Last night, because of an odd-for-me schedule, I found myself downtown in Portland, on a warm May Friday evening, around 8 or 9 PM. For a lot of boring reasons, I haven’t spent a lot of time downtown, wandering, with no particular place to be, not recently. My normal mode lately is to go, get what I need done, and return to Sellwood, my home neighborhood, as quickly as possible.
There was a time, several times, in my life, however, when that was not the case. Downtown Portland was a destination and a playground for me and my friends. Simply hanging out at Pioneer Courthouse Square, or walking or driving up and down Broadway. Movie theaters. There were late-night bookstores, bars, and dance clubs. I could write a book. Many books.
Last night, in an introspective mood, I went looking for that same feeling. I started by going to Powell’s City of Books, still a world-class bookstore, one of the largest in the country and possibly the world, on several measures. No matter where you are in the world, if you’re a reader, you may know of Powell’s, since it’s an online bookstore that rivals Amazon and is often mentioned in the same breath. That website came after the physical bookstore chain, which itself started by taking over an entire city block, expanding out and up and down and becoming a weird maze of shelves and books and cranky, furtive, hippy, diverse, booksellers.
Powell’s is not the only place I wandered as a kid, far from it. Just stepping off a bus, or waiting on the bus mall for a trip back to the suburbs, or, later, parking the car and wandering around. I could talk about the Broadway Theater or the Fox Theater, The Metro, the Blue Aardvark dance club, the Virginia Cafe (the original one, tucked away on SW Park between Morrison and Yamhill, not the new one across from Central Library), the X-Ray Lounge or Satyricon or Roseland, or Tom McCall Waterfront Park, on a summer night on the river.
Powell’s, though, Powell’s is central.
My beautiful readers, the story of Powell’s could fill a room full of books all by itself. It’s difficult to settle on just one. And my life history is entwined with it, too, and not just as shopper and shop. For an all-too-short time, two years, summer 1992 until summer 1994, I was an employee, until I was fired. It was a rough time in my life, and the main reasons were that I was still trying to get a handle on this “being an adult” thing. Paying my bills, doing my job, not blowing all my money on strippers and pizza. I was in my late 20s, and I was a mess. I was crushed by being fired, but honestly, looking back, I deserved it. I would tell early-90s Brian so many things, but I am not sure he would listen, because I would only be telling him the same things my co-workers, friends, and family were telling him. As my dad said at the time, after I told him I was fired, “I’ve been fired from jobs before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been fired from a job I loved before.”
Losing that job broke my heart, tossed me into a pit, and cost me several friendships. Shortly after, I was forced out of the basement apartment for failing to pay my rent, prompting me to live out of my car and hiding my shame from everyone around me, although I’m pretty sure they all knew. I would shower at my parent’s house, carefully timing it when my dad was at work, because mom was more sympathetic.
Eventually I did get a new job, but it took a few months. I got hired on as a temporary worker at Intel, putting replacement Pentium chips into boxes, to repay customers who had purchased flawed Pentiums, on a swing shift. From there, I made the transition to technical work, and began my career. But it was a rough and rocky time, beautiful people. I get the sads just thinking about it.
I had been fired from Powell’s 22 years ago, but I never stopped going there. Even after being cast out for failure to adult, the idea of that giant multi-level building carved from the heart of liberal Portland was too enticing to avoid. Through the years I’ve seen it grow and modernize. The architecture has become more refined. Instead of writing prices in pencil on the first page, computer printed labels with bar codes tell if a book is new or used.
But there are still faces in the aisles that I recognize as co-workers from those summers two decades or more ago. It’s easy for me to imagine 28 year old Brian straightening up, flying right, and becoming a lifer there. A different life but maybe a very similar Brian, in a more stable place and state of mind?