That’s a title, huh?
It’s the kind of title that pops up after a night of drinking and a brisk walk around one of the coolest cities on earth. I’ve been here two days, and I’m ready to give it that qualification. Portland, Oregon: You rule.
I snagged lunch with a colleague — buffalo pig’s ears, dirty fries, the best fried chicken sandwich I’ve ever had and a local IPA at Lardo — and saw a demonstration on the way back to the hotel. A violinist jammed out. It was on point. The dude could clearly play. While he shredded the strings, a group gathered, watching, eating, hanging out. Feeding the pigeons. They didn’t necessarily praise what was happening, but they took it in all the same. They accepted it.
And that’s Portland. That’s what my two days of experience in Portland says, at least. This is a place where an individual can be just that. That’s special in today’s America. As much as we talk about individualism, exactly how individualistic is a line of thinking that’s trending on Twitter within a few hours? Are you talking about individualism or are you talking about community? Are you one or are you one of many? I bet you’re picking the latter more than you care to admit.
On this day, July 16, 2016, the violinist—a true individual by my count—was accompanied by a two-man parkour outfit. One guy with a ponytail showed off with some gainers and front flips while the other tested his balance on a modest ledge. Truthfully, there was a superstar and a scrub in the duet, but the scrub was doing the damn thing. That’s what counts.
Portland understands that. At least, again, I think Portland understands that. There was no mocking, no ridicule—just an understanding that we’re all buzzing along this journey together, and we’re going to ride it out as we see fit, on our own terms. Beautiful.
“Any change helps,” his sign read. He’s asleep under a blanket, head resting on a suitcase. It’s 2 a.m., and we’re both right here at the intersection of Washington and 5th Avenue. One of us will still be here tomorrow, too. It won’t be me.
That stings. You’d think I’d be happy about not sharing this guy’s position, but empathy reigns. This man probably has something to offer the world. Fuck that. He definitely does. I get some flack within my circle of close friends for having this viewpoint, but I maintain, “The worst human is still better than the best dog.” We’re a step ahead of the curve, and, hippie bullshit aside, each of us can impact this world. We have our place. We might not know it or exercise it, but we’ve got the powwww-ah.
Suitcase pillow has his place, too. Right now, though, that place is on a sidewalk. I strut past him on my way toward the closest place that will sell me a six-pack at this hour, ready to head back to my prepaid hotel room to write about my experiences this evening. Do I deserve that? I don’t think so. Not more than him.
This all happened today: I got a $40 haircut in the early morning and drank free beer while I did so. My trim came with free beer. That’s a service that exists, friends. What a time to be alive. I had the aforementioned lunch at Lardo on my employer’s dime. Chael Sonnen — former UFC superstar, middleweight and light heavyweight title challenger, revolutionist in the art of promoting fights — bought me dinner. He told me he “appreciated my work.” Straight shoot, no work. I covered some fights in downtown Portland at the Roseland Theater. All-access pass. Do what you want, homie. This venue is yours now.
Chael Sonnen (far left) discusses plans for his upcoming event, Submission Underground, inside his office at the Roseland Theater in Portland.
After “work,” I had beers with colleagues — colleagues at my new job with FloSports. We met a grand total of once before (during my interviews for the position). They slammed some beers with me and riffed on intimate issues. There’s an openness and a connection. We’re working toward similar goals, and those goals will bind us. Beyond the goals, our humanity will sustain us.
I say this to make a point. It comes back to “any change helps.” These words were scrawled across cardboard while calloused feet peeked out from under an inadequate blanket. This isn’t the first — or even the fifth — homeless person I’ve seen in Portland. He’s part of a large group, in fact. Far larger than I see back home in Pittsburgh. When I observe people like the violinist, like the cashier at the coffee shop who took her time to explain natural burials and why they’re the future of death itself, like ripped feet and Samsonite dreams, I see humanity.
Posturing aside, I’ve done absolutely nothing to deserve my bed tonight. It’s a comfy-ass bed. Clean sheets. There’s a TV if I want it and a $4 Fuji water in the fridge if I decide to crack the seal. That’s a lot of change for a water.
I cracked the seal.
A city like Portland makes you think about these things. You become aware of that $4 water, that $5 nitro cold brew, and that $30 bar tab you cleaned up in little over an hour. You can drop $100 and stroll past 30 people who just want a McDouble while you make your way to your hotel room.
It’s here, I’m conflicted. I played it straight, I avoided drugs, I avoided temptations, and I carved my niche to find my current place. It’s not a mighty perch, but my bed isn’t made of concrete, either. It’s not the American dream, but my ear isn’t digging into a zipper every night. Capisce?
Here’s the thing: I also owned every advantage en route. Is “Any Change Helps” a total fuck-up or is he an example of life’s oftentimes cruel hand?
Truth is, you can’t know. You just can’t — not without an extensive conversation and analysis. Pretending to know one way or the other is dangerous and ignorant. After dinner tonight, I watched Chael feed $20 bills to every homeless person we passed on the way back to the venue without issue. He chatted them up for a second then tossed an Andrew Jackson — or more — their way. That’s fucking great. Even if they turned around and scored something diabolical with that cash, Chael enabled them to do their thing. He let them live their life. Living, if you haven’t noticed, is pretty cool.
Recognizing our own place in the world is crucial. One colleague I talked to throughout the day made the point: Let facts talk. Let data talk. Don’t make blanket statements, and don’t be a sheep. There’s truth out there if you want to search for it, but don’t pretend to have found it when you’ve only dipped your toes in the tide. Plunge and get back to me, playa. When you start following ideas and morals because they’re comfortable and because they align with your “recommended posts,” you messed up. I guarantee it.
Stop and think. The truth rarely — rarely — lies in an extreme. It’s right there in the word itself — extreme — isn’t it? Reality isn’t shallow, so if you want to find it, start swimming.
“Any change helps” and Chael P. Sonnen occupied the same sidewalk today, July 16, 2016, and I tagged along. Classic America. That’s as clear a lower, upper, and middle-class division you’ll ever see in the flesh, folks. Dissect 10 feet of sidewalk, and there you have it: ‘Murica.
But where were we, ultimately? We were all right there in the same place—Portland, Oregon. U-S-of-A. The magic of these streets is uncovered with a little perspective. In juxtaposition, you can find truth. In truth, you think. In thought, you might discover reality.
Or you might wind up grappling your thoughts until you end up face down, chomping concrete while your feet dangle helplessly from under a shoddy quilt.
And that might be your reality, and you might have to live with it until you don’t.