IX Entry, Outtakes from an Outta-Towner, Downtown, in Portland

Posted: March 5th, 2013

Opening night, Left Coast run, Portland, Oregon: moe.rons are filing into the historic Crystal Ballroom atop Cotillion Hall, where Portlandians have ‘Danced in the Clouds,’ off and on, for nearly a century. The Ballroom is a magical place—with its elaborate, ornate chandeliers above, and mysteriously symbolic murals upon the walls. But it is its dance floor that makes the Crystal Ballroom most unique, perhaps, in all of the country.  True. Look it up. The ballroom floor is believed to be a near one-of-a-kind. It has a give to it, a sensation of floating when you walk on or dance across it (it really does), as though one were “… dancing in the clouds.” It was founded by local dance aficionado and businessman, Montrose Ringler, in 1914, with the credo, “To dance, to move with ease and grace, Lends charm, to figure, form, and face.” Ironically, Ringler would lose the building in the early 1920s, when dance, art, and jazz were associated with subversion, communism, and liquor—and considered detrimental to ones charm, figure, form, and face. Nevertheless, somehow, the building survived, which is a good thing, because it is an architectural gem; and was added to the National Historic Register in 1979. Today, the first floor is a microbrew and restaurant owned by McMenamins, one of the finest craft breweries in the northwest. Actually, the brewery is on the second floor, where there’s a mystical beer chute delivering the elixir of life down the gullets of happy patrons below (or so I envision). You’ll find the Crystal Ballroom up on the third floor. That’s where moe.’s played annually these past few years.

The Ballroom is one of many reasons to like the city. For I do. I like Portland, at least the Portland I know, which is downtown Portland. It’s a unique place. It has character—the kind I like. People, no matter what their ilk, for the most part—even complete strangers—are openly friendly and civil. Nobody’s on the defensive. Simply put, in post-industrial America, it is unexpected urban behavior (I suppose there’s an argument here that it’s unexpected behavior anywhere, these days). Comparatively, it’s not to say that people in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Atlanta are not nice, it’s that most people in those places are not openly nice. It’s locked up and protected for the sake of survival. You have to pry it out of them, and once you do, you have a friend for life.

What makes Portland different? I have no idea. Walk a few blocks. Expressionism, the personal kind, is in fine form here. There are a lot of small businesses and shop fronts, the independent type, which speaks to a thriving entrepreneurial spirit. There’s Voodoo Doughnuts, and its distinct rose-colored packaging with the catchphrase —Good Things Come in Pink Boxes (no argument here); or Powell’s Books, every bibliophile’s wet dream (again, present and accounted for). Walk on and turn a corner, and there’s an amalgamation of hippies, the homeless, the hapless, and hipsters, both retro and moderne—populating the streets and parks and bars and stores. It’s that, or every state in the Union has emptied their wards onto the streets of downtown. I find it part of the city’s charm. I don’t sense danger (though I suppose there are dangerous places). The esoteric is alive and well. Different is entertaining, non-threatening, and, more than tolerated—it’s embraced.

My thoughts of downtown Portland are reinforced during the concert. People come to the merch table and say stuff to me like, “I can’t believe how friendly people are here?” or “it’s a wacky place.” I’m not affronted and neither are they and neither should you. Candor, after all, is what I’m blathering about. The one line that stands out comes from a Portlandian, when she said something along the lines, “I’m from Portland, but downtown—there’s no other place like it—it’s a lot of fun and flat out kooky.”

Maybe Montrose Ringler knew that all along. Such are the possibilities. Such are my observations: if you can’t find your head in downtown Portland, then you’re not going to find it anywhere.

I’m presently on a bus to Seattle … and the search continues.