Posted by: MC | June 26, 2011

Common Courtesy

It’s sunny in Portland OR and already in the 60’s at 12:24 p.m. on Saturday.  People are out everywhere and I’m walking west, nearing the center of the Steel Bridge, one of the ten bridges spanning the Willamette River and operated by the Port of Portland.  The water level is very high – highest since the flood of 1996.  As I walk onto the Steel Bridge, I’m guessing the bridge operators are lifting its lower section more often since even small craft can’t pass beneath it.  I also pick up the pace hoping I won’t get delayed that way.

Sure enough, I get near the middle of the bridge and the warning horn begins sounding.  A recorded voice says something like, “The gates will be closing soon so the bridge can be opened.”  The soon part is what I register.  Like, not now but soon.  I don’t hear the Stop part.  A few cyclists behind me gun it and I take off running – to beat the gates and so as not to slow the process down.

Suddenly a man’s voice blasts over a loudspeaker.  “THE ANNOUNCEMENT SAID STOP!  YOU STUPID MORALISTS.”

I’m a bit startled but I keep running.  “YEAH, BIG SMILE,” the voice spits sarcastically.  I check my face.  It’s smiling – doing that thing I do when people are around and I’m both confused and embarrassed at being so conspicuous.  “YOU AND THOSE BICYCLISTS HAVE ABOUT AS MUCH …,” I can’t make out the rest but I know it’s insulting.

By now I’m to the other side (I’m no sprinter, but it’s a very short distance, so couldn’t have taken more than 6-10 seconds).  I stop and look back toward the area I just crossed.  “YOU THINK I’M JOKING?”  “Not one bit,” I say into the air between the gates that now are slowly closing.

There are 4 or 5 cyclists stopped; that many pedestrians are ambling up to wait.  One woman says, “He doesn’t sound very happy. Maybe he doesn’t like his job.”

So here’s the thing.  I’m all about listening across differences, right?  The truth is, I’d be very willing to be in conversation with this bridge operator; although I’m pretty sure I’d ask for a neutral party to mediate.  I have little doubt that I frustrated this man.  Still, listening does not equal doormat.  Listening does not mean failing to call aggression by its name.

Three things seem important here:

  1. This Port of  Portland employee was out of line.  He was grossly unprofessional.  On a sunny day like this lots of people visit the city.  This wasn’t exactly the Rose City’s proudest moment.  But appearances aside, whether the people on that bridge were visitors or citizens, no one ought to be verbally assaulted, really ever – and certainly not from a faceless and nameless voice from atop the Steel Bridge.
  2. A bit more subtle, but as much a part of the problem is the entitlement and disrespect inherent in following an impulse to push the limits and beat the system.  That’s what I did when I took off running.  Whether I slowed the process or not, it was bratty on my part.  I played a role in the scene, for sure.
  3. Then in the intervening hours I’ve found myself several times thinking, “Sheesh, I’m glad the guy didn’t have a rifle up there.”  Most recently I thought, “Hmm.  That’s an assumption.  And that’s scary.”  Given what’s been happening with concealed weapons laws around the country and given the evidence that this man, at least today at 12:24 p.m. had difficulty containing his rage – well, it gave me pause.

All three of these things are, of course, only my opinion.  They are the way life looks and feels to me.  I’m very interested in other viewpoints on this.  What is up with everyday America that this sort of public treatment of anonymous citizens can happen?  What is up with me and the others who cheated – who felt justified or could rationalize beating the rules?  Both of these things are problems.  And then, perhaps more essential, what is up with any of us when we don’t have the support across a lifetime to learn how to deal with its disappointments – when we see and learn so much anger, when we feel so often treated with disrespect that we release it all in rage?

The economy is bad for working and middle class people.  It’s worse for the unemployed.  There are plenty of free floating stressors lacing our awareness these days.  It is too easy to get passive and hopeless and that’s its own danger since it sure seems like the antidote is up to us.  Our president can make speeches and do what he thinks is right from where he sits.  Our other elected leaders can do that, too.  We can agree or disagree, applaud or complain, but when it comes right down to it our last good hope is in our connections with one another – in our support of our own and one another’s dignity and well being.

It takes more than being polite and not cheating to cross a bridge.  Lots more.  It takes good schools, good food, clean air and water.  It takes jobs.  And it takes families and communities that have the capacity for loving and supporting each other.  It takes adults in those families who know how to take care of and get support for themselves when pain and fear arise so they can teach their children how to live in kind and respectful ways – not by their talk, but by the way the children see them dealing with adversities of all kinds.

Again, and of course, this is all my thinking.  And not surprisingly, my thoughts and experiences show me that listening – hanging in through the conflict and aversion – is the place to anchor this revolution of American dignity and respect.  At the same time, there are conditions in which listening cannot occur.  They must be called out.  Unmediated rage is one of those.  Bratty entitlement, while less overtly offensive, is another.

Maybe common courtesy is a practice worth reclaiming, so listening becomes more of a possibility; so we can make room for alternatives to passive aggressions like brattiness and active aggressions like rage – maybe even to things like destructive public leadership, corporate greed and war.  That last bit is pretty ambitious, but it sure seems worth a try.


  1. Since I grew up in NYC, I am very familiar with the rage felt by humans when too many people live together crowded in too small a space. People feel anonymous and feel that they don’t have to be accountable to others. Rules are to be broken. Those who have the job of enforcing the rules loose all patience because they are not listened to or respected. Anger, resentment and despair take over, verbal and sometimes physical abuse follows. Being stuck in a job you hate where you are constantly frustrated is no way to live your life. It can drain the joy out of your existance. The poor bridge man! A sense of humor might have saved his day and yours.

  2. Having been in battle with the City Hall here in Ptown over WATER… I can puff up and do a walk through on Wednesday City Hall day… Stand with all the reporters and watch the reactions to those that make the absurd rules the usually benefit the entitled… I no longer get angry but do poke a lot of fun at them… at their expenses… I like making them nervous when I stay up all night sending out e-mails to 100’s of folk I do not know, asking the question… Are you smarter than a 5th grader?… or Are you being manipulated by Perspective Percentages? But mainly I am asking folks to educate themselves… that way, in the moment, their actions will reflect this education.and like me, they can feel and experience their passions… Water is a passion that desires action!
    And his Holiness the Dali Lama said something like this.. know the rules so you can break them well.
    I’ll run across the bridge, flash the “poor bridge man”, laughing the entire time with you any day, Mary Clare! … my latest escaped off humor is a comment on Jack Bog’s Blog!!!

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