As the punishing heat of the El Nino summer dissipates into a mild early autumn, I’ve been trying to make good on my promise to myself to get out more.
Today I rode a bus down Barbur Blvd. in Portland down to a world food market near the Barbur Transit Center. I’m going to have to go back because they had a lot of the necessary exotic ingredients I might need to recreate some of the recipes in the Forme of Cury (a 14th Century cookbook full of delicious recipes).
I met a Londoner there… how I love meeting Britons anywhere in the world! There’s always an instant rapport when we get talking about the comforts of home. He gave me some good tips on places to check out including a chippy up North Portland and a British food store and tea room down in Lake Oswego called Lady Di’s.
So, grinning ear to ear, I hopped on the bus and went the opposite way, back through City Center and down Sandy.
The stretch of Sandy Blvd. I was on is a rather unusual place. There’s a lot of mid-century architecture; it must have been heavily developed from about 1930 to 1970. There are novelty buildings shaped like jugs of rum and persian Palaces (and there used to be a now-infamous chicken place which is now an unassuming rib joint), there are art deco theaters and offices, and there’s a jet age Pepsi bottling plant.
Among (and sometimes inside) these relics of the mid-century, sprouting almost cthonically like the wilted flowers of yesteryear bearing fruits of chintz, are numerous vintage shops selling pretty much every item of everyday life from the last 100 years or so. They cater not only to collectors, but to hipsters who appropriate items for re-use as decor and to old souls who actually use these items the way they were intended (and there are many in this city).
I was looking for things that jog memories, as I often do, or things that might have some sentimental value related to past lives. I was also looking for a suitable Edwardian tin to become the basis for a sort of portable shrine to John I’ve been wanting to put together for a while now.
As “Sleepwalk” by Santo and Johnny played on the PA, a friendly clerk in a pretty black Chinese dress asked if there was anything she could help me find.
Thinking quick, I gave her a perfectly plausible story about a thrice-great uncle who had died in the war and an unwise great aunt who had thrown out his belongings, which is utter bullshit. I then told her that I wanted to create a simulacrum of the sort of thing he might have kept in his dresser had he survived the war as a sort of shrine in his memory, which is entirely true.
She replied that she did get Edwardian tins in every now and then and I left my contact info just in case.
I wandered a bit more, going into a couple more stores, mostly lost in my own thoughts as I picked through the detritus of eras I vaguely remember, lost in the inscrutable mess of past life memories and present life ruminations.
I wonder sometimes if the bits and pieces of John Harris’ life weren’t sold off in shops like this. Photographs without context bundled into bins and sold piecemeal, letters from the front, his old phonograph un-played since the summer of 1914, memorial placards distributed among his friends and family back home, all of them behind glass and priced to sell. It’s a desolate thought, but these are exactly the sort of items from other people’s lives I kept seeing.
All the while I kept feeling the strangest yearning to be a straw hat-wearing dandy. I pictured myself in those days as a handsome man with a straight back and a trim figure, enjoying all the things a young Victorian or Edwardian dandy might enjoy, and I cringed to think of myself, bloated and craven and hovering between male and female. For a while I thought “what the hell happened to me?” and questioned if I should have transitioned at all.
But then I realized that these weren’t my aspirations at all, they were John’s. In every one of them I was dreaming of a time that doesn’t exist any more. And when I thought of forswearing my gender-bending ways and becoming an anachronistic dandy in the 21st century, it began to feel silly and wrong; that just isn’t me at all.
At times I feel that fragments of my earlier selves compete with who I am now, and have to be reminded that the past is gone. Maybe vintage shops aren’t the best place for someone like me after all.