07 Jun

On a sidewalk, a city’s notes of thanks and hope

It’s not really one memorial. It’s more like half a dozen, with additional eruptions of candles and bunches of flowers and carefully printed messages bursting across streets, over to the corner of Halsey and onto the bridge leading to the MAX trains, as though one site isn’t enough to absorb Portland’s pain.

“Thank you for your courage,” says a scrawl on the concrete, “Love, Portland (The Real Portland).”

Last week, the area around the Hollywood MAX station – where two passengers were murdered and another deeply slashed trying to protect two teenage girls from racial abuse – became a pop-up sacred space. In the middle of the week, people drifted by the collections in silence, taking pictures, bending to read the messages.

“Out of a great need,” reads a scrap of paper, “we are all holding hands.”

The memorial arrays included burning votive candles, poems, photographs of the dead defenders and a military cap from the 25th Infantry. The people who brought them, and the people who looked deeply at them, were straining for a connection, to imagine themselves on the train, or by some effort of imagination to rescue the people who’d been on it.

Susan Krister of Aloha walked the length of one collection, looking closely at each element, before carefully placing a bunch of home-grown flowers in one corner. Asked what brought her, she explained, “Just being a human being on the planet.”

We’re going to be riding this MAX train for a long time. Its shattering story of good people, courageous people, sacrificing themselves in the face of a sudden explosion of evil has stunned and unnerved the city, and again put us all over national news. “Portland, often seen as a progressive playground, now confronts murderous hate,” blared the Washington Post headline, and the story went on to explain, “As much as the Rose City has protest in its DNA, Portland also has racism in its blood.”

On a street corner, almost covered by flowers, a bit of paper implores, “Portland…. We have to do better.”

But it’s also a story of a few people who, at great risk and cost to themselves, did do better, and some of them survived to declare their values afterward. “If you live here, move here, or if you want to call this city home – it is your home,” Micah Fletcher, who now has a deep knife gash terrifyingly close to his jugular vein, told KATU(2). “And we must protect each other like that is the truth, no matter what the consequences.”

Marcus Knipe, a combat veteran who held his fingers in Fletcher’s wound until the ambulance arrived, explained to Lynne Terry of The Oregonian, “We should all stand up for each other.”

As one message on the sidewalk told the day’s heroes, “You are the best of us. Thank you.”

This, at least, is something Portland has understood for a while. A couple of miles away, just across from another MAX station, the Skidmore Fountain, an 1888 horse trough from a time when municipal transportation was something very different, sends out its own sidewalk message: “Good citizens are the riches of a city.”

There can be difficult times to be a good citizen, to stand up for each other, times when it seems that there are winds coming from many directions to divide and diminish us, when abuse hurled at two quiet teenage girls on a train seems to have a rising force behind it. People looking at the memorials, and people leaving little pieces of themselves on the ground and on the walls, often seemed to be looking into themselves as much as at the flowers.

“Help me,” one careful printing asked the universe, “find the courage.”

Nobody knows how he would react in a pulse-exploding MAX situation, with a maniac bigot screaming and a knife suddenly diving at your carotid artery. The situation doesn’t come up often, and when it does, it bursts out of nowhere.

But there are so many times, and so many ways, to stand up for the right of people who are different to exist on this planet, and to exist on this particular piece of this planet. Regularly, there are occasions to stand with the values of the recent Reed graduate Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, and the Army veteran and father of four Rick Best, or with the screaming viciousness of Jeremy Christian and his slashing knife.

The flowers will fade, and the candles will go out, and the notes and poems blow away, but in places far from the Hollywood MAX station, the challenge endures.

“Chalk Disappears,” says writing on a wall. “We’ll remember.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/4/17.