From twenty-seven-thousand-feet, the shadows from the mountains looked like they were stretching and yawning. Lakes dotted the landscape. The sun was settling in under a blanket of clouds rewarding me with the respite of night. I closed my eyes and hoped for a few minutes of sleep. My nap was interrupted by a nightmare, which, as it turned out, would be nothing compared to what lay ahead of me in Portland.
My wife’s best girlfriend and her husband moved to Oregon twenty-two years ago. My wife, Cathy, and I have often talked about moving up there from our residence in Southern California. I decided to surprise her with tickets to Portland for Valentine's Day.
The air in Oregon is clean, the seasons are distinct, and there is no sales tax. It sounded pretty good for a couple of Los Angelinos thinking of retirement.
Our friends live in a house that is over a hundred years old. The floors creak, the kitchen is tiny, and the front door sticks. But despite those little inconveniences, the house is warm and cozy and inviting. At home, we have a king-size bed, but in Portland, our friends only had a queen for us to sleep in. I move a lot when I sleep. I roll over more than a log falling down a hillside. I kicked and scratched and hit my wife, who doesn’t move at all when she sleeps. She reminds me of Lilly Munster, lying on her back with a flower in her hands. The following morning, she woke up exhausted from the battering she had taken.
All was forgiven when we picked up the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee. Joe likes to roast his beans. The entire process takes a little over an hour. He had me put on a stethoscope so I could listen to the first cracking of the beans. This, he said, would happen about fifteen-minutes into the roasting process. The beans reached the perfect color for what Joe called the city brew. They were then cooled and vacuum-sealed in mason jars. “We won’t grind these beans until tomorrow,” he said, “We need to let the carbon dioxide escape so they can attain maximum flavor.”
Joe uses a special percolator with a glass filter. A Bunsen burner heats the water but never hits the coffee. The glass filter ensures us a pure, uncontaminated cup of Joe.
Maryanne was making breakfast while my wife and I sipped our coffee. She was telling us about the growing homeless population in and around their neighborhood.
“You think you have a problem,” I said, “You should visit Los Angeles.”
Cathy jumped in, “There are homeless encampments all over the downtown district.”
“That’s horrible,” Joe said, “But our homeless population is very aggressive. At times it can be downright scary.”
We sat down for breakfast and planned our day. We would visit the Audubon Society and get in some bird watching. We would drive down and take a look at Joe’s favorite fishing spot, and then we would visit a few gift shops downtown.
The Audubon Society had a nature trail that featured Turkey Vultures, Bushtits, Woodpeckers, and a few Cooper’s hawks. The trail, thick with trees and forest moss smelled of pine and damp dirt. It was a wonderful relief from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles.
We got back in the car and drove to Joe’s favorite fishing spot. The stream was a quarter-mile walk from the highway, and the crystal-clear water reminded me of Joe’s coffee, clean and naturally filtered. We walked along a short path of pebbled shoreline when I spotted a Chinook. It was facing upstream with its tail wagging just enough to keep it stationary in the flowing rush.
“That’s a four-pounder,” Joe said, “A little small but typical for this time of the year. When we get back home, I’ll make us some smoked salmon with cream cheese and bagels. I’ll show you the smoker in the basement. The flavor from the mesquite is remarkable.”
I looked at my wife and gave her that; we HAVE to move up here, look. The four of us are retired, and the thought of fishing clear water streams with my buddy and smoking salmon sounded delightful. This was paradise.
We walked back to the car and headed downtown for a little gift shopping. That’s when the ugly side of Portland revealed itself. The homeless population lined the streets. There were shopping carts and tents and dogs on leashes. Some just had sleeping bags, and others were lying on the street with nothing but a thin blanket. It was forty-six degrees, and my heart went out to these people.
After a few blocks, we hit the quaint looking shops that I was expecting. There was a small waffle house, and a used book store and several stores that featured unique items that would make for some great gifts. Joe and I hit an outdoorsmen shop while the girls went into a boutique. So far, it had been an amazing day. A light rain had begun to fall, and we decided to head back home. A hot cup of coffee and salmon bagels followed by a nap sounded like the perfect lunch.
We drove back the same way we came in when a rather large woman abruptly got up from her bus bench and ran out in front of Joe’s car. He missed hitting her by less than a foot.
“Oh my God,” Maryanne shouted, “I think she wanted us to hit her.”
The woman puffed on a cigarette and blew smoke at us. She began pounding on the hood with her fists daring us to run her over.
“Joe, back the car up and let’s get the hell out of here,” I shouted.
“I can’t back up,” Joe said, “there’s another one behind us.
A man with a knitted cap and a long gray beard had pulled up behind us on his bicycle. He sat on his bike as he pounded on the deck lid. Joe sat on his horn, which made the experience even more terrifying. We couldn’t pull forward or back up without hitting someone.
Cars drove by us on the other side of the street, but no one was willing to stop and help. I can’t say I blame them. I could have easily gotten out of the car, but then what would I do. These people were crazy, and there was no telling what harm they were capable of inflicting.
Another woman approached on the passenger’s side and kicked her shoes into the air, trying to hit the car. She looked like she was kicking field goals. One shoe landed on the roof, causing no harm, but then the woman came up to get her shoe. She wore a white oil-stained blouse and some torn jeans. She was barefoot now that she had kicked her shoes off. She reached onto the roof and began hitting Maryanne’s window with the heal. It was a tennis shoe, so it wasn’t doing any harm, but the whole experience was a nightmare. The woman who was beating on our hood began screaming profanities at the barefoot woman. The guy on the bike had thrown it on the ground and was now pounding with both fists.
It reminded me of zombies attacking, except we couldn’t kill them because they weren’t zombies, and we would be thrown in jail if we hit them. The woman with the cigarette flicked her butt at the shoeless woman and walked to the passenger’s side of the car and began pulling on the woman’s hair.
This was the break we were looking for, “Step on it, Joe!” He hit the accelerator and ran a red light, nearly missing another car in the intersection. The car let out a blast on the horn and flipped us off.
“I can’t believe the police don’t do anything,” I said.
Joe looked at me in the rearview mirror. “What are they going to do put them in Jail for a day or two? They need help, not jail time.”
“I was scared out of my mind. I’m afraid I would have hit them, just to get the hell out of there.”
“That’s hit and run. No matter how scary that was you can’t do it. You’ll be the one in jail.”
“I would never drive down this street,” I said.
“I’ll avoid it from now on,” Joe said, “We’ve read about this, but it’s never happened to us before.”
My hands were still shaking from the incident. I took in a deep breath hoping it would calm me down. I turned to my wife who was pale. I shook my head, and gave her that; we’re NEVER moving up here, look.
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