Jimmy Hendrix raised a hand over the crowd.
“Hey there fellas!”
He made his way through the sea of nick-nack hunting families to where Alex, Dave, and I were entering the market. As usual, he was dressed in an outfit of purple duds, an array of multi-colored scarves, rings, and a studded, wide-brimmed hat, with his guitar slung around his shoulders. We exchanged high fives and he said, “What’s been happening?”
Dave looked on with amusement while Alex and I traded a few words with Jimmy, who said after a while that he had to get back to work.
“Who was that guy?” Dave, who was visiting Portland from Seattle, asked.
“Jimmy Hendrix.” We watched as Jimmy made his way back into the crowd, stopping occasionally to offer his services as a photo prop, for just a few dollars please, guys and girls.
Portland’s Waterfront Saturday Market (we were there on a Sunday, but apparently by ‘Saturday’ they mean ‘Weekend’) is filled with such characters. There’s Lefty, the one armed guitar player who plays with a hook and sings with a gravelly voice that would make Tom Waits envious. Of course there’s Elvis (who looks more like a balding Dracula). He strums and stammers his way through a variety of classic rock tunes, but mostly just plays “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, over and over again. Besides a few other regulars, there is a constantly shifting phantasmagoria of black leather and denim-clad gutter punks and street kids, almost all of whom are utilizing some generally ineffective gimmick in the hopes of getting enough money for a can of beer.
The three of us made our way past the Skidmore Fountain train stop, over to the beer garden and stage where three aged rockers were pumping out random covers. They played songs by Golden Earring and Led Zeppelin and Creedence Clearwater, pausing every so often to call up Elvis for yet-another rendition of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” There we purchased some only slightly overpriced beer and a tray of vaguely Asian noodles, then sat to listen to the music, watch the girls pass, and sit in the sun to recover from the previous night.
The crowd of marketers around us was made up of people from a wide variety of lifestyles. There were a good number of twenty-somethings who, like us, were sitting around bleary-eyed and beer in hand, not there to buy anything outside of the beer garden. The beer garden offers a number of food options, beer and wine, coffee, for some reason contains a knife seller, houses a palm reading Romanian, and opens into a head shop. All of this, combined with the classic-rock cover band, is very Portland, and people come from all over Oregon to spend their afternoons experiencing a bit of the weirdness. Many of these are well-to-do professional couples who have come to pick up some handmade jewelry, but the majority are suburban families on the lookout for some triviality that would look good on the mantle. Other than beer and noodles, the only things Alex and I ever bought were sunglasses and straw hats.
Eventually we grew weary of beer and exhausted our supply of noodles, so we took Dave to wander through the little stands, where he stopped occasionally to look at a poncho or tie-dyed shirt, as he’s into that sort of thing. Eventually we crossed Naito Park Way and made our way through the second half of the market, then went down to the river park to lie in the grass. Portland only gets something like sixty days of actual sunlight per year, so on a clear, summer day like that one, everyone was out and the park was packed with families having picnics, hippies kicking around hacky sacks, young people who drank from concealed beers, and more gutter punks and street kids who were there because where else were they going to go?
Taking the eastbound train
After a while, we stood to make our way back to the train which would bring us to our home on the east side of the river. As we made our way through the part of the market nearest the river, we stopped and had a beer from the Rogue Brewery and more or less listen to a country-funk band. As far as I know, Portland is the only place in the world where one will find such music.
Back at the train platform we witnessed an interesting, heart-warming, and undeniably strange scene. Elvis was at his customary post by the station (probably playing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”), when a fairly well-off looking man and little girl stopped in front of him. Elvis’s arm froze mid-strum. He raised both his hands. “Brother! My brother, my God! It’s been five years!”
The well-off man looked a bit uncomfortable and nodded and said hello and addressed Elvis by a name that I do not remember and do not care to. He will always be Elvis to Portland, and each year the city celebrates his birthday at Dante’s, one of the most popular rock and roll clubs in town.
Elvis has not left the building…
Elvis looked down at the girl. “And you must be my niece!” He put out his hand, which she shook shyly, and he told her to, “Call me Elvis.”
Right then our train pulled up and we left this touching reunion to go along its henceforth undocumented way. Later that night went to see Sinferno (which like Elvis’s birthday is a regular event, only Sinferno happens every Sunday), which hosts an eccentric collection of fire breathers, magicians, burlesque and go-go dancers, sword swallowers, dirty comedy groups, and a variety of other unconventional acts. Lefty was there, sitting out front and talking to anyone who would listen, and so was Elvis. Later that night we got fish-tacos from Portland’s oldest strip-club Mary’s. All in a night work for one of America’s great western towns of the weird.
Have you seen anything strange or perhaps out of place at the Portland Saturday Market? Or anything weird anywhere else at all? Share your experiences below. We can all use a good story.