Yesterday, I wrapped up a two-week jaunt out to California, Washington State, and Oregon, for no particular reason other than to meet up with friends on their home turf and to experience a part of the country I'd never been to. Of course, as with most new and interesting places I encounter these days, my mind goes automatically into livability-evaluation mode and I start to assess various indicators (job availability, income potential, cost-of-living, social and cultural offerings) in a semi-conscious litmus test of whether or not I'd be inclined to move there sometime in the unspecified future. This most always happens when I'm basking in the warmth and attention of good friends, who work unintentionally as the best PR agents any city could hope for, and I often leave considering, temporarily at least, a potential home-base that I hadn't before. So it went as I ventured from the humid semi-tropics of my native Florida over to the green-and-gold splendor of America's (Upper) West Coast: San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland.
San Francisco Bay
I got to San Francisco International at almost midnight on July 1st, and was whisked away into the city in a black Toyota Prius (that I promptly nicknamed "Kit") by Mike and Ana, a neo-California power-couple-in-the-making whom I met in Colombia over a year ago. We spent the first couple of days on both sides of the Bay Bridge whetting our collective appetite for Thai food and tribal house, and getting our intellectual grooves on at the stunning California Academy of Sciences (NightLife on Thursdays, featuring a DJ and an albino alligator) and the Oakland Museum of California (featuring a poignant exhibition on the African presence in Mexico and a live salsa orchestra - thanks to reader Keith for that tip). Independence Day meant a breezy barbecue (featuring Jenkins Barbecue sauce specially shipped from Jville) out at Fort Mason Park and accompanying fireworks, with fifteen cool peeps huddled under three blankets and swathed in hoodies, hats, and scarves to watch the show; Mark Twain wasn't lyin' about these San Fran summers. A couple days later, Mike dragged me with him for indoor rock climbing before we had a BBQ re-do under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge (there was sauce left, so...), and while M&A worked, I either hit the gym (Crunch Fitness in the Alhambra Theater - phenomenal - click for free pass), hit the streets (Black man taking snapshots of the mansions of Pacific Heights - talk about tempting fate), or hit the first season of "Mad Men" on DVD (the show's hot, y'all). I even got a chance to meet some West Coast cousins I'd only heard of, but had never seen, over some Burmese food that I'd only heard of, but had never tasted.
Frisco has two serious downsides: the weather (fog and frost in August!) and the expense. My friends' small-but-comfy studio rents for $1300 a month and no meal at any sit-down restaurant clocks in at under $8 (that includes breakfast)! The city is known as being the most expensive after New York, and for an aspiring writer without some type of independent wealth, you can hang San Fran up. That being said, the enormous natural and architectural beauty of the city—a 19th-century masterpiece perched atop commanding peaks over a turquoise bay—coupled with a cultural mix that truly does seem to get along better with each other than any other place in the country (even Oak-town represents with a large black middle class, thriving in spite of trigger-happy transit cops), the friendliness of service people (not one but two foreign convenience store owners welcomed me into their shops without a sign of resentment or bitterness...they clearly have never been robbed), the cult-like devotion to Obama (we started playing punch buggy with Obama t-shirts), and the urbane quirks (two skinny, butt-nekkit dudes walking hand-in-hand in the Castro in 50-degree weather; Asian girls jamming to Jade on their iPods; street names like Divisadero and Guerrero; super-futuristic-warp-speed-high-pressure bathroom hand driers; Bollyhood and Little Baobab and Escape from New York Pizza!) put SFO high up on the list of Fly Brother's hang-out spots. I just can't afford to live there.
After my Golden State interlude, I carried it up the coast via plush Virgin America to the Emerald City. My grad school buddy Lisa scooped me from Sea-Tac and drove us on a gray, overcast afternoon through forests of dark and piney Christmas trees into downtown Seattle, named after a vanquished Indian chief and squeezed on a hilly isthmus between Lake Washington and Puget Sound. We dined on fish and grits (which they called polenta and charged $18 for) with views of the busy seaport, downed just-cool-enough-to-drink-immediately mugs of coffee, and caught up on life as the sun finally came out, then slid under the horizon just before 10 PM. Flannel was the order of the day, especially in Lisa's Scandinavian-inspired barrio of Ballard, and even though my few days in Seattle were sunny and warmer than San Francisco, a green, underlying coolness permeated the air and always seemed ready to pounce like an animal on the nascent daytime heat. I crashed the next day on free-wheeling, centrally-located Capitol Hill with mohawked Brazilian Couchsurfer Gabi, who invited me to a samba set at Cellars Belltown (free on Thursday nights) and got jiggy with the strong contingent of Brazilians, Dominicans, and other assorted black and brown youngins who came out of the woodwork (I was too busy dancing and trying to get laid to take photos, sorry). Friday, after hitting a hangar-sized 24 Hour Fitness, I spent the afternoon horsing around with Lisa and Dutch Couchsurfer Ozella in front of the Seattle Asian Art Museum (see me on camel below) and down by the Space Needle. The tower's twenty-dollar admission fee was enough to discourage me, but we took photos and rode the Seattle Monorail and the carnivalesque Windstorm roller coaster. In full-on daylight, the Space Needle does indeed look like a relic from the Jetsons Pavilion at EPCOT, but at night, against the boxy, sparkly rectangles of downtown Seattle, with dots of light gliding through the sky in succession towards the airport, the fluid, illuminated white structure stands cool and imposing, the embodiment of the future we're living.
With all the dot-coms based in the area, Seattle's also not the biggest budget destination. And while the short summer is pleasant, with lingering sunlight and lots of parks to play in, it's still damn short; wintry rain sounds even less appealing than snow. Garbage Nazis are everywhere: you can't just throw shit away out West...there's recycling, compost, then regular waste. The city's also more ethnically diverse than I had anticipated, though much of that mixture seems to occur among the homeless population. People in crowded clubs and bars are exceedingly polite, random skyline and water views pop out of nowhere, and the double happy hour menus (4-7pm, then 10-midnight)—La Isla, anyone?—mean a slew of late-nite eats. Despite other people's disparaging remarks about dullness, Sea-town's done right by me.
I took Amtrak's Cascades route from Seattle to Portland, a three-hour rail expedition alongside the vast Puget Sound, past hulking, forested islands like Chia-whales rising from the glassy water, and under trestled and suspended bridges painted in earthy colors. Adam, my old roommate from Bogota, now permanently bearded and managing a hostel, picked me up from red-bricked Union Station, gave me a quick tour of the surprisingly large and bouncing downtown area, and we grabbed brunch over at Genies Cafe (the crabmeat omelet was slammin'). Afterwards, he went to work and I met up with Erika, colombiana and one-half of a couple I met in Rio over the holidays, and we walked around and hit some of the famous food carts downtown. Then it was Tori Amos at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, a stupendously beautiful rococo theater with a gargantuan "Portland" spelled out on the marquee. We were eight rows back from the stage; Tori toe it up, focusing mostly on the new stuff, but sated us old heads with "Cornflake Girl" and "Little Earthquakes." Lots of things like, "Tori, you're my goddess," and "Tori, I wanna have your baby," were shouted from eager fans. I just said, "Woooo" a couple times. Sunday, after a stupid-big breakfast at a place called Gravy in the gentrified Mississippi neighborhood (guess why it's called that), I hooked up with the great Kate, 50-year-old native Portlander and hardened traveler (Philippines, Thailand, Colombia, Venezuela—on her own, ladies!) who's off to Abu Dhabi next month for a couple years, and we strolled through the Portland Saturday Market (open Sundays) before entering ginormous Powell's, the world's largest bookstore and nerd crack house. I escaped after an hour, having spent only $29 for four books and leaving most of my travel budget intact; another ten minutes and things would have been grim. Later, after a stop at too-ballyhooed Voodoo Doughnut, I caught up with Lance, the other half of the couple from Rio, and had meatballs and mac-n-cheese at Savoy Tavern before crashing from exhaustion and starting the 24-hour journey back to Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, and home.
When I got to Portland, I had no expectations of what the city might be like, other than a populated outpost in whitest Caucasia. Thanks to the urban growth boundary implemented in the 70s to combat sprawl, downtown's thriving and enjoyable, surrounded by walkable, quiet, compact neighborhoods with little eateries and shops in each one. I saw very little vacant commercial spaces (unlike my own hometown, a port city roughly the same size and with better weather) and lots of people riding absurdly tall bicycles. I also so lots of people wearing absurd-looking headgear, including lots of Robin Hood-style caps. Because of the economy, many young, hip liberal arts degree-holders are waiting tables or slinging coffee for a living, and that same many have an aloofness that borders on rudeness, for a Southern boy like me who is accustomed to expecting a level of service commensurate with the amount of the final check. A Waffle House waitress can fling my $2 waffle at me, but if I'm paying $8 for some eggs, we need to be clear about who's doing who the favor. I didn't like that air of hipster arrogance, and I think a nice spate of violent crime might serve to put those attitudes in check. Of the three cities I visited, Portland seems to be the fullest of strivers, good and bad, proud of their strides in urban planning, transportation development (convenient and quick), and environmental awareness, but just a little too caught up in their own specialness in a place where everyone's off one rocker or another, and in one-upping Seattle. Anyway, in spite of a couple of gloomy, drizzly days, and a shocking amount of homeless people in their 20s, Portland proved a chill conclusion to my western adventure.
Did the shoe fit? Let's see if I start to miss it after a little while back East.
Special shouts to the following people for making this trip memorable:
SFO: Mike, Ana, Jeff, Cousin Jackie, Michelle, B. Mason, Isaac, Sharif, and Keith
SEA: Lisa, Tom, Ramon, Gabi, Erik, Ozella, and Camille
PDX: Adam, Kate, Erika, Lance, and Mark
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