Remember back when you were a child? Remember on Christmas morning, when you could barely stay asleep from the excitement of what presents might be resting under the tree? Even when you’ve been awake until midnight or after with your drunk relatives singing Polish holiday songs? This is how my second day in Portland began.

Without the drunk relatives and Polish songs.

Screw You St. Tropez

The crack of dawn, my eyes wouldn’t shut. Peering over at my cell phone to get the time, I had to rub my eyes a few times because I couldn’t believe what I saw. Surely it was later. It had to be cloudy and darker outside. I couldn’t believe that it was 5:30am. Rolling over, I shut my eyes. Fifteen minutes passed and still nothing. No sleep. Fifteen minutes later, I wrestled my sheets (By the way, my mom’s sheets are rimmed with a fine sky blue with black leopard spots and her comforter is a shiny blue satin to match. I have to hand it to her: this woman knows how to decorate a place like it’s a bordello.) until they completely fell off the bed. I knew it was useless. My mind wouldn’t just shut the hell up – it kept telling me The bakeries are about to open, you idiot! and You hear the MAX out there don’t you? Get the hell up! You’re in Portland, you douche!

I woke up.

By 7:30-ish I was out the door and on the MAX, heading westward into the heart of the city that wouldn’t let me sleep.

After crossing the Steel Bridge on which the MAX makes its grand entrance into the heart of Portland, something closely akin to magic happens: suddenly, the air begins to smell different. Seemingly, the air normally tinged with a scent of greenery and car exhaust from the interstate is usurped by wafts of freshly made coffee, baking breads, and fresh from the oven pastries. It’s quite the spectacle, I assure you. Maybe it was this particular day (although my others all began similarly), maybe it was my insatiable lust for the pleasure of Portland’s bounty. I don’t know, but as the MAX approached Pioneer Courthouse Square, I was done. It was as if the bouquet of all the morning’s food walked aside the many pedestrians and rode in tandem with the cyclists all the while punching me in the face. The air in the center of Portland exploded with the aromatics of rich coffee and buttery flour. I began to feel like I was starving.

Getting off the westbound MAX at the Galleria stop, I stepped onto the pavement and headed toward the streetcar stop near by. Allow me to clarify: the MAX is not the streetcar. The MAX is a commuter train able to transport a few hundred passengers. The streetcar is smaller, runs only in the downtown area and can transport a much smaller amount of people. It’s nifty as hell though for getting around downtown if you don’t want to walk clear across the girth of it, which is completely within reason if you’re feeling spry. Oh, and did I mention that my week’s pass for all TriMet trains, streetcars, and buses was only $20?!? That, my friends, is a hell of a deal.

Hopping on the streetcar I realized that the people-watching downtown is superb. Through the interactions of other people and how they walk and where they walk I get a sense of the grand scheme of things wherever I might be. In Portland, this is enhanced by the wide variety of people to watch. From the swearing teen-agers I mentioned before to the reading students to the business people on their iPhones to the homeless people with their dogs and to the artists staring off into the future, the big little town that Portland is breeds life. There is a heartbeat to the city that has long faded from so many other metropolitan areas. My mom once said a few years ago as we rode the MAX downtown during the hasty Christmas season that Portland reminded her of the grand city Detroit had once been. It made her happy and sad all at once.

Pearl BakeryFirst on my agenda for this day was to find the Pearl Bakery somewhere in the Pearl District. I spent maybe a grand total of a half hour in the Pearl District in the two years I lived in Portland. Yeah, I’m not sure how that happened. I attribute it to the same weird reasoning that I never, ever, EVER rode the D.C. Metro system the entire year-and-a-half I lived there. It’s some sort of weird fear of the new I am trying to conquer. Nonetheless, I had a general idea of where the Pearl Bakery might lie, but decided I’d let my nose guide me. I didn’t realize, though, that without the senses of a bloodhound, I probably wouldn’t detect the distinct smell of a particular bakery because the air was criss-crossed with the onslaught of so many other cafés. Ah well, I thought, if I managed to walk astray, it wouldn’t be hard to get directions and, well, walking around somewhat aimlessly allows more sight-seeing of places I’d be glad to accidentally find!

I came across the Pearl Bakery soon enough, to my stomach’s utter glee, as it was just a couple blocks away from the streetcar stop. The sweet scent of almonds floated all around the four corners of NW 9th and Couch (That would be pronounced cooch – yeah, get your giggles out now.) Street. It was rather intoxicating and sent my mind into some sort of sensory overload in which my stomach began a churn not unlike an ungreased gear or cog. Oh, the pain of hunger amidst the scents of deliciousness!

Of course I was blessed by not only the unmistakable scent of almonds upon entering, but also the heady yeast and the strong freshly brewed coffees, the comforting din of conversation and the hissing of the espresso machine, and the warm lighting with walls of red and brown hues adorned with an assemblage of crusty breads and delectable treats. It felt good to merely be in the Pearl Bakery. And it just felt right.

To me, there is one defining attribute attesting to the quality of a bakery aside from its general bread baking. Hell, if the bread isn’t good, you can just throw the whole bakery into the river. Indeed, crusty breads aside, the quality of a bakery can be measured by the simple yet nearly impossible excellent croissant. Yeah, sure, bakeries everywhere serve croissants but most of them are stale, hard and chewy, or downright horrible. I’ve evidence of this here in San Diego with the faux-French travesty known as St. Tropez Bakery and Bistro. Of course, my maiden order at the Pearl Bakery was an almond croissant and a single cappuccino. They were now under the microscope and being tested by my taste buds. If there was a time to win me over, it was at this point because, otherwise, the rest of my day was going to be shot thinking in drama queen mode, Is there no hope at all? Am I just to wither and die from a dearth of quality cafés?

Almond croissant and cappuccinoAlas, if there is one thing about Portland that stands out it is the fact that it wants to do everything right.

There is a certain point of contention between my wife and I concerning croissants. She likes having a croissant split in half and slathered with an almond paste, sort of like a donut. I, on the other hand, like the almond essence to be throughout the croissant with perhaps a bit gathered toward the center. I would much rather have the entire croissant flavored gently as opposed to being concentrated to a layer. Also, in slicing a croissant, you start that clock a-ticking. If that sucker is sliced and left in the display case for too long, it’ll be dry and will lose all of that very essential moisture from the inside. You’ll need that layer of paste to make up for the awful texture of the old, stale flakiness. The croissant I enjoyed was exactly how I liked it and then some. Altogether flaky on the outside and moist with a good dash of sponginess on the inside, there was little doubt to me that, until this point, I have never had a croissant this good – utter perfection inside and out (My hungry ass started eating the croissant before realizing I needed to take a photo of it. Hence, the largish hunk removed from the croissant. Hey, what can I say? Sometimes my tummy rules my brain!).

Score one for the Pearl Bakery and for the whole of Portland. I’d been waiting for this moment, literally, for years. Thank God it finally arrived before I went all-out insane from the consumption of mostly half-assed foods.

Not to play second fiddle, my cappuccino was also exceptional. What struck me first was that this mere single shot cappuccino was better than all the Starbucks coffees, flavored or not. That’s pretty astounding. With their coffee supplied by Batdorf and Bronson roasters, they take the sustainable coffee route, which is admirable. However, I’d rather have something more locally-centered. Either way, the coffee was par excellence!

As I sat, journaling while taking bites from my croissant and sipping my coffee, I looked around and listened while an R.E.M. song played on repeat in the echo chamber that is my head:

Now, I’m not one to sit and spin
Because living well’s the best revenge

Indeed, Michael Stipe, indeed.

Folks, this is only the beginning to my day.