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Postcard From the Real Portlandia

July 24, 2020

Story: Jordan Michelman

photo: Jordan Michelman

Jordan Michelman takes stock of the drinking scene in his city during a season of unprecedented unrest and unity.

The city of Portland is in the news right now for frightening reasons. We are a test case for the deployment of a fascist paramilitary force under the banner of the Department of Homeland Security; some have drawn parallels between Portland in the summer of 2020 and Germany in the early 1930s.

Except the beer halls here are barely open enough to encourage putsch. Even the city’s notoriously thirsty craft ale scene has been relegated to a 2020 reality in which order-by-appointment, or wait in line in a mask, is the new normal to grab a hazy IPA. Such is the scene each afternoon at Great Notion Brewing’s gleaming, vast new taproom in the city’s industrial Northwest, a neighborhood of Portland that looks more like City of Industry than crunchy, green Portlandia. I’ve waited here, bemasked, a couple of times over the last few months for fruited sours and pancake batter stouts, as though by sheer osmosis I could dampen the anxiety.

A few of the bars and restaurants around the city lucky enough not to be located in the riotscape of downtown have transformed into full-service outdoor operations. One is called Kachka Alfresca, run by the team at Kachka, Portland’s well-documented and decorated Russian food and vodka joint. Here you can get Soviet-era riffs on the Blue Hawaii (“The Siberian Maldives,” named for an ecological disaster lake that glows toxic blue) and pelmeni dumplings dressed up like Totino’s pizza rolls. It is a nostalgia daydream evocative of simpler, no less fucked-up times, with tables spaced six feet apart and orders placed by phone. I’ve been three times already.

I live off a little street full of bars in the city’s leafy Southeast neighborhood, but most of those bars are closed; one, a German beer spot called Stammtisch, home to refreshing pilsners and kölsches served in regional Teutonic glassware, reopened very briefly in late June, only to shut again due to problems with the plumbing. Bar problems are bar problems even here in 2020, but for a brief, wonderful week I could walk there from my home, drink a .3 liter of schwarzbier and indulge in an Export “A” Extra Light. I quit smoking cold turkey five and a half years ago but these days I’m indulging in tobacco again because I need to, and I want to, and I’m out of proverbial fucks to give.

I want to say something positive about how we Portlanders are transforming our homes and their rare, coveted backyards into increasingly accommodating drinking parlors for friends and family, but even this trend—street drinking in small groups—has melted away with the summer heat.

We don’t have takeaway cocktails here—the Oregon Liquor Control Commission has bafflingly continued to restrict them—which is devastating both for drinkers and drinkmakers. I’ve been drinking through the gins of the world at home—from Ki No Bi of Japan to Gin Mare of Spain. It’s fun and is about as much travel as I can expect right now.

It’s important for me to say that, on most days, in most neighborhoods, on most blocks, there is not an ever-present sense of creeping fascistic dread in Portland. But there are areas you can’t go to at night right now, unless you are going there to fight, to stand together against the fire as the evening finally cools.

Over the weekend I spent a very pleasant hour talking with a friend of mine in front of his coffee bar, Deadstock Coffee, in the Old Town neighborhood of Portland. Folks wear masks 100 percent of the time in public here, which is good. We do the elbow bump now, not the handshake, which is fine. The coffee still tastes nice, and you need an iced tea with it, because it’s hot here, and there’s no air conditioning. Portland in summer 2020 may darkly portend a future vision of America beset by shock troops; it is also the same as it ever was, a stumpy little town of drinkers and drinkmakers dancing together in the rhythm of the season cycle.

Right now, the heat is creeping. The only relief we’ve been promised is in the passing of time, the coming of November—and even then, in this summer? In this swelter? Nothing feels guaranteed.

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Tagged: Portland, postcards