I’ve been trying to think about the things I miss.
This might seem like a weird thing to want to think about; aren’t the things we miss ever-present in our minds every day? Except at this point—when this has gone on long enough, I’ve gotten into enough of a mind-numbing routine, my world has become small enough—I think I do start to forget. That I used to do more than this. That my life is more than my apartment, than my neighborhood. That this isn’t normal.
If I didn’t drive my wife to work every day, I think I’d forget even easier. This is part of our new routine, too, but a good one, one that lets my mind wander and remember and hope. Our toddler and myself take different ways home each day, different ways back to her at the end of the day when we pick her up, when the light is more golden and hits the hills in a different way than our blurry eyed mornings. We’ve exhausted all of the different routes at this point, have now crossed every single bridge, but it still helps, rotating through them. Our toddler already had the Ross Island Bridge memorized. (“Look at Portland!” he used to say every time we drove over it, “This is the city where I live!” and just like the ending of Meet Me in St. Louis, it made our eyes inexplicably well up every time. Lately he’s more interested in watching the OHSU trams pass each other by, and lamenting the lack of dragon boats in the river.) Now he has other specific requests depending on the day, like “the loud one” (the Hawthorne), or “the red one” (the Broadway), or “the high one” (the Fremont). The high one is a favorite request recently for our pickup drives, and while it terrifies me a little bit to go over it, as it is quite high and from everything I’ve ever heard, quite unsafe, but I’ve been indulging him because it is terribly, wonderfully dramatic, being that high up, the city laid out underneath you, and with a quick twist of your head, Mt. Hood so visible and majestic behind it all, and when I exit at the Vaughan ramp, the road swoops out in front of the West Hills and all the new shiny construction of the Northwest District and it takes my breath away a little every time.
I love coming back over the Burnside, too, straight ahead to that wild, wacky building that I love so much on the left, and the words painted on an old factory building on the right, standing out in stark black and white, welcoming you to the East Side: LONG LIVE THE WILDCARDS, MISFITS & DABBLERS. I always think, “yeah, yeah,” as I drive by and feel comforted, feel at home.
My favorite way to come home in the morning these days, though, is the Morrison Bridge, even though it is objectively the most boring of them all, the most perpetually under construction, messy and convoluted, really only existing to be an easy conduit to the highways out of town. But I like it because it brings you down Belmont Street, and I get to pass Bare Bones.
There are two main places I like to write in Portland. Bare Bones is a classic old school Portland dive, on the first floor of a slightly-falling-apart residential-esque building. Half of it is a cafe, the other half a bar, connected via a game room in the back. We have attended trivia nights at the bar for over a decade, but I only started frequenting the cafe side when I got back into fiction writing a couple years ago. The bar is the type of bar where the booths are tattered and lumpy, the floor is sticky, the bathroom walls are covered in graffiti, and there’s no AC in the summers. The food is not bad, not amazing. I love the cafe side because it’s rarely crowded, even on a Saturday morning at 10AM, because all the other Portlanders are flocking to the trendier, less shitty places. There’s a full body skeleton wearing a Bare Bones sweatshirt that sits at one of the bar stools in the cafe and the first few times I saw it it made me jump. Local art for sale always covers the wall; it’s always real weird. They decorate for Halloween at Bare Bones like no business I have ever frequented before. Like, it is truly terrifying in there for the entire month of October.
The first few times I tried to write on the cafe side, I sat at a table near the high, dusty windows up front, but now my favorite table is in the very back. It is slightly wobbly, with a single chair, right near the kitchen. It’s sort of dark back there, but I can look out at the rest of the cafe and eavesdrop on other people’s conversations perfectly. I wrote my first two manuscripts there. Bare Bones is great because I can get an iced tea but I can also get a beer, depending on the mood, and I never feel bad about staying there for hours.
Earlier this year, a bartender on the bar side that we never really cared for was extraordinarily rude to my wife, to the point where she had to leave the premise immediately. When she came home and told me about it, I was obviously deeply upset for her, but I also felt personally wounded. Like we had been betrayed by a dear friend.
The other place I write is the Woodstock branch of new-ish local chain Heart Coffee. It is the polar opposite of Bare Bones; it’s all minimalist furniture and well-tended desert plants and walls of spotless windows. It’s very bright and clean and the chairs aren’t really that comfortable but they make me sit up straight and sharpen my mind. I wrote there almost exclusively last summer; I wrote almost the entirety of my Pitch Wars manuscript there, the one that’s on sub now, in the space of two months. I also have a favorite table there, a coveted one in the far corner, and I used to show up as soon as they opened at 7AM to stake my claim. (I once got there at 7:10 and some bastard had already taken it.) They used to have really delicious, frou frou food, granola bowls and avocado toasts just MADE for Instagram, but for some reason they stopped serving it a few months ago, and now they only have delicious, frou frou pastries. I often get an overpriced flourless chocolate cookie and nibble at it for hours. Their iced tea is also twice the price as the tea at Bare Bones, but it is quite delicious.
I write at Bare Bones when I need to get a lot of words out. I feel weirdly uninhibited there; I just ramble for pages and pages without any hesitation or insecurity. I write at Heart when I want to write well. All that bright hipster light makes me want to sound eloquent.
I have a backup of sorts, when Bare Bones or Heart isn’t an option or I need a change, Good Coffee, which is very similar to Heart in its newishness and its hipsterness, but they have this lavender matcha that is to die for. Its chairs are even more uncomfortable than Heart’s. (My other backup is Tea Bar, which is the most minimalist of all and the holder of the actual most uncomfortable chairs. The whiteness of the place blinds you when you walk in, but fuck, the tea is good. I recently read that the CEO of Tea Bar is like 26, and that made complete sense to me.)
It only hit me the other day, when I was driving back home over the Morrison Bridge and thinking about how much I want to write at these places again, that all of their names together encapsulate what I want my writing to be full of.
Good Heart, Bare Bones.
(Bare bones meaning like, raw and honest feelings, not precise prose, lolol because lord knows I haven’t conquered that.)
I know it’s a privilege to be able to write at these places. Who knows how much money I’ve wasted on iced teas and overpriced chocolate cookies over the last couple years, but it’s become a necessity. My brain quiets at these places in a way it just doesn’t at home. Maybe that’s because, as much as I’m a homebody at heart, and I am deeply attached to our home, I am also sort of…bad at relaxing at home, unless it involves reading. I always feel like there’s something I should be doing or accomplishing when I’m at home. During the rare instances where I have alone time at home (say, during the toddler’s “quiet time,” which we have made as a replacement for nap time), I can’t just sit and watch TV for more than fifteen minutes without feeling anxious. (Except for this week, when my mind felt truly wiped enough that I allowed myself to do just that, and I watched Normal People for two hours straight! “I binge watched TV today!!” I told Kathy proudly later.) And if I’m not feeling guilty about not cleaning or parenting hard enough at home, I’m wasting enormous amounts of time on my phone, building up different anxiety about dumb shit. My brain is just…not wired for writing, most of the time, when I’m at home.
I have been trying though, in bits and pieces over the last few weeks, at my kitchen table. I’ve reached 40K on my current manuscript, which is about halfway to being a real book. The halfway mark is an intense place to be, because you still have no idea whether anything you’ve written is actually good or makes sense and you have no idea if you can actually pull off what you want to pull off in the second half (if you even understand what’s going to happen in the second half yet), but at the same time, you’ve written enough that you’re committed now. And these characters, these people, are starting to truly seep into my heart. I feel like…they’re so close. Their story is hovering right on my fingertips.
But I need to get back to my favorite tables—the one in the corner at Heart, the wobbly one in the dark at Bare Bones—to actually make them mine.
The world will open up again, I know that, even if things open up in a slightly different way, even if it doesn’t happen for a while. I miss all of it, and all of it’s going to be emotional when it’s back.
But I think the moment I walk into my writing places again, I will burst into tears. Happy, dumb, embarrassing ones. Because it will only make sense to me. But I’ll finally be whole again.