The Dream Of The 90s Is Alive

“Do you remember the 90s? People were talking about getting piercings and getting tribal tattoos, and people were singing about saving the planet and forming bands? There’s a place where that idea still exists as a reality: Portland. Remember when people were content to be unambitious and sleep ’til eleven and just hang out with their friends and you’d have no occupations whatsoever, maybe working a couple hours a week at a coffee shop?”

“I thought that died out a long time ago.”

“Not in Portland. Portland is a city where young people go to retire.”

This was the catchy opening dialogue to the debut episode of Portlandia, a new half-hour sketch comedy show on IFC starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. It’s been getting a lot of buzz around here because…well… this is Portland. A trendy, hip city ripe for skewering. We were, perhaps, curious to see our beloved town through the eyes of outsiders. I, for one, was very interested to learn how the rest of the country views my humble, proud city. I had programmed my DVR weeks ago to catch the premiere. A show about the quirky nature of Portland’s bohemian culture, starring the guy who plays Obama on Saturday Night Live and the former lead singer for a rockin’ indie band seemed custom made just for me.

I love Portland, Oregon. More so than almost anybody I know. And while I can’t say I’m from here originally, it feels like home in a way that no other place ever did. I lived a nomadic childhood, thanks to a father in the Air Force. I had no roots. In the mid-90s, when the company I worked for decided to open a sales office in Portland, I begged for an opportunity to come up here and run the inside operations. That’s how passionate I was about moving to the Pacific Northwest. It had always beckoned to me, a siren song from a cloud-choked evergreen utopia, even though I had never set foot here. There was just something about the place – the incessant rain, the obsession with coffee, the laid-back flannel lifestyle, the amazing music, the gorgeous scenery – that appealed to me. I originally envisioned Seattle as my destination, but as much as I love our bigger cousin to the north, I am happy that I ended up in Portland, instead. In the fall of 1994 I got the promotion I coveted, and relocated to Portland with my then-wife. More than 16 years later the job is history and the wife an “ex,” but I am still here – and I can’t ever see myself living anyplace else. I think a part of me would die if I ever moved away.

Fred Armisen and his merry band of misfits hitting the streets of Portland. (Courtesy of tvguide.com).

That dream of the 90s that Fred so eloquently describes? It’s spot-on – I remember those days like they were yesterday. Maybe that’s because I live in Portland and, just as he declares in the opening scenes, it really still is like that here. Every bit of it is true – the tattooed and pierced masses, the earth-first attitude, the cool bands, the artists and entrepreneurs and hipsters with a devil-may-care philosophy that is equal parts optimism and naivete. Living in the moment and being true to yourself is more important than ending up shackled to a routine and selling your soul for a fancy car and a big house.

The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland.

I mean, look at me, for example. I’m unemployed, staying up late and sleeping in, bringing home a few bucks through some writing gigs – and I’m thoroughly content and happy. I am too busy pursuing my dream to worry about the future. I will be successful. Mark my words, remember?

By the way, one of those gigs involves writing a monthly article for Portland Book Review called Rose City Unwrapped. It’s my own creation, my pride and joy – my version of a love letter to Portland. Check it out if you’d like.

“So from what I can surmise, what you’re positing, Portland’s almost an alternative universe. It’s like Gore won – the Bush administration never happened. It’s almost like cars don’t exist…people ride bikes, or double decker bikes, they ride unicycles, they ride trams, they ride skateboards.”

Right on, Carrie Brownstein. (In case you’re unfamiliar with Carrie, she helped form Sleater-Kinney, a hard-charging indie rock band in 1994; they made a big splash on the local scene but disbanded in 2006. I love their music, particularly “Jumpers”). Another great Stumptown summary that hits the mark. Carrie said in an interview with the New York Times, โ€œThe strange thing we all noticed, is no matter how far out on a limb we went, we always ran into that person within two days.โ€ So there you go.

Portlandia unleashes a bunch of other stereotypes that lovingly poke fun at Portland. How true are they? Let’s take a look…

1. Portland is home to a lot of vegans. This is true, although I am certainly not one of them. I love pigs and cows far too much to ever be content eating stuff you pluck from the ground. I’ve always wondered if vegans have a moral issue with fishnet stockings? Voodoo Doughnut devotes a good portion of their menu to vegan selections. Me? I always opt for the bacon maple bar.

2. Portland is a utopia for hippies. Most definitely. It’s one of the things I love about the city! There is probably more tie-dye and peace sign paraphernalia per capita than anywhere else in the country (though San Francisco may give us a run for our money). Stroll through the Saturday Market sometime if you don’t believe me.

3. Portland diners are snobby “foodies” obsessed with organic foods and the farm-to-table movement. Again, I’d have to agree. We have a ton of great restaurants that receive nationwide critical acclaim, and yes, they do seem obsessed with sourcing locally-grown, organic meats and produce. Even our beloved fast-food chain, Burgerville.

4. People in Portland are avid bike riders. Without a doubt – and in all kinds of weather, too. Bicyclists impress me and annoy me all at once. I’m impressed with their dedication to riding everywhere, and annoyed when I get stuck behind them or have to swing wide left to pass them.

5. All the hot girls wear glasses. Maybe not all of them, but a good proportion, nevertheless. I have no idea why the “sexy librarian” look is so big in Rip City, but there’s no denying it.

6. Flannel has never gone out of style. You see it all the time. Spring, summer, fall, winter. There’s usually some combination that includes Birkenstocks and acid-washed jeans, as well. My uniform du jour at home: flannel shirt over a t-shirt.

7. Everybody has a beard. Fact: the West Coast Beard & Mustache Championship is being held this weekend at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland. ‘Nuff said.

That’s only the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure future episodes will address additional stereotypes, like the constant rain and our obsession with coffee and the weed-friendly mindset. As far as nailing the vibe of our fair city, I’d say they are batting 1.000 (although I did not realize we are a hotbed for bird-themed art). They’ve only made six episodes, and there’s no guarantee that there will be more, but for now I am enjoying Portlandia and look forward to seeing what else Fred and Carrie dish up.

We Portlanders are an independent bunch of nonconformists who don’t hide behind our labels so much as embrace them. The City of Roses may be a paradise for slackers, but its very denizens are not above making fun of themselves.

Even if Portlandia doesn’t attract a nationwide audience, it’s already a hit here, where it counts.

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22 thoughts on “The Dream Of The 90s Is Alive

  1. I’ll have to keep an eye out for that show. I LOVED Portland when I was there a few years ago – actually loved the PNW as a whole – and am still itching to get back out there. (but you know my feelings on that)

    And being a child of the 90s, best decade (especially for tv and music – gotta love the grunge rock sound that came out of there). :)

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    1. Sleater-Kinney definitely had a grungey sound…it’s riot grrl rock at its best. Check out “Jumpers” – I think you’ll like it.

      And yes, I remember how much you’ve always waxed poetically over this part of the country, Sarah.

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  2. What a wonderfully heartfelt and passionate tribute to your city, Mark!

    I’ve never been to Oregon, but for some reason I KNOW I would love it. All the photos I’ve ever seen of are faaaaaaabulous. And the weather to me, is right up my ally. I like rain and am obessed with Seattle coffee! Even though I’m a city guy, there is a part of me that truly enjoys and appreciates the beauty of being surrounded by nature, such as you have in Oregon.

    Your feelings about Portland are exactly my feelings for NYC. I feel it in my soul. And one of these days I will be there again.

    So glad to hear you enjoy where you live. That’s so important.

    BTW, I just read your article on Rose City Unwrapped and it was GREAT!

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    1. I’ve always believed that everybody should love where they live. Otherwise, what’s the point of living there? I hated California and couldn’t wait to come home. Now, here I am!

      Thanks for checking out my column in PBR, too!

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  3. fun post, Mark.
    we had “family” that wasn’t family that we’d visit off Terwilliger Drive as I grew up…long story, but we stopped coming down in the 80’s…
    blessings
    jane

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  4. I grew up 32 years in Texas and I’ve lived in Portland the last 8 years… I LOVE IT. Although I don’t think I’ve met anyone “snobby” – everyone seems pretty nice. All in all, your blogs are always a pleasure to read.

    Keep up the great work!

    Steven W.

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    1. Thanks, Steven! I agree…everybody is pretty laid-back up here and not at all phony or plastic like in certain other parts of the country. I won’t mention anyplace by name {cough} Los {cough, cough} Angeles.

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  5. I love your ode to Portland! I’d go back in a heartbeat! I loved that everyone had tattoos and it’s still the best place for seafood I’ve ever been. I couldn’t believe how many bookshops and music stores there were. I mean whole stores devoted to just basses. I hope I dream about your city tonight!

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  6. nice. we just visited for the first time this past month. current east-coast dwellers (dc–errgh), we hope to someday join the ranks of other flannel-clad stereotypes in the rainy city doing their writing in coffeeshops….

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