Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Portland from Two Wheels

I am just going to say this to get it out of the way: John, the man I was to meet at HUB one dramatically beautiful spring evening, is from Minnesota.  MINNESOTA.  Do you believe me now?  There is something incredibly strange going on here, and I guess I am going to have to be the dumb ass to say it: if "Minnesota" turns out to be some type of code word that aliens are using to let each other know that the assimilation is underway, please do not say that you were not warned.  In fact, I am beginning to wonder if I am not in some way a pawn being used in a grand diabolical scheme to fill the city of Portland with creatures from another universe.  It could happen.  Stranger things have in this town.  Anyone who has ever lived here knows that.

Initially, John was a bit worried that his love of biking is "trite" by Portland standards.  As a bike commuter myself and a person who appreciates the freedom life on a bike can provide, I begged him to reconsider meeting me, especially after he sent me this email:

"It's all about the bike, and that's something that would be echoed by thousands of Portlanders, I'm sure.  I'm truly ecstatic that I live in a city that has so many people that share the same enthusiasm.  You're a bike commuter so you already get that.  But it's so much more than just a means of conveyance. It's therapy for me in the most literal sense of the word. There's nothing better to relieve a shitty day at work (of which there are many), than a long, hard ride in the West Hills. A little slice of heaven in the middle of the city. And along the way, I share this common bond with so many people. I'm not a particularly social animal, but put me on a bike and it all changes.  All of a sudden, that doctor grinding up the hill ahead of me is my equal.

I'm riding along Fairmont Blvd, near Council Crest, on a sunny Monday afternoon and my rear tire picks up a roofing staple. No problem, I'm prepared for that. I throw another tube in, not realizing that it's not fully seated and use my only CO2 cartridge to blast a huge whole in it. It's going to be a long, frustratingly hot walk home. Within a few minutes,  a pack of very fit looking guys on incredibly spendy bikes zip by in the other direction. One calls out to see if I'm okay. I shake my head. He drops back from the group to see what's up. We get to talking and I find out that he's with a bunch of lawyers that go out and do this ride once a week at lunch time. He's got everything needed to get me rolling, I express my gratitude and tell him that I'm bit surprised that he even bothered to stop. He told me that he'll always stop for a stranded cyclist, even if it does drive his wife crazy. Then he invites me to join the remainder of the ride as long as we can catch the pack.  I doubt that I'd get so much as nod of acknowledgment from these guys under any other circumstance, but at this particular point in time, I belong.  Maybe this type of behavior is universal, but I can't say I've had this type of experience in any of the other places I've lived."

There is nothing like a story about bikes and the shared love of biking bringing people together.  Of course, I am a biker, and this is why I share this love, but really, and this is the more important issue which I have underlined in previous posts: things, events, activities, anything that brings people together, this is what makes it all worth while.  This is why I believe, down to the incredibly smooth and surprisingly lovely skin on the bottoms of my feet, that while we are all afraid of the things that make us different, the things that tie us together are much more important, and in the end, more valuable.

I agreed to meet John at HUB, or, Hopworks Urban Brewery, on SE Powell Boulevard early Thursday evening, after a very busy day at Forest Park.  HUB is a well-known and loved organic brewery, which is also, in the grand Portland tradition, completely sustainable.  The bar itself is a beautiful long stretch of reused materials: old framing, ceiling joists, and office paneling, the foot rail is made from old boiler pipe, and old bike frames hang overhead in tribute to the many cyclists that populate the city's streets daily.  It is not only a beauty to behold, it is also conceptually and philosophically stirring to any biker's soul.

As I had mentioned, it was a dramatically beautiful evening, which, if you do not live in Portland, probably needs a bit of explanation.  Portland in the spring is breathtaking, it is a season of hope, but, it is also a season which reminds everyone who lives here to always wear or carry rain gear.  As I left my quaint apartment in Northwest Portland I kept an eye on the sky; across the breadth of it was a variety of weather.  Sun was peaking out from behind some grey and white clouds far to the southwest, illuminating the small buildings and trees on the east side of the river.  To the east loomed ominously dark clouds which warned of the possibility of showers, maybe even hail, and in between those extremes floated perfectly lovely pinkish grey clouds.  The air was incredibly crisp, and the white flowering trees along the waterfront on the west side of the river created a delicate awning for the homeless people sitting on the benches beneath them.  As I neared the Hawthorne bridge behind two other bikers, it started sprinkling, but by the time I reached the east side esplanade just north of OMSI, it let up.  As I turned my bike east, toward HUB, I elected to go up Clinton instead of Division, as so many have pointed out to me, is a much safer route.

As I rode my bike up Clinton, I saw a friend and shouted his name, but kept going.  One very well known fact of Portland life is that you really can't go anywhere without at one point or other running into someone you know.  This was my person, and, very unlike many Portlanders, I did not stop to give him a "Portland Hug", due to the fact that I was running a bit late and that my personal space bubble issues would keep me from doing so anyway.  I do realize, by the way, that a couple of paragraphs up, I was espousing the virtues of connection and togetherness.  For the record, my personal space bubble has never kept me from connecting with people, just from hugging them.  A completely different matter.

The thing that is a bit frustrating about HUB is that it is on one of the most UN-friendliest bike streets in Portland.  As I neared Powell, I saw that the rush hour traffic was in full swing, and I figured that as long as I could get to the left hand turn lane in the middle of the street, I would be able to make it to the other side without causing too much distress to the drivers speeding by.  Of course, I made it to that lane, and then, all of the cars driving east on Powell stopped in order to let me cross.  This is a phenomenon which has always baffled me.  Why is it that Portland drivers are always stopping for people crossing in the middle of the street, and almost never for those who use the crosswalks?  Uncanny.

John happened to arrive at the same time, we introduced ourselves, and inevitably, commented on the weather and its effect on our choice of bike clothes.  We walked through the packed bar to the restaurant and found that there was a half-hour wait for a table.  We elected to grab two beers, order dinner to go, and sit outside in the beer garden and talk.  John works for ODOT, and from what I understand, works on the cameras all around the city, which, he emphasized to me, are not for recording events, or spying on free citizens, but for use to call for help when accidents happen on the streets and highways in and around Portland.  In fact, his job entails climbing to the top of the Fremont bridge through the hollow poles which support it in order to work on the camera up there.  THE VERY TOP!!  This bridge is 116.13 meters, or 381 feet tall.  He has even eaten lunch up there.  What is even more amazing is that before he did that, he was agoraphobic and acrophobic.  Evidently his first journey to the top, climbing up through the tube as it got smaller and smaller, cured him of that.  He told me that the sensation of opening the hatch on top and seeing blue sky is incredibly breath taking. 

We had a nice discussion as we ate our meals and drank our beers; I had wings with chipotle sauce, he had a burger and chips.  We discussed being progressive democrats, having to work with people from Molalla, (don't ask), the fact that he would not ever be able to retire due to a situation which arose at one of the places he had saved for retirement, and what would be next for him.  He knew he would not be able to stop working, and he hoped that he could find something that he could do reasonably well in his old age.  He had not figured that last part out yet.  We talked about my 20 dates blog, this new project, and the future of the U.S.  As we sat in the beer garden, it got colder, and while it was still kinda early, we decided to call it.  Well, actually, I did.  He suggested coffee, but I had already been geocashing that day, and I was pretty tired.  Plus that, unlike most other north-westerners, I abhor coffee.  Yeah, no, I don't just dislike it, or feel ambivalent; the smell and the thought of it makes my skin crawl.  I am sure that if I didn't have to make coffee drinks every day and come home smelling like coffee and milk, (I am also dairy intolerant), this would not be the case, however, I do, and it is.

Walking through the bar from the beer garden, I noticed two people sitting at a table wearing chicken head masks.  While amusing, not really surprising or out of the ordinary for things you might see in a bar in Portland on a Thursday night.  John and I said our good-byes, parted ways, and as I bundled up in my bike gear, it started to sprinkle.  I knew that at any point during the ride home I had just as much chance of having hail fall on my head as I had the setting sun hitting my face.  There was just no telling.  As I headed west and then north down the East bank Esplanade, I looked across the river.  The riverfront lights were on and light bouncing off the flowering trees created a lovely halo effect which framed the backdrop of the city nicely.  As I rode over the Steel bridge toward home I noticed the dramatic effect the city's lights had on the new construction in the recently gentrified Northwest Industrial District and wondered at how different a place can look at night.  In the light of day, Portland looks like a lush and beautiful city.  At night, the city is transformed by lights of all different colors, revealing geometric visions and commercial agendas.  

The evening had been a quiet one; I felt more like I had seen an old friend than met a new one.  John and I have such similar perspectives on the world, it felt so comfortable sitting there drinking beers with him, talking about the downfall of Metallica and riding around the Fairmount Loop in the west hills.  At the end of the night I had to seriously reconsider my thoughts on MINNESOTA and my suspicion of the inevitable alien invasion.   Then again, lulling me into a false sense of security is most likely a pivotal part of their grand plan for assimilation, so maybe, for just a bit longer, I will stay wary.  After all, safety is its own reward.