The Weird and Wonderful in Portland, OR

Portland's favorite slogan. Photo by Ed Wetschler
By Ed Wetschler

You see "Keep Portland Weird" on bumper stickers, souvenirs, and even walls in this Pacific Northwest city. You also see the city's offbeat characters spoofed on the popular IFC sketch comedy show Portlandia. So I took a walk on the wild side to see if the city really is as odd as they say.

Several walks, in fact, one of which was with a guide for Portland Walking Tours (www.portlandwalkingtours.com) who claimed his name is Herb Spice. A propitious start. On an uncommonly hot, sunny day in May, Spice made an acute observation about Portland: "You can tell who the locals are on a day like this. The tourists walk down the middle of the sidewalks, while the locals cringe up against the walls, appalled by all this sun."
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Voodoo Doughnuts' speakeasy-style take-out window. Photo by Ed Wetschler
Our guide treated us to carbs at Voodoo Doughnut, which now has four locations. By Portland standards, that makes it almost as a chain. Voodoo bakes seriously weird doughnuts, such as the Voodoo Doll (featuring a pretzel pin and filled with raspberry "blood"), Captain My Captain (with Cap'n Crunch cereal), Old Dirty Bastard, and, oddly, doughnuts for vegans. My fave here is the Bacon Maple doughnut, a fortuitous blend of carbs, meat, fat, salt, and sugar with overtones of, like, bacon and maple.
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Portland's Chinatown: no Chinese. Photo by Ed Wetschler
The gateway to Portland's downtown Chinatown is said to be second in size only to one in Taipei. But unlike other West Coast cities, Portland has a surprisingly small Asian population. In fact, said Spice, "Virtually no Chinese live here." That may be why all the tea servers I saw at the Portland Classical Chinese Garden were white kids wearing Chinese tunics.

Photo Caption: Portland's Chinese-free Chinatown
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Solar-powered trash compactors in one of America's rainiest cities. Photo by Ed Wetschler

But this being Portland, there are even stranger things:

Solar-powered parking meters and trash compactors. Note to mayor: That's an admirably green idea, but have you noticed that Portland is overcast about 300 days a year?

Jake's Famous Crawfish, once a working man's bar. And I do mean working man: This 19th-century watering hole still has a urine trough around the bar so men could drink for hours without having to stagger to the men's room. Life was good.

Photo Caption: Solar-powered trash compactors in one of America's rainiest cities.
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Michael Graves' Portland Building, generally considered the ugliest building in the world. Photo by Ed Wetschler

The postmodern Portland Public Service Building. Designed by Michael Graves, it's been called the ugliest building on earth. Given its clashing motifs, colors, and materials, I'd call that a fair assessment.

Mill Ends Park, another Portland superlative. This two-foot (.61 meter) circle of plants on SW Naito Parkway is the smallest official park on earth. And this being Portland, it's nicely landscaped.

Photo Caption: Michael Graves' Portland Building, generally considered the ugliest building in the world.
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Portland's Zoobomb Pyle. Once a week, the sculpture is taken apart so bicyclists can bomb down Burnside. Photo by Ed Wetschler

The Little Bikes, Big Fun sculpture at Burnside and SW 13th. Much of it consists of mini-bicycles chained to a pole. Young men who are way too big for those bikes use them to "bomb" down Burnside from the zoo; ergo the bumper sticker, "Bomb the Zoo, not Iraq."

The annual Naked Bike Ride. Last year 3,500 unclothed bicyclists participated. That's an awful lot of coffee-drinking naked Democrats.

The annual No Pants on MAX Ride. This public transit happening is more dignified than the bike ride because most participants wear underpants. Some locals call it the Boxer Rebellion.

Photo Caption: Portland's Zoobomb Pyle. Once a week, the sculpture is taken apart so bicyclists can bomb down Burnside.
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The 24-Hour Church of Elvis. Photo by Ed Wetschler
Despite its stripped-down rides and other oddities, Portland would not be as truly weird as it is without its quirky museums. The Velveteria is gone, yet the weirdness lives on.

Portland's Hat Museum displays headwear from a huge collection in a century-old milliner's home. "America's largest hat museum" (but how many others can there be?) promises to impart "information that will definitely go to your head."

Portland has a 3D museum, too. The 3D Center of Art and Photography displays everything from antique stereocards to cutting-edge computer-generated images. How much of it really is "art," I'm not sure, but it is fun, especially the "improved," 3D version of Botticelli's Birth of Venus. The Bathtub Art Museum occupies a little house on stilts in a backyard. Terrific not just for bathtub fans, but for those of us who love old postcards.

Finally, the last remnant of "Artist to the Stars" Stephanie G. Pierce's coin-operated 24-Hour Church of Elvis, a storefront on N.W. Couch Street, still remains embedded in the wall of a present-day architecture firm. Keep Portland weird? That was easy.

Photo Caption: The 24-Hour Church of Elvis. Priestess/artist Stephanie G. Pierce conducts weddings, too.
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