Overheard in Portland: “I have access to all this infrastructure and no one gives a fuck.”

Grendel’s Coffee House, Northeast Burnside Street | Portland, Oregon

12/11/2013 3:30 p.m.

Snippets from a poorly executed hard sell … I had trouble figuring out exactly what kind of “business” Guy 1 was trying to entice Guy 2 to invest in, but it had something to do with transporting fish. 

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The Waterfall Elopement of A and S

Behold, the top-secret elopement of two brand-new-to-Portlanders I chanced to meet: A and S. That’s right: in addition to portrait and commercial work, I am officially hanging my shingle as a photographer for elopements, small destination weddings and other low-key affairs.

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Overheard in Portland, Traffic Court Edition: “Someone else is drivin’ my car.”

Multnomah County Courthouse, Traffic Court Window | Portland, Oregon

3/6/2014 1:30 p.m.

Can I just say: traffic court in Portland is hee-la-rious! And not just the part where you sit in the actual courtroom and giggle as a credulous judge picks apart the incredibly lame cover stories and alibies and apologies of the citizenry cowering and glowering before him.

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It’s a gray pre-spring day here in Portland. I’m on momentary hiatus from a pile of projects. Namely: twiddling my thumbs while the final draft of a manuscript I’ve been editing prints out. I’ve been working with the author on this project for two months now and it’s hard to believe that we’re almost done. This afternoon, I’m feeling stir-crazed, so I’m going to walk to a nearby coffeeshop with my mighty, mighty manuscript printout and give it a final pass. Or perhaps drive, on account of the rain. Or perhaps stop bringing shame to Native Oregonians everywhere by walking anyway. We shall see.

A lot gets said about writer’s spaces. I’ve always been something of a nomad when it comes to where I work. I have a sweet little office full of books and plants and posters that I spent a lot of time working in, but after a couple of days secreted away in here I invariably start to feel like a mole in a hole at the end of an interminably long winter. Then I tunnel out. I have yet to find a coffeeshop in Portland that just totally does it for me as far as third place workspace goes, so I continue to roam. There’s just some little thing wrong with every single one of them: a little dirty, too cold, too hot, not enough tables, not enough plugs, too minimal, too cluttered, no cheap snack food, snotty baristas, etc. I am a cheapskate of discernment, it seems!

I’ve been submitting writing all over the place these days. Problem is, most magazines/websites don’t want anything that has been previously published *even if* it was only on one’s personal blog. This is a bummer, as I have some really cool pieces that I’m opting not to post on here. I feel like I’m cheating on my blog, and, maybe, my readers. But it’s time to find some larger platforms. I’ve got that sense, at least.

While I wait for this beast to finish print, two photos. First, my Little Office. Second, this really amazing croissant my roommate bought me recently from Petite Provence on Alberta Street in Northeast Portland. It is hands down the best French food around!

Hey, Portland writers! Where do you like to work when your toes get to itching?

Petite Provence Croissant - Erin J. Bernard

Petite Provence Croissant – Erin J. Bernard


That Winter Light

I’ve been captivated, this past month or so, with the cool, diffuse quality of the Pacific Northwest’s winter light. It’s got a hollow stillness to it that is nothing short of bewitching. Portland is unseasonably dry and foggy as of late, and I’ve seen all sorts of strange and wonderful light patterns on my trips around town and to the Oregon coast. E and I just returned from a trip to Astoria to celebrate our sorta-anniversary. It was my second time to the beach in a week, and the weather out there is insane. Captures from this, that and the other thing.

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Overheard in Portland: Girl Talk


One of the great perks of being a writer: I get to spend copious amounts of time in coffee shops, “working” and eavesdropping on other patrons. Come mid-week, I often get a bit antsy from all the hours spent toiling away alone inside my house, so I’ve taken to venturing out among the cafes of Northeast Portland with my laptop and my crap Sony headphones, so that I might dodge my solitude and work awhile amongst the vox populi. The subtly buzzing crowds of students or moms or unemployed or creatively employed or service industry employed folks who frequent such spots of an idle Tuesday afternoon alongside me never fail to fascinate. Often, I’ll work with my headphones on but no music playing just so I can listen in totally undetected.

By far the most consistently interesting snatches of conversations I pick up are those that occur between female friends. Women have a charming knack for turning any social setting into a makeshift confessional booth. Bathroom stalls, phone booths, side by side stools in a busy bar, then, later in the evening, the broken curbs outside of said busy bars – some news just can’t wait. And I don’t judge. I’ve performed the perambulation many, many times myself and find it to be an enormously comforting ritual. There is nothing in this world quite so soothing or ministerial as the ready ear of an old friend, tuned finely to your most secretive rumblings as you reveal the workings of your inner soul in some very public place or other.


Thusly, two conversations overheard in Portland. Both between female friends in Portland coffee shops. Both their own kinds of age-appropriate Hail Marys.

One pair of female friends looked to be about 20. One pair looked to be about 30. Can you guess which is which? I think you can.

Anna Banana’s Coffee Shop, Alberta Street, Portland

May 21

You were like I just wanna have fun wanna have fun. And we were like you are having fun and now it’s time to go home. And you were like I wanna go home to San Diego. No one here understands me.

I had a little bit of that tequila. I had a beer at home. The place we went to I had two beers.

And shots.

No I didn’t.

At the show.

No I didn’t! I had beer.

And shots. Right before we left.

No way.

You did. And then you did three shots of fireball at Shanghai and one other shot.

Barista Coffee Shop, Alberta Street, Portland

July 09

My ex-boyfriend had a baby. 

I’m sorry.

It’s ok. I knew his wife was pregnant. We’re not friends, but I want to see what it looks like. I hope it’s ugly. Although I know that all babies are cute.

That’s not true.

I know. 


A Plague of Locusts

Day six of my June writing experiment, “30 for 30 in under 30,” in which I write thirty randomass essays with minimal editing, to be finished in under 30 minutes. FYI: If you’re looking for day five, don’t. I was on Creative Sabbatical. Gangsters gotta get paid!

I remember your kitchen window.

You know, the tiny, crooked one above the kitchen sink in the house on Locust Lane. The one with the rusty, painted-over latch and the sloppy lines of caulk dried into a frozen ooze along the edges of the panes – the imperfect work of the half-careful hands of some man who probably died years before we were born, lifetimes before we grew into the uneasy age of 22 and landed there, together, willing and so reckless in love at the start, and then, later, bound together only by our mutual repulsion, boy- and girl-shaped reverse magnets.

I remember the old white paint along the wooden sill, burnt by then to a yellowish gray from the heat of a thousand careless sunsets. I remember the crooked line of junk and trinkets that had accumulated there along the ledge over passing time: a tiny plastic cowboy figurine with a tiny plastic lasso, the cast iron junk ring you found in the dirt beneath the porch, an empty little box that once contained Chinese rice candy, a tin whistle, a few red pebbles from the time you and your gutter punk friends hopped a freight train to a shipping yard in Juarez.

I remember so much.

I remember the crack you put at the top of the window the night Dustin ate your Dumpster-dived olive baguette, the way your face bunched in rage as you hurled the salt shaker in the direction of his head, the high, sharp ping of it bouncing off the window, the rattle of it landing in the metal sink, shattering, and falling still. I remember watching that crack spreading its way towards the bottom in a wicked, gradual arch as the months shuffled by. I remember the way the sun would pour through that window in late afternoon, the way that crack would throw it into a shimmering, distorted line along the old, orangey-peely linoleum floor. All so warped by then that even the sunlight couldn’t get through without being weakened.

I guess you really can’t ever get away from anything unchanged.

I remember the first time I tried to leave you. It was too early after a long, hard night of drinking and fighting. You’d thrown an Adidas at my head and called me a whore. I’d stomped outside to sleep in my little Toyota Tercel, so angry and hurt and appalled. I shivered out there against the frigid winter chill for a good hour before you came out in your underwear and calmly ordered me back inside. I was too young to realize I could say “No.”

I still remember your body as it looked then – sallow and the chest concave, your eyes and nailbeds yellow with nicotine. Your knobby knees and your cruel hands. Your beautiful eyes. I followed you back inside and we fell to sleep on the narrow green couch you used for a bed, our bodies smashed unwantedly together.

I woke up early because I had to work. My eyes were puffy and red from crying and my throat was raw and I was standing next to that kitchen window, furiously rolling a little cigarette, steeling myself to leave for good and never, never come back again. Dustin walked in.

Was that you screaming last night?


You OK?

No. I’m leaving. And not coming back.

I’m sure Brent didn’t mean whatever he said.

It’s the tip of the fucking iceberg.

And he hugged me beneath the cracking window. And I went. And I came back.

I’m not saying all of it was your fault.

But, you know, all of it was your fault.

Of fictitious benevolences

Day four of my June writing experiment, “30 for 30 in under 30,” in which I write thirty randomass essays with minimal editing, to be finished in under 30 minutes.

Samuel Johnson once described good manners a “fictitious benevolence” – little more than airs we put on to make ourselves seem better and kinder than we really are, to mask from others our true, terrible, nasty little selves.

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I have been pondering this week just what constitutes good and bad behavior. And who gets to decide which is which.

Last night, my roommate Noe and I had a long conversation about where and how and whether it is acceptable to clip one’s fingernails. In a restaurant? Definitely not. In a workplace? We weren’t so sure. That sound … that unmistakable SOUND just sets my teeth on edge.

Is it OK to clip in one’s office with the door open, allowing the nasty sound to carry into the work spaces of unwitting colleagues? I said absolutely not; she wasn’t so sure. And how about if the door is closed? I once saw a woman clip her nails while seated in a coffee shop, a mere few feet away from a group of people eating lunch. They were so disgusted they threw their half-finished meals out and left.

My other roommate and I have been debating, lately, the ethics and standards of tipping in the United States. When is a tip compulsory? When is it discretionary? How much is deserved? Are tip jars presumptuous? I’ve decided I tip way too much and he tips rather too little, but in the absence of a clear and narrow norm, who is more right?

Driving home from the coast through rush hour traffic yesterday afternoon, I found myself in the middle of a more personal and harrowing kind of little social dilemma. I’d been driving for two hours by the time I hit I-5 and I was hot, tired and had to pee. I was waiting at the very last bad, long light before I coasted into the home stretch of my long-ass journey to Emerson Street. Then, as soon as the light turned to Go, this gross little Toyota with a bunch of bumper stickers darted out from a parking space on the side of the road right in front of me and I really almost hit it. I leaned on my horn, enraged, and then the hippieish lady driver leaned her head out the window and looked at me with an utterly confused look upon her face. She was completely blocking eastbound traffic at this point and seemed unable to decide whether to complete her unsafe move or to slink back to her spot on the side of the road and let me pass. Indecisiveness is a quality I loath in others, so I decided to help her out by gesturing disgustedly and screaming, “GOOOOO!”

After which point she did. And after which point my brain caught up with my spinal cord and I realized – horrors! – that the woman I had just shouted so angrily and dismissively at was none other than my pilates teacher.

My sweet, sweet, little Zen-like pilates teacher, and I terrified her half to death with my angry ministrations from behind the wheel of a large, intimidating champagne-colored Buick.

I am both ashamed and indignant, and seriously just considering never going to her class again to avoid all that surefire awkward. My friends advise me to simply pretend it never happened. But I’d rather do so from as far away from her peace-loving presence as possible.

Economists divide our daily habits and our ideas about our daily habits injunctive and descriptive norms: the former the behaviors society tells us we should hew to and the latter the behaviors we actually exhibit in our daily lives.

Which are the bad actors in all the above examples, and which are merely victims of prudish standards of social conduct? It’s a toughie.