Thursday, Nov. 21, 2002
Downtown Portland is centralized by the bus mall, a mile-long pair of one-way streets on which nearly every public bus in the system makes a series of stops. It is the main nerve center of our public transportation system. Car traffic is allowed restricted access between every other block in designated lanes.
With such a concentration of public transit, you might expect the foot traffic to be rediculous as thousands of riders arrive and depart hundreds of busses every hour. But the brick-layed sidewalks have to be twenty feet wide, which is plenty of space for office workers to briske around the Starbucks junkies and the crowds of hungry lunchoeners gathered in front of the trailers lined up on 5th Avenue.
When I took that ninty minute bus ride to Community College everyday, I remember looking out the plexy-glass window at a single trailer in the parking lot between Oak and Stark streets, wondering why anyone was allowed to leave their trashy wagon in the middle of downtown. After I'd walked by it a few times I noticed a service window had been inserted into the backside, a double pane sliding glass winow with a stainless steele shelf bolted in under it. Once, walking the opposite direction, I realized the trailer was a mexican food stand, complete with kitchen, grill and refridgerater inside, water and electric ports on the outside. The trailer was permanently parked in a space separated from the sidewalk by a narrow strip of unpaved earth. Genius.
Eight years later, the entire west side of that parking lot is stacked with trailers abutting the sidewalk, those old sheet metal hitch-along campers converted into the tiniest resturants I've ever seen.
My stomach was set on a heaping plate of Phad Thai noodles with chicken and peanut sauce from the Vietnamese cart (polite Portlanders call them "carts" even though they must be three times the size of your average hotdog vender in New York City) at the south end of the rowe. But, of course I was there on another mission, also.
A week ago, my brother-in-law, Ben, told us about "that cute girl at the Mexican food place." We were all sitting around in Angela's office nibbling on her birthday pastries and sipping wine - yes, an odd but yummy combination, even at seven in the evening. The women were taking turns performing their endearing impressions of the Polish guy in the "Authentic European Cuisine" food stand. He refers to Rachel as "my beautiful flower", says Rachel, her richly feminine voice hardly representative of the Polish man's operatic masculenity.
Angela teased Ben about his girl at the burrito stand. I hadn't thought of it at the time, but it's comforting to see such secure, playful, non-defensive interaction between a wife and her husband. Ben enthusiastically described his frequent lunch hour patronage at the burrito cart. Apparently the portions are rediculously generous for the prices. Cathy, Angela's new employee, backed him up with an anecdote about paying three dollars for a taco salad which she carried away in both arms. "But you've got to go to the burrito cart," Ben said. "She's that cute".
I wasn't sure which cart was the one with the cute Mexican girl. Among the three Mexican stands, there are also two Vietnamese, one "European", a burger-and-fries joint, and a vegetarian stand, all of them doing very efficient business with relatively cheap monthly rent (the same to park your car in a downtown lot for a month), not to mention their wild popularity.
I'm not enirely certain whether Ben's cute girl works on 5th Avenue or 10th. I crossed the street to the north end of the block on 5th so that I could peak in at each cart as I strolled to the south end, where a steaming pile of delicious, slightly spicey noodles was waiting for me.
In the first burrito stand there was a man at the counter and a woman at the grill, too young to be thought of as "mom and pop", though too old to be thought of as boy or cute girl. For three bucks I had bought a huge scrambled egg, cheese and vegie wrap from them Monday morning. When I finished work in Angela's office at two o'clock, there was still enough of it left after lunch for a light dinner. They're a pleasant couple, but no cute girl was to be seen. Same for the next one where a pretty thirty-something gringo was busy at the grill, the counter and the fridge seemingly at once. I pretended to be interested in the menu just long enough to say hello. I wondered if Ben's tastes in attractive females might lean in her favor, and whether I myself had made up the Mexican part of his description. In any case, she lit no such interest in me and, when she turned her back to tend the grill, I moved on. The third one was swamped with hungry customers. Over their heads I saw no cute Mexican girl.
Normally, I'm not one to track heresay across town to satisfy my bizzare fetish of developing a distant and fantastical crush. But the angels have all fallen from the clouds since Holly took her place on the throne. Alas, it's been lonely since my sassy Texan has fled to San Francisco for two weeks, and who knows, maybe Rome aswell, after her ankle sugery. Either she's pathological (which would be consistant with my record) or she's got better things going for her than to waste time outside of the pub with me. Either way, until she uses my number (or until enough time has passed that I'm convinced she never will use my number) there just aren't any crushes out there that can beat that one.
I stepped up to the Vietnamese wagon and ordered my Phad Thai noodles. I found myself talking to the same girl I'd seen Monday morning hauling armloads of tupperware into her trailer, but was too busy at the time to smile back at me. It occured to me that at times, such as when a woman is busting her ass to feed her family, a sly smile don't mean shit. In fact, it's probably rather offensive to suggest the magnitude of one's attractiveness at the moment when they are trying the least to appear attractive. It's the easiest thing to compliment someone's appearence; too bad for obtuse dopes like me, the most attractive people invest in their self esteem otherwise.
"Aaawwwwww, I'm so sorry," she said, as though I'd just missed the million dollar question. "We all out of noodle today."
I bought two fifty-cent spring rolls and told her next time I'd come earlier in the day.
I wondered up Broadway chomping on the pair of spring rolls that had all the zest and flavor of cured umbellical cords. The sweet and sour sauce helped only a little. I was trying to think of a nice little joint where I could sit at a sidewalk table and sip a beer while I read. Being out in the open air amongst many other human beings, I felt less starved for food, and thought maybe I just needed to get out of the damn house. There was Shmitzza across from the Square, which has a cozy little nook of tables across from a monstrous expance of brick wall that often serves as backdrop to some of the town's most talented musicians. Alas, Shmitzza only served soft drinks. My kingdom for European liquor laws in America! Without too much thought or intention I kept moving west along the light-rail lines, cycling through my mind all the places I knew where I could sit quietly, anonymously in the midst of my townfolk with a beer and a book.
When I'd brought my mind back to the world in front of my face, I spotted Alundra coming at me past Art Media - the exact same spot I'd seen her last. Strange, eh? I hadn't talked to her since Kennedy, but I did see her at a distance a couple of weeks ago, walking toward the Library while I was cranking my bike up a side street. I have got to pay more attention to these little coincidences.
As we talked about this and that I could feel the prickly heat rising under my colar. An unexpected blast of a good mood splattered a goofy smile all over my face. Every time I see her I'm struck by how subtly beautiful she is. Never fails. Behind those painfully honest eyes is a woman who is more human than most of the people I can think of. Every time I talk to her I feel an impulsive urge to do something for her, anything to be able to spend time with her. I told her about the show. Asked her about her documentary. Said I'd need a PA. Asked if she needed one. Anything I could think of to get a committed "yes" out of her. She still hasn't even looked at the behind-the-scenes footage she shot while we were all in the desert on Dary's production. Unbelievable! My final offer was to take her tapes down to the station and make VHS copies with timecode window burn. I told her the next time I'm ready to go to the station I'd give her a call to pick up her tapes. She raised her eyebrows. I don't know what that gets me, but at least she knows I'm there.
I left her in front of the Fox theater, walking two inches above the ground to the nearest streetcar. If ever there be a lack of pleasantness in my life or in my mind, I'll always have the comforting thoughts that people like Alundra are in my world.
I settled into a booth at Blue Moon with a thick, stout pint of cold Terminator. The endorphines had finally worn off and I was able to get through thirty pages of my new textbook, How To Be a Producer..
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