Portlandia in a Church Basement

By John Gordon 04/04/13

When I moved to Oregon from New York, I had visions of cheap rent and radically open-minded recovery. Let's just say it didn't go according to plan.

Portlandia wasn't far off the mark. Photo via

If there’s one thing I’ve found in life it’s that everyone loves it when a New Yorker shows up to tell everyone how much better everything is in The City. To that end, I wanted to share my story of moving to Portland, Oregon, after getting sober in New York City—and the three years I spent vainly trying to inform the AA community there of just how far off the mark they were.

I moved to Portland in the fall of 2009, seduced by her siren song of minimally employed café culture and artisanal unicycles. Not to mention, I’d fallen in love with one of her residents that spring, and we had plans to marry and breed.  

Not only was I thrilled to get the chance to teach these folks how to get and stay sober, I was sanguine about the opportunity to learn more about myself, stripped of aspects of New York AA that I felt maybe I’d taken for granted after five years in one recovery community. I’ll let you guess which undertaking was more successful.

AA meetings in Portland are run all kinds of wrong. They call the speaker the “chair” and the chair is called the “secretary.” (I never got this straight.)

It sucks being the new guy. I don’t mean being a newcomer, which is awesome. With 27 days sober you’re the much-ballyhooed Most Important Person in the Room. No, I’m talking about being The New Guy. Five years sober and new to town and no one gives a crap. New Guy syndrome is, of course, universal, but a few things about Portland made it particularly difficult.

First, all social activity is based around cars. As much as people sing the praises of Portland as a bike-friendly town, it is remarkably pedestrian-unfriendly. In New York people walk everywhere, so it’s extremely easy to just tag along to dinner or coffee after the meeting. In Portland you have to get a ride or have an inside tip on where people are headed. Even being an extremely extroverted person—which I am—I was still amazed at how many times I went home alone directly after the big social Friday night meeting.

Portlanders are also quite socially awkward. It is true they are very polite and outwardly friendly, but each Portlander has built a tiny reclaimed wood fence around his or her heart that makes it very difficult to get to know them. New Yorkers are neurotic, brash and rude—but they also are open books, and are extremely good at getting to know people. 

AA meetings in Portland are run all kinds of wrong. They call the speaker the “chair” and the chair is called the “secretary.” (I never got this straight.) The speaker typically only shares for about five minutes and rarely talks about what it was like to be an active addict. Wrong. I need to hear a qualification or I generally won’t listen to you. You might as well be a shrink. There are a few meetings where the speaker speaks for a good 20 minutes and tells a real story. These they call “speaker meetings.” (In New York we call these “meetings.”)

In Portland no one ever raises their hand to share. Instead, people are picked by the speaker to share, because we totally want to hear from a) the speaker’s entourage or b) the sullen day-counter in the corner who’s hoping desperately not to be picked. 

In Portland they call sober anniversaries “birthdays.” Virtually everyone does this, to the point where one often has to go out of their way to differentiate a sober “birthday” from the insufferably twee “bellybutton birthday.” Born-again Christians don’t even engage in this level of nonsense.

Portland AA is remarkably gender-segregated. And while I certainly agree with the wisdom of trying to make AA a safe place for recovery, I find that in practice—especially for men—it’s rather arbitrary and just another way of creating exclusivity. And I personally hate men’s meetings. To me, they mostly have the feel of a locker room or a monkey house. Co-ed meetings, which I greatly prefer, feel more balanced.

I was recently talking about this with a female friend. She imagined that—like her women’s meetings—men’s meetings must be full of a special kind of emotional vulnerability and openness that you would never see from dudes in co-ed meetings.

In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. If you’re paying any kind of attention you’ll see that every meeting that is not a women’s meeting is a men’s meeting. The only differences I’ve noticed at men’s meetings is the increased likelihood of hearing the word “bitch.”

Further evidence: Men’s meetings in Portland are especially notable for their swag. It seems that no men’s meeting is complete without a line of black hoodies emblazoned with skulls, malt-liquor bottles and ominous, insider-ish sayings like, “No one cares what your day was like.”  

As for the notion of making AA a safe space, sexually speaking, this didn’t seem to concern many people in Portland. For men and women, nailing dewy-eyed newcomers seems about as common as saying the Serenity Prayer. I’m not judging, mind you. While I appreciate the intention behind it, I think the suggestion of not dating in your first year is unrealistic and has become dangerously dogmatic.

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