Overheard in Portland

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.



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. 


What’s your motivation for this? I don’t want to get too busy. I want to invest the time to make money but I want to do more complicated things.

For me, this is a great opportunity. I have access to all this infrastructure and no one gives a fuck.

Yeah it’s a good opportunity for both of us, but it needs to make sense.


The other thing is, I’m not talking about a whole lot of shitty (UNDECIPHERABLE). The whole idea is out the window and it’s not about a quality product. The last boat never got out of port.


If you hire a disabled person so you get a huge tax credit.

How does that work?

It’s public. If you employ someone slow you get “X” amount of money.


What vehicle is he going to drive?

We could buy a truck for $1500 or a trailer, but he doesn’t have the vehicle to pull a trailer.

Yeah he does.

But not the weight you’re talking about. Not with all that ice and fish.

It’s just an idea.


Afterword: Then the guys proceed to cold call New Seasons Market and ask to be connected to the seafood department. Nobody answers and one of the guys leaves a message asking if the manager is interesting in buying 100 pounds of fresh tuna. And in my head, telepathically to the seafood guy at New Seasons, I’m like, “NOOOO! Don’t do it!”


Overheard in Portland: “I love the taste of butter!”

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

12/11/2013 3:10 p.m.

IMG_2614 copy-2

Snippets from a roundtable discussion among a group of shabbily dressed men at a nearby table:

“I use butter and olive oil, not margarine. Margarine, that’s full of chemicals! Ew! You can open it up and leave it sitting forever and it never spoils. Butter is better for you, man. You can digest it. And olive oil? Oh, man. That’s good stuff.”

“Yeah, I get some nice bread and put olive oil on it.”

“The reason I don’t use olive oil and butter so much is because it’s more expensive. But I found a new place by my house where you can get Tillamook butter for $1.50 and olive oil for like $2.50. It’s $11 at Safeway. You’d recognize these brands. And most of the dates are still good. They’re close, but they’re still good.”

“Butter is good in the refrigerator for two weeks.”

“Margarine’s bad. Use olive oil and butter instead, man! There’s chemicals in it that are in paint and silicone. If you leave it outside and leave it open, nothing will touch it. Yeah! Nothing will touch it. They did studies with it. No ants or bugs or nothing. I love the taste of butter.”


* * *

Overheard in Portland: The Three Baristas

Coffeehouse Five, Northeast Killingsworth Street | Portland, Oregon

11/13/2013 | 1:30 p.m.


I am at Coffeehouse Five on Northeast Killingsworth Street in Portland, posted up at my favorite corner-of-the-room table (corners are the best spots for inconspicuously surveying what’s happening around you, I’ve found) and writing away happily, when this happens.

Some commotion kicks up on the opposite side of the café, with a few customers pointing outside. The three hipster twenty-something baristas abandon their duties behind the counter to gather around a west-facing window.

Across the street at an empty storefront connected to a mini-mart, two Asian men are on rickety ladders, hanging a vinyl banner.


One of the baristas begins to read aloud, his voice unbelieving: “It says … ‘Cascade Expresso’?”

From the second: “Oh, sweet Jesus.”

From the third, reading the banner’s subhead, which advertises an “Asian Plate Special” for $5.99: “What is an ‘Asian plate’? Some kind of drink?”

A quiet panic descends. I surmise that The Three Baristas are pondering their fates. This coffeeshop already seems woefully overstaffed, and that’s before a competing business has decided to hang its shingle a mere crosswalk away.

Then, from the first barista: “Oh, wait. It just says ‘Cascade Express.’ I think it’s a Chinese restaurant. Nevermind.”

Foodservices Industry disaster averted, the baristas disperse.


* * *

Overheard in Portland: The Cheapest Man in PDX

Anna Banana’s, Northeast Alberta Street | Portland, Oregon

9/9/2013 2:00 p.m.


Conversation between a cashier and a middle-aged man carrying a white shoe box. 

What can I get for you?

What time is it?

It’s 2 p.m.

Oh. Hmmmm. I just ate a little while ago. I don’t know if I want to make a purchase.

OK. That’s fine.

Do you have coffee though?

Yes, we have a dark roast. Small, medium or large.

Oh, can I just get a sample cup of that?

Um. I guess.

… And then he proceeds to approach a tableful of teenage girls who have just ordered food and asks if he can try something off one of the plates. My question to you, dear readers: Are “sample cups” and tastes off strangers’ plates really a thing or did this guy just score a free meal?

* * *

Overheard in Portland: Girl Talk

Anna Banana’s Coffeeshop, Northeast Alberta Street / Barista, Northeast Alberta Street | Portland, Oregon

5/21/2013 and 07/09/2013


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, 05/21/2013

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, 07/09/2013

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. 

* * *

Overheard in Portland: “Different is good.”

Anna Banana’s, Northeast Alberta Street | Portland, Oregon

5/1/2013 4 p.m.

Overheard at Anna Banana’s on Alberta, April 23, between a hippie female barista and a femme middle-aged patron:

“Different is Good”

Guy: My parents were the original hippies from the ‘60s.

Girl: Mine were too. Mine wore flowers in their hair.

Guy: Well I spent four years living in a colony in Southern Oregon.

Girl: Oh.

Guy: My mom told me I was this close to being named Sunshine Freedom.

Girl: That would be kind of fun though!

Guy: Yeah. Two names I always liked were Cassipoea and Orion.

Girl: Different is good.

* * *

Overheard in Portland: “I’ll have an urban cheese bagel.”

Powell’s Books, Northwest Burnside Street | Portland, Oregon

11/19/2012 2 p.m.

So I’m in line at Powell’s Books waiting to order some tea a minute ago and I hear this hipster chick in front of me say to the cashier, “I’ll have an urban cheese bagel with cream cheese on it.”

And I am immediately irritated that such a thing even exists – an urban cheese bagel? It is instantly the most obnoxious thing I’ve heard all morning, or maybe even EVER. And I think to myself for the zillionth time that Portland has really taken its whole weirdness mandate a bit far, to the point of being almost unintelligible at times. And it’s inefficient, besides! I mean, what is even in an urban cheese bagel? Basil grown on a fire escape? Ground-up cigarette butts? Stuff they found in the Dumpster out back? There is absolutely no way to know from its name, which means you have to ask, which equals using extra oxygen and syllables and seconds that could really be put to much better use.

And in this moment, I make myself a promise. I say: “I don’t care how delicious an urban cheese bagel is. I will never order it, on sheer principle. Because that’s the kind of frumpy, old-guard Portlander I am. Unflappably principled. And furthermore, anyone who consents to such reckless euphemizing in the presence of others must certainly be incapable of original thought, which is the WHOLE FREAKING problem around here these days.”

Then I decide that I hate her outfit, and her face, too, and is it just me or did the guy behind the counter give me a dirty look?

And then I look up at the chalk board menu and I realize three things. One: It’s actually an “herb and cheese bagel.” I had misheard the girl. Two: I am a total dick. Three: It’s my turn to order, and maybe I should consider switching back to coffee.


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