Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Portland and The Happy Marriage

 As we drive through downtown Portland in Natasha's little black car, I am anxious to know where she is taking me.  She is being mysterious, and says that the place that we are going is Classic Portland.  It could be anything, and as we are near so many Perfectly Portland Places, I am really in the dark.  Natasha and I met at work and became friends through a series of strange coincidences and circumstances which combined to create the perfect friend cocktail.  I consider her and her husband Boris two of my closest friends.  We pull into a parking space on SW Washington between 12th and 13th, and I start to get an inkling.  Then, as we head toward Jake's Famous Crawfish, I feel like I might be in for a Portland experience which frankly, I have never had before.  As we walk through the darkened doorway, Natasha looks at me over her shoulder and says, "Boris is meeting us here."

Jake's Famous Crawfish is what some people might call a "Portland Tradition".  Located on the corner of SW 12th and Stark, it was established in 1892 by Jacob Lewis Freiman.  It was purchased in the 1970's by McCormick and Schmick, and has lost none of its Portland Quirkiness nor its 70s interior.  Many of the waiters at Jake's have made a good living here, owning homes and raising families on the steady income that waiting on tables at Jake's provides.  In fact, several of the waiters at Jake's look as if they could have grown children.  As everyone knows, the mark of a classy restaurant is a waitstaff that is, on average, above the age of forty and understand that they have to behave as if they give a shit.  I am happy to say that our waiter looks as if he is very close to retirement age, and while he does take a while to retrieve some of the items we ask for/leaves the table before we can ask for them, all in all, he adds greatly to the charm of the place.  Of course, every time he is at our table, my social scientist's mind can't help but wonder if he was hot when he was younger.

Boris and Natasha are not their real names, but they like the idea of pseudonyms, and I thought these were appropriately descriptive.  Natasha and I walk through the crowded bar, which, though flooded with light, is quite dark due to the dark woodwork of which everything from the bar to the tables to the shelves is made.  We walk through one dining room and into the next, and are seated at a booth next to the windows. Here the woodwork is lighter with more of an oakie hue to it.  I pick up the long paper menu and find an acronym on its cover.  Acronyms are one of my most favorite things in the whole world.  This acronym turns out to be "Jakes" spelled out down the front of the menu with the first letter beginning each paragraph telling a little bit of the Jakes story.  They have me until "E", as the paragraph begins with, "Exhilarating, mouth-watering and comfortable, Jake's continues to attract a special crowd."  Um, yeah.  A crowd that bursts out laughing when they find out that the restaurant is both "exhilarating" and "comfortable", and that they themselves are considered "special".   Not to mention that strictly speaking, unless one is expected to eat the restaurant, it is probably ill-advised to refer to it as "mouth-watering".  Yup.  Still quirky.

Boris joins us shortly thereafter and Natasha orders the craw fish.  As I sit on the bench across from them, they say hello to each other, and look at me, smiling broadly.  Then, in a sweet and soft narrative voice,  Natasha tells me why Jake's is one of their very favorite Portland Places.

"Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Boris and I moved to Oregon to escape some troubles that we had discovered in our marriage."   Boris chimes in, doing a good impersonation of a Koppelian deadpan, "Of course, we brought them with us."  Natasha smiles at him and continues, "We were really struggling as a couple, we were having bitter, bitter arguments and fights, and we couldn't seem to talk to each other because when we were home, we would just end up in a big screaming match.  I told him that it just wasn't cuttin' it for me, I was really unhappy, totally lonely, he was working all the time, and we didn't really have time to get things taken care of.  I told him that we had to get couples counseling, and you said......"  As Natasha ends here she looks to Boris to continue, "well, I said no.  I'd seen people get counseling and it didn't seem to be that it worked out very well.  The counselor often became a third element that people played off each other and had politics with, and I felt like we needed to learn how to talk to each other.  In my opinion, we wouldn't do that so well with a counselor.  Plus I sort of mistrust others, inherently.  So, I said, no, I wouldn't do couples counseling, but what I would do, is I would go to Jake's and talk to her about our relationship any time, any where."  Natasha offers, "Well, not anywhere," and they both chuckle.  "We knew that this was a really fine place,"  Boris adds, "and we knew that we would probably restrain ourselves from yelling at each other here."  

Natasha continued, "I wasn't really happy about that, because, well, I sorta do trust other people, but he said, you should set the agenda, and if we need to, we can reset, but the idea is that when we are out to dinner, and we're dressed up, we're eating good food, we're in a pleasant, lively environment, we're in a place that we are proud to be in, and we will bring our best selves.  And we did.  Every Wednesday night, for two and a half years, we came here, and talked through a lot of our relationship issues.  That's why this is our favorite place.  

I ask if they come back to celebrate this place in their lives, and Boris answers, cheerfully, "Only when we're pissed off at each other."  Natasha bursts out laughing.  Boris joins her.  "We bring people here all the time," Natasha offers, "but we don't have any kind of attachment to all the work that happened here, it's actually, to me, the epitome of Portland Places.  Boris nods in agreement, and Natasha continues.  "We have been married 32 years.  We moved here in 1981.  We started coming to Jake's at the end of 1982. There's a lot of history here, it's a good vibe. "  Boris adds, "That was the transition from relationship 1.0 to relationship 2.0.  I'd say we're on about 3.0 now."  Natasha interjects, "oh, I would say that we are on relationship 5.0.  We've transitioned through many different marriages."  Boris agrees, then breaks it down.  "The first marriage was when we met.  Probably the next big change was when we had kids.  We had really different ideas about kids, ie. she wanted them and I didn't."  Natasha leans toward me a bit, eyebrows arched, and intimates, "although, he lied about that.  He made it appear that he wanted children."  Boris continues, "so, that was 1.0 and 2.0.  Our third was when we worked through that, and became aligned about children and family, and I'd say the fourth was when the kids moved out and we started a life with the kids on their own and us together."  Natasha adds, "adult enjoyment."  They both agree on this point, and Boris reaches for his phone to pick up a call from one of their friends about their up and coming trip to the Oregon Country Faire.  The craw fish arrive, Natasha shows me how to eat them, and we dig in.

As I inhale my craw fish, between gulps I ask if they ever plan to leave the Portland area.  Natasha answers in the negative, and then asks Boris what his plans are.  "Well, no," he says to her,  "because you don't, but I have, as you know, agitated for leaving on several occasions.  I ask him where he would want to go, adding sarcastically, "I mean, where else is there?"  Boris responds, "There have been a couple of different occasions where I could have had a job overseas, it just never fit into the rhythm of our lives.  It could have been fun, but during some of those times, the kids were too young and ensconced in the community, and in others, Natasha was ensconced in her career.  So neither of those really worked out."   Natasha interjects, "well, actually, it is not that the kids were too young, if the kids were young, I would have done it in a heartbeat.  It's that they were in high school."  Boris continues, "yeah, that's true.  There was another time that I made a big push.  It actually had started because we had fallen into this habit, socially, where we would get together with other liberal friends, and there would be endless bitching about the government and the United States, and how it all works, and you know, I'm kind of pragmatic, I guess, in that, if you're not going to do anything about it, let's not waste time talking about it.  So, after some of that, I basically said, fine, you know, it all sucks, let's just move.  It's not like Canadians are innately better, but they're not as powerful and they can't do as many screwed up things as the United States could do.  I actually went and found a job up in Canada, I was all ready.  But, you know, Natasha didn't want to move, and for good reasons.  It came down to the amount of relationships we have."  Natasha interjects, "I feel pretty settled here.  There are some nice aspects to this town, and we don't feel like freaks here."  

After some time, a couple passes the booth, and Natasha asks, "didn't they look familiar?"  I think, shrug my shoulders, and comment, "doesn't everybody kinda look familiar?"  To which she replies, "that's why we come here, because we all look vaguely familiar to one another."  I have to agree with her, and reply, "Portlanders have a look....certain types of Portlanders."    Boris offers, "that's because we're racially homogeneous."  Natasha agrees, and says, "yes, we're all sort of healthy looking, but not super attractive.  There's a few people here who are just really pretty and they really stand out.  In Los Angeles it's a different story.  Everybody is super attractive.  That's why we had to leave San Diego, we weren't pretty enough."  I always laugh a lot when I hang out with Boris and Natasha.

For as long as the couple has lived here, they have seen surprisingly little of the state's more amazing scenic areas.  Natasha explained: "We never drive anywhere, all we ever do on vacations is go out on the boat.    We've never been to Joseph, we've never been to Pendelton, we've never been to Crater Lake.  Never to Crater-fucking-Lake.  That's bad.  32 years we've lived here.  They are hoping to go to all these places, and more, very soon, as Boris has a bit of time off ahead of him.  Originally, Boris had planned a lengthy boat tour, until important and functional things started falling off of it.

As Boris goes to the bathroom, Natasha sums up the place and what it means to them as a couple.  "I think the best part of the whole story is, that after 32 years, we really really have fun together.  We really like each other.  We are still learning things from each other.  I mean, it's not all sweetness and light, trust me on that one, but, it's a partnership of equals.  I mean, it's great.  Boris took it seriously, and I have to say, if he hadn't done that, it would not have worked.  This place was a bastion of calm in a sea of controversy.  When we came here, the conversations actually did become meaningful.  They started to take on some real weight, and helped us to shift some behaviors, behaviors both of us had to shift.    

Boris comes back from the bathroom, and upon his return, I get up to go myself.  As I walk through the restaurant, I notice the proliferation of older people and business men which fill the tables.  I also notice the oil paintings adorning the walls.  In total, the room is really quite stately, bordering elegant.  A very distant border, but a border nonetheless.  I return to the table to find Boris and Natasha's  "best selves" cuddling.  Watching them blissfully and publicly cuddle, it occurs to me that menu had it right.  Exhilarating, comfortable, and yes, maybe even a bit mouth-watering, depending on your point of view.

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