Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
I make my way through the crowd of people in Portland’s Pearl District. It’s a mixture of loners and groups. A girl with her hair dyed turquoise is sporting blue, green, and red dragon tattoos that’d make a Japanese Yakuza proud. A group of five couples swirl around comparing Burnside to New Orleans’ Bourbon Street, their voices a cacophony of the Doppler Effect. A strange group of a half dozen women, walk by in high heels sinning, at the top of their lungs, a hip-hop song I don’t know. Their leader is a blonde wearing a white dress and a veil, with a red sash that says ‘Miss Ohio’ on it, they are asking for directions to Mary’s a local strip club/Pearl institution. Yeah, just another night in downtown Portland.
My imaginary companion is the Genius Loci of Portland, or ‘the spirit of the place’. As she keeps up with me she raises her hipster glasses off the point of her nose. “I mean come on… George R.R. Martian has been around for years…Wild Cards? Hello, he invented The Great and Powerful Turtle, the greatest superhero ever. And he wrote, like most of the scripts for the eighties Beauty and the Best…But now he gets an HBO show based on his books and all of a sudden everyone thinks they invented him.”
We Portlanders are kind of pretentious when it comes to literature. We have to know about it before it is hot. Know every arcane detail about a writer. It is a mortal sin for us not to have not read the book, before the movie is out.
The figment of my imagination keeps going on. “I mean I absolutely love Sarah Vowel, and the book on disk version of Unfamiliar Fishes is amazing…amazing!… And it is cool that she got all those famous people to read from it. But Fred Armistead as the first Hawaiian convert to Christianity…That whole part about him telling an old man he had to be a sinner because he was so old and descripted and the guy just wanting to plant his crops, I just kept imagining it as a Portlandia a sketch with palm trees.”.
We reached out destination Powell’s City of Books. A book store that is an entire city block and four stories tall. As I enter the doors and walk past the ‘dogs welcome’ sign the Genius Loci gives me a mischievous look, “Do you have it?” She whispers, even though since she isn’t real, no one else can hear her.
I reach in to my jackets pocket. My finger’s move up and down the contraband. I nod and keep going afraid someone may have detected my motivations.
Powell’s with its big plate glass windows looking out at Burnside and Church St, is in the opening credits of Portlandia. This is where the city goes to read and watch Stump Town walk by in all its quirky glory. My sister was once sitting at one of the reading tables and a guy with a sandwich board walked by and it read “The End is Neigh: Have Sex”
With over an acre and a half of floor space Powell’s is THE bookstore in Portland. It is so large that they make smartphone apps so you can find you way around the place. Different sections or rooms are named after colors. My favorite is the Gold Room, science fiction/fantasy/horror/gamming and graphic novels. Why would I want to go anywhere else? The Gold Room is about as large as most normal bookstores I have been in.
Though most books sell for MSRP. There are some good deals here on both new and used books. I bought Warren Ellis’ Planetary TPB 2 and 3, for two-thirds the list price and the Federation and Intelligence Handbooks for FASA’s Startrek Role Playing Game (both books out of print for nearly twenty years) for seven dollars apiece. So if you are willing to invest the time and look around you can find some awesome treasures relatively cheap.
Tonight though I just make a cursory search through the Gold Room. There is a guy trying to pick up on a girl. He’s quoting MST3K, and it seems to be working. I love this town!
I head up the stairs to the Purple room. Sometimes I go up to the Purple Room because among other things it has military science, anthropology and archeology. Usually though I only go here because it has the bathroom. It is an amazing bathroom. I mean as bathrooms go it is serviceable, but something makes the Purple Room’s head a sight to behold. This is one of the only places you can see grout graffiti.
The only other place I’ve seen grout graffiti in the UCLA English department’s men’s room. People write on the thin grout of the bathroom walls catchy grout punned graffiti. Things like, ”Down and Grout in Beverly Hills.” “No Grout is the best ska ban ever’ or “Grout minds think alike.” I sneak in to the Purple Room’s bathroom and thumb the four color ink pin I took from my brother-in-laws desk. Tonight I will become a member of the grout graffiti club.
I go in to the stall and pretend that I am having…uh problems. I wait till a father takes his six year old of the bathroom and emerge ready to leave “The Grout Gatsby.” On the bathroom wall, to be chuckled over by men reliving themselves for eons. I mean it is a book store, it’s a natural.
As I angle my pin to leave my mark behind, I begin to realize just how thin grout is. I am not sure I can make this legible. My hands are trembling. How do people write so small and make it so anyone can read it?
“Hurry.” The Genius Loci hisses. “Someone is coming.” This is the moment that I realize having my imaginary friend as a look out when I am committing an act of public vandalism, probably isn’t my most well thought out idea.
As the door to the Purple Room’s bathroom opens and I quickly snatch my pin back into my jacket. The wall still unblemished. I head out as a large African American man walks in. “All yours.” I proclaim trying to cover up my non-crime. He looks at me as if he is thinking ‘wacko.’ I just hurry out. Down the stairs and out the doors.
The Genius Loci lets out a huge deep laugh. “Man that was so close.” I can’t help but laugh out loud too. Miss Ohio looks up at me, and this woman dressed as beauty pageant/bride whose is looking for a strip club also seems to be thinking I am a nut. I don’t care I laugh louder.
That is the thing about us Portlanders, books bring out our emotions. We don’t just read a book to read it, we read it to experience it, to feel it to make it part of us too. I guess we do it with our book stores too.