It only took me about four days to realize that if cuteness could kill, then maybe the State of Oregon would have never legalized the work of Dr. Kevorkian. Portland serves as the epicenter, or Mecca, if you will of this peculiar cuteness cult. Streets like Alberta, Northwest 23rd Avenue and Hawthorne are littered with the faithful, seemingly bereft of full-time day jobs and completely free to wander between umpteen coffee shops, boutiques, paperies and vintage stores. Like a student's civil rights, the cute doesn't stop at the Craftsman style door - it permeates into titles and begats creations such as Paint the Sky kite shop, Frock clothing store, Naked Sheep knitting supply purveyor and the most-groan-worthy Virginia Woof pet groomers.
At 3:15 p.m. on a Tuesday, locally-brewed Stumptown Coffee is suffering no shortage of restrained but unapologetically hip customers. In any other city, they would probably be working at jobs like the one I've escaped for the week, but in Portland they are treated as the high priest(esse)s in the cult of cute. The hipsters offer each other their deepest thoughts on bicycling, tattoos, thrift stores, dogs, sustainable farming, you get the idea. All the while, they sport outfits remarkable as much for their quirkiness as their underlying sameness.
Though there may not be such a thing as the power lunch in Portland, there is plenty to keep a gal busy. Together with my friend and host, Na'ama, we encounter a washboard and tub bass band at the Farmer's Market and the biggest artichokes I have ever seen. A cornucopia of vegetables, fruits and organic baked goods greets us and we stop and chat with a meat farm that will gladly slaughter a cow according to the laws of Kashrut or Halal and sell you a side of beef. My friend takes a flyer.
Alas, Na'ama actually has a job that keeps her off the streets for most of the day so I'm free to discover the city mostly on my own. One day takes me to the Classical Chinese Garden, constructed on Portland by landscape architects imported from China as part of a sister-city exchange. It's perfect for midday respites and the view from the teahouse can only be described as serene. Being without a car and left beholden to the city's excellent public transit system, the Garden is a welcome escape from the mindboggling-large homeless population that frequent the area near Chinatown.
My exploring takes me to Powell's City of Books (seriously, plan a half a day here), the fascinating (and free) Museum of Contemporary Craft, the International Rose Test Garden, the Widmer Brothers Brewery tour (it's free too!) and entirely too many restaurants. Portland has emerged recently as a culinary hub and even Anthony Bourdain devoted half an episode to the city. If you're planning a trip and you want more specific recommendations, email me.
In the interest of brevity here's some quick picks...
Tin Shed Cafe - absolutely amazing breakfasts, biscuits that rival my former Southerner roommates', and a vast array of vegan and vegetarian options.
Voodoo Doughnuts - maybe it's because I went at 8 p.m. or maybe it's because I didn't get the bacon maple bar, but it didn't quite live up to the hype.
Gilt Lounge - eat someplace else and then drink here because they are cheap, creative and one will get you fully schnookered.
Hot Lips Pizza - just darn tasty pizza.
Pix Patisserie - utterly amazing pastries abound here, for a price, but totally worth the dough and the calories. If you're afraid of guilt, bring a friend and come in time for creme brulee happy hour.
Breweries - honestly, I went to way too many of these and they were all pretty good. Just ask a local they're incredibly friendly and will probably think your East Coast accent is cute.
OK - glorifying over and back to a little healthy cynicism. Depsite their overall laidback attitudes, no doubt helped by marijuana (both medical and recreational), Portlanders do feel a need to broadcast their erudite and liberal lifestyle to anyone who will listen. At the neighborhood co-op, I'm told via a poster echoing the Communist Manifesto, that I am welcome to shop as everyone is an owner. What a relief! Validation for my sense of entitlement to organic peanut butter even exists at the co-op!
Back at Stumptown Coffee, fully 30 varieties are listed on the Tasting Guide and apparently the Ethiopian Mordecofe features "lemon hard candy flavors in a transparent cup that finishes with the flavor or raw sugar." Of course, the guide also designates fair trade and organic options, which leads me to wonder if I'll be judged for ordering something grown outside the shade with lots of chemicals and guaranteed to rip off indigenous peoples.
All my ranting and quasi-religious undertones aside, Portland really does have a lot to offer and is pretty fun. Sure, you might have to fight off a few street kids (some affectionately known as "prostitots" because they will trade sex for drug money), but under the surface is an excellent example of the American city as municipal laboratory.
Unemcumbered by history, missing centuries of class struggle and racial discord and placed in beautiful natural surroundings, Portland has had the freedom to experiment while other cities have had to overcome industrialism, integration, natural disasters or a delightful combination thereof. And that, in the end, is pretty cute.