'I create places where people can come together'

By Inara Verzemnieks

The Oregonian

Sunday,January 22, 2006

Edition: Sunrise, Section: Sunday Features (O!), Page O04

 

On a recent Saturday afternoon, men and women lugging fiddles, mandolins and

massive upright basses streamed into the Norse Hall in Northeast Portland for an

event known as the Portland Old-Time Music Gathering.

It was closing in on 2 p.m., and already nearly every corner of the building

--from basement to second floor --was filled with fans of this music, which is

known for a stripped-down sound that evokes a simpler place and time. It was a

free musical free-for-all, with musicians setting their cases down wherever they

could and scurrying off to find a place in one of dozens of small intense jams

that were taking place throughout the hall.

It was not possible to walk more than a few paces without running into a new

group of musicians, forcing newcomers to think creatively to carve out a place

to play. One group took refuge in the kitchen, not far from volunteers stirring

giant silver vats of food. Upstairs, one eager fiddler propped open a bathroom

door and played just inside, his notes ricocheting off the white tile walls.

All the while, a tall man in a maroon sweater, loved until holes had appeared in

the elbows, wandered from room to room, quietly taking in all that he had helped

set in motion.

"Do you know of a secret room someplace?" a man clutching a fiddle case asked,

and Michael Ismerio just smiled and shook his head. What began six years earlier

as a party at Ismerio's house has since grown to a five-day event, with dozens

of volunteers, a 500-soul guest list and nowhere to play anymore but the

bathroom.

"And I just heard there's a busload of senior citizens on the way," said

Ismerio, smiling cheekily, as he set off in search of some chairs.

A master of bringing people together

It might seem like a strange collision anywhere else. A busload of seniors

attending an event organized in part by a man who is, among other things: a

self-taught musician, who opened his own record store at 23, and turned it into

a worker-owned collective; an advocate of growing the food you eat, riding a

bike and getting as far off the grid as you can, while still living in the city;

a traveler, who has criss-crossed the country riding freight trains; a

33-year-old who grew up on punk rock who now finds himself at the heart of a

passionate local revival of traditional American music.

But then again, this is Portland, where living differently is not always as

different as you think.

And so the seniors shuffled past Ismerio into the ballroom, where a clogging

workshop was about to take place. Ismerio, meanwhile, headed off to the basement

to make sure a scheduled jam session had started. He had slept maybe four hours

the night before and had neglected to eat all day, even though he made a point

to fix up plates of food for other volunteers. But still, he seemed remarkably

cheerful, if not a little hyper; it was clear that it excited him to see so many

different people in one place. More than once, he referred to the crowd as "500

of my closest friends."

It all made perfect sense in a way: When he was younger, Ismerio thought he

might become an architect. It hit him not long ago that he was actually becoming

one, in a way.

"I don't build houses, but I create community," he'd said. "I create places

where people can come together."

His first effort at this came at 23, when he opened a record store on Southeast

Clinton Street, where he did his best to be "an anti-capitalist businessman." He

called the store "Q is for Choir," and stocked it with records he had

accumulated over the years from garage sales and thrift stores. Making money was

never very important to him, he says. Instead, his goal was to create a "cozy

record store where people wanted to hang out . . . not just drop cash and

leave."

He painted it red and yellow, carted a couch in and offered customers hot tea.

"I've never in my life been shopping for records and been offered a couch to sit

on and hot tea at the same time," says Anna Schott, who is one of the owners of

the business now, since Ismerio sold it last fall.

Then there's all the work he's done at Liberty Hall, a collectively run

community space in North Portland, where people come to practice yoga, learn

capoeira, meditate, square dance, host vegan brunches and stage puppet shows.

"The space is really whatever the community wants it to be," says Ismerio, who

took over the hall's lease three years ago.

The guy who sticks his neck out

Brian Bagdonas of Foghorn Stringband, who has played with Ismerio and helped him

come up with the idea for the first incarnation of the Old-Time Gathering, calls

him "the guy who's willing to stick his neck out . . . the one with the

wherewithal and the guts to make it happen."

Of course, finding the time and energy to do that sort of thing, to be the one

who carves out do-it-yourself spaces so other people can do it themselves, takes

its own kind of toll.

Not long ago, Ismerio, who has focused on playing music since selling the record

store, lamented that he was finding less and less time to practice. His friends

noticed he carried around long, incredibly detailed handwritten lists of things

to do.

"His mind is constantly churning," Bagdonas says. "I think he drives himself

nuts sometimes."

But maybe that's the curse if you're determined to live your beliefs, if you're

committed to living a life that reflects your values. And here is the value

Ismerio sees in what was happening on this particular Saturday, on every day

there is a gathering like this:

"I'm not happy with the way people lead their lives these days, and I'm

motivated to fix what is wrong in our society. I don't see community gathering

as valued as it should be, and I don't see music as valued as it should be.

Music is valued as a commodity but not as something that should be shared with

people on a daily basis. Nothing is going to change if people are just isolated

in their lives."

A few hours after he said this, everyone assembled for a massive square dance

--a fabulously eclectic scene of toddlers, grandparents, teenagers, big beards

and woolly sweaters, Danskos and Doc Martens, and one young woman in an

authentic electric blue square dancing skirt that she had paired with Vans --and

Ismerio, who taught himself to play the fiddle a few years ago, after seeing a

poster for one going for $50 ("That's my price!" he said), finally had the

chance to pick up his instrument and play. It was the most relaxed he had seemed

all day.

Hundreds of people showed up that night, and they danced for four hours

straight, linking arms with strangers, as the man on the stage, calling out the

steps, shouted out to all of them, "That's it --that's home."