Between Hype and Pastries

DIY pastries. PDX, July 2010.

The problem with New York City is that it has to live up to itself. New Yorkers constantly have to prove they are worthy and, at the same time, make enough cash to survive. Don’t get me wrong. Portland’s timber industry has never been saintly. But there’s just less at stake in lumberjack posturing here, and there’s more time for humanity behind the nose rings than in Williamsburg.

For the second time in two days, I only avoid a long queue of paying punters stretching out the door of an eating establishment at 8.30am because I am on my own and relatively impervious to cold and ostracism. There’s a chill in the air, but my blood is pumping after walking from the hotel while checking all electronic channels of communication to see whether anyone had got back to me with a Tears For Fears interview slot. The sole message in any inbox was a text from my wife — “Great!” — in response to a photo I’d sent her from last night’s concert.

Even seated at Mothers Bistro, there is no escape from my purpose in Portland. ’80s music permeates the Project Pabst festival but also, apparently, Mothers. Among others, Patrice Rushen and Tears For Fears play through the sound system even though I’m sitting outside on Stark Street. I order the wild salmon hash and a hot Stumptown Guatemalan roast in a French press. My waiter delivers the coffee and warns me he’ll return to plunge the press at the right moment. I don’t dare touch the teapot-looking chrome French press in case I spoil the brewing process. He returns and plunges, as he promised.

It has taken me decades to unlearn British school dinners that were conceived in wartime rationing, served with a lack of care that didn’t even reach the level of disdain and eaten in 12 minutes. Even though we grow into new pathologies, it is a small consolation of aging that we can overcome some habits and emerge into joy. Change, we can change. With enough time and enough people concerned with the quality of what they are serving, we can enjoy both a satisfying and a relaxed eating experience.

When the food arrives in a creamy sauce it’s not what I’d call a hash, but a chunky mixture of new potatoes, leeks and wild salmon laid gently beside two fluffy fried eggs. Nothing quite transcended. It was equal to the sum of its parts but the whole was a delicious start to the day and the coffee was a generous portion of cloudy dark Central American pep.

Remains of my coffee in hand, I wander down the street to check out an actual Stumptown coffee shop. Airy and cozy at the same time it has the Portland signature mixture of minimal menu items and maximal knowledge from the plethora of people working there. I didn’t buy a “hair bender” coffee roast (Lord only knows what it would have done to my bald head), but I did buy a bag of “Holler Mountain,” as a gift for the wife. “Holler Mountain” purports to take coffees from all three major coffee growing areas of the world and blend them into a well-balanced coffee. At $15 for a half pound bag, it had better taste good too.

Elliot Smith payphone. Portland, March 2005.
Elliot Smith payphone. Portland, March 2005.

And then round the corner to the famous Voodoo Doughnut. It’s nearly 10 o’clock and the line out of Voodoo already stretches down the block and then back halfway up the block again. I’ve eaten what my grandfather used to call an elegant sufficiency but the siren song of a famous donuttery has me foundering on the rocks of gluttony.

I queue up. I wait. I get to what they generously call “the lobby” (the entire store is maybe 300 square feet) and think I can perhaps manage a lemon chiffon cruller until I spy my destiny. And I know what I want. There’s something so wrong about asking, in all seriousness, a young woman for “cock ‘n’ balls” and something so right about getting one with a smile for a smidgin over $5.

I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s cream in the cock n balls but I am. It’s a high quality boston creme donut in the shape of graffitied male genitalia. Fluffy and nice. At the outside tables I bump into two ladies from “conservative Ohio” who have purchased “voodoo doll” donuts. They are giggling at how shocked the folks back home would be at their donuts. And everything. They redouble their laughter at my donut. They take pictures of me with my camera and with theirs. “Keep Portland weird,” as the posters say, Ohioans need it.

Setting up an event always has a spring-like feel to it. A sense of possibility. The insiders are enabling, setting up so that something can be the best ever. The musicians for Project Pabst could totally mess up. No one might turn up to see them, but the set up has pristine potential. Especially in Portland, where everyone has a calm, can-do air, and especially in late September Oregon where, by all rights, it should be raining but instead it’s a sunny 70F with blue skies. And, for this second day of the festival, with a successful day yesterday behind them and a civilized noon opening time, there is an empowered, and friendly, insouciance to the workers.

People on the first day wore walking boots or cowboy boots, on the second, with an expectation of sun to shine on the gravel, there are more flip flops. These are practical hipsters, like the barista in Courier — they know how to strip down coffee machines, they know how to camp and fix bikes. This temporary venue has a recycling station, for three different streams of recyclables (recycling/landfill/compost), within 20 yards of the main stage. There’s a platform in prime position that gives wheelchair guests a great view. There’s a security guy with a hair clip that runs silver just above the right arm of his sunglasses. If beards, piercing, tattoos or residency in Portland make you a hipster then these are sensible hipsters for whom beauty is neither presumed nor prioritized.

he way things were. Portland, circa 1990.
The way things were. Portland, circa 1990.

Grandparents are the first band up. They are a young local 6 piece without even a recording contract. Three of the six pieces are, at least sometimes, guitars and the female bassist appears to be the love child of Tracy Bersley and Naomi Zeveloff — two friends of mine who have, as far as I know, never met. Grandparents (I have no idea why the name) have talent and originality, they are neither frightened of rock clichés or jangling discordance. They are jaunty, a bit strange and come over as entirely lovely. On stage this Sunday afternoon they spontaneously name their tambourine “Shakira.”

It seems as though their friends and families have come to see them, but they are underserved by the poor crowd. I feel a desire to promote them and interview them and promise them concerts in New York City — Grandparents at City Winery, perfect! — before I remember that I have no real way of following through on it. I can’t even get my assignments commissioned and I’m a professional writer, why would Michael Dorf book an unknown Portland band on the say so of an amateur A&R man? In my notes I write “Grandparents are Big Country meets Captain Beefheart” before I remember that I only know two Captain Beefheart songs and that I’m only reminded of them because the programme describes Grandparents as psychedelic.

Grandparents further endear themselves to me when, for the last song — a prolonged jam — four of them change places and play totally different instruments. The drummer comes to the front and meanders around curiously with maracas while the lead singer drums. The bassist takes the keyboard and the keyboard player picks up a guitar. They look like they are having fun and they hang out drinking PBRs with their friends after they’ve finished playing.

Because I didn’t tell you about another trip I made to Powell’s, it’s nearly 1pm and I’m ready for another potato meal. I choose Poutine Your Mouth, because since a fin de siècle trip to Montreal I have been partial to the Quebecois combination of fried potato, cheese curds and gravy. PYM has made an attempt to straddle the poutine/fries divide to bring poutine to the mass US market and the vegetarian gravy is a winner for me. I choose the “Magic Mushroom.” The mushrooms come in a sauce which is, I suppose, the veggie gravy, covered by lumps of cheese curd that don’t quite melt and sour cream on the recommendation of the vendor. The sauce is peppery with a strong rosemary presence and the poutine, though not authentic or perfect, is a lovely snack. It doesn’t really feel like poutine but, since most of us are not, most of the time, suffering through the middle of a freezing French Canadian winter evening, that’s probably for the best.

Sometime around noon I get an email response from Curt’s manager saying that he just got the email I sent on Friday night on the way to Ned Ludd’s. “I’m still here,” I say. “They are long gone,” he responds. I walk past the milling members of Grandparents and bid adieu to Portland and Project Pabst under the blazing Oregon sun. The story of how I interview Tears For Fears yet to be told, I clutch “The Hurting” close to my chest and leave.


Part 1 can be found here.

Part 2 can be found here.

Part 3 can be found here.

You can find a surprising epilogue, featuring Curt Smith, at Frontier Psychiatrist.

Photographs courtesy of Mike , Henry Alva and Mikko Tarvainen. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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