Friday 4 February 2022 – Portland MAX Light Rail

At some point, Riverdance’s Lagan Company DID make it to Portland, Oregon, but it was not in the first six months and thus was not an ‘official’ target stop on this ‘Riverdance Revisited’ trip. In reality, I should have been going from Spokane WA to Eugene OR, but the whiff of a bargain was too much for me to pass up, plus I needed a rest day or two in between so many flights and filming.

Oregon has no state sales tax and so it’s the place that travelling musical theatre casts and crew await with bated breath. I’m told that Riverdance crew members would pre-order bike and truck parts, technology and anything expensive for collection when they came through. I had tucked away a few dollars and had my beady eye on some camera equipment and maybe a new phone. I booked a hotel near Tigard Mall outside Portland with its Apple Store and proximity to Best Buy.

At Portland Airport, the Uber app enthusiastically offered me a ride to the hotel at Tigard Mall for over $100, so I strode out of the terminal to the city’s MAX Light Rail system. Bonus: it was Rosa Parks Day and all rides were free. I settled into my deep-red seat, popped in some earphones and watched the world start to shuttle past.

Last time I visited Portland, in the early 2000s, it was edgy and LGBTQ-friendly, with cool cafes, art venues and yarn shops. Some time after the 2008 financial crisis, so-called Tent Cities started to appear in the US and other nations and, alongside the multiplying effects of endemic poverty, homelessness, a dearth of publicly-funded mental health and drug rehabilitation programmes and, ultimately, the most recent pandemic, Portland developed a reputation as having a no-go city centre.

I watch fellow travel-bloggers, Kara and Nate, on YouTube and I remembered their visit to Portland distinctly. They had received advice not to park their van downtown. They got a LOT of flak for that, without justification. Staying in a van has a different set of personal security risks to staying in a hotel, mostly very immediate. I knew that taking the light rail meant going right through the centre of the city. Perhaps I could understand what was going on from the safety of the train carriage.

Right before the city, tents began to appear, perched on vertiginous bits of embankment, settled amidst briar patches strewn with plastic detritus. Some had cardboard porches, others had flaps open to the wind. A blue one had a divot where a pole had been and an older woman sitting on a camping chair smoking the butt-end of her cigarette.

Right in the centre of a 30 foot slope stood a stark-white crucifix, 6 feet tall. Across the centre in black script was a name: Jordon Williams RIP. My pen was at the bottom of my bag and I failed to write down the dates. Who was Jordon? The cross was turned so that it could be read by train passengers. Had they lived on that slope? Someone killed in an accident, or an incident? At the foot of the cross, like offerings to the sky gods, lay children’s toys in bubble-gum pink, yellow and baby blue.

The train soon left the 6-foot crucifix in the half-haze of evening and trundled into Portland. Plywood boards nailed in the gouged-out eyes of famous stores. Shots of duller blue, green and grey marked the toneless hues of 4-man hiker tents pitched on sidewalk concrete. Suddenly, two guys screaming, unrelated, in existential pain. People laughing with friends and dogs, dogs everywhere. A line for Christian sandwiches. An old-school goth awaiting the train beside two women making a deal. Now the doors slide open in the maw of a street row but the train is a portal to Consumerville. “Shut the fuck up”, one guy screeches, struggling to close his belt. “It’s free today” I want to cry, to help someone get away. Who? To where? ‘The Apple store is unable to manage in-person consultations due to Covid’.

The City of Portland has a policy that opponents argue makes it easier for Tent Cities to persist. On their website, the City claims that the issue in Portland isn’t ‘even as bad’ as other cities, it’s simply more VISIBLE as they don’t have so many halfway houses; ways to ‘dissipate’ the booming population of people without homes.

In 4 days in Portland, and every time I’ve heard it mentioned since, people talk about the ‘problem’, the ‘issue’, the ‘druggies’, the ‘derelict’, how Portland is ‘fucked’. Tent City dwellers are a group of people seen as an underclass, as dirty, as incapable of using toilet facilities. Perhaps one part I get: it can be hard to see the everyday humanity of someone screaming at you. Abstract thinking is easier to manage. When you acknowledge the lack of access to mental health facilities, or how people have been broken by circumstance, by the system, by failed relationships, their own ‘fault’ or by dislocated families. Who has lived without fault? There are as many reasons as people in this situation. And yet it is politics that has the capacity to engage with people without homes, policy that can be the change. Finland has tried something different and some people argue it’s a good way. But I don’t have a solution, I’m just the guy on a train.

If I have a view, it’s just that we can start by recognising the dignity and respect due to each human person. That doesn’t mean having to move in to a tent, or put any person in danger, but it does mean us learning to have a heart big enough to embrace the needs of the full range of our human siblings, without conditions.