Life stuff

Making friends in the fast lane

I deeply adore my adopted city of Portland, Oregon. However, there are definite disadvantages to living here – or anywhere on the West Coast, really – compared to living in the midwest, where I originally came from.

Housing prices, for one thing, are considerably more outrageous. I was listening to a local program on Oregon Public Radio (OPB) yesterday, and a guest expert was saying that the housing market in Portland is still depressed as a result of the financial crisis and the lagging economy. Then he said, “I think the average price of a house is $227,000 in Portland.”

In my small home-town city in Indiana, $227,000 would buy you a palace. And yet in Portland, this is the average price of a home in a “down” housing market. Portland is also the number one place in the country for missed mortgage payments. (We’re Number One! We’re Number One!)

The overall cost of living on the West Coast is also higher than it is in the heartland. This unfortunately applies to gasoline as well as other living expenses; when I spoke to my brother in Indiana a couple of weeks ago and we compared the prices at our respective local pumps, I think we were ten to twenty cents higher here in Portland. This makes things pretty tough on people trying to hang on through unemployment, underemployment, or just trying to keep afloat with a full-time job where wages are frozen and a job market that is insufficient to meet the demand for work.

Two days ago, I was stuck in stop-and-go traffic (mostly stop) during my homeward commute from my (part-time) job. I have to say that while being in a traffic jam is never a pleasant experience, it seems less obnoxious in the Portland area. Here, we tend to slow down to let people change lanes in front of us or to let them into the flow of traffic, and we don’t lay on the horn every time we get a little frustrated or pissed off at the antics of another driver.

While I was sitting still, waiting for my next chance to move forward two feet, the man in the large black pickup in the right lane called to me. “Excuse me. Can you tell me if there is a gas station nearby up ahead?”

“If you’re going across the Ross Island Bridge,” I told him, “there’s a Shell station not long after that.”

He nodded his thanks. “I’m worried that I don’t have enough gas to make it much further.” Then, sheepishly, he continued while we each inched forward as traffic allowed, “I don’t usually let this happen. But these days, you have to make a life decision when you get to the pump.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. I had filled my tank two days earlier, and it was the first time in over a month that I had felt safe spending that much money on gas all at once.

My traffic friend described some of the choices he found himself making these days. “Do you buy food for the dog, or fill the tank? Do you eat today, or make sure you can drive to work tomorrow?”

And if the rest of the folks in the traffic jam could have heard this exchange, I’ve little doubt that they would have echoed his worries, as I did and do. Most of us are in this dark place together, even if to varying degrees.

Even so, we Portlanders manage to be polite to each other most of the time. We let people in when they need to merge into traffic… and sometimes, we let them in, even as total strangers, to hear and share our private challenges and fears.



9 thoughts on “Making friends in the fast lane

  1. Wow. I realise this is totally not the point of your post, but I can’t help commenting. When I read that the average price of a house is $227,000 in Portland, I almost fell off my chair. Seriously?? I live in Brisbane, Australia (one of the cheaper capital cities) and $227,000 wouldn’t even buy you a 1 bedroom apartment. Not even close. The *average* price of a house in Brisbane is AU$450,000, which is roughly US$400,000. And that’s if you’re happy to live in the suburbs. To live somewhere close to the inner city, you’re looking at almost 3 times that price.

    (This is especially interesting considering that shows that payrates are about the same (considering exchange rate) for the US and Australia when comparing entry-level jobs.)

    Posted by Jo Eberhardt | August 25, 2011, 8:56 pm
    • What?! How dare you bring up a new perspective!!!1 😀

      But seriously, it’s always interesting to see how different economies – domestically and internationally – value the same things. And I certainly wasn’t implying that our housing prices are the worst in the world (I know that’s not what you were saying I said, too). It’s just that people adjust their lives and tailor their expectations to what is normal for a given market. People are used to this housing market being high-priced. What they’re not used to is the price of food spiking at the same time that gas is spiking at the same time that wages are stagnant and so on and so on.

      I’ll have to look at the link you posted. I wonder if there are comparisons between cities in different countries?

      Posted by Leanne D Baldwin | August 26, 2011, 3:24 am
      • I believe so. I just had a quick look to see if the pay rate reflected the difference in housing prices.

        I completely agree — people are used to what they’re used to. We’re certainly living in interesting times. We’re in the position here where all costs of living are skyrocketing (rental prices have more than doubled over the last 5 years) because the population of the city is increasing faster than resources allow. Meanwhile, income isn’t increasing at the same rate.

        But, as you say, the important thing is that we’ve got a roof over our heads and food on the table. 🙂

        On another note, I think it’s awesome that you were making friends in the fast lane. It certainly says a lot about the “friendliness” of Portland!

        Posted by Jo Eberhardt | August 26, 2011, 7:33 am
  2. I’ll be honest I have no idea what the average house price is where I live. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am never going to be a homeowner, even if I am lucky enough to find a job at some point (which often feels like it’s never going to happen!) We gave up the car a long time ago because of associated costs. Still, I have a roof over my head and I’m warm and dry, which is more than some have; and you never know what’s around the corner 🙂

    Posted by Sarah Pearson | August 25, 2011, 9:49 pm
    • Absolutely right about that, Sarah. I’m definitely grateful for the job I have now, especially since I just landed it and I’m making more at part-time than I was making in my previous full-time job. It’s the catching up on a mountain of overdue bills that’s problematic at the moment.

      Still, things are better than they were. 🙂

      Posted by Leanne D Baldwin | August 26, 2011, 3:33 am
  3. Aw, I like that you Portlanders are so chill in a traffic jam! Always nice when you can turn a stranger into a friend – and you’re right, I bet most of the other people in those cars can relate considering how tough things are everywhere.

    Posted by Crystal | August 26, 2011, 7:55 am
    • Portland is very friendly and the people tend to be open with each other; it’s a place where people genuinely display a sense of community. Most places I’ve lived or visited, that’s a claim that isn’t lived up to, as people tend to look out for themselves and their immediate circles first and tend to treat others as outsiders.

      I’ve had people I don’t know strike up real, interesting conversations with me at bus stops, in stores, wherever. My teenager has had numerous experiences like this, as well. It’s a cool place.

      Posted by Leanne D Baldwin | August 26, 2011, 12:51 pm
  4. We do have a lovely sense of community here. Just yesterday I helped someone find lemon yogurt in the grocery store, and then a minute later, another woman pointed out an endcap of on-sale bedding, which is what I was looking for. (I was talking to my kiddo, so she overheard…) Of course not everybody’s polite, as in any city, but I do love the sense of all being in this together. Even if “all this” includes economic woes.

    Posted by laurastanfill | August 30, 2011, 10:28 am
    • We definitely do have a sense of community here, one that is far stronger than I ever felt when I was living in the midwest, where that sort of thing is allegedly a way of life. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had experiences like what you described at Portland shopping venues. I *can* tell you that it’s far more frequently than I ever had such experiences while shopping in my home state, Indiana.

      When I first moved here, I was astonished by how willingly drivers would slow down to let others merge into traffic. That sort of action is a much rarer kindness where I came from, one to be savored and treasured and not to be counted on again!

      Posted by Leanne D Baldwin | August 31, 2011, 1:11 pm

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