Let’s Go Flaneuring in Portland, Oregon

Today’s Flaneuring post takes us through Portland, Oregon with Alexis┬áPutnam. While she walks and takes note, she goes through all the senses so we can enjoy the neighborhood with her, reminiscing now that December has struck with a┬ávengeance, about Halloween and crunchy leaves.

I go walking at night. In early October it is not yet cold, and everything is dusty and overgrown – the result of a long, dry summer.


I think, “Welcome to Portland, Oregon.” Home of unusual donut flavors and flocks of food carts, light-rail trains and bicycles, ironic mustaches and fancy espresso – we are literate, educated, hippie or hipster depending on the generation, communally oriented but fiercely independent, elitist with a scruffy beard, mostly white and continually gentrifying, progressive, hypocritical, environmentally sustainable, fond of bacon and craft beer. Portlandia, a television show comprised of comic sketches detailing the absurdities of our micro-cultures, is, at times, startlingly accurate.

But my particular neighborhood is less trendy, less remarkable. Less suitable for a show on cable TV. A few blocks east is a seedy strip of convenience stores, pawn shops, medical marijuana dispensaries, used car lots. It’s an area known for prostitution and human trafficking and meth addicts on bicycles recklessly crossing traffic. To the north sits a large park and busy community center with expansive windows and a pool. Sometimes there is free lunch at the park in the summer, and in general, it is equally convenient for families with small kids in need of a playground and homeless wanderers in need of a tree to lie under. Toward the west, a comfortable middle class poverty commingles with casual, moderate wealth. There’s enough elbow room for eccentricities to settle in next to cliches and convention.

I see Halloween decorations cropping up under streetlights, and the remnants of summer glory wilting in the gardens – basil, green beans, tomatillos, grapes, lavender, peppers, kale. Though it’s dark, I know the lawns I pass are brown, and the tall, tall black trees are actually evergreen. I see shadows of rusty clotheslines, ghostly blue solar powered LED garden lights, greenish fluorescent bulbs in porch lights, and red plastic toys scattered behind low fences. Oaks, maples and birches swell huge overhead with bright orange and yellow leaves.

Tomorrow is garbage day, and rows of identical waste bins stand guard, four to a house: huge green and blue roll carts for yard waste/compost and recycling, modest green cans for trash, small yellow boxes for glass.

A raccoon family scurries across the road a few blocks ahead. A cat slinks by, regarding me suspiciously. But the crows and squirrels that dominate the neighborhood during daylight are absent, sleeping who knows where.

I feel leaves crumple and slide beneath my feet, while acorns and maple whirligigs pop and crunch. I run my fingers along a low section of gritty steel cyclone fencing – ping!ping!ping! and then reach up to grasp at an impressive crop of banana leaves. They are smooth like thick, cool vinyl.

I eat “locally” as a general philosophy (local being within 50, 100, 1000 miles?), but in this season of harvest, my neighborhood is truly a horn of plenty. My kids love to find things to munch on, so on morning walks we forage hawthorn berries and rose hips, rosemary sprigs, red clover, wild growing mint, and plums and blackberries in alleyways. Generous neighbors have offered cherry tomatoes, raspberries, chard, nasturtium flowers. Beyond these fresh offerings, should one need sustenance, on the corner there is a small family-owned bakery, and a dive bar my husband and I have patronized exactly once.

I hear snippets of conversation leaking out of doors and windows, and restless dogs behind hedges. The urgent voice of a TV advertiser floats through venetian blinds, and productive hens squawk and chatter from someone’s backyard as they settle in to roost for the evening. Most people seem to be eating dinner and slowing down before bed. A siren slices through the general hush, and I stiffen. Several weeks ago a man was fatally shot in his own home, while being robbed – just a few blocks away. They said it was the 19th homicide of the year in Portland. I don’t know if that is good or bad.

I smell patchouli and mold and tropical air from dryer vents – warm and wet and sweet. I bend to sniff a rose – there are so many still in bloom! But the scent of dying foliage hints at coming decay. Cigarette and pot smoke drifts fragrantly across my path from time to time, and I cross a busier road, breathing in exhaust from cars, trucks, motorcycles.

I sense the rains coming to wash much of this away: mild, endless, gray and wet, lasting 7 or 8 months. When I round the corner, my unremarkable house is waiting, tucked under a mammoth southern pine tree. I am home.

Alexis lives in Portland, OR with her family and enjoys candy, naps, and vacations. She occasionally blogs at: www.minedlikeadiamond.com