Really Polite Fascists
By David Glenn Cox
I had an appointment this morning at the Northwest Pilot Program in Downtown Portland. Since this was my first visit and I was technically a “walk in,” I was advised to be at least an hour early for the 9:00 AM opening. Well, as I’ve explained before, I’m a little anal about being on time for appointments and I knew well, that when you ask for help in America, you had better bring your lunch.
I’d planned to take the seven o’clock bus to arrive ninety minutes early, but I left the house early enough to catch the six thirty bus. A quick walk from the bus stop and at ten to seven, I arrived to find myself fourth in line. At first, all was quiet in the line. Soon however, the ice was broken and we all became fast friends. Michael was first in line as he played his digital card game and when I asked, what time he had arrived to be first in line, he answered without looking away, “5:30.”
Johnny was second in line, he was younger than Michael and had hearing aids in each ear and was a bit more talkative. He commented, on a pretty young girl across the street, “How old do you this she is?”
“Old enough to ruin your life,” I answered. Our line was quickly filling now, I was number four, two hours early. Five, six and seven showed up right behind me. The staff’s warning of only serving the first four in the morning session rang in my ears and made me grateful I had caught that early bus. Several walked away, unwilling to wait, seeking that Domino’s America, thirty minutes or its free. Some in line had canes, some had walkers and none were too well dressed and all were seeking housing.
My primary goal in coming was to seek assistance in resolving my ID problem. It was after eight, when an older woman approached us from the sidewalk announcing, “The door unlocks automatically at eight o’clock.” I thought, ain’t technology grand? It unlocks a door automatically, without ever communicating that somewhat important fact to anyone at all. For some reason, the hour wait inside seemed so much longer than an hour wait outside, but it ended with them offering to help me. First, I would have to make a trip to the Social Security office.
Released into the streets of Portland with a lightly printed map I would make the overland trip to Social Security on foot. Portland is the city of Roses; people like me, Easterners mainly, think its Pasadena, but nope, it’s Portland. I try to write about these places where I’m immersed and I have held off writing much about Portland because Portland is weird. At least that’s what the bumper stickers on the back of every third car say anyway. I think, weird is kind of an over generalization. Portland is unique, funky and Bohemian. It is a low city; it has its share of high rise, sterile steel and glass skyscrapers, if you like those sorts of things. But mainly, it is a brick and mortar town.
Tree lined city streets are filled with a varied assortment of generations of funky architecture. There are so many coffee shops in Portland; I think you could probably run from one to the next while holding your breath, without ever turning blue. Me, I’m a coffee slug; I happily drank Folgers or Maxwell House for years never knowing the difference. But to do so in Portland is like going to the wine country of France and ordering “Ripple.”
Nestled along the banks of the Columbia River, it is a city of bridges, industry and quiet neighborhoods. Compared to homicidal traffic of Atlanta, her traffic her almost genial, but because of the hills and the rivers and time, you can suddenly find yourself at a geometric convergence of half a dozen roads which could confuse even Stephan Hawking. Always off in the distance is the ghostly image of Mt. Hood, a sleeping and hopefully, dormant volcano. Though the temperature has been in the eighties and nineties for several months now, on top of snow white Mt. Hood this morning it was seventeen degrees. I visited this mountain back in May and as we pulled into the parking lot of the ski lodge we were surrounded by snow banks towering fifteen feet above us. Snow banks not piled high or shoveled high, but snow fallen high, still hanging around in May!
I am closer to Alaska and Hawaii here than I am to my native South; The Pacific Ocean is a scant forty five minutes away. Currents carry air and water in from the North Pacific and it means, the Ocean is truly beautiful and truly cold. On a ninety degree day when you approach the ocean, from three feet away, it as if you have just opened the door to a refrigerator cooler. Yet, if you drive east from Portland, suddenly as you crest the top of a hill the trees and greenery disappear, replaced by an amazing high desert panorama and just for good measure, this high desert like the one in the cowboy pictures has a beautiful river running through it. The Columbia River Gorge to the North is a one of a kind splendor and it is as if Portland is a city surrounded by theme parks. Pick a direction, pick a climate and pick a landscape.
The big financial institutions seem to be the only chain stores; there is a noticeable and pleasant absence of fast food chains. In central Portland, there are colorful Jitney’s, small trailers selling all manner of ethnic foods and in two of the cities parks, what else, but coffee shops. I navigated my way towards the Social Security office crossing a bridge across the 405 and I couldn’t help but to take note of the decorative high iron bars and steel lattice installed at public expense to keep our people from killing themselves by diving off of the bridge into traffic. Why do you suppose that is, I mean, government is not so proactive as to install such a thing unless absolutely necessary and decorative no less.
Arriving at the Social Security office, I was greeted by a rent a cop and a metal detector, well, two rent a cops actually. An extra was present, just in case the other needed back up in this scary, scary Social Security office. The first cop was genial enough, as he searched my shoulder bag and he reminded me a lot of my cousin Tommy. Of course, Tommy was taller and didn’t slouch as much, Tommy was also bigger across the chest and better looking, but their hair cuts were strikingly similar. As the cop searched my bag pulling out each of the six CD cases I was carrying. I asked, “If you don’t mind my asking, what are you looking for?”
In a no nonsense manner he explained, “Weapons.”
Thinking about that for a minute, I asked again, “You mean like razor blades?”
I want to get this right; he wasn’t obnoxious, only noxious. In an overtly Fascist police state, he hadn’t lost his sense of polite decorum. Even if he did miss two compartments in my bag including the one containing my camera he remained very polite. Due to his polite negligence, if I had decided to, I could have gotten the photographic drop on the both of them. I could have illegally snapped photographs and the cops could have only responded with pepper spray, night sticks or by shooting me dead with their service revolvers.
But again, I want to emphasize, he was very polite as he said, “Thank you very much sir, take a number from the machine over there.” I had come to obtain information from my government, but first I had to deal with armed men threatening deadly force searching my valuables. I took a ticket from the computerized machine, I was number B522 and the next number called was 53, then 54, then 55. So I went back over to the two ersatz Gestapo fascists keeping me safe from Democracy and asked, “Is this right? Am I really 467 numbers away?”
He explained the machine cycled the numbers and I guess he was satisfied having done his hardest work for the day. A few moments later, my number was called and I quickly received the information I needed to obtain a print out of my social security number, so that I could take that to the state government which would allow the state to grant me a photo ID, so that I could then return to Social Security to replace my card lost in a tragic washing machine accident in back in 1972.
But by now, it was lunch time and I’d had a busy day and yes, I really did pack my lunch and I shared it with a pigeon in Teacher’s park. The children were playing in the fountain when this gray fellow with a black head and just a spot of green ambled up to me. He looked up at me, right in the eye as if to say, “What’s up bud?” Let me be clear, he didn’t beg, but asked politely, “what you got there?” I threw him some crust and he seemed to approve, so I threw him a Cheese it.“ He pecked at a corner of it, but then politely declined, so I threw him some more crust and he gratefully munched it down before nodding to me as if to say “thanks”, before ambling on.
After lunch, I faced a moral dilemma. Should I walk another mile or two down to get a TB test as required by the homeless shelters or call it a day? I was a little tired but thought I would give her a go. It was a beautiful day, just a scoush over 72 degrees, with the sun shining. The streets and parks are filled with art of all descriptions honoring pioneers, sailors and the nondescript, but as I walked, I was overcome by the numbers of truly desperate homeless people in the streets. More homeless people per city block than I could ever have imagined.
They were literally competing for intersections, from the hard up to hard bitten. From young to old, from prey to predator. Some held signs while others stared blankly, aimlessly into the sky, just killing time. They all remained perfectly silent, perhaps they no longer had anything left to say or maybe that’s the rule, you can beg, but you cannot make noise. It is a beautiful city in a garden spot of the world, but there is also a yin to this yang. Fading light and long shadows, art appreciation amongst the ruins with food festivals amongst the hungry, in the city of Roses.