There are now only two old-time drugstore soda fountains left in Portland, and both can be found on Northeast Sandy. Sure, the new-fangled Cosmic soda shop off Belmont Street will still serve you an egg cream from an instruction booklet, by a cash register that sells bacon cotton candy as an impulse buy. But in Roseway and Hollywood, respectively, Fairley's and Paulsen's pharmacies remain monuments to childhood memories most of us never had, a wide-eyed world where you bought your first condom in the same place you bought your first malted milkshake.
4246 NE Sandy Blvd., 287-1163.
The 96-year-old Paulsen's is a thoroughly modern pharmacy, but its interior looks a like a coastal gift store—complete with 2-inch caramel and peanut-butter fudge squares from Rockaway Beach that pharmacist Gary Balo warns me not to eat in one sitting.
Near a collection of trophies, the back wall is tiled with metal-plated Coca-Cola ads, and a black-and-white photograph of two men with what looks to be a bird skeleton. But Paulsen's comes by its nostalgia honestly. Balo took over from his ex-partner, James Meade, who took over from Charles Paulsen. He calls out his customers' first names when they enter. The soda counter is staffed on a Saturday afternoon by two teenage girls who might be sisters; one is wearing a pink sweatshirt that reads "Believer." They are the only teens in the shop.
Green River lime soda comes out of the fountain, and the egg cream ($2) comes in chocolate and vanilla. I haven't had an egg cream before, but that's OK, neither has the girl who's making me one. The shop's soupy vanilla version is a bit like an eggy Vanilla Julius—despite the fact that an egg cream (in the oldest joke in New York City) contains neither egg nor cream but rather soda, milk and syrup. The blackberry milkshake ($3.50, add 50 cents for malt) is milkier than it is thick—you can suck it up fast enough to get an ice-cream headache—but it's flavorful, and not overly sweet.
Still, my friend and I soon realize we are two grown men alone at a pharmacy, talking to teenage girls about ice cream. As with so much that belongs more to the past than the future, Paulsen's is both wonderful and sad, adrift in the world. I eat the entire delicious fudge square in the car, against the pharmacist's advice.
7206 NE Sandy Blvd., 284-1159, fairleyspharmacy.com.
Like Paulsen's, Fairley's is a strangely oblong sliver of a building formed by Sandy's diagonal jag. Inside, however, the 1913-founded pharmacy is a spacious avalanche of vitamin shelves, museum displays of ancient tonics, and old-fashioned good cheer.
The fact I'm ordering milkshakes at 9 am seems to positively delight the pharmacist, who counsels me—with the full force of post-graduate schooling behind her—that at least I'm getting some calcium.
The soda counter has been modernized to include a coffee shop, which also makes espresso milkshakes. The flavor array of phosphate sodas ($2.25 for a large) is bewildering in its variety, from salted caramel to English toffee. The pomegranate is blessedly tart and comes with a mild chemistry-set aftertaste that I find charming. The malted menu includes multiflavor Umpqua ice-cream blends from strawberry-cherry to peanut butter-chocolate, and an option for Oreo crumbles. But I am a strawberry purist since childhood, and get a thick and lovely malted for $3.75.
The egg cream ($2.25) has syrup on the bottom, with a froth of milk soda ascending the glass, though it's not quite thick enough to hold up the straw, which I'm told is an industry-standard criterion. The shop is pure sunshine: The light streams blindingly through the windows and under the eaves of my brain, which is in the throes of a near-frightening sugar buzz. I don't know whether I feel young again or really old.