Friday, April 11, 2008

Walking around like a nut in the dark

One of the symptoms of clinical depression is an inability to sleep for an extended period of time. Up until I started on Prozac, then, unless I was seriously exhausted, I got four hours at a stretch, tops. Most of the time I had something to read nearby and I passed the time that way, but other times I was so restless and my brain was racing so fast that I had to get out and move.

I started midnight rambling when I was eight years old. During the summer my parents would let me sleep outside in the back yard sometimes. As soon as I could hear snoring coming from the house I was out the back gate and off.

For some reason I was fearless in the dark. I went places that I had NO BUSINESS going and would never have dreamed of visiting during the daytime. God only knows what the police would have said, but I was never hassled once.

The rambling, and that luck, continued up into my adult years. The only problems I ever had with anybody, I had in daylight. Once night fell, the town was mine.

Portland was an incredible place to ramble. The disconnected mixture of modern buildings with old carpenter gothic residences, mature trees and bare paved lots, derelict neighborhoods and haphazardly placed masses of urban infrastructure was already exactly like a dream landscape. It was sleep walking with your eyes open.

I ran into very, very few people out walking at night. Any homeless person you saw was so far gone and close to death that they didn't bother to hide up for the night any more. The few working girls left out at that hour were usually haggard and dope sick. When they asked for a cigarette that's all they meant. They'd pay you a quarter.

I carried a claw hammer anyway.

I could not stay away from abandoned buildings. And I discovered a strange and interesting thing: there wasn't a row of identical houses or businesses that could hide its secret from me, because you could pick the abandoned ones out at night by smell; an exhalation of old paper and leaves and dirt and damp. You could literally feel it on your skin as you walked into it, an invisible chilly stream with definite boundaries, and you could follow it easily to its source.
I'd squeeze between chained doors and peer inside old ice warehouses. I'd try doorknobs and step though empty window frames, stand in the moonlight coming down through rotted shingle roofs and rafters and read the old newspapers peeling off the walls.

The amount of wild animal life in downtown Portland was a thing that never ceased to amaze me. I liked to walk out and stand in the center of the Burnside bridge, or the Hawthorne, smoking a cigarette and watching the water. Bear in mind that this is the literal, geographical center of downtown Portland, too; yet not a single car would pass you for minutes at a stretch. And in the quiet you could hear horned owls call to each other from one side of the river to the other, up and down it's length, in turns...north and southeast, south and northwest.

Although Oregon had a huge problem with feral dogs at the time I never ran into trouble. Brave tame dogs would bark as you passed their fences, but dogs about town would sidetrot down the center line of the street and give you a couple of wags and a grin as they passed, maybe say 'wuf' in a conversational way.

Back then-and it probably holds true today-it wasn't uncommon to see a doe and fawn ambling down the middle of a residential street, or 23rd and Burnside for that matter. Raccoons tightrope-walked the sagging ridges of abandoned meat packing plants, feral cats slept in the engine compartments of parked cars. Skunks left eerily human, infant-sized footprints in the dew that kept alive a persistent urban myth about 'little people'. Down by the river in the steel yards, the masts of cranes and old towing rigs and logging booms, draped with rags of old morning glory, were hunting posts for barn owls who stretched their wings and flicked them as you passed. There was a kind of bat, one the size of a peregrine falcon, that hunted from building to building over the lighted intersection on 5th and Morrison, soaring like a miniature pterodactyl, long translucent wings stretched across a rack of skeletal fingers, small head turning inquisitively as it called and listened.


Portland was a large town that had expanded and engulfed many smaller ones, like any city does, I guess. A modern neighborhood development would be built up around the remains of the cities old horse-drawn trolley barns, the old wood buildings swaying and bellying, the vented cupolas laying on the ground. In the middle of the grimmest industrial district you would run into half a block of empty old Carpenter Gothic homes with scalloped shingles and wooden lace. Often you'd find a small section of abandoned or two blocks of false fronted buildings with weed maples growing out of the sandstone foundation blocks, plank siding painted with advertising for Bull Durham Tobacco, Liptons Tea or Fischers Mills, the corner gingerbread decorations wadded with old robins' nests. The coved shop entrances each held a windblown drift of dirt, accumulated leaves and trash. I would sit on the ledge out of the breeze and light a smoke, lift the old leaves and papers and find small frogs fast asleep like little square cut emeralds, or tiny fat salamanders black and shiny as patent leather.
And not a sound. Not a soul. Not a single car.

One evening just after the sun went down behind the tall buildings, when the sky was still violet and orange I was walking through an abandoned neighborhood, enjoying the incredible heavy perfume of the old cabbage roses that wanded out out over the sidewalk. I'd stop occasionally and peer through rusty spear tipped fences at the old Victorian residences, walls of blind wooden bay windows sagging into the grass, roofless Queen Anne tower houses through which swallows circled and drifted like schooling fish in the gloom. I always walked along with a sense of something cool waiting just up ahead. Mysterious statues listing in the fireweed, unexpected garden flowers emerging beneath overgrown trees. Once I saw a whitetail deer standing on a sagging porch, sniffing the places where someone last laid their hand, on the railing or the post or the door.

I stopped in the bay entrance of an old shop and lit a smoke. The flare of the match lit up the interior for a second. I could just make out what I took to be old scenery flats or lobby cards or advertising of some kind ranged along the walls inside.

Well well well.

Now I'm not a thief, but I also knew without even pausing to think about it that I'd be coming back with more than a clawhammer to do a little nocturnal antique collecting.

I tried the door and looked up at the transom window, sat back down and finished my smoke.
While I sat there the last sunrays came out from between some concrete warehouses and lit the interior of the shop behind me.

It wasn't lobby cards leaning against the walls; it was stretched canvasses.

It was a huge empty space, bare wood floors, with the old mercantile counters and shelves still intact along the walls, a couple of old, peculiar chairs here and there, the original gas fixtures still protruding from the walls. There were easels and tables in the back and jars all over the floor full of paint brushes and palette knives, buckets of varnish and thinner.

And the most amazing painting.

It was a huge, very lifelike painting of a very familiar man in a business suit, with details that revealed themselves by degrees and made you stop and re-examine the whole while you tried to believe what you were looking at. The composition came straight out of Medieval Christian iconography, and the execution was extremely sophisticated. Imagine a Dali, if Dali had studied with Jan van Eyck.

It was one of the oddest moments I've ever had in my life, standing there in the coming evening in the middle of an abandoned Victorian street, looking at the last thing I'd ever expected to see.

As I was walking away it suddenly occurred who the familiar-looking man in the painting was. The governor. Well, the dead governor, anyway-of Oregon.

The next time I saw it was in the Oregon Journal, headlined 'Controversial Tom McCall Painting* To Be Put On Public Display'-something along those lines. People were having a cow that their tax dollars had paid for 'psychedelic hippie art'.
I felt kind of proud. Way to go, art dude!
It almost made up for the fact that it hadn't been a stack of old movie posters.

*and here it is!
this obviously does not do the thing justice, but you can see that its not exactly your typical state portrait, either. the real thing is almost lifesized, and the colors really glow.


  1. First again? Jeez, I gotta stop making a habit of this, it makes me look like I have no life at all.

    That picture of the gov is bizarre. And it so totally looks like a Dali. It would've ruled if it was "megalomaniac sized."

  2. xul: omigod you have no life at all, do you. :)
    Oregon was a hell of a progressive , modern thinking state in those days,and the style absolutely does him honor. you know how i have 'wall the imwoc line' in my 'about me' thing? thats ecotopiac thinking. tom mc call was the closest we ever got to ecotopia. god bless him.

  3. That is about the coolest thing I ever saw....where is it now? The painting? Oregon is an interesting and tolerant state, Idaho is very conservative and tightassed...I know I live here....maybe it is because it is too close to Utah. Just a thought.

  4. It looks like something from the cult of the sub-genius. I too like the night, something to do with using all my senses and being able to tell when someone is about. I sleep fine when I do my depression gets me during the day.

  5. Knudsen, can you sense that I'm up now?

  6. gale: don't worry. when we secede from the union, you're coming with us. no way we'd leave good ol' idaho prey for the wolves!

    knudie: i know i must have run onto you more than once. you asked me for a cigarette and gave me a quarter up on 21st and foster one night, didn't you?

    mj: you mean you're still out at 4 in the morning? here, have a cigarette. now gimme a quarter.

  7. Anonymous12:24 PM

    i would swear i'm narcoleptic. i can sleep just about anywhere. and i'm way too chicken to go rambling about after dark. well, around here, anyway. when i lived in the city, i'd take off at any time and just go driving and see if i could get lost. happened often.

  8. Well What a picture , iconic and wierd, Whats the dis imbodied helicopter in the bacground all about ???
    I too have been a night wanderer on occasion , I used to love it , such a feeling of freedom.

  9. i was right there with you...i love the way you write...i am also one of those who sleep four hours and am afforded the town at night...i don't go out usually until the wee hours of the morning just to see what is usually a bustling place sleep...i love the dark...the night and all the secrets it holds...and it holds many...seeing the sunrise over the fields is great grandmother used to say when you look over a field you can see generations of people who lived, loved, fed us, and died for the land and every once in a the morning can see them walking the land...either that or i need different meds :)

  10. Bitch, wake up and come to my potluck.

  11. Thanks for the casserole.

    It's amazing what you can do with Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, isn't it?

  12. HELLO!!!! you write like a dream.........i have just finished watching Will Oldham's film "OLD JOY" (you seen?) & then i read your post.They have kinda meged somehow & are related........Thank You.
    Yes.Something about the stillness of the night.strange,isnt it?How the dark actually make you see better..........!
    The Painting is superb.yet,It's so bright! (flashy-like-daylight) It must have given you a shock!
    One Question.What is/are "cupolas"'s??????
    Oh, fear not! Knudski now hangs around Mytholmroyd @ night bumming ciggies..........You Are Safe !

  13. i see what you mean about the composition. he ought to have a swaddled babe with a too-small head semi-attached to his arm, velcro-stylee.

  14. (sorry about all the hyphens.)

  15. ps. I'm going to send this post to Paul Simon. There's definitely a song in there somewhere. (If I knew where, I'd write it myself.)