Maybe it’s a sign of the decay. Maybe a protest by those who feel neglected by the city’s leaders. Maybe it’s because folks just forgot about how to wear pants during the pandemic.
Whatever it was, I saw four dicks while driving the 77 the past two weeks. Four flaccid phalluses just dicking around in Portland, odd because the 77 doesn’t even have a reputation for being one of the grittiest or weirdest lines in TriMet’s system.
Those dicks say a lot though about what it’s like driving through a city that by all accounts is struggling, whether you think it needs a new mayor, a big party to drive commerce downtown, more cops, less cops, fewer guns on the street, housing for the homeless, mental health help for the ill, or just straight up looks like shit. The 77 hides nothing as it drives from Troutdale all the way to Northwest Portland, because honestly, it is a little rough out there if you aren’t looking away.
If I had to design my ideal route as a bus driver, it would probably look a lot like the 77. It would be busy, but not too busy. Have some challenging to navigate streets and turns, but not too many. It would have some higher speed sections of straightaways where I could cruise along at 30–40 miles per hour, but not exclusively because that gets boring. And it would be between 60–90 minutes from beginning to end, because those short routes just make feel like I am driving in circles all day. The 77 fits all these requirements.
However, just because a route is ideal is in my head, doesn’t make it a favorite route for me. The 77 is “fine.” It doesn’t inspire warm, fuzzy feelings nor does it leave me unbelivably cranky and daydreaming about other jobs. Maybe because it is that platonic ideal of a route that it doesn’t make my heart swoon; if everything is just right, or just good enough, or just ideal enough, it is hard to feel passionate about it.
The 77 starts in Troutdale, on the Frontage Road along I-84 at the last exit before the freeway enters the Columbia River Gorge. The strip of truck stops, fast food restaurants, and gas stations at the edge of civilization in in the Portland metro area mean the area ends up feeling more seedy than you would expect. Most of the people picked up at the end of the line are folks from Portland who have nothing better to do but ride a bus out to the end of the line for warmth or safety, or folks who got dumped out at the truck stops because this is close enough to Portland.
The route leave the Frontage Road, goes up 257th towards downtown Troutdale, past the outlet mall and makes a right on Halsey. This part of the route is pretty nice, 35 mph cruising sections through a mix of apartments, homes, and fields. It even passes by McMenamins Edgefield. It goes through Wood Village, Fairview, then to Gresham, the apartments, industrial parks, houses, and trees just floating along by.
At 162nd, you enter Portland proper, and things dense up a little. You drive by Glendoveer Park, which occupies the southside of Halsey for 10 or so blocks, for one of my favorite parts of the route. I love the tall trees, and only having to worry about cars pulling out into traffic from one side of the road makes it feel a little safer, even if the lack of crosswalks or sidewalks on this stretch always make me feel bad for passengers getting off here.
As it nears 122nd, the big city vibes increase. The number of abandoned cars and derelict-looking RVs increase. As you enter Gateway, you see more how the last year has been rough for the neighborhood. Although Ted Wheeler, the Portland Business Association, and Fox News loved to fixate on how downtown Portland supposedly fell apart in the last year and became a crime ridden cesspool, this stretch is the part of town that has actually become one of the most dangerous. This part of Portland is the one with the most shootings and the most murders, shootings and murders that have disproportionately impacted Black people. In fact even a TriMet bus driver was wounded by a stray bullet while sitting at the light at Halsey and 102nd because of a shooting in the neighborhood.
This part of town feels a little forgotten, or that when it is remembered by City Hall, the response is haphazard. Between 102nd and 112th, the city dropped the speed limit to 20, added bike lanes, cross walk signals, curbs and pylons, only for bicyclists heading west to discover the bike lanes disappear at 99th, and those heading east find faster speed limits and a lack of enforcement make riding along there feel more dangerous.
Halsey flies over I-205, and the 77 makes a quick jog over to 82nd to meet up with the 72 and the 82nd MAX stop. This is a pretty busy transit hub, made dangerous by being divided by 82nd, a five lane road. Folks eager to catch their bus often jay walk across the busy road so they don’t miss their connection, which creates a dangerous situation. Even concrete barriers have not detered those looking to catch their train or bus. It would be awesome if they could build walkways that went under 82nd, or made stairs and an elevator connection to the MAX platform for the southbound buses on the 72 as well.
The 77 goes down 82nd for a block, makes a right on Wasco, and a right on 81st to make it back to Halsey. This little corner is a nook for encampments, although ODOT spent nearly $300,000 placing boulders on top of a former popular encampment spot here in 2019, because our government would rather spend that kind of money to make it harder for people trying to live than actually spending the money on putting people in permanent housing.
From 81st to 60th, Halsey goes past houses, auto repair shops, restaurants, pot shops. From 60th to 47th, it’s mostly single family homes. However, sometime in the distant past the city decided slicing this fairly narrow stretch of road into four lanes was a safe idea, even if the lanes are too narrow for most cars these days and especially for buses. To traverse this stretch, the bus has to “split the lane” straddling both lanes because traveling exclusively in the right lane would have street signs, branches, and telephone poles ripping up the sides of buses the whole way down. Some drivers, ignorant of basic physics and geometry and eager to go 55 in a 30 mph zone, start honking at the bus, and then will pass over double yellows in and out traffic, birds out the window to get around the bus, because going the speed limit for 10 blocks is going to be the difference on whether or not they get the last package of Peppermint Joe-Joe’s at Trader Joe’s.
At 47th, the 77 turns right onto 47th for one of the harder turns in the route. If the cars in the left turn lane ignore the white line in the road and are all the way up to the crosswalk, or if you don’t start pretty far from the left to make the turn, you can end up on the curb, or too close to a street light pole for comfort. It’s a slow going operation, and if the cars all around already weren’t annoyed with you, they are now.
At Broadway, the bus goes left to travel past the Hollwood East Apartment public housing tower owned by Home Forward. Then its into Hollywood, left on 41st around the backside of the Hollywood Theater, past Trader Joe’s and into Hollywood Transit Center. Here the bus meets up again with the MAX, and with the 75. Hollywood TC can feel like a time warp, sometimes I enter there two minutes early, and after getting passengers on and off and waiting on the light to leave, I’m already two minutes late.
The bus snakes up to Broadway, and travels down Broadway from Cesar Chavez to 9th. Broadway is hectic at times, a wide road that is just a little too narrow for buses between Chavez and 24th. From 24th west, there is a bike lane too, complicating things, but the road is much wider and only one way.
The good news is this stretch of street has a lot of awesome, even if all I can do is look from the bus. Helen Bernhard’s Bakery has these amazing cherry turnovers. Coco Doughnuts sells my favorite buttermilk bars. Spielman Bagels makes an awesome everything bagel and a weird but good golden raisin fennel bagel. Frank’s Noodle House has awesome Guy Fieri-approved hand pulled noodles. Taste Tickler offers a Bulgogi beef and kimchi sub which might be the singularly most amazing Korean-American food mashup I’ve ever had. Twisted Croissant makes superb croissants, flakey and buttery and textbook perfect. Broadway Books is a cute small bookshop and Kitchen Kaboodle is a nice kitchen store. As you can see, I’m a big fan of the neighborhood, also accessible by the 8 and 17.
At 9th, the bus goes south to Multnomah, passing the empty hulk of the Lloyd Center Mall, makes a right on Multnomah and goes down to Rose Quarter Transit Center. Here’s where the show begins on the 77. It gets intense real quick, and if the route up until now made you sleepy, the tight streets of Northwest Portland will wake you up quick.
Over the Steel Bridge and dropped down into Northwest Portland, the 77 follows Glisan all the way to 21st. The area right over the bridge in Old Town before the pandemic wasn’t exactly the nicest part of town, but since then it’s gotten sketchier and more difficult to drive through. Tents cover the sidewalks, driving pedestrians into the streets. Bicyclists careen off the sidewalk into oncoming traffic on the one way street. Addicts shoot up or smoke drugs on the sidewalk and streets. The mentally ill howl at the wind. Cars parked in various states of disrepair crowd the sides of the street. It’s a difficult, unpredictable stretch of street to drive through, and I always worry I might hit someone wandering out into the street between RVs or that a car missing doors, a hood and mirrors might swerve into me.
This fear isn’t a judgement call on those living on the streets, but the bus thrives on predictability and order so that it can safely traverse the roads to take people to where they need to be. Buses are slow, they take a while to stop, they are large dangerous objects that can kill even if a driver is doing all they can to be safe. Drivers can handle a few aberrations, one jay walker or one badly parked car, but several blocks of chaotic streetscape makes it hard. I worry it is only a matter of time before something bad happens there.
After the North Park Blocks, Glisan gets bougie AF as it enters the Pearl. Fancy hotels, shops, restaurants, tourists laden with shopping bags, friends having brunch. The former industrial area has transformed over the last 30 years into the fancy neighborhood it is now, crisscrossed by streetcars and condo dwellers. It’s fine, but still with tight streets not meant for a bus.
Over 405, the bus passes a beautiful old synagogue and Couch Park. The park is always full with an interesting mix of folks, yoga moms pushing strollers, drunks day drinking and talking with the pigeons. It’s a heterogenous little park that has all the juxaposition that any good city park should have.
At 21st, the bus turns right. Despite signs and pavement paint saying DO NOT PARK OR IDLE HERE, there is always a 50/50 chance a car will be there when the bus turns. This is the hardest turn in the route. Pedestrians, parked cars, the narrow street, and the on street outside dining cabins make it a target rich environment just waiting to ruin your safe driving record. Go slow, and hopefully Kevin in his Range Rover will eventually get out of the way.
Along NW 21st is the most difficult stretch of the route. There are soooo many things for the bus to hit here. Add in a bro-dozer coming the other way, a garbage truck or anything large than a Ford Festiva, and it’s a tight squeeze the whole way down. Some drivers are more sympathetic than others to your plight. Some understand how big the bus is and give it proper deference. Some Karens in their BMWs don’t get it and start honking when you don’t move because you are stuck with no way to turn.
Left onto Thurman, right onto 23rd, and left onto Vaughn to loop up around Montgomery Park and park. After all this the driver is ready for a long break and maybe a quick walk around the neighborhood.
The 77 is fine, a little bit of everything that I like as a driver, but not too much of anything. Because it travels so much of the city, a lot of its brighter and awful parts are on display. I would be lying if it wasn’t hard seeing some of it, or that Portland doesn’t look grittier than it did 18 months ago. It’s rough out there, and you can see it on the faces in Old Town, the RVs lining the road, the trash strewn in the street. It’s disheveled and disheartening in places, and is marching on like nothing has happened in others.
However, when I look at Portland from my perch behind the wheel, it is hard to tell anymore if it is getting better or worse or whether it was always that bad and I just never noticed. The past 18 months has been a never ending siege of one calamity after another in Portland: the pandemic, protests, forest fires, ice storms, rising crime, homelessness, police murdering Portlanders, a record breaking heatwave, and the hottest, dryest summer anyone can remember. With one thing after another for so long, it is harder and harder to have the sort of perspective to make any sense of it all. Are all the dicks in the streets a sign of the implosion that we are currently living through, or did I just never notice them before? Has it truly become worse and I am so inured to the decay at this point that I don’t even think twice about it anymore?
On one of the days driving the 77, there was a man in the bus shelter at Broadway and 44th in a wheelchair. He had been there for the better part of the last week, drinking, smoking, yelling at the world, and waving me past. One morning, I saw him in his wheelchair, pants down, his penis visible to all. He looked asleep, and it was my first trip past him in the morning, and I decided I didn’t want to deal with a pantsless man before 7am. I didn’t stop the bus to check on him.
When I passed by there on my next trip, he was gone, but the wheelchair was still there, and the shelter was taped off with caution tape. At the end of the line, my buddy pulled his bus up behind me, and he came up to talk to me. He said he talked to the people cleaning up the shelter, and they told him the man who had no pants on died that morning. I felt sad, dying pantsless in a bus shelter sounds like a terrible way to go out, and I realized I could have been one of the last people to see him alive.
Him dying is something that could have just as easily have happened before the last year, or it could be just another sign that something is terribly wrong with the city, the system, the country, it is hard to say, but my gut feels like something is off. Four dicks in two weeks isn’t normal.
If there is any bright spot in all of this, it is a little kid who got on around 162nd and rode with his mom all the way to 82nd. He had a big smile on his face, and kept saying “Bus. Bus? Bus?” when he got on. I told him, yes, this is a bus, and I gave him a ticket to play with and he went to sit down. I got the bus going, and the little boy kept saying, “Faster! Faster!” interspersed with vroom vroom noises as I sped along Halsey.
And so the 77 keeps going, faster, vroom, faster hurtling down Halsey, vroom, because dicks or not, folks still have places to be in Portland, faster. The future, safe or violent, chaotic or sedate is coming faster than any of us know. All we can do is vroom vroom through it all.
Does it go to Walmart? Sort of? If you walk down the hill at 238th, it’s there.
Does it go to the Bottle Drop? Yes, the 77 stops right outside the Wood Village one at 233rd.
Does it go downtown? It goes to Northwest Portland, which is not technically downtown but not too far away either.
Does it go to the MAX? At 82nd, Hollywood, Rose Quarter, Old Town stops.
Driving east around sunrise near Reynolds High School and catching a glimpse of Mount Hood.
Need to go 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.