I am sure you are very nice person. But I think we must have neglected to fill you in on a little custom we practice here in Portland because you didn’t show any signs of knowing a thing about it when we met at the crosswalk this morning. The fact that our customs are unfamiliar and eccentric is as much our fault as yours as we obviously should have some kind of orientation for such things. But let me clear it up now: When we pass another human on the sidewalk here in Portland, we say “hello” or “hi” or “what’s up?” or at least give a nod of acknowledgment, one sentient being to another.
Of course all of us fall into a personal dream state now and again and fail to even see the person before us, but luckily we are snapped out of it when the other human says “hey” to us, giving us a chance to recover and offer the return greeting of our choice. There are also times where the protocol can be confusing, like when we are walking around the loop in the park and run across the same person three times. Then it’s hard to know whether to repeat the ritual each time we pass or just figure the “hi” we exchanged on the east side of the loop carries us all the way to the western edge where we meet again. And I think it’s probably fine to walk silently by somebody who is meditating on top of a picnic table or practicing qigong on the grass. I also personally avoid eye contact with couples who seem to be in a relationship-ending fight. And I get it, sometimes the pall of worry and despair can just be too great to shake off even for a moment. I also know that some personal or cultural trauma might make it just too hard to connect with a stranger in even the smallest of ways. But I will tell you this: The guys that have lived in the park for going on three seasons now, they are enthusiastic observers of this custom, offering a warm “good morning” or “God bless you” several times a day.
I don’t really say this to scold you, though your mother might be glad if I did. But I raise it because it’s become a kind of diagnostic for me to distinguish between newcomers and old timers here on the streets of Portland, and though there are Portland practices and customs that I am happy to see go, I think we should fight to keep this one alive. I’m in favor of tiny graces, of miniscule sparks of connection. Lord knows our days are hard enough, and a smile coupled with a friendly “hello” gives us a moment’s respite.
But even more than that, small greetings amongst strangers blow a little oxygen onto our civic flame. After all, sidewalks and streets and parks are quintessentially public spaces. They are not places for private envelopment or for purely individual purposes. Sure, as we walk the sidewalks of our neighborhoods, each of us drags our personal biosphere of worry and private obsession and inner dialogue. But meanwhile, we have a chance to encounter neighbors and fellow Portlanders and visitors and to acknowledge with a practically imperceptible nod that we are visible to one another and that we are all in this together.
These are the spaces where citizenship is practiced, with habits great and small. Of course, I don’t have any illusion that we are going to stop what we are doing and discuss the city budget or reach consensus on the presidential election, but even small gestures of hello are minute civic ceremonies that I don’t want to see go the way of daily newspapers and voting booths.
So next time you see the middle aged lady with the big white dog, let’s try it again. Let’s look each other in the eye and say “hey.” Then we can put our headphones back in and go our separate ways.