A recent trip on public transportation around Portland was an eye-opener. We’re a 2 car household so I normally drive myself around on the weekend but I have this medical issue where I get extreme anxiety driving on freeways. I had planned to go visit my father’s crypt on his birthday, but I wasn’t feeling up to freeway driving that morning so I decided to take public transportation. Rose City Cemetery is on the other side of town and public transportation would be a challenge for sure, but I was in no hurry — it was the weekend.
I’m not a total stranger to public transportation. I’m a monthly bus pass owner since taking a job downtown about 7 months ago. Donna and I usually drive in together but our schedules don’t always match up for the return trip, so I’m ready to ( what we joking call ) “Do the Portland” on any given day.
It hit me on the bus ride that there’s a huge difference between weekday riders and weekend riders. During the week you share the bus with mostly other people on their way to work downtown. Some are dressed up pretty well. Most are engaged with an electronic device of some kind. Almost everyone appears either gainfully employed or on their way to school.
On the weekends, it’s a completely different demographic. When it was all said and done, I think the best way to describe it might be to liken it to a moving homeless shelter. After thinking about it some, it made more sense. Unlike the week-days, very few are going to work. Many are taking Tri-Met because they either don’t have a car, can’t afford one, or are not permitted to drive because of a DUI or perhaps too elderly. Many of the elderly were accompanied by shopping carts and in some cases, wheelchairs. The poverty level is extremely high and the level of dysfunction was extreme.
The effect this had on my was two-fold. First, I came to a new level of appreciation for Tri-Met drivers. They have to deal with the general public at its worst every day, and the risk/reward ratio must be pretty high. I was also saddened by the extreme levels of poverty that exist in Portland, right under our noses, and my mind was racing about things like root cause, short-term and long-term fixes. There was some really bad behavior on the buses and trains, but I wasn’t so much annoyed about that as I was feeling empathy for the unfortunate souls at the bottom of the social rung, and wondering what it must be like to be one of them.
I’ve written about this before, about how lucky we are in the ‘burbs to be mostly isolated from the ills of society. It’s nice out here and comfortable, and easy to forget that we’re all just a couple of bad breaks away from being that guy on the bus with a few teeth missing, bad hi-gene, living hand to mouth. Lose a job, lose a spouse, get behind on your mortgage…. it wouldn’t take long at all.
Since I was on a trip to visit my deceased father at the cemetery, perhaps I was a bit more “in my head” as my wife likes to say, but it occurred to me more than once that while I may not have been born on 3rd base, it was at least 1st or 2nd compared to these poor souls. Thank-you, Mom and Dad for your personal sacrifices.
The saddest example of my little journey was on the ride home. I hopped on the #12 bus from 57th and Sandy and began what I knew would be a pretty lengthy trip through downtown. A few stops later, a family of 5 got on with 2 strollers and 2 extra rolling carts with toys like skate-boards in them. The children were approximately 10, 3, and 3 months. The infant was asleep in the stroller ( I can’t imagine what the ride would have been like had the infant also been needy ).
The first indication of dysfunction came when the 3 year old boy went running down the aisle to the back of the bus with his mother calling out to him to “come back here!”, which he ignored for a minute or two before showing up. From that point on, the parents took turns wrestling him to a sitting position to keep him from escaping again. In between squirms, he’d let out some awful yells.
The next clue was the 10 year old, complete with rolling basket with skateboard in it, came and sat right next to me. I could tell something was wrong right away because he was pumping his arms by his side constantly and looking at the floor. Every minute or so he’d let out a yell, sometimes a profanity sometimes not, and he was good at ignoring his mother’s instructions to behave. He seemed pretty wound up. After a few minutes I reckoned he might have Tourette’s syndrome, but it seemed even more complex than that. I considered moving, but decided to avoid causing a scene as it was already an uncomfortable side-show and I didn’t want to make it worse. I gave it as little attention as I could but I was mentally taking notes.
The father seemed ( not surprisingly ) aloof. He had no clue how to improve his family’s situation on the bus and was mostly numb to his surroundings. The mother however, was at her wit’s end. I felt so sorry for her to be trapped like this. She’d had 3 children with this guy, and from what I could tell, the oldest has an extreme disability, the middle child is likely ADHD, and she has a partner who is no help at all + a new infant to take care of.
I do not know how people get themselves into this situation and it doesn’t really matter at this point. Could be as simple as bad choices, but I also think that people are just victims of the environment they were brought up in to a certain extent. Yes, in the ‘Land of Opportunity’ you can always bootstrap yourself up and many do. But there are those that simply do not posses the IQ or have resources to get themselves out of the hole they are in.
As I got closer to my destination, the bus driver had made a couple of polite pleas to the family to keep the noise level down, The mother, embarrassed beyond words and frustrated that the father was no help, finally reached the end of her patience and yelled at him to do something about the 10 year old who was acting out. His final shrug led her to make a pre-mature exit from the bus with the infant and stroller, and left him there with the 3 and 10 year olds. After more yelling from outside the bus, the father and remaining children collected their belongings and got off the bus as well. We pressed on down the road and the dysfunction continued in the rear view mirror.
I do not see any scenario that has a happy ending for this poor mother or her family. She is trapped in a downward spiral that will get worse before it gets better. I see zero chance at a happy life and worse, I don’t see a solution for her.
This is the kind of experience that puts me even more in my head and determined to not get too comfortable in the ‘burbs. Help is needed out there. I don’t know what form it will take yet, but for sure help is needed.