Portlanders have no fcks left to give about vaccines, the CDC or Dr. Fauci
As soon as he saw me step up to the plexiglass wall with no mask on, the thirtyish guy working at the to-go-only Portland coffeeshop turned and strode briskly over to grab something.
I wasn’t sure what it was, until he wordlessly thrust it towards me: a white, paper face mask. Not a word had yet been spoken, but already, we were standing on a mountain of misguided meaning.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, pulling out my own mask. I was standing on a street corner, outside. “I’m fully vaccinated, and standing outside, so I just thought …”
“I don’t care,” he said, accenting the word “care.”
Boom. There it is. There it was. No concern about CDC guidelines. Safety first, right? Fool me twice with your reopenings, shame on me?
He stood, arms crossed, saying nothing, face mostly invisible behind his own mask, behind a tall plexiglass wall built onto a counter that has been placed to fully block the door of the coffeeshop, and waited for me to mask up.
Outside. Where there’s practically no risk of catching an infectious disease, if you’re not kissing or intimately dancing. Where there is stuff like wind, sunshine, wide open spaces. (There were no other people on the sidewalk with me at the time of this brief transaction.)
Anyway, of course, I immediately masked up. Unlike another coffee shop guy who works near my kids’ school and for reasons that remain mysterious to me is a devout anti-vaxxer, I believe in science. I’m not anti-mask, or anti-vaxx. I have been carrying one around in my wallet for well over a year now, putting it on every day. I’m not against anything that saves lives and promotes health. That’s why I went to the Oregon Convention Center to receive the Pfizer vaccine. There, some of my faith in government was restored as I watched the nurses and other clinicians, the Oregon National Guard, the brisk and efficient movement of thousands of people through lines, being protected.
Sometimes I feel like it’s a bit out there in Portland, but I am in favor of balance, sanity, what some call the “middle path.” So I believe in the federal guidelines now coming from the Democratic Joe Biden administration, which replaced Trumpist Insanity, and I mostly agree with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. I think we will all be better off if we get vaccinated and mask up when inside in close quarters. We have to work towards restoring some semblance of normalcy.
My journalistic work and social service work has often brought me into close contact with people who are often without stable housing, are sometimes called “extremely poor,” and frequently in the Struggle. I have learned much from them, including: We are all struggling with the collective trauma, grief and suffering caused by this terrible pandemic, because it didn’t hit in a vacuum. It hit us when we were down, because we are connected, and the dynamics of displacement, gentrification, growing income inequality and polarization of wealth has put far too many people in shelters and tents and vehicles—what one social scientist I recently interviewed calls “social suffering.” It hit us as we reckon with a climate change catastrophe, and wonder, “where’s the rain?”
Portlanders lately seem to feel so betrayed by the feds, the state, the county, the city and the business sector that they act like we’re back in the Wild Wild West. Maybe we are. The Oregonian, Willamette Week and Portland Mercury, three news outlets I’ve written for and love, are all lately arguing over just how fcked our downtown area is. (It’s not great, is the upshot, and while the problem may be overhyped by monied interests, downtowns do matter.) I hear gunshots a lot more frequently than I ever have in NE Portland before—lately it’s reminding me of my years in Riverwest, Milwaukee, Wis.—and the rate of shootings and homicides has spiked, destroying families and lives.
Much has changed since I wrote this blog post about collective trauma and grief at a 2016 North Portland Police Precinct Gang Task Force Meeting. For one thing, that task force is no more, replaced by reformist measures that hold much promise, starting with the Portland Street Response. Just as importantly, the precinct itself, a dozen blocks from the coffee shop I write of, is now fenced off after being repeatedly lit on fire by angry anarchists, otherwise known as Northeast and North Portlanders. These are people from my neighborhood. I agree with their beef. I disagree with their tactics.
But is all the chaos caused by the pandemic? Or is it exacerbated by the interminable shutdown of—and lack of communication from—key public institutions, and local businesses and everyday people like the barista? Is the reluctance of locals to reopen—after Lucy-and-the-football-style aborted reopenings steered by the State of Oregon and Multnomah County—hurting Northeast and North Portland? The state’s largest community college, Portland Community College, has a campus very close to the coffee shop I write of, and it’s been closed forever and as of today, May 19, 2021, shows no signs of reopening.
It. Is. A. Ghost. Town.
P.C.C. is one of the most important resources for young people, many of modest means, anywhere in the Pacific Northwest. It’s the state’s largest educational institution, measured by the number of students. It has many progressive and pioneering pieces to its puzzle; I’ve written about it for the Los Angeles Times, and interviewed a professor for The Sun Magazine. Its importance to this neck of the woods can hardly be overstated.
Yet, like Concordia University Portland, a Lutheran small college which imploded shortly before the pandemic after 115 years in the education business, and is now apparently headed for an auction next month “to the highest bidder,” the P.C.C. “Cascades” campus is simply gathering dust.
Businesses and nonprofits that are struggling to survive in these neighborhoods, including those on my local N/NE Killingsworth and NE Alberta, deserve our support. They deserve the support they’re getting from the Biden Administration’s trillions in stimulus dollars, and all the help they can get from Earl Blumenauer’s Restaurant Relief Bill.
Still, truth be told, some are fighting harder to “justify their existence” than others, to quote a column in the Onion A.V. Club, for whom I once scribbled. The M.I.A. hole of local anchor institutions that bring people isn’t helping.
At the end of our transaction, I handed the guy a $5 bill, declining to use a debit or credit card, even though a sign on the plexiglass notes that plastic is preferred. Local Lefties’ eagerness to eschew cash, inarguably a form of democracy because not everyone has access to plastic, or bank accounts, is a peculiar, yet common, form of local pandemic-era hypocrisy. (It didn’t even occur to me, at the time, that I was forcing the image of Abraham Lincoln upon a Portlander who might be opposed to such an oppressor; see this story for more on how a statue of the so-called “Great Emancipator” was torn down here last year. Also last year, I watched protesters in a march I was a part of tear down a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the high school nearby.)
Anyway, I tipped the Coffeeshop Guy $2 on a $3 coffee. I have been doing my best to tip front-line workers more because I know that direct service workers are suffering as much as anyone. He appeared surprised, and said, “Oh, hey, thanks a lot.” Perhaps he was expecting me to try to break through the plexiglass and fight him over masks or something? Or at a minimum, frown and walk away while not tipping?
I have also been a direct service or “front line” worker during the pandemic, because I’m a reporter, and I am particularly sympathetic to baristas: I spent a decade of my life making lattes and cappuccinos and drip coffee and hummus and sandwiches. But I didn’t hang out to try to talk after, because I got the feeling that he’s been down that road, and he probably doesn’t make the rules, and who knows, maybe he hates them even more than I do.
I think these are times in which we should all do some soul searching. For me, that has long gone way beyond the “Black Lives Matter” signs I see in every Portland window, but I know I have more work to do. I know there are no words to explain the suffering that Americans have endured in the last 15 months, getting sick, dying while gasping for breath, their loved ones unable to even visit them in hospitals and homes. I lost my parents in 2018, within a month of each other, and a brother to suicide a decade earlier. But I recognize that I have privilege, and that this pandemic has been hardest on communities of color, as well as those who work in direct service. It’s not just nurses and doctors; it’s grocery store cashiers, baristas, retail workers.
None of that is to say that it might not also be true that the political Left may be fostering its own special kind of vicious circle.
The Portland of 2021 is, it sometimes seems, in thrall to a New Misanthropy. When people become accustomed to viewing other human beings as infectious threat vectors, heck, as threats, period, that has serious fcking consequences. The concept of “mutual aid,” pioneered by Peter Kropotkin, and beloved by all the anarchists who hold delightful zine fairs at nearby Peninsula Park, as well as the Black “beloved society” dream fostered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others—well, neither of these great notions works when people are running to get as far away as possible from one another.
This blog post, that tweet or Instagram or Tik tok post, they don’t bring us closer together. (Which is why I am going out regularly to clean public spaces and buy groceries for houseless neighbors, but that’s my next story.)
What happens when everyone has no fcks left to give, when no one is asking about reopening or unmasking, when people have to mask up outside even when they’re fully vaccinated and the person they’re connecting with is behind a floor-to-ceiling plexiglass wall? When neighbors won’t come to barbecues to welcome new neighbors because (and here I quote a neighbor) they’re “continuing their precautions, and not yet ready to party”? Neighbors can save your fcking life; this is not about a “party.” There is also not a risk of infectious disease with an outdoor, socially distanced event featuring a handful of people who are all vaccinated or half-vaccinated.
There is a risk of misanthropy.
Do Portlanders actually want things to stay like this?
A community in which so much is closed, seemingly indefinitely?
The North Portland Library, a few blocks away from the coffee shop, remains closed to the houseless people that often would go there to read, use computers, charge their cell phones. Jefferson High School, next door, is open to students about a third of its normal hours, like the rest of the Portland Public Schools system. Ethos Music, where my kids study music, has yet to announce when (or if) it will return to in-person education.
The people aren’t getting edumacated. They aren’t getting services, or books. They aren’t learning much about music because you can’t hear music, not really, through Zoom. People can’t use bathrooms, because they’re closed. So hand washing, supposedly the best defense (along with masks) against coronavirus, doesn’t happen much, and people pee and poop in bushes and on sidewalks.
Coffee shop guy—is he the owner? manager? worker drone, like I was?—is surely getting less income in tips, because there are fewer customers, buying less food and drink, and his coworkers remain unemployed.
Maybe I’m taking all of this way too far. It’s just a coffee shop, right? Perhaps I’m just throwing a cranky dad-tantrum, showing the stress of parenting during a pandemic as a freelance journalist, whining over nothing. Am I channeling the locally hated liberal-centrist Mayor Ted Wheeler here, or something? Maybe I’m just missing a cool social spot where I used to go and sit and listen to rock—yeah, that’s right, I like to fcking rock, I’m a musician—and write up the interactions I have with people living on our hard-as-hell Portland streets. Stories like this one.
Or maybe, the city known as “The People’s Republic of Portland” has, post-pandemic, become a place where paranoia and panic reign, people are threats, and common sense guidance from faraway officials is ignored.