We were slow to respond to the five a.m. evacuation orders. Hotel sirens blurted and a voice ordered visitors to walk, not ride elevators, down to the first floor. I crawled out of bed and circled the hotel room—are you putting on pants? I asked Darrin and he mumbled some response. We picked up and set back down books and bits of paper and empty water bottles—as if the emergency might be hiding beneath a key card.
It was perfect really, my first hotel evacuation on this weekend trip to Portland, the alternative universe soon to be our home.
I flew first class not because I paid, but because Darrin flies a hundred thousand miles a year and gets tickets and upgrades for free. The 737 was old with yellowing vinyl and no-smoking indicator lights like hieroglyphics—had we ever smoked at this oxygen rich altitude? The seats were spacious and there was seafood bisque for lunch, but when the attendant pulled a wire gate across the front of the cabin cutting me off from the beverage carts and bathrooms, the airplane felt ominous. The attendant guard stood behind the heavy strands of wire and released the captain from the cockpit and he paced in his high-flying corral and maybe he bucked, or I imagined this—he seemed so happy to be free of his shiny-button and computer-monitor prison, cracking jokes and smiling.
Darrin picked me up and we toured the fairyland city of steel bridges where trees droop under the weight of paper lanterns and plastic animals, flappy-eared dogs in plastic goggles ride in motorcycle sidecars, and bronzed vans with electric monkeys waving in the windows parade like calliopes down the city streets—I wondered if I might need more than these fifty-three hours to get grounded.
We stopped by schools crumbling under the weight of budget cuts and learned about community gardens, Sooty the school cat, the imponderable buoyancy of juggling balls, and the academics of overcrowding. We familiarized ourselves with neighborhoods and housing prices and cupped coffee and drank espresso in Stumptown’s brick and mirrored cafes, and cocktails with local gins in dimly lit lounges with darkened wood and stuffed deer heads, all served by a new generation of tatted hipsters, those cultural canvases at the pivotal age of possibility. In Portland, plaid and black are forever the fashion, the baristas are in bands, house painters are inventers, and every surface is the perfect place for a stone mosaic or a roster. Eating it seems, is the people’s art, and we dined on delectables from the pantries of the gods—Poc Poc’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings and pomegranate drinking vinegar, Toro Bravo’s braised oxtail croquettes with yes, a flash of chocolate, and of course, some diner eggs and of course, more coffee—for this even Hera would have relinquished her sweet ambrosia.
After a weekend of indulgence, I was sluggish in an emergency, and probably too cynical to be scared, and maybe I was still sleeping. Hotel guests clattered outside our door toward the stairs and I wondered if a salesman from the herbal-life convention had gone rogue and pulled the fire alarm—maybe false alarms were a particularly herbal form of humor. I sifted through street clothes and, sure enough, the warnings changed. “Stay in your current location,” came the call as the sirens continued blaring. Relieved of taking action, I lay back down. The clatter turned to quiet and I drifted off, dreaming of neon tattoos, milk-foam monkeys, and everywhere, the clowns were harvesting espresso machines.