When coffee was good for my heart

I don’t remember the first time I visited Powell’s, that enormous City of Books in downtown Portland. The most memorable visit happened a couple of years later, in early 2008, when my friend Jenny lived in the Portland suburbs and offered me a couch to sleep on. I was still living in Arcata, California, and growing increasingly restless. My plans for moving to Portland had nearly solidified by that time, but I wanted to have one more look at the city. It was like I’d seen some mildly impractical item at the store that I really wanted, and kept talking myself out of buying it even as I returned to admire it over and over again.

Almost on a whim I decided to take a weekend trip there. Since I was already car-free by that time, and couldn’t fly anywhere from Arcata without paying through the nose, I turned to the ridesharing board on Craigslist and accepted a ride from a girl named Nathalie. When I told my mom about the plan she asked, “Do you trust this person?” Oddly fearless, I didn’t hesitate to answer “Yes!” And my instincts turned out to be right, although they were based on nothing but a few emails.

Nathalie was a safe driver and a sweet, earthy girl who made fun conversation. The other person she’d picked up from the Craigslist ad, a bearded tree-sitter named Nick, watched us laughing together and predicted that we’d become pen pals after our adventure was over. Actually she and I never talked again, but the trip was enjoyable and surprisingly un-awkward, considering that we were all strangers. It was also the cheapest 800-mile journey (round-trip) I could have ever hoped to take: in the end, I paid about 35 dollars in gas for Nathalie’s old Corolla.

We all had different plans for the weekend in Portland, so we decided to meet at Powell’s for the ride back on Monday morning. It was the one downtown landmark we were all familiar with, if only by its reputation as “The Pacific Northwest’s Mightiest Bookstore.” As for me, I’d been there several times since I first visited Portland and already had a T-shirt with the Mighty slogan printed on it. I’d been properly awed by the vast book inventory, but the thing I was most drawn to was the coffee shop tucked into the store’s southwest corner. Although I relished the idea of getting lost in the aisles of the Red Room (travel books) or the Rose Room (science books), what I really craved was to be a fixture in that coffee shop.

It was a large, bright room with heavy tables and chairs crowded together, and narrow counters running along windows overlooking busy Burnside Street and Eleventh Avenue. At the fringe there were always people standing, holding books and coffee, looking for open seats. The cast of characters was constantly rotating, which intrigued me. I wanted to sit down with a cup of coffee at one of those grand tables with people I didn’t know, just to feel like I was in the presence of possibility. I wanted to make a nerdy impression on some nerdy, cute guy sitting alone—alluring him with my glasses and my quiet charm and my choice of (maybe) intelligent reading material.

I could have had a similar experience at any coffee shop. Why did this one captivate me so much? It had everything to do with timing. First, it’s quite possible that this was the only coffee shop (besides Starbucks) I’d been to in Portland thus far. But more importantly, it sat squarely amidst all that I knew to be true about city life: grungy panhandlers, strange public art, littered sidewalks, congested traffic, heavy buses, and rumbling streetcars with passengers hanging onto overhead straps. This was, I figured, where all the Action happened. Life was whirring all around, at a higher pitch than what I was used to in Humboldt. I wanted to feel it vibrate through my body; I needed a jolt at that time in my life.

So I returned there on Monday morning, wanting to soak up some more city ambiance before catching my ride back to California. I had gotten downtown by light rail all the way from Beaverton, where Jenny had dropped me off at the train station on her way to work. I happily pretended to be a commuter during the 45-minute ride. When I found my way to Powell’s, using a Walking Map of Downtown Portland, the store hadn’t even opened yet. I stood outside on the still-quiet sidewalk and was gradually joined by a small crowd of book lovers, who slowly pressed in toward the store’s front entrance as 9:00 approached. If not for the small suitcase I carried, I might have blended in as one of them—whoever “they” really were.

I had an hour to kill before I was to meet Nathalie at the front of the store. As soon as I got inside, I quickly gathered a few books from the sale tables and took them to the coffee shop. Sitting with my elbows on the counter at one of those floor-to-ceiling windows, I sipped coffee from a sky-blue mug and watched the passing flow of cars and pedestrians. I only half-read the books in front of me as I became absorbed in the soft white noise of a downtown morning.

My heart had decided. During the ride back to California, I talked with uncontrolled glee about my plans to move to Portland. The next time I made that 400-mile trip north, I wouldn’t be looking back.

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5 Comments

  1. Nikki

     /  April 15, 2010

    Kristen, you are a very, very talented writer. I love reading your blog!

  2. kristenpdx

     /  April 15, 2010

    Thank you! That’s a great compliment coming from a talented writer such as yourself.

  3. Anonymous

     /  April 15, 2010

    I remember that trip! And you describe Powell’s so perfectly, it makes me want to go there right now and sip a hot chocolate and read an offbeat novel!

  4. Jenny

     /  April 15, 2010

    Oh, that anonymous comment was me! Haha, forgot this isn’t like LJ :-p

  5. kristenpdx

     /  April 15, 2010

    I knew it was you! 🙂

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