Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Providence 9 3 Bridge Pedal

Rather than battling to get through the horde of 18,000 other participating cyclists and meet Ben and Leah and Jake at the start of the Providence Bridge Pedal course across the Hawthorne Bridge, I met them at the east end of the new Tilikum Crossing, which you can see in the background behind me. According to TriMet, the local transit system, it's the only bridge of its kind in the United States, being solely dedicated to non-car methods of transportation: pedestrians and cyclists will use the outer lanes, and the bus and rail and streetcar network will span the two sides of the Willamette River down the middle of the bridge. Over to the west bank we went, then turned around and headed back across to the east side. After that, we went south to the Ross Island bridge and up and over again, then curved up to the PSU campus area at the edge of downtown and did what bicyclists normally cannot do, which is to take the on ramp to I-405/I-5 - normally three lanes of wall-to-wall commuters - and go across the Marquam Bridge. There's a great view of Portland from up on top.

There was also a local marimba band serenading the cyclists, many of whom pulled out of the river of bicycles to take photos off either side of the bridge. "Hi, we're Boka Marimba," announced one of the musicians at the end of the tune I'd stopped to listen to, "and we play here every Sunday." Most people were taking pictures with their phones, though I did see someone with a "real" camera and a tripod, and one man had hauled his paints and easel along to capture the moment.

Ben and Jake and Leah had stopped to wait for me, as they had done several times already. I was okay on the flat sections, but the slopes were starting to get to my legs, unused to such exercise. Since I didn't want to overdo it and suffer the aftereffects (as I did last year on that petite randonnée très facile dans les Pyrénées qu'un enfant de six ans avait accompli en quatre heures) I told them to head out without me for the rest of the trip, as I was going home.

I'm glad I did the shorter route, because I could tell that my thigh muscles were going to have some pointed things to say to me about the wisdom of trying to even attempt a 25-mile bike ride after not having gotten on a bike in over three years. The two hours it took me to ride down to the river, go back and forth over the three bridges, and ride back again were enough for now. I'll have to get a new bike though, once I start working full time again. There are some really lovely biking paths around here, and it's a nice way to get downtown when the weather is good - though I won't be getting there via the Marquam Bridge.
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. It makes her feel as if she were independent. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can't get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood.
         - Susan B. Anthony (1896)

Monday, August 3, 2015

Hi, Portland. I'm home.

Back in Portland, the city of bicycle commuters and bridges. The expanding vibrant city, where the young man who got on the train in the tiny fading town of Malta, Montana with very few possessions hoped to find new opportunities. The city of green space and roses, of rich socialites and impecunious socialists, of clean water and fertile land and jumpy residents anticipating the end of all of that due to newly-popularized earthquake reports.

The city of a hundred farmer's markets, or at least it seems so, not that I'm complaining. One of the first things I did when I arrived was to go downtown to Pioneer Square to buy a bus pass (twice as expensive as it was in 2012) and the next was to buy lunch from the Verde Cocina stand, incredibly tender pulled pork with just-picked healthy vegetables on handmade corn tortillas with a dousing of tangy mole sauce, enough for my breakfast and lunch together. People from Amsterdam and Florida were sitting at the table with me, planning where they'd go next by tracing paths between landmarks on the free TriMet map. The bus fares may have doubled, but the transit system has gotten larger as well, and for the most part I have not missed a car yet.

Powell's City of Books is the highlight of many a tourist's time in Portland. On my way up to the Northwest 23rd area via streetcar the other day, the line just to get in the door wrapped around the block and was continuing to grow, as more and more people showed up holding their copy of "A Full Life" to be signed by the autobiography's author, President Jimmy Carter. It looks like an interesting book, and I'll have to reserve a copy from the Multnomah County Library - currently number 1 in annual circulation for cities of 1 million or fewer - whose e-library collection has provided me with reading material for the last three years. It'll be odd actually walking into a building to pick up a book.

There are lots of free things to do in the summer in Portland: movies in the park and in Pioneer Square, music in parks and public spaces in every corner of the city, and street fairs nearly every week. I met two sets of friends at Grant Park the other evening for music by Klezmocracy, and a very charming Czech children's film titled "Kuky se vraci" that I didn't see the end of, as it was nearing 11pm and I really had to pee. However, I did get to indulge in a little fangirl moment before the pre-movie music started, and snagged a photo op with Courtney Drehle, who also plays for the great band 3 Leg Torso - they played last Wednesday evening downtown for the Music On Main Street series, but I couldn't make it to that event.

And of course there's Shakespeare in the Parks, done by both the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival and the Portland Actor's Ensemble.

"And given to fornications, and to taverns and sack and wine and metheglins, and to drinkings and swearings and starings, pribbles and prabbles?"
- William Shakespeare, Merry Wives of Windsor

Portland, where people are carving out their lives in whimsical and unpredictable ways, though sometimes the materials they choose don't last long, and they drift away again on the next breeze, hoping to find another stable place to settle down and pile up possessions.

Portland, where poetry lurks in the underbrush along with the homeless people. Where young people go to retire, according to a 2014 article (the median age is about 35, or about 20 years younger than I am). Last year a British magazine mentioned Portland, but no other US city, when ranking good places to live around the world. Forbes currently ranks Portland as the third best place in the US for business and careers, which gives me hope, but also notes that the cost of living is nearly 7% above the US average. Most of that is probably from the soaring rental and housing market.

Portland, where I'm doing my best to fill the shoes I left empty three years ago, as I wake from my European dream to find myself standing on the curb with my suitcases, without a job or a savings account, but with the support of my friends and family.

Portland, where I'm home, again.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

If You're (Black And) Blue

Back in 1927, racism was right out in the open. Black Harlem's Cotton Club was a whites-only nightclub with a plantation theme, where blacks could serve and entertain, but never relax. Irving Berlin's original lyrics to "Puttin' on the Ritz" mocks the black community members who were "aping their betters" by dressing up and strolling down Lenox Avenue in the evenings.

Spangled gowns upon the bevy of high browns from down the levee, all misfits, puttin' on the Ritz! That's where each and every Lulubelle goes, every Thursday evening with her swell beaux, rubbin' elbows. Come with me and we'll attend their jubilee and see them spend their last two bits, puttin' on the Ritz!

Today in 2015 racism is being expressed in many overt and covert ways, none of which I'm really qualified to speak about, since I am in the privileged position of being white and female; all I am doing is reading about the perspectives and the problems, and doing my best to not add to the latter. But I just don't understand why we have not yet moved beyond blackface and Stepin Fetchit and are still circling back to Lee Atwater's messaging strategies mixed with Reagan's outright labeling of black Americans as nothing more than "strapping young bucks" and "welfare queens" who are living large and lazy while honest white folks work their fingers to the bone. In my random internet searching it seems that in general white Americans receive at least as much public assistance as black Americans, but the rates of incarceration and unemployment are both much higher for blacks in a trend and pattern that many people have correctly linked to racism. More and more of these incidents are being broadcast and discussed openly, but it's still so easy to ignore in much of our sprawling country, a land where physical space makes mental and emotional separation easy. As I make my way back to oh-so-white Portland, Oregon, I feel as if I'm going back to a widely tolerant community where that tolerance is assumed because it's so rarely challenged. Or maybe I just don't see the struggle, since I'm not personally involved in it. And maybe I should get involved, and work towards becoming an active ally instead of a passive one.

In New York City, diversity is one of the many things that is, as they say, in your face. Skin tones and facial features, clothing and hairstyles, the fragrances of spices from a hundred countries and the colors of imported fruits and vegetables that paint the sidewalks. People cluster together, there's no doubt about that, but also mix more freely. The more differences you're surrounded by, the harder it is to see those differences after a while. I keep hoping that the old ways and the people who promote them will die off soon, but as recent events have shown, the sickness is still present and the contamination easy to spread. Maybe we'll find some way to immunize newborn children so that they can't catch the racism virus from the adults around them.

Anyway, New York City, and another walk that I took from the Upper East Side down to Grand Central Station, just to walk and see what is there to see. Tall buildings, mostly, and lots of cars, all the way down Park Avenue from 87th to 42nd Street.

Have you seen the well-to-do
Up and down Park Avenue
On that famous thoroughfare
With their noses in the air?
High hats and Arrow collars
White spats and lots of dollars
Spending every dime
For a wonderful time.
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek —
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

If you're blue and you don't know where to go to
Why don't you go where fashion sits,
Puttin' on the Ritz.
Different types who wear a daycoat, pants with stripes
And cut away coat, perfect fits,
Puttin' on the Ritz.
Dressed up like a million dollar trouper
Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper (super duper).

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean —
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today — O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home —
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay —
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose —
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

Come let's mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks
Or umbrellas in their mitts
Puttin' on the Ritz.

- revised version of "Puttin' On The Ritz" by Irving Berlin (1946)

The mountains and the endless plain —
All, all the stretch of these great green states —
And make America again.

- excerpts from "Let America be America Again" by Langston Hughes (1935)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

New York City: East River Greenway

The East River Greenway starts (if you're doing it in a north-to-south fashion) in East Harlem at 125th Street, and is part of the larger Manhattan Waterfront Greenway biking/walking route that curves around both sides of the peninsula between the East and Hudson Rivers where approximately 4 million people can be found on any given work day. With that crush of humanity milling around through the dense dark canyons between the skyscrapers, the roar of construction above, the blare of traffic below, the smother of concrete and congestion that becomes even heavier in the breathless humid summertime, it's no wonder that the breezy borders along the water are popular places to walk, picnic, and relax. I started my walk one morning at Carl Schurz Park off 86th Street, in a section of the riverfront that has been a park area since the late 19th century.

Much of the Greenway is not very green, though the city has put in several small "pocket parks" along the way. It would have been a hot walk in the sun, even at that early hour, if not for the breeze coming off the water. The tide was in, and the waves were choppy with the conflict between the river and the sea.

The route is being repaired and expanded and in several places I had to go in to the city streets in order to keep making my way south. On one of these side trips, at about 56th Street, the sign for the Ideal Cheese Shop caught my eye, as did the notice for an apartment for rent above the cheese shop (which would indeed be ideal in many ways, except for the frustration of being so near delicious dairy products yet unable to indulge in them; the rent would probably be outrageously high as well). It was barely 9am and I was already wilting in the heat, so I popped into the shop to take advantage of their air conditioning and to marvel at the NYC-level price tags on the imported European products filling the shelves across from the cheese case.

Most of their cheeses are European as well, with just a few American products like Rogue Creamery's Smokey Blue and Cypress Grove's Humboldt Fog. The friendly cheesemonger told me that most of what they stock is for the people who work at the United Nations headquarters a few blocks away, giving them a taste of home. I noticed that there were several raw-milk soft cheeses for sale, ones that obviously were not aged the required 60 days, and asked why the Canadian and Swiss cheeses made it past the borders when the French ones were still banned. There is a list, he told me, and it's mostly French cheeses on the list.

On the other hand, you don't see many American cheeses in France, either. Most of the French people I talked to are convinced that there are no cheeses worth eating in the United States, and that food in the USA is generally pretty horrible. Part of that is, I think, because most French travelers are going to tourist spots like Disney World or playing restaurant roulette in New York City, and part is that the French palate is still in the process of expanding to include non-French food using a wider range of spices and flavors. And then part of it is of course that "American" food is honestly pretty horrible in many cases, when the melting pot has produced a muddy mélange of meat and potatoes and reheated frozen vegetables, factory produced and cooked to death, washed down with instant coffee or sugary soda or watery beer. (To be perfectly honest, there were places in France where that's what was served as well, except for the coffee part.)

I spent more money than I should have in New York City, eating Chinese sausage-fried rice, Tibetan noodle soup, Japanese rice balls, Vietnamese red curry, Thai spring rolls, Korean grilled pork, Ethiopian spiced lamb, and Turkish hummous. I did walk off a good few of those calories on this 8- or 9-mile hike along the river, but only my bank balance has gotten thinner.

International visitors as well as employees were constantly arriving at the United Nations headquarters at 42nd Street, and English was suddenly the minority language. Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter. Maybe someday we'll actually follow it.

We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, and for these ends, to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples, have resolved to combine our efforts to accomplish these aims.

There are a lot of places in New York City that I could have visited, with more time and more energy and more money. I didn't get to the top of the Empire State Building, and I didn't go to any museums. I didn't visit historic Harlem or prowl the bullish streets of the financial district. I didn't find the John Lennon memorial in Central Park, and I didn't explore the funky neighborhoods of the Village (East or West) or go across the bridge to Brooklyn - a place I have already visited several times in my mind thanks to author Betty Smith - or out to Coney Island or in to the heart of Times Square. And that's not even getting into all of the nooks and crannies of neighborhoods like the Chinatown district that form the ethnic patchwork quilt that blankets the five boroughs. But as I repeatedly said when leaving equally interesting places across Europe, that's just a reason to go back for another visit.

I didn't see any rats running around, but there were a lot of pigeons and many squirrels, plus sparrows everywhere, and the occasional cockroach. Sparrows and cockroaches will inherit the world; pigeons may be larger but they don't seem to have the cocky intelligence of your average sparrow. I saw no evidence of fish in the river, though did see a dozen rods parked up against the railing in various spots along the way, their owners relaxing on the benches in the sun.

There were a handful of tall mulberry trees bordering one of the pocket parks, easily identifiable by the spatter of black on the walkway beneath, and the birds fluttering in the branches above. The first tree I came to didn't have any ripe mulberries within reach, but the second hadn't been stripped by pigeons or passers-by. A woman was balanced on the park bench under the lowest branches, plucking and eating the soft ripe berries, and I joined her where another branch hung low. She said that she planned to come back with a ground cloth and a plastic bag - the mulberries were so ripe they were falling off their stems, and just shaking the branches would harvest them. I picked a few more to fuel me for the remainder of the walk, and kept going towards the Williamsburg Bridge.

The Brooklyn Bridge is the oldest of the bridges crossing the East River, and opened in 1883. There used to be a train line taking commuters back and forth, but now it's just cars and pedestrians and intrepid bikers. The Williamsburg Bridge (1903) also connects Brooklyn and Manhattan; when it was built, it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Rail traffic still rolls over this bridge, though not the trolleys that Francie Nolan admired.

Mr. Tomony who owned the pawnshop came home in a hansom cab from his spendthrift evening in New York . . . He was supposed to frequent such legendary places as Reisenweber's and the Waldorf. Francie decided to see these places some day. Some day she would go across Williamsburg Bridge, which was only a few blocks away, and find her way uptown in New York to where these fine places were and take a good look at the outside.

- Betty Smith, "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" (1943)

So to get across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan you can take the Williamsburg Bridge or the Brooklyn Bridge, and you can also take the Manhattan Bridge, a modestly ornate span that opened in 1909 just upstream of the Brooklyn Bridge. The East River Greenway starts to get less pleasant at that point; there's lots of construction, roaring traffic to one side, more graffiti and trash and general gritty-city-ness as the path goes under the bridges and starts worming its way into the port district, past the old site of the Fulton Fish Market, where for almost 200 years the boats and ships would come in with their loads of lobster and shrimp, crab and cod, skipjack and salmon and fluke and tuna and pollock and perch to be sliced and iced and sold in what was once the biggest wholesale fish market in the United States. Tsukiji Market in Tokyo started three centuries earlier and is the largest in the world, and in Seattle they fling the flounder for the delight of the tourists, but - from what I hear at least, since I didn't go there - the post-2005 New Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx appears to still be doing well.

The East River Greenway ends where the East River does, at the southern tip of Manhattan and the South Ferry Terminal with its multiplicity of docks for harbor cruise ships and water taxis and the Staten Island Ferry. The waterfront pathway continues through Battery Park and up the Hudson River towards the Nelson A. Rockefeller Park, passing yacht ports and well-dressed Wall Street workers enjoying their probably no longer three-martini lunches, though you never know, given the financial shenanigans that take place behind the scenes. Or maybe it's that martinis are so 20th century, and the Manhattanites have moved well past the Manhattan, drinking things like The Up & Up Bar's Dreadlock Holiday which combines rum, gin, chartreuse, bitters, and lime juice into a $14 concoction that frankly sounds like a headache in a glass. Well, it's an interesting mixture, anyway, like New York itself - a little odd, a bit overpowering, a mix of old and new, and really expensive.