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:
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…