Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Portland and Early Morning Opportunities

As I have been researching sponsors for my project, I have come across some amazing local Portland companies.  One of the Great Portland Things I found was something called "The Great Green March", an event where hundreds of people will march across the country over the course of a year, about fifteen to twenty miles a day, in a mobile Green city.  They will march by walking, cycling, and using alternative fuel vehicles, and along the way will be holding a nationwide "conversation" about sustainability.  I decided that this was such a great idea, and somewhat similar to what I am going to be doing, that I would contact them and maybe talk a little shop.

While the March itself has been put on pause, I had the opportunity to meet the incredibly interesting and accomplished guy who is running the project, Dan Cohen.  He drives a Radio Cab here in Portland, and offered to take me on part or all of his shift some time so we could talk about our respective projects and I could have a chance to see what it was like to drive a cab in Portland Oregon.  As his shift is normally twelve hours, and I have a job, I opted for an early morning shift.

Dan picked me up at 4 a.m. in front of my apartment, and though I had gotten to bed early, for some reason, the prospect of the cab ride kept me from falling directly to sleep.  I was very tired, and the fact that it was still pretty dark out didn't really help.  When I got in the cab and looked at Dan, my first thought was that he looked exactly like what I would expect a cab driver to look like: middle aged and a bit scruffy, wearing a flat cap and glasses.  Even when he got out of the cab to help a person with their bags, he walked like a cab driver; hands in pockets, back stiff, head turning only slightly to the sides as he walked.  Uncanny.

As I mentioned, it was early.  We said hello, and immediately he started pushing buttons on his little cab driver computer thingy and told me that he already had a fare to pick up from The Florida Room on Killingsworth.  What I expected to be a very drunk group of people turned out to be the bartender, who had worked all night and had been waiting an unreasonably long time for a cab.  She was incredibly nice about it, and it was a pretty uneventful ride.  Then, Dan pushed the buttons on his computer thingy again, and reported that there was a man named "Wille" waiting to be picked up and taken to the airport.  As it was early, the guy was not incredibly talkative, but ended up completely blowing my mind with the very little that he did say.  He turned out to be a young man from Finland who grew up in Stockholm, who had moved to Portland to start a coffee roaster and cafe, and was on his way to Columbia to go and find some farmers in order to procure some beans.  As the final words fell from his lips..."going to Columbia to find some farmers...." I was astonished into silence.  I had a million questions but didn't know what to ask.  Fortunately, Dan was all over it, and the two of them had a pretty interesting conversation while I sat in silent disbelief.  When he told us the name of his coffee shop, Heart on NE Burnside, Dan said he had delivered pastries there in the past and it looked to him like a great place.  After this, it was pretty much one fare after another, either going to the airport or to work, or, coming home after a long night of partying.

 One such fare was a group of three youngish gentlemen who stunk up the suddenly excruciatingly tiny space with the smell of stale alcohol as they deposited themselves into the cab.  It soon became clear that two of them were visiting from England, and while they spoke some language similar to the one I speak, I will be damned if I could not understand a whole lot of what they were saying, though I believe there was some type of running joke about the movie SPEED and one of the young men turning into Keaunu Reeves if he didn't get to his car in time, but I really can't be sure.  I just smiled a lot and laughed until they piled out of the car, in the wrong place, incidentally, because they had given Dan the wrong directions to the car and ended up having to walk a few blocks to get it, which was ironic as the unintelligible joke in question stemmed from Portland Guy always having a hard time finding his car after a night of drunkenness.  Additionally, one of the English guys for some reason wanted to check the trunk before we took off, though, I am not sure why he thought he had put something in there.  Maybe it is a custom in England to check the trunk of a cab before it pulls away.

At about 7, Dan suggested a coffee break.  Normally, I hate to say, he goes to Starbuck's, but he figured it would be apropos  to go to Heart, the coffee roaster the Swedish Fin guy had opened.  As a matter of interest, I understood every word that guy said while he was in the cab; I was just unable to reply due to my own stupid tendency to be impressed by people who trot globes with ease.  On the way to the cafe, I expressed my disdain for Starbuck's, and while Dan whole-heartedly agreed, he had to admit that the incredible deal they have with their Starbuck's card keeps him going back.  I would tell you all about it here, but I would rather not support their business on my blog.  Nor will I give you a link.  Sadly, I am unable to be objective on this particular topic.  I will meditate on it, though I am on the verge of deciding that I need a code word for that particular company, as the mere mention of it in my blog is honestly more than they deserve.  I know.  More meditation.

Heart was great; a nice open space with a roaster in the middle of the room, clean lines, dark wood and thick tables with biology posters of animals adorning the walls.  Simple, but visually interesting.  I ordered a cup of my very favorite local Chai, Dragonfly, and an amazing bacon cheddar scone.  Dan got a very tiny cup of coffee.  I am not sure what it was, as I do not drink coffee, and while I find occasion to make espresso at work, it is not anywhere near the level of perfection they practice at Heart.  He enjoyed it with a bacon cheddar scone as well.  Unfortunately, we enjoyed our break snacks a little too much, and somehow took too long of a break which put Dan at the back of the line for fare pickup on his little computer thingy.  After that, we got into the cab and Dan explained the strategy of getting fares and staying in line.  I had no idea it was so complex.  He told me, in fact, that after running two businesses for 25 years, he really loves the simplicity of driving a cab; that it is much like driving around all day in a warm bath.  That sounded great to me, except for the danger of developing chronically pruney fingers.  Probably not an issue as it is metaphorical.

I have started to notice that within the parameters of this project, the meeting doesn't necessarily have to be centered on a place, but a shared experience or activity.  There have been times, like at the Barcade for instance, where I wrote more of the place, and times where I have written more about the person, as in the case of Rich at the Emanuel Burn Center.  I think with Dan and his Cab, it was definitely a bit of both; a slice of life and why he is passionate about Portland.  He shared that after 21 years here he feels that he is continually discovering this city. "what other place exists besides perhaps NYC, that evolves this quickly?"  he said with laughter in his voice.  And while there are a myriad of places that he especially loves, it is Portland at large that has stolen his heart.  He spoke of Portland's authenticity, proclaiming that most other cities "try to be a slice of what Portland already is in spades", and he went on to say that
"Portland is an open city that puts art and community first, we are forward thinking in design with a focus on local, developing neighborhoods (currently 92), and alternative transportation as a standard for sustainability" , and while he did tell me of a place he loved most, we spent the time in his cab picking up fares and driving them to the places they needed to be.  It was interesting to catch people between places.  Most of them carried the forward momentum of the place they were going, while a few of them still carried the place they had been on them like a cloak, which served to define them completely for the short time they rode in the cab.

Dan's own story is pretty interesting.  He was born in Israel, was kicked out of school before getting a high school diploma, and worked in cotton fields on a Kibbuts for three years.  He ended up finishing high school in the states, but this event derailed him from getting further education.  He walked across the U.S. for global nuclear disarmament and from Leningrad to Moscow with the American Soviet Peace March.  He followed The Dead and sold t-shirts, bumper stickers and clothing stuff in the parking lots outside the concerts, then, when the band started wanting in on the business, in addition to selling at the Portland Saturday Market, transitioned into a brick and mortar retail store in town, Think Good Thoughts.  He and his wife operated two stores in Portland and one in Hawaii until the downturn in the economy caused a decline in business, which is right about the time he started a production company called Peak Experience Productions, producing concerts regionally and nationally.  Peak's largest milestone was working with the String Cheese Incident producing their larger summer festivals and New Years Eve runs in Portland and San Francisco.  After several years, this business had run its course, and he decided to spend more time with his family.  On the advice of his daughter, he began selling high-end cars, which he did until the economy tanked, and then, he decided to drive a cab.  This professional endeavor led to another project he has started, Cablandia.com, a torrid love affair with Portland; a website and blog devoted to all things Portland from the perspective of Rabio cabbies and their customers.

After Dan told me everything he has done in his life, (he is my age, roughly), I was a bit stunned, just as I had been when the sleepy Fin revealed his life's path.  Dan and I were talking about it, and he offered that the difference between he and others, who spend their lives preparing for, and dreaming big dreams who are say, less accomplished, is taking action.  Not just sitting around thinking about doing shit, but formulating a plan and carrying out that plan to the best of your abilities. "You have to be comfortable with the abyss", Dan said.  An incredibly simple and stunningly logical difference.  I have been both.  I used to sit around for hours on end in front of a TV, watching whatever happened to be on, as long as it did not disgust me.  For many years, I would literally come home from work, make something barely edible, take it to the TV room, sit down, and watch until it was time to get ready for bed.  I did this EVERY NIGHT.  I honestly can't remember what I was thinking, or if I even was.  At this point it hardly matters.

That is what fascinated me about the five hour cab ride I took with Dan.  I met many people who for twenty minutes, told us about how they were living their lives, either on the way to, or having come from, living it.  The five hours seemed more like one or two; it went by that fast, and I could see why Dan loved it.  Each time he went to pick up a fare, he got to wonder at what type of person it would be, then, figure out the best way to strike up a conversation regarding their life path.  I kind of see his job and my project as inversely related bottles, where the volume of the experience sits beneath a small bottle neck which is easier to handle or hold on to.  For Dan, the bottle neck is the amount of time spent with each person, and the body, the choice of topic.  For me, the bottle neck is the topic, and the body is the length of time.  I am not sure if this is important, except for the fact that it is pivotal to have some type of parameter or boundary within which to operate, lest things get hairy.  Imagine driving for hours and hours with a complete stranger.  Funny in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, not so funny in real life.  Or, meeting with someone you don't know to talk about anything they want for as long as they want.  Probably why blind dates are such nightmares.

We all have a choice.  We can choose to spend our days and nights in front of screens, and most likely, live one life.  The option is that we can go out and live as many lives as we want, depending on opportunity and circumstance.  It seems to me that this ecosystem is well balanced; there are those who do things, and there are those who sit in front of screens and read, watch, or listen to what the other people are up to.  In the end, I guess it depends, as Dan said, on how comfortable you are with the abyss, and how close you are willing to come in order to dance on the edge of it.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for comment on my Funny Women piece--your comment's wit and sensibility: Like. 20 in 20, whew. Also like this posting, its reflective thoughtfulness. Leaving multiple lives, reinventing so demanding but the option is, yes, the freeze in front of the screen of any sort: tv, laptop. Nice. thanks again, JF