By the rivers of Babylon

“I wish I knew when I was going to die,” ninety-six-year-old Dame Frances Anne often said.  “I wish I knew.”

“Why, Dame?”

“Then I should know what to read next.”

— Rumer Godden, In This House of Brede

I was on vacation in Portland for the first time last May.  It was a continuation of my This American Vacation series, which began a few years ago with a trip to D.C. for my last and nerdiest spring break ever.  I spent days wandering around all three branches of the federal government and evenings being spoiled by wp-z‘s decadent homemade meals.  Next came an Alaskan cruise with my family after I took the bar exam.  Later that summer, I toured New England in an electric blue Dodge, starting in Boston and making our way up to Kennebunkport and the rocky Maine shore, back down to Cape Cod and Nantucket, finally departing from JFK.  Next came Phoenix with C for spring training and free happy hour by the pool.  Later that summer I visited Louisville, Colorado for a work training, bought MG a foot-shaped lollipop in Boulder, and accidentally made fun of one coworker’s Crocs and another’s airplane phobia in Denver, all in three days.  I returned to Massachusetts that fall for my first business trip ever and ate steamers in a seaside town while trying to blend in among some gruff Boston Irish Catholic men with heavy accents.

My tour of the United States was prompted by a realization of how little I’ve seen of the country other than California north and south.  A must-see on my domestic shortlist, Portland was a logical next step, being in my neighboring state (i.e. easy to plan at the last minute), reasonable (much to come on this), and most importantly, home to POWELL’S, the nation’s largest independent bookseller.  The store carries multiple editions of every book known to man, both new and used, and spans an entire city block (a small one, but one in keeping with the reasonableness of Portland, where a walk to a whole other quadrant is about the same as walking home from my MUNI stop).

In a major feat of restraint, I managed to wait until S and I had taken the light rail in from the airport, checked into our hotel, walked to the Saturday Market on the river and enjoyed a good meal (barbeque, okra, lentils, lemon chicken), stopped in Stumptown for a fabled cup of coffee, listened to some gypsy-punk accordian players, and meandered back up Burnside.  At last, the sun was low in the sky.  The City of Books beckoned.  There was nothing left to do but go in.

I did, four times in as many days.  Just to be lured in by miles of books, which are seductive enough to drown the senses of an unwary traveler.  I learned this the hard way and ended up having to leave in a fog and retreat to Voodoo Doughnut, where I bought an apple fritter that was bigger than my face and took days to eat.  Later at Kir (a cozy and reasonable champagne bar, amazing after being price-gouged at $16 a glass just days before in SF while celebrating the end of trial!), I recovered my faculties over the first and best lambrusco I’ve ever had, and hatched a Plan.

The next visit was pure reconnaissance, a scouting expedition of sorts.  I got a feel for the lay of the land and the scope of the offerings.  I located some books I’d had my eye on for a while and couldn’t find even in San Francisco, where I cannot so much as buy a stamp in my neighborhood on a Saturday but where I can buy books every night until 10.  I limited this visit to an hour and left with blood sugar to spare.  All I’d seen and learned was then processed at Apizza Scholls, and then over leftover pizza eaten in bed while watching television — bless vacation.

By the time I returned for my third trip, I’d climbed to the top of Multnomah Falls and regretted it (stopping at the observation deck a hundred feet up would have sufficed), peered down the gorges, and learned to ride a bike (sort of).  The latter, near-death experience helped me clarify some objectives: (1) Satisfy my Powell’s itch and perhaps spoil myself a wee bit because I was on vacation; (2) Take full advantage of being there in person, seeing the books with my own eyes and taking them home immediately instead of suffering through shipping and delayed gratification; (3) Try not to buy every book in sight (so as not to have to haul them home); and (4) Avoid feeling gluttonous (the vicissitudes of a bibliomaniac).  I ate a good meal and had a half-eaten apple fritter stowed reassuringly in my bag for contingencies.  I’d identified some elusive writers to look for, and I knew where the bathrooms were.  It was time.

First stop was the Rose Room for Nature Studies, honing in on Flora, then Trees.  There I located one used hardcover and two new paperback copies of The Wild Trees by Richard Preston, concerning the ecology of the canopies at the top of the 350-foot redwood giants along the northern coast of California.  First discovered in a blog post dedicated to the favorite books of style bloggers, the hardcover edition promised an additional qualifier — The Wild Trees, A Story of Passion and Daring.  No need to make a choice here — new copies were later found (and one secured) on sale in the outer foyer of Sciences.  The Wild Trees was reputed to be fascinating if weakly written, a book I found more intriguing the more I couldn’t find it in San Francisco, but one I might contentedly borrow from a well-stocked library.  Half-priced new paper – a perfect find.

Next stop: Literature in the Blue Room, where a quick search yielded Vita Sackville-West, erstwhile member of Bloomsbury and lover of Virginia Woolf.  Sackville-West has been suspected by some (including a hip but sweet-faced Powell’s employee who was plainly excited to see someone looking at Sackville-West, and me) of riding Woolf’s coattails, but has also struck many (including the same employee, and me) as potentially exciting.  The book I’d seen on Goodreads which had originally piqued my interest was not to be found.  Further inspection, however, turned up All Passion Spent, a novel about the glories of old age!  Being validated by a hip Powell’s employee was an indulgence beyond all the reasonableness of Portland.

Mentally putting a few items on hold, I devoted the next hour to researching children’s and young adults’ for Eliana and Karis, the daughters of good friends who live abroad and have limited access to books in English.  The girls didn’t read much when they lived in the U.S. but have since become avid bibliophiles.  Now that they’re approaching the no-man’s land between childhood and everything else, 11 and 12 years old, I was torn between wanting to respect the dignity of their years but not wanting them to miss out on anything.  With so many flossy new series, would the gorgeously reissued Austin series by Madeleine L’Engle seem out of date?  The hip-looking ones like Absolutely, Maybe (by an Asian-American writer, about a teenaged runaway given the name Maybelline by her beauty queen mother) looked promising but ran the risk of gratuitous s-e-x.  Which made me hesitate, despite my own childhood imbibing of some truly filthy books (ahem! Flowers in the Attic).  Canonical fare — To Kill a Mockingbird — reminded me of school, but I could see Ellie really getting into something like that.  Here, on the most difficult leg of my Powell’s journey, I got bogged down among the choices and started to drift.  Extracting my emergency doughnut, I decided I’d return later for a game-time decision.

But the visit seemed unfinished.  After a meandering hour, I wanted something to revive me, something evocative, and something I hadn’t just seen on new-and-noteworthy shelves.  I wanted a recommendation, and not just one from a faceless Staff Recommendations card.  I wanted a suggestion from a friend — preferably a well-read, provocative, exciting friend.  Someone who could tell me a thing or two I don’t know.

But I was in an unknown town and S was already happily ensconced around the corner for happy hour.  R was in Portland for work, but the closest encounter we’d had so far was leaving a doughnut for him with the concierge at the Nines.  This was remedied later over dinner at Clyde Common, but by then it was too late.

I wandered the Literature aisles aimlessly, energy waning but still looking for something to catch my eye.  In the end, it was a girl, a little younger than myself and very attractive with long, dark hair and cute glasses.  Her skinny jeans slouched nicely and she wore a well-fitting but unfeminine plaid shirt (the kind I inadvertently pinched from an awesomely glam hair salon during wp-z’s wedding weekend and had to shame myself into returning).  I immediately felt frumpy in S’s big sweater — perfect!  There’s nothing like self-doubt to evoke inspiration.

Even more than being attractive and well-dressed, my new friend caught my attention by gazing at the S authors with intense concentration for several unavailing minutes.  I was wildly curious — what does an intriguing girl seek so intently at Powell’s on a quiet afternoon in the spring?  I grabbed a book at random, buried my face in it, and spied for all I was worth.  But though I watched surreptitiously for a while, whatever she sought plainly did not materialize.  Luckily she wasn’t inclined to give up, but I could feign an interest in The Lovely Bones only for so long.  Her search — and my pique — seemed in vain.

Finally, the girl inhaled sharply, stepped onto the lowest shelf, tiptoed and stretched her arm up high.  Extracting her treasure, she caught it up as though it would escape her and looked at it raptly.  She began to read.  Despite best efforts, I was unable to see the title, and besides which, my time in the aisle was veering on the unseemly.  I retreated quietly, though she was surely too riveted to notice, and paced the aisles while thinking unreasonable thoughts about how all of the other books looked really boring.  An impatient interval elapsed and I wandered casually back to the S’s.  The girl was gone, and a tell-tale gap loomed in the top shelf — a perfect toothless grin.  Mirroring an action taken minutes before, I stepped onto the lowest shelf, reached as high as I could, and came away with a slim volume.  By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, author of poetic prose and lover of the poet Charles Barker (not to be confused with the teenaged kidnapping victim).  An unassuming, sleek black sixties-era paperback (my new friend had favored a new trade reissue with a cover photo of a sculpture I’d once seen and loved at the Musee d’Orsay years ago), I had never heard of this little book which had created such intrigue.  But flipping the pages and catching a stray word here and there, I knew the effort was a success.

A vintage paperback edition of Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner rounded out my Powell’s pilgrimage for me.  Clutching my finds, I ran down the street to meet S and soak up the late afternoon sunshine in the warm loft of Ringlers Annex, where I beamed smugly over a large Greyhound made from fresh grapefruits for, what else, a reasonable price.

We were on our way to the airport when I dropped in one last time to pick up the books for the girls, narrowly avoid buying C an inflatable moose head for her mantle, and take one last look at the City of Books.  Later as our flight lifted off the ground, with the last of an apple fritter and my own modest Powell’s stash tucked under the seat in front of me, I gazed out the window at the lush greenery of my neighboring state.  Perfect satisfaction in four days.

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3 Responses to By the rivers of Babylon

  1. NJP says:

    I read all the posts. Very entertaining. I have a hard time believing you read 3-4 books a month. By hard time believing, I mean I’m jealous. I calculated I only have about 560 books left in my life. If you don’t mind, I would like recommendations. Choose carefully.

  2. WP-Z says:

    Love love love this. It seems best when you write not just what you know, but what positively warms your marrow. The perfect toothless gap, the slouchy skinnies, the way a pastry survived you (I on the other hand would browse until I reached critical low blood sugar then inhaled the thing). Totally suspenseful, the mad hunt for novel literary sustenance!

  3. sanecrook says:

    Bless you both for reading the whole thing.

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