Portland, Straight Up

by Cliff Gallant
by Cliff Gallant

Blizzard Juno. How perverse is that? Naming snowstorms. We are a lonely people with deep pockets of emptiness in our lives.

I spent part of the afternoon sitting and looking out the window of a buddy’s top-floor apartment, watching downtown Portland fill up with snow. Felt something like when I was kid out in the country kneeling at a window with my nose pressed against the glass on a snowy day, watching the front yard fill up. A slight difference here, though, was that my buddy’s window was cracked open enough for me to hold a joint out between tokes. He gets prescribed medical marijuana, but he’s not supposed to smoke in his apartment. Marijuana is legal with the city, but not with the feds, which is all that counts in this case because his apartment building is federally subsidized. The owners allow dope and the next thing they know black helicopters are landing on the roof.

Bizarre. He got the stuff legally, it’s medically prescribed, but one whiff of it coming from where he lives and he’s gone. Normally he adjourns to a nearby alternative venue to take his medicine, but today there are complications. The snow’s no biggie, but he has to stay in bed for a while because of a fall he took on the ice, and he can’t reach the window, so I got the call to assist. I like the guy. He’s a little whacktoid, no question, but it’s nice to be needed. Better to be wanted, but I’ll take what I can get.

He talks a lot, and loudly, especially when he’s stoned, but he’s one of those people that you can choose not to listen to. He’s good about it, unlike some others like him who check to see if you’re paying attention. That’s one of the reasons we’re buddies. Anyway, I tuned him out, as I often do, and got to gazing out the window and musing about blizzards and such. This one was ragin’, no question. There’s nothing like an old-fashioned blizzard. They definitely take over, and they’re great equalizers. Everyone’s backyard gets filled in pretty much the same way.

I read somewhere that Portland lies within a thin climatic belt circling the earth, wherein the four seasons occur most distinctly and the widest range of climatic events take place. We get it all: blizzards, hurricanes, torrential downpours, and sweltering summer days. The Time and Temp sign might read 103 degrees in August, then –3 in February.

People get especially excited about blizzards, though. Something’s up, something’s happening.

“That stuff’s comin’ down!” a truck driver says as he comes through the door at Becky’s, stomping his boots. “Yeah, I hear she’s mountin’ up!” a guy standing at the register paying his bill says. “They say there’s another one right behind this one!” a lady coming back from the restroom informs everyone.

“Oh, this snow is soooo cooool!” a young woman gasps as she bursts into Colucci’s, on Munjoy Hill, unraveling her scarf. “Yeah! But you don’t have to shovel the stuff!” growls a tired-looking guy over at the coffee counter.

Downtown has never looked better. Pandora LaCasse’s multi-colored light installations up and down the street are always grand, but in a white-out they’re something beyond extraordinary. The falling snow serves as a canvas, and without the traffic and people milling about, the installations really stand out. I’ve always said that cities would be better off without all the cars and people, and this proves it.

The street was pretty much deserted, but from my vantage point I could see a cross-country skier standing up straight on her skies with a rope tied around her waist, being pulled along by her dog. Let’s hope the dog was enjoying it, but I doubt it.

A little later a guy with a humongous black trash bag full of returnables slung over his shoulder appeared and I watched him trudge through the snow drifts, obviously heading for Paul’s Food Center. Before too long he reappeared — retracing his footsteps, already disappearing in the snow — carrying a suitcase of beer and bounding, rather than trudging. I got the impression that there was a certain someone waiting for him at the end of his little trek across the frozen tundra.

That’s generally thought to be the best thing about blizzards: romance. It’s in the air. This town is a good size for walking, and if two people really want to get together, one of them is going to be able to make it through the snow and the wind.

Then there are the unexpected encounters. People get hopelessly thrown off course and might, per chance, end up like two storm-tossed birds sheltering on the same limb. Things happen that might not otherwise. “We should be able to make it to my place OK, and I think I could come up with a couple rum-and-Cokes if you’re interested,” says one. “Ah, no, thanks anyway,” replies the other. “I mean — OK, I guess.”

Maybe it’s because I’m a romantic, or maybe it’s because I feel most comfortable in crisis situations, but I perk up when the weather guy on TV is wearing a sweater.

“Hey!” my buddy yelled, startling me out of my reverie. “Look over at the roof of the building on the corner! What do you see?”

“A big number six. It’s the sign for Channel 6 TV. It’s their building.”

“Just one six? Hell no! There’s really three sixes there: 666! The mark of the beast, hanging over Portland! Keep staring at that six and you’ll see what I mean!”

I suddenly remembered what he once told me about why he gets the medical marijuana.

“That’s why we get all these friggin’ blizzards and hurricanes and everything else!” he shouted. “It ain’t normal! Most places don’t get all that weird shit! What about that friggin’ ice storm we had?”

“OK, gotta go” I said.

Raging blizzard outside or not, it’s not a good idea to hang around the cuckoo’s nest for too long.