Apparently it's not enough to just put it on a bumper sticker.
I have just returned from a weekend trip with my eldest son to Portland, Oregon. Apparently, the unofficial slogan of the city – which I could not find any mention of on the city’s official tourism website – is “Keep Portland Weird.” After spending two days there, I can sort of see why. It is a bit of a weird place, but it in many good ways. And it was only at the very end of our trip that I witnessed something that reminded me of just how important it is in some cases to go against the grain.
In keeping with my son’s love of public transit, as well as our travel budget, we rode the city’s cable cars and MAX light rail system everywhere. This was also in keeping with the “weird” theme in that it is unusual for a relatively small city like Portland to have such a highly developed public transit system. Furthermore, the New Yorker in me found it absurd that this all runs on an honor system as far as fare paying goes. Not once did an inspector check our tickets to make sure that we – or any other riders – had actually paid. And city government (in this city and others that utilize an honor system, like San Francisco) wonder why public transit is running a deficit? Maybe I’m just too cynical from years of riding the New York subway, but I think fare-beaters should at least have the decency to let the rest of us know who they are by brazenly jumping the turnstile.
Mill's End Park. The smallest in the world, it is easy to miss - especially if you are rushing along the busy expressway on either side.
Among the weird attractions in Portland are the smallest park in the world, the deepest train tunnel in North America, and the most non-family friendly looking donut joint I have ever seen. The minute I saw my eldest boy smiling proudly at being able to stand next to (note: not in) the smallest park in the world, Mill Ends Park, I knew he was truly his father’s son (for more about my family’s adventures in gardening on busy street medians, read my Adam in the Garden post).
At the Robertson Tunnel at the Washington Park MAX station, you can take the elevator (probably the fastest I have ever ridden in, save for the one in the World Trade Center z”l) 260 feet up to ground level to the entrance of the zoo. Only according to the floor indicator, you are not moving from the train platform to the surface, but between 16 million years ago and the present. I felt like snarkily screaming at the elevator, “I’m aging fast enough without adding another 16 million years on top of my recently celebrated 43, thank you!“
You can pick up a pair of skimpy undies along with a dozen donuts.
A warning to those of you who can picture a donut shop only as a squeaky clean, bright, cheery, child-friendly place. You may not be able to handle VooDoo Doughnut, where the decor is what can only be characterized as grungy goth. The lighting is dark, the walls are covered in sexy underwear imprinted with the VooDoo Doughnut logo (for purchase), and the staff could all be models for covers of magazines on extreme tattooing and piercing culture. The shop’s slogan is “The Magic is in the Hole.” Need I say more? Nonetheless, the place was packed with customers, the line snaking out the door and around the corner. And the vegan glazed cake donut my son and I shared sure was delish. Who says you have to look like the little guy in the Dunkin Donuts commercial to make good sickeningly sweet pastries?
The world's largest bookstore looks deceptively small from the outside.
The weirdest place we visited in Portland was weird in the most positive sense of the word. Powell’s City of Books is not a misnomer. It is the largest bookstore in the world, and it indeed feels like a city when you are in there. I once wrote that I could see myself moving into an IKEA, but I am now convinced that I would rather live in Powell’s, where a book lover like me could literally spend the rest of my life reading and not even get through a tiny fraction of all that printed matter before either reaching the end of my natural life span or dying from my brain exploding from literary overload. The Judaica section, where I spent much of our four hours (divided over two days) in Powell’s, while not including every Jewish book ever published, certainly boasted many rare finds (some worth reading, others not). I got so woozy in the store that I almost considered spending $7000 on a proof copy of the first edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Thank goodness my son, who although he is an avid reader is also very frugal, was there to figuratively catch me before I fell into debt whose depth not even the greatest of all wizards could make disappear.
Once you're inside you understand why it's called a city of books.
On the MAX train on the way to the airport at the end of our stay, I witnessed a most weird exchange. It was weird in the sense that it is did not play out as I expected it to, and it touched my heart. Midway through the ride, a couple of skater dudes plunked themselves down across from a casually, yet expensively dressed man who looked to be a few years older than I. The man was holding and looking at his PDA, and one of the skaters leaned right up to him and said,
“Hey mister, is that the new iPhone?”
“Yes,” the man replied.
“What’s it called?”
The skater reached out his hand toward the iPhone and said, “Can I see it?”
My stomach clenched as I watched and listened from two seats away.
“Here, you can hold my skateboard,” offered the skater.
It was silent a moment as the man looked the skater in the eye.
“No need. Here, you can take a look at it,” he replied as he handed the skater the $500 phone.
The skater fiddled around with the phone a minute and handed it back to the man. “Cool. Thanks.”
A few stops later the skaters got off and the man continued his ride to the airport.
iPhone skateboard. Weird.
The true meaning of “weird” is something that is not natural. It has become natural not to trust others, especially if they appear different from you (as many in Portland do, owing to the rise in homelessness and living on the street due to extremely high unemployment in Oregon). Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 1:6) teaches us, “hevei dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf z’chut,” judge every man to the side of merit. In other words, we need to give people the benefit of the doubt. My visit to Portland, and the episode on the train, reminds me that we all need to work on looking beyond stereotypes and pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones. We need to not always do what comes naturally.
As we enter the season in which we bring light into the darkness through our various holiday observances, and we wish for peace on earth and good will toward people, let us all strive to be a little weirder.
© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand