On this Spring Equinox anniversary, I shoved out of bed to act on a drowsy idea: start gathering data for a book project—Portland Places by MAX (the Light Rail—Metropolitan Area eXpress). First chapter: Washington Park MAX station. During the Winter Solstice, I’d come across its reputation as the deepest subway station in the world, bar one in Russia. Could it provide enough incentive to push me out of my comfort zone, to navigate alongside the masses? Do I crave depth? Three months had passed. At last, in the spirit of Harriet the Spy , my 4th grade heroine, I had decided to mingle.
Having overslept after a restless night, I had to follow Legolas in the shower. A reversal, he was waiting for me in the car, chiding me for my tardiness. Hmm. This is new. Why don’t I do this more often? He might learn something. I rode shotgun as he tried to cautiously drive fast, suddenly caring about timeliness with his finals beckoning.
I did some cautious fast driving myself on the return home. Burning daylight scolded me from a childhood brain crevasse. The spectacular sunny morning was living up to the forecast with a high in the low 60’s.
Pupper got the short end of the stick with no park or walk. TriMet allows dogs in carriers or laps, reinforcing big dogicism, which may derail the entire book project.
I used Google Maps on the phone to time my meetup with Bus 14 at 10:15. With hardly anyone on board, I sat in the senior section. Immediately, I got lost in observing the fascinating people boarding. I wondered at Legolas who avoids riding the bus, as I savored the parade of characters. A white lady my age appeared behind the wheels of a stroller popping up and over the steps. Her charge surprised me, a 2-year-old Asian girl with eyes and energy on the verge of something. They took up a lot of space and at the next stop I moved a few aisles back to get out of the way. Next, entered a white Dad carrying his 1-year-old son who rightly gaped down at the girl as they sat across from her. “How old are you?” mouthed the dad, though her main language turned out to be abrupt shrieks.
Besides an occasional “thank you” from those exiting, these were the only riders talking. Morticia Addams, caught my eye, a white heavily make-upped woman with jet black long hair, who nervously shuffled in place near the front exit. I would notice later that many afternoon commuters too, harbored unknown strategies in seat selection, moving when a seat came open, maybe their seat that a non-regular had taken unwittingly. It’s not like your bus seat is a church pew, solid and stationery, invisibly cordoned off from intruders. TriMet rules guard only a few groups. “Priority seating is in the area by the door, you are required to move for seniors and people with disabilities.” How much unknown is in a seat—trauma, security, vulnerability, invisibility. Persons protecting themselves from past or current abuse. Does this apply to Legolas? Remember that kid spitting at him while he waited to board a school bus when he was 10? Going to the bus barn when he was 12 to meet with the district’s transportation manager? Their inability to maintain order?
Secure, in my writer’s morning adventure mode, I electively just watched, from my seat of privilege, making a show of these individuals who make up a community role—the Ridership of Portland, a Bus 14 stew. It was a long run through the length of the popular but weird Southeast Hawthorne district and across the Hawthorne Bridge into downtown Portland. There weren’t many seats left. It didn’t get any better than this for Portland tourists, nor for local adventurers like me—unless the route would have diverted to an isolated Mt. Hood cabin in a snowy wood. But, that would have been a drive far east of Portland.
My behavior had me wondering at myself, how interior I felt, though simultaneously struggling with the volume of external input. I think I’m invisible. I can’t catch eyes very much. Should I look outside where people go, or watch who is getting on? I’m missing new riders while I’m staring at that dad. I forget I’m an “old” lady in these parts. Lots of younger folk. Lots of ear buds and phones were in hand, both on the bus and outside the window, walking the sidewalks.
Oh! So the route zig zags from Foster to Powell, to Division, to Hawthorne. That’s how the streets go! Now I get it. I remembered how I used to learn a new city by pulling out maps after a trip. Google Maps is for short-term, mindless navigation. Paper maps are for those who plan to stay. Will I?
A young white couple boarded speaking with a European accent as they fumbled with their fare. She had a second partner in her phone. It was like a limb that would function smoothly in her body mind. Her traveling partner seemed to have accepted the phone as if they were a threesome. It absolved him of having to make decisions and adding more than a nod to the conversation.
My phone didn’t have that Borg kind of integration with my executive functioning. I exited the bus at southwest 2nd and Main in the Pearl District, right after we crossed the Willamette. I forgot my preference for intuitive navigation and lifted my phone appendage trying to orient Google Maps accurately. Which way should I walk? I repeatedly lost the bet. The map didn’t intuit which direction I was facing, nor did I understand how the map represented the world that my eyes displayed. I put the phone away and started formatting new brain grooves with my vision and kinesthetic senses, using the time-honored trial-and-error method of looking around while walking. I relaxed and hoped to notice hidden treasures. Instead, I met a Save The Children fundraiser. She stepped into my path on the sidewalk, while I was assessing street blockades and firetrucks servicing the building next to us. She called it The Coach building.
“Hi, how are you? What’s your name?”
My legs tried to keep walking, but I stopped, looked her in the eye, mindful of her being probably Loveheart’s age. My mind was still behind me processing all the 911 vehicles, Bus 14, not to mention the subtle annoyance I felt from all the wrong turns and self-inflicted blindness by smartphone. I looked away in search of a name, my stand-up skills absent.
(Martha? Like in the Bible? Where did that come from? Am I the distracted, busy homemaker doing chores while Mary has all the fun?)
“Martha?” She smiled unsure of me. “That’s a nice name if it is your name. What’s your last name?”
My thoughts shrieked like my earlier 2-year-old fellow bus rider. Is she kidding? Who the heck? I’m on my own creative adventure and she just walks into my face and wants my first and last name? My insides started to simmer, at the impertinence of high population density. Damn that Harriet the Spy for putting me here.
She started her pitch and ordered me to hold some card. I refused, saying unabashedly, “My hands are cold and I’ll keep them in my pockets.”
When she got to the part about “you know what I’m going to ask next,” I smiled back at her.
“Yes, I knew that as soon as I saw you. I’ve been around the block a few times.” Little did she know.
“Look, I’m not giving you any money. Really, I was just listening because I majored in sociology and I was curious what they had taught you about how to interact with people (and you’re a human being performing a job and I am a compassionate person even if the children aren’t in my budget today). I’ll be the hardest person you deal with today (well, I really don’t know, but I hope you get some people who happily donate and no one that turns violent on you), and I’m going to let you go, because I’m wasting your time and vice versa.”
I had already given her a “hot tip” to set up on the sunny side of the street, but she said their parameters didn’t allow it (Of course, another job that restricts the creative human spark for the sake of so-called safety, efficiency, and bureaucracy). I refused to feel guilty about my interaction with her, though the social psychology of America makes me a hater when I refuse to pitch in, even if she didn’t have an appointment with me.
We said our goodbyes, and I continued across the street toward Pioneer Square, another Portland landmark. I turned around to look back at the building, checking for flames. None, but I did see We Work stenciled on the upper story windows. Looking back. Why do I do that? Is it a mother thing? Check for forgotten belongings? Children? Something important that was missed? Later I would retrace my steps on a map at home, and search for The Coach Building. It’s a leather retailer and part of an upscale shopping center. The perfect place to solicit money for the children.
Not only would Washington Park be the biggest bite I could have unwittingly chewed off the MAX, but the Pearl District is a year-long project itself. To think if I’d gotten stuck detouring through temples of consumption. I might have pitched a fit and completely cancelled the adventure. As it happened, I wandered around a few more blocks, until I realized a passing train was the Blue line. That’s it! Ignore the Hillsboro label. That’s its terminus. It’s the Red and Blue line in downtown. I’m learning! Get on it. Who cares if it ends up going the wrong direction. You can always reverse course. I caught it at Pioneer Square North. I was 5 stops away from a very deep trip. Mary and Harriet knew it had already begun.