18. Street People

  1. 01. Minutes of the COCKUP
  2. 02. A Public Service
  3. 03. The 22% Solution
  4. 04. On The Campaign Trail
  5. 05. Athens of America
  6. 06. A Yankee’s Yankee
  7. 07. My Canadian Family
  8. 08. Edmonton? Why?
  9. 09. Prairie Singers
  10. 10. Deconstructing Calgary
  11. 11. My Kelowna
  12. 12. Wine Whine
  13. 13. Fire Mountain
  14. 14. A Stopover and a Popover
  15. 15. Inspiring Victoria
  16. 16. Planet Rosehip
  17. 17. Carry On Grunge
  18. 18. Street People
  19. 19. The Curse of Portland
  20. 20. Mean-Spirited, Powerful Justice
  21. 21. Amtrak’s Jewel
  22. 22. Managing Yosemite
  23. 23. Yumpin’ Yosemite
  24. 24. Parched
  25. 25. Brave New San Fran
  26. 26. Over The Hill
  27. 27. Greatest Again

Four years ago, after a few drinks at a party, Frank Lee and I decided to take a taxi home, a fifteen kilometer ride across Melbourne. I was in the passenger seat next to the driver, as one does in Australia. Frank was in the back. The driver took an unexpected turn, in the wrong direction by my reckoning, causing me to query “Where the fuck are you going?”

That was a poor choice of words. The driver responded by shouting “Do not speak to me that way, you have no right to talk to me that way!” He was absolutely right.

Yet it didn’t stop there. He continued with lengthy passages beginning with phrases such as “You people think…” and ending with “…will get what’s coming to you!” He waved his arms about, several times taking both hands off the wheel, his eyes growing wild with fire as I cowered in astonishment.

After about five minutes of this, Frank shouted from the back seat “That’s enough, stop the car!” Instead, the driver hit a button that put us on the equivalent of a speakerphone. A woman’s steady voice identified herself as “Emergency Dispatch”.

The driver shouted “They’re doing a runner!”

I was flummoxed; I had no such thing in mind.

Frank bellowed again “Stop the car!”

Immediately the steady voice instructed the driver: “Discharge your passengers!”

He drove on, Frank shouted again, and she repeated her command. When we came to an intersection that forced the driver to stop, Frank hopped out. I was late in sensing both the need and my opportunity to flee. I reached to disengage my seatbelt, but the driver grabbed my shirt, pulling it towards him, ripping off every button but one, the buttons ricocheting about the cab.

Now I was scared. Realising the guy was nuts, I shouted “Let go of me!” He did not. In circumstances such as this, the first person to throw a punch is usually the last person to throw a punch. I reeled my arm back, made a fist, and popped him one on the forehead. He was stunned for a moment, causing him to let go of my shirt. Seatbelt released, as I opened the door – the car was now rolling forward slowly – I saw him draw something black and metallic from the centre console by his foot.

“Discharge your passengers!” the disembodied voice repeated. I feared that was exactly what he planned to do.

I bailed out, simultaneously tossing an appropriately yellow fifty dollar bill back into the taxi. “What the fuck do you want?” I cried rhetorically, fully expecting gunfire to follow as Frank and I fled on foot through heavy traffic into a tangle of city streets.

I have come to dread taking taxis. It is a worldwide problem. It is a rare thing that taking a taxi is pleasant experience. If you call they don’t answer, if they answer they lie about the wait (“next available”), if they show up they are late, if you flag them down they’ll refuse to take you anywhere that is less than a thirty dollar fare, if they agree to take you they won’t know the route or the cab will be filthy and stink or the driver will be rude and pontificate objectionable views or they’ll pad the fare or, just possibly, be a homicidal psychopath.

The thing is, taxis are one of the most regulated industries out there. In city after city, taxi regulation has resulted in far more negative unintended consequences than positive intended ones – and that observation comes from me, a big believer in regulation.

It is with tremendous relief and some surprise, then, that I can report that all three of my taxi experiences in Seattle were pleasant. The cab we flagged down took us where we wanted to go, the taxis we booked, showed up. All the drivers were pleasant and knowledgeable, the taxis clean and comfortable, the fares reasonable if not cheap. Kudos to Seattle’s taxis.

It raises a question, particularly in this highly wired city: is the rise of Uber (and its ilk) a response to nightmarish service in a highly regulated industry, or the cause of it? I’m thinking “response” — but as I have yet to try Uber or even downloaded the app, I can’t say. When I get back to Melbourne, I think I’ll give Uber a try, though. I don’t like having to punch out my driver.

IMG_1553Having left enough time to walk the distance if the taxi didn’t show up, our refreshingly prompt, pleasant and efficient cabbie left usat Seattle’s King Street Station with ninety minutes to kill before our train for Portland, Oregon was to depart. IMG_1558We used the time to poke around the historical area between the station and Seattle’s oldest district, Pioneer Square.

There’s some great architecture in the neighbourhood, which had de-grunged considerably since my last visit. King Street Station itself is a grand old station only recently recognized for its heritage value and saved IMG_1583from disrepair. IMG_1580IMG_1582And while it is no Las Vegas, Seattle is one of several cities in the American west that still glow from the heyday of neon.

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The train ride than from Seattle to Portland boasts some wonderful scenery. Once south of Seattle, it goes a bit out of its way to skirt the lower reaches of the Puget Sound. IMG_1609Then it heads inland, crossing or following a half-dozen sparkling rivers before stumbling upon the mighty Columbia River near Portland. We enjoyed Business Class, which, frankly, is often not worth the extra cost on Amtrak. In this case we had purchased of tickets using Amtrak’s Guest Rewards points, a loyalty program that taxes one’s patience less than Amtrak itself.IMG_1591

On board entertainment was supplied by an eleven-year-old boy in an aviator hat and goggles. IMG_1598His grandparents who were delighted that he spent the entire three hour excursion running from end to end of train, arms spread wide, buzzing like a Messerschmitt, spreading irritation evenly across twelve cars rather than focusing it in ours. In doing so he made the acquaintance of a fourteen year-old girl who made sure every passenger was aware that she had never been on a train before, and, by the way, would you like her chicken McNuggets because she wasn’t going to eat them. A woman who boarded in Centralia took her up on it rather than brave the AmCafe’.IMG_1628

This was my first visit to Portland other than passing through on a train a few years earlier. Portland has long been the Pacific Northwest’s “secret”, a diamond in the rough. Like many, what I knew of Portland was drawn largely from the movie My Own Private Idaho, a 1991 film that depicted Keanu Reeves as cute and River Phoenix as not yet dead. Some would say it blew the lid off the secret.

IMG_1633Amtrak dropped us in a nicely refurbished station at the edge of the Old Town district, Portland’s skid row. It was a warm and sunny afternoon so we elected to walk the half mile to our hotel. The city’s grid makes an immediate impression: tiny city blocks, only 200 feet long, demarcated by narrow streets that keeps the traffic putzing along slowly. Low-rise buildings and clean streets create a friendly, manageable air, even as street walkers ply their wares and the homeless beg at your feet in front of the Greyhound station.

The Hotel Monaco Portland was undoubtedly the fanciest hotel of our trip, but we had gotten a great rate. It is one of the Kimpton line of hotels that pride themselves on their boutiqueyness. With every stick of furniture chosen for its funkiness,IMG_1636 you’d never mistake one for a Holiday Inn. The room was huge, a suite, really. They also provide numerous free extras, such as ice creams in the afternoon, a free happy hour before dinnertime, bottled water and cold towels for joggers – the list goes on. My only gripe was that the hotel bent over backwards to be kid-friendly and pet-friendly. As a result the place echoed with a constant din of distant wails, and there was no shortage of cold wet noses unexpectedly alarming one’s bare legs of summer. Small matter, though, we had a lovely stay, and would recommend the place to anyone who can afford the splurge.

The problem with splurging is that it tends to lead to further splurging. The concierge recommended a nearby “trendsetting tavern” named Clyde Commons. At first I was unimpressed by the trends they portended to set, the menu bragging “A 3% Health & Wellness charge will be added to each check to provide health insurance for our staff.” I have to assume the management’s heart is in the right place, and they think they are doing a good thing. But there is something terribly troubling about this. Shouldn’t there be a 2% surcharge for education? Perhaps 10% for housing? Oh, and what about food? How about another 6% so the employees don’t starve? Oh, wait, there it is: “18% gratuity for parties of six or more”. I guess any staff waiting on fewer than six people can eat the leftovers, sleep under a bridge, and go to the library.

My sixteenth campaign pledge: The Smiling Kodiak administration will rescind the federal law that permits employers to pay tipped workers a base wage of only $2.13 per hour. The time has come for restaurateurs to take responsibility for paying their staff a living wage, like all other businesses.

We sampled a variety of small plates with smaller foods at big prices. I am as surprised as you to read me report that it was excellent. Quite an experience, worth the splurge. Nevertheless, when the bill got to $150 – and that’s with only one glass of wine each – we decided it would be a good idea to go experience somewhere else.

Back onto the streets of Old Town, we stumbled across a corner that was obviously the epicenter of Portland’s gay nightlife, with two gay bars and a place advertising “female impersonators”. The open air bar at a place called CC Slaughter’s beckoned, so we had a couple beers while watching the world go by.

20150730_200545Gay bars aren’t what they used to be, but, then, neither am I. Like me, the “gay bar” concept itself is passé. 20150730_200936Any self-respecting nightclub or person under the age of thirty feels little need to advertise their sexuality at all, and when they do, it is online (or on-app) rather than on the dance floor. Brave new world.

Of course, the sun hadn’t even set yet, so I had no reason to expect the place to be throbbing with campy sexual innuendo. No, what we had here was a muscular thirty-something bartender getting over-tipped by a half-dozen reasonably well-preserved middle-aged male tourists, including ourselves. We’d take whatever visual stimulation we could get before our impending bedtime.

The temperature had risen despite the approach of sunset. Leaving, we were confronted by a homeless man repeatedly screaming “fuck you faggot” at no one in particular – or possibly at himself. We passed at least a dozen more street people on the way back to the hotel. While most of them sat silently using signs to do their begging, some were getting cranky and intimidating.

There’s no easy answer to these situations. I generally don’t carry small bills in my pockets – perhaps I should. In this day and age to offer coinage to a beggar is to invite rage, yet to extract a couple bucks from a wallet flush with bigger bills is to invite robbery. Truth be told, I don’t like it when tourists give money to beggars in my neighbourhood – I don’t want them to hang out there. So even if I had a small bill in my hand, why would I pay off a beggar in somebody else’s neighbourhood? And then there’s the question “What are they going to do with the money?” I’ve had more than one panhandler tell me to fuck off when I’ve offered to buy them something to eat.

Once, as my brother and I entered a restaurant, an indigent fellow asked “Got two bucks for a coffee?” We shook our heads, entered the restaurant and sat down. After ordering drinks, my brother excused himself from the table and headed outside. When he returned I asked “What was that all about?”

He replied “When we passed that guy on the way in, I said ‘no’, thinking ‘I can’t give two bucks to everybody who asks me for it.’ Then, sitting down, I realized ‘Yes, I can.’ So I gave him the two bucks.” I was very, very impressed.

So impressed that I tried it myself for a while. I must have less money and more panhandlers in my neighbourhood than my brother! Even so, while I found I could afford it, it didn’t make me feel any better, as it solved nothing, even for the recipient. Now, usually I just walk on by. If directly asked for money, I try to look the requester in the eye, and answer “No, sorry.” And I am.

Yet, that night, walking back to the hotel, my t-shirt caught the eye of a rumpled old man. “Ah, Tanglewood!” he read, “A beautiful place! You must be from Massachusetts…”

I said I was, and that Tanglewood was one of my favourite places on the planet.

“Then you must be the kind of guy who’d spare a couple bucks for a fella that needs it?” he said with watery eyes. He had me. I handed over two dollars.

In the morning, I went out to pick up some breakfast. Exiting the diner, bag in one hand, fumbling with my wallet with the other, a raggedly attired gentleman gave me a sob story about a broken down car and the need for five bucks to buy gas. I looked him in the eye and answered “No, sorry.”

He said “I hope you choke on your egg sandwich.”

Fair enough.

SK