The Art of Noise

Three esoteric reasons combined on April 11, to motivate me to go downtown. There was a Noise Review Board meeting, a PPS art celebration, that made me think I could score some grub to offset my Arts Tax, plus an afternoon protest over a shooting in a homeless shelter called Beds Not Bullets. The Orbit budget only covered a two and a half hour Trimet ticket. Time was tight. I started at City Hall expecting to run into protestors. If I could get through the crowds I would go to the Noise Review Board meeting then the Portland Art Museum. The tear gas and protestors had dissipated. I saw no evidence of a protest. I approached City Hall like I owned the place to find the doors locked. Discovering I was at the employee entrance I stood around until I noticed a sign directing me to the doors on SW 4th Avenue. There were no protesters around this side of City Hall. The early bird protest had me a bit dumbfounded.

I headed into City Hall catching up with two neighbors who were part of my neighborhood association. I sensed the solidarity but being a fair weather meeting attendee I didn’t get a chance to explain why I wouldn’t be there long. Entering City Hall was not as bad as expected. There was a pat down with a magic wand/metal detector but I didn’t have to remove my shoes or empty my pockets. Then we set off to find the Pettygrove Room. The quarters were cramped but it’s hard to imagine most meetings being standing room only like this one.

The Noise Review Board in action.

My interest in the meeting involved the sole agenda item concerning noise levels at the Portland International Raceway. I live near the track. For the most part it’s a live and let live kind of thing. The sounds don’t bother me. Race fans have that need for speed and the voice calling races through the P.A. system creates a feeling of an unknown nostalgia for me when I hear it at our garden plot. At this meeting representatives of an upcoming race were asking for a variance for noise levels. As explained on the City of Portland website, a variance is “for activities that make more noise than our Noise Code allows.” I had recently downloaded a decibel app on my phone which came with a handy chart. My curiosity piqued when I saw that the 115 decibel levels they were asking for are comparable to a rock concert. Beyond that I wanted to know who attends Noise Review Board meetings and see the board members. I imagined them wearing industrial headphones for some reason. None of them did. Other answers I sought related to finding out would happen if noise levels were exceeded and how the sound was measured. I caught the opening remarks of David Sweeney, representing the race promotions company and heard him talk about how excited people would be to have Indy car racing back in Portland and the boost the race would offer the local economy. He discussed how the noise levels would be controlled. Cars exceeding the levels would be taken off the track for adjustments. He explained that test days helped determine the types of tires that would be used in the races.

In the too small meeting room I detected an odor of cologne and Subway sandwiches eaten prior to the meeting. I noticed a photo exhibit in the room, shots of protestors, that were engaging images to mix into the proceedings. Deliberations might have been interesting along with a mix of different perspectives from the testimony but my time with the Noise Review Board was brief. These were a matter of fact bunch, who took on all variations of noise, the majority dealing with construction or race track. The board chairman mentioned people offering oft-repeated testimony could say something like, “it’s already been said,” to speed the meeting along. There was something about the formality that made me nervous. I had been there almost a half an hour and had already eyed the door knob and mentally rehearsed how I would make my exit. The sign on the door said pull but I reminded myself that I would need to pull the handle down first then open the door. Leaving the building, I remembered I wanted to ask the security guard about the protest but I had already gone through the turnstile. The guard was across the lobby talking to a coworker with his back turned. It was time to shift from politics to art.

Since the inception of the Arts Tax, it seemed like a burden to fork over additional money at income tax time. I learned from a crawl on the Channel 12 news that 92 art and music teachers in kindergarten through 5th grade schools were employed with the help of the tax. Working in an elementary school, it would be hard to imagine students without a music or art teacher. I’ve been slowly making my peace with the tax but the 70 bucks I pay for our household takes an annoying bite from our meager budget. This was the first I had heard of any events related to the Arts Tax so I had to check it out.

Arriving at the event space at the Portland Art Museum, I was surprised. The place was packed. Not expecting mobs of art enthusiasts, I weaved through the crowd as the school system Superintendent spoke in the museum’s third floor ball room. He sounded official, enthusiastic and supportive. I was inspired but not sure what to do about it. A video showing drama students going to Seattle to see Hamilton followed. Then more Hamilton. A student stood on a separate stage busting out a Hamilton-style Paul Revere rap. It was as educational as it was engaging but I was in Hamilton overload. Where was the food? This crowd, there were too many people to feed. Heading over to a side wall I spotted the spread on a small table with items covered in cellophane. There was not enough food to feed me much less the massive gathering. Once the food was ready I restrained myself. It wasn’t going to be fair to hog humus. I chewed and stewed then realized I needed to see the art–the fruit of the Arts Tax. The Grant High School Jazz band began. They were hopping. They played me off as I exited for art.

The ballroom crowd reminded me of how supportive people are for the arts in Portland. Having come from the Noise Review Board, I was also reminded that issues get people engaged in civic meetings too. I found the art on the first floor where it occurred to me that these young artists had ideas. There was a piece from each school with an art program. I ran into the art teacher from my school along with the artist and her family. I put the teacher on the spot by asking her if it was hard to choose a piece of art to represent the school. She emphasized the challenge of picking one creation from the work of all the students. The selected art work was neat and organized–a challenge when you’re creating your work in an hour of class time. It stood out from the other work displayed at the school. After a few minutes of trying to capture the image of a seagull sculpture I dashed off to catch the train before my ticket expired.

I arrived home with minutes to spare. After a bit of reflection, I reached two less than serious conclusions about that evening’s events. I doubted that the noise from the race track would ever bother me more than the noise in my own head and I realized that the Arts Tax is a necessary evil especially when it teaches kids about art and how to make it. This won’t stop me from complaining about it. Life will go on and next year I’ll grumble again about making the payment.

Post Script: For anyone wondering about the variance from the April 11, Noise Review Board meeting, I can report that it was approved. I would point you to the hearing’s minutes but they won’t be posted until the Board approves them at their next meeting.

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Evelyn Collins: Portland’s Mrs. Doubtfire?

Years ago I was riding my bike up North Williams Avenue, at a red light I noticed a portrait of Evelyn Collins on the Urban League building. I didn’t know who she was but her name was under her image. To me, she was the spitting image of Mrs. Doubtfire, a character played by the late actor Robin Williams in a movie of the same name. I took a picture and I rode on. Since then I’ve waited for my schedule to clear so I could explore the Evelyn Collins/Mrs.Doubtfire connection.

Evelyn and Mrs. Doubtfire

Robin Williams made some good movies like The Fisher King. He did a good Oliver Sacks impression in the movie Awakenings. He was endearing in Good Will Hunting and creepy in One Hour Photo. There are others, I’m sure, but I’m forgetting. He had a personality to be reckoned with. He had a heck of a movie career for a stand up comic. I didn’t consult IMDB which will prove to be my downfall, but I’ve been under the impression that his 90’s movie output included some bad role choices or movies that weren’t good. I’m remembering a trio of consecutive films that may have started with Patch Adams followed by Mrs. Doubtfire, where he played a female nanny and Bicentennial Man where he was cast as a robot. I had even considered that a 24 hour Robin Williams film festival would have had me running from the theater if I had been forced to watch these movies in consecutive order. I don’t mean any disrespect. The loss of Robin Williams was tragic. With all the insanity going on in the world today it sure would be nice to see him cutting up on a lame talk show.

I don’t remember if I saw Mrs. Doubtfire. I remember it being a kid’s movie, a comedy of errors with Williams stumbling around in pancake make up and wig that I’ve since learned took four and a half hours to apply. It seems unlikely that Williams would have known anything about Evelyn Collins, certainly not enough to base a character on her. I’m sure he visited Portland but it’s doubtful that he would have run across her filing away her essence in his subconscious for the time his movie career would require him to play a middle-aged woman. It occurred to me that I could do some research on the computer in hopes of finding a Doubtfire/Collins link. Robin Williams was sure to have made promotional appearances for the movie. I stumbled upon an interview on The Actor’s Studio where William’s made a comparison between Mrs. Doubtfire’s breasts and his own then began riffing on the idea of God thinking out loud while designing the female body. A post about Mrs. Doubtfire on Mental Floss described the movie’s production team looking at photos of women from the 1940’s before finding the image of an English woman who resembled what they were looking for in Mrs. Doubtfire. Of course it couldn’t have been something like Gus Van Sant, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Robin Williams going out to dinner at a restaurant to discuss the Good Will Hunting project while Evelyn Collins sat quietly in the background eating a bowl of soup only to find Robin Williams creating a mental character study for future reference of this interesting and vibrant woman on his way to the men’s room. This would have been impossible anyway because Mrs. Doubtfire was made well before Good Will Hunting.

I wanted to write about Evelyn Collins to learn about her connection to the Urban League and how she got her portrait hung on their building. While searching for information I learned from a blog post on the Eliot neighborhood website that Collins owned the building that has become Wonder Ballroom. There she ran a daycare facility and community center for minority children. It originally felt like I was onto something when I discovered that Collins worked in a profession similar to that of the fictional character that reminded me of her. This is only a coincidence. The Collins/Doubtfire connection has gone from a private in-joke between me and myself to a now, slightly public in-joke. I’ll still think of Mrs. Doubtfire every time I ride or drive up North Williams Avenue and look at the Urban League building but this feels unfair to the legacy of Evelyn Collins. She is known for far more than her slight resemblance to Mrs. Doubtfire. In the Eliot neighborhood piece, she was described as “an angel in our midst,” someone who provided “affordable Christian daycare to help working mothers.” From the Urban League website, I’ve determined that the portrait of Evelyn Collins is there to honor her life as a pioneer “who made a difference for Portland’s black community.” At least most people could agree that Mrs. Doubtfire dressed like Evelyn Collins.

 

Chopsticks III, How Can Be Lounge: An Orbit Obit

Here we go again, another place, like the strip club Exotica I memorialized, that’s shrouded in mystery to me and yet I feel a sense of loss at the closing of another Portland business. Chopsticks III, How Can Be Lounge, a karaoke club on an industrial boulevard, never seemed like it was in the best location. I wondered about it as I drove by on Columbia Boulevard, never stopping, but always looking to spot cars in the parking lot while imagining what was going on there. It felt lonely, the idea of someone wandering into that karaoke bar in the afternoon for a happy hour priced beverage and the chance to sing a song to a sparse crowd. It’s hard to tell if happy songs would have sounded more or less joyful in that atmosphere. I’m overlooking the social aspects of karaoke. Groups of cooperative coworkers might have congregated, sung and celebrated. I’ll never know. Unable to satisfy my curiosity, I remain haunted by the realization that I live too much in my imagination.

I heard about the last bash that happened Saturday, March 18th. Rich Reece generously offered to describe his experience closing the place out on that final night. We got sidetracked by Chopsticks III, How Can Be Lounge history. I learned that Chopsticks III opened sometime in the mid-aughts. Rich was familiar with two of the other three locations. There was a crew of “good jocks” that rotated through all the locations. Rich worked the deep recesses of the Average White Band back catalog at the old location on Burnside which is also closed. He joked that Chow opened Chopsticks III on Columbia Boulevard for him personally because he was a North Portland resident. He thought his quitting drinking had something to do with the closing of the business. The spirit of Chopsticks continues on at its 3390 NE Sandy Boulevard location.

David & Scott

Rich got to know the owner of the Chopsticks franchise, David Chow, when he sold advertising for the clubs while working for the Portland Tribune. One great thing I learned about Chow were the origins of his catch phrase. I’m impressed that Chow had his own phrase and he wasn’t afraid to use it. It’s there on the bar’s sign, in his ads and on his website. Rich explained that “how can be,” is a phrase of broken English used by Chow to express feelings of incredulousness. Chow also loves to use his image, a close up of his face in his advertising. He has always wanted to be a respected businessman. Rich steered me to his inspiration, car sales tycoon Scott Thomason who used his face in his advertising and has since left Portland under a cloud of controversy.

Outside the lifeless club a week after it’s last night of operation, I was struck by how big the parking lot was. A tall chain link separated the ample parking lot from the neighboring trucking business. In the corner of the outside lobby area, I spotted what should have been the first thing packed up, a decorative “how can be” ash tray with Chinese characters.

While I was taking photos a pick-up truck drove unto the lot and headed behind the defunct bar. I grabbed a few more shots bracing myself for a confrontation. An older man approached. He couldn’t have been nicer, asking what I was up to. I stressed how I had missed the bar’s last night and that I wanted to check the place out. He told me he was the new owner. This surprised me. I assumed the place would be demolished for the parking spaces. He told me he was reopening the building as another bar. Noticing the sign, he wondered out loud why it hadn’t been taken down. I mentioned that I had questioned whether this location was ever suitable for a bar. This led him to explain that his new business was actually a strip club adding something to the effect of “that’s what I’m going after.”

His revelation of being a strip club owner made me comfortable to confess that I was a blogger writing an obituary for the previous business. He seemed bemused by this which gave me the sense that the idea wasn’t strange to him. This made me feel good. We had a nice chat about the Iron City Beer/Pittsburgh T-shirt he was wearing. He’s from Portland but had been to Pittsburgh a couple of times. After that he excused himself to work on getting his club ready.

As he was leaving I asked him the name of his club.

“Desire,” he responded. Then, he walked away.