J-Ro Goes To Portland…Part 6

Meanwhile, the adventure continues…

The Monday of the trip was dedicated to only one thing: books, glorious books. Today, it was just me, my debit card, and Powell’s – the largest independent chain of bookstores in the world. And wouldn’t you know, it happens to be in Portland. Even better, so was I. My loins girded, I set off with the last of my data allowance on Google Maps to guide the way, and within a few minutes I was standing at the gateway to Nerd Nirvana:

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Click on the pic to head to my Instagram!

Now THIS is the best way to spend a Monday. Losing yourself in a bookstore like this is one of those natural antidepressants that should be used at least once a week for best results. You don’t need money, just wander through one in your locality, or if you’re abroad, keep the eyes peeled. They’re just magical. If you’re looking for a list of the coolest independent bookshops in the world, then click here to find out where these literary wonderlands exist.

Powell’s is just amazing. There’s so much to look at in there, I was briefly paralysed with sensory overload. I know myself, the visit I paid there on that Monday barely did it justice. I actually couldn’t bear to look everywhere, lest I collapse in a puddle of Want. I walked past the Graphic Novel section with my hands over my eyes chanting “NONONONONONONO” as I passed, because I knew my suitcases were already at the required rate, and I hadn’t even included the two bagfuls of books I was carrying at that precise moment to the register. I’m going to have to go back. I know this now.

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Sure who DOESN’T love those two things together? Follow me on Instagram: @_jayrow_

In addition to an absolute wonderland of literary delights, they also have a coffee shop within their hallowed walls, the clever bastards. So in between spending your entire wage packet and rainy day savings on all manner of books, you can sit and be refreshed with the finest of hot tasty beverages – and, this being Portland, there are many organic / artisan / hand-woven / wished-upon-a-star-spun-with-gossamer-warmed-with-the-thighs-of-a-virgin-handmaiden herbal chai mocha-frappo-lattes to choose from. At the very least, while you contemplate where your mortgage payment is coming from while looking at your newly-aquired pile of old and new publications, you won’t be thirsty. I’m not even counting the masses of tourist tack and souvenirs you have to wade through to get to the good stuff, or indeed the Portland-themed products (which I spent a good portion of my holiday money on) that tempt you from the stalls. Exercise caution, ladies and gentlemen. For, as Yeats once said, “Tread softly because you tread on my rent.” Or something like that.

I’ll leave you with a gif that gives me a tingle right in the literature. BOOKS, GLORIOUS BOOKS….TOUCH THEM…TOUCH THEM ALL…

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When J-Ro Went To Portland….Part 5

Southeast Grind, my second home in PDX!

Southeast Grind, my second home in PDX!

My first Portland Sunday was a proper day of rest (The Lord himself would have been delighted with me). I was completely cream crackered, having been on the go since I arrived and not really paying any attention to the spectre of jet lag that was hovering around me. It eventually walloped me upside the head and rendered me incapable of any sort of forward motion or day-planning, so I just threw on some threads, loaded up my backpack like Dora the Explorer, and headed over to Southeast Grind, my unofficial Base of Operations for things to do in Portland (click here to read about why I loved this place so much).

I pretty much decided I was going to plant my tired old self there for the day, but first I had to grab something to eat, and being as wrecked and fuzzy-brained as I was, I chose to fall up the road and go to Jack In The Box, an American fast food franchise outlet. It wasn’t the smartest decision I’ve ever made. I hated it. I’d been pretty fussy and paranoid about food since I’d arrived in the States (it’s a long-standing issue that I won’t bore you with in THIS article anyway), and I think I’d had a pre-existing notion about how the chicken teriyaki rice & veg bowl I’d ordered would taste…and it didn’t deliver. I was bitterly disappointed, pretty much all of the things I’d eaten that looked familiar to me all tasted just that little bit different to how I’d expected them to taste, so in my mind I couldn’t ingest them. I chewed grumpily on the twisty fries I’d also ordered instead. At least they tasted like I thought they would. I also tried to make a dent in what was certainly the largest liquid-carrying vessel for one person I’ve ever seen. It went waaay beyond ‘Go Large’…they called it The Quencher. I could barely hold it in one hand without being terrified I’d drop it. I’m surprised it didn’t come with armbands and a fucking lifeguard.

Fairly accurate representation of self.

It’s safe to say that Jack In The Box isn’t exactly gourmet fusion cuisine for foodies. Thus, I was Jack’s complete lack of surprise when I found that I’d basically left the whole thing and, despite the best efforts of my kidneys and bladder, the remaining two-thirds of the bucket o’ fizz I’d stupidly said ‘yes’ to. I noticed that there was a guy outside the main doors who looked a bit out of it, and was rooting through the fast food joint’s bins outside. I looked at my tray and instantly felt like a complete asshole for contemplating chucking out so much food. So ninja-style, I gathered the bowl of chicken and rice and The Quencher and sidled out the door without the staff seeing me, and I gave them to the guy with a brief disclaimer of “the food is fine, I was just full” in case he thought I was trying to pass off something that had gone bad. As it turned out, he barely registered me and just muttered something unintelligible as he took the food off me in a complete daze and shuffled away. I didn’t really mind; I was just glad SOMEONE was enjoying the food and it wasn’t wasted. Pay it forward and all that.

But it got me thinking as I left Jack In The Box and strolled the short distance to Southeast Grind. I was about to put down roots for a few hours in a lovely place with some nice tea and maybe a treat of some kind, tap-tapping away on my new laptop in a foreign country I’d been able to travel to for a holiday, feeling happy as a clam; so I took stock and felt so incredibly grateful to have the life that I have, that I’m able to find contentment in the everyday things I do (when my mental health is being managed properly obviously).

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A mini shanty-town set up at the junction of two streets next to a main road. The white object directly under the tree on the left-hand side is an umbrella for shelter & shade.

The problem of homelessness is a massive one in Portland, from what I’ve seen first-hand and from what some locals have told me. Maybe it’s because the population is roughly ten times that of Limerick, but it’s very visible and in a very unfamiliar way to me. I took a couple of pictures (see above and below) of the setups I saw dotted throughout the city centre and the suburbs that you would never see out on the streets of Limerick.

This is a slip road coming off a freeway where cars roar past at full speed. I'm standing across the road from the zebra crossing to take a pic of this particular camp, because it actually takes up a big portion of the footpath.

This is a slip road coming off a freeway where cars roar past at full speed. I’m standing across the road from the zebra crossing to take a pic of this particular camp, because it actually takes up a big portion of the footpath.

Look; anyone with a molecule of common sense knows that there are homeless people in every city, and Limerick is most certainly no exception. I’m not blind to it in my hometown by any means, and this isn’t a preachy bleeding-heart post telling people what to do or anything like that. It’s just me observing the different forms that homelessness takes wherever you go depending on population and city size. I’ve never seen anything like those mini tent townships; as fantastic as Portland was, that was definitely something that has stayed with me. That and the incredibly wide demographic of people affected; young, old, disabled, war veterans, addicts, men, women…nobody seemed immune. Which is a scary-ass thought. There but for the grace of circumstance go I.

When J-Ro Went To Portland…Part 4 (In which Bigfoot escapes me)

My first Portlandian Saturday rolled around, and I had the biggest of plans. My original POA had been to head to Skamania County (what a rapid name) and take in the delights and wonders of The Bigfoot Bash n’ Bounty. That’s right; I was heading in search of Bigfoot – or at least a bunch of cheesy imitations and gimmicky tourist souvenirs. It shouldn’t be too hard to get there, I thought. After all, this was America.

Oh, how wrong I was. I spent HOURS Google mapping, Amtrak-ing, Greyhound Bus-ing every which way i could think of online the night before, desperately trying to work out a public transport route to get there and back. Skamania County was in Washington, Oregon’s neighbouring state, but it might as well have been in the Australian Outback. There was no way in the laws of physics I was going to make it. So after much deliberation, I had to abandon ship. In an ironic twist, the Bigfoot festival was proving to be just as inaccessible as the creature that inspired it. Bastard.

When I awoke on the Saturday morning at 6.30am (THANKS JETLAG) I decided that today was the day I would head to the RV & Motorhome show in the Portland Expo Center. As trips go, this would prove to be the easiest peasiest journey ever, compared to the epic journey of the backroads and side-roads that the Bigfoot Festival would have conjured up. A friend had suggested Craigslist for ride-sharing, but I vetoed the crap out of it because NO FUCKING WAY ARE YOU KIDDING ME THEY STILL HAVEN’T FOUND THE SERIAL KILLER WHO’S NAMED AFTER IT SO I THINK I’LL PASS OKAYTHANXBYE

By this stage I was getting used to the MAX (the Portland version of the LUAS), and hopped on it & headed to the Portland Expo Center, where my eyes were treated to some of the maddest-looking yokes that ever graced a road. I was extremely disappointed to find out that for all of their hidden sections and expanding compartments, not one single RV turned out to be an actual Transformer. I wish someone had told me at the beginning, though. I’d spent a full fifteen minutes chatting up this rather hunky red, blue & chrome motorhome in the hope that it was Optimus Prime having some chill time. Alas, it was not meant to be. However, the guy sitting behind the wheel in said motorhome now thinks he has a sleazy Irish girlfriend; so, there’s that, I suppose…

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I was sort of hoping for a more rustic affair, packed with a load of motorhome enthusiasts named Dale and / or Earl strolling around in all their Sunday camping finery, smugly showing off their pride n’ joy while their wives Martha or Darlene tut-tutted and left them to it. Nope. It was a giant venue full of the newest and shiniest that the RV world has to offer the discerning retired whoever who has $60k and upwards to chuck around. It was still very cool to check out though. As quaint as it sounds, there’s no way on this green earth any one of these monstrous vehicles could ever negotiate Irish country roads, they were wider than two high-rise car park spaces. These yokes were definitely made for the wide open American road. Looking inside them, I realised they were nicer than some houses I’ve been in. Them Yanks take their driving & camping holidays seriously.

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There were still some camper vans that hearkened back to a bygone age with the classic VW hippy vans getting a nod from an American company who had bought the license from Volkswagen and so went ahead and made some really cool small VW-inspired vans, complete with retro interior. I TOTALLY wanted one.

Tell me you wouldn't want to cruise the open road in something like THIS...

Tell me you wouldn’t want to cruise the open road in something like THIS…

The high point of the day was when I got chatting to an Argentinian RV salesman who, when I told him I was Irish, said to me “Ah the Irish are cool, I’ve got a few friends from there – we hate the Brits as much as you guys do.” I leaned in and whispered “Falklands?” and he nodded, smiling. “Got it in one!” We parted ways, laughing heartily and muttering obscenities about Thatcher.

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So ended my day trip to the world of RV madness. I was exhausted by mid-afternoon, having been walloped upside the head by a jet-lag shaped baseball bat, which was how I ended up getting my bearings all mixed up and going waaay too far on the MAX line that was supposed to take me home. I wasn’t too stressed about it, I didn’t have anywhere in particular to be and sometimes it’s nice to get lost in a place, sometimes weird and strange things happen. Which is precisely what did happen.

I eventually worked out at which stop I had to get off, so I waited for the next train to arrive. This being Portland, it was like five minutes, bless ’em. No sooner had I gotten on the Orange line back the way I came, when, at the next stop, who should get on but Colton McBride, he of the gentle Goth persuasion I wrote about in my previous post (click here). Given the randomness of me ending up where I did and how big a city Portland is, I was genuinely surprised at the coincidence. He looked the exact same, apart from being makeup-free. He also seemed a bit more ‘with it’, and didn’t recognise me at all, even when he sat across from me and asked if this was the Orange line. I decided to leave him be. As ‘with it’ as he was, he still clutched his Victorian china doll reverently, fixing her hair and her dress, making sure she was neat and tidy, chatting with a woman who asked him where he’d gotten the doll (nothing surprises me here, it’s Portland) and telling her he’d found her in a thrift store for $3. Fair play to him.

Well if that don't put the 'dink' in 'co-inky-dink'...

Well if that don’t put the ‘dink’ in ‘co-inky-dink’…

I didn’t push to remind him that we’d met, I just answered his questions about which train it was, and he smiled and went back to making sure his doll was looking presentable. I took a sneaky pic to prove that I’d met him again so that when I wrote about our second encounter I’d have proof that life can be very odd sometimes, and my wondering about the welfare of Colton had somehow prompted the Universe to put him in my pathway once more so I’d see he was doing okay. The fact that he had no makeup on told me that at the very least he’d had an opportunity somewhere to clean himself up, so maybe he wasn’t as badly off as I had initially thought. But who’s to know? At least I got to see him one more time. Cheers Colton!

(tune in next time, when I laze around Southeast Grind thinking about stuff, then I visit the largest bookstore IN THE WORLD)

When J-Ro Went to Portland….Part 3 (An Encounter With Colton McBride)

[Friday morning was my first official day as a temporary Portlandian, and jet lag being the prize bitch that it was, had me up scary-early. Which, as I soon realised, was regular time for Americans. They’re flippin’ mad to be up at the crack of dawn and run screaming into the jaws of daily life, those Yanks. So this is the second half of the first day – I packed a lot into the first 24 hours.]

An Encounter With Colton McBride

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When I was done chilling out in Southeast Grind, already full of thoughts and notions swimming around my head (see previous post), I got some bus info from a totally sound Southeast Grind regular called Vince (who I swear BLIND was in Portlandia but I haven’t had the nerve to ask him or the energy to check it out) and off I headed into Downtown Portland. At that point I still had some data on my phone because I’d bought a pre-package yoke for going to the U.S., so I was thanking the Gods for Google Maps. But as much as I used them to know the street names, I realised that I didn’t have anywhere in particular to be, so what was the point in using it? Wasn’t the point of travelling alone to use the freedom that comes with it to allow yourself to get lost and go a-wandering? Well, yes it was….but as much as I enjoyed the fun and frolics involved in running around a country I’ve never been in before, I was still my old anxious dread-filled self, so it helped to at least know where the bus stop was so I could make it back to base with minimum stress.

Eventually, when the bus stopped in an area that looked pretty Downtown-ish (lots of coffee shops and a University campus), I hopped off and tried not to look all gawky and overwhelmed like the hick tourist I was. Portland is a big place, but nowhere near as manic as Dublin or London in my experience. I was quite surprised not to be elbowed out of the way the second my foot stepped off the bus and onto the pavement. In fact, people everywhere were just plain…nice. Mannerly. Friendly, even. I knew I was in over my head. So I jumped in and started being nice back. I didn’t know myself after five minutes. Great for the soul, so it was.

I took a minute standing on the street corner (stepping out of the way and apologising profusely – you can take the girl out of Limerick etc) and tried to decide what direction I wanted to go in. As I was looking around I noticed this tall stringy fellow walking up towards the bus stop. Long-haired and gangly, he was the best Goth I’d seen in years. Head to toe in black leather, chains hanging off the studded belt loop, a face of terrifying white makeup with his features shaded in black, with black tear-tracks drawn down his face, he made a rather imposing figure. I suppose that would have been enough in itself to cause folks to step aside when they saw him coming, but the fact that he was carrying an old Victorian-dressed porcelain doll in one arm and rummaging through the contents of the bus stop bin with the other probably sealed the deal between him and the general public to each keep out of each other’s way. Apart from me, though. I thought he looked amazing.

I caught his glazed eye once or twice as he passed and he gave a small smile, but he seemed far away from whatever was going on in Downtown Portland. In among all the standard city ‘extras’ scattered around the scene, this guy was a breath of fresh air. Even in weird old Portland. Hipsters and cool kids were a dime a dozen, but this guy was a one-off. A true Goth from head to toe, with full Crow-style makeup peeking through his wispy dark hair, he cut quite a dramatic figure walking up the street. He made his way across SW 6th Avenue and up towards Broadway, and I watched him go, cursing myself for being so hesitant to talk to him. While it was fairly obvious that he was either on drugs or suffering from a mental illness (or both), I still wanted to at least take a picture of him as one of the beautifully strange people or things that make up Portland. I think I paused because of those things, and of course being Irish we are genetically predisposed to avoid approaching any strangers at all no matter what the situation. So I watched him walk on by.

THEN I gave myself a sharp mental kick up the hole. I was in PORTLAND, for feck sake. This guy literally crossed my path and I didn’t take the opportunity to take a pic and maybe chat to him? For shame. So I followed him up the street, watching as he picked up old Starbucks coffee cups and drank the dregs of what others had left behind, all the while holding and minding his doll like a precious newborn. It was a little heartbreaking to watch, and so puzzling. How did he put himself together the way that he did every day if he had no place to call home? The clothes, you could understand, maybe he lived in them constantly, but the makeup would have to be done and retouched in a bathroom somewhere on a regular basis. Fair play to him, I thought. At least he’s keeping it real.

I crossed over the road to where he had just finished rifling through the old coffee cups, and, taking a deep breath, approached him softly. I told him I thought he looked fantastic, and asked if he would mind if I took his picture.

A more gentle soul you never would meet. He was genuinely surprised at being approached for any reason, not to mind one to get his picture. He asked if I had a dollar; I gave him five and told him to consider it a fee for letting me take his picture. We chatted for a bit, he thought I was Scottish (that happened a lot here) but said that since he could understand what I was saying, I probably wasn’t. Then he told me I had lovely pointy ears like a pixie, bless him. He was pretty excited about getting his pic taken and ending up on the internet, and I found out his name was Colton McBride. Pretty cool-sounding name. He told me to please put his pic up on Facebook (he wasn’t on it himself) so “other people like us can see”. I don’t know which ‘other’ he was referring to, either raising awareness of the many different faces of the homeless community, or those who dress to express like he does, but he made a good point. We had great fun deciding how to take the pic, he stood against the stone wall and struck a pose, saying “You don’t want one of me smiling, it looks better when I look scary.” He wasn’t wrong.

Colton McBride - The Undisputed Goth King of Portland

Colton McBride – The Undisputed Goth King of Portland

He was such a gentle soul, I didn’t feel right prying into why he had the doll or how he had come to be homeless, if indeed he was. I just felt that saying ‘thank you’ and wishing him all the best was the right thing to do. He seemed happy enough, in whatever world his mind was in, to head off to find somewhere to eat with his five dollars. I hope. With that, Colton McBride went off towards Downtown Portland, where with any luck, the discarded coffee cups would be more full for people like him.

When J-Ro Went To Portland…Part 2 (A Sad Southeast Grind Story)

Thursday Night:

Having gotten in around 10.30pm and found where I was staying (the cutest place in the world, the whole upper area of that part of the house was all mine, I set down my bags, had the chats with Stacey and Carlos (aka Starlos) my gracious & very cool AirBnb hosts, and headed for a bar a few blocks down from the house that served food. I was feckin’ STARVIN’ at that stage. Met some very cool folk who were of the tattooed & loud music-loving variety like myself so I wasn’t on my own for long. People are super-friendly here. Also, when you give your usual Irish-style greeting of “How’s it going?”, be advised they WILL answer you and be genuinely surprised at your enquiring as to their mood. Some laugh at the registers in shops, I tell you.

I got straight onto Portland time spending an hour or so at the bar, until I got back around midnight, and fell into a heap on the lovely bed, more comatose than asleep, but it served the purpose. Friday was going to be a strange one.

A Southeast Grind Story

About six minute’s walk from where I’m staying, I found a 24-hour coffee place called Southeast Grind. I walked in off the sidewalk (nobody knows what I’m talking about when I say ‘path’), and straight into pretty much what I had imagined Portland to be in my mind in a single screenshot. It was the kind of place my teenage nineties self could only ever hope for or fantasise about. The closest I’d had back then was Java’s, and as grungy and laid-back as it was, this place makes it look like a capitalist wet dream. This is where all the people come to chill and graze intermittently on healthy snacks and home-made smoothies, and organic everything. Click on the pic below to see their website. Here’s what I wrote about the place while I was there that Friday morning:

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The minute I walk up to the counter I feel like I’ve discovered Mecca. To have a 24-hour coffee place a stone’s throw from my temporary home is damn near perfect for me. It’s full of couches and armchairs with strange people burrowing away on laptops or writing in journals; one guy in zebra-print leggings and hipster glasses is sketching something on a pad in a chair by the window. Swear t’God. All seem happy in their own company, but there doesn’t seem to be that air of ‘leave me the fuck alone’ like you would get in another big city coffee place like Dublin or London. I’ve already witnessed like 3 hugs betweeb friends coming and going since I’ve sat down in the last fifteen minutes. I bet if I looked closely at what people were working on, it’d be a book, or a screenplay, or a blog post…or college work. Wouldn’t want to stereotype too much…

Told the girl behind the counter I’d just flown in from Ireland last night. She was all excited and told me she’d ‘always wanted to visit the UK’. Hmmm. I said ‘Oh lovely. Well Ireland is pretty cool too!’ I’ll let her off this once…

There’s a corkboard by the counter with just one or two pictures stuck on, along with a beautifully handwritten poem placed in the centre of the board. I look closer, and see both pics contain the same person; a happy, floaty-looking willowy blonde girl. There are two bumper sticker-type posts side-by-side flanking the pictures, and I realise that they are for organisations that work to prevent suicide, self-harm and offer support for mental health issues. The poem is dedicated to ‘Alex’, and it dawns on me that the happy-looking blonde willowy girl is, or was, in fact, Alex. I got the impression from the content of the poem and the loving tribute message written and stuck alongside the poem that she used to work here, and was very dearly missed. I don’t know if it’s the jet lag or the enormity of embarking on solo travel saddled with a weirdly-wired brain that’s hit me, but I want to burst into tears with the sadness of it all.

Maybe it’s the wide-open honesty and genuine loss all contained on this simple chalkboard that gets me. Coming from a town that has a massive issue with suicide and mental health issues being improperly addressed by those in high places, it’s almost a relief to see something as visible as this highlighting both the complexity and simplicity of deciding to take one’s life, and the consequences left behind. Being someone who has stood on both sides, and given a lot of brain cells to considering her ‘options’ in the darkest loneliest times of my life, to see it laid out bare in front of me was a jolt of reality. It’s an approach we need badly back home. Those on the ground level of the systems and all the support groups work tirelessly to bring out the monster from under the bed, but it’s not enough. We need to vocalise and visualise suicide, to stop it being a silent word people mutter under their breath when talking about someone who took their own life. The act itself is louder than a thousand drums to those who are immediately affected, so we need to dilute the noise and let people talk about it. 

Having seen the corkboard within one minute of arriving into Southeast Grind for the first time, I found myself missing this girl called Alex, and I had never met her. I never would. Therein lies the vacuum of pain that suicide creates in its aftermath. If she had still been alive, I would probably be writing about the chats I had with the cool friendly blonde girl behind the counter who was loved by everyone there. Instead, all I can do is mention her in this small blog post that not a whole lot of people will read; so even though she’s gone, having succumbed to an illness that I (and countless others around the world) know only too well, I can still help a little in letting my part of the world know that somewhere in Portland Oregon, there was a girl called Alex who used to work in a fantastic coffee house, and everyone loved her. Rest in Peace Alex. Those of us still down in the bunker trying to get out will keep fighting the good fight.

Apologies for the heavy nature of the post, but sometimes you have to face the bad and the good. Tune in next time for the much lighter second half of the day, in which I get over my innate Irish habit of hesitating to approach weird & wonderful people…