A month or so ago I first noticed the camouflage netting screening a pair of cars just off the street–Barbur Boulevard about a mile south of downtown where it skirts the West Hills, where I once saw a pair of lost deer loping down the street in daytime traffic trying to find their way back into the woods–more like two months already. Someone had fashioned a crude structure out of scavenged logs and brush nearby that blends into the backdrop.
As the trees went bare this year they revealed a little village of a dozen or so tents following a dirt road up into the hills; the camouflage netting is now a gate where the trail opens to the road–probably one of the public hiking trails the city has marked out that traverse city and greenway alike–and behind the netting in mud deep enough to make me wonder if it’s stuck there’s an SUV blocking the way. Three more cars are parked near this entrance, illegally; one of them is late-model, shiny. Certainly better than the ride in which I’m passing by.
“You’re the one with the winning smile” I later said to the stranger with whom I’d had a brief conversation before. She took it with ease–well beyond her blushing years no physical reaction was going to betray her. She was a woman transitioning from pretty to “handsome”; her default expression was open, friendly and curious, and her smile, served with a certain tilt of her head, seemed to lean forward and greet you inquisitively. Her hair was styled in the fifties’ ducktail fashion preferred by butch lesbians, evangelicals and the menopausal.
“Certainly someone’s told you that before.” I said, deliberately looking away and speaking absently, eager to not convey I was Flirting With Intent.
“Before masks.” She said.
“I know. I hate them.” I said. We talked about the mask mandate here, which Oregon, of course, is trying to make permanent. Somehow we ended up talking about the George Floyd riots. I told her part of my story, of having witnessed what’s happened here. She revealed she’d come to Portland from Minneapolis, and had witnessed the rioting there. I proceeded gingerly–this is Portland–and complained in as non-political a tone as I could about some of the depredations coming as a consequence.
She was enlivened and eager to ask my impressions of it all, as if this was a rare conversation. I offered my opinions unvarnished but incomplete, wary of going too far even as a sort of enthusiasm–the enthusiasm of the witness–drew me on like an undertow.
For her part she reported seeing out-of-state license plates all over Minneapolis during the first days of rioting, when police had mostly abandoned the streets. At about four days in authorities decided to close the freeways into the city–I don’t remember learning this in the news–and she found herself scrambling back into town to avoid being stranded.
She told me she came here to be with her adult son, who’s found his way to helplessness like so many. She shook her head wearily:
“He’s Norwegian, from Minnesota…he came straight here, right into this and…this all is just…for him it’s…he just can’t help himself…I don’t know…” She groped to express something, about his impressionability when confronted with–was she talking about covid or the riots? No, she was talking about Portland. Her naive son, earnest and liberal as his home state, had gone directly from that place still mostly insulated and white, to Portland, just as the age of authoritarian black fetishism was launched in a months-long orgy of rioting and grotesque kitsch that still befouls our walls and buildings.
I had the feeling of coming across a reliable first-hand account of something I’d known only in legend, the midwestern square-headed Scandinavian ethno-masochist. I couldn’t help it:
“Is he really into the rules?”
“Very much.” She said.
We fell silent upon that.