Sunny spring days in Portland, Oregon, are divine. As are the tacos at ¿Por Qué No? Taqueria on Hawthorne. (I’m sure the tacos at their original location on Mississippi are heavenly too.) I want to write about — “capture” — a moment when I ate some good tacos on just such a sunny spring day in Portland because it felt significant. Because of the food I was eating, where I was eating it, and how it made me feel.
That’s hard, it turns out.
The best writing about food is simple. Few adjectives. Nothing about how it feels or tastes, really. Just the food. Mostly nouns, some verbs. But I don’t have many of the nouns, not the specific ones. I could find a menu on-line but that feels like cheating. I know it’s the al pastor tacos that I kept going back for (three times in three days). I know al pastor is pork. In a warm, white corn tortilla. Probably some shredded cabbage, probably some other elements. But putting it into words, these words (nouns and verbs and, yes, a few adjectives too), doesn’t “capture” it.
I was sitting alone at a counter facing the street in the open air. It was the last day of a writing conference I was attending. I had a flight home later that night, an epic three-leg journey, mostly through the middle of the night. I missed my family. I hadn’t been to Portland in a few years, not since I met my wife and my life turned in a new direction. The last time I had been in this town, I was alone and, frankly, a little bit adrift. I had romanticized the place, thought I could finally find myself there. Turn in a new direction. I thought about moving there but, in the end, I didn’t. And I’m glad I didn’t. I never would have met my wife. We wouldn’t have our son. I wouldn’t have this moment — eating tacos in the sun, looking forward to leaving so I could finally see them after a few days away.
The writing conference played a part in it too. I suspected then (and know now) I won’t be attending this particular conference anymore. For a lot of reasons, but mostly because I feel out of place in that world now. I feel like I have a new and better life. I write and I read, and I teach reading and writing. But that’s not the most important thing about me anymore. Feeling that way (that it is the most important thing about me) did more to help me feel lonely and lost than just about anything else I’ve experienced in my life. It didn’t feel that way at the time. It felt like the only thing that mattered. But it wasn’t. In fact, it didn’t matter anywhere near as much as I thought it did.
What does that have to do with tacos? That’s a legit question I’m asking myself. It felt like it did on that sunny spring day, but I’m not sure I can put my finger on why. I think, maybe, this: the tacos tasted good. The sun warmed my face, and there was long line of blissed-out Portlanders (mostly young and crunchy and earnest), waiting to order their tacos and eat them. I took my time, ate my food, then got up, and yielded my place to the next person. On my walk back to my bus stop, I got an ice cream cone and ate that. Then, eventually, I got on a plane to my real life. To a life that really matters. And I haven’t looked back.