Portland's official 2010 Christmas tree
I didn’t realize when I decided, on a whim, to take the kids to Portland’s 26th annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, I’d nearly end up the victim of a terrorist attack. That would have been a real bummer; imagine if I’d been blown to bits during my first-ever tree-lighting experience. Talk about putting a damper on the holidays. Thank God for the FBI, that’s all I’ve got to say.
The Portland terrorist plot is serious stuff. We’re making national news, and not in a good way. The “mastermind” behind this, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, said, “I want whoever is attending that event to leave dead or injured.”
Not to nitpick the finer details, you Somali-born whacko, but if you’re dead, you aren’t leaving, except in a body bag.
I’m pretty surprised humble little Portland, Oregon would be the target for a terrorist attack in the first place. As far as big cities go, it’s pretty safe. I’ve walked the streets at night, alone, before and never given it a second thought. The worst that ever happened? I had to step around some guy on a street corner who was playing the theme from Star Wars on his saxophone for spare change. More “charming” than “alarming” in my opinion. And it’s exactly what I love about the city in the first place.
I suppose if he had pulled off this Portland terrorist plot, I would have ended up a victim, one way or another. Turns out we were sitting just a few hundred yards from where the van was parked, at the corner of Sixth and Yamhill. Had those explosives in there been real, we’d have been in a world of hurt. At the very least, I might have had that holiday eggnog pouring out all the shrapnel holes in my body, cartoon-style, whenever I went to take a sip.
I’d been warned in advance about going, but for a different reason. On Thanksgiving, my parents mentioned the tree-lighting ceremony here in Vancouver, Washington. “I’d rather go to Portland,” I proclaimed.
“Why?” my mom asked. “There are weird people there.”
I tried to explain how I’m a Portlander at heart, but I don’t think they got it. On Friday, when I told my kids the plan, they said, “Why? There are weird people there.”
OK, for the record, there are weird people everywhere.
Mayberry Vancouver is no exception. And you know what? I like the weird people in Portland. I’m dead serious. A few months ago I was walking downtown one afternoon and ended up literally in the middle of an argument between two homeless people. I smiled as I listened to them hurl insults back and forth. It was kind of cute, the way they were competing for that particular street corner as their “home turf.” And last year, while waiting in line for a maple bacon bar at the incredible Voodoo Doughnut, I was serenaded by a flash-mob type of rap group while watching a guy in a cape walk by. I’m telling you, you can’t find entertainment that good on TV. These people are simply marching to the beat of their own drummers, and that’s something I both admire and respect. Then again, I’m a writer, so I’m a bit mad myself. Besides, our unofficial slogan is, Keep Portland Weird. I’m all for that! Sure, I could have gone to the Vancouver tree-lighting ceremony instead, but…yawn. It would have paled in comparison. Portland is in my blood. I go downtown all the time. I love the big-city vibe, the flanneled and bearded and pierced masses, the urban hipness and funkiness that defines the Rose City. The fact that I live in Washington is a moot point. Portland is just across the river, and I feel an affinity for the place that is impossible to describe to the outsider. Or even the insider, for that matter. A while ago, I was telling a friend and former coworker about a weekend adventure I’d had in Portland, and his response? “I never go to Portland. There are weird people there.”
Really? You don’t say…
Anyway, I was stoked to head downtown and check out the tree-lighting thingamajig. I’d never done it before, even though I’ve lived here for 16 years now. In the past, I let laziness get the better of me. I didn’t want to deal with the notoriously fickle late-November weather (typically rainy and cold). Or the traffic. Or the parking. Or the crowds. This year, I decided to suck it up and go for it. Being unemployed, I’ve spent way too much time sitting around the house, staring at the walls. If ever there was a year to get out there and check it out, 2010 was it, I figured.
The ceremony was scheduled to start at 5:30, but because “thousands of people” would be in attendance, the website online suggested arriving around 4:00. (The website did not make any distinction about “weird” people and “normal” people. I figured there’d be a good mix). So we set out about 3:40. Normally traffic would be a bitch at that time of day, but it was apparent most people had the day off, because we never even slowed down. I found a parking garage just a few blocks from Pioneer Courthouse Square, and the kids and I arrived there about 4:15. There was already a decent-sized crowd, but we staked out a good spot with a great view, and settled in. It was about 45 degrees and overcast, but luckily, the rain that had been falling earlier in the day had ceased. There was entertainment, courtesy of the Pacific Youth Choir and local band Pink Martini, who were performing Christmas songs. It didn’t take long to get into the spirit of the occasion.
A bunch of people around me were drinking Starbucks, and there was a bit of a nip in the air, so I asked the kids if they’d be kind enough to fetch dear ol’ dad a vanilla latte. I slipped them $10 and told them to “get something good for yourselves, too.” They were then gone thirty minutes, during which time I veered perilously close to panicking, as darkness descended and the crowd multiplied. I questioned the wisdom of letting them wander off downtown on their own, imagining worst-case scenarios galore (although my imagination isn’t quite as wild as it could have been, because none of those scenarios involved explosives-packed vans), but the Starbucks is right there in Pioneer Courthouse Square, so I reasoned they couldn’t get into too much trouble. Finally, they showed up with my hot coffee in hand. Whew. And did it hit the spot.
While we were waiting, volunteers passed out holiday songbooks for the “community sing-along.” The kids unceremoniously declared that they would not be caught dead singing. I guess they’re “too cool” for that kind of thing. I rolled my eyes and, when the ceremony started at 5:30, belted out “fa la la la la’s” with the rest of the assembled masses, while my kids pretended they did not know me. Whatever. It’s called getting into the Christmas spirit, guys! Portland’s mayor, Sam Adams, talked to the crowd for a bit, and then – at 6:10 PM – he flipped the switch, officially lighting the Portland Christmas tree. It was a spectacular sight – a 75′ Douglas fir festooned with cheery holiday lights.
Portland is in my blood!
There was more singing, but the crowd was already dispersing, so we decided to leave, too. After all, we’d been sitting there on the brick steps of the courthouse square for over two hours. We crossed Sixth Avenue, which was roped off and teeming with police officers. There was also a white van parked there, which at the time I barely gave a second glance. I just figured they’d closed the street to allow the massive crowd to cross without waiting for traffic. We took a detour back to the car, because I wanted to get a picture of the iconic Portland sign outside the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall at night. Plus, we were looking for someplace to grab a bite to eat, but there wasn’t anything kid-friendly or, more importantly, cheap nearby, so we wandered back to the car and stopped at Boppin’ Bo’s – a 50s-style malt shop a few minutes from home – for burgers and fries. I figured, after working my ass off cooking up a Thanksgiving feast the day before, that I deserved a break. (The exploding turkey, by the way, turned out delicious – moist and flavorful. I guess brining really does make a difference!).
Ironically, during the car ride home, K1 – who had refused to sing a note during the festival – suddenly lost his shyness and began belting out Christmas tunes. Why he wouldn’t do this while in the midst of a crowd of 10,000 is beyond me. I turned the music up, because seriously, I was caroled out by that point.
All in all, we had a great time downtown, and I’ve already vowed to make the Christmas tree lighting ceremony a new, annual tradition. That’s my “screw you” to Mohamud and his failed Portland terrorist plot. Nobody can take Portland away from me.
Normal “weird” people (ha – there’s an oxymoron) are more than welcome, though.