Thursday, July 24, 2014

First the Wine, then the World

“Excuse me.  Do you know where the food trucks are?  The ones that were on the TV?”  The woman—maybe in her seventies and put together for travel, all function and no fuss—stopped in front of me and C on the corner of Salmon and Park in downtown Portland, her head turning back and forth to stare down the cross streets, hoping to see a kimchi taco beacon guiding the way.  The whole food truck thing was clearly getting out of hand.  We knew where there were some trucks, a full city block full in fact, and were headed there ourselves, though I have no idea if they had ever been on the TV.  We pointed her a few blocks further on, and then set off ourselves for bowls of meat and mole.

We lived in Portland eight years ago.  Being on a student and minimum wage budget at the time, food trucks were a common enough dining option.  There were a handful clustered on Third Avenue, a few with a permanent spot on Pioneer Square, and solitary operations that had staked territory on random corners.  Now, there are thriving neighborhoods made up entirely of portable food, old parking lots entirely given over to kitchen-equipped panel vans, and tourists seemingly visiting the city for the sole purpose of eating from a paper plate while huddling underneath a tree.  But then the proliferation of food trucks was not the only thing that had changed.

In the years since we have been gone, downtown has filled in a bit, developers have put up new buildings, the city has picked up new energy.  It was still “Keep Portland Weird” weird—where else are you going to find Darth Vader in a kilt and on a unicycle playing the Star Wars theme song on bagpipes?  But in between the  unicycle and street punks, there were also hour-long waits for doughnuts and a whisky bar that calls itself a library and requires a membership to get in.  And get this: memberships, which just give you access to the place so you can spend money on booze, start at $500 and are at capacity with a waiting list to join.  I'm not sure that is a business model that would have succeeded in Portland eight years ago.  But now there is more of everything: more money (apparently), more restaurants, more coffee, more stores, more visitors, and more public spaces devouring parking lots (which I support).  So less parking, but more of everything else.

There were also thousands of people attending something called the World Domination Summit.  When asked, a woman serving our coffee one morning explained that it was a conference for people to exchange strategies for dominating the world with their next BIG IDEA.  I'm no expert, but it seems if you want to dominate the world the first step would be to not tell thousands of other people how to do it too.  Rather than rub elbows with our soon-to-be overlords, we instead fled to the hills. 

If you ask anyone from Portland what they like about the place, every time—absolutely every time—he or she will say that what makes Portland great is that it is one hour from the beach and one hour from the mountains.  And it is.  Mt. Hood towers over the city and tails south into the Oregon cascades, with world class wilderness escapes at the ready.  The Oregon coast beckons to the west with sea stacks looming in the fog.  But we opted instead to explore Oregon's agricultural assets, and found ourselves in the vineyards.

With wine in belly, we made our way back to town and to the airport, a flight to catch.  It was a quick trip, just a weekend tacked onto a day of work, but long enough to make me first remember and then miss some of the many benefits of Portland.  Trail runs in Forest Park.  The Saturday Farmer's Market.  Two-dollar hamburgers at Jake's.  Ready access to cheese.  And, of course, that whole one-hour to the beach, one-hour to the mountains thing.  Downtown still smells like piss.  But then I suppose you have to have something to excite the senses of lost tourists as they try to find those food trucks from the TV.  Consider it a street-level amuse bouche.

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