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  • Writer's pictured.k. spencer

Strange Overtones

When Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, I was an attending freshman at OSU in electrical engineering. My roommate had just come back as passenger in a Cessna 175 that had flown near the mountaintop when it decided to erupt. The pilot circled around allowing him to take several shots of the plume. One of very few who saw Mount St. Helens explode while up in the air, I’ll never forget my roommate’s effusive, animated descriptions.

Corvallis didn’t get any ash, but driving north to Portland was a different story. Stopping in Portland on the way to ski Mount Hood months later, I remember people selling bottles of ash at gas stations, clothing stores, and restaurants. Ash, they had collected off their cars, shrubs, and driveways. They were selling for as much as twelve dollars a bottle, which at the time I thought a rip-off.

Two colleges and a Bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture later, I came back to Portland to find work. Instead, I found the Portland of 1985 to be the same provincial, small 1980 Portland town I’d previously come to know.

Seeking directions to a job interview with Doug Macy Associates, I went into Jake's Famous Crayfish to inquire about my location. Expecting a short, pleasant pointing in the general direction with an added number of blocks to go, what I got instead was a bartender walking me down half a block, giving me guided directions along the way.

A thought occurred that he might join me in the interview.

And this happened on more than one occasion, so I became more conscious about asking for future assistance. I had first to consider if my disruption warranted a shopkeeper’s time.

On another occasion, I encountered a homeless man in a slightly soiled tweed sport coat. He looked presentable from my perspective. Certainly not threatening.

Looking me straight in the eye, he asked, “Where can a guy go to take a pee in this town?”

Weighing him carefully, I replied, “Oh, anywhere.”

“Good, boy. Good boy,” he replied.

My thought was, well if someone has to pee there’s no stopping them anyway.

Even the homeless were polite back then.

I remember when Chinatown, roughly capturing the area from NW 4th and Burnside, north to the post office, and east to the Willamette River, was a place where angels fear to tread. People went there seeking cheap, strong alcohol, tawdry strip shows, or possibly in pursuit of prostitutes.

Hung Far Lo was a local favorite for the drinking crowd. As I've only had a drink there, I don't know what else may have been on the menu.

These were simpler times, when the proclivities of others were tolerated and ignored with a kind of live-and-let-live mantra for those seeking a prise de jour.

Portland was full of eccentrics back then, more than what we have now. It feels people have become less eccentric, more ridged, less tolerant, more fearful.

I hope this trend reverses soon.

My job offer at Doug Macy’s was dependent upon a hopeful, potential client that would become my first project. The prospective client fell-through and thus I ended up in Seattle and surrounds where I would live for the next eighteen years.

Occasionally I would come down to Portland when I wanted a change of scene or to see John Lee Hooker in a small boxing arena near Burnside. The place was packed as the venue had oversold capacity. Possibly there were counterfeit tickets, it was rumored.

What I remember besides John Lee’s famous How, How, How, is being squeezed into the crowd by security, so the four-foot path required by the fire department could remain open. The security crew was ruthless, shoving and angerly pushing audacious, possibly drunk violators who might otherwise cross the bureaucratical line.

I remember before Hawthorn was a thing. Or even the Pearl.

I remember Mary’s Hamburgers becoming a thing. And Powel’s of course, though gritter maybe back then.

Least I forget, the Church of Elvis where, when it worked, you'd but a quarter in a storefront window, a dedicated shrine to Elvis, to receive a handwritten poem of good fortune in return.

The Pearl was just beginning to change in 2004 when they were building condos in the industrial part of town. All of the streets were still cobblestone. There were no Starbuck’s, no coffee shops in the area.

I made a comment about the REI condo building under construction to one of my friends.

I said, “Who would want to live down here. Or up in a condo. How much did you say they are going for?” I remember asking, incredulous.

But that was a long time ago and I’d no idea I would buy a condo in that building twelve years later. Or that I’d be selling the condo to move to Hillsdale five years after that.

Or that I’d be living next to the late Doug Macy’s wife, who then passed six months from our moving next door, thirty-five years after my first interview.

But these are the things that make Portland, Portland.

Odd coincidences, strange bedfellows. Resilience. Defiance. Resistance of servitude. Quirkily courteous. Fiercely protective. This is Portland.

My kind of people.

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