all of the tougher aspects of the job: the slow periods when money stops flowing, the terrible customers who make you feel two inches tall, the feeling that you’re made for so much more and your creativity is being sucked right into the kitchen fan. But what I realized last night, and what I’m trying to communicate, is that it’s all part of this wonderful journey. And when you’re stuck in a restaurant job, literally waiting until your actual career begins, it can sometimes feel like just a means to an end. At least, it did for me a good deal of the time when I was in it. But it’s not. Those experiences have meaning in themselves, value beyond a paycheck.

Four years ago when I dropped my last check I never would have dreamed that I would miss being a waitress, but as it turns out, I do. As I sat looking out at Cravings last night, I missed the sense of freedom, of possibility, of all the mystery LA held in those days. I longed to be 18 again, or 23, walking up that very hill to my car, untying my apron, laughing with another server about a messed up order or a number given out. If only I’d had the appreciation for it then that I have now! How great it would be to spend one more night working at Cravings or Ketchup! I thought. And then it hit me like twenty tables all being sat at once. This is my life, right now. This is it! The freedom, the mystery, the possibility, they’re all still there. My life is no more mapped out now then it was back then. Heck, if I wanted to wait tables one more time, nothing was stopping me! I smiled, then shuddered at the thought of actually getting another restaurant job. The nostalgia had passed. I grabbed my purse and walked the rest of the way up to my car, profoundly grateful for each step, each moment, each memory. Past, present, future.