Heather Hawkins is what I love about Portland. I met her one dry, sunny, big-skied day (important Fact #1 about Portland: summer is the perfect season. Everyone warned me about rainy gloom — but summer is sun, sun, sun). She was behind the counter of a rather unappealing deli with something of a hunting-lodge themed décor — I had been sent there by my coworkers at the feminist bookstore a few blocks away, with promise of a 10 percent discount (Heather, it turns out, was part of the lesbian mafia in Portland. Mafia only because they’re ubiquitous, all know each other and shop at each other’s places of employment — and because of “Gay Pizza,” a Wednesday night dance party). The ham, avocado and cream cheese wrap she made me was divine (secret ingredient: balsamic vinegar), and when she handed it to me she asked, “What’re you up to tonight?” (Fact #2: Everyone in Portland asks you this, and it’s not hitting on you or creepy or competitive. It’s just nice).
So my second interaction with Heather was at Dirty Queer, the X-rated open mic happening that night at the bookstore (Fact #3: Dirty Queer. So great).
The third time was at her birthday party (Fact #4: Everyone in Portland is in their 20s). There I learned that Heather had been part of a casual band called “Cabbage” which became “Halfa Cabbage” when her bandmate moved away. On a low roof at night, strewn with queer 20-somethings drinking PBR (including one very quiet guy who carried around a tiny kitten in a camera case around his neck), she gave an impromptu concert. With lyrics like “By the way, I’m not gay, I’m just tired of sucking dick,” and songs about teenage vampire-hood, Heather (and the city where this kind of thing happened all the time) stole my heart. I became a regular at Heather’s deli, which, it turns out, was in the process of being turned over to her, the sole employee, by an older couple who were starting another (probably similarly cuckoo clock-bedecked) deli in a more appropriate neighborhood.
Over the next five weeks, I watched the deli transform in much the way I imagine Portland has transformed over the past decade or two: with the advent of beat-up leather couches, cartoons painted on the windows, unpaid friends-turned-employees (Fact #5: A city full of 20-somethings means a surplus of service industry labor), zines at the counter, raw food specials, a piano, a mountain of straws with fortunes handwritten on them.
Portland’s official motto is “The city that works.” And it does, really well. I might eventually grow weary of such easy joy (vegan everything, tall-bike jousting, daily farmers markets, maple bacon donuts, great beer, a cornucopia of independent coffee shops, Powell’s), but I would summer fling with it any day.