What I learned from Portland.

No, it wasn’t to put a bird on it.

What impressed me most about Portland while I was visiting was not its weirdness; I didn’t see a single unicyclist the whole 96 hours I was there. (I was sorely disappointed; my college alma mater was stranger than Portland.)

Nope. What impressed me most about Portland was its kindness. The whole city seemed to have its arms wide open to anyone, any way they were. The whole city* was kind.

I noticed it first while on a city bus riding to Alberta Street. If you want to get a feel for a place, ride its public transportation; it will tell you about the social structure and norms of the city really quickly. I sat in the front next to a man who was homeless. He was conversing with the bus driver; she was conversing back. It wasn’t an exchange of pity or stiff politeness; it was a genuine person-to-person exchange in which both parties were happy to talk with the other. It was pleasant to witness.

Then something else strange happened. (Okay, so maybe Portland is a little weird). At the first bus stop, the person getting off yelled, “Thank you!” up to the front of the bus before walking out the doors. I thought how nice it was that they were polite. Then it happened again at the next stop. And again at the next; everyone said “thank you” to the bus driver before they walked off. A teenage boy giving a friendly wave of thanks to the bus driver from the sidewalk crystalized my realization: acknowledgment of others and appreciation for them was a cultural norm.

It continued to happen: construction workers smiled and said hi when I passed them while walking in the mornings. A woman sitting on a sidewalk complimented my earrings. A local family included me in their discussion while we ate our Voodoo doughnuts. People engaged in conversation beyond the typical exchange. They made eye contact. They saw each other and did something nice about it.

Portland is kind. Portland is open.

Despite its host of other problems (every city has them,) I think we can take a few cues from Portland right here in the Midwest: we can stop being afraid of people and pass strangers on the streets in a spirit of love rather than a spirit of fear.

We can walk more, giving people a chance to interact with us. (Good things might happen if we get out of the safety of our cars.)

And we can say “thank you” to the people who serve us. Even if it seems over-the-top, those two words acknowledge another person’s shared humanity. They remind us that another person is using some of her or his irreplaceable time to help us in some way. They humble our self and build another person up. That’s what we want, right?

O. Henry, in “The Voice of the City,” writes that every city has a voice. Elizabeth Gilbert, in “Eat, Pray, Love” has a similar idea: she says every city says a word. Portland’s, I think, is “kind.” What word do you want to describe the city or town where you live? What’s your role in making it happen?


*Okay, so maybe not at a 100 percent success rate, but who wants to dwell on negativity?