Portland Wants Me

By Laura Trethewey

“IT’S GOOD TO BE POOR HERE,” the guy from L.A yells to me over the hubbub of a Portland, Oregon happy hour. My second night in town and this observation is almost verging on the obvious. Half a dozen times already I’ve cracked out $20 bills only to replace them with $10 or even $5 ones. As I look around the pub filled with down-and-out young people drinking microbrewed pints ($2) and sharing platters of organic sliders ($5), I realize it’s also good to be something else in Portland: single.

Before leaving the bar tonight, the L.A. guy will circle back to ask me out. Another will plug his digits into my phone with all the breeziness of a waiter asking what I’d like to order. A third will propose a marriage of convenience only to add, wink, wink, “I wouldn’t mind having you around either.” The offer, which still stands, includes American citizenship for me, free healthcare for him, and the whole deal going down at a donut shop that does a side business in officiating – donuts and coffee included. For the first time I hear a Canadian accent called “sexy.”

My recent visit to Portland was stop two on a five-city, three-week escape from Toronto. To clarify: It’s not the dating scene here that gets me down (although the relentless reminders that the odds are against the single educated woman certainly are fun). Rather it’s the cold aloofness of my hometown that is renowned across the country and yet so difficult to pin down. It’s the way I feel the need to tell someone who’s just moved here that we’re really nice once we warm up, just hang around the right bars and events for, oh, a good year. It’s the way I might be hurt, but not surprised, if an acquaintance I’d know for years dusted me one night. On nicer days, I like to think Torontonians are so respectful of one another’s space that we come off as stony. On the worst ones, I want to drive fast for the city limits like I could outrace the funk. So, the visit to Portland.

Post-bar, our group ends up in the living room of a man with an immense beard from whom I am hearing date pitch number four of the night: “There’s this great restaurant you should go to before you leave, sort of fancy. Like you’d need to dress up, but we could go.”

“Well, I’m wearing everything I have,” I say, of the jeans and sweater I’ve been wearing for days.

“I’ll take you to the Value Village,” he reassures me.

Unsure whether to feel flattered, I go outside to grab Bill, who has the keys to the house I’m staying at. Moments earlier, he’d been smoking a cigarette alone on the porch, but now he’s tangled up on a couch with some mystery girl. I go back inside.

“Bill is making out with some girl outside,” I hiss at the bearded guy, in what will go down as my most prudish statement in life.

“That’s Christine,” he says, rolling another cigarette.

“Where did she come from?” I ask. It’s three in the morning. The house is deep in a quiet residential neighbourhood.

“They have a thing. She lives up the street.”

I eventually peel Bill away from Christine and we make our way home, where I fall asleep on the couch, miraculously alone.

Granted, three days in Portland is nowhere near enough time to get a trace on a city’s dating scene, but to put what I experienced in Toronto terms: Picture an Esplanade meat market or the city on New Year’s Eve —now add in people you’d actually want to date and voila! Sexual frankness was just apart of the conversation. It felt passé to blush. A barista hit on me, for Christ’s sake! You know how much money I’ve spent on coffee and scones trying to get a barista to make a pass in Toronto!?

This sexual openness seemed to stem from a deeper social openness engrained on the Portland’s streets, bars and cafes. The porous feeling between people and groups gave the city a sense of possibility, not just for sex, but for easy acquaintance and friendship. Most of the come-ons were ostensibly just invitations to hang out. One guy invited me to see Body World, which either means he was a psychopath who gets turned on by plasticized bodies or, more likely, getting laid was not the foremost thing on his mind.

A barista hit on me, for Christ’s sake! You know how much money I’ve spent on coffee and scones trying to get a barista to make a pass in Toronto!?

My last night in Portland, I sat reading a book at a bar, when a guy approached and asked if I’d like to join his table. At first, I thought, another come on? But when I looked over, he was seated with two other girls, both friends. I hesitated—the book I was reading was really good—but then I joined in. The rest of the night passed easily, like I was hanging out with old friends. They were new to the city, too, and had already fallen into the habit of striking up conversation with whoever was around. At the end of the night, they offered me a ride home through the pouring rain and I didn’t think twice about hopping in the back. If it hadn’t been my last night there, it wouldn’t have felt weird to call them up and hang out the next day.

Such loose, passing relationships between people might grow tiresome after a while. (In fact, when the inevitable did happen, the guy I hooked up with complained that Portland girls were too flighty—a classification I sadly did not escape as I had to board a train to Vancouver 45 minutes later.) But when I arrived back in Toronto a few days later, I felt optimistic about life, people, relationships, the world in general. In a misguided attempt to transplant Portland’s levity back here, I grinned at a few of the jetlagged people on the airport bus back into the city. But I started to feel like a creep, and I put my headphones back on.


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