Good morning, America, how are you? 27 questions on Portland’s institutional and cultural dysfunction

Once in awhile the chorus of an Arlo Guthrie tune my dad used to sing when I was a kid hops, uninvited, into my head.

“Good morning, America, how are you?”

It’s a tough question, these days. We face unprecedented climate change destruction—are wildfires and hurricanes year-round now?—a once-in-a-century pandemic, the worst president in U.S. history.

Our nation’s institutional and cultural dysfunction, though, is hardly limited to plutocratic, red-dyed-in-the-wool Washington, D.C., and it won’t end with a Biden-Harris victory. It’s alive and well in “progressive” places like Portland, my home. Our society’s broken institutions can be viewed as a political photo negative that reveals a pair of unhinged prizefighters beating up on more-vulnerable members of the body politic.

The Rose City was the last of the 30 largest U.S. cities, by population, to go to Phase 1. Even as places like Florida and the White Houes have pretended Covid-19 isn’t a thing, in Portland and much of the Pacific Northwest, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme—it can feel like we’re in a neverending, permanent lockdown.

So here are 27 rather pointed questions. Call it a rant.

  1. Is misanthrophy the new thing? Body language and facial expressions tell me it is — my fellow Portlanders seem willing to risk getting run over by fast-moving motor vehicles to avoid being near other air-breathers on a sidewalk, mask or no. Covid-19 gets some of the credit, but so do plutocracy, technocracy and the very broken thriving downtown concept. (See #2.) So computers have replaced hugs? We were Strangers before; now we’re Hostiles?
  2. Are downtowns dead? Or just bleak? Judging by Portland and Seattle, they aren’t places you can find a coffee or a sandwich. I have two small children, and I trust their instincts. They are instinctively fearful of both the Emerald and Rose city centers. Graffiti and boarded-up buildings dominate the dojo. Portland’s City Hall is closed. (But not eviction court.) People doing things are rare. Seattle’s downtown has ads in vacant commercial spaces about how it’s “thriving” — glossy, curated numbers which ironically punctuate just how bad things have gotten. Portland’s doesn’t even try to pretend. I wonder what will happen to “YIMBYism,” “walkability scores,” sprawl, suburbs and even rural areas where some move to — if they don’t move to a sidewalk, that is.
  3. Why is Portland Public Schools allowing in-person “child care” at its schools when students are not physically going to schools? Because those child care staffers are not represented by a union? Why is the public school system not showing the courage to try the two day school week with social distancing plan it announced last summer? Why does the good State of Oregon allow my kids’ former preschool to operate with something like 16 kids in a small, low-ceilinged basement, when PPS’ comparatively spacious schools can’t open at all with reduced capacity? Portland has consistently had comparatively low numbers. A close reading of public health protocols as described by the New York Times about six weeks ago gave me a distinct impression that Portland’s was ripe for reopening, safely. But no. There is no courage. Only fear. No allowing for local control — no local teachers can meet students in parks in small groups, I guess. Both my parents were teachers — I’m not attacking teachers. I’m questioning inertia. Bureaucracy. Fear of Doing Anything. Be brave, school boards and superintendents, union reps and principals. Are you willing to fight for it?
  4. President Donald J. Trump is, as most locals will tell you, is a bleach-and-hydroxychloroquine-swilling maniac. But how many mistakes have Democrats and Leftist policymakers made, partly in reaction to Trumpism, during our confused, crazy-quilt, data-driven (#DDJ, baby!) pseudo-scientific reaction to a public health crisis? A recent story in Wired magazine debunks the idea that fomites on surfaces really cause infections. (It’s far-fetched.) Perhaps due to misinterpreted science, sensationalist media and cautious officials, many people in Portland aren’t just afraid to go anywhere indoors, they’re afraid to share outdoor airspace with others. Sure, trick-or-treating being cancelled is no big deal. But when most everything is cancelled for an entire year?
  5. Why can’t a children’s hospital — hi, Randall Children’s — allow a healthy masked sibling upstairs, socially distanced, when a sick sibling has a hospital stay? How is this equitable, or just? How does this not discriminate against working families, against large families? Randall’s doctors fixed up my baby, and I’m grateful for their expertise. But their coronavirus protocol is of a piece with Portland’s pandemic paranoia. I’m sure there are sophisticated explanations penned by credentialed, well-dressed people. But isn’t such a rule just plain wrong on a human level, and can’t such sibling love be included in the calculus?
  6. How come many middle class Portlanders wear masks while walking, running or bicycling by themselves, yet so few of those I’ve seen or interviewed in months reporting on unhoused people in Portland wear a mask? This is true even when they’re given masks for free. I’ve met too many brilliant houseless folks to chalk it up to stupidity; some of the people living on streets, in tents or vehicles are highly educated — here’s one example, a man named Ovid who got a master’s degree from Harvard. Covid-19 gatekeepers imply that anyone who doesn’t toe the line is somehow stupid. But there are as many sides to this pandemic as there are people, and whatever advantage liberals obtain from supposed intellectual superiority ought be weighed against their spinelessness and love of bureaucracy. Far as I can tell, many local people whose jobs are to help needy individuals have been working from home for more than six months. I never see them in the camps and vehicle clusters where I do interviews. I see people from Free Hot Soup.
  7. Why are public libraries still closed? How long until they become forever obsolete? Libraries were once places for children, for book lovers, for unhoused people like the ones I’m interviewing right now for a story about the current, slow-motion tsunami of houselessness (projected to rise 43 percent by the end of this year). Now, if my local branch of the Multnomah County Library system is any guide, they’re empty spaces with millions of books gathering dust, all those lights wasting electricity, carefully guarded by a librarian who sits at a desk in the very front entrance so you can’t come in, and gets extra cranky when you ask if they can walk 25 feet to a shelf behind them where your partner’s books on hold are waiting. “We have a Process!” That process, far as I can tell, involves a lot of playing on their smart phone. Books are quarantined for days … because. There are no fines, so people don’t return books for ages. I know librarians are infamously O.C.D., but librarians are getting laid off. There’s a chicken-and-egg thing happening here, no?
  8. A Norwegian public health researcher I interviewed early in the pandemic, Svenn-Erik Mamelund, told me Germany’s approach to pandemic policy was interdisciplinary, including experts in fields as diverse as social sciences, history and poetry. Germany’s lost roughly 10,000 people to this disease, a per capita rate that’s roughly one-fifth of the United States, according to Statista.com. Unfortunately, watching how Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Democratic leadership in Multnomah County and the City of Portland have handled the pandemic suggests things may not improve if Joe Biden becomes president in 2021. Whereas Donald Trump seems to reject and even ridicule science, which is asinine, some in this neck of the woods seem to have given all the keys to the castle to medical doctors and health scientists, rather than calling upon a broad range of wisdom on a life-destroying, society-altering event. We should seek out artists, musicians, writers, poets, historians, social scientists. I dig science and math, but the musician in me knows the melody lives between the notes.
  9. Why is my neighborhood newspaper asking for GoFundMe donations to a bar and restaurant cluster with the tony name “Fox Chase”? A neck of the woods that until the pandemic included the most-expensive restaurant in the city, a foie gras-loving spot called “Beast”? According to the Concordia News, those businesses “plan to continue doing business outdoors in the plaza through March.” What!? It was 29 degrees a couple nights ago. Who the hell’s going to sit outside? Why not open doors to masked patrons while limiting capacity and wiping down high-touch spaces? Are these wealthy owners subleasing to “pop up” businesses?
  10. What about public pools? They contain CHLORINE. Don’t tell me infectious diseases can somehow survive the amount they put into the Mt. Scott Community Center pool. The Matt Dishman Center, where my kids learned to swim, like Mt. Scott, the Southwest Community Center and others, have doors that lead directly to the out-of-doors. There is a way to do this. By comparison, McMenamin’s, the local “hippie empire,” as some call it, has a neighborhood pool open with limited capacity and assigned swim spots. So McMenamin’s can do this and Portland Parks & Rec cannot? Bullshit. This is discrimination against people who can’t afford to be hippies. Reopening would not kill employees. It would bring in revenue. It would allow for exercise, which keeps people healthy and alive longer. How are the people get-getting their body-bodies moo-moo, moo-moving?
  11. Wearing a mask sucks. I wear a mask often now. My baby blue is the current favorite, over the original favorite, a flowery handmade number given to me as I marched with 15,000 others supporting Black lives and an end to police violence towards Pioneer Courthouse Square. I do it because it’s commonsensical, it protects me, my family, and strangers, all of us. But why are some Portland people acting like masks are some kind of awesome new style accessory? Is your cool-crazy-fashionable-$99 mask just prolonging a bad thing ? Let’s call a spade a spade.
  12. Why is it that the people experiencing poverty with whom I have regular contact, i.e. houseless folks who are frequent sources for stories I write, seem to manifest way less angst, anxiety and fear about Covid-19 than my middle-class peers here in Portland?
  13. What good is “digital stamina,” to quote my kid’s teacher, when it comes to young elementary education? Is that how teachers pat themselves on the back for not allowing kids in schools, knowing all the while that the digital divide and all the other myriad factors that go into parenting and educating are causing a historic widening of the already-huge gap between the educational have-mores and those that have no wi-fi? I saw my kindergartener’s former teacher, asked how things were going (distance learning for preschoolers) and she told me that her education of a bunch of little tiny kids, using tablets, was going “great.” Great! Really?
  14. Is music dead? It is not something that can really live in a machine. It is a living thing, like a sequoia, a hummingbird, or blue whale. It cannot exist independently of human energy on a small screen, or even a large one. It requires air, airwaves, groups or duos or (ideally) ten-piece ensembles of people who practice making sound, and/or noise. It requires dancers. Smells. Sensation. Grinding, twerking, subwoofers and Fender Twins. One of the most depressing conversations I’ve had during this pandemic was with a music industry amigo who tried to convince me that somehow, the indefinite cancelling of all live music (not to mention other entertainment events) was somehow OK. No, it’s not. Not at all.
  15. Where can someone go to actually dance in the vicinity of other human beings in Portland, a city with a formerly great music scene, these days? Is anyone renting out warehouses to hold socially-distant, masked silent discos? If not, why not? Are they afraid of being frowned upon by Portland’s Covid Police? I looked at the music listings in Portland’s best two weekly newspapers this week, both of which I’ve written for, and one of which is no longer publishing in the dead tree verse. It was like reading a newsletter for an old folks’ home in a prissy rural hamlet in England.
  16. How and why is it such a third-rail subject that Americans are dying in record numbers from this pandemic in part because we’re fat, over-sugared, overcaffeinated, hypertense and unhealthy? What mainstream media outlet is covering this? The number of Americans who died last year, per C.D.C., from heart disease + cancer is four times more than the total who will die from Covid-19 this year. Check the numbers. IS it that talking about why those numbers are so high would require talking about stuff that corporate media makes a lot of money selling, like booze, unhealthy food, coffee, sugar, and technologies that anchor our butts? Heck, I’m guilty as charged, folks. I’ve been writing for weeklies most of my career, not to mention dailies and magazines. My kids spend many hours staring at tiny little screens, and they’re better than Ben Crump at arguing their point when there’s some cookies or candy in play.
  17. Since I gave up my iPhone for a flip phone — cheaper, still has music, I can actually hear a caller’s voice—I see life differently. For example, many bus drivers have no freaking idea whether their route goes by major civic features. “Just Google it?” Really? People used to actually have to talk to each other, sometimes, if for no other reason than that they wanted to figure out how to get some place, or maybe find out something about the weather. Not now. I am increasingly dubious of the intelligence of people like the Verizon rep who asked me to explain to him why I would leave an iPhone for a flip, a thing that the whole tech-cellular industry tries to prevent. Shit, it’s not like I left all the microwaves behind for a land line!
  18. Cash. It’s a basic small-d democratic building block. Since the Neverending Digital Lockdown began, people be like, “We take plastic only. We’re saving lives.” Only a high-class white person who is blissfully uninterested in pondering the role the people who own and run Visa, Mastercard and most credit card companies play in our political economy would sell this snake oil. What’s in your wallet? It’s CASH, mofo. When establishments like NEPO42 demand that patrons scan a QR code to put in an order, and of course pay by plastic—or, for the luckiest, no plastic is even needed, just a phone—I will happily walk my lily-white, flip phone holding ass across the street to a Black-owned restaurant that takes cash, has menus and serves kick-ass fish and chips: 42nd Ave. Fish & Chips.
  19. Should I buy the concept that public schools can educate my kindergartner with a tiny, tinny Chromebook? I watch his facial expressions. It’s not that he doesn’t like computers. But he’s confused. He misses social. Tactile. Emotional. Development has taken a giant freaking turn here, and it’s not good. Even as I sacrifice a third of my work hours to become an incompetent teacher, I see my kids suffering — they’ve never even been inside the arts magnet school they just started “going” to — and I know their peers are also suffering through distance learning. The least-privileged kids, I suspect, from my own experience and from conversations with a friend that is a para-educator for troubled kids, are suffering far more than mine. Learning cannot happen solely in the digital realm: it’s social, emotional, developmental, kinesthetic, place-based, creative, and it should happen in lunch rooms, school libraries and playgrounds.
  20. Have you ever had the thought that you were helping — anyone, in any way, at any time—by ordering something from Amazon to be delivered so you didn’t have to have actual, potentially infectious, in-person contact with someone in a store? Three words for you: Jeff. Fucking. Bezos. Putting money in the pocket of the planet’s richest person is (three more) Not. Helping. Anyone. Look at the numbers on how much more rich that guy’s gotten since March.
  21. New from Hilary Weisman Graham, creator of “Orange is the New Black,” that facile whitesplainy series that tried to make it funny and entertaining that our country locks up more people per capita than any other, comes a new show that’s already being hailed as pretty terrible: “Social Distance.” Gonna skip it, because. I have no need in my life for Netflix hot takes on how totally OK, and really, almost hilarious—ha ha, right?—our pandemic is, if we all just live online. Call me a Luddite, like my Wired-subscription-loving dad occasionally did, but how much can you really do with our vaunted video tech, in spaces such as Google Meet, Zoom, etc.? Get Zoom Bombed by white supremacists? Oh, yeah, you fixed that. So we’re good? No. “Netflix and Chill” is turning into “Netflix and Propaganda.”
  22. Isn’t the New York Times’ take on the creating of words and truth condescending, credentialist and East Coast elitist? I mean, you have to hand it to Corporatist-State-Media Fox News for setting the bar about as low as it can go for journalism. But the NYT, last dozen times I waded through the still thick-as-a-phone-book Sunday edition before cancelling my subscription a few weeks ago, had more Ph.D.’s and Ivy League credentialed authors than good writing that matter to me. When I cancelled the subscription, the paper sent me a survey, ostensibly because it wanted to learn why I cancelled, and I started taking it in good faith, because I’m a naive fool who still believes even the most powerful institutions in society might want to know what the little person thinks. But there is no option in that survey’s formulaic, or logarithmic, design, that encompasses Manhattan-colored glasses and credentialism.
  23. Playgrounds. Who says they should be closed permanently? Where does the evidence come from that — if not full of kids who are hugging and wiping snot all over each other and so on—they are superspreader psycho killers? Again, this Wired story has a balanced take on the science. Portland Parks and Rec keeps putting up tape and signs and other ineffective bullshit to keep kids off slides and merry-go-founds which, if my local Northeast Portland park is any judge, keep getting taken down by parents. Am I a bad parent for allowing my kids to play on play structures and swing when there are hardly any other kids in the vicinity? Don’t have kids? Yeah, I know. We breeders can’t be hip any more, and you solo fliers and people-with-actual-free-time can’t remember what it’s like to be tiny, and not know a life that doesn’t include doing nothing and staying home all day every day. Child development is a thing. Littles need to do something which too many adults, parents and non-parents, seem to have completely and forever forgotten about: PLAY.
  24. What’s public health, anyway? Despite what we read and hear in the media, it’s hardly limited to the novel coronavirus, or even infectious disease. When I studied sociology and political science as an undergraduate, and while working as a journalist, I’ve come to think of it as including obesity, addiction, suicide, mental illness, diabetes. But during the pandemic, our collective trauma seems to have put blinders on all of us. Which do you think will be the worst of the public health effects other than Covid-19 and coronavirus caused by this pandemic? Psychological effects such as stress, depression and suicide? We are already an occasional national leader in that category—I have an inkling, I lost my brother to suicide. What about economic effects such as untold numbers of small businesses that go away forever? Addiction? How many millions are retreating into wine and weed, or “hard” stuff? Physical health problems like increased obesity, pre-diabetes and heart conditions caused by less-healthy lifestyles due to staying home and sitting in front of a computer or TV ?
  25. I just voted for Biden-comma-la, because I still have hope that we can snap back to some sort of sanity in America, and they at least give us a shot. Hope springs eternal, they say. But. Is the Republican-Democratic dualism the true source of the American death roll? Sometimes I think our two-party system is a Florida Gator battling Sasquatch, the former dragging the latter to its watery doom as the hairy beast rips the prehistoric proto-dinosaur’s head off with its last burst of strength. At its outer extremes, our far left and far right sometimes seem to be reflections of this dichotomy: Antifa cheering and burning shit, drunkenly ripping down statues while Proud Boys and militia guys n’ gals play with guns and desecrate the U.S. flag with menace, misogyny, racism and stupidity. What if we had a real third party?
  26. Is Fear of an Infectious Disease a new disguise for Fear of a Black Planet, or Fear of Poor People? Recently a Portland friend cancelled a play date for our kids because I took public transportation. These folks, I promise you, consider themselves progressive. It’s probably not coincidental that Portland is probably the whitest U.S. city. People here will not actually tell you they don’t want to take a bus or train because the unwashed masses, and Black or Brown people, send shivers down their spine. Yet when you talk about meeting up at a bus or light rail stop, they look at you funny. There is social distancing on buses, light rail and Amtrak here in the Pacific Northwest, not to mention the required mask use and our use of wipes and hand sanitizer. Public transit systems need riders to survive. Sigh.
  27. Where can we find some hope? I find it in my young children, easygoing and still positive every day (until they get tired at night) despite all they’re going through, or more to the point, not going through. School. Friendships. Playgrounds. Sports. Etc. But just as much, I find it in the houseless people I talk to for the stories I write who are living on the street despite temperatures dipping below freezing, in tents, in cars, in RVs, in tiny houses with no plumbing. They are surviving. They stay positive. They struggle every day, but amazingly, they often manage to keep their sense of humor, and their generosity.

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