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Rabelais of Place

So I go into this great bookstore here in Portland, Rabelais, which has every sort of food book you’d want: cook books, food porn, food studies, rare books, art books (motto: thought for food): and I get into a conversation with the owner. Misty had been in earlier in the week and talked to him about CSAs, so he knew that we’d come from Austin, so we got talking about that.

“I’m not anti-development or anything like that,” he said, then pointed out all the weird development schemes happening in Portland, how city government made strange decisions to pick a developer for a $100 million pier development project, how the city wants to run a multi-lane highway down the center of the peninsula, to hook the Old Port to the highway. How a comedy club had been closed down because the piers under it were rotted, but how this was probably a scheme just to knock down and rebuild the pier. “You’re not going to get away from it, man,” he said. “You can’t get away from it.”

“Yeah, I said, “I know development is going to happen, I know I can’t get away from that. And I know I’ll never get away from that huge distance between the wonderful, glorious way a project is sold to the people and how it’s actually realized as crappy. But everybody wants to move to Austin. I want to get to a place where I can figure out why.”

And these are my mots d’escalier: I also want to get away from an atmosphere where you’re expected to sit back while crappy changes are crammed down your throat, and where everybody sits back, wondering: Should I like it? I want to go to a place that’s cool but which I don’t care that much about, that I’m not attached to, so however it was ruined or is going to get ruined it doesn’t bother me. Where all the activist hopes, when they fail, as they inevitably do, I can note their naivete and move on. I want to go to a place that I can apprehend as a place, not somewhere I know so much about, I can’t stop at a stoplight without knowing so much about what was there, when I stopped there last and with whom, what used to be on the corner, that little store, will it make it? And the guilt: I should have gone there more, now it’s closed, that little place. Or: I should have swum there more, now I can’t get there as easily. Or: I should have done this or that. How much a place where you live can be laced with regret it’s astounding. Standing there in the bookstore I make an embarrassment of myself, bitter and rageful about the place he just left, as if it wasn’t him that left, as if he hadn’t been a self-proclaimed nomad for so long.

It was ironic in a way to be standing in a food bookstore ranting about this, because food is now THE focus of desires and politics and moralities. (Note that Michael Pollan’s first book was about place, but every one since has been about food.) Was place ever that focus? I know theories of place were hot in academia in the 70s and 80s. Has the fetish of place been replaced by a fetish of food? And maybe we should go back to taking place more seriously again. There are multiple hitches there, I realize, namely that food is a useful device because it lies at the core of the consuming American self. I’m not saying food isn’t interesting, or the fascination with food doesn’t have merit. (And I love Rabelais Books. And in a few days we’re going to Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, at Don’s recommendation. And yesterday I bought an oyster knife.) But when the limits of that consuming American self are reached, when the food you love can’t be shipped from Chile or California or wherever, and when it’s prohibitively expensive to drive, you will learn to, have to learn, to appreciate place anew.

We won’t see a new politics of place arise until the real energy crisis sets in. It’s like musical chairs: when the music stops, you’ll have to love where you end up.