I’ve lived four places for enough time to really nail down a feel for them. Tucson, Phoenix, San Jose, and Portland. And Portland is, by leaps and bounds, my favorite. But lately I’ve been trying to think about why Portland pegs out my bone-o-meter, so I decided to nail down a few pluses and minuses.
1. Doers and makers. Phoenix and San Jose are, at their core, essentially long distance suburbs of Los Angeles. As such, they share this trait. The people in those towns are talkers and owners. They talk about things they like to do. “I sure do love hiking”, “I like flying planes”, “I would love to travel”. And they also own things. “I have a boat”, “I have a big TV”, “I have an RV”. Whereas Portland is doers and makers. “I am going skiing”, “I am hiking”, “Tomorrow, we’re hang gliding”, and “I made some bacon”, “I brewed this beer”, “I made this quilt”. This is worth probably fifteen points right here. I love talking to somebody and instead of talking about how great this object is they own, they talk about how they’re building one that is even better than the last. Or how they learned so much the last batch they fucked up, or how they’re going snowmobiling RIGHT NOW.
2. Writers and thinkers. Phoenix had thinkers, it really did, but they certainly didn’t get together and talk about shit. There were writers, but they were like chupacabra. You heard they lived somewhere out in the desert, and there was always a sneaking suspicion they were there, but you never saw them. Here, you go to a bar and start talking and you find out you’re sitting next to @melissalion or some shit. And you’ll be sitting on the Max and two dudes will be talking about Kafka. I never had deep conversations on any public transit in CA or AZ. Five points. OK, ten because Melissa Lion is hot.
3. Movers and shakers. Never have I seen people with such a huge social net. Events here draw people from geographically, philosophically, and professionally diverse groups, and everyone is willing to share a table, share a story, talk. Everyone here has a level of social grace a notch above the Phoenix average, though there is certainly a level of street smarts which is being sacrificed in the equation. Five points. You gain ten for grace, lose five because you imagine that Portland has a ghetto somewhere in it.
4. Whites and… other whites. Whoa is Portland white. I mean… white white. So white sometimes I have to pinch myself because I think I might have accidentally stumbled upon a Klan meeting or something, but then I realize I’m just at a bar. I go to Mexican markets up here sometimes just to hear people speaking Spanish. Minus five points because I can’t get Pico limon and fresh, lime-and-chili-spritzed duritos at every convenience store.
5. The Portland Mercury. Not quite as good as the New Times, but then again what is. It’s got a very home-spun manner to it, and I love that the editorial staff isn’t afraid to leave their paper with a strong flavor of the writers personality. Plus five points.
6. KBOO. This station is outrageously great. When it’s not some completely stoned out of their gourd old guy who is stumbling over exactly what songs they just played, it’s some truly experimental out there music, or classic country, or (like I was listening to earlier) some fantastic deep track hip hop from the early 90s. And occasionally, a talk show that makes a lefty NPR show look like a Rush Limbaugh screed. And where else am I going to find a show that just plays “odd noise tracks” with a DJ who, instead of announcing song titles, makes up an in-situ haiku about what they’re thinking about at that moment. Plus five points, just for the classic hip hop, five more for the DJ shenanigans.
7. Drivers and dawdlers. OK, here’s my biggest beef with the city, by far. In Phoenix, people drive to get where they are going. And, they almost always HAVE to drive. Mass transit sucks a ragged asshole and you usually work 14 miles from where you live, and it involves a stint on the freeway. And the vinyl in your car is gonna burn the shit out of your legs so the less time you have to be in the car the better. And since it’s gonna be 110 degrees for nine weeks a year, so riding your bike full time isn’t a terribly viable plan unless you have invested in SPF45. Because you HAVE to drive and you are always driving a pretty good distance, you learn to drive fast, drive aggressively, and pay as little attention to other drivers as you can. The speed limit is a good minimum speed to go in case of bad traffic, and speed limit plus 10 is pretty safe. In San Jose, nobody knows their way around town except via freeway, so you always end up driving 5 extra miles even though you were going just up the street, but, everybody drives extra fast to make up for it. I don’t think a single street in this town had an average speed under fifty, and that includes residential streets and parking lots.
Portland, on the other hand, seems to take the mindset “OK, we’re in the car now. Now, it is car time, and we should enjoy it.” I pulled up behind a woman this week, and we were coming to an intersection. The cross traffic had a double green arrow, and we were turning right, so, naturally, I made to just cruise straight onto the street. She, instead… stopped. Stared at the red light. I began to gesture, very gently, for her to go. She looked at me in the rear view, then at the cross traffic. She pulls forward, slightly, then SLAMS ON HER BRAKES because she sees the red light again. I begin to wave more frantically, because our window of opportunity is waning, and she is looking at me in the rear view like I just pulled a gun on her or some shit. Just pure terror in her eyes. The green arrow is now yellow, and traffic is about to start flowing. I am now just mouthing “GO GO GO” and she stares back at me and dawning comprehension shows on her face. So she darts out and makes her right turn… just as traffic starts to flow. Leaving me stranded, waiting for twenty five cars to slowly meander their way up to ten miles under the speed limit and then ride their brakes like Jesus the Christ Himself has commanded that they never get above 30.
I’m gonna be honest here, Portland. This is negative fifteen points. This is a big one. If I were driving from the west side of town every day? This might have been a dealbreaker. Thankfully, there is a way around it, which is to ride your bike, which is a meaningful and valid alternative here. But I have a little tip for you. When you get in your car… pretend… just for the duration of the trip, like you are a regular human being with goals other than sitting in the car as long as possible. You don’t have to ACTUALLY HAVE THOSE GOALS. We’re just pretending. You just need to pretend, for as long as you’re behind the wheel, like you have something you would rather be doing than bopping around in traffic at speeds which should make an old woman honk and screech at you. Just breathe deep, take on some artificial sense of urgency, and let that carry you to… the speed limit, maybe even beyond it! or to the store, or wherever you are going.