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August 2nd, 2006 Karla Starr | Featured Stories
 

City Of Slackers

WW takes a joy ride with the self-professed expert on "Doing Nothing" to find out just why Portland is so damn laid-back.

     
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Who were Francis Pettygrove of Portland, Maine, and Asa Lovejoy of Boston, Mass.?

If you said "this city's founders," you're right.

But if you said, "lazy, lazy men," you'd be right, too: When it came to brainstorming names for our metropolis, each man could think of nothing but his own hometown. This city is called Portland because a lazy white guy won a coin toss.

Things haven't changed much in Portland since then. Odds are, you know at least one person whose cheap apartment boasts more anarchist roommates than rooms, and for whom band practice is an all-day event. If not, you know someone who sells "art" during Last Thursday (crocheted garden-tool cozies, $5-$15) and uses the proceeds to buy treatment for their "glaucoma." I actually know a man who quit his job as a barista at Coffee People because he "couldn't handle all the corporate bullshit." (I am not making this up.) In short, our town's relationship with work is what one might call dysfunctional.

Call them slackers, hippies, loafers, bums, idlers or "that stoned guy on the porch"—either way, in Portland they're the only group of people who outnumber whites. Or are they? Enter the newly published textbook on the matter, Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America. Reading the book—an entertaining cultural history of our relationship with work—different themes emerge about the typical personality and environment needed for slackerdom to thrive. In town last month for a book signing, Doing Nothing author Tom Lutz agreed to ride around town with me, take in the sights, examine some local stats, and help decipher if I was being too harsh or Portland was being too lazy. But first, the Los Angeles writer had to wake up from his nap.

"I'm sorry," he said, entering the Heathman Hotel's lobby 30 minutes late with a case of bed-head. "I thought we were meeting at 4:30. Fitting, huh?"

Work Ethic

After we jump into my Toyota, the first thing I ask the slacker expert for is a definition of work. In Doing Nothing, Lutz cites an example of his hippie days in which he lived on a commune, sans "real job." Without money to pay for tofu, they made it themselves from the soybean up. "The whole mishegaas [Yiddish for 'craziness'] comes, roughly, to about five or six hours of labor to produce a few pounds of the stuff," he writes. "That seems like a lot of work," I say, admitting that I'd rather pay for tofu (or steak, really). So what does that have to do with the definition of work?

"[Work] has nothing to do with how much actual labor you're performing," he explains. "So much of that has to do with the person's intention—we just didn't want to work for a company or corporation. It's a countercultural thing—you're making some kind of statement against something that the culture believes in whenever you're a part of a subculture.... That's part of the very nature of a subculture."

Fact: You can spend time "doing things"—making coffee, creating art—and still be a slacker. Psst: According the U.S. Department of Labor there are 2,350 coffee shop, cafeteria, concession "counter attendants" in the Portland metro area.

Liberal Politics

As we continue our joy ride, it's hard to not notice the twentysomethings with clipboards, signing people up for OSPIRG or to vote as we cruise up Southwest Broadway; they've staked out every corner. "The theme of environmentalism and liberal politics is big [in slacker history]," Lutz admits. The heroes in Doing Nothing reject the work demands of their day because of disdain for the status quo.

Fact: In that case, our city's liberal achievements read like a Doing Nothing "best-of" list: 71.57 percent of Portlanders self-identify as Democrats. Citysearch lists 64 active environmental organizations in the greater Portland area. Prevention magazine named Portland America's Best Walking City in April 2006. We hug animals, too: PETA has named us America's Best Vegetarian-Friendly Large City.

Pot-smoking

"There's a lot of drug and alcohol use in the book," I mention as we head down Hawthorne Boulevard, the unofficial headquarters of the city's hippie coterie. Lutz snickers; at one point in Doing Nothing, he admits that in his youth "pot-smoking indolence was my métier." I admit that I'm disappointed we haven't actually seen more slackers on Hawthorne. Lutz assures me that "many of the real slackers in this city are in their parents' basements."

Fact: The Oregon Medical Marijuana Act makes it OK for some people to smoke the motivation-sucking Cannabis sativa. According to a recent episode of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, "Everyone in Oregon has glaucoma."

Low Cost of Living

On Hawthorne, we get outta my car and strike up a conversation with a man asking for change. Lutz discovers that with the money the man makes from panhandling, he can afford to rent a loveseat and kitchen privileges. He says his leftover money will be used to buy beer. "Well, for a lot of people in Portland, I guess, if the real motivation is liquor, then nobody's really a slacker," Lutz chuckles.

I mention that just this past June, Mercer Human Resource Consulting ranked Portland No. 111 out of 150 cities for worldwide cost of living; only Pittsburgh, Detroit and Winston-Salem were ranked as cheaper places to live in the United States. "Yeah, there's definitely a relationship.... in terms of economics—it's very hard to be a slacker in Manhattan. Time is money," Lutz admits.

Fact: Even though the average cost of an apartment in Portland is around $650, according to data maven Sperling's, many Portlanders get by spending far less: "Money's your problem? Move in with thirteen people, it's cheaper. And more interesting," writes Raymond Mungo, lefty co-founder of the Liberation News Service.

Weather

While driving back over the Morrison Bridge to the west side of town, I cut the air conditioning and stick my hand out the window and comment on the weather. "It's nice here," Lutz agrees, smiling at the sun.

I remember a pertinent passage from Doing Nothing: "The more perfectly adapted to its environment, the less an organism would need to struggle," Lutz quotes whywork.org's Chris Davis as saying. "This results in a net increase of idle time, time that people can spend in pursuits other than self-maintenance."

Fact: In Portland, the temperature rarely dips low enough for snow to stick (no shoveling required), and, current freakish heat wave aside, it's rarely hot or humid enough to require air conditioning. And you don't even have to remember to water your lawn—the rain will be back soon enough.

Visible Slacking

Sick of sticking to Portland's stereotypical slacker enclaves, I take a chance and drive Lutz to the Pearl District. Surely, yuppies aren't slackers—and yet, as in Pioneer Courthouse Square and in Southeast Portland, people are seen spilling into the streets, but none of them are seen working or hurrying.

"This is a more visible kind of slacking," observes Lutz. "In Los Angeles, for example, it's a different kind of slacker subculture: You have socialites making money so that they can slack. You don't see them on the street. Here, they have nowhere to go—and they want people to know that."

Fact: We've got a wealth of visible slacking options: Within the Portland metro area, there are 37,000 acres of "green spaces" and parks, including mammoth, 5,000-acre Forest Park. Add approximately 340 coffee shops, and you're a stone's throw away from someone who, clearly, is not working.

The Good Life

As we end our tour and pull up to the curb of the Heathman Hotel, I remember another great quote from Doing Nothing: "Slackers are precisely those who argue that the good life is better than the good job," Lutz wrote. Maybe this statistic cements Portland's place in the slacker world best: This past April, Mercer Consulting also ranked Portland No. 43 out of 350 international cities in its worldwide Quality of Living index. Zurich was 1; Baghdad was 350.

So yeah, you could say we're slackers. You could also say that we're a city of pot-smoking, anti-corporate, cheap-living, mild weather-loving liberals who value our free time and would rather climb trees than any corporate ladder. After all, isn't that the very environment needed for any creative type—from part-time punk rockers to the so-called "creative class"—regardless of whether their passions provide their paycheck? Maybe we're all taking a lesson from the book of Thoreau and engaging in creative living by choosing a little of everything our city has to offer rather than focusing on one thing: work.

Lutz snickers as a Heathman valet in British beefeater attire—complete with silly hat and ornate coat—approaches my car. Lutz shakes his head: "Sometimes, a working life is so degrading."

 
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