Portland’s Passive Aggression Problem
Monday, September 15, 2014
Photo Credit: Oregon Department of Transportation (own work) (image cropped)
I arrived with my family on a partially empty westbound flight bound for Portland, Ore., in the winter of 1995 from Washington, D.C. It was the year of the 100-year flood, which, as it turns out, would precede the year of the 101-year flood, and so on.
Within the first six months of moving and settling into the Forest Heights neighborhood, I experienced a particular string of three continuous weeks of dripping, misting, moisting, and I, in my damp, wet-to-the-bones state, would look to the gray, London-like sky and ask, outraged, in my New York accent, “Really?"
But the rain did not end up being the thing that most bothered me.
Noting the difference
Something else was on my mind. I talked about it with my wife and friends back home. The way people acted, did business, spoke, their body language, gaze, smile; something was different for me and I was gonna figure it out.
It happened at Zupans in northwest Portland next to the old Estes store on Burnside. I was standing approximately two feet away from the vegetable table, close enough so that if you walked in front of me you would have to move me to get by.
I’m not the kind of person you want to move out of the way to look at an artichoke.
With reckless abandon a woman walked in front of me without hesitation and in slow motion, like Keanu Reeves in "The Matrix," she ever so slightly shoved me out of her way with her back and began a copious perusal of her new vegetable curiosity of the day.
New York mentality
Photo Credit: Relux (own work) (image cropped)
And if you push the wrong person you quickly apologize. And if you don’t say something you get called out.
“Hey buddy, are you kidding me? What the hell are you doing! Are you crazy?” That's how these interactions go in New York.
But this was 1996, prehipster Portland. So I did a Full Blown Bronx “Are you kidding me?” stare and I said - dripping with sarcasm: “Excuse me: Am I in your way?”
She looked up, smiled and said no. NO? This without making eye contact, and without any real acknowledgement of who I was, favorite son of Dottsie Taylor, standing too close to the vegetables.
She just blew me off after shoving me out of the way and wasn’t interested in dialog or any continuing interaction whatsoever.
I stopped her again with a "Hey lady, are you kidding me? You do realize I was standing here and that you just shoved me out of the way? That’s not cool.”
She looked up at me and, ever so slightly, smiled as if nothing were happening, and kept with the perusing of the vegetables .
I thought that my head was literally going to explode.
Looking for confrontation
I wanted a confrontation, a shouting match, anything to vent my anger and make her account for her actions.
I wanted, I guess, to be acknowledged, even if it were to tell me I was overreacting.
But I got nothing.
Photo Credit: Paul Nelson (own work) (image cropped)
It felt like everyone in the store shifted their eyes away from what was going on between us, turning on their heels with the precision of West Point cadets and going back to melon squeezing and the ordering of overpriced chopped liver. She continued on, walking the aisles blissfully with a faint smile.
Me, I was practicing the breathing exercises I learned in Lamaze class with my wife years ago in NY before we had our first child.
Over the next 20 years I would have similar exasperating experiences in business dealings, raising money for my startups, negotiating the final sale and all this under the equally passive aggressive, cloudy damp skies of this city.
Even when I knew my position - be it physical or rhetorical - was in direct opposition to somebody else's, this was rarely acknowledged outright, with all parties expected to proceed with a smile, regardless of whatever disagreement was simmering underneath it.
People from Portland tell me they appreciate my directness and that they really like people from the East Coast because of that trait but it sure doesn’t feel like it from where I’m standing. Even when they're saying this, they're nodding their heads, breaking eye contact and tilting their heads in a Larry David, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" kind of way.
In the end, nobody wants to call you out directly. But I still find it hard to accept the premise that this means they've nothing to call out.
We're human beings after all, and I can't believe Portlanders don't fall prey to the petty grievances that New Yorkers do - they just don't acknowledge them publicly.
Where's the storm?
At the end of the day I love this city. My kids are Portlanders and I guess at this point, so am I.
I just wish that sometimes, every once in a while, the clouds would roll into Portland really really, dark, thick ominous clouds. The soon-as-you-saw-'em kind, the you-knew-what-was-coming kind of clouds. BANG!! BOOM!! CRASH!! Lightning blowing up the sky at the top of its lungs with no doubt about it.
In-your-face buckets of rain that you thought would come through the roof and wash your house away.
Then it stops. It cools down. It washes you off a little, no real harm. Actually, it kind of feels good, right?
It’s a tension easer. It’s a chance to get the downpour out of the way and make way for sunshine.