Richard Melo's new novel, Happy Talk, is out this June from Red Lemonade.
I was half out of my mind if not all the way. One year, I became a single dad. Then a year and a half later, my kid’s mom died. My first novel, a book I had spent the decade of my twenties writing, was finally coming out, and while I should have been ecstatic at my first publishing experience, with so much sadness at home, my face felt too heavy to smile. George Bush was president and acting like someone who never met a war he didn’t like. These were dark times.
Some people in circumstances like these might have turned to drugs and alcohol, others to Jesus Christ. All I wanted was to take care of my four-year-old daughter and surround myself with as much laughter as I could stand until life turned back to normal. Lucky for me, I found LiveJournal.
Those last two statements sound like a non sequitur. LiveJournal isn’t exactly known as a laugh factory. Sure, there were journalers back in the day who were rip-roaringly funny— and since LJ remains a viable blogging platform, I am sure there still are. Where I found humor, though, was in a thriving community within the site — known affectionately as DamnPortlanders.
I want to make this clear. Nothing about DamnPortlanders is particularly funny.
The community has two basic rules: 1) All posts must connect to Portland, OR, while keeping in mind that 2) Portland connects to everything. Bands, rallies, dentists, garage sales, karaoke, questions, statements — everything was fair game on DamnPortlanders. On a typical day, there were 30-50 entries, many by regulars who posted often, and remarkably the voice in many of the posts sounded the same. Almost any DamnPortlander could quote The Fight Club or Simpsons episodes with remarkable aplomb.
I never have found the words to explain why I thought DamnPortlanders was hilarious. It was not a malicious or sarcastic laughter. Rather my experience of DamnPortlanders was like reading a comic postmodern novel, except the characters were real people making themselves up as they go. (Signing onto DamnPortlanders was like entering a crowded theatre just before curtain. It was like you could hear others clearing their throats and smell shampoo on the person sitting next to you.) Sure there were flames, but more often than not the interactions were kind, sincere and serious — and not all that funny.
* * *
I didn’t set out to prove to the world DamnPortlanders was hysterical. It just happened.
It was 2005. I was writing a second novel and haunted by a strange sensation that someone was looking over my shoulder and laughing at every word I placed on the page. Nobody was. I was on the verge of setting the project aside and in need of new creative outlets.
One night, I was thinking about jobs and temp services and wondered if there is any point in pursuing a career as a butler. Without giving it much thought, I left a post on DamnPortlanders. I adopted the voice used in so many previous DamnPortlanders posts, mixed it with the air of someone desirous of entering the butler profession and wrote on March 29 of that year:
Hey DPers, what are the good agencies in town that hire butlers? I've decided I want to become a butler. I come with an unimpeachable set of references and the desire to receive visitors at any local stately manor. I am willing work as a butler for a meager wage. [Cross posted everywhere]
Before going further, I should mention that I’m often too lazy to zip my fly and would make the lousiest butler Portland has ever seen.
The post generated several responses. Many people saw the post for what it was and appreciated a touch of parody in the DamnPortlanders community. Others took the request far more seriously, offering advice on domestic service schools, in Portland and abroad. Some even did research before replying — in hopes of helping this poor soul who wants nothing more than to become a butler, damn it!
I had no idea at the time that this single post would lead me on an online journey that would last nearly a year — not a quest to become a house servant but rather to get funny with the DamnPortlanders community. It’s worth noting that this venture led to threats of jail time and bodily harm on one extreme and on the other, a marriage proposal. (Spoiler alert: When I eventually stopped peppering jokes on the community, I was still in one piece and unmarried.)
* * *
On April 28, 2005, I wrote this brief post and waited for responses to roll in:
Hey DPers. Does anyone know where I can find a crooked notary in this town?
Naturally, people asked why I needed one. I replied by saying that I was trying to complete a bad real estate deal, and that I was trying to make a little cash. Like with my question about butler agencies, most people saw this was a joke right away. Others took it seriously. They threatened to call the cops, and one person told me I was a person not “worthy to draw a breath.” Eventually, I admitted the joke, but that didn’t stop someone from emailing me privately with the phone number “of someone who can help you out.”
* * *
While I enjoyed the crooked notary post because of the visceral responses it elicited, others were funny to me right up until the moment I hit the “Post to DamnPortlanders” button. These included my inquiries on whether anyone knew where I could find a Christmas tree in May (“I would just go to one of those Boy Scout set ups in a Rite-Aid parking lot, but who knows how fresh those trees are”), where to find information on the Portland Public Schools ninja education program (“I think more kids would sign up for it if they advertised a little better”), and whether I was the only one who could see the Bat Signal blazing in the night sky (“Look due south about 45 degrees off the horizon”).
In some cases, I just couldn’t get the concept right, like in this post of September 19, 2005, titled, “Where the heck is I-205?”
I am not asking for directions to the 205 freeway, even though it's been a while since I've driven on it. All I know is that this morning I needed to get somewhere on the 205, and it was gone. : ( All I could find was farmland. What's going on? Did ODOT decide to move 205 to another location? Aren't we supposed to at least be able to vote on stuff like that? I think this is all just too bad because I thought 205 was fine where it was.
Years after retiring from DamnPortlanders, I still run into people who find them online tell me that’s one of their favorites. For me, it’s just a little too out there.
It doesn’t make sense to try to intellectualize laughter — because the nature of laughter is to not take anything too seriously. At the same time, it seems to me that many good belly laughs come from a momentary rupture of reality. For a split second, everything you know about how the universe works flies out the window. When reality snaps back in place, that’s when laughter comes in. Laughter comes with the discovery that the contents of the joke are not true. Laughter is a purging of the discomfort that the joke caused.
The I-205 joke doesn’t work for me because it’s less about that momentary rupture of reality than just plain Bermuda Triangle strange.
* * *
Here’s a post that achieved its desired effect. Its title, “Best chairs for the back of a U-Haul.”
Hey DPers, I have a question for you. Does anyone know what kind of chairs work best in the back of a U-Haul Truck???? I tried aluminum patio chairs before and they seemed to slide around a bunch. My birthday is coming up and I want to take out all my friends. THANKS!!
I fully expected people to point to the safety hazard (and illegal nature) of transporting people in the back of a cargo truck. Instead, most people just played along with the joke. One response was to use “big fluffy pillows” and “air mattresses.” Touché, that would be the way to go!
* * *
In general, the ideas for the jokes came on a whim, and I posted before giving them a second thought. In one instance, however, I made some effort. It was posted on October 24, 2005, under the title, “An ‘89 Segway can now be used for a song.”
Hey DPers, whether you are looking for a safe, clean alternative mode of transportation or a fine collectible item, I have just what you're looking for.
Before the invention was named Segway, it was called Ginger, and even before it was called Ginger, it was known as the Top Secret Vista Prototype. Whatever the name is, I like to think of it as the '89 Segway (meaning it was from the 1989 model year). I recently made a killing and scored 10 of these factory-refurbished freewheeling babies on a trip to Antwerp, and now I would like to pass along those savings to you. Why pay in the upwards of $2,000, $3,000, or even $5,000 dollars for a similar item when an '89 Segway can be yours at the low introductory price of $995.
The '89 Segway model is motorless and does not run on batteries but rather works off the clean, renewable resource known the world over as gravity. It works both on stairs, and as shown in the action photograph, it can traverse over rugged surfaces such as ivy. (The '89 Segway shown in the photograph is mounted by a professional rider on a closed course. It is not recommended to ride your Segway over plains of ivy at home.)
Got a grand you have no idea how to spend? The '89 Segway is just for you! As an added bonus, the first six customers who buy will be treated to twenty free dinners at Sweet Tomatoes and a free windshield replacement brought to you by the kind folks over at Empire Glass. Don't miss out! Act now!
However, it was the accompanying photo of my co-worker Kevin riding a UPS-quality hand cart that made this the finest joke in the series:
LiveJournalers often use the community for philanthropic purposes. Those good intentions seemed ripe for parody, so I wrote a post on September 26, 2005 about my efforts to collect old retainers and other oral gear to send to the Third World “where they could really use orthodontic help.” To fend off the gross-out factor of putting an unknown stranger’s retainer in your mouth, I promised that all gear would be soaked in Listerine before shipping out.
* * *
A post that was taken seriously involved my desire to ride from downtown Portland to a suburb on horseback. On August 22, 2005, the post was titled, “Gettin to Aloha.”
Hey, DPers, does anyone know the best route from downtown to Aloha on horseback? I know the bus routes, but I don't think that will work. I would like to get this mare home tonight by nightfall. Thanks in advance!
This was the sixth joke post in a series that eventually reached twenty, and even though this was still early on, a fan base was developing. The responses were beginning to address the joke more as a creative form than a joke in its own right.
Still, there were people with sincere intentions providing me the best route to take, and these were often the same people who had previously given me advice on butler agencies and reported back on their disappointment in having missed seeing the bat signal.
* * *
I want to cut to the chase and reveal how the joke posts ended, but there are a few more worthy of brief mentions.
There was a joke over Labor Day about how at the Oregon State Fair vendors were serving deep-fried sno-cones coated in a tempura batter.
I had fun with another about how I had been using a Safeway Club Card as a credit card but that it was beginning to get declined, and I was curious if others were having a similar experience.
In another post, I claimed that my neighbor had bought a used Russian rocket and was planning a launch right out of his yard. This time the joke was on me. It turns out in Portland, many people buy rockets and have them in their yards. A much more interesting post that same day was about why there are no sex parties in Portland for young people, a post so strange that it puts it into perspective why people had such an easy time believing almost everything I threw out there.
On October 31, 2005, I left a post titled “Buyer Beware” about sweaters knit from steel wool (which if there ever were such a thing, they would come from Portland):
“... I bought two of them, and so y'all know, the sweaters rust really bad in the rain. They're also prickly, and if you're going to wear one, you should make sure you've had your tetanus shot. Otherwise, you'll be spending a day at the IR with blood poisoning like I did all day yesterday. This is FYI.”
* * *
All this leads to the end, my final DamnPortlanders joke post. It ruffled feathers.
At the time, I was living near Reed College, famous for its Ren Faire and student body eager to push the envelope of societal norms. This editorial-style post suggested that hunting season was slated to begin on campus, and that I opposed it and would be leading a candlelight vigil. Folks did not like this one bit.
Reed students are not shy about protesting any and all causes, and I applaud them for that. God knows how many extra wars would have started without the efforts of students like those at Reed.
Admittedly, I am not sure whether I am baffled more by the underwhelming outcry against the opening of hunting season on the back-lot of the Reed campus or the huge wave of student support for it. Students across the campus grounds are taking up arms (which at Reed are not limited to rifles but also include bows and quivers loaded with arrows and Robin Hood caps) against the foxes and pheasants that populate the campus wildlands just south of Steele Street, and all this begins on Friday, December 16.
I personally believe students are using hunting season just as another excuse to cut it up above and beyond RenFaire and the all-night party that is known affectionately in Reed circles as the academic year. Some students have expressed that hunting is a means to gather food. My answer to that is the Delta is less than a mile walk from campus and while the Delta won’t take credit cards, they will gladly accept a few bucks withdrawn from your trust fund at the WaMu across the street.
My concerns with the opening of hunting season at Reed are many-fold. First, hunting on campus is a gateway hobby that can lead to hunting in other public areas, such as Forest Park, Tryon Creek, and Mt. Tabor. Once Reed students are on the loose, even the side streets near those parks will not be safe. Second, in consideration of the wherewithal that educated people have, I wouldn’t be surprised if Reedies do spring break on safari in Africa while hunting big game for course credit.
Also worthy of consideration are the dangers and distractions to learning that hunting creates on campus. I have ventured into the deep wilderness of Reed and many-a-time have run across errant damsels and knights out doing their SCA merriment activities, as well as a stray homeless person here and there. Aren’t these groups in danger of intoxicated student hunters? What about Shakespeare in the Park? What about the serious students embarking on a journey of reading the classics, whose concentration is repeatedly broken by the sound of gunfire?
All this says nothing for all the dear creatures cut down in the prime of their lives, all for the sport of the legions of the uncaring. Dick Cheney hunts. Need I say more?
Please join me and others like me at 12:01 a.m. this Friday morning for a candlelight vigil on Bybee Street near the campus entrance to protest the start of hunting season. I know it will be chilly, but please wear your brightest colors just to be on the safe side.
Reed students were irate. They knew it was a joke, but did not like seeing their college parodied. (Reed has one of the best reputations of small private colleges in the country, and many students attend based on that reputation.)
I had created these posts with the kindest of intentions. Rather than to poke fun at anyone or leave anyone confused for any longer than a split second, they were designed for amusement. No malice was intended, and I was sorry that Reedies felt that way.
There were also DamnPortlanders pleading with me to stop, saying that the joke wasn’t funny anymore (which is itself funny because the people saying this were inadvertently quoting The Smiths, who along with the Decembrists could have passed as the DamnPortlanders house band).
People were right. It had stopped being funny. I was not sure when it stopped or if it was ever funny in the first place. So I retired the joke series. My daughter was thriving in elementary school, and my new novel was finally coming together.
I did, however, post one more joke. It wasn’t on DamnPortlanders, but rather my personal LiveJournal blog, which hardly anyone ever read. This phantom post appeared on December 12, 2005, and went something like this:
Hey DPers! Did anyone catch the story on Fox News 12 during the last round of sweeps about the illicit sex ring based out of those big, raucous DocuShred trucks that are always parked along corners downtown? The reason I mention it is because there’s one outside my office right now, and it’s noisy as hell and rocking like crazy. I was shocked to find my co-workers knew nothing about it, even though I’m pretty sure it was also a Willamette Week cover story.
To recap, the trucks are not shredding documents at all. Instead, their interiors are velvety luxurious, stocked with a wet bar, and fully soundproof. They serve the booty needs of some of Portland’s top corporate movers and shakers, which is why the trucks are always rocking (wink-wink). Just once, I would love to be around when the 15 minutes are up and some sheepish suit tries to sneak back into his office building. With all the media coverage, I am surprised this is still going on.