A year later, and Portland is on the struggle bus.
An economic shutdown, pandemic deaths and sickness, months of ongoing protests, a homelessness crisis, rising crime. It is not pretty in Portland. Throw in January’s natural rain-drenched dismalness, and lately it’s downright bleak. Even on the best days, Portland feels like it is crumbling into a 1970s dystopian fueled state of permanent entropy.
Downtown Portland has been the FoxNews poster child of “American Carnage” for the past nine months, but that carnage has spread to the rest of the city, parts that never saw a protest, and where folks hustle hard to make it. Line 73, which moves up and down 122nd Avenue in East Portland, bears witness to the struggle.
The 73 starts its journey south at Parkrose Transit Center, and heads east on Prescott, past Portland’s Lichtenstein, Maywood Park, out to 122nd Ave. This part of the journey is usally OK; few people get on and off, and there are only a few zombie RVs and abandoned cars.
Once the 73 turns onto 122nd, it gets interesting real quick. You rise up the ridge away from the river, and under the freeway. Boarded up houses. Graffiti. Abandoned cars. Cars missing wheels, dashboards, doors, wheels, axles. Piles of trash. Shopping carts left with someone’s possessions. Abandoned mattresses. Halsey, Glisan, Burnside, Stark, Division, Powell, Holgate, and Harold, until you get to Foster Road and make a turn right, and drive west on Foster until you get to I-205.
It’s not a pretty street. 122nd is a broad, five lane boulevard of chaos, with bike lanes, on-street parking, and a parade of pawn shops, chain stores, strip malls, and bland workings class apartment buildings and ranch style homes.
It’s also terrifying to drive down. Cars make unadvisable left and right turns, collisions are frequent. Folks drive the wrong way down the lane just to get into another parking lot or to make an odd left turn around traffic. Throw in bikes careening around loaded up with bags of cans, people trying to cross the street, and a drag race or two, and every time I drive the 73 I count it as a miracle that nothing hits the bus.
The 73 is a short route. Only 40 minutes from end to end, it intersects with a lot of different lines; the 87, 22, 23, 25, 77, 20, 2, 9, 17, 10, and 14. It also runs by a lot of stores and shopping, connecting folks up to a bunch of services. However, because it is so short and connects people to other bus routes or to a store, folks barely ride for more than a handful of stops. It is the sort of bus people ride not because they are taking it somewhere so much as it keeps them from having to walk a few blocks. While this makes it an important anchor for TriMet’s grid system layout for bus lines in East Portland, it doesn’t have the community feel that a lot of routes have elsewhere in the city. Because people are on it for such a short amount of time, they don’t have the same sense of stewardship over it that you get with other routes in the city. Countless times on the 4 or 72 or the 6, I’ve had a longtime rider talk down someone who was having a bad day, or told off someone who wouldn’t be quiet and sit down so we could get moving. The 73 has an every person for themselves sort of feel, which can feel isolating to a driver.
The other factor is the people who ride it. Yes, the pandemic has been hard on folks, and Portland already had a large and mostly unadressed homelessness problem, but the 73 also has another part of that story. As rents skyrocketed in the inner city and gentrification forced out longtime residents, lots of them moved to the neighborhoods around 122nd. You can feel that on the streets, a lot of people have that just trying to scrape by look in their eyes, or shock at how the neighborhood has changed, or the sadness of being displaced to a part of town you don’t want to live. And maybe that’s why the 73 lacks that community feel, it takes time to build community in a new place.
That lack of community plays out on the bus in ways that lead to awkward moments and confrontations. When I drove it for a week this summer, I had passengers get on and before I could even ask or mention it, they would start yelling at me about how they weren’t going to wear a mask. A man walked right past me to the back of the bus not wearing a mask. I made my general mask announcement I make on the bus, “All riders are required to wear masks at all times on all TriMet buses and trains. If you don’t have a mask, you can grab a free one at the front of the bus, thank you.” The guy in the back yelled, I don’t have one! I yelled back, there are free ones up here, please help yourself. He walked to the front of the bus, grabbed one, and walked back to his seat. He didn’t put it on. This is probably where I should have kept my mouth shut, but I said, well you got one now, why aren’t you wearing it? Because fuck you, he said.
And then there is fare. I don’t particularly care about fare. I get it, for a lot of folks even the $1.25 discounted fare is too much. I know sometimes it’s a choice between a few bags of beans and the cost of a ticket. And I know right now especially folks are struggling. Some put in what they can. Some forgot their pass that day because their mind is somewhere else. If it was up to me, I would make the bus free for everyone.
However, last time I drove the 73, a man walked on and flashed me an expired ticket. I didn’t say anything, because fare is the number one reason drivers get assaulted, and TriMet has fare inspectors who get paid far more than me to make sure people have valid tickets. He started walking to the back of the bus, but stopped and came back up to me. He slipped the expired ticket into the fare box. Hey man, print me out a day pass. No you just put an expired ticket in there. No it’s not, it’s one of the ticket vouchers, you’re supposed to print me out a ticket. No, it’s an expired ticket, and anyway, we stopped accepting those ticket vouchers more than a year ago, if you want a ticket, you need to put some cash into the farebox. He yelled at the bus, the driver is ripping me off, he won’t print me off a ticket even though I paid! I smelled liquor on his breath and he ranted for a while longer. Luckily the light changed and I started driving. He kept ranting in the back of the bus, but everyone else kept turning their shoulders away from his sob story. He stared at me most of the way through the mirror. He pulled the cord by San Rafael, and walked to the front of the bus. He had something red in his hand, I couldn’t quite make out what it was, but he had the I’m about to hurt someone look in his eyes. I started to get scared. I pushed the shield door plexiglass forward hoping I wouldn’t be stabbed. He called me a bitchass cheater of a driver as he walked off the bus. I closed the door as quick as I could and sped off.
If Downtown Portland in all its boarded up plywood abandoned glory is the imploding supernova core of the city, 122nd is the outer rings of the planet, where gravity’s hold is even less and where things appear like they are spinning off into a deep far off orbit or a black hole. The 73 is not a pleasant route to drive, it’s not pretty, it’s not very interesting, and day after day, I wrote in my notes that folks were just straight up cranky. I don’t want to condemn all the passengers, but some routes are crankier than others and the 73 is just cranky.
I think the surprising thing about the 73 is that it doesn’t have a bigger reputation. Drivers talk and nod knowingly about the 72 or the 6 or the 4, but when you mention the 73, it elicits blank stares from many drivers. Except when a driver brought up the time he had a bomb scare on his 73 during the recertification class I attended this year. We talked afterward and both agreed it was the worst route to sign in the system, there was just something about it, and God help you if you have a PM 73.
My last day driving the 73, it was a dismal, overcast January day, the sort of day in Portland that makes you want to just roll over in bed and make the whole world go away, I was heading north on 122nd near the I-84 on ramp. I saw something in the middle of the road. It was a massive, rubber dildo in the middle of the road. And when I say massive, it was huge, bigger than my forearm, like it could cause permanent damage huge. Cars would run over the dildo, it would flop up into the air, and land again, until another car would hit it and it would flop again. Just an enormous rubber dildo flopping around in the street, getting pummeled again and again by the cars and trucks running over it.
As I drive around the city and see the signs of collapse and decay, I couldn’t help but think about that giant dildo. Like that dildo, Portland is detached from reality, what once was proud and a little absurd, is now just getting run over. Maybe the decay is less decay and just rage, people angry at a system that has fucked it over the past few decades, angry at a city that has failed it during the biggest crisis in decades, angry at the gentrification, angry at the poverty, angry at the lack of affordable housing, angry at the lack of good jobs. Maybe the city just got tired of being fucked by an oversize dildo and we don’t mind seeing it get runover a little, if just for a bit. Until someone picks it up and decides what to do with it, that big dildo will just keep flopping around on 122nd.
Would I sign it?
OK, the breaks are good, it’s not that long, it’s easy to keep on time, what could possibly go wrong? EVERYTHING! The 73 is my least favorite line to drive and I would never sign it. It’s the cause of my first SIP, I’ve gotten scared a few times on it from threats from passengers, the other drivers on the road drive like maniacs, and too many passengers are just straight up cranky. Give me literally anything over a 73.
Does it go to Walmart? No
Does it go to the Bottle Drop? Yes, at Glisan.
Does it go downtown? No
Does it go to the MAX? Yes, it connects with the Green Line at the Foster Road terminus, the Red Line a the Parkrose Transit Center terminus, and with the Blue Line at Burnside.
The Safeway and City Maxx at 122nd and Powell, the Winco and Bimart at Halsey, a dispensary just about every block, the big clock at Division, the Midway Library, seeing Johnson Creek along Foster Road.
After a day of dealing with all the cranky people on the 73, walking into the City Maxx Russian Store and buying a Lithuanian cheesecake bar, because cheesecake bars from the Baltic Countries solve all problems. They are literally one of the most delicious things in the world, try some!
Need to travel somewhere else?
This is a personal blog, the views expressed in this blog are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of TriMet.