It’s nearly 5 PM, and at 6 I have plans to go biking with my good friend Jaime. In my backpack I’ve placed a peanut-butter sandwich, a bottle of water, my sunglasses, and a benzocaine lozenge in case my throat acts up.
Hayley, my roommate, is in a chipper mood as she gathers her own supplies. Tomorrow, in her infinite coolness, she will summit Mount Adams.
I’ve been feeling down lately. The job search has so far been fruitless, and the way my savings are dwindling, at the end of August I’ll have no choice but to leave Portland.
I sigh, and Hayley says I’m full of big sighs today. This prompts me to share my feelings with her: I’ve certainly accomplished a thing or two since March, but my bohemian experiment seems like a big failure1, and I dread leaving Portland, where I’ve spent my entire adult life (save one year) since age 18.
Hayley reassures me that everyone goes through a period where they have no idea what they’re doing or where they’re headed next. “It’s a rite of passage,” she says, looking somewhere to my left. “You speak another language. You’re a self-starter. You’ve got a degree and a history of employment. Things will work out.”
Sweet Hayley. The reminder that others go through this is genuinely welcome. I’m apt to forget that
everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
I feel better, or at least better enough to go biking. I thank Hayley for the pep talk, wish her a good climb, and go downstairs.
On the ride to the MAX rail station, I catch my pedal on a curb and have to leap off the bike to recover, but I’m fine and so is my bike. The train ride to Killingsworth is uneventful.
I find Jaime at a little park near the Killingsworth station. We decide to ride around with no agenda, letting our moods lead the way.
After roaming around, we come across a public rose garden which neither of us have ever seen. We dismount and go for a stroll, conversing all the while about women, dating, meeting people, finding new jobs, and figuring out one’s path in life. I help Jaime convince himself to move into consulting, and he helps me convince myself that for my next job I should focus on Chinese, and not computers. He tells me about some dates he went on recently, and tells me not to worry so hard about finding dates myself.
We go riding again. I love the feeling of dronging around on a bicycle and talking with a buddy. It’s something I haven’t done since high school.
We notice a Fred Meyer grocery store, and resolve to buy ourselves dinner. We end up with a turkey-brie sandwich, half a pound of popcorn chicken, a tray of blueberries, and six cans of Uinta golden ale. I commit what I consider a mild faux pas: Jaime waits in line to get the booze, but I go through the self-checkout instead of waiting with him and paying at the cashier. I file it away as a lesson in case I’m ever in charge of keeping a group together.
Provisions in hand, we return to the park where we began our ride. The food hits the spot; we eat everything, and drink all but one can of beer. (It’s on my table as I write; I’ll drink it tomorrow.)
We discuss many things as we eat, but eventually I bring up the fears I am having about my uncertain future and the seeming inevitability of leaving Portland. Jaime argues that leaving is not a loss, but a gift.
“Being back down in California means you’ll have a lot more opportunities than up here,” he says.
“More people, more companies, more industries, more area …” I say.
“Exactly,” he says. “There’s a lot more going on in SoCal or the Bay than there is in this city of half a million.”
There’s more to the conversation – there’s more to everything I’ve said here than what I’ve said here – but no matter.
Jaime has an idea. “If you want a challenge, we can bike from here all the way to Pioneer Square.”
I recognize that this is a chance to face my fears of biking on major streets, but at first I’m apprehensive. “Let’s go to the edge of the park so I can take a look.”
We clean up the trash from our meal and walk to the street. Jaime was right: there’s very little traffic on the road right now.
“All we’d be doing is following the MAX tracks,” he says. “And with no traffic, it’s a good time to practice.” Given the practice I’ve been doing in Southeast, I have to agree: a summer night is the best time to bike.
Bolstered by Jaime’s encouragement, the perfect riding conditions, and the two beers in my belly, I mount up. We list through a crosswalk, skirt a family with kids, and turn south.
Within two blocks, my fears have melted away. I’m on a road that would have scared me off yesterday, and I’m enjoying it without anxiety. How can this be?
Several minutes later, Jaime signals to pull off the road. “There’s a good view of the river if we walk thataways,” he says, but the view turns out to be obscured by trees and a fence. We laugh it off. On the way back to the street, we theorize about what’s going on in the single lighted apartment at the top of a residential building.
We keep going. After a downhill straightaway where we build up to exhilarating speed, we cross an intersection where a score of mopeds and dirt bikes are idling, greedily revving their engines in anticipation of The Green. Our route turns such that I can look back at their ranks as they get the green light.
They’re coming around the curve, too! They’re coming our way! They’re going to pass us!
I’m beside myself with excitement at the noise, at the spectacle, and at the realization that this group of speed demons must come together every Friday night to race around. They’re a community! They’re a social group! This is perfect!
And then, as if the moment weren’t wonderful enough, the dirt bikers start to pass us, and every second or third bike is reared up on their back wheel while maintaining full speed.
Suddenly: panic. The road ahead routes the bike lane straight through an area with an offramp – twenty feet of the bike lane must be cut through by any motorist taking the ramp – and the crowd of dirt bikers are indeed cutting through!
All my fear returns at once as I contemplate trying to weave through half a dozen motor bikes, and I come to a complete stop just before the twenty-foot section …
… But the fear doesn’t last. I see the dirt bikers are in complete control of their trajectories, I get up my nerve, and I pedal forward.
The scary stretch isn’t so scary at all. I ignore the dirt bikes on my flank, and pedal straight through. After just a few seconds, the danger is past. The bikers are all to my right, heading up the ramp, and I am fine.
Jaime and I pedal south toward the river. As we ride, we hear (and sometimes see) the dirt bike squad tearing across bridges and other straightaways in the nest of roads we are navigating.
At the riverside, we elect to cross on the bike path under the bridge. A man and a woman biking ahead of us reach the path a few seconds ahead of us, and when we see them again, they’re off to one side, straddling their bikes and kissing passionately.
We go down to the bike path, and are rewarded by the sight of a train. I stop and watch it go by for a while, and reap the further reward of hearing the train whistle. One minor, but fond, memory of college is wandering around Reed campus at night while listening to the trains blow in the distance.
Jaime and I finish crossing the bridge, then bike to a taco truck which he swears by. The al pastor is delicious.
I hug Jaime goodbye, and thank him for all he gave me this evening. We part ways.
I step into the MAX light rail, Orange Line to Milwaukie, and hang my bike on a peg near the door. The train doors close and we pull away, bound southeast across the river.
I stand next to my bike. In the leftmost seat of the row in front of me, a bald, goateed man in an orange Buddhist robe debates something with a drunk who gets off at the next stop.
I cast glances at the robed man. I want to ask him, Are you a Buddhist monk?, to see whether he’s really a monk, or just wearing their costume. I notice that he has Asian wooden bead bracelets on his left wrist.
The possible monk stretches. In doing so, he catches my eye.
He says something. I don’t hear him.
I ask what he said. He doesn’t hear me.
Then he says, “Excuse me? I thought I heard you ask a legitimate question.”
It becomes apparent that the monk is genuine.
He speaks to me. He says that as long as what you are doing comes from the heart, and is done with focus and without concern for external motivations, it’s worth doing. He points toward someone who’s doing something that he dislikes, but when I tell him I missed it, he doesn’t tell me what he saw.
Instead, he reproaches himself. “I shouldn’t be pointing. I have trouble with that sometimes,” he says. “But when I see someone doing something illegitimate, something fake, I get frustrated.”
A tired-looking man with tattoos on his arms and deep pits in his face gets on the bus. He sits across from the monk and begins murdering a candy bar. Crumbs dust his lap and the front of his shirt.
The monk sees an opportunity. “That’s legitimacy,” he says to the tired man. “You’re loving that candy bar. You’re enjoying it. What if someone made fun of you for the way you’re eating?”
The man laughs. “I ain’t giving a fuck either way.”
The monk keeps going. He points out the man’s shoes (“only had ’em one week”) and his scuffed leather bag.
“If I took everything out of that bag, it wouldn’t matter. You care about that bag,” the monk says. He pulls off his own sandal. “Look at my feet.” (They’re dirty and seem somewhat misshapen.) “I’m wearing these piece of shit shoes. Who cares?”
As the monk continues talking to me, the other man unlaces one of his shoes, then removes the sock as well. Again, the monk is quick to act: he reaches over and pokes the guy’s toe.
“You see that? You haven’t even had time to clip your nails. That hurts, doesn’t it? Let me see your hands. Mine are soft and pathetic. May I touch yours?”
The candy-bar killer holds out his right hand, then his left, palm-down. The monk’s hands are palm-up, and he strokes them across the other man’s palms.
“What about your face?” the monk asks.
The guy seems embarrassed. “Acne,” he says.
The monk makes a noise to mean, “Oh, come on,” and the sitting man reveals that he’s an ironworker, and a welder too.
The monk talks about family. About how we’re all here to find mates and make children, and how nothing is permanent, and how honesty is the source of legitimacy.
“You’re a biker,” he says, shifting his gaze toward me. “When you bike, are you thinking about anything else? No! You’re focused. You’re biking to work, or to class. Wherever you go – don’t tell me where!”
The monk describes how he would teach someone who comes to him asking to learn meditation. “I’ll tell you to sit down on the ground,” he says. “Then I’ll ask, ‘Have you washed?’ and you’ll say, ‘No, I haven’t,’ and I’ll send you to go wash. You’ll come back and I’ll ask whether you’ve cut your toenails, and if you haven’t, I’ll tell you to go clip your nails. You’ll come back and I’ll ask if you’re hungry, and if you’re hungry, I’ll tell you to go eat.”
“I might take you up on that offer,” the ironworker says quietly. I don’t think the monk heard.
The monk asks me, “Do you have a pen?” I pull one out of my backpack, uncap it, and hand it to him.
“Do you have a wrist?” I extend my arm toward him, and he starts writing. “Shunryu Suzuki,” he says. He can’t write clearly on my arm, so he tells me to do it myself, which I do.
“Do you have a computer or smartphone?” I get my phone out; the monk pronounces the name again, and I pull up Suzuki’s Wikipedia page. He founded the first Buddhist temple outside Asia, and kicked off the popularization of Zen in the United States.
“He wrote a book,” the monk tells me. “You should read it.” Then he’s back to telling me how all that matters is believing something in your heart, and doing it. I want to tell him that he’s preaching to the choir, that I’ve been living the dream of artistic fulfillment as best I can, that I wholeheartedly agree with him – but I just nod vigorously, because it’s hard to get a word in and anyway there’s no need.
The monk’s stop approaches, and he gets up.
“Thank you,” I say.
Immediately, he blows a disappointed raspberry. “‘Thank you?’ I was never here!”
The ironworker repeats what he said earlier so the monk can hear it: “I want to take you up on that offer.”
The monk shakes his head. “I’m not doing that tonight, I’m not teaching you tonight. I’m going to a homeless shelter to teach Zen.”
The train stops – the doors open – the monk leaves – the doors close.
As we travel onward, the ironworker shoots me a look. “That guy seemed sketchy to me. Why did he put all that out there, then take back what he offered?”
I don’t think the monk was offering to give instruction immediately in any case, but I don’t point that out. I just agree.
He then gives me his own dose of philosophy: “Life is bullshit, and the world is full of bad people. There are good people, too, but they tend to keep it quiet inside themselves.”
“Then what I want to do is find out good people and spend time with them,” I say.
“Look that way,” he tells me. I find myself looking at my reflection in the dark window.
“That’s the only person you need to be true to,” the ironworker says.
The conversation turns to a more practical matter: he who vanquished the candy bar needs directions to downtown. I break it to him that downtown is the opposite direction entirely, but if he gets off with me at Bybee he’ll be able to take the Orange back the way we came.
We arrive at Bybee Station. I guide the man to the schedule monitor; we see that the wait is only eight minutes. I wish him a good night, and shoulder my bike.
As I’m walking toward the stairs, he calls out to me: “Be the true you!”
I bike homeward, physically weary but too excited to feel it. I can feel the presence of the Muse. I visualize it as a squat goblin sitting on my head, patiently waiting for me to open my computer and start typing.
Home. Stairs. Strip. Milk. Shower. Keyboard. Write. Remember. Document. Savor.
This evening was magnificent. As if in response to my growing fear of losing my connection to this city, I got to see a bunch of it on display all at once. The meandering initial ride, the unknown rose garden, the face-my-fears ride, the dirt bike crew, the hesitation at the twenty-foot stretch, the lovers, the train whistle, the monk on the light rail – who could ask for a better sendoff?
One day I’ll leave Portland, and that day may be as soon as one month from now – but when I miss it, I can always recall tonight.
2019-07-25: Hmm, what does it mean to “fail at being bohemian?” Looking back, I disagree with the notion that spending a few months figuring out my next career move while indulging in creative pursuits is a failure if one part succeeds but not the other.↩