Saturday, November 21, 2009

bearded coffee loving bicyclists in the roman empire

i am spartacus, come from the dead, come back to tell you all; i shall tell you all.

i do not believe we are doomed to repeat history again and again. similar events may happen repeatedly, but are similar only generally. history is too complex to follow even one trajectory: it is inevitably multiple, heteroglossic. yet it seems that for americans, the histories of rome and our nation spell our the same syllables of hubris and failure. we are the new roman empire.

my new friend rob invited me to watch stanley kubrick's spartacus with him and his friend ean the other night. a very long film, at three and a half hours it wasn't as painful to sit through as i feared it would be. the most striking scene to me had been originally edited out, though restored in the version we viewed. a roman general looks out at the countryside, down at a contingent of the army marching paswt, and proclaims to the slave he's just had bathe him that the scene below is rome herself. when the general turns around, his slave has vanished, having run off with the slave rebellion. the scene depicts roman opulence with homosexual undertones; it features a certain remove from the situation. the general speaks coolly: as ean pointed out, he describes rome animalistically, as if it is a collective, a society or culture, yet always separate from the individual, uncontrollable, with a will of its own.

if america is like rome, then the story of spatacus represents the last throes of nationalism in america during the 20th century. the slaves of the movie, foreigners to rome, rise up in an attempt to escape the empire. not just to be free and claim equal rights; they want to flee the gravity and corrupt hegemony of roman culture and society. yet in the end, the only slave that gains freedom, spatacus's wife, is granted roman citizenship and must assimilate to survive.

america has seen the cruelty of slavery, the hegemony of american culture, the dominance of corporate marketing. control becomes more subtle, more unconcious, and in some ways, perhaps more complete. but there are sites of resistance of course, places and groups of people which deny the dominant culture. in many ways, i thinkthe city of portland is one of these sites. portland has a very particular elan, a particular way of operating, a particular culture not completely separate from and against american society but distinct and divergent. this is apparent in the city's draw to local small business, its dislike of wal-mart, its embrace of cooperatives and trade. its also evidenced by its love of bicycling (6% of the city commutes daily by bike, more than any other city in the united states), its music scene, its love of film, its high regard for food, beer, and wine, as well as its fashion. its that strange mixture of fashion and attitude and interest that only this city can claim. one friend once commented to me that portland lacks any sense of fashion, to which i responded that i though portland just had its own, unique sense of fashion. another friend told me that portland is always two years ahead of san francisco. but really i just want portland to have its own agenda, its own aesthetic.

i want to live in a city unlike any other in the united states. a city that shares my goals and interests. i believe micro-communities become increasingly important at the beginning of the twenty-first century. more that fringe movements, communities that share very particular values and interests will become a structural element in american society. this will be aided by the growth of the middle class and thus greater wealth and spending on an individual level. inherent in this will be a greater amount of free time, allowing for the garnering of specific interests. on top of this, the capability for movement and relocation granted by free time, technology, and wealth. greater, more widespread education will also be a feature of this movement. all these developments were actually witnessed during the late 19th and 20th centuries as a result of mercantilism, manufacturing, and the rise of a bourgeois middle class. these development will continue throughout the 21st, becoming pronounced as technology, education, and wealth/free-time allows for individuals to become involved and interested in various and divergent hobbies, lifestyles, movements, cities, et cetera. i believe slowly, slowly, slowly cities, perhaps neighborhoods in a city, will align more closely with certain cultures or micro-communities. i believe corporate america understands this, and through use of recent technology, now scrambles to tailor marketing and sales at the urban and individual level (read: google).

as with spartacus, the stuggles american society faces are similar to, but as i argue, intrinsically different from those of the roman empire. i want to read more hope into our futures, show that history has changed, that history changes our cultural trajectory, the possibilities for freedom and agency.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

boise-eliot in the rain

my new roommate amanda says they call chicago "a city of neighborhoods." portland, too, loves it different neighborhoods and proudly preserves their separate names and identities. the apartment i now share with daniel and amanda on michigan avenue stands in a neighborhood in inner north portland formally called boise-eliot and is informally known by its main artery, north mississippi.

i love north mississippi. a little secluded and quiet, but very hip, north mississippi is very busy at least. i walked out this morning despite the rather heavy rain to forage for coffee at our neighborhood coffee house, the fresh pot. the rain poured down the streets and sidewalks, gravity pulling down toward the city center, to the willamette, which would carry it all away and dump our winter water in the pacific. the rain pooled in gutters and in intersections; deep puddles into which i would splash up past my ankles. i love my galoshes.

the fresh pot operates in an old drugstore, the Rx sign still visible in the concrete outside the door. the diffuse light of portland's fall filters through bright yellow awnings and mingles with the 20 watt light of old art nouveau lamps. the woman there kindly hands me a cup and fifty cents in change. i love my coffee. is there a secret god of coffee to whom i should be praying?

i braved the puddle outside fresh pot and cross mississippi to the new vintage clothing boutique that opened today. the shop owner offered me plaid western shirts and 501s. i found a beautiful pendleton plaid shirt (made in portland, oregon) in teal and purple and yellow, sized small, for twenty-two dollars. perfection! i love it. daniel will hate it. perfection!

back out in the street, in the miserable downpour, i passed the record store and thought it beautiful to see a man wearing black with raven hair and thick buddy holly glasses wearing huge earphones and listening to rock and roll on a turntable in the window there. i thought this is portland perfect. this is exactly how i want to remember my youth.

the rain streamed down off my raincoat and soaked the tops of my pants.

amanda and i made pumpkin pancakes, cut up a sample of bartlett, bosch, and d'anjou pears, drank coffee, and i stared out into the rain as we ate, dreaming of pendleton plaid.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


friday, i was leaving trader joe's in the hollywood district, waiting for the 75 to come by and take me back to mary anne's place on belmont. while standing there next to trader joe's, another bus heading the opposite direction pulled up. the driver stopped the bus right in front of me in the middle of the block. he opened his window, and grinning, waved vigorously to me. he had dark hair under a hat and a goatee. he looked slightly older than me, but from a distance he looked not unattractive. he seemed to recognize me, though i had (and still have) no clue as to his identity, though because he seemed to be so happy to see me, whoever he thought i must be, i waved in return and smiled. then he pulled to the end of the block and to the curb to let his passengers out. i stared after the bus trying to figure out who the strange driver could be. before pulling away, he opened his window again, stuck his hand out and waved. when i waved in return, he gave me a thumbs-up and drove away.

today, i didn't have a particularly pleasant experience on the bus. i missed the 35 up from john's landing into downtown so i had to hop on the streetcar at ohsu. then it took forever for the 15 to arrive which i had planned to take up belmont to mary anne's place to collect a few more of my belongings. while on the 15, a woman started crying loudly at the back of the bus. the sobs became screams, blood curdling screams. screams that i haven't heard outside of a slasher film. my fellow riders were petrified with terror. what was happening to this lady? then she cried out to the bus about our fake, smiling faces who didn't love god. this shouting led to more shouting about satan and no one loving satan. at this point the tension on the bus eased slightly as people realized this woman was obviously insane. the man across the aisle from me tried to talk sociably to his companion about their thanksgiving plans, interrupted only by this woman's shrieking about satan.

i like bikes.