The Umpqua Bank on Alberta Is My Favorite Piece of Surrealist Art

May we offer you a telephone to nowhere in these trying times?

By Conner Reed August 17, 2021

What secrets do you hold?

Image: Conner Reed

This summer, before the rise of the Delta variant restored an unwelcome shadow to the concept of cross-country travel, a bunch of my freshly vaccinated friends came to visit me in Portland. I developed a semi-cement roster of spots to take these newcomers: Gado Gado. Rocky Butte. Movie Madness. The Umpqua Bank on the corner of Alberta and NE 18th.

Some of us have our Dalís, our Kahlos, our Duchamps. We crack open Breton and brush against the transformational possibilities of the unreal. Me? I have the Umpqua Bank on the corner of Alberta and NE 18th, my favorite piece of surrealist art of all time.

Picture this: you are strolling back to your car after a leisurely afternoon on Alberta. You pass what is, to the untrained eye, a bank. On its eastern windows, lots of colorful text. What does it say? you think. So you approach. "Grilled cheese for two," the text screams back at you. "Freelance meeting." "Spontaneous concert." "Postman." Dividing up these cries from some sinister subconsciousness are small bits of vector art: A bicycle. A green heart. A fried egg. Behind the glass, a single blue card that reads, "Is my baby ready for  a grown up account?" with no additional information.

Image: Conner Reed

You squint and return to the windows, breaking a light sweat. "Bicycle living." "Strolling with strollers." "Down the street." How is this stuff ... bank stuff? "Made from scratch." "Sweater weather." "First date." Is it like, a list of things you can do while you bank? Your stomach drops. You hold the fragments of a mosaic that refuses to come together. To invoke the banjo-flecked wisdom of one Taylor Swift: it's like trying to solve a crossword and realizing there's no right answer

You pull back. Scan the perimeter for some sort of foothold. At the counter: an enormous vat of dog treats. Opposite the treats: a vintage silver telephone accompanied by a "LET'S TALK" sign. Talk to who? Aren't there tellers behind the counter? Why would somebody come to the bank and then use this prop telephone to contact the bank? 


Your pulse spikes. You notice yellow bistro furniture on the far end of lobby. Is that the only seating in this entire place? Beside it, a bike bearing a large box with the words "GO TO" plastered across the side. On the wall behind the bike: "WELCOME TO THE WORLD'S GREATEST BANK." At this point you have nearly gone full Laura Dern in Inland Empire, but finally, amid your Lynchian nightmare, you spot a grounding force: a calendar.

You know how calendars work. Across the top, the days of the week; beneath them, corresponding numbers. But what's this? There are seven days of the week, but 10 dates per row? Wait, only in the first row????????


Image: Conner Reed

You cannot remember the last time you gazed so directly into the face of pure, uncut entropy. Your innocence lays in rubble on the corner of NE 18th. But in the disarray, an epiphany: perhaps you have just borne witness to one of history's great examples of neoliberal satire. Was Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" half so bold in its illustration of a world rendered unrecognizable by the corrosive effects of capital? 

As Dalí said: "Surrealism is destructive, but it only destroys what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision." Your shackles are gone. "Let's talk," indeed. Sweater weather. Spontaneous concert.

Anyway, whenever I take my friends here, they laugh and go "that's crazy" and then we usually eat at Gumba. Love their fry bread.

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