Thursday, September 30, 2010

In Which the Front Wheel of My Bike Gets Stolen at a Busy Portland Intersection

For the first time in my life, I willingly approached a Greenpeace canvasser.  "Hello," I said to her.

"Hi!" She was smiley and pixie-like and had red streaks in her hair.

"I know you guys have been on this street corner all day. My bike's been parked over there, and someone stole the front wheel. Have you guys seen anything?"

She thought for a minute. "Yeah!" she said, "there was some guy messing with a bike over there earlier, but I didn't get a good look at him."

"Any idea of what time?"

"Maybe two. I don't know. Three? I was watching the pedestrians, mostly."

"Okay thanks."

"Do you want to help save the environment today?"

"Look, I just had the front wheel of my bike stolen."

"You ride a bike! Obviously you care about the environment."

"I'm in a very bad mood right now, and have to file a police report."

"Okay, but it's a great cause!"

I walked away. The corner where my wheel was stolen, SW Broadway and Morrison, is an incredibly busy spot. Several retail spots, tons of pedestrians, a few buskers, some canvassers, and a handful security guards are nearly always there during the day.

I asked around to see if anyone had seen someone messing with my bike. I asked the Baskin Robbins, Abercrombie &, Fitch, Nordstrom, multiple security guards, a few buskers, and a great deal of Pioneer Courthouse Square. I didn't know why. There was no chance that I'd get my wheel back, I suppose I wanted some sort of satisfaction, or wanted to know that it wasn't possible to just go up to a bike in a public place and, you know, steal parts of it without detection. The presence of lots of people would be enough to deter you.

Unfortunately, no one had seen anything of substance. My bike wheel was crippled, and some thief has a new front wheel, along with an old tire and much-patched tube. I was annoyed at the thieves, certainly (I had some nice thoughts about weaponizing my U lock and bruising up their soft tissue with it) but I was also pissed at Portland itself. This was on a dynamic, well-trafficked intersection. I would hope that the light of day, the presence of crowds, and general feel of the area would be enough to deter crime. It usually is, but today I got to be the one guy who happened to get his shit jacked.

In a very, very public place. The whole incident reminded me how easy it is to slip beneath people's perception, as this clip illustrates. Stealing is actually quite easy, as is sleight-of-hand, being unnoticed, and stealth in general. When I was in high school, a classmate walked into a McDonald's, took the gigantic ketchup dispenser with him, and then walked out. Nothing happened to him (he claimed that it was a "social experiment" and subsequently had a ketchup dispenser in his locker all year.) The Willamette Week actually did a story on this, and a reporter was able to very easily steal his own bike. I don't have any profound conclusion here, but I really do want to believe that the presence of tons and tons of people on an intersection an exert enough ambient social pressure to make people behave. It works, I suppose, most of the time, but every so often a crowd of people on a street corner are all too happy to see nothing.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Something That Happened on the Yellow Line

When the doors opened by Union Station, a very drunk man stumbled onto the Yellow Line. He was late middle-aged, at least fifty. Perhaps over fifty-five. He sat down behind a woman in a wheelchair. She was small, perhaps thirty-five, and had a blanket over her legs.

"Can I ask you something?" he said, slurring his words. The woman said nothing.

"Can I ask you something? What's wrong with you?" She turned her head.

"Nothing," she said. "What's wrong with you?"

"You're in a wheelchair."


"What's wrong with you?" He could not sit straight. His shoulders rocked with the train and he put his hand against the window.

"Are you asking me why I'm in a wheelchair? Is that what you're saying?"


"I got shot. That's why I'm in a wheelchair."

"Bullshit." From his slurring mouth, all the syllables were longer. The Ls, in particular, were stretched in such a way that left his inebriation wholly undisguised.

"You don't believe me?"


"My brother got involved with some bad people, and when they came for him, I was with him and I got shot."

"Fuckin' bullshit."

"And then, he was scared and felt guilty about what happened to me, and he killed himself a few days later."


"That's why I'm in a wheelchair."

The man seemed to think, very slowly, and then looked as if he believed her. "Was it gang-related?" he asked.

"Yes, it was."

"Were they black guys?"

The woman paused, and said "Yes, they were."

"Are you racist now? Because you were shot by a black guy?" Both the drunk man and the woman were white.

"You should eat something," said the woman. She got some crackers from her bag, and gave them to the man. He began to eat, spewing crumbs onto the ground.

"I wanna go to Lloyd Center," he said. "When's Lloyd Center?"

"You're on the wrong line. This is the Yellow Line."

"I'm not going to Lloyd Center?"

"No, you got on the wrong line."

"Fuck." His hand was on the window. "Your hair is so pretty." He put his hand in the woman's hair. "It's like you're an Indian," he said, running his fingers through her strands. She was blonde. "Can I go to your house?" he asked her.

"No," she said, "I think you should get off and go in the opposite direction. That way, you can get on another line and go to Lloyd Center."

"I wanna go to your house." he stroked her hair, and ate crackers.

"This is my stop," said the woman. It was the same as mine.

"Okay," said the man. He put his hands on the back of her wheelchair.

"I know how to work this," she said. "Don't worry about that."

I saw them going in the opposite direction, and was very, very afraid for the woman. Even obviously intoxicated, the man still had two legs and could take her. Very quickly, I turned and jogged up to them.

"Ma'am," I said, "is there anything you need a hand with? Anything you need taken care of?" I nodded at the drunk, still holding on to her wheelchair. My heart was pounding. I was offering to get in a fight on this woman's behalf. Even if I called the police, I would still have to deal with him for a few minutes. There would have been unpleasant physical altercations.

She smiled at me, and said nothing for a several seconds.

"I'll be fine," she said, "but thank you."

She and the man went in the opposite direction, and I hoped that she was right.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Someone in the BBC Has a Sick (and Admirable) Sense of Humor

I can draw only one conclusion from this picture from a BBC slideshow:  The ages-long rift between Anglicans and Catholics still hasn't healed, and the BBC is trying to undermine the Pope by trying to make him look as leering and creepy as possible.

With kids.  The pope is leering at a bunch of kids.  If your organization has a problem with child rape, why the hell would your P.R. department ever let you within a hundred feet of children?  Christ, this picture is unfortunate- the only thing missing is a creepy van.  I'll bet that somewhere in the BBC, the photo editors are chuckling about how goddamn clever they are.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

An Open Letter to America's Really Rich People

Dear People With Several Times More Money Than Me,

We have had our differences.  There were those nasty incidents back in college when I was all hopped up on Marx and proclaimed mostly non-ironically that we should "eat the rich."  I also used to have a Che poster and have used the term "capitalist pig-dogs" on more than one occasion.  Sorry about that.  I feel differently now, but I believe in getting the elephant in the room out of the way.

Especially because now I (and indeed, all of America) kind of needs your help.

Our economy is not doing so well.  Yes, we're recovering, but rather slowly.  A while ago, when the stimulus was passed, I hoped that one of my favorite economists was wrong.  Paul Krugman said over and over again that the stimulus was going to be too small to get the economy going,  I love Krugman, but in this case I really, really hoped that he was wrong.  Incorrect.  Not on it.  Erroneous.

Alas, it seems like he won that Nobel prize for a reason, and the stimulus really was too small.  We need another one, but there presently isn't the political will for such a thing.  If the government isn't going to start feeding the economy, then the demand is going to have to come from somewhere else.  In this case, you guys.  You massively rich humans who go to sleep on beds made out of Benjamins and have doorknobs that cost more than me.  You guys are sitting on approximately ten bazillion-bajillion dollars of wealth, and that money really needs to be spread around.

As yourselves:  Do I have every XBox game ever made?  Does my cat own enough sweaters?  Are there enough melon ballers in my life?  Do I really own enough blenders?  Is my life really complete if I don't have my very own sushi franchise?  I can tell you right now- the answer is no.

Rich people, for the sake of us all you need to do what you do best- spend.  Spend widely and freely.  Spend with abandon and excess.  Spend because the rest of us can't.  Go out to eat and order dessert.  Tip your server well- they will put that money into circulation, trust me.  If you're eyeing a new gadget, go ahead- buy it.  Buy the pro version, even.  Get yourself a new set of drapes.  Or a summer home.  Or a velodrome.  If you happen upon some crazy entrepreneur with a wacky business model, go ahead and invest in her idea.  Who cares if it doesn't work?  You've provided much-needed liquidity.

Would it be nice to live in a hippie-utopia zero-growth economy not dependent on consumption in order to sustain itself?  Sure.  That's not the world we live in, though.  In the meantime, us normal people really need you guys to start being profligate and excessive for the sake of America.  I wish that we could have another stimulus- a nice big one that incorporated high speed rails and alternative energy.  That would be fantastic.  But, I know it's not going to happen.  In the meantime, though, while the rest of us are doing less than awesomely it's up to you, rich folks.  It's up to you to spend and spend and spend until we've got money again.

So when you go out to Restoration Hardware and buy a bagload of artisinal hammers, remember- you're not just helping yourself.  You're helping us all.  You're doing what's right for America.


-Joe Streckert

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Price of Weirdness

The night before last I found myself in line at Voodoo Doughnut with Seph and his girlfriend L.  Neither of them had ever been there, and Seph was keen on getting a doughnut as an early birthday celebration.  Standing in line at Voodoo's east side location, we were surrounded by plenty of self-consciously weird and kitschy decor- Kenny Rogers posters, pinball machines, and a cardboard cutout of Elvira.  Sundry other bits and pieces decorated the area, and Voodoo's trademark pink wall filtered out from behind the posters and ephemera.

An elderly couple were in front of us.  They were looking about the room with grins on their faces.  I imagined that they'd seen this shop on the Travel Channel or the Food Network, this crazy pastry hut that puts bacon on maple bars.  At the counter was a young woman who fit right in to the whole tableaux.  She was young and pretty in a Suicide Girls type way, redolent with tattoos and sporting a spetum piercing.  The elderly couple in front of us looked at the Kenny Rogers posters and took pictures of those.  They took pictures of the pinball machines and Elvira.  When they got their doughnuts, they asked the young woman if they could take her picture, too.

"Uh, yeah."  She smiled nervously.  Perhaps she was weirded out by having an older guy suddenly take her picture.  She tried to laugh a little, and look candid, but was obviously slightly uneasy.  The old couple in front of us, though, were quite happy with their whole experience.  They left with a bag of doughnuts and a camera of pictures, satisfied that they had indeed found something that makes Portland as odd as it is.

I enjoy it that Portland is self-aware about its weirdness.  If anything, it pays a significant chunk of my own bills.  In my capacity as a tour guide, I take people to see things like Voodoo and the 24 Hour Church of Elvis, all marks of oddness that allow us to maintain distinctiveness.  On an abstract level, it's a nice source of regional pride to know that one lives in an easygoing and fun place, but more practically it's great for our tourism industry.  Visitors, obviously, want to see something they can't see at home.  We can give them that.  We can give them weird doughnuts and Elvis worship and signs that are really big double-entendres.  Tourists will come here and pay money to see these things, and spend money while they're here.  That's great.  But, there's a price.

The price is the nervous laugh of that Voodoo Doughnut employee, out of towners gawking at us and ours and saying "Wow!  You guys are weird!"  I get it all the time.  I mention to tourists that I ride my bike to and from work every day, and a few have asked incredulously if I'm afraid for my own safety.  I find such questions hugely naive, but understandable if you come from somewhere where everyone drives.  When I've mentioned Portland's penchant for vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, I've been asked more than a few times about alleged attendant health problems- another set of questions I think are naive.

Upon reflection, though, I know that these questions are not dumb, and that that older couple wasn't wrong to gawk at Voodoo Doughnut.  I joyfully provide people with information, and Voodoo joyfully dresses itself up to be weird.  Most of the people that this brings in are not naive gawkers, but there will always be a few.  There will always be a few old people taking tourist pictures of the local tattooed populace, or wondering with disbelief how one could ride a bike everyday.  This reaction is aggravating, but unavoidable, and ultimately part of something much more positive and entirely worth it.