So, here’s a scenario to try on:
You’ve just woken up in your tent down on the Springwater Trail.
You climbed into a sleeping bag the night before. The temperature was headed down to the low 40s. You’re sleeping in a tent among dozens of others in a similar situation. The small ad hoc community around you has all sorts, including people who seem angry all the time, and young men who are dressed much more nicely than everyone around them. They don’t spend the night: They just make a few deals and then head home for the evening. If you’re a woman, there’s a better than even chance you were assaulted within 72 hours of beginning your life outdoors. Since it’s April in Portland, it’s muddy and wet. You might have gone to sleep to the sounds of people fighting or yelling at each other. You probably woke up because it’s really goddamn cold, or because your children woke up with the light, the way little kids do.
So, about the time you’re unzipping your tent, grateful that nothing happened to it or you or maybe your family the night before, a pair of people on expensive bicycles, all kitted out, ride by. They look around at all the tents, and one looks to the other and says “Jesus Christ, this is fucking disgusting. Who the fuck are these people?”
Well, friend, they’re my neighbors. I ride by them every morning on my way to work, and again on my way home each evening. I’ve got a pretty simple protocol for making my way through the little community that has sprung up on the Springwater near 82nd. I’ll list some of its key elements:
- I slow down. There are a lot of people down there, including families with small children. Nowhere I need to be is more important than any of those people.
- I don't gawk or comment if I'm with someone. I wouldn't want to be gawked at if I had to live in a tent along a trail. I wouldn't want someone to loudly wonder "who the fuck" I was, or comment on my "fucking shithole" accomodations.
- I say "good morning" or "good afternoon" to the people I do make eye contact with. That's my practice with just about everyone I pass on the trail.
I’d really like to believe that the “Jesus Christs” and “who the fuck are these peoples” are coming from a sense of deep moral outrage that we live in a country where families with little children, the working poor or anyone else for that matter has to live in a tent in the mud along a trail on the edge of town. Because I read nextdoor.com and the Facebook groups for my neighborhood, I know that’s not always the case. At least sometimes they’re also coming from a place of deep revulsion with the people in those circumstances themselves, and from a deep desire to erase them from awareness … to push them out of view with no regard for where that might be or what it might mean for them. It comes from a place of rationalizing the existence of that kind of misery that comes from ones own precarity (though maybe that’s not so true of the people on the nice bikes out for a pre-work ride).
Wherever it’s coming from, I’d really appreciate it if you’d keep it to yourself next time. Those people are my neighbors and I want you to be kind to them.