Great American Road Trip: Portlandia and the Way of the Train

I rolled into Portland off a four-hour Greyhound around 12:30pm.  The sun was shining and the weather was perfect.  The streets massaged my feet.  ‘Yes, I could live here,’ I thought while strolling down 5th Avenue.

I soon discovered the Backspace Cafe, one of the better venues I’ve ever come across.  It hosts live music, serves great great food, has free wi-fi, and even has a computer repair center in the middle of its cavernous room.

Backspace is in the northwest, considered the yuppie part of town by locals.  It was worth checking out, however, for Powell’s Book Store, which purports to be the largest used book store in the country. Of course, local partisans for Strand in the East Village would disagree.

I’ll say this much- Strand definitely kicks Powell’s ass when it comes to cool, cheap books. There is no equivalent of the $1 rack, and many of Powell’s selections are priced at a higher cost than you’d find them on Amazon.  Also, the sections are ordered so meticulously that you’d never stumble across a random book, which is kind of the purpose of used bookstores.   I picked up a $2 History of the Teamsters at the Goodwill and a $1.50 copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee at another thrift store down the block.  You can’t replace the feeling of sifting through a random stack until, upon clasping the dirty old book in your hands, you know, ‘this is it.’

The rest of Wednesday was brutal. My couchsurfing host canceled on me, so I spent most of the days looking for internet hotspots so I could send out desperate 11th hour requests.   I ended up walking up an enormous hill, bag on shoulders, to get to northeast, the hip part of town.  The next day I could barely put weight on my shoulders without pain.

Note to Couchsurfers: 11th hour surfing is very difficult.  I contacted about 15 people, and only heard back from two people by that night, both of whom said no. Eventually my original host agreed to pick me up at a bar around midnight.

To kill time I hit up the beer garden, Prost.  The bar was packed for the Giants/Phillies game.  As a Mets fan, I was more than happy to support the Giants in vanquishing the dreaded Phanatics.  The game ended when Roy Oswalt, star Philly starter, tried to close out the game in relief, a la Randy Johnson.  Memo to Oswalt: You are not the Big Unit.  The Giants roughed him up, the bar celebrated, etc.

I wandered to a few more local joints, even pulling off a near victory in pool.  On my last shot, I scratched the 8 Ball, which cost me the game.  My opponent sympathetically let me re-shoot, but I scratched the 8 Ball again. I am not good at pool. More of a Hands Pool guy.

After exploring some more of Portland in the morning, and concluding that for all its charm, it didn’t have enough going on for me to live there, it was off to the train station.

My seatmate was an older woman who reminded me of Yoda.  After listening to her giggle and mutter truisms for a while, I excused myself to the lounge car.   The early hours of the Amtrak ride featured beautiful scenery and relative tranquility.  The crazies weren’t out in full, and the lounge was occupied by polite looking couples.  I went down to the bar car, where the bartender was raving about how Eisenhower had destroyed America’s rail system by stealing money for highways.

It occurred to me that never in my life have I ever heard someone rave about President Eisenhower.  He was about as middle of the road a president as we’ve had in the last 120 years.  As the sun set and view faded, there was less to do.  We completely lost cell phone reception for about two hours, during which the lounge car anxiously awaited news of the Giants game.  I was actually rooting for a Phillies win.  I wanted to be in San Fran for the celebration, not in some forlorn Amtrak lounge.

After dinner, which was around 7, about 90% either went to bed or went through such motions.   That left the crazies to roost.   I met a ragged old man named Jim, who ranted about how great Amtrak rides used to be.  He’d done the Portland-San Francisco ride four times this year already, and he thought this batch of Amtrak agents to be particular dicks.   Back in the day, he explained, you used to be able to bring booze on board and drink as much as you wanted, which led to big lounge car parties.   No more.  And you couldn’t even smoke.  I offered him some brandy I’d brought with me.  He thanked me and offered to smoke me up at the next stop.  Uninterested in getting thrown off the train in the middle of nowhere, Oregon, I politely declined.

The bar car put in a half hearted effort around 11pm.  The bartender was a wry, somewhat bitter 60 something black man who had worked the line for years.  He told me that the Bush administration had passed rules barring him from playing music in the bar car.  There’s always something sad about drinking in silence.   He told me the Bush administration generally passed rules with the purpose of making life on Amtrak miserable, as part of their plan to eliminate Amtrak entirely.

“He had the votes in Congress all lined up.  Then September 11th happened.  All of a sudden, everyone wants to get the hell out of D.C.  Problem is, airports are closed, roads are packed.  So what does Congress do? They hop on the first Amtrak ride out of town.  Mr. Bush lost a lot of votes on that day.”

The bartender had to cut off one likable fellow who had gotten so drunk that when he tried to tip the bartender, he ended up putting a dollar bill into his own recently finished glass instead of the tip jar.   Not sure I’ve ever seen that before.   The bartender was firm at a first in cutting him off.

“If the conductor comes down and see you looking like that, with your eyes all glazed over, I’m getting fired, and you’re getting thrown off this train. Now, I know I don’t want to get fired, and I know you don’t want to get thrown off this train in the middle of the night.”  They reached an agreement in which Drunkie would each a reheated set of Buffalo Wings before he was allowed to order again.

Jim was down there, always making small talk.  A Czech dude who had been at my dinner table earlier was there.  He was on his way to Costa Rica, but seemed unthrilled about it.  His girlfriend was making him go, or something.  The bar car crowd can be a little depressing.  One very intense dude stopped by and gave an extemporaneous monologue about how he has the second best bow and arrow big game hunter on the West Coast.  A former military man, he had forsworn the gun to hunt deer, moose, bears and whatever else with his bow.   He was sponsored by a bow company or something.  He had but one regret, a fat rival who always seemed to bring in bigger game than him.   He was on his way to California for hunting.  He was so frustrated by his fat rival that I feared he’d eventually have a breakdown, like America’s second best Proust scholar in Little Miss Sunshine, except armed with a bow and arrow.   When the bar closed down I went to bed, and woke up on the Bay.


About Janos Marton

Janos Marton is a lawyer, advocate and writer.
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