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Portland: The Traveling Man’s Gift

From our trip in late April, a memorable moment has also been a sort of preoccupation since then. It started with an act of passionate kindness. I didn’t know how long it would take me. There it lay, unopened on a crowded shelf calling my name.

During our travels to Portland, Oregon, we visited one of the local wine bars a few times in between our other activities. From the outside, looking into the wine bar’s large window, we were immediately drawn into this cozy bistro. A few small round tables were set in the small front area looking out of the tall floor to ceiling window. There was one open table.

On this afternoon, we wanted to sit at the bar, so we walked down to the other side of the 8-seater bar to see if there were two open seats. We saw one empty stool at the end and one man standing next to it, hovering over his own empty stool. He saw us and offered up his empty chair for me to sit in and my significant other took the chair on the end. I took note that the man had a traveling look about him. He looked casual with long hair pulled loosely back, ruddy face, and a backpack. He reminded me of a man who has been traveling all his life. I pictured him out in the woods with a walking stick, windswept, the elements about him, dust, and hot sun.

The servers were busy. We recognized one from the other night. She was a friendly and helpful woman. She had fair skin with lovely freckles and strawberry blonde hair and always ready with a smile. We placed our order. The traveling man was drinking a beer. Our wine arrived. We sipped it and then the traveling man said, “if you don’t mind me asking, are you from around here?”

“I was just going to ask you the same thing,” I said, with a tinge of excitement in my voice.

He laughed and said something funny; the ice was broken.

I smiled wide. My significant other said that we were from the San Francisco area. That’s usually easier to visualize geographically than the East Bay or so we assume.

“Business or pleasure,” he said.

“Pleasure.” We all looked at each other, clinked glasses and bottles with our eyes.

There’s a dog in the bar. I assume he’s with the traveling man and don’t ask.

We continue chit chatting with the traveling man. I order a plate of cheese and crackers, nibbling in between sips of wine, in between watching the surrounding patrons, everyone talking, the servers going down the bar from left to right, keeping the glasses filled and also going out to the floor to serve the patrons there.

I look down at the dog from time to time and smile. I think he’s a schnauzer. I give him a pat on the head. He looks like he wants a treat.

The traveling man and my significant other spoke about a variety of things: sports, travel, California, Portland. I was sandwiched in between, mostly listening and also trailing off, staring out the large windows, watching people walk by, watching the sun dip in and out of the clouds, causing the wine bar to go from dim to bright. I turned to the dog and smiled. He was patient while his owner enjoyed himself. I looked over at the wine bottles on the shelves, noting the interesting labels.

I heard the traveling man and my significant other talk about Monterey and Carmel and the traveling man looked to me to be sure he was pronouncing Monterey correctly. He said that he had trouble with certain words—maybe words that had Spanish roots. I asked him where he was from. He paused a moment and if my memory serves me he said he was originally from Germany, but he had joined the service and had traveled around as a result. I believe he then lived in the mid-west for a time and now his parents live in Portland and this was now home for him—he was possibly in his mid to late fifties.

The bar is full. By the sounds of the chatter and laughter, everyone is having a good time. The buzz of the conversation makes my head spin in a good way. I feel enveloped by the good cheer and the friendly vibe that we’ve felt during our short stay in Portland.

The traveling man drank the last swig of his beer and he looked as though he was readying to leave. He turned to us and asked our names before parting. My significant other said his and then I said mine and when I did, you would have thought the man was going to pee his pants. He brought his hand to his mouth and made a squeal and said, “Ohhhh.” He paused and needed a moment to compose himself. “I think I’ve got something for you, he said” with total excitement in his voice.

My significant other and I wondered in a cautious but curious way. What on earth could it be? The man still couldn’t get a hold of himself. He reached down for his backpack and propped it up on the chair. “I hope I have it in here,” he said. He rummaged through his backpack with his nose practically inside. He looked from us to the inside of his bag. Finally, he produced a small and slender brown sack. He slowly took out the contents and handed me the movie, Rebecca. I looked at it and said, “Ah, I haven’t seen it, but a friend told me once that I should,” and then I added, “but my name is spelled with two b’s.” He made a sound as though I had wounded him. I recovered quickly, “That’s ok, it’s still my name.”  I didn’t want to ruin the moment for him. He was able to get back into his excitement as thought I hadn’t uttered a word about the spelling of my name.

He zipped up his bag. The movie still in my hand, I look to him. “Are you sure,” I say.

“We don’t want to take your treasures,” my significant other says.

“I want you to have it. I have others on order.”

“Thank you very much,” I say.

He looked at us one last time. We shook hands and said our goodbyes.

This quick parting and the coincidence of it all made me speechless.  I didn’t have time to ask questions about why he loved this movie and why he had so many on order and how often did he run into women whose names were Rebecca. There were so many questions that flooded my mind only after he left, and maybe it was meant to be this way. He was set to leave after all and the name exchange occurred at the end. The traveling man was gone.

I still had the movie in my hand. I flipped it over and read the back, then set it on top of the counter gazing at it occasionally. My significant other and I agreed this was an interesting coincidence. He had moved into the traveling man’s seat where I was now the caboose of this wine train. I took a sip of my wine and noticed the dog was still there. I had assumed the dog and the traveling man were together.

The man to my significant other’s right was clean cut and shaven. He had short blond hair and wore a stylish leather jacket. He was with a friend and apparently his dog.

I was feeling good about where I was. We were enjoying ourselves amongst other metaphorical fellow travelers. I was the observer. Notebook in hand if something should jump out at me; mostly, I listened and watched. My significant other and the blond man with the dog seemed to become instant buddies for those moments in the wine bar. I saw the blond man push over his glass of wine, give my significant other a friendly nudge on his arm and say, “try that.” After my significant other took a sip, the blond man asked, “What do you think?”

“It’s drinkable, not my favorite.”

“I don’t like it.” The blond man had a puckered look on his face as though he had sucked a lemon.

The man to the right of the blond man—his friend—had a European accent and he was clearly a wine connoisseur with a very different palate than his friend. He also had a loud forceful voice. The blond man tasted another wine from the flight he had ordered. He seemed to like this one whereas his companion did not. This one he also pushed over to my significant other to taste from his glass. The blond man said, “it smells like dirt, but it tastes great.” I chuckled. My significant other agreed about the blond man’s assessment. They continued sharing their thoughts on the wines amongst a variety of other miscellaneous conversation and when there was a long pause. I asked the man what his dog’s name was. “Tiernen,” he said. I wanted to ask more questions about the dog’s name. How had he settled on that name? Was it the name of a character from some great novel? Does his dog come to the wine bar often? I didn’t ask. I gave the dog another pat on the head. His master gave the dog a few treats. I think it was close to being Tiernen’s dinnertime.

Time had passed unnoticed from the moment we stepped into the wine bar. The bar was at its dimmest; nightfall was upon us. It was almost dinnertime. We drank up the last of our wine. We were having such a good time, tasting, talking, laughing. I don’t remember if we exchanged names with the blond man. We said goodbye, waved to the server as we stepped out and down the street we went in search of dinner.

After being home from Portland, as the days edged on, I became more and more curious about Rebecca. I searched for the book in the library catalog. I have long known of the movie and may not have been aware of the book. I really had no intention all these years of reading the book let alone watch the movie. Why, I’m not sure. After reading about the author, Daphne Du Maurier, and learning about the style of the book, and what the story was about, I knew that before I watched the movie, I must first read the book. The opening lines sucked me right into the book. I was taken. At first, though, I read it in short spurts and then the desire to watch the movie grew and as the book progressed, I wanted to be with the book for longer periods—I wanted to finish it— and since it’s only about 400 pages, it didn’t take me long.

I finished the book on the last day of June. I wanted so much to finish it the night before, but my eyes would not stay open. My plan was to watch the movie immediately after. The following morning I did finish the book. I loved everything about it, the writing, the setting, the characters, and the psychological depth of Du Maurier. And so that same morning I put my disk into my laptop, put my headphones on and watched the movie with full attention. I was not disappointed. There were some alterations and cuts, but the movie unfolded just like the book. I felt as though I was watching the book come to life and I enjoyed both equally.

If not for the traveling man, I most likely would not have read or watched Rebecca. It has made me want to read more of Du Murier’s work, especially her short stories. It seems as though she was an under appreciated author in her time. She deals with the darker elements of the human psyche, and as with Rebecca, it seems natural territory for her. I have one of her collections on hold from the library and the cover alone frightens me. In this particular collection, she may delve even deeper. 

My desire to finish the book and watch the movie was propelled by meeting this man—the traveling man. I’ll never know exactly what Rebecca meant to him, not the specifics anyway. I was moved by his passion and it became a sort-of mini obsession for me to read the book and see the movie. I often leave books, come back to them later, but it was different with this one. I had the man in my mind. I wanted to see this world that he carried around with him in his backpack and that he shared with me. I’ll probably always remember that moment in the wine bar because it was unique and it felt like a strange fairy tale, and synchronistic moments like this are what make travel and life interesting. For this, I thank you, dear traveling man, wherever you are, and perhaps our paths may cross again one day.