Ode: Ryan Allen reads "Shanghai Portland"
I could have known the instant I saw the eleven foot woman in a pink kimono, cherry red rouge, and dirty-blonde frizzed wig that my ringing in of the new 2008 year would be remarkable. Could have seen it coming if I’d only watched for it, if only I’d read the website I’d of seen it: the promise of “live painters, stilters, hoopers, costumed fiends, balloons, dragons, and YOU!” Could have known it was special because we had to take a bus to get here—to a hidden, tucked away in the corner kind of place where cars and feet can’t get you. Should’ve just looked skyward toward the marquee: Wonder Ballroom in neon, Freak Mountain Ramblers and Everyone Orchestra in bold black on lighted white. Could have known because there were six of together to take on the night. Could have known the second I crossed the old-faded wooden threshold and walked up the stairs. Should have known because I already needed the snake-slender handrail for support. Should have known because I’d been drinking beer since one.
Now some ten hours later, and two new Beam & 7s nearly gone, I can barely see through the theater haze and darkness. In the flashing purple neon, I can barely make out the crowd of faces, their wild contortions, their mouths and eyes twisted, stretched by psychedelics, wrenched by a half-dozen Mirror Pond’s or 7 & 7s, blurred by a half a pack of Reds and a new world record for amount of bong hits in one hour.
Japanese tea light boat drink umbrellas line the walls. Circling about the New Year’s party, Andy Warhol’s evil twin brother, Brian Wilson (the LSD years), a whole gamut of Flannery O’Connor peacock ladies, a woman on stilts, three plastic lit-up gnomes, fairies, and a purple, red and green dragon. Tony Furtado, the banjo and guitar player in the Everyone Orchestra, dons a white sailor suit, shiny black shoes, beanie white cap and all.
We toast in four time zones—East, Central, Mountain, and Pacific. We hug. We kiss. We toast. We dance. We close our eyes and can still see the Japanese tea lights. Can still hear Darol Anger’s fiddle screech and moan. Still can hear the Furtado banjo finger rolls. Can hear “The Chain,” “Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself Again,” and “Sitting on Top of the World.”
After midnight the whole world inside the concert hall from band to fan spills forth simultaneously in time, space, wonder, and light.
The whole of Wonder Ballroom surges. Acoustic electricity. Stephanie Schneiderman from the Dirty Martini’s emerges from behind a curtain and sings a song. The dragon hovers and floats in intervals spitting champagne fire above the crowd. Glasses are clanged. Joints are passed freely. Yellow, red and green lights spin shadows between the boat drink umbrellas on the wall and the Japanese tea lights scattered below. Improvisational orchestration. The hardwood floor vibrates sonically, reverberating each and every pulse and pop from the Mackee speakers booming from the stage. Jugglers mingle and weave in and out of the throngs of people dancing, swaying inside the sound.
By one in the morning, more tired than drunk, I can barely stand. Outside, a Lincoln Town Car limousine waits for us. Walking out, looking up, I spy ventilation ducts lining the ceiling. Not paying attention, I cut in between a six-foot two blonde woman in a disco ball blue dress with matching high heels swaying seductively with a short guy in jeans, a flannel shirt, and a scary Halloween monster mask.
The next morning, haggard, hung-over, cooking bacon and eggs in my friends’ kitchen in Portland’s Hawthorne there’s so little I remember. Did a fairy really sprinkle me with pixy dust? I find myself wondering. Did I really see a purple and red and green dragon? Why do I have a “Don’t Mess With the Law” sticker on my pants? So much, so easy to forget. I forget even the songs. And I find myself remembering ones I’m sure they couldn’t have covered like “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sexual Healing,” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
To the grease and fat-stained smell of sizzling bacon and the soft sensation of a sharp blade slicing green peppers and red onions, my eyes close momentarily and my memory contorts into distorted images of swirls of color and light. It ambles shapelessly, turns corners, here and there and here back again—to the bourbon, to the dragon, to the banjo rolls and fiddle moans, to the friends next to me dancing on air, the friends now sprawled across the hardwood floor like some scene from Studio 54 meets Apocalypse Now meets St. Elmo’s Fire. Rambles to that place where the line between what is real, what is fake, and what is outright fabrication seems so shady, so blurred and fuzzy at the edges. Until I arrive at the place where my memory seems truer than the actual thing itself. It’s one of those feelings you have when time crawls and you can see yourself outside of yourself, looking back, looking in. And sometimes you see what you thought you saw all along and you’re not surprised. And sometimes you are surprised and ashamed that you never saw it all along even though it was right in front of your face. And it makes you sad and you say to yourself that if you ever have a chance to make things right you’ll never take it for granted again. You tell yourself that, even though you’re sleeping or dreaming or awake cooking bacon.
And so as my mind and eyes spun from Lou Reed to kimono angels, to colors fractaled and prismed across a real-life palette of light, one thing and only one thing came into clear focus. The one thing I’m sure I remember. The one song etched hard in my head and fast in my eyes; the one from Pulp Fiction when John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance. I remember that one. And I remember dancing with my wife. And holding her and twirling her in my arms with our eyes closed, our mouths agape in true Charlie Brown fashion, singing along to songs we didn’t know the words to and kissing at midnight in four time zones. In four directions. In four places at once. Two years at once. In two cities at once—on a Shanghai new year’s night in Portland, Oregon.