surprise birthday visit in Portland
Friday, July 22 2022
location: rural Hurley Township, Ulster County, NY
Gretchen and I woke up early this morning so we could begin a trip she'd planned to Portland, Oregon. We managed to get up early enough that there were actually a little time to dawdle with Dina, who had spent the night in our basement master guestroom. But, as I pointed out, we'd be very happy to leave early for the airport should we find ourselves stuck in traffic. So the goodbye wasn't too long and lingering and didn't enrage quite me as much as such goodbyes usually do. We left the house and dogs with Dina, Gilaud, and their kid, though they'd be dropping the dogs off at Ray & Nancy's house later today when they themselves left. Everything had become much more complicated with Powerful down in Westchester in the hospital again (perhaps for parvo again, though nobody was yet sure; it had something to do with a lack of red blood cells). Gretchen had, of course, planned our trip to Portland months ago with the assumption that Powerful would be housesitting for us, since it's one of the main ways he can contribute given his health issues.
To avoid having to make connections, we'd be flying out of JFK, and the drive there was unremarkable. Gretchen had booked our parking near the airport via a website called Way, which is sort of the AirB&B of parking web apps. But when we got to the address given, there was a parking lot, but it was completely fenced off, contained only a few cars, and was apparently unstaffed. So then Gretchen dug through her email to find another confirmation from Way, and it provided a completely different address. Nine minutes of driving later, we arrived at that destination only to find nothing there but a residential street. At that point Gretchen called a number and talked to a guy who gave us a third address, but driving there also proved fruitless. By this point we were losing our shit, with Gretchen driving ever-more erratically as the time buffer prior to our flight drained away. At one point I thought Gretchen was about to drive into a barricade and freaked out, which caused Gretchen to freak out at my over-reaction, yelling at me that I could've caused an accident. After that I did my best to tamp down my anxiety as Gretchen moaned about how everything was on her and she had to get us out of this problem without any help from me. But when it was clear we were following directions that were taking us very far away from the airport, she suddenly pulled over on the side of the road and had something of a meltdown, momentarily attempting to tear her accursed phone (an Android made by Motorola) into two pieces.
By now all calls to the phone number provided by Ways was going directly to voice mail, so I don't know how Gretchen found the fourth address to attempt to drive to. But it took us out near JFK's long-term parking to an ramp off the highway that had been blocked by a stretch of chainlink fence. "Are we in the Twilight Zone?" Gretchen demanded, now finding it more funny than infuriating, since by now it was pretty clear we'd have to park in JFK's official long-term parking lot and give up completely on fucking Ways, even though Gretchen had already pre-paid Ways and JFK parking costs about four times the Ways rate.
JFK is so enormous that long term parking requires a lot of driving and turns to get to, and not all of those turns are particularly well labeled. And there are stretches of the drive where there are no mentions of long term parking at all, leaving you to wonder if perhaps you made a wrong turn and are going to need to backtrack. "What if we just keep driving around in circles and there is no actual long term parking lot?" Gretchen asked, semi-seriously. In the end, there actually was a lot, and we even managed to find a space to park in that lot, though after that the signs about how best to get to a terminal were somewhat vague. There were shuttle buses, or were there? We could see some off in the distance, but there was no obvious place to wait for one. So then we started following signs for the AirTrain, though its logo itself looked like an arrow (comprised as it was of a piece of railroad track and an airplane) that was pointing in a different direction from the arrow pointing to where it was. And, since the building where one boarded the AirTrain had no signage on it whatsoever, we still had to ask people to find out where to get on the AirTrain and also to learn that the AirTrain actually is the form of transportation we were seeking. (Gretchen hadn't been entirely sure whether or not it was just branding for a line of the subway that only gets one to and from the general airport vicinity.) All of this ignorance and confusion grew out of the fact that we hadn't parked in an official JFK parking lot in over a decade, and were only here because of how deeply useless Ways.com had proven to be.
But once we'd boarded the AirTrain, everything was better. We were out of the oppressive climate-change-worsened heat of the vast JFK long-term parking parkinglot, the train was fast, and the security checkpoint at Terminal 7 had the shortest line we'd ever seen at a major airport. Gretchen had signed us up for TSA PreCheck (which, after months of waiting, I finally was approved for despite what must be an interesting FBI file), though the practical effects in this particular experience were modest at best; the only advantage it gave us was not having to remove our shoes, which, in this case, were flip flops.
Our Alaska Airlines flight to Portland was completely full and, when we arrived at the gate, already boarding. But I still had time to buy myself an ice coffee.
Gretchen had done the thing where she gets us one seat at a window and the other on the aisle in hopes that the seat between us would be empty, but of course when we got to our seats, there was someone in that middle seat. Fortunately, she was a thin woman with a cast iron bladder who was happy to have a window seat. She didn't end up needing to use the bathroom for the entire flight, which took nearly six hours.
Owing partly to the new fast-spreading BA5 variant of covid, we'd been wearing masks constantly in the airport and then in the airplane. But someone had told Gretchen that the air filtration in a flying plane is so thorough that there is no need to wear a mask once you're in the air. So we took our masks off, which was nice. Six hours of those elastic bands pulling on my ears would've made me very cranky.
I'd smuggled some vodka onto the plane, but it was too hard to get to once we were seated, so I actually bought alcohol on this flight, something I used to never do just out of some sort of frugality principle. The alcohol I bought was an IPA, and it wasn't too bad for airplane beer.
Another unusual thing about this flight was that Gretchen had paid extra to order us meals, which turned out to be surprisingly hearty tofu salads that arrived early in the flight. I ate mine while waiting for 10mg of ambien to kick in.
Next thing I remember, Gretchen was wiping drool from the corner of my mouth. I woke up immediately after that and was awake for the rest of the flight, and it felt to us that the ambien had only made us sleep for maybe a half hour. But it must've worked better than that, because hours had passed and we only had an hour or two left before landing in Portland. At the end there, Gretchen and I shared headphones while watching a hilarious Tig Notaro stand-up performance whose video had been replaced with clever animation about various subjects, particularly the Kool Aid Man. We were laughing so hard that I thought it was a little unfair to the nice thin woman trapped in our row against the window.
The main reason for us being in Portland at all was to surprise Gretchen's college friend Gilly on the occasion of her birthday, which was today. Gretchen had arranged with Allen, Gilly's partner, to pick us up from the airport and to also take Gilly out to a restaurant where we'd be sitting there ready to blow her mind. I'm not into birthday surprises at all and find the whole thing a bit tiresome, but I was willing to play along. Allen and Gilly live so close to the Portland airport that he didn't need much notice to be there waiting outside when we finally got off our plane and walked from our terminal.
In the past, Gretchen and I would've stayed with Gilly and Allen, but in recent years their incontinent dog Gracie has made their house unpleasant for guests, and in any case, to surprise Gilly we'd need another base of operations. So Gretchen had rented us an AirBnB for the week. It was over on 24th Avenue north of Ainsworth, well within walking distance of Gilly & Allen's place. Allen took us directly there and then hung out talking with us for more than an hour. Normally I just want to decompress after a flight, and found it irritating that he didn't immediately let us be. But Allen is shy person who doesn't like that many people, and the ones he does like (such as Gretchen) he really really likes.
The place where the big birthday surprise would be happening was Top Burmese on the west side of the Willamette in a bustling neighborhood near downtown Portland that reminded me of a prettier version of the East Village (so, maybe Venice, California?). Gretchen called a Lyft to take us there, which was driven by a gentleman who slapped his thigh along to the cheezy sax-infused rhythm of the muzak he was deliberately playing on his stereo. (Evidently this music has an actual audience.)
The maître d' at Top Burmese was a bit dense and, when Gretchen explained our plan to her and presented a birthday cake (Allen had picked it up for us) to be brought out later, she said she would have to ask the kitchen if this was something they could do, which, no surprise, of course they could.
We took a seat near the back and ordered drinks because it was a little early. And then we waited (Gilly tends to run a little late). Then it was go-time. Allen and Gilly appeared at the front, and he did his best to explain to the maître d' (who, remember, we'd explained everything to beforehand) that he needed a table for two but that he was, well (wink wink) lying about all this. At about this time, Gilly thought she recognized me, but that didn't make any sens. Why would I be in Portland? But the woman I was with, well, she looked like Gretchen. What was going on? She came over to investigate further, and I snapped a photo of the amazement on her face. Success, she'd been surprised!
After most of that shock and surprise had been absorbed, we could all look at the menu and decide what to eat. Top Burmese isn't a vegan restaurant, but it has good vegan options and Gretchen had picked it because there are no longer and fancy vegan restaurants in Portland.
Top Burmese is unusual in that it has a robot actually deliver the food to the tables from the kitchen. The robot looks more like gym equipment than it does R2D2; it's basically a rolling shelf with a small touchscreen at the top, and it knows the route to all the tables (which broadcast their positions via beacons). When the screen isn't providing an interface for the customer to confirm they've taken the order, it displays a simple abstract face of eyes and a mouth. The robot is very good at not running into people, though sometimes it seemed to get in the way.
As for the food, it wasn't actually all that great. Gretchen thought the salad was "weird" and I thought the use of transparent noodles in my mushroom soup was ill-advised.
Our waitress was much more on-the-ball than the maître d', and she seemed to genuinely enjoy participating in the big surprise. Later, when it came time to deliver the cake, she put candles on it and had the robot deliver it to our table, doing a little dance after pressing the button to tell the robot what table to take it to. I hadn't pictured the robot when I was imagining any of this, and it made the whole thing that much more hilarious.
At the end of the evening, Gilly returned us to our AirBnB in her neighborhood. Being still on Eastern Daylight Time, we went to bed early. [REDACTED]
Gilly reacting to the big surprise at Top Burmese.
Our robot friend with Allen and Gilly. Click to enlarge.
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