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What kind of town is Astoria?

Tenor Guitars in Coffee Girl
Tenor Guitars in Coffee Girl
Catherine Al-Meten

What kind of town is Astoria?

When people ask me what it’s like to live in Astoria, they usually want to know what the people are like. Living in a small town, rather remote from anything very urban or cosmopolitan, Astoria may seem like a very unlikely place to find as much diversity and creativity as it has. When I first moved here over 4 years ago, I only knew my cousin, and knew nothing much at all about Astoria other than what I knew through her eyes.

For a while, I commuted between Portland and Astoria each week, and it took me a while to get to know what Astoria was all about. On the weekends I would make my way over to Coffee Girl on Pier 39. Not only a beautiful spot to while away some time and do some writing and photography, but also a great place to meet interesting people. Some of my closest Astoria friends came out of the times I have spent in this and other coffee shops. I recall walking by a man who had set up his plein air easel outside the coffee shop. Each day, I’d pass him, watching his painting come to life. That painter, Robert Paulmenn has become one of my favorite people here in Astoria. We struck up a friendship, and as good friendships will do, that led to meeting other people as well. By the way, the painting on Robert's website is the one he was working on that rainy, cold winter/spring.

That same type of experience has happened repeatedly here in Astoria. Through friends I made at Coffee Girl, I met other people, who introduced me to other people. Within a very short period of time, I have been drawn into more circles than I ever imagined. I began writing this column, Faces and Places in order to get my introverted self out from behind my writing desk and camera long enough to meet people and get to know what was happening in my new community. When I wandered into Coffee Girl one Sunday morning a few years ago, I found myself walking into a group of musicians all playing tenor guitars, banjos, drums, violins, and harmonicas, and I met Mark Josephs for the first time. After sitting and singing with the group all morning, Mark began telling me about the Tenor Guitar Gathering that he had started the year before. Since that time, I have made a point to feature Mark and the Tenor Guitar Gathering in feature articles, and he and his wife Karen have become friends as well.

Friends from Coffee Girl, including Tammy von Payens/Heinz, Debbi Blisset, and Alexa Butler, have opened doors for me, been my friend through thick and thin, and have each pointed me toward a deeper understanding of what life is like in Astoria. Debbi and Tammy started the annual Baristas Art show (usually held in late summer), to feature the Coffee Girls barista’s artwork, and each year they invite other local artists to exhibit and participate. My photography hangs in Coffee Girl, and I have Debbi to thank for that. She also supplies me me Cafe au Lait (Alexa does that) and the best Bagels and Lox around. Tammy has become a good friend, and introduced me to one good person after another. An artist herself, Tammy and I collaborated on a book I published, providing the illustrations for the entire book.

Friendships and collaborations grow, change, and help form our experiences here in Astoria, and before you know it, you know people who know people who know or have heard about you. If you are new to town, you’ve probably figured out there are a whole lot of people who have been here for 4-5 generations, and they know and are married to or have been married to or related to someone you know. That’s a small town for you, and it can be a bit overwhelming to those of us who have lived relatively anonymous lives in big cities. However, there are some very special gifts in living in a town where you get to know people quickly, and where there is so much going on.

Two years ago, my friend, Tammy dragged me to a new place to do yoga, the RiversZen Yoga Studio just off the River Walk by Big Red. That opened another door into meeting all kinds of new people, of getting back into a regular yoga and meditation practice, and of leading a weekly meditation group and occasionally doing some workshops. The RiverZen Yoga Studio is one of a number of yoga studios in town, and it has become a great place for me to connect with all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds. Artists, writers, musicians, singers, dancers (got to take a ballet class from classical ballerina Rene), as well as shop owners, business men and women, college students, world travelers and wanderers, tourists, and other professionals people-all seeking and usually finding, a good place to unwind and stretch body, mind, and spirit. I even ran into and got reacquainted with a student I had taught decades ago in Pasadena, California. She is now my neighbor and friend. RiversZen has become more than a place to do yoga. They have featured the live performances of a number of local musicians, including Dolores Villareal's Acustica World Music quartet.

Life in the small town of Astoria, has been an amazing adventure and experience. What I came here for was a place to create a home base where I could do my writing and art/photography. Living in the middle of one of the most beautiful locations on the Coast, the natural flow of life and beauty that surrounds me might be enough all by itself. However, something more important has happened for me, and hopefully it has or will happen for you, I have become part of the community. When I can, I participate in local art shows, and support local causes, artists, musicians, businesses, and anyone else I can. My column, Faces and Places of Astoria regularly features local events as well as the people who create and make those events happen. What started out as a way to get to know the community, has become something that has made me more a part of that very community. I meet people in the market or on the bus, and conversations are struck up, connections are created, and people become more than strangers.

This week, I had a very special experience, and since I do not know how to contact the person who was responsible for this experience, I decided to write about whoever it was who found my phone on the bus and turned it into Safeway. Regularly, I ride the bus to and from wherever I’m heading, and on Monday, I took the bus as far as the market to walk over to teach my Monday night meditation class. First stopping at the market to pick up a couple of items, I then walked to the studio to prepare for the meditation group. I sat down in the office,and began searching for my phone to check the time. It was then I realized, some where between the bus stop by my house, and the studio, my phone had gone missing. It could only have been lost in one of two places-the bus or the market, so back I walked, retracing my steps, hoping I’d find it. I walked into Safeway, and asked if anyone had turned in the phone, and sure enough, my little flip phone was at Customer Service.

The young man who handed the phone back to me said, “The owner has already been called, and the person who found it on the bus said they’d be here to pick it up.” I replied, “I’m the owner, and I haven’t had the phone. I’m not sure I know what you mean, but thank you.” Next I checked my phone to find several messages from local friends, all of whom were letting me know where to find my phone. Before I’d even realized it was gone, the very kind person who found the phone, had called the last people I’d texted or called, and let them know where I could find my phone. Everyone knew where my phone was thanks to this person. The only clue I had as to who it was was the message he/she sent me, “Pay it forward Cat!” It makes me so happy when these kinds of experiences happen, and they do happen. When I rode the bus yesterday, I told the bus driver, and he said, “That wouldn’t happen in Portland.” Well, yes it might, and it has happened to me in Portland and other unlikely places. Good people who live and act out of kindness live everywhere. We have so many of those people who happen to live here in Astoria. The friends that help you get your cats neutered and cared for. The friends who share their food and love with you when you’re short on both. The friends and family who are there for you when you need a couch moved up or down the stairs, or when you gather friends together to celebrate poetry, the arts, or some other passion. Astoria is the kind of town where good people who do good for others live, work, play, own businesses, perform, write, do yoga, help others heal, and live life with intention and loving kindness. All that, and it’s beautiful. What more could we want?

Again, thank you oh wonderful person who performed such an act of kindness, and I will pay it forward. I am most grateful.