Acid, Albina, Bushwick, Columbia Gorge, Communal house, dope dealer, Hipsters, Kilingsworth, LSD, Marijuana, Mission District, Porltand, Portland Zoo, Portlandia, Purple Earth, Retirement, Seventies, The Genoa, Weed
By Tamim Ansary
If you’ve seen the show Portlandia, you know how it starts. Two people are recollecting a time when one could be content to be unambitious, sleep till eleven, hang out with friends, and have no occupation except maybe working in a coffee shop a couple of hours a week. One of them says, “There’s a place that’s still like that.” Then a group of oddballs come walking toward the camera singing, “Dream of the nineties still alive in Portland, Portland…”
The first time I saw that show I smiled knowingly. I thought it was lampooning my Portland, the city I lived in for eight years from 1968 to 1972. “Dream of the nineties?” I thought. “Dude! Dream of the seventies, you mean!”
I lived in Portland during the Nixon years but that’s not why those years were intense. They were intense because I was 19 when I arrived and 27 when I finally decided to leave town and join the mainstream. Yeah, that was My Portland. Moving from there to San Francisco was joining the mainstream.
I’m thinking about the couple of years I lived at E-Street, a house known by that name because it was on Everett Street, just off 23rd. It was a three-story mansion with five bedrooms, the largest of which became mine. Anywhere from fifteen to thirty people lived there at any given time. and some had actual bedrooms. Most however tucked into whatever habitable nook or cranny they could find. One guy fixed up a place for himself behind the furnace in the basement. Another found an alcove just big enough to accommodate a mattress. Some people just crashed in the living room for a few weeks and then moved on, never to be seen again.
The year before I moved to E-Street, I freaked out on acid one night, and I was in trouble for two years, culminating in a suicidal moment that I’ve written about in Road Trips. It was the worst time of my life, and I lived at E-Street for most of it, yet somehow those years are full of nostalgic memories. How can that be?
I had a job when I moved to E-Street, I worked the graveyard shift at the post office, sorting mail. The acid trip had left me living in a place I called The Void, which was a darkness that began just outside whatever was visible and extended from there forever. The graveyard shift at the post office was not the ideal job for a guy in my state of mind. Early in my time at E-Street, however I got a better job, a great job, the best job I’ve ever had, in fact, waiting tables at a brand new northern Italian restaurant called the Genoa, where a single meal cost more than I spent in a week. I loved it. For one thing, most of my fellow workers were former Reed College students, so I was back in a familiar social environment, where everybody was talking about literature, art and ideas all the time. The Genoa was better than college, though, because we didn’t have to write papers.
The work called upon me to be intensely sociable in the shallowest possible way, which I loved, because it blocked out my awareness of the Void. As a waiter, it was my job to sweep up to a tableful of diners, emit a brief burst of witty chit chat, and then glide away. Most diners came to this restaurant because they had heard that it was staffed by literati: they expected to be charmed, and therefore they were easily charmed, which made us waiters feel charming: a gratifying feedback loop.
The work also demanded keen concentration, because waiting is all about keeping ten or twelve different lines of development in mind simultaneously. When the restaurant got busy, you had to operate with internal clocks running at many different speeds , which also blocked out the Void.
One clock set to quick-time applied to all the physical aspects of waiting—taking orders, delivering food, clearing away dishes. But the moment you pulled up to a table, you had to switch to the another clock, set to “languorously slow” because the diners were there to laze away an evening in unhurried enjoyment of food, wine, and conversation, and the waiter was part of this experience—was its impresario.
The food was amazing. Customers were always telling us they’d been to New Orleans, New York, Paris, but they’d never eaten anything this good. And whatever the customers got was the food we ate too. We, however, ate our fabulous entrees in the bits of time we could steal between tasks. One moment I’d be in the dining room, chatting affably with a rich old doctor and his gorgeous young date; the next moment, having swooshed into the kitchen, I’d be gobbling in 30 seconds what the doctor and his date were paying a week’s wages to eat over the course of two hours. Then I’d glide out to charm more customers.
Soon, I had secured the hippie’s dream: a fun job that took little time. Working twice a week, I made enough in tips to make me richer than I have ever been since. By rich, I mean the differential between what I had and what I needed, the latter being almost nothing. I drove a used car that someone literally gave me. If it broke I fixed it myself. Gas cost twenty-five cents a gallon. The clothes I wore came mostly from the 29-cents-a-pound bin at the local Goodwill. I built my own sound system with really cheap parts from Radio Shack. The only thing I can remember buying new were record albums.
I used to bring my tips home in cash, thirty or forty dollars a night, and stick the bills between the pages of books in my bookcase. If I was saving for a trip, I’d put five- or ten-dollar bills in a guidebook. If I was saving for a dinner party, I’d put money in a cookbook. Eventually my accounting system grew so complex, I couldn’t track which books I had put money in and what I was saving for. It didn’t matter. When I needed money, I just plucked books out of my shelves at random and riffled through them. I never went long without finding cash. Years later, I lent someone a copy of The Martian Chronicles, and they found a twenty-dollar bill in it. I had to wonder what that money had been earmarked for.
I had plenty of friends to hang with at E-Street, a network of hippies extending to the furthest reaches of Portland’s hippie universe, and hang we did. Most days began with no plan. I awoke whenever, went downstairs to see who was around, did a bit of art if I felt like it, smoked a joint, chatted up whoever was around.
I might join whoever was nestled in the piles of cushions in our house’s plush communal music room and listen to early Steve Miller, followed by late Traffic, followed by the second Spirit album, followed by Abbey Road (the good side) followed by early Paul Butterfield, followed by one side of Hounddog Taylor, followed by…
Eventually, a group plan might develop. A bunch of us might pile into a car and head for the Oregon coast, which was unimaginably wild and unspoiled then; or into the Columbia Gorge to hike up any of the countless stream beds running up from the gorge, into the higher slopes. Or a bunch of us might simply go for a walk in the enormous city park a few blocks from E-Street.
Oftentimes it was raining, but this was Portland, so the rain was light, closer to a heavy, constant mist, and you didn’t care, you just put on many light layers: the outer few got damp, but so what? Your skin stayed dry, your face got refreshingly wet. The constant mist made the city extravagantly green. Rain was the price you paid to live in a city that felt like a forest.
In the evening, a few of us might knock about from one communal house to another, an ever-accumulating herd that finally pooled up somewhere and became a party. Or a few of us would head to Reuben’s Tavern for the fifty-cent pitchers, the corned beef sandwiches, and the philosophy chatter, and then later all go dancing to live music at the Purple Earth, where the band was sure to hammer out basic, 3-chord hard rock, or to the White Eagle, if the electrified bluegrass band Puddle City was playing.
We E-Streeters were a motley bunch. Some of us might credibly have been described as “street rats.” There was Rory, for example, who was studying how to live out of the garbage cans behind Safeway stores. But there was also a landscape architect who went to work downtown each day. And a full-time medical technician with a penchant for extreme sports. And a daughter of the Portland Symphony’s first violinist.
Then there was the sturdiest pillar of the household, Ben Huber, our friendly community dope dealer, a country boy with thick, friendly features and a haircut that made him look like Prince Valiant. He was a soft-spoken guy whom everyone sought out for counseling and emotional support as well as weed. I suppose I shouldn’t call him a country-boy, though. He was edging up on thirty, which made him an old man in our world. He didn’t have much of an education and might never have finished high school, but he could smoke ten different kinds of marijuana and tell whether the tenth was stronger or weaker than the first, an awesome skill. And no matter how much weed he smoked, he could still beat you and your father in chess.
Ben was like a beloved neighborhood green-grocer: he bought pounds and sold ounces. He sold only to people he knew personally and people they knew personally, but he knew hundreds of people, and they each knew hundreds, so Ben did okay. In TV shows, drug dealers are tense, tough guys with guns in their waistbands, but nothing about Ben or his business felt dangerous. In Oregon, in the early 1970s, marijuana was only technically illegal. I never heard of anyone getting busted. In Texas yes, but Oregon? No. Our front door was never locked, people walked in and out of the house at all hours of day or night, and the traffic never made us paranoid.
Toward the end, though, I began to realize that Ben was a hounded man heading into a box canyon. He wanted to stop selling dope and move into something legal, but he didn’t know how to make the switch. He had never paid taxes and worried that the Feds would pounce on him if he suddenly appeared on the tax rolls now, at the ripe old age of 29. They’d want to know how he’d been surviving so far. So Ben was looking for a legitimate business to get into, just to establish himself as a taxpayer. At one point he was scheming to become a turquoise dealer because turquoise could be found in all the same places as peyote. But nothing came of this plan, and after I knew him, Ben finally went to prison.
Debby and I went back to Portland for Thanksgiving this year. Her sister and brother -in-law live there now. I drove through Albina, that tough, poor neighborhood where I took that ruinous overdose of LSD 46 years ago. I photographed the house I was living in then and the sight still gave me shivers. But the neighborhood was now very far from poor and tough. It’s bristling with upscale hipster joints. Portland feels like a cross between San Francisco’s Mission District and Brooklyn’s Bushwick. Kilingsworth Street, once a place to worry about actually getting killed, now features endless blocks of cute cannabis boutiques, organic grocery stores, coffeehouses featuring fair- trade coffee, bars with Bollywood movies playing ironically on the walls.
I went to Belmont Street to visit the Genoa. It was closed now, but only recently. Since my time it had become the most celebrated restaurant in the city, Portland’s Chez Panisse. In fact, the building in which it was located has been declared a historic landmark.
I also went to Everett Street to see the old mansion but it was gone. A small, box-shaped bank had taken its place. In the opening scenes of Portlandia, the guy says Portland is where young people go to retire. Standing there in front of that bank, I pictured the E-Street of my youth and the life I lived there, and I realized why I’m still working. I already took my retirement: I was a young person living in Portland in the seventies.
Tamim Ansary wrote Road Trips, Becoming an American in the vapor trail of The Sixties, a memoir set in Portland in the late sixties and early seventies.