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January 13, 2014

Portland Journal

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In an effort to prolong the aura of my recent thirty hours in Portland I am writing up notes made over a bowl of beef stew in the Heathman Hotel restaurant.  My former piano student Anna got me a rate at the hotel “where service is still an art” through her work at Rubicon International with the condition that I leave an autographed copy of my book 99 Girdles on the Wall in their famous library.

I took the train.  Four lovely hours to think, to read and write, and to gaze out the window at a ghostly gray January day.  Before I learned to paint I hadn’t the eye to distinguish the gray of Puget Sound’s water from the gray of the mountains, the sky and the clouds.  There was a subtle palette out there, which set off the stark black etches of bare trees and along with the rhythm of the train, invited meditation and reflection.

At Vancouver, thirty eight kids from Camas climbed aboard and filled up the car behind me.  They were on their way to Sacramento with their projects for a Brainy Kids Convention: one boy had a trebuchet; a girl had a presentation about genetics.  Within thirty seconds the chaperons were making sure their charges weren’t bothering me.

I took a taxi to the Heathman Hotel where the amenities in my room were tastefully hidden in black boxes that blended in with the furniture.  It took more than the usual amount of exploring to locate all the free stuff in back of the mini-bar and the four dollar KitKats.  I explored the hotel and went for a walk before Anna got off work and whisked us both up Alder Street to the Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library.  Yes, that is the spelling.  You can’t imagine the venom generated over the controversy around how the word is spelled.  The Scottish and the Canadian spelling is whisky.  In Ireland and the U.S., it’s whiskey.  Here’s a comment from Britain on a NY Times blog post about whiskey:

“I cannot pass over the unforgivable use by a serious writer on wines and spirits of ‘whiskey’ to refer to Scotch whisky. I am afraid I found the constant misspelling of the product made your article quite unreadable. . .”

Solomon would have spelled it like the Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library has chosen to.

We entered a dark passageway and climbed some stairs to the faint sounds of Louis Armstrong.  The music exploded when the door to the library opened onto a high-ceilinged roomed lined with bottles that sparkled and gleamed in communion with the huge chandelier.  Three or four ladders on wheels rolled back and forth in aide of procuring bottles. I was nearly sick right there. Equipped with diaries to document our exploration of whisky, we sank into two deep leather armchairs.  

After long deliberation of the book-length menu, and with some tutelage from Anna and Tom, the curator, I chose three “half-pours:” Laphroaig (Triple-Wood was my only note, I don’t remember the age or anything else a connoisseur would want to know), Bruichladdich (Peat Project), and Bunnahabhain (12 year).  I tasted them in that order but if I had it to do again, I would have reversed it, and ended with Laphroaig because its finish lasts about three days. 

Anna had Glendronach (12 year, sherry cask) and Talisker (10 year) and went wild over the Talisker.  When Anna was 14 her family made a tour of the Isle of Skye where Talisker is distilled.  There she first tasted whisky, which she predictably thought was about the nastiest stuff imaginable.  What a different ten years make!

Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library

Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library

I stayed up past my bedtime, got over-stimulated, and was not able to fall asleep til about three in the morning.  Anna collected me at 10:00 for coffee at a café called Case Study.  We explored Martinottis’ Café and Delicatessen, one of the few places in Portland Anna does not personally know.  Charming and European, it also had the look of having not slept all night but in its case, it was due to the calm after the Christmas storms.

We split up, Anna to her tutoring commitment and me to continue being a tourist.  I got caught in a downpour which dis-oriented me.  I kept walking and thinking I would get somewhere warm and dry. But when the rain stopped, I found myself in a park that looked both familiar and a place out of a different world.  I stood dripping until I realized it was both.  “It’s that place,” I thought. “That place where I–.”  But couldn’t think what that place was. Finally it focused.  Sheet Music Service of Portland used to be here.  I had made a pilgrim’s detour on the way to the Oregon coast in the 1980s just to visit the store that was, along with Johnson and West in Seattle, a holy site for the classical musician. 

I ended up back at the Heathman with two bottles of Scotch–one for me and one for Gwen, my neighbor who knows something about just about everything– from the Tenth Avenue Liquor Store,conveniently located around the corner so it could be my last stop before catching the train.  But first there was the ordeal of wrapping the bottles up in my pajamas in the luggage room of the hotel, and then repacking my entire bag in the ladies’ lounge where I wasn’t under surveillance by the hotel staff.

Anna met me at the train station to say goodbye. I feel so lucky to have had a student who grew up to be not only an articulate, reflective, funny, and beautiful woman, but she also has become my friend.  There’s an affinity I didn’t see coming when she was a shy twelve year old sitting at my piano and I was in the middle of the psycho-analysis that would finally bring peace and clarity to my life. This weekend as I listened to her and watched her, I felt nostalgia for the enthusiasm and energy of being young. The complexity of Anna’s life is layered with primary colors, not with values of grey and the black etches of trees seen from a train window.

It was lovely to be in the company of primary colors.  And I need to start watching Portlandia.

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