By Gary Shteyngart
Holly Golightly believed that nothing bad could happen to you at Tiffany’s, but allow me to respectfully disagree: many bad, expensive things have happened to me there. The delightful Heathman Hotel in the über-delightful city of Portland, Oregon, however, is the place where I feel the safest and most welcome in the greater world. I usually go there under frightening circumstances: the coast-to-coast book tour. I am especially nervous about speaking before an audience of knowledgeable, meticulous readers, and Portland, with its exhaustive Powell’s Books (one of the largest bookstores in the country, if not the world), provides scores of these brainy specimens, willing to pick apart my work and my person.
But after checking into the Heathman I leave my beta-blockers and other anxiety meds in the suitcase. The well-brought-up Pacific Northwestern staff welcomes me with casual smiles that say “We’re here to help…but, you know, within reason.” The standard rooms are on the smallish side and have a quaint yet modern feel. I lie on the couch and order a plate of British Columbia oysters—the plump, creamy Effingham; the adorably tiny Gigamoto; and the salty Imperial Eagle, with its ancient-looking giant shell that’s just fun to hold in your hand—which I follow up with whatever serious Oregon microbrew they have on tap. And then I call room service and order up one of the 400 movies from the Heathman’s film library, my usual choice being the 1999 documentary American Pimp. The combination of fine oysters and beer, along with the flamboyantly dressed street hustlers on the television, puts me in a strangely docile and contented frame of mind. I feel partly urban, partly relaxed, and partly really weird, which is exactly the mood the city of Portland projects.
With the television still blaring that slow, melancholy pimp jabber, I’ll heave myself onto the bed, maybe score another beer from room service, maybe call an ex-girlfriend who happens to live in Portland and whom I haven’t seen in 10 years, because everything is calm and right and without malice or recrimination at the Heathman (Truman Capote put it so much better). Looking out the window, I can’t catch sight of the snowcapped peak of the city’s iconic Mount Hood, but I do get the shoulders of some commercial buildings that project the quiet industry of a midsize American city fallen on good times. Before leaving for my reading, I’ll check the Heathman’s other library, the 2,000 books signed by authors who have stayed at the hotel. Feeling myself embedded in a mighty Northwestern literary tradition, I’ll sail off to my reading at Powell’s, happy and chemical-free.
The next morning I’ll head downstairs to the Heathman Restaurant & Bar, where the chefs do pretty good things with sturgeon and eggs and downright amazing things with Dungeness crabs and eggs. Then, I’m off to a day of drowsy wandering around this compact, bike-happy city. Perhaps I’ll run into somebody from last night’s reading and they’ll invite me to a three-hour midday coffee session. We’ll sit beneath a rain-splattered canopy and get all caffeinated up about the state of the rest of the country, while Mount Hood floats ethereally somewhere in the far distance. A waiter approaches: “Can I top you off there?” Hey, why the hell not?