Listening to where you live

A lot of people claim to know “what” Portland is, as if the city’s identity can be boiled down to certain characteristics: eclectic, weird, colorful, contradictory, creative, independent. In some way or another we’ve all been believers; we’ve worn skinny jeans and grown mustaches. We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid (Stumptown and Ninkasi).

While it’s true that such traits can be found within many people here, the fault lies within the belief that these things are definitive. When I moved to Portland from New England I brought assumptions along with me. In my idyllic version of west coast living, I’d do yoga at sunrise every morning; I’d wear overalls and garden after class; I’d learn to brew my own beer and dance along the banks of the Willamette with a tambourine.

Then I got here and realized: man, I actually have to work. And wait for the bus in pouring rain. And deal with all the normal things that every human being has to. Like rent money, washing dishes, and the reality of living in a basement.

The problem is that we all have a crush on Portland. Like any doe-eyed teenager, we want to see only the letterman jacket (in this case, suspenders). We twirl our hair and giggle and gaze longingly with dreamy eyes, all the while missing the really important moments and the most valuable aspects of people.

iPhone pic: the city
iPhone pic: the city

Today while riding the bus downtown, I didn’t see there was a man named Enrique aboard whom I had met one night. We had only talked for about 15 minutes while waiting for the bus. But he recognized me on this second meeting and simply said, “Bye, Emma” as he got off the bus.

I looked up, surprised at hearing my name. I remembered the man, his small smile, and a vignette I had written after that night:

4th of July in the City

Tomorrow I’ll meet a man named Enrique while waiting for the bus. Enrique will tell me about his family back in Guatemala. He will tell me about his various jobs at restaurants, and how he works seven days a week. He’ll tell me about his dad who died of cancer and of sending money home to pay his medical bills as he died. Enrique will tell me that he lives just beyond the McDonald’s on Barbur Boulevard. I’ll watch his jagged gold tooth (front, right) move up and down as he smiles and asks if I speak any Spanish.

But today, a holiday, the stranger I meet on the street is not Enrique and this stranger asks,  “Do you have spare change so I can get drunk and blow myself up tonight?”

The gems of any city can’t be found in a brochure or travel guide. I’ve come to realize that the world at large has got Portland’s identity all wrong. Portland isn’t so great because of the bikes or the brews or the trees or the art. It’s great because it’s a city filled with daily interactions so small and so powerful they’re easy to miss, yet impossible to forget.

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