I have lived in Portland at various times of my adult life. First as a college student, then as a young married woman. My three older children were all born in the Greater Portland area. I was living there when Mt. St. Helen’s erupted.
But Portland and I are like an ill-matched couple. No matter how hard we try to make a go of it, we simply can’t hang. We are good for a couple of days, reminiscing and catching up with each other, but that’s about all either one of us can tolerate the other. We like each other best in small increments.
Don’t get me wrong. I consider Portland a beautiful city. I love her skyline and her river. She’s got some great shops and wonderful touristy things to do. She has some of the best food on the West Coast, and I love sailing on her waterways. And don’t even get me started on the many bookstores and readers. Portland is a reading city. I love that in any city. Besides some of my dearest friends live in Portland, so I don’t mean to disparage their fair city in any way whatsoever.
But Portland wears me flat out.
I don’t think I could have told you what it is about Portland that bothers me so until this last trip. I spent Tuesday and Wednesday visiting there with Baby Girl. (Thank you for your prayers. They are so helpful and such an encouragement during this difficult time.)
As we walked through downtown, I finally figured out what it is about Portland that grates on my nerves so.
Portland is a loud, shrill broad.
I live my life in almost monk-like silence. I go entire weeks where the only people I speak to outside of family are the characters of the books I am writing. But when the times comes for me to venture out, say to the post office, shopping, or getting groceries, even then my encounters are mostly gentle. People say hello. They hug. They visit a bit. Then we all go along our merry way.
Nobody is shouting at each other or over each other trying to be heard, except maybe at a ballgame.
Everywhere I go in Portland the noise level reaches World Cup fever-pitch. Restaurants. Street Corners. Stores. Even Multnomah County Library is unsettlingly loud.
It’s like everybody in Portland has something to say and they are all saying it, or singing it, or shouting it, or declaring it, or wearing it, or flashing it, or bumper-stickering it, or box-topping it, or petitioning it all at the very same time.
I think that must be why Portland is one of those places where tats and body piercings have been embraced with an evangelical zeal. People in Portland appear to have such a need to express themselves and to make darn sure they are noticed.
The worst thing anyone can do to a Portlander is ignore them.
I know I am generalizing here. There are likely thousands of people in Portland who would like to live in silence, too, I imagine, but good luck finding such a person in Downtown.
The people Downtown are so dang loud.
Their clothes are loud. Their tats are loud. Their studs are loud. Their street music is head-banging loud. (I much prefer the street music in Baton Rouge or New Orleans. There’s a gentleness to it that Portland lacks). Their signs are loud. Their petitions are loud. Their restaurants are so noisy you need a megaphone to place an order.
I don’t know how anyone in Downtown Portland hears themselves think.
But then, maybe that’s the point.
They are not a city given to quiet self-reflection.
Portlanders consider themselves Progressives.
They don’t waste a lot of time looking back over things.
They like to think they are always looking ahead.
Portlanders are, in essence, explorers. Always in search for something new to try, they want to lead the way. They don’t much care where they are going. They just want to be the first to get there.
Keeping it weird isn’t something Portlanders have to work at. They wear weirdness like New Yorkers wear black. They are completely comfortable in it.
Bless their little stud-pierced-hearts.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain.