I had no stool, and when I entered the room no one called out my name. The bar was not Cheers and I was not Norm; nevertheless, it was my bar, and when I went back to Portland it was gone. Even though I knew of this semi-obscure place, when I went back to Portland I did so as an outsider, a tourist. The places I had once known had changed, and though I had knowledge of what was, when I came here I was not really prepared to accept what is.
When I arrived in Oregon I decided to stay a short distance from Portland proper, and chose a motel just off the highway near the suburbs where I grew up. The gym I attend is part of a national chain that has a studio near the motel and I thought I’d have the chance to workout while I was on this trip. I knew where it was on a map, but fifteen years of memories and three miles stood between me and the studio.
In the morning after I arrived I woke, dressed, and made my way to the car. An insurmountable number of Volvos passed me as I waited patiently to enter traffic and then merged onto the highway. I signaled left, entered traffic and signaled left again to head south on the highway. Only two exits stood between me and the gym.
The stretch of highway that I used was all too familiar. We traveled it for soccer games, baseball games, to go to the mall, and when I went to work with my Mom. As I approached, but before exiting the highway, I noticed that the arcade I would go to as a child was now a CarMax. Memories have a strange sting to them when served just the right way, and I couldn’t help but lament the loss of afternoons at batting cages in order to sell used cars.
The intersection where Fanno Creek goes under the roadway comes quickly after exiting the highway and I remember my Dad taking me to the Burger King at the approaching light. We’d get our order and then park near a pond fed by the creek in the afternoons when he wasn’t working. I hadn’t thought about simple things like lunch with my dad and feeding ducks on afternoons in twenty or more years. There’s another Burger King nearby where my Dad broke down one day and told me my sister had passed away. I hadn’t thought about that day in the kind of detail that comes to me now, but I also know better than to drive by the location.
My window was cracked as I passed by so the cool air nipped at me. Again I am faced with the flood and sting that only memories provide. I haven’t thought about these moments in years and am reminded that we never feel the significance/importance of these places and moments in the present. When you’re young, feeding ducks isn’t a memory, it just is.
I pass landmarks and icons of my youth before finally idling into the turn lane where I wait. Commuters evacuating the suburbs heading to their jobs stream past. The light in the distance turns red as the last car passes me and I now have a chance to turn and do so into the parking lot.
The facade of the building that I am about to step into has changed greatly in the past twenty years as have the stores contained within this strip mall. The original, 1979 facade, is something that has been permanently recorded to memory though. I first witnessed it in 1987, as a boy, and recall the siding was brown painted wood and the roofing and awnings were dark cedar shingles. Today the facade is hip and modern; a signal to the city that just because this is the suburbs it doesn’t mean we haven’t seen your culture.
We came to this shopping center often when I was a child. A convenience store occupied a stand alone building just outside of the shopping center where my mom would often buy cigarettes. She’d buy cigarettes two packs at a time and then we’d go to the craft store in the corner of the shopping center where I forever altered my life and understanding of embarrassment by farting in the center of a store, which my gym now neighbors.
As I sit in the parking lot of the gym, of my childhood really, and I’m overwhelmed with sadness or memories or a combination of the two. The memory of my mother isn’t something that I think about often, but it’s on my mind now and I don’t handle it well. I’m more of a bottle it up and save it for a heavy drinking night kind of guy, but I’m faced with it here. I’m in the parking lot and a sign that says “Massage” could just as easily read “Country Peddler” and I’d be a seven year old boy again. I’d smash matchbox cars into each other violently while waiting out in front of the store on a bench hoping the employees didn’t recognize me as the farting kid.
The receptionist in the gym was younger than I am, but I mentioned the Country Peddler when I talked about how having been here before, and she said “I know, crazy how it’s changed, right?” and I thought yeah, it is crazy, but it really hasn’t changed.
In an early draft for this article I wrote that so much of what made Portland, Portland, has changed, but that’s not actually true. Portland is still in fact Portland. It is quirky, beautiful, and smart. Like all of us, it has it’s problems, but it’s aware of them and it’s working on them. What had changed in going back was me, and I was able to do some real reflecting on that.
A lot of the heaviness that I felt had to do with the way that I handle problems. It seems that all too often I take my feelings, neatly compact them into smallish boxes, and store them somewhere in the periphery of my life. I’m getting better about this, but I still imagine they all have expiry labels with an open ended date, and that they’re waiting for me to stumble upon them and open them. This is how counselors make a living I think.
These things I am talking about are small things, I know, and you’re welcome to judge me. A birthday party or afternoon at the batting cages is generally not something to write home about. And who cares about the memory of a buying cigarettes and hanging out in craft stores with your mother? I think that as photographers we’re trained to look for these insignificant details which, when treated the right way, suddenly become significant. We’re looking to turn the minutia of life into the beauty, and that’s the only way I can account for all of these fragments of memories — the color of the siding on a shopping plaza — or how much it hurts to revisit these places for example. We look for what is, and in that we find ourselves.