Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sunday Morning, Portland Town

The only thing I like about Sundays is the quiet air; the soft rain; the forgetfulness. I walk out in the early morning and I might be the only person alive in the world. Perhaps a plague has killed everyone but me.

I always wanted to journey through a deserted Portland, wandering through people's houses, seeing exactly how they lived before the end. The archeology of Pompeii fascinates me. Ordinary life transected: it's one of the ways to see how strange and poignant the ordinary is, to reveal how heavy a burden we labor under, hour by hour, of desire, habit and anxiety. One convulsion of a mountain can make plain what daily life does its best to conceal from us -- that the future we dread and long for will never actually arrive: that we live most of our lives in a fantasy world. Even if the future comes -- which it might not -- it won't be that one.

I'm not a Sunday man. I am annoyed by shops and cafes opening an hour late, or not at all; by buses running infrequently. What is a person to do with those long hours before seven o'clock? The prime time for writing, for the anonymous sociability of a working breakfast, squandered because people have an unaccountable taste for wasting a perfectly clear, wide-open, brand-new day by sleeping through it.

But there is the soft wet mossy sidewalks, the subdued song of birds made uneasy by the stilled traffic, the endless modulations of silver, gray, and white in the quiet sky. I walk down Hawthorne Boulevard, pausing to look in the windows of the closed-up restaurants, examine their menus, and wonder why I've never gone to the ones I've never gone to. The heavy power and telephone wires swoop up and down the boulevard: it's like walking under the rigging of a ship. Do most people not see this endlessly proliferating spider-web of wires, all over the city? That's my impression. Taut steel supporting cables run from the telephone poles down to the sidewalks: if you lay your hand on them, you can feel them trembling, as if with the weight of all that flowing power and information. As I walk down the street, the wires rise and fall against the sky; the rocking of a ship under sail. They are very ugly, and very beautiful.

Sunday. The buses run on a scarce schedule, so I didn't go to Tosi's. And my bike tire is losing air, so I didn't bike to Tom's. I shouldered my pack, my shoulders protesting at the weight of my old thinkpad, and walked down the boulevard to the Common Grounds coffee house. Not my usual place, though inhabited much more by my own kind: the professional-managerial class, in their jeans or shorts, subdued plaid shirts, and faded cloth jackets, looking rumpled, unkempt and dowdy. (Very few people ever dress for work, in this city, as other cities understand it -- my first impression of Portland, after a long absence, was of a whole city puttering about in its pajamas. "Don't any of these people work, or go out?" I wondered. But you go into their offices and shops, their restaurants and bars, and you realized that they do work and go out; they just don't dress differently to do that than they do to work in their gardens or cook Sunday breakfast.)

"Mocha?" calls a young barrista's voice, sharply; but even at a semi-shout, in the rising inflection so characteristic of their generation. The worried, perplexed generation: every statement comes out a question. The man in the tousled hair and blue plaid shirt shambles back up to the counter to fetch his drink, which is topped with whipped cream. When did grown men in America stop being embarassed about drinking something topped with whipped cream, I wonder? Thirty years ago no man would be caught dead doing such a thing.

Is it just that relentless marketing has succeeded in removing the stigma from self-indulgence? Or is it maybe a sense that the adult world no longer has its own reserved pleasures, so that we have no intention, anymore, of relinquishing the juvenile ones? It is distressing to me that very few of the young people I know look forward to their working lives with anything but dread. It will be the end, they seem to think, of all pleasure, of all leisure, of all fun. Many of them will actually find satisfying, meaningful work. They will be much happier than in the no-man's-land of adolescence. But they don't seem to think so.

How much, how much love rises at times like these. A blond toddler of praeternatural cuteness cruises around the tables, indulged by all the newspaper-readers and laptop-typers. He's happy. His mother follows him. She works hard to keep him happy and quiet, and his father pitches in too, though less skillfully. They look prosperous, successful, competent, and anxious. They aren't here long before his mother, worried about his occasional bleats of joy, takes him out to play on the sidewalk. His father conscientiously buses the table and wipes it down. I wish they looked happier.

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