Photos and reflections of my first visit in five years to the city that meant everything to me.
The Reformative Years
Early September 2003, I was in Tucson, Arizona, visiting my parents. There was a TV show on Comedy Central called Insomniac with Dave Attell, it was about life in the city at night, wherever Dave Attell was doing comedy. We watched as a family this rerun episode based in Portland, Oregon, just days before I would embark on my journey northbound, with my destination to be Portland.
Things like this could be a minor coincidence or a fractal revelation of your future.
Portland is still the only major city between San Francisco and Seattle on Interstate 5, and at the time it was little known. I grew up listening to “the Seattle sound,” bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Portland was never on the mainstream radar. In 2002, however, when the indie music revolution reached its peak, I began to notice that Portland was a new nexus for rock music.
I was in Los Angeles, a global epicenter for art and music, the region of the world in which I grew up and a good place to make a career of it. I was only twenty years old. I was managing a struggling coffee shop in Northridge called The Liquid Cube. The owner shut it down mid-summer, was laid off, so I filed for unemployment.
This was followed by my roommates deciding they wanted new arrangements. We lived like freshmen in college, sharing bedrooms. We were four dudes in a two bedroom apartment. We were not friends, we just lived together by happenstance.
These events set the stage to switch things up. I could either move deeper into LA, where the action was happening, or I could start a new life.
There was a decision made to roll the dice on Portland and it was all based on feeling and synchronicity. There was a belief that something really special was waiting for me there.
Common for a young man, I took for granted my community ties reaching back to childhood that I had around Los Angeles. Sticking around could have led to a more stable future.
Here is the thing. If I really play that out, I am positive that I would have ended up in Portland at one time or another, because countercultural communities are small and networked very well along the I-5 corridor. My tastes and inclinations would not have differed greatly, there are friends in life you are meant to meet.
My parents moved to California with no family anywhere close, so California lacked blood roots, and soil is only so much dirt. So in actuality, I was following in my parents’ footsteps, leaving behind all ties.
The life that I found in Portland was special, it could never have been planned the way it rolled out. It was not the product of carefully controlling outcomes.
Over more than fourteen years, from age twenty to thirty-five, within Portland, I went to college, performed hundreds of music shows in various bands, hosted FM radio shows, was a stand-up comic, produced seven music and arts festivals, worked a wide range of jobs, learned life skills, lived in a penthouse, lived in a tent, created and dissolved a 501c(3) and an LLC, delivered the paper, made the news, camped on mountains, swam in clean cold streams on hot days, partied on sweaty dance floors, made hundreds of friends and dozens of enemies, built and burned bridges, was broke, felt rich, and never accepted a day of boredom.
I really believe there is a life for you no matter where you are, no matter what your starting point is, and all you have to do is put yourself out there.
Returning to Portland with nine days between flights, I wanted to run around and see everything and everyone, but I soon realized that it wouldn’t be possible. There was a motivation to relive things and bring them back to life. Even in memory of the good times, it can be a grotesque corpse of happiness that you’re trying to revive.
I waited until the last minute to reach out to people and didn’t really plan anything. Played every day by ear. Part of me regrets not putting more energy into planning, but we reap exactly what we sow.
The primary reason for this visit was to celebrate the memory of Steven Schneider, the dude we called Shane. Everyone in Portland knew him as Shane. Everyone that knew him from elsewhere knew him as Steven. He was deeply embedded into the experimental art and music scene, and when he entered my life in 2006, he plugged me into it. I was beginning to outgrow the indie rock sound and he schooled me on deep improvisation. He was a founding member of my avant-garde group Death Worth Living.
My mood going into the trip was a bit dampened because I had no spare money. That was almost my whole life in Portland. I had extra money in Philly for some time, most of the time in fact, because I moved back east with thousands in the bank, then worked a full-time job and bought a house, something I never achieved in Portland.
It’s challenging right now: market conditions, self-financing a start-up, declining job market, inflation, recession, tax hikes. Right now I’m balancing four different income hustles and digging out of debt.
I found myself crashing on the couch for a full week at the same place that I crashed every time I was in need from 2010 until now, a place called “The Alice Coltrane Memorial Colosseum and Wazoo.” It’s a run down apartment with a retail front, full of dudes who could not give a shit about orderliness, nor the opportunity of having a retail front on a busy street. I love em though. Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have a place like this that I can just assume a couch position. Free is free. Of course, I’d rather have money to rent a car with full coverage and book an Airbnb from which I can host friends, and throw a party.
The first two nights, I stayed with my friend Rachel. She and her family have an Airbnb outside of town in Happy Valley that they offered me for a couple of nights. Plus she offered a spare car that she wanted to sell, a 2006 Ford Focus hatchback. If I cleaned it up, I could use it, so that was helpful. And I did.
A lot of time was spent walking alone through the city and seeing neighborhoods and specific places that I haunted, lived at or around. There is a full range of joys and traumas embedded into the scenery of that city, in part because a piece of my identity was truly wrapped into the place.
The photos that I have selected here are limited. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time shooting pictures, and when hanging out with people, myself and my friends rarely bust out phones for selfies and things like that. Toward the end, I became more purposeful about taking selfies with people. I never enjoy taking lone selfies. It is a mix of high quality pics from the Panasonic Lumix professional camera, others are from my iPhone 7. Each photo includes a caption with basic descriptions.
More context is needed to understand the personal significance each photo has to me, so if you are curious, you can read on below the photos. They are laid out in chronological order, in the sequence I took the photos.
About the Photos
The first two are from the plane heading northbound, looking east. You see Crater Lake, a place that I never got to visit and knew I wouldn’t be on this trip, so I was glad to at least get this view of the place. The next one is Three Sisters, around the city of Bend.
One of the first places I needed to visit was St. Johns. The bar historically known as Dad’s, adjacent to the historic clock in the town square that hosted the main stage for No.Fest, was replaced with a place called Central Lofts. The architecture is cheap futurism and totally clashes with the area.
The square overlooks the St. Johns Bridge, an architectural treasure and infrastructural mainline, connected to the area via Philadelphia Avenue. This is also the street where Held Gear kept a retail shop, near the corner of Ivanhoe, for a few years. Now the brand is in Philadelphia.
Below the bridge is where the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival took place. I noticed that the original poles that were used for mounting a massive canopy, built in the 1980’s, for summer concerts had been removed. My non-profit InterArts owned the canopy and I was the only person in the city that could mount it, so I was paid by the television production of Portlandia to do that, for the “Bahama Knights (Two Bananas)” sketch. I should have asked for a producer credit and another hundred bucks.
From there, I walked around industrial Southeast. Graffiti had gone nuts down there. It really is high quality, however. It is interesting because in 2003 when the city was poor, there wasn’t very much graffiti. The same with regards to homelessness.
Industrial southeast has been an epicenter for homelessness for a while. I noticed a lot of established dwellings. People rigging up plywood boxes, trailers, and other things to make a semblance of a home, all over the city.
One of the funniest bits of graffiti was “you have five days” in plain style. It’s the kind of thing that can trip you out, make you think, I only have five days! When is my flight? I think it’s a little bit of chaos magic.
Not just graffiti but murals have really exploded everywhere too. I saw this mural on Division Street by Fin Dac, depicting a woman in standing prayer position — it features a living wall taking her hair out of the 2nd dimension — when I pulled over to take a photo of an encampment with a full drum kit by the train tracks.
The night that I turned 21, I had lived in Portland for just a few weeks. The place I ended up that night was the Reel’m Inn Tavern. For several months after that, the tavern was a refuge, a place to make friends from strangers, to stave off the loneliness of being new to a city.
I started talking with this dude and I was sure I recognized his eyes. His face was familiar, but eyes don’t change as much as faces after 19 years. His name was Mike.
We got to talking about his sketchy sounding job installing microwave communication towers all over the map, something he was doing back when I drank there. We played pool. He started saying things like “You’re my new best friend.” We weren’t really drunk yet. I had said before that I wanted to go to Mt. Tabor for sunset, so he offered to take a drive up there. I looked into his eyes for signs of madness before accepting.
In no time, he went mad, loading up his rubber bullet gun and showing it to me. He pulled into a dispensary, handed me cash to grab a joint. He then drove by certain houses telling me about the people who lived there. He was nutty, but I wasn’t worried in the least.
When we got to the mountain, he brought the gun, concealing it in his waistband. I sparked the joint as we walked up the hill, coming upon the dusk view over the reservoir. He couldn’t hold still, so I let him keep walking. I was mesmerized, staring directly into the solar disk as it rolled behind the horizon, and when it had fully disappeared behind the horizon I turned around and he was gone.
It dawned on me that he could have shot me in the back of the head. Seemed like the best idea to let that situation go and enjoy a long sobering walk back to the car. It was about 40 blocks plus the hike out of the park.
The next day was Friday and I knew I had to help prepare the house for the memorial for Shane. I hadn’t yet seen inside, but the plan was to meet Todd, JP, and Jay.
The memorial was low key. I got to see a lot of people at one time. We played music, we looked at photos, recalled his stories, talked about ways to keep his work alive. That was nice, but not as many friends came as I had hoped would.
On Sunday, the four of us met up with Alice, his daughter, and rifled through a few of his things, some photos, CD’s, various small instruments and trinkets. Including a tryptic of film prints, as well as a doll from Philadelphia born artist Salihah Moore, who stayed on the farm with us for about a week, in 2007.
Monday, Memorial Day, I walked about downtown Portland, grabbed coffee and looked at a book at Powell’s. The zoo bomber installation across the street is a reminder of Portland’s anarchist bicycle culture. People would lock up a pile of ridiculous bicycles and meet weekly to ride up to the Oregon Zoo by train, then “bomb” down the hill. I never zoo bombed but I appreciate these kinds of things a lot.
On Tuesday, I headed back to St. Johns, specifically to walk the bridge and take photos. It is a photographer’s rite of passage. There is a place on the hillside that offers a clear view, so I walked there and back from Philadelphia Avenue, where I parked the car.
That night, I played music with Jerry and Pete at Jerry’s house. They are former Death Worth Living members.
I caught up at Holocene for Moritz Von Oswald, to experience what felt and sounded like the very best house music set in my life. The set was performed from Ableton Live and entirely without headphones. He’s an old timer and comes from the Berlin scene. He helped pioneer dub house.
Anything that happened that is not involved with these photos, anyone I saw or whatever else I did, is not narrated here.
The final full day, I arranged for friends Doug, Richard, and Sarah to meet me at Kenton Station, as it was a convenient location for everyone. There was a NASCAR event taking place there and I offered to submit photos to the St. Johns Review.
I was supposed to go from there to Mississippi Pizza’s Atlantis Lounge for the Live In The Depths experimental electronic music night, but instead I had one too many whiskeys followed by a 2014 Oregon pinot noir, swigged straight from the bottle, with Sarah. I swear there was some kind of time warp fermented in the spirits. It was a disorienting drunk that came on suddenly. She drove me home.
The next day was another lazy one, just hanging out.
I flew out at 6pm, so I was on a bus with time to spare at 4pm. You have to love Portland’s train to the airport. For $2.50 you can get on a bus anywhere on the system map and transfer your way to the airport from one ticket.
It was a tough flight, flying overnight and losing three hours from the clock. It was so late, but I packed a couple of whiskeys to ease the mood. After dosing off a little bit, I got to see a sunrise from the sky, just before landing.
I began to process a lot about Portland and my whole strange life, full of joys and traumas. If I was able to see everyone that I had a meaningful experience with in Portland at one time and place, it would be like a high school reunion, with tons of mutual friends, and perhaps some long standing feuds. I’d love to squash whatever shit might be leftover, and to bond again with everyone I care about. Or maybe I’m too attached to all of it.
I suppose it is a new dawn for me in Philadelphia, in life, and coming back from that trip is a reminder that building and keeping a community is a long haul and a journey.
I guess I can go back more frequently than every five years, and experience the great vacation destination that it is, plan to see people in larger gatherings maybe.
After getting back to Philly, I worked my ass off. I’m trying to work as much as possible, pay down some debts, and invest into this life I have now. Things slowed down enough for me to compile these images and write this blog, but I’m still catching up.