The BART train rocks back and forth on its tracks. I have to be roused from the inward focus our parting forced on me. It was a sudden flip, from being aware of her desire for me pressed in on the periphery, where I had been redirecting it like a stream of water, to suddenly, in its absence, yearning out everywhere at once for it and falling on nothing, like grasping for smoke or stepping up on that last phantom stair. So I stayed inside myself and rummaged through the debris, the warm spots where she had touched me, and renewed the sensations on my body by replaying scenes from the morning over and over in my mind.
But I was roused. BART whistled and slammed through its mysterious tunnels. Emerged at nowhere destinations to let strangers off and on. And finally announced in a robotic voice that we'd reached the Oakland Coliseum...
My excitement crescendoed at the airport, where finally the whole grand plan became real to me. Shoes off at the security checkpoint. Feet on hard carpet. The brief embarrassment of socks exposed to strangers. Rushed, bent-double re-tying of my shoes, labored breathing, we're sorry, but safety regulations prohibit bringing lighters onto airplanes. Gate 14. Plane departs 1:15 PM, on time, for Seattle.
Ah, Seattle: more trees. And a pretty impressive view smiling up at us as we come in for a landing. Islands strewn like splotches of liquid on a dark sea. Wide swaths of new development, acres and acres of family homes grinning like too many rows of teeth, perfect in their symmetry and only from this viewpoint yielding their blandly sinister arrangement, American dreams packed in like sardines, held in bulk, lockers where families and their possessions are stored. Neatly numbered, groomed, pamphleted, mortgaged, then cleanly, modestly lived in.
We take a bus into the city. It coughs and rumbles through unfamiliar streets, wending ponderously around corners like an overweight, asthmatic shark. 4th and Pine. Our hostel, the Green Tortoise, looks like a shit-hole from outside. The building is tired, stained, in disrepair; you can imagine the smell from across the street. It could be any number of crackhead "hotels" that litter the foul mouth of San Francisco's own Tenderloin district like cracked, rotting teeth. But the colorful interior, the walls plastered with enthusiastic posters and advertisements, the young people sitting behind the counter, and the actual smell that thanks God didn't approach the one I'd prepared my nostrils and guts for, all served to quickly ease my fears; they fell from me as if I'd dropped them on the floor with the luggage.
It was the first time I'd ever stayed in a hostel. I didn't know what to expect. Actually, that's a lie, I expected evereything to be the opposite of privacy. Large rooms with mattresses on the floor, rooms filled with strange people giving off strange odors, who'd eye your belongings sidelong while clinging close to their own. Dred locks. Patchouli. Guitars and Dylan voices singing Dylan songs, maybe even better than Dylan could.
But reality, as usual, fell short: cramped hallways, narrow staircases, low ceilings -- the architecture of economy and quantity. Every square inch utilized. The room itself is not so bad. Two sets of bunkbeds. A window looking out on a parking lot. Further, if you strain, the waterfront. Seagulls doing what they do best: crying and wheeling, wheeling and crying. From time immemorial doing nothing else. Their lot's been cast. A sink shoved low into the wall, jutting porcelain that stands on rusted spindly pipes set in the crumbling plaster.
No roommates yet. We shove our belongings into a flimsy pressed-wood locker beneath the bottom bunk, clasp a flimsier lock around the latch, and trundle back downstairs, finally unburdened, into the expansive fresh Seattle air to smoke a cigarette and get out tourism on.
Despite the run-down facade of the Green Tortoise, its location is right in the middle of Seattle's ultra-clean downtown tourist center. Macy's, Tiffany's, Nordstrom, town squares, towering glass structures, and lifting high into the brisk spring air the same din to be found in every major city, the urban ruckus -- construction, traffic, shouts, plumes of steam shooting and hissing from sewers -- bounced around and contained, amplified and warped, churned into a roar of white noise by the skyscrapers that close everything in on all sides.
We strut the streets like citizens. The layout reveals itself right off. A city with nothing to hide: simple central grid that slopes into the waterfront, the world-famous Pike's Place Market. In the other direction, pulling free from the suck of clustered chain-store consumerism, the land rises and the buildings grow steadily smaller, till from the anonymous right-angled streets emerge narrower curving avenues with thrift shops, bars, pizza joints and cafes set modestly back from the sidewalks, alleyways and courtyards, and lo! unused spaces like sighs of relief, like sudden forest clearings.
We go thrifting. Eat fat greasy slices of pizza. Tour hurriedly through the throng of Pike's Place Market, which is similar to San Francisco's own string of piers. The comparison is generous to Seattle's version, which has little of the charm ours does. We smoke cigarettes and chat with the locals. All the while a disappointment grows inside us, takes the form of barbs and jabs at Seattle's seemingly paltry offerings. The downtown area needs no further description. And the supposedly "hip" Capitol Hill neighborhood is maybe two or three blocks of thrift shops and cafes.
So far our favorite coffee has been from Starbucks.
But night-time in a strange city puts the thrill on us. We'd staked out a couple bars earlier in the afternoon, so after an embarrassing burrito (north of San Francisco, is it possible to find a good one?), it's the Bus Stop with its comforting name (Phone Booth anyone?) where we finally shrug out of our coats and kick back with pints of the local amber. Rain begins to slant hard into the pavement outside.
Like old men at the dock, we cast our gazes and wait for a nibble...
Erica has just turned 28, she is cute and drunk with thin arms and a ready smile, she is punchy, she's got spunk. It's her birthday, the reason Seth, the hot boy Robin's singled out from across the bar, is with them. At midnight we are left with him and his two friends. We are beyond drunk. We are dancing at a disco that reminds me of Queer As Folk's Babylon. I am grinding a woman twice my age on a raised platform, just me and her up there. Seth is gay and totally into me. Robin is disappointed and jealous. I am through yelling myself hoarse over the music. We leave, exhilerated, and walk home through the rain, through the strange city at 2 AM. Keys jingle. Muffled silent hallway, heavy breathing. A dark room, two figures huddled together in the other bunk...
Morning. A moment's disorientation before my senses slide into focus. Mind opens a squeaky door, steps in tentatively. The top bunk has me sheathed in a pocket of heat trapped between the mattress and ceiling. I climb gingerly down the ladder on blood-heavy ankles and slip into the hall. After a harsh piss, staring absently at my body in the mirror as the sound of my urinating hyptnotizes me, I re-enter the room, now aware of the strange odors our four bodies brewed through the night. I observe that the other couple is attractive. They spoon like in the movies. I didn't think it possible to fall asleep like that and stay in position through the night's unconscious movements.
Back in my bunk, I listen to the faint sounds of their waking, light kisses, bodies whispering. One of his hairy legs has her lower body in a grip. An arm wrapped round her shoulders. She has a full head of curly, morning-stunned hair, a face warm with blood. Awake, I can't shake the unsettling feeling of being so close to the ceiling, so I climb back down as soon as Robin stirs. We get ready for the day in purposeful, awkward, brittle silence, that is nevertheless so complete the ratchet tear of a zipper or the light friction of nylon makes my jaw clench. It isn't till we're out of the room that I'm breathing normally again and it's...
On Bainbridge Island a rough figure of a man stands on a rickety wooden dock. He has the half-smoked stub of an unlit cigar trapped between yellow teeth, and speaks unintelligibly around it. He may well have been born with the crude thing clamped in new gums, grim as he stands before us now. We ask whether we might rent any number of sad-looking boats bobbing and knocking against the rot-soft wood. He says something dismissive that I can't decipher, then climbs into his own small dinghy and rows a few yards out before letting go of the oars and blaspheming his unlocatable lighter. Though his mouth and beard twitch around his words, the cigar remains absolutely still. As if it
is smoking him
from the inside out. Bewildered, we turn and walk back to the shore. As Robin takes pictures of the boats, a disturbing image enters my head, that of the cursing seaman unravelling -- flesh, sinew, bone -- when the cigar is pulled with a wet suction sound from his horrible mouth.
On Bainbridge Island a dog named Rosie waits patiently outside a pizzeria for her owner to emerge. Living her narrow canine existence, with eyes that beg for more. Let me out! Deciding the $6.50 ferry ticket would be justified if only I spent a few minutes scratching, petting, kissing and babying Rosie, I mean really lovin' her up, I kneel before her happy face and get down to business.
A young man steps out with a slice of pizza larger than and too heavy for the paper plate underneath it.
"And what might you two be doing on a such a lovely day?"
Spoken with a courtesy that belies his age.
"Petting this cutie. We're from San Francisco. Just took the ferry out to see what Bainbridge Island had to offer."
"Not much," he says after chewing and swallowing a hearty bite. "I grew up here. But it's a beautiful day for a boat ride."
He is free with information in that absent-minded, starved-for-conversation way.
A van sweeps lazily past.
The young man informs us that he goes to college on the "mainland", that he's housesitting with his brothers while his mother and grandmother are off, on a whim, in China.
crazy. I'll probably never see them
Which statement, the actual arrangement of words and the tone it was said in, and lastly its content, strikes us as singularly funny. He remains silent, either satisfied at his own humor, intentional or not, or baffled that something said so matter-of-factly has caused these two strangely-dressed tourists to drown him out with mounting laughter. He looks relieved and proud, but absent, as if searching for the key to his remark's humor so he might understand it and repeat it.
Still laughing, we part with Rosie and the boy and, breathless, puffing on cigarettes, race back down the main road after hearing our boat's lonely horn blast the atmosphere to smithereens. Smithereens being hard to com by, we collect a few off the ground before trampling up the ramp, running, running, a happy old lady holds the gate half open and waves us through. The massive ship fires up its rotors, which set the algae-green water to churning. A fine white sputtering froth. Gulls gliding in our wake. In the belly of this sad long beast, on padded bench seats amid the warm wet stink of processed food -- that chemical fume of degraded nutrition -- I fall asleep.
Seattle, we're through with you.
We secure a rental car but have a frustrating time disentangling ourselves from a confounding grid of one-way streets. Freeway on-ramps seem to elude us around corners. We spot them from inaccessible vantage points and in trying to approach them get squeezed further away. Seattle's quicksand suction, the more we struggle the further in we are pulled, until finally, motionless at a red light, I roll down the window and ask for directions.
Leaving a city is more difficult than entering one.
But the road suddenly opens before us, so straight and wide we practically tumble into it, and Portland, Oregon is now an invisible point on the horizon.
A pit stop:
There is no surer way, I'm convinced, to embed a song in your inventory of forever-cherished memories than to listen to it on the open road, in a rental car, your best friend in the world at your side. The earth flattens itself before you. An awareness slowly settles in like sunlight from newly parted clouds: that you are a flimsy, negligible thing with such a small footprint, such a silly haircut, and it's only by a miracle of combined forces that you gete to "be anything at all", let alone happy, let alone charged and inspired, in love, at work on the soul, sucking hard on jolly ranchers as you barrel down narrow highways yelling at the top middle and bottom of your lungs how incredibly hard
it is out here bein' a pimp.
The silent rush of trees, a golden overexposure of sunlight quickly losing itself to gathering clouds. Layers of landscape slide, shift, rotate, cascade into view. Recede. Fields scrolling by, viewed somehow sharper tones through the cinematic panorama of the rear-view mirror. By the time we reach Portland the city looks drowsy and cold, the streets are rain-washed and glimmer dully in the afternoon gray. Our small rental car is slotted neatly into the first exit ramp. We roll silently into a deserted downtown district. Map awkwardly spread over my lap. Lazily browsing the empty avenues.
Immediately Portland has communicated a tranquility and ease that we sorely missed in Seattle. A sort of muffled introspective quality, a city that has gathered itself in for the quiet weekend. No showmanship, no scraping machinery of urgency, just the confidence of a small town that has been and always will be, no thanks to you, but come and enjoy what we've got to offer.
Which, admittedly, isn't much. Not if you're accustomed to the embarrassment of natural and artificial riches San Francisco lays out daily, spreads over its jumble of hills and shores like a picnic. So more than a unique environment, the main lure of Portland is the fact that it isn't San Francisco, it isn't entirely lame, and it isn't stressful. (Seattle really did suck our energy. The drizzly wind, oppressive drab architecture and lack of small-town feel that even SF has tucked away in certain neighborhoods. We were left nervy and exhausted, wind-blown, dry-eyed and irritable.)
The Value Inn on Southwest 4th Street is a shabby motel cut into a featureless block. The reception area is filled with worn objects that exhale stale, convalescent odors. Rehab for battered and abandoned furniture. All of which is slightly reassuring: imperfect people running an imperfect establishment means we'll be able to strike a deal. No soulless pristine facade, no untouched heavy art deco pieces, just stained plaster ceilings, despondent but real plants, a tired service bell on a sagging counter and the small friendly Indian man behind it, with a rushed but amicable demeanor. Friendly face.
A thick accent gives his sentences a lilting, dipping, swooping quality -- very pleasant -- that is unfortunately at odds with the slurp-slap hell-rhythm of his flip-flops. He leads us up a moldy narrow staircase and down a corridor that groans with the weight of our burdened footsteps. Room 44 is a large rectangle with two double beds, that he is giving us at $50 a night on the condition that we use only one of the beds. The room is also furnished with a large television set, refrigerator, microwave, heater/air conditioner and, be still my heart (art?), a broad imitation marble writing desk:
"Lovely. It's perfect."
While dictionary.com doesn't list "a shower with the water pressure of a turkey baster in a baby's fist" or "proximity to loud middle-of-the-night domestic disputes" or "the application of tissue-thin and brillo-rough towels to bare skin" as attributes of either "lovely" or "perfect", we are nevertheless overjoyed at the promise of four days of privacy and relative comfort compared to Seattle's awkward hasty accommodations. Securing the room shaved off 99% of the apprehension that trundles in on the heels of the unknown. Whatever happens, we have our headquarters.
Into the charged outside air with giddy exaltation. Portland would do right by us, we could feel
it. We'd not half an hour into our visit stumbled onto her best-kept secret, the Value Inn with its truck-stop town rates. It's a matter of putting one foot in front of the other till she bestows more unexpected pleasures on our trusting upturned tourist faces.
Like, say, an incident with the Portland city police.
The sun has finally broken through and thrown off Portland's gloomy raiment -- every
body loves raiment -- and the sky is so blue you can tumble into it if you forget to keep both feet on the ground. A is lit under us. So we use it to light our cigarettes and behind these brightly burning sticks we scheme. Feeling that gravity today has been reversed, we come up with the idea to climb some lofty perch -- the roof of a hotel, say -- and take photos. An eight-story parking garage is the first such scaleable edifice we come across. Up in a glass-walled elevator that takes us to the top floor where we are exhaled onto a broad warm expanse of concrete. At the far end is a ledge that drops 80 feet down the other side to the brick-laid pavement below (as opposed to above). Robin squints out at the light-blasted city. The wind tugs and teases our hair.
I hop onto the ledge and let my feet hang over. A vertical thrill grips my sternum. Robin unsheathes the camera with that familiar scratch of velcro and starts snapping photos. I sprawl carefully and deliberately on top of the ledge, head resting on a raised pillar of cement, left arm draped lazily over the side. Across the empty expanse is a skyscraper that looms with the smug implacability of an authority figure. Floor-to-ceiling windows reveal layers like the cross-section of an ant farm. Each level toiling, oblivious to the activities taking place above and below it. There is something comforting in the sight, mute efficiency applied to unknowable tasks. Neat little office tasks. The visual equivalent of muffled construction through your closed bedroom window, lying in bed.
From the street, bustling commercial activity. People flowing like cells down the wide red walkways, the circuit anatomy of city streets. Sirens. Trains gliding smoothly and futuristically down gleaming rails. Robin fiddling with the camera in the periphery. More sirens. Strong sun, good sunlight. Healthy, happy face, warm nose...
Unfamiliar voices suddenly come into hearing range...
Two figures approach us slowly.
I think: busted
! But nothing new. We'll show humility, embarrassment, explain that we're tourists and rush off with low quick footsteps and stifled laughter.
But the guns at their sides are a fast and sinister communication that they are not security guards deployed to rid this privately-owned roof of trespassers, but police officers. They keep an uncomfortable distance. We come down off the ledge and approach them, slinking sheepishly in our clothes.
"Can I ask what you two are doing up here?"
"I'm sorry, sir," my first instinct being to apologize. "We're not from here. We just came up for the view and to take photos. I'm sorry."
He gives his female partner a significant look, then steps back to speak into the radio at his shoulder.
His partner, meanwhile: "Do you have a car parked here?"
I mentally hush the small Southern accent that wants to emerge. The accent of backwards innocence, humble apology, simple-minded purity of intent. The urge to cut my voice down to one dimension: free of implications, connotations and unconscious betrayals.
"Are you aware that people called us because they thought you were going to jump? This place is surrounded by taller buidlings. Of course they saw you up on the ledge."
The obviousness of this dawns on me and without thinking how the action might be taken by the officers, I return to the ledge and look down on a swarm of police cars angled onto the corner like metal filings drawn to a magnet.
"Oh my God, how stupid!"
Robin: "I'm sorry, we're tourists. We're not from here. We didn't know."
"Can I see your IDs?"
The other officer has returned.
Yes, sure, of course, here they are.
Two more approach from the other end of the lot and gather in quiet communication. We stare at them like petty thieves caught in a drugstore. Dumb. Tourists. Please forgive us.
One says, "Should we take them in?"
Another says, "We could give them garage exceptions."
Their gazes fall on us in unison, expressing unanimous but not unfriendly condemnation, a look of understanding and scorn. Our innocence finally wins them over. We are handed back our ID cards.
The female officer asks us how long we have left in Portland.
"Just a couple days," we say over each other.
"We're just tourists," Robin says again as if still lodged in an earlier part of the conversation.
"God, that was so stupid," I chime in.
The first officer says, "I think sending them back to California is enough punishment."
A generic laughter rumbles up out of four belt-restrained bellies, lifts into the baking air which only now begins to let up its choke on my dry mouth and nostrils. We join in, slightly offended, feeling the special breed of outrage particular to being rejected by someone you deem inferior. But the humility of our positions quickly stifles this inappropriate welling, and after a couple seconds of uncertain milling around, we step outside their sphere of gravity and, picking up speed, descend once more in the glass-walled elevator, egos slowly expanding until, back on the street, we fairly burst with excited volume. Laughter and erratic charges in our steps, huddling in barely containable conspiracy.
Another day another blog.
Let's see, the only other event of note, and it can't really be counted as an event, is an evening at the bar with the illustrious Peter, and by illustrious I mean hopelessly drunk.
Slowly his interest in me wanes, his slobbering over Robin waxes, and the end result, well, is better expressed with a picture:
Safely ducking out from Peter's loving arms, we hurry back into the main downtown area and on a whim descend the dingy stairs into a cellar bar, I forget the name, where two bros await us with the peace offering of a horizontal props-fist.
We come to use the bathroom but stay for the outrageously entertaining dynamic of these two lovely specimens. One is unexpectedly sharp and witty, the other is drunk but in a non-threatening, non-leering way, just kind of beyond the normal comprehension of things and an easy target for his friend, who doesn't miss an opportunity to deprecate him in front of these strangers. We reminisce on the 90s (the main feature of which, we decide after a few moments of heavy silence, was virginity) and flirt with the obviously unamused bartenders who want nothing more than to close up and go home. We wait till the last possible moment and finally take a few photos before climbing out of the smoky den with the unique tourist pride of accidentally finding a place that makes you feel like a citizen. The ideal traveler's instinct.
And that, folks, is Portland, Oreg--
Wait! I almost forgot!
The little domestic dispute I hinted at above.
So we're settled in drunken sleep, right, which isn't real sleep, just a reprieve on the senses that doesn't dip into that cherished oblivion -- the mind is left to swerve through its endless fields of data, to churn in alcohol heat.
The first slap wakes us up, the sound stabbing some deepest animal instinct into life, so I'm on guard before I even hear the second slap, which rings in the skull like a fire alarm. An unfamiliar call to action causes me to sit up, but I am instead forced into a pregnant state of motionlessness as if balanced on the point of obliteration, listening intently for more sounds from the next room. The walls are dark blue with the artificial light from the street. They seem to breathe with the intensity of the moment. Robin is alert next to me.
Yelling. Trampling footsteps. The whole motel groans in complaint, rocks with the sudden violence as if to say "I'm too old for this." Shouts from the corridor. We rush silently to the peephole, where, while looking through it on a fish-eye, maddeningly narrow view, I very quietly, very slowly turn the lock with a delicateness that requires all my muscles to be simultaneously clenched. We take turns at the peep-hole. A small man rushes into view. He's stomping up and down the hall trying to get his jacket on.
"I'll kill that bitch. Where the hell is she? I'll shoot her."
Then silence. We return to bed, having heard the voice of the proprietor and thinking if he's involved, no help from us is needed, surely he's already called the police. But we can't sleep, our bodies are taut with tension, poised on the edge of action, and it'll be a while yet before this strange instinct loosens its grip on our nerves. Eventually, sleep takes us...
They play dumb in the morning. They didn't hear anything. As if this flimsy structure could hide the sound of its snoring termites. He goes so far as to say, "You know where to come next time."
"Yes, certainly. It was lovely. Thank you so much."
As we once again navigate a maze of one-way streets and dead-ends and bus-only routes, we realize that Portland has had us in an even deeper tangle, and after a half-hour's confused wandering, stunned as if the car itself couldn't make up its mind and its uncertainty could be read off the tint of the windshield and the angle of the hood, we are finally granted exit, spat out of Portland's admittedly well-kept mouth.
I insist that Route 101 is the nicer of the two main highways that unfurl like red carpets down to San Francisco, so we find that vein and inject ourselves into it. The coast is, of course, gorgeous, but the drive through sporadically, arbitrarily placed towns with no more culture than a surf shop and a diner, it gets tedious, so just above California's border we take a tributary over to the 5. This tributary, a long, narrow corrider of pines, with gentle sloping grades and sudden breathtaking views, re-invigorates us after six hours of cramped claustrophobia. The 5 doesn't get boring until the last awesome view of Mt. Shasta shrinks to nothing in the rear-view mirror, then you find yourself on an unendingly straight stretch of asphalt that dwindles to a non-point on the horizon. The uniform, soul-shrivelling flatness.
Flashes of blue and red.
Officer "Snook" issues me a $250 speeding ticket and sends me on my 65-mph way.
"Those white signs with the big black numbers on 'em? They're not suggestions, dude, they're the law. Now drive safely."
"Yes sir! Thank you sir!"
We drive through the night, taking turns. Stop for Taco Bell in some anonymous dark place. Roll into town at 1:30, just in time for the Phone Booth's last call.
Shit damn, it's good to be back.