A few nights ago, my husband and I – both lifelong Seattlites, decided to watch the premiere of Portlandia. The sketch-comedy show, filmed in Portland, features characters based on the city’s archetypal residents, and stars SNL‘s Fred Armisen, and Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney.
We enjoyed it. A lot. Perhaps a little too much.
At one point, I may have clutched his arm, shrieking, “Oh, god, it’s so true!” before erupting in a fit of giggles. In return, he might have laughed so hard, that, at some point, it became soundless. And after it was over, we just may have re-watched the opening vignette, “The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Portland.”
“How … how did they do it?” he marveled, after the show was over.
“I … I don’t know,” I whispered. “But it’s spot-on.”
Very nearly auto-biographical, one might say.
I initially learned about Portlandia while watching reruns of Judd Apatow’s Undeclared series on the International Film Channel (a statement which, even to me, sounds absurd). Almost immediately afterward, I found that nearly all of my friends (in the Pacific Northwest, at least) were talking about it. My friend Katie declared it “a documentary.” Chrissy posted a link to the first episode on my Facebook page, insisting that I watch it, immediately. Skye, a former PacNW girl now going to grad school in Baltimore, quoted it endlessly.
We were all hooked – in my opinion, it’s an inevitable consequence of us having been, at one time or another, Seattlites.
For us, Portland is like our town’s weird little sister. She shows up to family reunions with new piercings and tattoos, and a life-partner of unspecified gender named Nico. Compared to our stodgier siblings in Idaho, Montana, or even Northern California, Seattle is hip and cutting edge. But next to the counter-culture Bohemia of Portland? We’ve become mainstream. We’re the alternative music section in Target.
Portland, on the other hand, is the guy recording his infant’s cries so he can sample it into his new album. Seattle’s clothes may be from the Goodwill, but the labels inside still read “GAP.” In Portland, clothes are not purchased – they are foraged. Home-made dresses are paired with Dr. Marten’s that were discovered in the middle of a field the morning after a concert.
And we can’t help but resent her for it. When the band broke up, and we all got regular jobs (Seattle began an engineer, San Francisco joined an internet start-up), Portland kept busking on the corner. She didn’t just keep it real – she kept it weird. And as the bumper stickers and signs through the city attest, that’s how people would like things to stay.
But for those of us in Seattle, the hope of remaining small and quirky, unbothered in our corner of the Northwest, died along with Kurt. Even he saw it coming on the horizon …
The greats are not the only ones who meet this fate. No one is spared. When I first met my husband, he had blue hair. I had a few more piercings that I do now, and a haircut that can be described as both “badass” and “ill-advised.” On the chart of arm warmer ownership, I was a statistical outlier: I had more than any person would need.
We were miserably broke. I painted in our living room. He spent most days shirtless. We slept in. He grew out his sideburns and skipped work to be with me.
And that’s the dilemma of it all – for years we sit and wait, hoping someone will see our potential, and love us for our weirdness, our originality, our lives spent in the fray. And when they finally do, all those things that made us so lovable in the first place start to fade. We aren’t outsiders any more. We are in-demand.
Perhaps this is why many of us in Seattle love Portlandia so much.
It gives our odd little sister a good ribbing. It allows us not only to laugh at her, but at the people we once were. If we are able to poke fun at past iterations of ourselves, it makes it less painful to think about how much we’ve changed. If we can laugh at the dreams of our youth, we won’t cry that we abandoned them (or worse still, that we realized those dreams, and find we’re still not happy.)
“Remember when people were content to be unambitious, sleep till 11, and just hang out with their friends? Had no occupations whatsoever, maybe working a couple hours a week at a coffee shop?”
“I thought that died out years ago.”
“Not in Portland.”
It makes our descent into yuppiedom seem inevitable – and manages to take the blame away from us. Because if Portland’s counterculture becomes a touchstone for all of us – something we can all sit and laugh at – then isn’t it, somehow, kind of mainstream? If a city is hip, and cool, and weird enough, won’t it inevitably become popular, and consequently less cool?
Isn’t Portland destined to follow in Seattle’s footsteps?
The PDXers are fearful that may be true. As one friend of mine noted, “It’s caused chaos in our household and in our town.”
But, being good-natured northwesterners, they’ve reportedly been friendly and open to the show and film crews. Maybe it’s because they know that even though the show has been well-received, it’s still niche (and truth be told, I’ve yet to hear anyone outside of the left coast mention it.) Maybe they’re confident that Portland can stay true to itself, no matter what. Or maybe they secretly know that resistance is futile (we put up a full-frontal paparazzi assault against The Real World: Seattle. It didn’t do us much good).
Whatever the case, I sincerely hope Portlandia won’t be the beginning of Portland’s descent into the mainstream. I hope she stays weird and strange. She reminds me of who I once was. Though I tease her and laugh at her quirks, if she changed and became, of all things, normal? I’d miss her terribly.
But if, tragically, Portland did go the way of Seattle? Well …
I guess there’s always Ashland.