Living Here

Portland Polemic

For Oregon natives who fled to larger cities and then came back, homecoming isn’t always so easy.

By Anna Hirsh May 19, 2009 Published in the August 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

0914 oregon food e4lhfg

IN MY not-so-humble opinion, there are three kinds of people living in Portland. There are those who grew up here and never left, but who are somewhat befuddled by the city’s reputation as the “It” place to be.

Second, there are the outsiders—people who didn’t grow up here, or for that matter, anywhere in our evergreen state, but who have come in search of a new promised land that’s quirky, smart, forward-thinking, and artsy, where microbrew gushes from the fountains and locally roasted coffee rains from the sky. (These folks often slap “My other bike is a bike” stickers on their 10-speeds and whip their TVs just to punish them for existing.)

Then there are the cynical people like me who grew up in any of the countercultural hubs that line the I-5 corridor, at a time when Oregon was far less hip. We’re the people who fled our homeland for larger, seemingly more important cities to find ourselves, or lose ourselves, but who, for one reason or another, decided to return. When we did, we chose to settle down in the biggest city in the state, of course.

Many of us in this third group of citizens fancy ourselves modern-day Odysseuses: fashionably dressed heroes at the ends of our journeys, ready to bring news of the big world to our forgotten corner of it. And we get a little testy when our fellow citizens don’t really give a beaver’s arse what we’ve learned Out There.

But you can’t really blame us. After all, it was Oregon that made us this way.

First, a bit of history. When people ask me where I’m from, I say that I was raised a hippie kid in Eugene, though my parents left their commune in Cottage Grove shortly before I was born, and soon after, my dad traded in his ZZ Top beard for a Magnum P.I. moustache. Suffice it to say, like so many people I know who grew up ’round those parts, I was raised on classic rock, bean sprouts, Goodwill jeans, Volvo station wagons, and “dress fleece,” which we all saw fit to wear at special occasions, including funerals and proms.

Being brought up in Eugene certainly makes for a good backstory; from an early age, however, I decided that it was a fun place to tell people about, but not the best place to actually live. For while Eugenians saw their village as a bastion of individuality, it seemed to me that in their collective quest for quirkiness, they were really all the same brand of strange—either hairy potheads content to just get by, or pasty New Agers so obsessed with “processing” their feelings that they never actually got over anything. Sure, I had the Enya albums and Nag Champa incense to prove my Northwest cred, but what I really wanted was to get the hell out of there and head for a place that mattered—a place where I might matter. So, immediately after I graduated from the University of Oregon, I moved to Los Angeles.

There, everything was sexier than life in dippy Eugene. Los Angeles was both a giant, sunny playground and a teeming metropolis that actually had an important role to play on the world stage. I was surrounded by overachieving writers, artists, dancers, directors, actors, and musicians, all of whom believed they could pursue their creative dreams and make money. And many did. Thus, I too began to plot my course to fame and fortune. But there would be no lip-synching to formulaic pop songs or harnessing my inner Hepburn on the casting couch for me. No, I wanted to become a famous novelist—one whose autograph would be sought out by strangers—which is essentially the punch line of a bad joke, given that most Americans don’t know what a writer looks like unless he or she is a total troll, like Stephen King, or dead, like Sylvia Plath.

Nevertheless, I got a tan, started writing a novel, and eventually took what to me, at 25, seemed to be a glamorous job as a VIP server in a Hollywood nightclub. No matter that we were instructed to refer to the small plates of Asian food that we served as “Tapanese.” Yeah. That’s right. What was that I said about being in a place where I mattered? But then Jennifer Aniston showed up one night, and when I told her that her favorite drink—a cosmopolitan with olives—was “absolutely disgusting,” she asked me to join her for a cigarette. Another evening, I discussed the dispersion of wealth in society with Suge Knight. I was flirting with Very Important Peeps, which made me feel important.

Then I turned 30. In eight years, I’d managed to go to grad school, intern for Sofia Coppola, act in a Tori Amos video, and finish my first novel, but I had to face it: My life may not have been going nowhere, but it sure was on a slow train to a rather amorphous somewhere. I was writing for small papers and magazines, sure, but I also still worked at the club, where I’d begun chain-smoking and popping painkillers to get through night after night of serving Adios Motherfuckers so that I could afford gas and the $2,000 rent on the 600-square-foot “bungalow” I shared with my fiancé, Chris, and our cat, Aslin.

I’d heard rumblings that shabby old Portland had become the place to be, but I didn’t believe it. To me, Portland was the part of Oregon where anything chic went to die. Los Angeles would have to freeze over before I’d move back there, I thought.

But then I flew up for a friend’s wedding and finally saw what everyone was yakking about: a sophisticated dining scene, thriving arts districts, yada yada yada. It was, in essence, a classic seduction—cue sexy Odyssean sirens.

Five months later, Chris, Aslin, and I rolled into Portland “for good”—eight years after I had U-Hauled it out of Oregon “for good.” But once inside the city limits, while Chris was busy squealing about all the trees, I felt like an utter failure.

After fleeing my home state, I’d changed, of course, but the image I’d held of Oregon since my childhood hadn’t. To me, it was still a place where dreamers went to take another hit from the bong and forget their ambitions altogether. As we drove down NE Alberta Street to our new apartment, I envisioned myself becoming complacent, pale, and unfashionable.

And so I did what any self-respecting, insecure Oregonian who’d drunk too much of the California Kool-Aid would do. While Chris fell right into place with most of the other non-natives who all seemed to have a Portland-praising form of Tourette’s, I quickly developed a “me versus Oregon” stance.

Right after I moved, a bicyclist saw my California plates and yelled, “Go back to Cali!” I imagined clotheslining him with my car door. I was openly annoyed by the pushy bikers, the Waldorf school zealots, and the people who think everyone else should be enamored of their dog or baby. Everyone around me seemed content with just making it through the day—which is understandable, because it takes a lot of energy to eat three square meals when you have so many food “intolerances.”

“You’re not going to leave, are you?” a friend asked me one day after I waxed vitriolic about how I couldn’t stand the slow, chatty checkers at New Seasons.

“Of course not,” I said. “It’s not that I dislike Portland.”

I really don’t. Even I know how stupid my complaints sound—slow but happy grocery checkers do not a hellhole make. And yes, the anarchist clowns and vegan strip clubs and the Rose City Rollers are all charming. But to me, it’s Eugene all over again. In other words, you don’t need fame and fortune if you live in Portland, because wearing fairy wings while you ride a unicycle means you’re plenty awesome enough. Or maybe I’m just mad that the people in the fairy wings have absolutely no interest in what I learned Out There.

By now you’re probably all wondering why I don’t just direct my Honda back to my beloved La-La Land, never to be seen again in this frontier valley.

Allow me to step down from my high horse for a second. Here’s what I’m coming to realize: I don’t want to leave because Portland is the frontier. And the reason that many of us move back here from places like Los Angeles or New York City is that we want to be a part of that. Since the city is still shaping itself, it’s a lot easier to form one’s identity here. Los Angeles? Already shaped—and if you’re the square peg, that city’s round hole won’t change for you. New York City? Same thing. Tulsa, Oklahoma, where my fiancé is from? They vote down change every chance they get.

Portland, on the other hand, is still growing up. After moving here, it’s become apparent: So am I.

Filed under