I am living in Portland without a car and am loving it. The city’s Tri-Met system of integrated bus, street car and light rail is efficient and coordinated. I can text from any stop, with the stop ID, and know exactly when the next bus or train will arrive. As I learn the system, it is becoming easier and easier to navigate. In addition to reducing my carbon footprint, I get more steps in for the day. I can take the Trip-Met one direction and, of the weather cooperates, walk the other.
Besides the obvious environmental reasons, there are deeper societal reasons I like riding public transportation. I come into contact with the panoply of people that populate Portland. Today was no exception. A young British English-speaking young man boarded. He looked, from all outward appearances, normal (whatever that is these days.) However, once he sat down (directly across from me) things changed. He began loudly talking to himself. His “conversation” was fascinating. He said “The boss is coming after me and he will come after you too. Stop being bossy and you will never have a boss come after you. When the boss comes you will know why.” He kept repeating “the boss is coming after me.” While this “conversation” with himself was going on, people started to quietly move away from him. I decided to remain seated and observe. After about 3 or 4 stops on the light rail, he stop talking and pulled out a small gaming device. Until I exited, he was quiet.
Why is this little story important to me? I firmly believe that self-imposed isolation creates an internal dislocation from the place and the people of one’s homeland. The more isolated we make ourselves the more we imagine what reality is. We spin internal stories fueled with fear and anxiety. While I did not introduce myself to this young man, I felt that I connected in a tiny way. I saw in his eyes loneliness and, likely, some mental illness. I sensed that he might be paranoid and distraught over his own isolation. While my passive connection did nothing to make a connection between him and me, it thickened the threads that I am weaving to bind myself to this new city. That this young man was not escorted off the train or harassed was also meaningful. That the driver obviously kept an eye on him from her rearview mirror was comforting.
There are other examples of day-to-day encounters on the streets of my new home. Where we live—right in the midst of downtown—there are many persons who are temporarily without a home. Their behavior ranges from benign to aggressive. Their ages range from teens to seniors. Sometimes they are frightening and, as we walk near our home, we have to be cautious. This is real and we are not naive but also will not be dissuaded from living in the city. Mostly, they are sleeping or either trying to relieve their hunger or thirst by asking “can you spare a dollar?” I have chosen not to give money. However, in that brief moment, I am torn between sitting down and getting to know this person and offering help to just walking away. Both choices are not ideal. I know from having worked in the past with David Pirtle, of the National Coalition for the Homeless, that their stories are wedded in addiction, mental illness, PTSD, financial ruin or abuse. Their stories are not simple and not easily unraveled.
Once I get my bearings and settled into our new home, I intend somehow to get involved with some aspect of this issue. It may be as board member of the Multnomah County Library—their branches are a natural magnate for folks who are temporarily without a home (as libraries around the world are.) I really don’t know yet. I do know that I will not be afraid to walk the streets. I will remain safely cautious but not be driven by irrational fear. In the meantime, I will continue to listen to and think about the stories, chants and rambles I hear from these human beings who choose to share in their own way.