The concept of neglected, inner-city core can be difficult to appreciate. It is especially difficult to grasp of late, in this an urban center, overrun by out of town investment, and the subsequent surge in shiny, high-end developments.
On almost every block along my short walk straddling Portland’s northeast and southeast quadrants, I am confronted with images of transition: once cheap apartments leveled, billboards of conceptual sketches depicting the structure to come, rising from the rubble; a de-paving project has cleared an entire parking lot; a once familiar landmark, transformed into another hip, summer hangout. Just two blocks from my destination, the box office for the sweaty basement club where I cut my music teeth now serves fusion styled tapas and homemade red sangria in quart-sized Mason jars. I formed and lost friendships down there, somewhere below the sidewalk. All the current activity now occurs above ground. The venue, two crooked flights down, has been boarded up for storage; I have only heard this as a rumor though. The true fate of the site of those halcyon days is too heartbreaking to tempt, let alone encounter face-to-face. So instead, I duck my head and cross over the boulevard.
Our conversation seems to veer off course on this Saturday night. Yes, your team has a shortstop problem, and some album isn’t quite what I had expected. Now, however, we dissect the cost-benefit analysis of an hour’s commute down the valley. Another new job has come and gone with valuable, career growing lessons gleaned from the scorch of a missed opportunity. We arrive at a long pause. Perhaps this is precisely what we’re supposed to discuss.
What period of life this is, I don’t know, except to call it “now”. Now we arrive at an awkward framework, one where I feel it’s always the bottom of the next pint where we’ll finally solve and move on from those enigmas that have long defined us: David Foster Wallace, what to do about the designated hitter, and which Yo La Tengo album is truly best (my vote is I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One). In the ever-evolving movie of my life, I ponder whether this is a scene that takes place in black and white, or if this falls after the moment when the rich Technicolor begins. Everything remains in motion, but in some ways, nothing ever changes. I recall having a similar thought many years ago as well.
At the bottom of this pint, our monopoly on sidewalk corner table real estate is suddenly usurped. A small, glowering man with long, curly dark hair emerges from a van parked halfway up the block. I didn’t happen to notice when the vehicle parked, but now my eastward view is dominated by a once creamy white, now rusted out husk of American-fashioned steel. The man wears tight, black stretch pants, black Tour Master motorcycle boots and no shirt. Draped over his slim torso is a sleeveless, black denim vest, covered in a patchwork quilt of death metal band patches. The patches appear as bright splotches of orange, red and yellow, thick fluid fonts spelling out band names, Abominator, Faustcoven and Malignant Inception. Two separate yet critical elements strike me as he strolls by and I hear the jangling of keys and clustered metal bracelets: one, this man looks almost exactly like Kirk Hammett from Metallica, and two, he is not a caricature. He is not simply a fan.
Moments later, after we’ve dissected his presence, another man emerges from the same van. In some ways, he is quite the opposite. He is massive, tall and barrel thick from chest down to his surprisingly narrow hips. His cherubic cheeks are aglow with alcohol, skin perfectly smooth, a divine sheen I clearly pick out from a distance. His affect comes off as strong but still boyish and oddly quiet. I’m immediately struck by the impression that this man once modeled for senior picture advertisements in his high school newspaper. He has what I can only describe as that face, only now he dresses in a similar fashion as his friend.
As he passes, our table rises. Perhaps it’s out of awe, his assortment of patches serving their attention grabbing purpose. We cobble together our meager knowledge of death metal, commenting on bands we know and sometimes admire. In the approach of a connoisseur, one risks damning through exposure. His passion is a topic into which we’ve delved only as a survey course.
When he corrects our characterization of these bands as “death metal” I recognize just how far in over our heads we are. Death metal is far too simple. Their brand of morbid desecration is better filed under “death thrash” and he fires off the names three bands I’ve never even heard as reference points. Their names are so patently absurd that he could be fabricating them. I sense the collective urge to smile and sit back down, but we do neither. At this confluence of booze and confusion, a glimpse of purebred passion defines our evening.
As though speaking to three new friends, the man reveals details about their evening plans. The tour van has chugged down the gorge from an upriver swimming spot where they spent two days camping, drinking and screwing with reckless abandon. Their return to civilization is a ceremonial one. Tonight is the last twenty-first birthday for a member of their crew, an occasion they have marked out carefully. They plan on crisscrossing town, hitting on a course of dive bars, those with good jukeboxes, cheap pints, and shuffleboard tables. Their band, Cemetery Lust, will end the night playing at a squat on Germantown Road around midnight, sharing a bill with Spellcaster and Maniak, bands his admiration for is demonstrated in a solemn nod and brush back of his long, shiny black hair.
We marvel. I believe we are hopeful in some way for inclusion, although we each recognize that this conversation is the extent to which any one of us will be involved. As he describes the mayhem anticipated when their whole crew eventually settles on the backstretch of a rhubarb farm in Rainier, I appreciate his tone as one of general life arrival. This group of friends, their drunken summer transience, the hope of selling enough of their sludge addled release Orgies of Abomination to get picked up by a major label, are things he has been seeking for a long time, likely his entire life, at least since that senior picture modeling gig. The vinyl version of their album, he tells us, came out last week. He’s always wanted to grip the sacred, black disc, to hold those sound containing grooves up to the window light. Now, at last, he can show their work off. He has made a bargain. Everyone in the band has. They’ll play hard and often, asking only for open road and enough gas money to connect their network of late night shows. Perhaps cheap beer, endless the only quantity sufficient to defer the question of whether or not this whole tenuous agreement with each other is worthwhile.
His friend returns, scowling at what feels like our lack of dark affiliation. I recognize in these two friends all the conversations that they have yet to have. Their looks are opposite an old man’s, the one we’ve been working so heartily to avert, although we’re learning now that such escape is beyond hopeless. They talk gas money, not yield; crash pads, never mortgage; she’ll do, for tonight at least, but never marriage. Never divorce. What strikes me, as they exchange glances, is an especially delightful irony: although their clothing outwardly celebrates hideous torture, chaos and pain, neither of these guys appears to have questioned their mortality. Not in any significant way, I’m willing to guess. When their knuckles ache, its chords and a fist fight. Give me a cold beer and leave me the hell alone. Arthritis is their father’s boring fucking problem.
We scrawl our names on the bar tabs as the big guy hustles back to their van. Before we can sort out who owes for what, he hands over a copy of the CD in question. Without nary a stitch of self-consciousness, he opens the battered jewel case and guides us to his image, a stout rock-God pose set against a bright array of blood and flames. The band photo is taken in a drab, autumnal light, light that once you reach a certain age, always seems fast approaching. They chose a huge bonfire as backdrop. Each band member either joyfully flips the camera off, flashes devil horns, or simply menaces the viewer a moment before breaking into a fit of chaotic laughter.
His body bounces. He thrills pointing out every detail as his friend talks up the leathery bartender. Perhaps she’ll join in when she’s off at seven. He reads the lyrics to a song entitled “Malefic Masturbation” a title he repeats with a bright, crystalline optimism that I have not felt in too many years.