It was 9:30 PM, and we were still on the dimly lit platform at San Jose Diridon station, a dozen passengers with ice coolers, blankets, pillows, as well as the usual luggage. All the amenities necessary for domestic comfort on a long train ride. At last the train pulled in, the piercing beam of headlights dragging the convoy of the train cars.
Our seats were assigned to us by the conductor as we boarded. Afterwards, the conductor came by and clipped tags above our seats, marking our destinations. It seems that train stations have the same three-letter codes as the airports of the same city, SJC for San Jose, PDX for Portland. San Francisco would be an odd one. It has neither long-distance train service (the closest station is at Jack London Square in Oakland across the bay), nor air service (the SFO airport is in neighbouring San Mateo County.)
We had decided not to splurge on sleepers, even though it was our first overnight trip on Amtrak. Amtrak coach seats can recline way back, and are undoubtedly wider and longer than those in Boeing 767 business class. They even come with two leg-rests, one for your calves and one for your feet. But the contours of the chair did not fit my shorter proportions. I never managed to find a comfortable position and slept only fitfully.
Each Amtrak train has an observation lounge car with picture windows and clear plexidome roof. Even the loveseats swivel fully so you can face starboard or port of the train! A volunteer docent (retired lumberman) boarded the train at Klamath Falls, took his place at the podium, and told us about the history, the geology, and the pelicans of the area.
However, there’s no smoking car. The conductor was constantly making announcements for stops. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching Salem, where we will stop for ten minutes. This will give you a chance to catch a breath of fresh air. Or a smoke.”
Our frame of reference for train travel is India, where we’ve logged the most miles on rail. So I kept anticipating a cast of players parading through the carriage: dispensing “kopi chai, kopi chai” (coffee/ tea), taking orders for veg or non-veg meals delivered to your seat, appealing for tips for sweeping the floor of your compartment, soliciting charity in return for their tales of woe, performing folk music, etc. (And where were the samosa sellers at the station stops?)
Instead Amtrak had plastic-bound copies of the Harvard Business Review for on-board reading material, and a snack bar three carriages away that sold M&M’s, cup’o’noodles, microwave cheeseburgers, chips, etc. (But Amtrak provides toilet seat covers and soap.)
The dining car was a far slide up the luxury scale, with elegant touches like tablecloths and bud vases with carnations. The food was inoffensive. Sandwiches, burgers with salad on the side, chicken potpie, grilled fish. We shared a table at lunch with a retired couple from Walnut Creek. They were on their way to Seattle and Vancouver, from where they would take another train across Canada to Toronto, head back to Detroit, and then head home again by train. We told them we were on a vacation celebrating our fourth anniversary. They grinned and told us, “So are we, but we’ve been married ten times as long as you!” They’d been traveling around the country a great deal: their goal was to visit every state. They were up to 46. Joe and I did a mental count. We’ve only been to 15. But we also have 36 years to catch up.
The Coast Starlight, which starts its journey in LA, was over an hour behind schedule by the time we boarded in San Jose. I thought it would be a piece of cake for them to catch up and make up time. I was wrong. We pulled into Portland 3 hours late on what was supposed to be a 20-hour journey. The tracks on which Amtrak runs are owned by private rail freight companies, which lease operating privileges to Amtrak. On single-track segments, Amtrak has lower priority and has to wait for the freight trains to pass. Again and again, we would stop for fifteen-minute waits as cargo trains chugged past us.
(As a matter of fact, when we got to Klamath Falls, passengers who were supposed to transfer at Portland for the Empire Builder train to Chicago were told to get off and board a chartered bus to take them to Portland, so that they wouldn’t miss their connection!)
Daniel had been waiting an hour for us at Union Station. He whisked us off to dinner with Naomi in a downtown restaurant. South Park has a singular appetizer, dates stuffed with almonds, wrapped in jamon, slightly warmed. The sweet, salty, crunchy and chewy flavors melted together voluptuously.
THE OREGON COUSINS
Daniel & Naomi are Ivan & Tim’s first cousins on their Li mom’s side. I’m Ivan & Tim’s first cousin on their Chung dad’s side. So the Tochens and I are cousins2. I first met Daniel and Naomi in Bangkok in 1980, where they and their parents visited during a year’s voyage around the world. Naomi remembers us going into the ladies’ room at the Oriental Hotel, where she encountered a katoey (transvestite) for the first time. The next time I saw them was in 1985. They came to Los Altos for Thanksgiving with their grandfather Li, as had Ivan & Tim’s family. Oregon was playing Stanford, so Daniel & Naomi’s dad generously took us all to the men’s basketball game.
Naomi is currently a designer for Nike. Daniel had landed an internship at Adidas this summer. He cast a dubious eye over my walking shoes. “What make?” he mock-sniffed. “Merrill!”
Portland is known as the City of Roses. The floral theme manifests as the Rose City Chiropractor, City of Roses Motel, etc. There’s the annual Rose Festival in June. Even the Tri-Met logo (the transit agency) logo looks like a rose.
The most famous attraction is the Rose Test Garden. We saw a bride in spider web silk emerging from her limousine chrysalis for nuptial photos. Being late July, the roses were in overbloom, but still pretty. But how can flowers ever not be pretty? As my great-grandmother once said, “Who is not beautiful when young?”
Uphill from the Rose Garden was the Japanese Garden. The Japanese Garden had a Zen rock garden. There were fewer visitors here than at Kyoto’s Roanji, but three of them were loudly discussing their retirement investments.
We escaped the speeches of silver by climbing up to an overlook. Below us, the vista of the rock garden unscrolled like an ancient Japanese painting.
On our way out, we caught sight of a plump, finger-length slug, brown-mottled yellow. Half the photos we took in the garden were of that slug. (Later, we saw a variety of slug-themed souvenirs in the Made-in-Oregon store.)
The Portland Chinese Garden was completed a few years ago, near Chinatown, squared between old-school skid row and nouveau high-density gentrification. It offers an authentic Suzhou garden experience, without the transpacific airfare. (Besides, even in Suzhou today, the backdrop of 500 year-old gardens includes glassy high-rises.)
A bamboo ladder stood against the tile-topped wall, waiting for nightfall when the sensitive scholar would climb over to engage in literary and romantic trysts with the beautiful maiden secluded in the garden.
There was also a teahouse with pleasant benches overlooking the pond. (Many Chinese poets composed their best verses in gardens, hanging out with fellow literati, drinking more wine than tea.) The menu featured teas and traditional nibbles like melon seeds and pastries. However, the incense burning inside was an overwhelming scent.
The ponds contained not only lilies, but also lotus: pods, blossoms, the umbrella-spread leaves. Lotuses are rarely seen in cultivation in the States.
AGUA DE BEBER
Not only are there are many public art water fountains, but there are drinking fountains everywhere in downtown Portland. (In fact, one of the Tri-Met art posters features Portland’s signature “Benson Bubblers” four-headed drinking fountain.) Walking so much made us thirsty. Free water to drink is a beautiful thing. We were happy we didn’t have to buy plastic bottled water.
But what astonished me most was the constant flow of water in the drinking fountains. You didn’t need to push any levers to get a drink. What a convenience for the bag-laden shoppers of Portland! But what a waste of water: they can afford it? Beyond the water itself being wasted, what about the resources used to treat the water to make it potable? And post 9/11, don’t they worry about terrorists poisoning the water supply?
AMBIENT FAST FOOD
Daniel had given us restaurant recommendations for every cuisine under the sun, save Thai. “I was about to recommend my favorite Thai place, but maybe that’s a bit superfluous for you.” For me, eating at Thai restaurants in the States usually results in disappointment and pangs of homesickness for the real thing . . .
We passed by 5th Ave and Oak, one full block in downtown Portland, with a row of roach coaches parked on a surface lot with rears opening to the sidewalk. The sidewalk was blackened from the heavy traffic of shoes grinding in the accumulated drips of grease, sauce and crumbs. There was an abundance of choices: falafel, burritos, chow mein, hot dogs, elephant ears. And pad Thai.
Fifteen time zones away, around Silom Road at noon, the food-carts kick into high gear, as the Bangkok Bank office workers come to lunch. The hustle and bustle of hungry folks waiting in line, trying to decide which stall, and what they want from it, vendors filling orders fastastheycan, food and cash changing hands. It was a bit of freewheeling Bangkok in Oregon.
Also scattered around Portland’s CBD are a fleet of “No Fish Go Fish” carts. The premise is basic. Fillings in buns. But the fish-shaped pastry molds are imported from Korea. And the fillings are vegetarian or meat. Good gimmick in name and philosophy. But we weren’t hungry enough to try them. Next time.
TRANSPORTATION (WHAT JOE CALLS CELIA GEEKSPEAK)
Portland is cleaved by the Willamette River, ramrod straight north-south through the city center. There are eight bridges within a three-mile stretch of waterway, a steel zipper securing the seams of the city. Part of my fascination with the city stems from the revolutionary changes they made to accommodate bicycling. Bike lanes hazard areas were painted vivid warning blue. One street approaching a bridge was not only a bike route, it was a skate route. The on-ramp from Nanto Parkway to Hawthorne Bridge had been closed off to cars, to eliminate the hazards of cars running over bikes while merging! Usually, it is the automobile that is deified in traffic engineering and transportation policies.
Their transit system, similar to Santa Clara County, includes both buses and light rail trolleys. On MAX trolley cars, the pre-recorded announcements are in English and Spanish. The Bay Area is 600 miles closer to Mexico, but none of its dozen transit operators can make the same claim. MAX drops you off directly at the airport terminal, unlike VTA. But VTA’s light rail cars have better on-board bike racks.
NAMES, WHERE AND WHO
”You’re from California, you should know Spanish.” I’m sorry to say this is rarely true. But many Golden State residents have a subconscious Spanish vocabulary, based on place names. Saints to fill a calendar, from Rafael to Rosa, Mateo, Joaquin, Diego, and Leandro. Sacramento, Guadalupe, Milpitas, El Cerrito, two Palos: Altos and Verdes. Los Banos. Alviso. Tiburon. Sausalito. In the Pacific Northwest, the non-Anglo names are mostly Native American: Multnomah, Seattle, Tacoma, Oswego, Tillamook, Klamath, Willamette, Klickitat. A less Catholic cadence, but just as musical.
Wandering along NW 23rd, we also crossed streets named Flanders (Ned), Lovejoy (Reverend), Quimby (Mayor), all names of characters in “The Simpsons.” The show’s creator, Matt Groening, was from Portland. But when I saw Klickitat after I saw Quimby, something else clicked. Ramona, Beezus, Henry Huggins and Ribsy. Susan and the BOING curls. I found out later that Cleary grew up in Portland. There’s even a Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden, with statues of Ramona, Henry and Ribsy in Grant Park on 33rd Ave, twenty blocks south of where we were staying.
Beverly Cleary books had been favourites of mine while growing up. Not only did her stories resonate with me, but they depicted public elementary school America, instead of a British private school in Bangkok. My life would have been PB&J sandwiches, crossing guards, trick-o-treating. Instead it was gingham uniforms, Ladybird books and British Bulldog for PE.
Connections boomerang back. At Berkeley, there’s the Beverly Cleary Residence Hall (which houses the Asian Pacific American Theme program) across the street from my old dorm, Priestley Hall. Like me, Beverly Cleary is a Cal alumna. She lived in Stebbins Hall, a co-op that still stands today on Ridge Road on the Northside.
Our crib in Portland was McMenamin’s Kennedy School, in a residential neighbourhood on the east side of the river. Every day we rode the bus to downtown and back. This former elementary school built in the 1920’s has been converted into a self-contained complex of hotel, restaurant, soaking pool, microbrewery, movie theatre, and two bars: Honor and Detention. You can smoke cigars in Detention.
We caught the last twenty minutes of Strangebrew after we checked in. This 1983 movie starring Rick Moranis is about an heiress trying to regain control of her brewery. (Moranis did not play the brewery heiress). Very appropriate for a movie theatre that served pizza and beer to audiences seated in Goodwill’s entire stock of couches.
A lot of art with school and education themes has been incorporated into McMenamin’s Kennedy School. Our room was converted from a classroom, with the full wall-length blackboard still intact. Chalk was laid out so we could add a personal touch to our room. We weren’t very creative: “Go Bears!” and “Ucla.”
Our waiter at breakfast (I think of him as Steve, as he strongly resembles Tad’s friend) sported a really cool Guy Buffet print shirt of Parisian waiters in long black aprons, looking less snarly than they do in real life. The next morning, Steve sported another Guy Buffet print shirt: storefronts like patisseries, epiceries, charcuteries, etc. He said he had four such shirts, which he wore for work.
Joe and I walked down chic NW 23rd Avenue starting from the Burnside end. The first few blocks were dismayingly corporate: Pottery Barn. Gap. Then the shops became trendy boutiques, no different from Fourth Street in Berkeley. We had dinner at Papa Hadyn’s, where their dessert menu was twice as long as their wine list. To save room for dessert, we each ordered a salad. Even then, we should have split one. Mine was full of hearty roasted vegetables. I had the leftovers packed to go.
As we walked down the street in a contented state of digestion, we passed some scrappy youths with a sign pleading, “We’re really hungry”
“Can we have your leftovers?” one of them piped up. I handed over the white cardboard box, and as we walked away, we heard:
I guess NW 23rd is not a bad place for panhandlers to park, since there are so many bistros serving well-heeled patrons. People are apt to emerge with doggie bags. But NW 23rd beggars may end up on the Atkins diet by default.
“You must do the Columbia River Gorge drive,” insisted Daniel. I was dubious. I’d heard “You must do the 17-Mile Drive,” too. We hadn’t planned on renting a car. Besides, did we care that much about scenery? “I’ll drive you guys,” Daniel offered hospitably, not to be deterred.
It is indeed scenic. Part of it is a historic highway, with several WPA lookout points over the high green gorge, little farmhouses scattered about. Daniel explained there was a moratorium on adding new buildings in the area. There were also many waterfalls, so the latter part of the drive took on a repetitive routine: park car, short hike to waterfall, ogle, take photo, return to car and drive to next waterfall.
At Latourelle Falls, I climbed onto a rock and sat hypnotized by the perpetual plunging. A friend of mine once confessed a weakness for lava lamps and desktop toys where bright liquid blobs would regenerate endlessly. ‘I get entranced. I could stare at them forever,’ he sighed. If he had been here, he would transform into stone.
At Multnomah Falls, I persuaded Joe and Daniel to hike up a mile to the top of the falls. “Just to say I’ve been there,” I coaxed. Of the crowd hiking up the steep and strenuous trail with us, there were quite a few overweight people. Nowadays, with obesity rampant, it was encouraging to see them push up and go on.
At the top of the falls, there was a small quiet pool. From the edge of its glass surface, water would blithely make its fear-defying 500-foot descent. A lonely gatorade bottle bobbed in lazy slow circles around the pool. We watched in anticipation for it to reach the edge and plunge over. But there was no such drama.
Far, far below, candy specks of cars shimmered in the parking lot.
We also spotted a soiled plastic diaper dumped next to the pool. I can only hope that its wearer will be bedwetting until puberty, for the parents’ karmic deserts.
In some cities, on-street trashcans have a separate compartment for recyclables such as cans and plastic bottles, to make it easier to sort out. Recycling not only reduces consumption of natural resources, it reduces the amount of stuff dead-ending into landfills.
Portland has gone one step further: the trash cans have notices saying, “Please crush cups.” Trash accumulation is not only a function of mass; it’s also a function of volume. Crushed cups => more space for more trash => denser garbage makes better use of landfill capacity.
The refreshments stand at the Rose Garden had a sign posted: “Lids and straws not provided due to excessive littering.” People were sipping lemonade from paper cup lips. It’s tragic that people have littered so many plastic lids and straws around the garden that the vendor had to resort to such measures. It’s sad that we take lids and straws so much for granted that the vendor had to post such an FAQ.
HOW TO TELL A PORTLANDER
Body piercings – like many people in California.
Dreadlocks – not usually seen in California. I was constantly doing double takes.
Pale, translucent complexions: like the English, probably due to lack of sun.
Out-of-towners can be identified by their runny noses. Joe doesn’t have any allergies back home in the Bay Area, but he was constantly sneezing in Portland. Truc had an acquaintance in San Diego who had voluntarily relocated to Portland. She moved back to California after six months. She was allergic to the ambient mold. You don’t need to get wet to feel Oregon’s rain.
THE THREE EE’s
Perhaps due to the rain-imposed lifestyle of indoor confinement, Portlanders tend to do a lot of:
Powell’s Books. What more can one say? Imagine Moe’s (the bookstore, not the bar) set in Dwinelle Hall. They hand out maps showing colour-coded rooms for different types of books. You could wallpaper the entire Great Wall of China with all the pages in Powell’s inventory. They even have bike racks in the shape of books, complete with bike-related titles. And if books are not your thing, it would a great place to play hide and seek. Of course there’s a café inside.
Almost everywhere I saw a Starbucks, I also saw Coffee People. Augenstein had raved about their Tiger Shake. We tried a Velvet Hammer, which was pretty good.
Microbreweries are big in Oregon, even as the trend has waned elsewhere. We had timed our trip for the annual Oregon’s Brewer’s Festival held at McCall Waterfront Park.
The OBF features no-nonsense set-up, democratic advertising, and an unpretentious atmosphere. Bar-height tables were set up in the shade of a row of trees. Volunteer pourers clad in white OBF T-shirts poured beer out of plastic pitchers. When the pitchers ran low, they were refilled from kegs in refrigerated trucks parked behind them. No taps for foam head, but quick service. The uniform text-only signs stated the beer name, the brewery and the town for each specimen. There were beers from other western states also: Washington, California, Utah.
Tables were set up under tents so people could sit and enjoy their beers with their friends. Beer logo banners hung from the ceiling like heraldic flags. There was even a misting system on the open lawn for cooling off (or sobering up). Food stands: too many selling elephant ears, and not enough selling sausages. One sold beer-batter donuts.
Portland seems to be very big on elephant ears. The universal appeal of fried dough and sugar is as irrefutable as the appeal of alcohol. But beer is goes best with sausages.
Admission was free. To sample the beers, one had to buy wooden coin tokens ($1 apiece) as well as “this year’s mug” ($3), which had the 3-ounce mark line. The organizers emphasized ‘this year’s mug’ pointedly. I don’t know if the sample size had changed from the previous year. If not, perhaps the organizers wanted to track festival attendance, or make more money. But it’s too bad that people with mugs from previous years can’t reuse them at the festival. (Somehow it doesn’t seem to fit in with Portland’s uber-environmental correctness.) It would give folks unspoken bragging rights, “I was here last year,” or “three years ago,” or whatever. (Kind of like people wearing the “I survived” T-shirts from ten years ago at the Bay-to-Breakers.) But I know I can at least use the leftover tokens in future if I go back.