Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Tom's Seattle: Seattle Will Eat Your Children

You may think there is only one Bigfoot, and that he is basically a retiring ape-like beast who looks a lot like a man in a monkey suit. And you would be as wrong as I was until I visited the Museum of the Mysteries!

It turns out there are a bunch of Bigfoot or Sasquatch. And as it happens, they range from huge, vaguely Roddy McDowall-looking Harry and the Hendersons types, all the way to noncorporeal spirit-tricksters who take the shape of wizened old ladies and whose basic schtick is they will put overly curious children in a bag, take them away, and eat them at their convenience. These things I find out at the Museum of the Mysteries, though they only have plaster-casts of the feet of the Roddy McDowall beasts.

Other things at the Museum include small turdy-looking rocks whose significance hinges on their possible extraterrestrial origin, a fact that would be decried by the first recorded Men in Black when they showed up to menace early investigators into the UFO from which the fist-sized stones dropped. The Museum, perhaps better termed a "library with exhibits", boasts probably the largest Mysterious World section of books in Seattle, and thuswise is one of the best places in America.

The co-director of the Museum is a short, cardigan-clad fellow named Philip. He looks like a cross between Steven King and the stereotypical image of a mad scientist's assistant. He shows me a documentary about Frances Farmer. Like most people, I knew pretty much nothing about Farmer besides the speculation that she had some sort of retribution in store for Seattle.

I now also know that in High School she won a prize for writing an essay speculating on a world without God; that she later went on a sponsored trip behind the Iron Curtain, where she had a whale of a time; and that, following a period of sub-Spearsian misanthropy toward the media and her fans, she was hospitalised, repeatedly raped (she claims) by gangs of Russian sailors, and involuntarily lobotomised (others claim) by the notoriously icepick-happy staff of the institution in which she was incarcerated.

What impresses you in media of Farmer is the arc of her facial expressions over the years: From the youngest family snaps through school photos, she always has a vaguely supercilious wistfulness, like she's not really meant to be there. During stardom, that look has matured into a steely, confronting glare, shining through the eyeholes of the mask of fame as it eats into her face[1]. And after the alleged lobotomy - which Farmer's doctors insist is unrecorded and could never have happened - it's gone. All that's left is a sad desire to be accepted for what she is now, a pleading to put the entire pre-existence of Frances Farmer behind her and cut her losses. But these are images presented to you as components of a pre-written narrative, and as such it's easy to project onto them, slotting them into the easiest available spaces within the mythology.

Frances Farmer isn't the only celebrated progeny/casualty of Seattle, of course. Her mythology is intricately entwined with that of Kurt Cobain, whose guitar-fuzz rebellion furthered the mission of Jimi Hendrix, who used to hang out, on rare but Seattle-royalty-intense occasion, with Bruce Lee. You could rearrange and triangulate the mysteries of that quartet (or quintet, if you included Brandon Lee) until you went as mad as an apocryphal actress. You could add the legends of Pike Place Market, the ghost stories they tell the tourists of the daughter of Seattle's eponymous Chief Stealth, who wanders the hallways searching for shiny beads[2]; and of the morbidly obese woman who fell through the roof and now moans at workers.

But I never saw those ghosts, so I think they're like child-stealing crones in the woods: Just stories you tell kids to stop them getting too curious. You could always just rope the Market off at night instead, right?

[1] Merchant, XFM s10e18, quoting Updike, Self-Consciousness.
[2] This is a case of posthumously mistaken identity. Stealth's daughter shared none of the qualities attributed to the ghostly maiden, save being Native American and female; but these are images presented to you as components of a pre-written narrative, etc.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tom's America: Turns Out I Like Shoes

I wear the fuck out of shoes. The pair I came to America in have walked from Silver Lake to South Central, from Hollywood to Los Feliz and back again. They have walked from North Beach to Hashbury and returned in time for dinner and they have circled horrendous tacky Fisherman's Wharf several times in a never-ending search for the good bits (there are none). They have walked from Alphabet to Hawthorne three times in as many days.

These are not my beautiful shoes.

They have also made people say, "wow, those are really good shoes". They were my wingtip sneakers. Class on the top, party on the street. The Mullet Of Shoes!

The pair before that had two of my favourite people in the world, on separate occasions, gushing at length as to their prowess. They were red checkerboard Vanses. I bought them after a long and prosperous dalliance with the Chuck Taylor, ended when I discovered that Converse was now owned by Phil Knight. A friend, impressed at this, asked me, "do you have many principles like that?"

"No, just that one", I replied, caught out. Turns out I'll eat McDonald's and drink Starbuck's and watch Fox but I won't wear Nike.

I needed new shoes for Seattle. My Mullets Of Shoes were giving up the ghost. There was still a little people-impressing in them, but damn if there was any hill-scaling. The Mullets of Shoes would complain heartily to my feet if they had to climb Cap Hill, and the feet would complain to the Boss, and the Boss would complain to everyone in his vicinity, which would not make him popular.

When I put on a shoe, it knows it's not getting out alive. I need a shoe that will compliment and augment my identity. I need a shoe that will make people I have a very high regard for say, "That is a very good shoe".

You don't have to love any given shoe I am wearing. But someone has to.

When I buy a new shoe it has to say, "shit man, you need to wear this shoe". It then has to feel like it will swaddle my feet in comfort and it will do it for a long time. And then the price tag has to say that it will not just allow me to walk to food, it will allow me to purchase said food also.

Flirting with a heavy-duty replacement for The Mullet Of Shoes, I considered a more canvas-based wingtip solution. The Timberland Company nearly won me over with a bizarre kung-fu-esque slip-on heavy-duty walker. Mr. Marc Ecko presented me with an array of interesting suggestions, each more appealingly outlandish than the last. I was at the point of purchasing a tooled-leather artwork-for-the-foot by Etnies, until I discovered that not only had no animals died for this shoe, but the tooling provided an intricate tableaux of characters from popular nerdtertainment revue, The Adult Swim.

In the end I am a little embarrassed to say I bought shoes that would walk hard down life's rocky road, and would be not demure while doing so; but would look somewhat plain and retiring along the glittered byways of a San Francisco or the starred boulevards of Hollywood. I bought shoes that don't fuck about, but neither do they play around. But at least they'll preserve my Mullets a while longer.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tom's Portland: The Further Adventures of The Man of Portland

The Man of Portland is proud of his rail system! The Man of Portland has set it up so that you don't even have to pay to ride the rails inside the boundaries of what The Man of Portland has decided is the part of the city worth being in.

This does not include the bar where you can hear what it would be like if Portishead and the Dead Weather got drunk together, or the theater where you can see Taxi Driver on the big screen if you give $3 to the guy at the box office, or the creole restaurant under the Morrison Bridge where you can get catfish jambalaya and where the waiter (who looks more like a Jake than any man in the history of the world has ever looked) will make sure the foil around your leftovers is folded into the shape of the cuddly animal of your choosing. But then, it also doesn't include the areas where The Man of Portland puts his homelesses and colouredses, so he figures he's breaking even!

Anywho, The Man of Portland has divided his trains into three lines: a Red Line, a Yellow Line and a Blue Line. And on these lines run different coloured trains: red trains, yellow and blue trains.

Logically enough, the colour of the train corresponds in no way whatsoever to the line it runs. A good way to find this out is to catch a yellow train because you want to be on the Yellow Line. You will be surprised where you might end up!

But The Man of Portland doesn't always have time to think things through. In Alphabet, just down the road from the Carl Jung Library, is a lovely little coffee shop where I once spent a day writing in exchange for frequent purchases of coffee and gifts of intellectual bons mot for the waitstaff. (At one point the older man at the next table, who had explained to me he was having considerable trouble with Linux, was engaged in an intense discussion with The Man of Portland about origami. Without so much as a by-your-leave, the coot lifted the scrawny haunch nearest to my seat and favoured me with a trio of the heartiest exclamations his bowels were fit to proclaim, continuing his discussion with nary an acknowledgment from either of us).

On one of my last days in Portland, a friend and I were enjoying a coffee at this very cafe when who should bumble up the street but our old friend, The Man of Portland? He hurriedly asked everyone seated along the store's front if they might vacate their tables for him.

Two of the neighborhood's Prophets - every good neighborhood in every good city in every good America, I have found, has several Prophets, sage old fellows who are the area and will brook no hoitiness-nor-toitiety if it gets in the way of their daily Business whatever exactly that is but will be only too happy to accomodate otherwise - were seated alongside the cafe's front, enjoying a Saturday afternoon coffee and conversational ramble. They, like the rest of the patrons, were loathe to leave their seats simply because The Man of Portland bade them do so. The Man of Portland, all bluster and impatience, unholstered a hefty laptop from his bag, waving it in their faces as if it were a business card, or a protester's placard, or his genitals.

"This is how I make eighty thousand a year!", he barked.

The Prophets did not stand.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Tom's Portland: The Man of Portland

He got here quick: I've already seen him walking up Glissan, wandering Pearl, hanging at the microbrew bars between here and Union Station. I've seen him drinking fairtrade coffee in cafes in Alphabet, or walking his girlfriend's comically small dog down 18th. And now here to greet me at the hostel, timely and peppy, is The Man of Portland.

He has a neatly-trimmed beard and he wears shorts and track shoes. The Man of Portland takes out the Free Map he has advertised prominently on the webpage for his hostel. (You can also pick this map up out of huge piles of same in any visitors' center in town.) The Man of Portland draws on the map for me: here is the hostel, and here is Trader Joe's, which, explains The Man of Portland, is a neighborhood supermarket they have throughout town. And here are a variety of microbrews and cafes.

He wears a loose-fitting t-shirt and his hair is sensible. The Man of Portland leads me up to my room. He has plastered helpful notes throughout his hostel: "Tasty filtered water for you to enjoy!"; "Please Respect Quiet Time After 10pm"; a lengthy list of ways to stay safe while sleeping on a top bunk. The Man of Portland explains to me how a fitted sheet works.

The Man of Portland has, it turns out, a passion for helpful notices. He has plastered his city with them. Not a surface goes wasted in his civic design: The Man of Portland will stick a "Do Not Drink" sign anywhere it could be seen on a water feature. A list of ways to exercise Reasonable Caution will find its way onto any surface of any sculpture that might be seen by human eyes. A friend of mine has spent a pleasurable few days simply wandering Portland, photographing the myriad ways in which The Man of Portland is looking out for our wellbeing in officious-notice form.

The Man of Portland, ever-present on his own streets, is always there to help. He's like a bearded, sensibly-haired Bobby on the Beat. I consult a map momentarily; The Man of Portland is there to ask where I am going, ignore the part where I tell him how I plan to get there, and tell me a less efficient interpretation of what I just told him.

Not for nothing The Man of Portland's sensible preservation of his town and my experience of it. He built this city; he built this city on nu-folk and acoustic guitar-based comedy. My friend and I accept a pedicab ride from a young feller so desperate to ride around that he offers to pay us to ride his cab. (An earlier driver asked for any change I had, but was mainly happy to tell me stories of Ragnarok and delighted when I correctly guessed what they meant to him). Our driver tells me how The Man of Portland found his way here, creating a little village where Liberal, free-thinking folk could feel safely sealed away from the old-time Conservatism that pervades farm-rich Oregon; how The Man of Portland led his people on the long exodus from Seattle, a New Oregon Trail, begun once Grunge and Starbuck's had become embarrassingly ubiquitous and ended once this golden city on the river had been reached.

Nobody in The Man of Portland's town will ever call him "Sir". He has purged the entire area West of the Willamette of Morlocks. The Man of Portland's grip on his town is as strong as hemp rope. He will be wearing his shorts and his beard into his sixties, when his loose-fitting t-shirt no longer hides his gut and his sensible haircut creeps ever further from his smile-cracked eyes. The Man of Portland has got a good thing going, and he's not about to ruin it with fuddy-duddy concerns like age or style. The Man of Portland needs neither in his paradise.

Over the river, though, things are different. On a tip from a long-trou'd holdout in a coffee store, I am informed that the central Westside contains a wealth of interesting cemeteries, mausoleums, mortuaries and the like. I determine to cross The Man of Portland's dread Stygian waterline, into the land of the big rigs and the wide highways and the occasional black person. Here crows stalk sunshine-dappled gardens; here suburbs are named for the men who ran their insane asylums.

Here there's a region called Belmont, permanently implanting earworms of 8-bit vampire-killing theme songs. Belmont houses the Lone Fir Pioneer Cemetery, where black squirrels hide behind the obelisks on Masonic graves and the bones are interred of The Man of Portland's wagon-riding forebears.

Here is none of the West's persistent "Keep Portland Weird" sloganeering; here a homeless man pesters me at a kickball tournament for the Bible he thinks I stole. I tell him it's on the steps of Kent and Kent, Attorneys at Law, where he left it, saying he'd been "carrying this for too long". This was directly after he made us stop at a titty bar so he could get a matchbook and steal someone's cellphone.

As I cross the bridge back into New Portland, dozens of fixie-bikes whizzing past me, the sun is slowly setting on The Man of Portland's domain. He will listen to an acoustic bluesman named Madman Sam murder a variety of popular folk standards, and he will retire to his quarters at a sensible hour. But over the river, they know the night as well as they know the daytime.