Keepin’ Portland Weird

It’s 90 degrees out, but the man next to us on the bus is draped in chainmail from head to knee, and underneath this heavy armor is a pair of paint-stained cargo pants.  We’re the closest passengers to him so he asks if we know where in town he can sell chainmail.  Unsurprisingly he has a lot to shill.  We’re just visitors here we answer, and unable to guide him in his sales search.  Outside the bus window we pass the famous “Keep Portland Weird” slogan, painted boldly onto a wall in Old Town.  No worries about that Portland.  No worries at all.

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Various polls and studies have concluded that Portland actually is one of the weirdest cities in the country.  It’s been voted the #5 most tattooed city, #2 city for strangest people, and #1 most bike friendly city, dog friendly city, and best beer city, in the US.  Do all of those winnings combined make it the weirdest of them all?  I can’t say.  I mean, really, what are the metrics to measure “strangest people”, but I can speak to some of the weirdness these eyes have seen.

Standing proud across the street from that famous Old Town wall is Voodoo donut.  The most over-the-top vomit-sprinkles-out-your-eyes donuttery I’ve ever beheld — truly embodying the weirdness the city strives to maintain.  Voodoo’s pink neon sign features a brown, amorphous, possibly cannibalistic (for fellow donuts), squiggle monster.  Anything and everything tops the sugary babies here, from capt’n crunch to m&m’s.  By no means a healthy breakfast, but that doesn’t stop lines from forming outside its doors, which are open 24 hours.  3:00am at the Burnside location has seen me ride a mechanical dumbo while consuming a maple bacon donut.  Yes, there are pictures of this; no, you can’t see them.

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Lines wrap around the building most weekend mornings, requiring employees to stand outside and maintain order.  “You must form a single line,” we’re all told as some get restless, “No one can block the entrance!”  Carl argues that Seattle rival Top Pot (because of course the Pacific Northwest would have donut nemeses between cities) has better tasting and better quality donuts.  I don’t disagree with the quality part, but my defense for Voodoo goes something like: “but this one has bubble gum in the middle.”

Each lil’ nut is its own canvas, and to honor the colorful creations I’ve seen I’ve made some crappy donut art.  Behold:

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The Voodoo Logo.  Always being staked through the heart with a pretzel


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The Double Bubble Donut


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The infamous maple bacon


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The Cotton Candy


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The CocoPuffs Nut


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The Fruit Loop


Nuzzled next to Voodoo is the Kit Kat club.  It’s a strip club, but you’d never know from the outside.  That’s because strip clubs here are unassuming.  They’re quietly tucked next to coffee shops on trendy streets and nestled beside fashionable hotels.  Walk a few blocks around town and you’re likely to pass one or two without realizing.  Portland boasts of having the most strip clubs per capita for the country, and with so many choices you’re bound to find just the right fit for you.  Do you want a club that has a vegan buffet?  An E-hookah?  That brews their own beer?  Accepts bitcoin??

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Last Easter saw us stepping into Mary’s, where all the girls had jet black hair and tattoos galore.  Before dancing they selected their songs from a stage side juke box, usually something decades old and sung by a voice that’s smoked 10,000+ packs of cigarettes.  This place, neigh, institution, has stood here since the 50’s when the women onstage sported pasties.  Since that time the area has turned into the quirky downtown haven it is.  Neighbors on the block include a cozy brewery, a cute-as-a-button vintage store, and a chic French bistro known for their Roasted bone marrow and Cassoulets.  Inside Marys though, you can get a look at the older, grittier downtown of yesteryear.  We caught the unexpected show of a man falling off his barstool before vomiting into a paper bag.  The bartender kindly fed him water before he was kicked to the street.  As all this unfolded Scarlet danced nearby, a surly look on her face as she dropped her bikini bottoms, all in the light of video poker machines.

Connected to Mary’s is Santeria which claims “The Best Mexican Food on the Planet”; and because it’s open ‘til 2:00am, you may be inclined to agree.  The enchiladas are gooey and cheesy and the walls are gaudy and colorful.  If you’re hungry and stumbling around downtown after midnight, you’ll be satisfied after plunking down here.  Now, this is all well and good but the real reason I bring up this place is because of its bathroom situation.  When I say Mary’s is connected to Santeria I don’t mean next-door-connected.  I mean, you push open the door labeled “bathroom”, and there’s a naked chick on stage dancing to a Tom Waits song kinda connected.  Needless to say, this is quite disorienting.  Especially if you’re there drunk at 1:00am and just need to use the loo.  A presumably family friendly restaurant proudly serving tits with their tacos, how very Portland.

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While there are more strip clubs in Portland than any other city in the country, there are actually more breweries here than any other city in the world.  Currently there are 65+ breweries inside the city limits, and I’ve only been to something like 9 of them, so I’ve gotta step up my beer game.

We winded down several flights of concrete stairs in a darkened office building to find Upright.  The brewery is located in the basement of the Leftbank building, on a street with not too much around.  There was a bit of an ominous feeling, kind of like I was going to my doom as I wandered down those stairs, but once you reach the tasting room it’s clear there are no ghosts lurking around the halls, and all is forgiven.  Minimalism inside is key, and the only decor in the otherwise all-wooden room is a record player.  The beer names are also as pared down as possible; their saisons on tap were named four, five, six, and seven.  I’d definitely recommend the seven, it was unanimously voted the best at our table.  I was there months ago though, and with names that similar I’m only 60% certain I’m right on the number.

If you’re a breed that loves sour beer, get that sour ass over to Cascade.  It’s taken me a while to come around to the style, but it helps to go to a brewery that really knows what they’re doing; this place will please even the most timid sour fan.  We sampled most options on draft and came away with bottles of their gose, which was lightly spiced with coriander and sea salt, and their cherry kriek, aged in oak barrels for months before being aged with cherries for half a year.

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Bars here can fall into a variety of categories.  They can be funky, seedy, trendy, hipstery, or random as shit, all of which I’m a fan of.  Lovecraft falls into the “random as shit” category.  There’s a pentagram on the ceiling and fog on the dancefloor.  Laserbeams trace over your body as you dance to goth-techno-whatever, and everyone around you is tattooed, sweaty, and having a great time.  You can even sip from their fairly extensive hot tea menu or nom on a kale salad and tofurkey if that’s where the night is leading you.  The drinks are stupid strong and the scenery is super kitchy, but let’s hope that’s what the bar’s namesake H.P. Lovecraft would have wanted.

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Sandy Hut has no windows.  Red bulbs are the only form of light and it feels like you’re somewhere underground breathing stale air, when really you’re at street level.   When we ordered two gin & tonics the total price was $5.00.  A plastic mannequin bust hangs over the bar.  Hush puppies are on the menu.  I’m pretty sure this place used to be a strip club, hence why it feels like you’re below deck on a ship.  There’s a voodoo donut one block away that I can head to once the bar closes.  Clearly I love it here.

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The McMenamin brothers have all but taken over Oregon and Washington with nearly 70 brewpubs, breweries, hotels, and venues in the area.  One of their crowning jewels in Portland is the Kennedy School: a former elementary school turned hotel, which includes a brewery, movie theatre, soaking pool, and multiple restaurants and bars, even a cigar bar named “Detention”.

During our stay the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy was playing in the theatre, and we saw oodles of children flooding the halls between movie breaks, loading up on popcorn while their parents loaded up on beer.   One at a time our group would leave the soaking pool outside and go to the bar inside, getting two pitchers for the gang while drenched and covered in towels, leaving trails of water in our wake.  None of the bartenders batted an eyelash in all this, but it was understandably awkward as we struggled to open doors in our near nudity, to be watched by eleven year olds dressed like Frodo.  Each of us has our own journeys, kid — just like those hobbits you’ve been watching for ten hours now.

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Finally on our brief Portland tour we come to Powell’s.  Powell’s bookstore is the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world.  It’s been listed on many top 10 lists with names like “Coolest bookstores in the World” and “Best bookstores in the U.S.”  It encompasses an entire downtown city block with nearly 70,000 feet of retail space.  Incomprehensible in scale, I could, and would, get lost in here for days.

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The space itself is a marvel, but I’d suggest making a stop at the coffeeshop .  Not only do they brew a mean cappuccino, but you may stumble upon the flower man.  Arnold Drake World opens with Powell’s.  9:00am each morning he’s in the cafe, earbuds in, silently moving his body and fingers in a mystifying ballet.  His days are spent weaving paper napkins between his fingers, creating roses and calla lillies.  No glue is used, just the napkins and fingers.  It’s rhythmic like a lullaby, foreign to behold, and beautiful in its simplicity.  Just as unique as, you guessed it, Portland itself.

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