Saturday, December 17, 2011

Nostalgia Will Save the World, Part One

crossing the river 1912

My uncle Miles once told me about coming through Portland the spring of 1912. According to Miles my grandfather, who was a Baptist preacher, had been "run out" of Condon by the two old "hardshell spinsters" that ruled the local church. They were on their weary way back to my grandmother Mae's birthplace, the green, moist valleys of Tillamook. They crossed the Willamette river at dusk on the Morrison Street bridge, and then, a very odd thing happened. My grandfather, who was as tight fisted as a Scottish miser, headed the team of horses over to the newly built and grandiose Multnomah Hotel.  That he would stay in a place of sin, tango dancing, drinking, and other highfalutin vices was nothing short of  a miracle; but it was a miracle of love for his frail and sickly wife who, at the time, was nursing my newly born father.

Then the waterfront would have been a long series of dilapidated wharfs where a great variety of vessels would have been docked. The majority of these would have been small (by today's standards) steamships, but there would have also been groupings of masts up and down the river from the schooners, barks, jammers, and wind powered vessles of all sorts still in use at that time. I can actually vividly image the scene, as if some sort of genetic memory was passed on to me by my father. I can imagine the pedestrians, the slow puttering motor cars (the speed limit on the bridges was the speed of a brisk walk), the gas and electric lights reflecting in the waters. The sounds would have been of horses hoofs, shouting bargemen, motor cars, and a wafting of music from the houseboats beneath. The air would have been filled with the smell of the river sewage mixed with chokingly thick coal smoke, and wood smoke, and the smell of cabbage cooking somewhere nearby. 

 Now, in this 21st century, there are no smells and nothing is heard but the swishing of cars as they speed across an empty river, and over an empty waterfront into a modern city where life is carried out in brilliantly lighted rooms on shiny screens connected to small, flat typewriters.