Most days, I don’t feel like an obvious foreigner in this country. Especially not in Portland.
There’s no much about me that stands out here. I’m a thirty something white dude with a beard, glasses, and at least one dietary requirement. Aside from my accent, I’m pretty much a carbon copy of every other cis white male you’ll meet in this city.
But, there is an area where the South African in me juts out against the flow of life in an obvious way. In a way that makes me feel like I might be part an entirely different species.
It’s unfortunately an area that I can’t entirely avoid: the street.
The dynamic between pedestrians and motorists confuses me.
I understand the established norm is that vehicles stop for pedestrians in all situations. Crosswalks, intersections, residential areas, and downtown. Someone can approach a busy street and step into the flow of traffic like they’re Moses parting the Red Sea.
Cars will stop. They must stop. People know this. Those that don’t immediately follow protocol are zapped with the type of glances once reserved for witches.
But the confidence by which pedestrians exercise their right of way is a mystery.
As a child of South Africa, cars put the fear of God in me.
Even if I’m standing at a clearly marked pedestrian crossing, see a car slowing down as it draws closer, lock eyes with the driver, get a nod of acknowledgement from him or her, and then see them gesturing for me to cross the street, I wait until they’re not moving.
I wait until there is not a single iota of doubt in my mind that I can get across the street before the driver suddenly accelerates through an involuntary response, a fit of momentary rage, hysteria, or terror. Anything can happen – it’s a fucking person in a car!
This is why I wait for safely.
It’s not that people drive like hooligans or that there’s no laws governing motorists in South Africa. We simply understand that 4,000 pound steel cages moving at 35 miles per hour have a slight edge over the human body. As a rule of thumb, we wait.
But not in Portland. Pedestrians here are out of their goddamned minds.
I had an interesting experience the other day. A colleague and I were walking back to work after lunch.
We were standing on the sidewalk of a busy street during lunch. Traffic was steady. Without much of a look, he set off to the road, into the path of a speeding van.
I called after him, expecting to see a horror movie unfold before me. To my white-knuckled surprise, the car slowed down for him almost immediately.
I asked this friend what he thought he was doing.
“If that car so much as touched me, I’d sue his ass for millions,” was what he had to say about it.
This is yet another strange concept to me, the notion of suing people for avoidable accidents. Make no mistake: I get that some assholes deserve to be sued.
But I wouldn’t use this logic as a consolation prize for needing to cross the street at my first impulse. All the millions of dollars I could imagine wouldn’t replace the legs that are currently attached to my body.
I need them.
Even if scientists could give me legs that ran a mile in 20 seconds and climbed buildings like Spiderman, I’d still prefer to hang on to the ones I was born with.
One time, I was at the Jack In The Box in Malibu, California.
A man walked in at the same time as me, wearing an oversized black hoodie and large sunglasses. He had a pug under one arm and a bunch of keys in the other hand.
He stank like an all-night party.
We both ordered coffees at the same time.
They arrived side by side, steaming. I put a plastic lid over my paper cauldron of piping hot $1.20 coffee and carried it to the milk and sugar table very carefully.
The other guy picked up his cup awkwardly, gripping the circular opening with his preoccupied fingers, walked two steps, and then dropped it. Coffee exploded across the floor, splashing his sandaled foot. His pug sang like Christina Aguilera. It was awful.
And then he began to curse at the people working the cash register.
“I need your manager’s phone number. I’ve injured myself and it’s all your fault! I’ll sue!” he slurred, putting his unsettled dog on the floor. “I’m going to sue this place for all it’s worth!”
I turned to face him and said, “You can’t be serious. Why did you even try picking coffee up? That was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen.”
This man took his sunglasses off and looked at me very strangely. Like I’d grown a set of cat ears, a donkey’s tail, and had started swearing at him in another language.
Very quickly, he pretended not to hear me and went back to harassing the people working the cash register.
I walked out after giving my name is a witness, hoping this would be the last time I heard from him.
I used to think that being a famous writer was the only thing that mattered. It drove me crazy, this burning desire to have people understand my feelings and perceptions through stories.
This goal is sharing real estate with new ones in my brain, and new ones seem to pop up every day.
Some of them are within reach, some of them have been already been achieved, and a lot of them are even more unrealistic than being a famous writer.
I don’t know if they’ll all come true, but one thing is for sure: I’d like to accomplish them still riding the legs my parents gave me.