Tag Archives: portland

Bad reasons to move to the Portland area

Please do notice: I didn’t say “Oregon.” I said “the Portland area.” All Oregon is not Portland.

Oh, wait, but surely Portland is the only part of Oregon that’s relevant to any other place in the world?

If that’s your perception, definitely don’t move to Portland. There’s enough of that thinking here already, much of it home-grown. That entire attitude has a great deal to do with the urban/rural divide, in which two different-thinking populations that cannot function without looking for reasons to other each other.

With the Bay Area and Seattle costs of living sky-high, and Vancouver (B.C.) requiring that sticky bit about landed immigrant status, many eyes are on Portland as The Next Big Destination. I’m braced for it.

Unlike some (fewer than reputed) transplants and natives, I am glad to welcome newcomers who are willing to make some effort to adapt. For one thing, I am one. I’ve only been here five years, though I lived a quarter century within an hour’s drive of Oregon. That made adaptation rather easier. For another, sometimes the newcomers are better citizens than the natives. I recently had a situation in which two Oregon State Police cars and two county deputies completely ignored my post-accident situation (I could have been seriously hurt) while a river of vehicles with Oregon tags rolled past me. Who stopped to see if I was okay, to offer witness contact information, etc.? An SUV with California tags.

I got more kindness from an out-of-state SUV than from four local police cars (one of whom had in fact initiated the high-speed chase in which I was rammed by the suspect; thanks for the protection and service). So no, I’m not joining the xenophobic wing. There are good reasons to move here. I don’t really like any big cities at all, but as a person with fundamentally rural outlooks and orientation, I put it this way: if you have to pick a city of three million, this’d be the one.

That all noted, there are numerous terrible reasons to decide to move to the Portland area. (Not all of the Portland area is the city of Portland. Hereafter, I’ll just call it Portland, but what I mean is the metropolitan area from Forest Grove east to Gresham, from the Columbia to Oregon City and Wilsonville. It spans three counties and houses some three million people. I live in the western suburbs. I don’t feel like saying “the Portland/Vancouver/Hillsboro SMSA minus Vancouver” over and over.)

Here are the lousy reasons:

You watched Stumptown and Portlandia and it seemed so cool. It’s not that there aren’t elements of those shows to be found here; it’s that they in no way dominate the mindset. What does? Traffic, some of the nation’s worst.

You’ve heard that the food is excellent. Some is indeed excellent. Some is pretty good. Some is crappy, especially in Beaverton and Hillsboro. I’ve been astonished how much bad Thai, Mexican, and Chinese food can be found out here. For that matter, I have been astonished how much truly lousy American food one can find here.

You’ve heard that the food trucks are wondrous. Some are. Many are mediocrities. Anyway, what’s the the big deal? So it’s a food truck. There is no reason to believe ours are vast improvements over anyone else’s. It just means you eat your food out in public with flimsy plastic forks.

The minimum wage is really high. And it’s not nearly high enough to live on without roommates. $1500/month rent isn’t terribly high by local standards. $12.50 is better than $7.50, but as an annual income, it totals $26K (before taxes and whatever your employer takes out for health insurance). $1500 rent per month is $18K.

You’ve heard that Oregon is a “liberal paradise” and you want to be surrounded only with people who share your views. In the first place, I see opposing decorations on vehicles here all the time, so you will not escape them. In the second, you might find that you can’t pass the purity test. They change it every year, so you have to retake it continually.

You like college football and the Ducks are a Big Thing. They are also in Eugene, about two and a half hours south, not here. Portland cares relatively little for the Zeroes; they don’t even much care for the local I-AA team, Portland State. You’ll see a fair number of Zero stickers on cars, but not a whole lot of giving of damns.

You want to get a dime each for your cans and bottles. You do realize, right, that this is just getting back the dime you paid when you bought it? And that you do this in noisy back rooms after standing in line behind someone who pretends not to speak English and has twice the daily legal limit (144)?

You want a physician-assisted suicide. Hold on there, bucko or bucka. You’ll have to jump through a number of hoops. Not every doctor will prescribe the lethal medication. It’s not like you can just get it at Walgreens. Notably, you can’t get it unless you are terminal within six months. If that is not the situation, and especially if you are not terminal at all, please seek other options wherever you go or are.

You know Oregon was founded as a Whitopia, that Portland remains overwhelmingly white, and that’s what you want, a Whitopia with good coffee. Don’t come. We already have enough homegrown bigoted, idiotic scumbags and don’t need any more.

You think this is the land of the free. Nope. Oregon is the most authoritarian state I have experienced. You shouldn’t be here unless you love rules, even rules that don’t help any situation, and enjoy obeying them. Oregon is excellent at closing every loophole and checking up, and it does well at doing something for the sake of doing something, anything, useful or not. The something is nearly always a more restrictive law, or a more draconian penalty, etc.

You’re homeless, and you’ve heard that Portland treats ’em right. Well, maybe better than Boise. Still, there are homeless tent camps and trash piles all along freeway green spaces. Shelters? Overloaded. Hoping for shelter under overpasses? Mostly fenced out. Public sympathy? Some, not much. Might be more if there weren’t so much litter.

You’ve heard that Portland is the bike-friendliest place in the world and you can’t wait to take to the sharrows with your moral peers. Bad news: Boise actually has bike-friendlier laws. Portland motorists are not especially worse than others, but they maneuver with great abruptness, and they hate cyclists plenty. Don’t take my word; ask some. That battle goes on here as it does anywhere else, with bad behavers on both sides.

You’re coming for the schools. That’s like going to Wyoming for the beaches. Oregon is a terrible state for education. There are lots of job openings for teachers because they don’t stay. Higher ed is about middle of the pack; primary and secondary education is near or in the bottom 20% relative to other states. One of the spendiest private schools in Portland ($30K/year per pupil) is reeling from a decades-long molestation scandal. Portland Public Schools seem unlikely ever to emerge from an ongoing management crisis.

You find the lack of sales tax enchanting. You’ll make up for it with high property taxes and a rather high state income tax. I’ve lived in a state that had sales tax only, one that had both, and one with just income tax. The sales tax screwed me far less, I felt, plus I didn’t have to send my Federal tax return to the state.

You want to be around fellow Ecotopians. While we do have some, including many who will sign onto any environmental idea whether or not it will solve anything, you’d be amazed at the crap that just gets left out on the sidewalk. In my area, the normal way of disposing of furniture is to (illegally) set it on the curb until someone “steals” it or someone complains and the county comes to get it. For an Ecotopia, we have plenty of litter. Just because one shops at Whole Paycheck (the local slang for Whole Foods) doesn’t make one an environmentalist.

You think you’ll get a state job with benefits rivaling Sweden’s. Yeah, that was before the population screwed things up by living too long. They’ve been cutting pensions and benefits ever since, and you should expect more such cuts. Now the benefits are marginally better than those of a decently run corporation.

You heard it’s where millennials go to retire. While that’s an amusing joke, the millennials I know are working their youthful butts off trying to make a living. They don’t have anything easy except the competition for underemployed jobs, and there is no competition there because so many underemployed people care so little about the job that any underemployed person who actually does care will stand out (and be the supervisor in three months). I don’t see any millennial “retirement” happening. I see young adults not getting paid what they deserve.

You dream of never having to pump your own gas. While I’ll give you that one to a degree–the other such alternative being New Jersey, which is a decided contrast to Oregon–this means you can experience lazy service in a new and fun sector. And keep an eye on your gas cap. I drive a pickup, and even then, they put my gas cap on top of the pump, not the wheelwell. After the first time they forgot to replace it, I learned to watch where the cap was. And sure enough, a few times when they brought the credit card slip: “How would it be if I asked you to go ahead and put my gas cap back on before I leave?” A higher minimum wage is not getting us higher standards of service. In fact, much of Portland’s service economy is sullen and apathetic. Considering the cost of living and how underpaid they are, I don’t find that surprising.

If you do come, at least come for reasons other than the above perceptions. The great light rail system? Yes, please. A general relaxed friendliness for a city this size? Got it. Proximity to mountains, great rivers, and an ocean? Yo. Good airport? Yes. Massive outcries against replacing quirky outdated (and ass-ugly) airport carpet? We got your outcries right here. Real estate with room to appreciate? Likely.

Regular news pieces on Antifa clashes with police-abetted racists? How can you resist? Lots of vegan artisanal cruelty-free fair trade farm-to-table organic eco-food? More than you can sample in years and years. Gigantic book store? Even has two outlying branches, both also very large. Want easy voting registration and vote-by-mail? Not only do you have to opt out of registration rather than in, the whole state is vote-by-mail. You can’t go to the polling place because we don’t have one of them.

Hop addiction? Oregon IPAs are often basically fermented hop juice with a little barley for flavor (and quite often some fruit juice, or veggie juice, or something else the gods did not intend to be put into beer). Wine enthusiast? We have this very grapey place called the Willamette Valley, and we are, like, in it. Soccer enthusiasm? They bring it for both genders. Basketball enthusiasm? Try and take their Trailblazers away; just try. Could you live on blueberries and strawberries? Here, it wouldn’t even be that expensive, and you could probably add artisanal free-range goat’s milk for some protein. Gay-friendly churches? Where I live, many display rainbows just in case the marquee didn’t get the message across. Libraries? Numerous, beautiful, and thriving.

Come for these, not those.

Portland Snowpocalypse 2017

In December, Portland received its annual allowance of (what it considers Arctic) winter weather. Portland, the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. state of Oregon, is a hilly city with a very wet climate. For seven months each year, it will rain more days than not. Eastern Oregon is much drier, owing to the Cascade Range’s tendency to absorb most of the eastward moving moisture much of the time.

As Portland reckons things, the annual allowance of (what Kansans would call ‘early December’ and Alaskans would call ‘breakup’) winter weather includes only one session. Once there has been a Winter Episode, no further allowances of (what southern Californians would call ‘the end of all things’) winter weather are tolerated.

Now and then, and in spite of this being one of the more prominent centers of divine feminine worship in various pagan forms, Ma Nature omits Portland’s wishes from Her plans. This year, She did not consult Portland at all. A second winter weather system (what Wyomingites would call ‘May’) moved into the area, dropping temperatures into the teens ºF. In our case, seven inches of snow fell and stuck. Portland limped along for over a week with freezing rain, roads icing up, appointments canceled, mass transit slowed and rerouted, icemelt and snow shovels unavailable, trash uncollected, mail undelivered (that old line about rain and snow is not true) and other expressions of urban chaos.

In short, they have acted about like Los Angeles when the temps drop into the fifties. I won’t justify it, because some of the problem is caused by people’s dumbness, but it’s not all Portland’s fault. Why do seven inches of snow and several days of freezing temperatures lay Portland out flat on its dime-thin-pizza-crust-with-artisanal-vegetables-eating ass?

Topography and geography. The Portland area has a lot of hills, slopes, curved roads, and so on. This is not Boise, laid out like a great big grid. This is not Wichita, where you can probably set a level on the ground and expect it to center its bubble. Even well-prepared locales with sloped terrain have a hard time in winter, and the laws of inertia do not change from, say, Edmonton to Portland. If the road curves, and its surface is slick, and you drive fast enough to overcome your traction, you will slide. Even if you are careful, Portland offers abundant opportunities to overcome your traction.

Trees. Portland has a lot of shade. Shade keeps sunlight (when we get any) from melting snow and ice. Shade is selective, though, and thus there will be stretches of clear, bare, wet or dry pavement interrupted by shady spots that do not thaw. This can sneak up on one.

Ambient moisture. In winter, the Portland area’s humidity tends to exceed 90%. I have lived in climates where that figure was often below 30% in winter. When the air is nearly saturated with water vapor, and surfaces (car exteriors, pavement, mailboxes, eave-troughs) drop below 32º Fahrenheit, water will begin to freeze from the air to those surfaces. In the middle of the cold snap, moisture inside our house was frosting up the metal frames on the insides of our windows. Southerners also experience this freezing-to-surfaces effect, which is one reason Atlanta (for example) comes as unglued as Portland when it gets cold.

Dumb drivers. In the Portland area, drivers are not so much bad as they are very abrupt in their maneuvers. We have a minority of drivers who simply refuse to get in their vehicles when it snows; probably wise. We have another minority who are well equipped for ice and snow, have experience driving in it, and who take to the roads with the respect developed from a life in cold climates. They do fine. A third minority, and rather a large and dangerous one, believes that owning a four-wheel-drive vehicle now makes them Masters of Motoring Space and Time. They are very dangerous, because 4WD is not a solution to most winter driving problems. They tailgate and bully sane drivers. They drive worse than their usual habits. They end up in a lot of ditches, fishtailing onto sidewalks and into medians, and make the work of the police much harder. They’re the worst. The rest are the second worst, because they do not understand the physics and aren’t planning to try. They are nervous, and nervous people tend to make mistakes. They get into situations they can’t get out of. They dig holes in packed snow or ice with their drive wheels, then wonder why the car doesn’t move. They pick the worst places to stop. They change lanes when a person familiar with physics would not do so. They panic. They get stuck and abandon their cars along thoroughfares, freeway shoulders, and so on. My wife and I oscillate between the first and second groups depending on our situation and need, but most of these people scare holy hell out of us.

Not designed for it. Put simply, very little in this area is designed or chosen to handle ice and snow. Roofs in Portland must be very well made to keep out rain, but are not designed expecting the weight of heavy snow. They are very prone to ice damming, which leads to homeowner damning (take my word on that). Heaters and condensate pumps get uncommon workouts in cold weather, and a number will fail the test. Ice accumulation downs power lines, transit cables, tree branches, and entire trees. Portland is designed to drain away a lot of water, but the sudden melting of several inches of snow and ice can overwhelm that drainage system–especially if part of it is still frozen. Urban flooding is a very real concern.

Salt-free diet. Oregon doesn’t like to salt roads. It will do so in certain situations, but one cannot expect the state’s transportation authorities to do so by reflex. Hardware stores in Portland don’t carry tons of snow removal supplies, and all the icemelt and snow shovels will vanish on the first day. If you don’t already have them, tough luck. Oregon will gravel roads, but the Portland area does not have enough equipment to handle them all, and it definitely lacks the snowplows to clear anything but the freeways and arterials. Everyplace else is on its own. Where I live, for example, we faced the possibility of chaining up to get out of our development; once out, we would either need to de-chain or limit our travel to roads where we could drive at chain speeds (definitely under 25 mph) without creating hazards. Had we de-chained, of course, we might have to chain up again in order to travel that last quarter mile. No one graveled our development, much less plowed snow or put down any sort of chemical, nor did any of us imagine that anyone would. No one is deliberately saying “Fuck you, deal with it.” No one is saying anything. That itself is the point. If they were to say anything, it would be “Good luck. We can’t help you.” For those from rougher climates and/or smaller towns, we tend to help ourselves rather than waiting to be saved. For those from foreign countries where it never snows, or for those purely urban persons who think food is materialized at grocery stores, it has to be frightening.

Why don’t they prepare? There is definitely more that Portland could do on a contingency basis. It would be cost-prohibitive to buy and maintain enough anti-winter infrastructure to prevent snowstorms from turning into shitstorms, but there could be more contingency planning. Since locals refuse to contemplate the physics of the matter on their own, a better job could be done with spot reduction in speed limits–and Portland/Beaverton really ought to adore that, because it would be the next great excuse to write a lot of speeding tickets. People could organize volunteer groups to shovel more driveways and sidewalks. Nah; they’d rather go on the news and bitch because the transit authority, or the city, or anyone but them did not drop all its other major concerns and shovel the snow at their light rail stop.

It’s not over when it’s over. When the roads begin to clear in earnest, Portland’s drivers unleash the chained demon within. For agonizing days they have had to restrain their desires to whip around like fighter pilots, tailgate (unless they owned 4X4s, in which case they had lots of fun tailgating smarter people than themselves), make left turns at breathtakingly selfish and stupid times, change their minds at the last minute, and tempt whatever guardian angels still bother with them. Physics have prohibited them, by fearful reason or by fender-crumpling force, from being themselves. Now it’s payback time: they have several days of Bad Driving saved up, and the universe that deprived them of this liberty is going to pay. I suppose the local municipalities, who base no small portion of their revenue streams off extractive law enforcement, rub their gnarled hands in fiduciary delight.

When it melts, it rains. Since it rains a lot here to begin with, Portland has had quite some time to devise means to deal with excess water. Topography helps and hurts: there are lots of downhills, but somewhere there’s a bottom to the hill. Ditches, storm drains, water catchment areas, and more. They do not have every problem solved, but it takes sustained heavy rain to overwhelm the drainage system. If sustained heavy rain happens when we also see five inches of snow melt off roofs and yards and places where it was plowed or shoveled into berms and heaps, the drainage system will become overwhelmed. There will be mudslides; parts of hillsides will give way. Hydroplaning becomes a greater concern than at most other times, which is bad news for the Liberated Fighter Pilots described above because they know only two settings: terrified and terrifying. No more snow and ice? That means it is now safe to do whatever.

What they see around them. You think the mail always gets through, through snow and rain and dead of night? Not here; that’s a myth. It can take a couple of weeks to catch up. They turn on the news and see hundreds of cars just abandoned on the freeways and arterials, some in spots where they will probably be wrecked in place (other people coming to that spot might fare no better even if the path were clear, which it is not). Every news anchor pleads with them to turtle up until it just goes away. At the onset, panicky people stampede to the grocery stores and go full Canadian: milk section wiped oat. It’s hooped eh, even the buttermilk and skim milk. Calm, confidence, and courage are as communicable as panic, uncertainty, and terror. Most human beings are fundamentally compliant and imitative, a dynamic which is the bedrock of civilization. Here, that means a majority will imitate freakout, as they have a bias toward obedience and imitation. It is the contagion of freakout.

Yeah, Portland could do it a lot better. Trouble is, it happens rarely enough that it becomes a bad dream. Amnesia sets in, and other problems come front and center. But if you wonder why a city can feel its knees buckle due to temps in the teens and seven inches of snow, well, there you go.

My snow rake

The Portland area gets very little snow. In many winters it will get none, or perhaps a couple of slushy mornings. When this area gets cold enough, we are more likely to see ice–and when Portland ices up, it does the job right. Air saturated with moisture will see its water freeze onto any surface that is below freezing temperature. The roads can develop a quarter inch of solid ice. Forget driving, even if the roads weren’t full of terrified morons. Walking is problematic enough.

To want a snow rake in Portland, one would first need to come from a place where the question of rooftop snow accumulation has been an issue. Wisconsinites, Montanans, Alaskans, Coloradoans, Michiganders…you get the picture. One must then be enormously weather-paranoid, having heard stories of six inches of snow some years back. One must then figure out how it is Portland is supposed to get enough snow that it could endanger a sloped roof (such accumulations would be measured in feet, not inches).

Or one must live in the shade of fourteen mature lodgepole pines.

I love the lodgepoles. I love to sit in my wide-but-shallow backyard, indifferent to the peering of the paranoid nutbag on the other side of the fence, smoking my cigar and watching the squirrels do their Looney Tunes re-enactments. We have plentiful birds, and like the squirrels, they have learned I mean them no harm. When I sit outside, I feel close to the land, even though I’m in the Dullest White Suburb of All Time. (It’s not entirely white. On my walks, I sometimes see Indian children playing with toy cricket bats. While we have a somewhat substantial Hispanic population, we keep up appearances by having mediocre Mexican restaurants. However, this is Oregon. Nearly every place is mostly white.)

Problem: my lodgepoles drop enormous amounts of needles. On my back yard’s ground, I can deal with it; a lawn is impractical, and they help trap the moisture in summer. On my roof, it’s a problem. Needle accumulations allow moss to begin, and hold moisture against the roof.

So why not just get on the roof and use a push broom a few times a year, you may ask? Because I’m scared as hell. I’m not afraid to climb a ladder, but the transition to the roof takes me ten minutes. The transition off the roof is even worse. I can only force myself to do the first by condemning myself to a diagnosis of cowardice if I refuse. The second only happens because I’d rather not stay on the roof forever, and I’m not of an age where jumping is a good idea. Another consideration is that I have a repaired Achilles tendon. The ankle angle required to stand upright on a roof facing upslope is a serious strain on a tendon that is still just a tad shorter than the one that never popped. Wouldn’t it be fun to be up on a roof with a re-ruptured Achilles tendon?

If I must get on a roof, I will. If I need not, I will be happier.

Thus, the snow rake with a broom attachment. It is obvious that I can’t leave a lot of needles up there, or the roof will moss up. (I cut a toilet bowl cleaner bottle just so that I could use it to fling Ridmoss all the way to the roof’s apex.) The moss problem is bad enough in Portland and I’d just as soon not make my version of the problem worse. The paranoid wacko neighbor’s roof would appear bright green from the air, so bad is the moss on the shade side. In Portland, the sensible homeowner simply doesn’t play games with roofing.

The snow rake isn’t a panacea. It comes in segments, and I need all 21′ of them. Its length causes its aluminum to flex enough that I have to be gentle with it, lest it break. The broom gets the bulk of the needles, but not all. I have to move a heavy folding ladder several times in order to pull the highest needles down where I can reach them with a normal plastic rake. While I am at it, I always have to clean the eave-troughs because some of the needles will surely land there. Going up and down the ladder makes my knees feel like they contain broken glass. I get to chuck armloads of muddy needles off a ladder into the yard waste bin.

Still beats hell out of getting on the roof, like I did today. There is an eave-trough higher up, it fills up, and it has to be cleaned now and then; the snow rake can’t help me with that one. After that, I decided that I merited a cigar to settle my nerves. If it hadn’t been about 10:30 AM, I might have added a slug of rum to that indulgence. I suppose my neighbors enjoyed watching my ginger hesitancy. If they found it amusing, I can’t blame them.

But if we ever do get that 3′ deep blizzard, we’ll just see who’s laughing then.

How to encourage recycling

I’ve only been in Oregon five days, and I see how they do it. Simply put, they give you no other viable choice but to recycle/donate.

This is new to me. In Idaho, the only thing they recycle is spent shell casing brass. They put more gunpowder and bullets or pellets into it, then shoot it again.

It begins with a very small trash trash bin, an enormous recycling bin, and a big yard waste bin. If you’ve got a lot to get rid of, the trash trash bin will not get rid of it all because you barely have room for minimalist household trash. Thus, one must begrudge anything tossed in the trash trash. We’ve already designated a separate, unlined can just for waste paper, so we can keep it out of the trash. If we do not do this, we will not have room for true trash.

Oregon also has a 5-cent deposit on bottles, cans and plastic. If anyone thinks that won’t add up, fine, but I want my damn money. I’m going to rig up a handheld carrier with lath dividers just to make it easier to take them in, even though I have tons of room in my recycle bin, because if I’m going to go through all this, it’s time to pay me. I pick up loose pennies in supermarket parking lots. I damn sure will pick up nickels, and every one of these cans now resembles a nickel to me, forty to a $2 roll.

Landfill dumping seems to exist…sort of, expensively, somewhere difficult to get to. However, if you list an item for free on Portland Craigslist, unless it’s absolutely worthless, expect to be bombarded with replies. I gave away a remarkably crappy miniature folding couch that we could have used to extract confessions from people just by making them sleep on it. Twelve replies, half an hour, gone two hours after posting. We’re pruning down our excess crap, and St. Vincent de Paul is about to become a real asset, because charities are the only way to get rid of bulk stuff. Before I left Boise, I removed the hard drives from two old dead computers, hit them with a hammer until I knew I’d broken the platter and the electronics, and chucked them in the bin. In Oregon, that is punishable by a fine, but there are a number of places to recycle old computers. I tossed a dying mini-fridge into my bin in Boise. Portland? Wouldn’t come close to fitting. I’d have to call and find out where you recycle dying refrigerators, and I’ll bet there’s an option.

All these boxes? All the packing paper? Craigslist. Someone’s always moving. Free boxes? Yes, please. Free packing paper? Oh, they’ll come get it. Just as well, because the boxes and paper would overwhelm even our cavernous recycle bin.

I’m not opposed to any of this, though neither am I an ecomaniac. Just, I’d always wondered how they dealt with the large numbers of people who can’t be bothered to deal with recycling. In Boise and Kennewick, there was no impetus. In Portland, they make it so it’s the only way to avoid being buried in unwanted crap.

A part of me admires the strategy’s ruthlessness.

Recent read: Irreverent Insider Guide: Portland, Oregon, by Steven McCall

Until Fred Armisen moved to the Pearl District and made a show about the place, the national consciousness didn’t much register Portland, and by extension Oregon. Maybe as Seattle/Washington’s younger sister, the one without a football or baseball team. If the nation heard about Oregon, it was in context of legalizing something that would be allowed in Alabama only under the fixed bayonets of an army of occupation, and even then, they’d fight a guerrilla war against it.

Well, for better or worse, now they know. Or so they might think.

They could always buy a travel guide, of course. But one should know that some big-name travel guides are assembled to target the itches visitors seek to scratch, often by ‘lancers who don’t know the place that well. Travel guides must also cover a very broad spectrum, requiring some fishing around to find what you want.

You aren’t going to read a 400-page book for a weeklong visit to Portland, are you? Well, you might. But what if a 48-pager could cover the most important parts from a native’s level of knowledge? You might get the 400-pager, but you’ll read the 48-pager.

I know Steve McCall, which is why I can vouch for this book. Steve lived half a century in Portland. His travel writing at Epinions was some of the funniest stuff there. He’s a wine connoisseur who will enjoy your rednecky cheese bread. He knows what’s overrated, what’s pretentious, and what’s excellent. The only reason he’s not a professional tour guide in Portland is because he has other priorities at the moment, but there would be none better. It only takes him forty-eight pages to address the hipster/granola/lumberjack/pothead/etc. stereotypes, tell you where it’s worth your money to eat, suggest places worth exploring, and double your fun in his hometown. For less than the price of a decent coffee in Portland, in less than one hour, and with wit.

There is something so very Portland about that.

In everything I do, I try like hell to find a high density of information. I follow the home inspector around the property, taking notes. If I can’t find out CenturyLink’s catchment area in Portland, I finally cheat and call a guy in marketing whose number I’m not supposed to have or call, briefly explain that I cheated, ask my question, thank him, and get out of his hair. I like Rick Steves because his travel guides really get to the point. They say more in a para than some guides say in a page.

The same is true of Irreverent Insider Guide: Portland, Oregon, only more so.

Powell’s

Powell’s is a bookstore in Portland, Oregon.

This is a bit like saying that the Smithsonian Institution is a museum in Washington, District of Columbia: factually correct, but grossly understating the case.

I am aware that the readership will now divide into two categories: those who have seen it, and can verify that I’m not exaggerating in the least, and those who have not. Some of the latter may suspect that I am embellishing. If so, it is accidental. I am making a conscientious effort to stick to the facts.

For everyone who thinks that dead tree publishing is just dead, period, I offer you Powell’s. And not just because it’s a huge bookstore with multiple locations, but because it’s doing well in the Amazon and Kindle era. With smart, helpful employees. Of course, it does help the employees that most are working in what they consider paradise. Many of the customers arrive in wonderful, even spiritual frames of mind, as if entering a library, and are in a mood to treat the staff as temple caretakers, so it’s a good place to work retail.

The physical facts: the main Powell’s location in downtown Portland is about a five-minute walk from where the high-speed rail lets you off, past numerous exotic food trucks (I tried Georgian), to a three-story building that takes up an entire city block. It sells books, used and new, and very little else. I would estimate the shelves at ten feet high, all wood. Newcomers do well to accept a free map of the color-coded sections. It has clean bathrooms, wide aisles, places to sit down and rest a bit, and a rare book room. While you will find at Powell’s a copy of any current and popular book you seek, the hidden beauty is what you find that you did not know existed. It is a marvelous place for subject readers, especially if books on the subject tend to stay out of print once sales fade.

Take travel essays. I read a lot of travel essays. I’m not so much the Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux type; more the Tim Cahill, Tim Severin, Tony Perrottet, and Tony Horwitz type. (What is it about those two first names that seems to indicate a book I will like?) It combines a true adventure story with cultural and geographic learning. When I go to Barnes, and I still do, the Travel Essays section occupies one segment (roughly 4′ wide) of shelves about six feet high, and stuff I’ve already read or do not plan to read dominates it. Everything by Frances Mayes about Tuscany. Everything by everyone else about the glories of Tuscany. More about Tuscany. Anthologies themed on a region or gender. Titles designed to make the author out to be a badass, which he really isn’t. Titles meant to sound cute, but which would sound cute only to the sort of person who would never read a travel essay. Plenty of ways to learn that Paris is a major city with eight figures of population and lots of dog waste. Never a shortage of Bill Bryson’s prissiness. Still more about Tuscany.

Travel essays at Powell’s? About four or five segments of shelves ten feet high. Everything Barnes had, plus more: old hardbacks about people who did Brazil in the 1930s, or south Asia in the 1920s, and more. Might find Pico Ayer or Shiva Naipaul; Sven Hedin, Freya Stark. Best of all, you might find someone whose book has been out of print since before your birth, or who wrote about someplace besides Tuscany or Paris. And unlike Barnes, Powell’s isn’t likely to mistake Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic for a Civil War history book due to the title, or his Midnight Rising for a travel book due to the author’s past body of work. Powell’s employees might actually open the book and use their brains. And once you get them home, Powell’s price tags peel off without leaving a mess.

Powell’s has two major satellite locations, plus a few minor ones. I have been to the Beaverton satellite, and it’s about the size of a Costco. If one uses the costco (symbol [c], perhaps) as a measuring unit for gigantic stores, I would estimate the downtown Powell’s as a 3[c] store. If the Hawthorne location is anything like the Beaverton cavern, you could spend a day there alone. And that’s good for me, because downtowns are not normally places I like to be. All that urban vibrancy, rapid pulse, people-watching quirkiness that you find right at the heart of the action? Lost on me. I lived in Seattle for sixteen years. When I worked downtown, I went downtown in the morning and escaped in the evening. If I went at any other time, it was because I had a girlfriend or guests who liked downtowns. I probably took less than eight solo non-commute trips downtown in sixteen years, and I believe I overdid it.

While I will never tire of loving up on Powell’s, in this day and age one may reasonably ask: how do they stay in business? I think I have it figured out. If you find business icky, you can skip this para. You will not find a lot of deeply discounted used books at Powell’s. This is not Half Price Books, or Hastings, or Amazon sellers who put it out there for $0.01 plus $3.99 shipping. I do not know how cheaply they buy, but they do not have mega-low prices. Powell’s seems to assume that if you want the book, $8 or $12 won’t bother you. Their continued existence says that they’re onto something; it’s not just about ‘give me the best price even if my experience sucks,’ in spite of the conventional wisdom of airlines, Walmart, and so on. Powell’s also has unionized employees, and while the company handled the unionization better than many, there have been conflicts and layoffs. I don’t know what the pay and benefits are like, but I suspect they are not lavish. Part of the answer, therefore, to the business survival question is that staffing costs remain in check. Powell’s evidently was/is no sweatshop, but at least at one point, there were enough issues for employees to organize a union in spite of all social trends to the contrary.

That said, I would bet it’s a happier workplace than Barnes & Noble. While I’m not wishing any bookstores gone, even Hastings, former and current B&N employees I have spoken with fall into two categories:

1) Those who said it was a job full of callous management indifference, low pay, scrambled hours, inordinate pressure to sell memberships, and poor advancement opportunities.

2) Um…haven’t heard anyone tell me s/he liked working there. The employee discount, yes, but not the job.

If you read–and you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t–Powell’s is the most important stop on your trip to Portland.

It was enough to get me to desire to be in a downtown.