A few days ago, I was saddened to hear about the three stabbing victims on a Portland MAX(train), two of which died. Jeremy Joseph Christian, who is a white supremacist, attacked a woman in a hijab while three stood up to defend her. He told CNN he hoped his victims died and that Portland needs to wake up to free speech. My mind went all over the place, but kept hitting one point. The only time I have seen white supremacy flourish has been in areas where there are only white people. I saw it in Southern Indiana, Southern Illinois, and Nebraska where such speech is not met with immediate consequences. Portland seems to be under that sway being 98% white, but there are many people who live there who will resist the hate and defend the victims. That’s a fair sight better than the places where I lived an walked: Indianapolis’ East Side, East St. Louis, and South Side Chicago. If anyone walked into those area shouting racist epitaphs and attacking people of color, those racist would quickly find themselves on the business end of a twelve gauge or a nine.
Two years after I graduated high school my brother was a Junior, and came across a Nazi skinhead–the only Nazi skinhead in Warren Central–who dressed the part with his shin high red doc martens with the white laces, tightly cuffed blue Levi’s, and a white shirt. In between classes this guy would stand in the hallway shouting “sieg heil!” My brother told him to knock it off or he might end up in the hospital. In the early to mid-90s when my brother and I went to Warren, white people were the minority–not by too much, though only 60/40. Racism existed, but racist comments, for the most part, were kept close to the chest. To utter such things would cause the same kind of riot that happened in my Junior year. The guy wouldn’t listen, and kept yelling out his Nazi sentiments.
During that time there was construction taking place on the tunnel connecting the school to Walker Career Center. Walker Career Center is something akin to a trade school where people can learn skills such as printing, typing, welding, electrical work, and mechanical work to prepare them for a job after graduation. Getting to class on time from the Career Center to the school, or vice versa was next to impossible–many people ran. Depending on the weather kids will walk through the tunnel or walk outside. There were many pieces and tools around the jobsite such as two by fours and lead pipes, and one afternoon, in between class, the Nazi was beaten to a pulp with fists, pieces of wood, and pipes. I never advocate violence of any kind, but when things like that happen, the attacking party has a legitimate grievance. Obviously, such a response does not curtail racism, but a racist will think twice before he or she will assert their stance. Three men stood up for the young lady in the hijab, and two gave their life so that a woman could live in safety. Today, people rallied together in downtown Portland to march against hate. This is the better response.
This is the Portland where I lived and loved.
When Ronnie and I lived in Portland we were on the southeast side off Powell & SE Cesar Estrada Chavez. It’s a beautiful side of town a mile north of Reed College, and a ten minute bus ride from downtown. We didn’t have our little van at that point, and Ronnie and I got around Portland using the MAX and buses. Living in Portland, we didn’t need a car anyway—and neither did most of the residents. The people who did drive usually came from Vancouver, WA, fifteen minutes north, or from surrounding suburbs. Everyone else made use of bikes, electric bikes, longboards, or the mass transit system. Almost everyone had a rucksack of different shapes and sizes to store their computers, wallets, phones, food, water, and whatever else would be problematic to carry by hand. I did it when I lived in downtown Indy when I would ride my bike to the Ivy Tech campus or take the bus if the weather turned nasty. Rucksacks are as essential as Ford Prefect’s towel in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—always have your rucksack. Walking around Portland, I felt like I was living in Kerouac’s “rucksack revolution” as stated in The Dharma Bums. In the morning, Ronnie and I would pack our laptops, folders, books, water, and food, and take the bus to Southeast Grind to drink coffee while looking for jobs and apartments.
There is a parking lot behind Southeast Grind, but it can only hold a few cars so most people take the bus or ride their bikes. Walking in to the coffee shop there is a waist high barrier on the right, and on the left is a cork message board at eye level—both sides are covered with local music events, art shows, rallies, etc. Walking up to the cash register to place our order there is a bar where people sat hunched over the computers writing and reading while talking to the barista. Behind them there are metal tables and chairs, couches, and cushy chairs, and outlets are numerous for phone chargers and computer plugs. Most of the people there are from the neighborhood, students from University of Portland and Reed, and they are typing away at their computers like a trumpet player clicking his keys while blowing to get the right chord. Many people sit there for hours and well into the night because Southeast Grind is a twenty-four coffee shop. Brilliant!
A coffee shop opened all day and all night, and filled with artists and students does cultivate a warm energy, but that is not why we liked going there. Portland is extremely affluent, and the economic disparity is blatant. Portland has one of the highest homeless rates in the country with something close to 2,000 people sleeping on the streets. When Ronnie and I would go downtown to the farmer’s market we saw people sleeping on the benches in dirty clothes as people walked by. We saw the same thing at a Buddhist festival in a park near the Willamette River. Driving around downtown at four in the morning, we also two homeless guys beating each other for a corner. Because of gentrification rent is extremely high—over $1,000 for a studio apartment no bigger than a bedroom, and employment opportunities are slim to none. It’s not fun to be poor and struggling in Portland, but what I noticed is no one struggles alone.
As Ronnie and I sat on our computers in Southeast Grind, I noticed a homeless guy walk in with a guy in a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. They sat at the bar, and the guy in sandals ordered them both a coffee drink and the homeless guy a sandwich. I caught the conversation, and was surprised to learn that Sandalman didn’t know the homeless guy. Sandalman saw the homeless guy on the street and offered to buy him some coffee and a sandwich because the homeless guy was a fellow human being. Sandalman’s attitude is a common thing in Portland. That is one of many acts of kindness I have seen throughout Portland, and when Ronnie and went to regular services at Shambhala Center the people there were fully accepting of us—I even met some guys who were friends with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. There is genuine compassion and a genuine desire to help others because what I saw from Portland is we are all in this together. Portland is called the “Rose City” because of its environmental beauty, but the beauty of the people are what constantly blooms regardless of the season and weather.