Swanks for the Memories

Last week there was a special screening here in Portland for “Walk the Line,” the new film that tells the story of country music legend Johnny Cash. Now, when I call Johnny Cash a “legend,” I just mean that he was a big deal, not that he was legendary, like Paul Bunyan or something. I mean, he really existed. (Johnny Cash did, not Paul Bunyan.)

Now that we have our facts straight, we can proceed. This special screening was held in the Whitsell Auditorium at the Portland Art Museum — a swanky locale, as it turns out, which I didn’t know beforehand. I knew the Whitsell Auditorium was somewhere NEAR the museum; I didn’t realize it was actually IN it. I also did not realize that the event itself would be swanky, with swanky invited guests in attendance. So I felt a little out of place when I showed up in my jeans and button-up shirt with everyone else wearing slacks and blazers, especially considering my jeans were the ones with the zipper that keeps unzipping itself. (My weekend jeans, I call them.) If I walk around, or even just stand, down the zipper goes. It can be annoying, trying to focus on other things when every two minutes you have to nonchalantly move a hand past your zipper to make sure it’s still in place.

You may wonder why I even continue to own a pair of pants with a defective zipper. Sometimes I wonder, too. But doesn’t everyone have an article of clothing like that? Something that’s neither comfortable nor flattering but that you make yourself wear anyway simply because it’s fashionable and/or convenient? I see teenage girls wearing belly shirts and low-rise jeans all the time, even when, like 99.8 percent of the population, the girls don’t have bodies that are flattered by such exhibition. My recalcitrant zipper is hardly any different from that.

Anyway, the screening was preceded by a reception for the swanky invited guests, and I was told this reception would have food. In keeping with the Johnny Cash theme, the food was: chips and salsa. Oh, and beer. That’s it. I had forgotten that swanky people don’t eat food. They graze on nutritionless artifacts and stand around looking swanky. Chips and salsa are more of a Southwest thing than a country thing, and they don’t seem like a Johnny Cash thing at all, but maybe the organizers thought grits and a bucket of amphetamines wouldn’t do well in a buffet environment.

At any rate, chips and salsa are what we got. But because it was a swanky affair, you weren’t allowed to just grab a handful of chips and drop them onto your plate. You had to use tongs. Which means you’re picking up about one chip per scoop and breaking the other chips in the bowl in the process. Oh, and the plates themselves were tiny, capable of holding about seven chips maximum. Everything about it suggested they didn’t want us actually eating anything.

I should point out that the table was festooned with four black cowboy hats, too. Cowboy hats, we can afford. Food? Sorry. All we could come up with is chips and salsa.

I mentioned there was beer. (There was also fruit punch, for people like me who don’t drink beer, or who don’t think it’s a good idea to get tipsy before watching a movie in a museum.) It was high-class beer from a local microbrewery, and it was served by a well-dressed bartender who stood behind a table. The bottles were displayed on ice, but you weren’t allowed to just grab one. Instead, you had to tell the server which kind you wanted and he would pull a bottle from the display, wipe the condensation off it, and uncap it for you. This was to reproduce the swanky people’s home settings, where they have domestics to engage in those menial tasks.

When you were done drinking your beer, or when you had finished your miniscule plate of chips and salsa, there were no wastebaskets or garbage cans. Those things are decidedly non-swanky. Instead, there was a woman dressed like the bartender who wandered around the room carrying a tray on which you could set your debris. When you did this, she would smile and say “thank you,” which struck me as odd. I compiled a mental list of things she might be thanking you for:

– For letting her carry your trash around.
– For not just dropping your trash on the floor, because it would have been her job to clean it up.
– For giving the museum a reason to employ her.

At last it was time to mosey into the auditorium to watch the movie. Portland’s museum is a beautiful edifice that houses priceless works of art. But like most museums, its auditorium feels like an afterthought: “Oh yeah. We might have to show a movie sometime. Quick, tack on a large room with uncomfortable chairs and poor sight lines. Anyone watching a film in a museum is probably swanky and therefore accustomed to being uncomfortable.” (If you got lost there, those were the directions to the architect.)

The whole affair made me reflect on swankiness. Most of us like the idea of being financially well-off, but then you see gatherings of such people and you think: This doesn’t look like fun at all. Wearing clothes that are too nice to do anything in, being denied food and drink, being shoehorned into poorly designed rows of torturous chairs to watch a 136-minute movie, after which you are expected to stick around and lavish praise on the screenwriter (a Portland resident who is in attendance) — no thank you. Give me stadium seating, a 32-ounce Dr Pepper and a big bag of Three Musketeers Pop’ables any day. I like regular folks, not high-falutin’ ones. For that matter, I think Johnny Cash liked regular folks, too. Especially regular folks with pills they could give him. But I digress.

The bigger the city, the more the swankiness. That's been my experience. Even a laid-back town like Portland has its upper-crust types, and they were out in full force at the "Walk the Line" screening.

By the way, a column about Johnny Cash (at least tangentially) and only two references to his drug addiction? That's the very model of restraint, my friends.