Blowing it, again

I remember the last time Mount St. Helens went off in a big way.

At the time I lived in a big punk house on Northwest Kearney Street and 23rd Avenue, along with a cast of interesting people: Tom Robinson (who now runs a historic photo archive), Pat Baum (of the Neo Boys) and Rozz Rezabek (of Theatre of Sheep, who opened for the Sex Pistols in San Francisco and the one to put the “Love” in Courtney Love), just to name a few. Northwest Portland is a bastion of high rents and dense pedestrian traffic these days, but back then my share of the rent was $95, and Northwest 23rd Avenue was lined with honky-tonk bars and thrift stores (you see how I could miss that old street!).

The mountain had been rumbling for some time, but no one really expected anything to happen. Then one day I heard a big but muffled BOOM, like the sound of a distant bomb. I raced outside and slowly the rain began to fall: giant flakes looking kind of like snow but very grey. They didn’t melt and they were sooty to the touch and covered our lawn.

That soot followed us everywhere. For weeks it laced our sheets even though we ditched our shoes at the door. You couldn’t escape it.

The best part was how Portland became a ghost town. No cars were allowed since the soot destroyed the engines and the paint jobs. Being a total pedestrian, I think of this time as a brief moment when we ruled. It leveled that playing field, in a way. People were stripped of their cars, however having cars made them feel and whatever they figured cars did for them was stripped away as well. They slugged around while I did my usual zoom.

We saw each other on the streets through that grey fog. It reminded me of London but oh so different! There was this grey cast over everything, reminiscent now of the dim which envelops the world of “Blade Runner,” save the film had yet to be made. This kind of dim seemed so out of place in Portland – it gave you a weird sense of what our polluted future on the planet might be like.

We were supposed to wear gas masks or some sort of protection over your mouth, hence the masks you see on the people in the photograph. This was Burnside in 1980. I love the gentleman who must be a member of an orchestra, obviously put out but refusing to wear a mask. What is also strange to me is how dated 1980 looks, even though flared jeans and various other style factors have come back into vogue. Rupert Jenkins shot the photograph. He was a member of Friction (the Gallery of Unofficial and Degenerate Art), and I was a part of that gallery, here in Portland, in the early ’80s. He is no longer a photographer but runs a nonprofit gallery in San Francisco.

The volcanic action of Mount St. Helens influenced me in many ways. Up until the eruption, my fear of natural disasters – e.g., earthquakes – kept me from moving to San Francisco, as much as I wanted to. Portland was the sleepiest and safest place on the planet. When the mountain blew it changed all that. I left Portland about one year later.