What We Really Mean When We Say “Keep Portland Weird”

A few months back I was at a karaoke night in North Portland when I ran into a man who is what we call “Portland Famous”. I’m going to avoid naming him, but if you’ve been to Saturday Market at all over the last twenty years; you’ve probably seen him. I remember when I first went there as an adolescent running into him, and immediately getting a sinking feeling. There was something very wrong with him and no one seemed to be acknowledging that, well, other than to hand him dollar bills and laugh after he’d finish singing another song. He obviously needed help, and unlike many street performers in town, his act was a bit of a farce.

Back at the karaoke bar, this guy, who was obviously enjoying his booze as much as I had been that evening, walked up to a group of girls I knew. He then pulled one aside and told her how lonely he was, asked for a hug, while rubbing his crotch against her thigh. Her response was to laugh it off. Later he walked up to me to try a similar move, but I managed to duck away from him. When I turned around to make sure he wasn’t following me, he walked towards me with an obvious erection. Later this local Portland celebrity kept gyrating his boner in the faces of three of my female friends during his karaoke set, the crowd cheered him on and I couldn’t help but think that if we hadn’t given him a license to behave this way, if his identity wasn’t tied up in essentially being ‘weird’, would he have been asked to leave?

Somewhere behind me I heard someone laugh and say “Keep Portland Weird.”

A little history for you; the “Keep Portland Weird” campaign was started by local business owners like Music Millennium and Cinema 21, to promote shopping at independently-owned local businesses. Over time it’s become a sort of rally cry for those of us in the younger generations—let your freak flag fly. We are Portland, we will ride unicycles to work and we love a good weirdo.

But what if you aren’t wearing a costume when you are being eccentric? Are you then not worthy of my attention, compassion, or my dollars? But what if you still are actually wearing a silly costume? Last winter, we learned there could be a human toll to labeling people, not places, with the “Keep Portland Weird” moniker. In November, Kirk Reeves, was found at Smith and Bybee Wetlands, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But not many people knew Reeves by his real name until he died. Instead, they knew him as “the guy in the white suit with a Mickey Mouse ears hat that plays trumpet on the on-ramp of the Hawthorne Bridge for change”.

When Reeves’ death was announced someone who knew him was quoted on KGW News channel 8’s website as saying, “ever since I’ve known Portland, I’ve known Kirk Reeves. He’s actually more of a landmark than Powell’s or Voodoo Doughnuts,” which disturbs me to no end. He was a person, not a landmark. He was a person who evidently killed himself because his health was failing from diabetes, and he was struggling to take his music career to the next level, auditioning for and being rejected by “America’s Got Talent” and “Shark Tank”.

I’m sure Reeves had real genuine friends who knew him and loved him, regardless of his local celebrity status and were concerned about him. Too bad he didn’t get the help he so desperately needed. But I have to wonder, if he wasn’t wearing a suit and Mickey Mouse ears while he played trumpet during your workday commute, would you have flooded my Facebook newsfeed with his obituary and mournful messages of grief?

We could probably blame all kinds of things on this bastardization of a well-intended philosophy. Perhaps it’s the influx of ‘hipsters’ and their ‘ironic humor’. Or you can blame all the art school transplants that felt alienated in their small town, and came here because they heard they could wear a sparkly cape while they biked to the coffee shop. Maybe the tension’s being caused between the poor, the transients, and the severely mentally ill and those of us in our twenties, who treat them like they are just characters in a Hunter S. Thompson book that we are trying to replicate in our own lives. You could probably even blame the cheap booze or even “Portlandia”. Personally, I think it rests with a real lack of empathy between people in this city right now.

There’s another sinister twisting of the slogan I’ve now experienced, too. The phrase ‘rape culture’ has been thrown around a lot lately, but when I first came back to Portland I went to another karaoke bar (maybe that’s that problem?) and within ten minutes of being in this place three different guys in various strange, neon outfits had grabbed my ass. When I finally went ballistic on one of them, the guy’s response was one of outrage at me. “Whoa, baby! Keep Portland Weird, right?” Meaning, “hey, don’t harsh my buzz—this is Portland and eccentricity is excusable and the norm!”

That may be true, but bad behavior isn’t. No amount “Keep Portland Weird” stickers on your bike helmet is going to trick me into thinking you are anything other than an asshole when you ‘accidentally’ two-hand my ass at a bar. And no amount of those stickers on your car is going to make me think you aren’t an asshole when you marginalize yet another street kid by soliciting them to do back flips for dollar bills at Saturday Market.

I have to wonder if the stickers actually spelled out what we all are actually doing here, if you’d proudly affix them to your laptops. But I can see why you wouldn’t want to do that– because “Keep Portland Marginalized” isn’t as catchy.

4 thoughts on “What We Really Mean When We Say “Keep Portland Weird”

  1. Hi, I visted and read this post a couple of days ago, I have lived in Portland for 8yrs, now and a very familiar with both of the people you mention, Mr. Reeves really touched me once. I was p’d off kickin’ the invisible can across the Hawthorne bridge a few years back and looked up and saw Mr. reeves with his smile workin’ his magic, he made eye contact, it put me in check, whatever frustration I was feeling left. I thought about that day everytime I’d see Mr. Reeves, I imagined that he impacted many people in positive way, that he had regular, supporters and followers, that helped him keep his magic, alive, I imagined that he must have a magical little apartment, full of all of his surprises.
    My Lady friend told me when he passed on, then I saw his memorial, where he worked his magic, she didn’t tell me how he went, because the subject of suicide is really close to home. I have lost a couple of people like that, it sucks, you don’t know what’s below all the surface sht, there’s no one to blame or be angry at, you ask yourself what you could of done, could I have been a better friend, brother or cousin.
    The other guy, well I had that feelin’ somethin’ ain’t cool, about this dude, then I’d get on myself, that I was being judgmental, no he’s just the goofy dude that makes people laugh.
    it’s impossible to know what’s below all the surface sht.
    Thanks for your story,
    Peace and Love J.A.M.


  2. Thank you for your well written and right on piece! I moved here from Santa Cruz 4 years ago. Santa Cruz has that same bumper sticker only it says, Keep Santa Cruz weird. One mayor said he loved seeing the “diversity” as he strolled past all the teen run aways selling dope to survive, the untreated insane, the PTS vets, and the mentally retarded who had no places to live. “Negotiations” were made with the homeless who pooped in the San Lorenzo River, a tourist attraction that meanders through town. So here it is again in Portland. Weird is not a synonym for sad. Parmalee Cover


  3. Thank you for this articulate, spot-on exposure of the “other side” of Portland eccentricity. I can relate all too well to the behavior you’re describing, and it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who was getting sick of being uncomfortable after-hours downtown. Leaving after Powell’s readings was starting to get dicey, but I thought I was crazy—“why are you scared in Portland?” friends kept asking me, “you’re acting like you’re in New York or something.” Like being harassed is okay as long as you’re not getting stabbed.


  4. Amen! I haven’t experienced as much sexual harassment as you have described here in the name of “keeping Portland weird” but I think you have a valid point about not allowing that slogan to excuse the behavior of creeps in this town. OR to blind us to the real help (social services) that some of those we classify as “weirdos” might need. Thanks for the thoughtful and provocative post!


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