Living in Portland’s Northwest neighborhood was necessitated by the fact that I do not drive an automobile. I do not ride a bike, at least not now (far too many friends have been injured in their cross-town travels on two wheels). So, it was with genuine enthusiasm that I greeted the laying of the Portland Streetcar tracks throughout downtown and through my neighborhood.
I was generally stunned that this project was proceeding at such a rapid pace, and that the normal discontent among the Northwest denizens of cool irony were holding their breath in anticipation of being able to ride downtown without mussing their new do. I even marveled at the empty trains on their test runs, their whisper as they went by and the rush of air as they disappeared down the tracks. Although the bureaucratic banter surrounding Portland’s supposed European sophistication, due to the streetcar, struck me as exactly opposite, namely, the businesspersons and politicos talking up our “euro-ness” exposed us as the small, slightly insulated West coast city with naive and starry-eyed dreams of international sophistication. And, yet, it was almost endearing to see Charlie Hales, transportation czar of Portland, laughing and smiling and waving at passersby. Almost.
I left work at PSU on the streetcar’s opening day, and as I began my walk home to Northwest, around the bend curved the train. I blinked with disbelief; it was like I had cut in line at Disneyland and no one cared. It was rounding the bend to take me home! I felt I should put on a beret, or grab a baguette to be even more “Euro” than I already felt I was, what with the new streetcar taking me on as its personal delivery.
Although it was already quite occupied with riders, I could not pass this obviously preordained encounter. I jumped on, admittedly feeling a little silly as I pretended that this was just another ordinary day in my life. Some touched the walls of glass and metal soothingly as if they had discovered a long lost trinket of immense personal significance. Others, like me, were “cool,” pretending to be unaware of the fact that we were Streetcar Virgins, now taking our ride for the very first time. Apparently we were pretending it was just another normal day in Europe.
After a five-minute wait, we departed with a jolt. “Not very smooth,” I thought to myself. All the passengers nodded and smiled at each other, a sort of “just working out the kinks ���� no big deal that lady fell over” sort of smile.
The streetcar took on more passengers. It was starting to get hot and someone started to sneeze uncontrollably. More passengers jammed inside, and then even more. We all tried to smile, even those whose smiles and teeth were pressed against the glass. I started to get a little nervous and paranoid as I realized I was so far into the train that there was no way to exit.
I was really crushed at this point and more than annoyed at the young men and women who boarded with their multiple shopping bags covered with black and white photographs of other young men and women naked, laughing and hugging. Obviously they had never ridden the streetcar on commencement day. I had to get off. I had to get off right away. I jostled for the door. I launched out the sliding doors and into a crowd of ladies with feathered hats (Vera?). Free at last, to walk the city that I love. To look at people passing by and to feel the pavement beneath my feet, on my own time schedule, with my own urban map in my head. My legs carried me home to my apartment, where I savored my view of the city and the streetcar passing below, which I had beat to my neighborhood.