I hesitate to write about Portland. It might not be cool to write about Portland. It might be more Portland to not write about Portland, and then read what other people write about Portland and say to myself — that’s not Portland.
I’m only a tourist after all. But whatever — I want to write about Portland.
At first I felt too normal for Portland. Not radical enough in my style. I got self-conscious in my cargo shorts and tennis shoes. White socks. What statement am I making?
Then I realized…radical is not about tattoos and ear gauges and wild beards and vintage clothes.
To be radical is to be yourself, whatever that is.
And that’s the vibe I get now when I walk around Portland in my tennis shoes and white socks.
The last time I was in Portland it was raining hard. We saw cars going through the car wash, undeterred. Another guy was outside, pouring rain, mowing his lawn.
The Portland Trailblazers are a perennially cool NBA franchise. Clyde the Glide. Arvyds Sabonis. Damian Lillard. They won the championship in 1977 with a very Portland superstar hippie Bill Walton, a transcendent big man. They could have won more championships, but injuries plagued Walton’s career. Then they drafted Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984. Then they drafted Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007.
Why did the Blazers pass on Durant and Jordan, choosing two injury prone big men instead? I think they were always chasing the magical potential of Bill Walton.
Walking around Portland today, you see signs on lawns and in the windows of restaurants. The signs say things like: Refugees welcome here. We welcome all religions, all races, all countries of origin, all sexual orientations, all genders.
It says something about society today that these are radical statements. In a time of increasing hostility, Portland lays out a Welcome mat.
The Welcome mat can be dangerous. Last week two people were killed on a metro for defending Muslim girls from the verbal abuse of a white nationalist.
Micah Fletcher, who survived the stabbing, said, “There’s nothing heroic about defending children.”
Over this past weekend, competing protests converged on downtown Portland. Tensions flared, but luckily the day ended peacefully. Lots of weapons were confiscated, none were used.
Portland is an ideological, and sometimes literal, battlefield in a brewing civil war.
In Portland you see different kinds of shops. Like this bike store, where my brother got his bike repaired:
It is worker owned and collectively run. That makes sense to people in Portland, but maybe not elsewhere. Instead of a top-down structure, boss in charge, decisions at this bike shop are made democratically. Each worker is a co-boss, co-owner. Vote on decisions. Share the profits.
Freaking communists, right?
But it’s all voluntary. It’s not like the government is forcing this structure on the people of Portland, preventing free enterprise. The shop is cooperative because they prefer it. They compete against traditional companies in the free market. Consumers can empower whatever business structure they believe in.
Agree or disagree with collectivist philosophy, the bike shop is an example of one my favorite qualities of Portland. You can feel it in the air. You pick it up in casual conversation. I wouldn’t call it “idealistic,” because there is a hint of cynicism. It’s an attitude of lived values. Put your money where your mouth is. Be authentic.
Sure, the quest for authenticity can morph into hipsterism. It still represents the fundamental quest.
Of course there’s the micro-brews. Food trucks. All kinds of delicious foods and neat coffee shops.
I love Powell’s bookstore. Walking around in a labyrinth of books, looking at all the titles, millions of books, reading the staff recommendations on the shelves. When you walk out of there, your mind is full of grand ideas before you even start reading whatever you bought.
I love that everything is green. After spring the flowers bloom into whites and pinks and reds. People are walking and biking everywhere. In a short drive you can be in the wilderness, hiking a mountain or walking through a forest.
Then there’s quirky stuff like the naked bike ride. Festivals of all stripes. The dude riding his bike, jimmied with surround speakers, blasting “Raspberry Beret.” Random stuff like that.
For me, Portland is a vacation. A respite from suburbia. I come from a land where all my trash goes into one container, where the cars don’t stop for pedestrians.
Portland is a breath of fresh air. A kaleidoscope of humanity. A reminder that diverse peoples might happily co-exist someday.