It was only my second day in Portland when I realized that I was experiencing a mild case of culture shock. I have internalized so much of New York City after 6 years of living there. My instincts as a pedestrian have been developed to either follow the crosswalks or make a run for it.
Impatient people are both behind the wheel and on foot in New York. Cars zip through red lights at the last second like the mother with 2 kids in the backseat who hit a friend and I at an intersection on my first day scouting for an apartment. Meanwhile, people scamper across the street long after the orange hand has stopped blinking. It’s a game of Frogger, but with real lives and driver's licenses on the brink of ending.
Typical Portland city street
Typical New York City street
In Portland, the rules on the roads are different. As a pedestrian, if you approach the curb or even contemplate stepping off it all the cars halt to a stop despite the inconvenience to their break-pads and their commute.
The first time it happened I must have looked like a deer caught in the headlights. The crosswalk displayed an orange hand, but no cars were on the street. I stepped off the curb to do my usual quick, New York shuffle across. Just then, a car turned into the far lane at the corner down the block. Instinct took over and I froze in my tracks standing in the first of the three lanes on my way across. I turned back and hopped up on the curb to wait. To my bewilderment, the car slowed and stopped some 30 meters away. My face contorted into confusion. Locking eyes with the driver, I tilted my head like a puppy—Aroo? I held that look for a moment, then tested fate and tentatively tipped my toes down off the edge and dropped into the first of the three lanes once again. The car isn’t speeding up? Is this some trick?
Suddenly, thinking I had made the wrong move or else this driver was doing me some extraordinary kindness for which I was inconveniencing them, I got a burst of adrenaline and scurried like an opossum to the other side. Safely on the opposite sidewalk, I glanced over my shoulder expecting to see the car zoom passed at my heels. Instead, the car slowly sped up again barely phased by my ridiculous sprint across an empty downtown street with one lone car on it. Yes, it was the only car on the road at 9am on a weekday in downtown. Admittedly, this experience was a strange moment to feel like a foreigner in my own country, but a foreigner is how I felt.
This silly story is not meant to suggest crossing the street is without danger in Portland or you should be less cautious as a pedestrian when you visit. I was reminded of this as I approached my stop to wait for the MAX light rail one day. I heard music coming from the street corner which was not a strange sound for me considering the frequent presence of musicians all over the streets and subways of New York. As I approached, though, I saw flowers taped to a street lamp, photographs posted around, and lots of folks wearing matching, screen-printed T-shirts socializing. On the street beside them, a yellow flower laid in the first lane, its yellow petals of fluttering softly in the late afternoon breeze. I learned that friends and family had gathered there to memorialize the life of a young woman who—just 3 days before her graduation from high school—walked into the street and was hit and killed by a Portland city bus.
I was reminded how easily life can end. Some people barely get to experience life before it's over. Perhaps that young girl and that bus driver were the most cautious people in the universe, but on this one day she had a lot on her mind and that bus driver happened to be distracted. Life—and death—are random, unpredictable, and often times out of our control. For some people, this is motivation to remain in one place, not tempt the odds, and surround oneself with things that make them feel safe and comfortable. That’s perfectly acceptable if it also makes them content and happy.
For me, this young woman and her grieving friends and family reminded me why I enjoy traveling, meeting new people, and experiencing new things. These experiences are what make me happy. Challenging the norms that I have become accustomed to through these experiences are a part of producing a life I feel is worth living, even if it’s unconventional to some.