Why is Portland, Oregon, my favorite city in which to read? Let me count the ways.
1. It has the single greatest bookstore on earth. (That would be Powell’s).
2. It is the most literary city in America, as evidenced by the massive turnout at the Wordstock literary festival, where I read a couple of weeks ago.
3. People not related to me actually show up to my readings.
4. And not just nonrelatives mind you, but quality fans. The chief example I would cite here is a woman named Viva Las Vegas, who attended a reading of mine several years ago, then invited me to see her perform later that night. Viva was (and is, so far as I know) a stripper.
So my mood was good as we landed in Portland. Julianna and I had been on the road for five straight days. We had traveled four thousand miles. My suitcase contained thirteen bottles of free hotel shampoo. I had exactly one clean pair of boxer shorts left.
While Julianna was dropped off at the hotel, I proceeded to Lincoln High School, where I had agreed (for reasons that now elude me) to speak to a class of eleventh-graders.
I had forgotten just how miserable junior year in high school could be, but the sight of these faces—pocked with acne and skepticism—brought it all back.
It was pretty much a disaster, the kind of disaster that results from a tired writer trying to be hip for a bunch of surly teenagers. I’m not sure they entirely understood why I was there. Then the kicker: At the end of class, one of the only kids who asked questions came up to me and inquired, with great seriousness, if I would like to worship with him at his church.
“I’m a Jew,” I said.
“That’s okay,” he said, beatifically.
“I’m an atheist,” I said.
“I don’t mind.”
So now I’m invited to worship at the Portland Church of Christ.
I returned to the hotel, which was called the Heathman and featured a doorman in Beefeater costume, for whom I felt a sort of thermonuclear pity.
I lay on my bed and tried to clear my head of the miseries of adolescence and fell into a deep sleep, which was interrupted by the sound of my cell phone alerting me to a new message.
It was Julianna. She was speaking in agitated tones.
“I’m standing alone in a room with five thousand shrimp—there’s oysters, crab, they’ve got hot appetizers plus free cosmos, wine, beer, whatever you want plus the dessert room, the cheese, a stinky cheese room, and hot stuff, you’ve got to get down here Almond, do you understand? It’s all free. Come down to the lobby, I’m alone and I’m afraid of what I might do.”
As should be clear by now, Julianna and I are not spending massive amounts of time with each other outside the context of readings. Actually, we are not spending any time with each other at all.
But this was a special circumstance, one that invoked the holiest unspoken law of the writing profession: Thou shalt alert your fellow writer to free food.
I was in the lobby within minutes. Julianna was not exaggerating. The hotel staff had laid out a feast of Roman proportions. It was a promotional gambit, an annual “client appreciation buffet” laid out to show influential members of the Portland community just how extravagant a spread the Heathman could lay out.
I found Julianna in front of the raw bar, swilling a cosmo and staring at the mountains of oysters on the half-shell.
“I told you,” she said. “I’ve been here for half an hour, just me and entire edible population of Puget Sound.”
There is no need to detail what happened next. Anyone who is a writer—or starving artist of any kind—knows the scenario.
I do feel I should mention the revulsion we both felt upon entering what we dubbed the “Lord of the Flies” banquet room, which contained a whole suckling pig, head and tail included.
That was about as much American superabundance as either one of us could take.
Still, it was nice to bond with Julianna, to spy on the various corporate types, to talk a little bit about our families, and to mock the funk calypso stylings of the band Night Train.
And this good will carried over to the reading itself, which was the best of the tour, I’d say. We had a big crowd and they laughed in all the right spots and the question-and-answer portion went swimmingly too. Powell’s had given us two separate mics, which meant we didn’t have to shove one another out of the way. So that was nice.
The only sore spot of the reading was that my old friend Claudia had come out with her darling, six-year-old daughter, Megan.
Now listen: I absolutely love when parents bring kids to readings. Really, I do. Given the declining rates of literacy in this country, it’s just about the most inspiring vision I can imagine.
The problem is that there’s not a lot in Which Brings Me to You that could be considered kid appropriate. In fact, within the chapters I wrote, there’s almost nothing.
And so I had to turn to Claudia in front of the entire crowd and explain to her that she might maybe-if-it-was-alright want to have Megan spend the next half hour in the kid’s section of the bookstore.
Megan looked at her mother, her mother whispered something, and Megan fled the room, while the rest of the crowd went “Awwwww.”
I felt like a bad man. I am a bad man.
And yet, at the same time, Claudia had read the book. She had to have known that six-year-olds are not my core demographic.
As for the rest of the crowd, they might have felt bad for the kid, but they were also horndogs of the first order (one more thing to love about Portland) and were happy enough to hear the rude bits.
After the reading, we signed a shitload of books and Julianna headed off with her brother-in-law, who, not to insult him, but was too cheap to buy the book.
Then it was off for some late-night pizza and beers with some Portland writer pals of mine, and we had a jolly old time drinking in moderation and gossiping flagrantly and, toward midnight, heading to the famous Voodoo Donuts, a donut shop so supremely weird and cool that it makes Dunkin Donuts look like a hospital cafeteria.
I crashed hard that night, in the full knowledge that we had just one more city to go. Seattle, that caffeinated, soggy, hipster destination.
Here’s hoping our last stop comes with cream and two sugars,
I feel like I should briefly note our travel demeanor thus far.
Steve and I do not sit near each other at the gate before boarding.
We do not sit next to each other on the plane.
Almond sometimes offers me food from his seemingly endless travel supply.
Sometimes I accept a bonbon or a yogurt—even if I'm not hungry—just to help maintain good will.
Steve and I often do talk in the cab rides to the airport—an ongoing discussion of the definition of narcissism, which he seems to think he knows a lot about because his parents are both psychotherapists, but about which I have much to say, surprisingly. When our narcissism debate fails, we sometimes talk about ourselves. Or, as is often the case, Steve talks to real estate agents on his cell phone—which has an ear piece and dangling wires and makes him seem like he's just speaking loudly and irately to his own reflection in the cab window. Sometimes I wonder if there maybe isn't anyone on the other line at all, and Steve's just kind of losing it. (Anyone who's read Steve's very public and quite dark opinions on literary agents won't find it surprising that he also has issues with real estate agents. Buying this house, his first, may just put him over the edge.)
These Postcards have become ammo. When I comment on the two-day-old Indian food left-overs that Steve's still hauling, he says, "Go ahead. Put it in the Postcard." When we're running late to a flight and I bark at an elderly Asian couple trying to butt in line, I know where it's headed. The Postcards are a good thing. They help to keep us in check.
The minimal interaction and meager attempts at manners and restraint are small but important choices that make it possible for us to continue on—uninjured.
In Portland, however, our spirits are high. We are thrice charmed and—should I jinx it?—almost getting along.
Charm A. Steve starts the day all flustered about Condoleeza Rice. Evidently, Boston College, where Almond has been an adjunct professor for the past five years, has invited Ms. Rice to be their commencement speaker. He's saying things like, "I can't work at an institution that celebrates war criminals."
I suggest an open letter to the Boston Globe—like Sharon Olds's letter declining an invitation from Laura Bush. I suggest an open letter of public resignation. Steve loves the idea.
This may not seem like a charm, but trust me, it is. Steve loves to be outraged. He loves the ire. It lends him his joie de vivre, his je ne sais quoi, his essential Almond center. He's thankful for the suggestion.
Charm B. It's Customer Appreciation Day at the Heathman Hotel. At 4:30 P.M. I find myself alone in a banquet room stacked with seafood—I mean to tell you there are tongs in a bin of crab, piles of muscles and clams, and mounds of shrimp on ice. There's another room devoted to pastries, another just for stinky cheeses, another for meaty things—including an entire pig, snout to tail. There are drinks everywhere and a banquet table of cosmopolitans that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see.
I call Steve on the phone. I explain the free decadence in an urgent whisper. I tell him to get down here pronto.
Moments later, holding my cosmopolitans (I've taken two just in case a crowd suddenly descends), hunched over a platter of a little bit of everything—the brie is liquid, did I mention this? You just pour it over the bread—Steve rounds a corner, wide-eyed and breathless. We eat until we can't eat anymore. It's a glimpse of the open buffet that must exist in heaven. I'm ebullient enough to ignore Steve pocketing oranges from the display. This is a bonding experience.
Charm C. Steve calls my brother-in-law a cheapskate. I've wanted to do this for years. The guy comes to my readings and has never bought a book. Not a one. He was an English major at Princeton where he learned one sole skill, as far as I can tell: how to work the words "English major at Princeton" into every conversation. Steve calls him a cheapskate, says, "Nice family you married into," jokingly, after the reading. And for this I will be eternally grateful.
In a food coma,
This is the fifth installment in a series of Postcards written by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott, coauthors of Which Brings Me to You (Algonquin Books, 2006), while on tour to promote their book.