Monday, March 04, 2013

Sunshine and Shadow

One of the things that always strikes me about Sunday afternoons is how quiet the roads are between my home in North Portland and my workplace far out in the deepest heart of Tualatin Valley darkness.

On weekdays the commute - I-5 South to US 26, up over Sylvan Hill and back down the long slope between the wooded folds of the West Hills to the knotted loop where the Sunset Highway meets Oregon Route 217, and from there southwest on the gentle arc to Progress and the sterile office "park" where my employer has chosen to place us - is a nightmarish, soul-flensing slog.

The traffic is invariably horrible; when I told a friend who had chosen to move to Beaverton that given a choice I'd sooner go to Hell because the traffic would have to be better was not really a joke. It's just a fucking awful drive, morning or evening.

Oregonians are fairly awful drivers in general, which doesn't help. In the passing lanes we dawdle, in the travel lanes we speed. Like sheep, we tend to panic and grow profoundly stupid at the slightest hint of complexity; a highway condition sign which warns of an accident ten miles ahead will slow four lanes of traffic to walking speeds for hours.

Merging does something quiverish and fretful to us. About three-quarters of the roadful will move over immediately upon appearance of the first merge sign, regardless of where the actual lane ends ahead. Those drivers will then pack in nose-to-tail so that when the actual merge arrives merging becomes impossible, and thus traffic will begin to back up from there.

Worse, a scattering of individuals will actively fight against anyone trying to speed forward in the merging lane by half-merging and straddling both lanes to prevent anyone from passing them. So the journey from NoPo to Beaverton is usually slow and frustrating.

But Sundays are different and this past Sunday was no different.

The afternoon was improbably warm and sunny. The dark firs that whiskered the ridges leading up to Sylvan Hill glistened, the clean dry concrete shone. The scattered cars and trucks climbing west from Vista Tunnel seemed to sport with my little Honda like friendly steel and plastic dolphins, glittering and winking with delight at the space and speed we moved in.

On the seat beside me was a sheaf of laboratory paperwork, my old green West Linn fleece and, bundled on top, the green-and-white striped scarf that has accompanied me to the old stadium down by Goose Hollow for many years now.

It was a sunny winter Sunday and the home opener of my Portland Timbers.

I shouldn't admit this to my wife but I usually enjoy working on the weekends. I like having the quiet office to myself, and the time to think. This Sunday I had a slow lab test to run which gave me time to read the pre-match writeups as well as the Atkinson book I mentioned in the earlier post.

I share the sterile office "park" only with our small but savage pack of golf-course geese, whose spiteful indifference to all other less entitled creatures is the equal of a Republican Congressman's. Whenever I ventured out it was into short hissing confrontations with a group of four of the big bastards that had bunkered themselves in the rectangle of lawn that occupies the open area between our laboratory space and the Korean grill in the corner building south of it.

Every time I would pass on my way to and from reading the consolidometer the fat black, gray, and brown animals would fuss and threaten before waddling grudgingly off the sidewalk, the immense tubes of goose shit they voided making their opinions clear about their dissatisfaction with the entire business.

My early quiet afternoon ended as I drove into the big open concrete garage at the rail station. It was jammed with every sort of vehicle, a reminder that the migration of Timbers fans into the city had begun hours earlier.

The Timbers Army sections of the north end of the old shed remain fiercely democratic; none of this elitist numbering of supporters by section, row and seat. "General admission" means that if you want to stand close to the pitch you need to arrive early and stand in line long. For Seattle matches this can mean the full day from sunrise to an hour before kickoff, and the true soldier can be sussed out by his or her ability to remain motionless and yet sentient for eight hours or more.

That, and the loathing of all things Seattle.

One of the pleasant things that comes with this tradition is the unguarded enthusiasm for all things Timbers. Within moments of boarding the train for the rumble through sunshine into the darkness underhill I had made the acquaintance of Mack, Jeff, and Ryan, three fans from the Westside who were headed downtown for the match.

We talked about the team, and the woeful season past, and the new players and new coach as the MAX hissed like a Beaverton gander, rattling its way down through millions of years of Miocene basalt and the roots of an ice-age volcano and out into the watery sunlight of Goose Hollow whose geese, unlike our grass-bloated office park monsters, had been driven out decades ago and replaced by hipster taverns, Benz dealerships and a Starbucks.

The crowds outside the stadium were evidence that the gates were still closed. I had arrived downtown early because I simply enjoy the texture of matchday beyond the match itself.

I love the crowds in their wild variety of colors and designs, the fantastic disarray of people from small children to grandparents, the purposeful randomness of everyone, each on their own pathway to their goal, to the game and the team and their friends or their families. I love the wild rumpus of fans, scalpers, vendors, policemen, and the odd passersby stumping or gliding past through the press intent on who knows what errand elsewhere.

Inside the temporary pen erected around the tram stop the railway inspectors huddle in an officious clump of bright yellow and stern official blue, their commander rapping out instructions for punishing fare-cheaters, her voice stern as an infantry officer issuing an operations order to assault troops.

The bright yellow minder at the exit gate overlooks my raised ticket with a goofy grin - clearly she at least is uninfected with her leader's matchday grimness.

The "dry-hopped" IPA is sweet and bitter in the bright plastic cup provided by Hot Lips Pizza.

Next to the register queue two little girls, each with her identical small green shirt with a club symbol traced out in delicate girly script over her gauzy-skirted princess dress, dance together. The smaller solemnly circles her older sister like a living maypole, first to the right, then back to the left, dancing to a measure that only she can recognize.

The couple in front are both wearing warm clothing above the knee but below the ankles only bare feet in sandals; their toes are pink in the chill of the thin March sunshine.

I enjoy a long sit outside in that pale afternoon light, watching the people and the particolored sky and the high walls of the old coliseum curving away to both sides.

I should really write you a post about old Civic Stadium. It is build over a stream, Tanner Creek, that used to run from the base of the West Hills south of the stadium down to the bottomlands along the Willamette River where much of inner Northwest Portland now lies.

Back in the day Tanner Creek valley was too deep to cross and too wide to ford; wooden bridges had to connect the old downtown to the new suburbs in the West Hills to the west. The only people who seem to have treasured it were the Chinese farmers who had recreated a piece of Shensei Province in the soft canyon soils, and the Good People of Old Portland had no intention of letting Nature and a bunch of Chinks stand in the way of Progress.

So every contractor, excavator, and earthmover brought his load to Tanner Creek and dumped it.

The creek itself was roofed over and flows, forgotten, beneath the roads and buildings of the neighborhood and the very pitch itself; only on the quietest of nights can the curious seeker stop and still hear the waters of Tanner Creek in the darkness of their brick vault rolling vexed to the sea.

There is no quiet above Tanner Creek this day.

The sound of the crowd hits me like a shove to the chest the moment I walk under the gateway arch; thousands chanting, singing, chatting, shouting, the electronic beeping of the doorwarden's scanning guns, slamming doors, pounding drums.

The sound of matchday is noise above cacophony amid thunder.

I stroll down to the South End, the as-yet-unnamed high porch that is part of the newest reconstruction of the stadium.

In the Oughts this was the farthest end of the East Stand, a ramshackle wooden rampart that clung to the west edge of Eighteenth Street like the palisade of a dilapidated frontier fort. You could almost see the sidewalk from the lowest tiers inside; indeed, one of the goofy charms of the old minor league baseball games was that the affable huckster who owned the Single-A ballclub would hire local urchins for pocket money to stage "races" down the sidewalk outside the perimeter fence; a big cardboard rabbit stuck on a tall white PVC pole would be pursued by three cardboard "greyhounds" to the commentary of the stadium announcer.

These races were not without hazard. One evening the purple greyhound was scratched mid-race when his carrier, far in the lead of the other two nippers, must have turned to taunt his pursuers and ran full-tilt into one of the slender but sturdy street trees that line 18th Avenue.

You couldn't see the actual impact from the stands. But the effect was easy to guess; the dog cut-out suddenly stopped sailing along, shuddered, swayed forward, and then toppled slowly out of sight presumably as the tree-stunned yard-ape collapsed in a heap. His little competitors raced ruthlessly past him, promotional urchin greyhound-racing not being a sport for the faint-hearted.

Now the East Stand is a seamless part of the glossy operation that is named for an Oregon window-maker (our local power company having yielded up the stadium; on the highway signs along I-405 you can see that the legend "Jeld-Wen Field" has been pasted over the old "PGE Park". It's called "JW" or sometimes "The Jelly"; many of us still refer to it as "The Civic". Hardly anyone remembers the older name of Multnomah Stadium). Like many of the type, it is all decorator steel and glass and artisanal concrete.

The latest gimmick of the House of Pane is to invite local food carts to cook up their specialities in the concession booth at the south tip of East Stand. Today's is from something called "Timber's Doghouse PDX" and the speciality du maison of the cart appears to be...gourmet tater tots.

I'm drawn to the peculiar notion of gourmet tater tots and try "...tots topped with chantrelle salt, truffle oil, asiago, garlic truffle aioli". When produced this concoction turns out to be extremely salty, violently cheesy, strongly garlicky and mayonnaisse-y slathered over the processed potato congeries, an unfortunate combination of brutal and bland.

It's not that they're so bad it's that they're not much of anything; too powerful for comfort food but too muddled and coarse for genuine delectation.

Filling, though; fortunately the Widmer beer is good if spendy, a nice malty counterpoint to the dry hops of the early afternoon. Carrying my cup back north I fall in with my friend Kurt; we discuss the upcoming match and simply enjoy each others' company before parting; he to swim back into the sea of general admission, I to my assigned seat.

When my friends Brent, his wife Julie, and I choose our spot we decided we wanted to be close to the Army's hooligan array but wanted the luxury of not having to fight for places; we tell ourselves that we're the "Army Reserve" - too old for General Admission, too young to sit down. So although we have numbered seats we don't sit except at the half.

Standing through a soccer match is a tradition that comes from Britain. The old football grounds had few seats, if any; you could pack more bodies in if everyone stood up and the point, as was always the point with the British view of their grubby groundlings, wasn't comfort for the venal workingmen but profit for the owners. So the miners and ironworkers and draymen and chandlers stood on the terraces and sang and chanted their passions, love and hate.

The terrace wasn't and still isn't a place for the faint-hearted anymore than cardboard greyhound racing is. The warriors for the working day weren't going to talk nice about their old enemies. The Toon Army, Newcastle United's supporters, had a song about Peter Reid, the man who managed their rivals Sunderland in the Nineties, to the tune of "Yellow Submarine" that included the delightful chorus "Peter Reid's got a fuckin' monkey's head, a fuckin' monkey's head, a fuckin' monkey's head..."

Well. We don't do that anymore. Not much.

The Timbers Army used to have a broad selection of pretty rough songs and chants; back in 2004 we greeted Lutz Pfannenstiel, then playing in goal for the Calgary club, with the chant "Singapore Prison Whore!" in honor of his 101 days in jail there for match-fixing.

Any opposing player that combines a high level of irritation with a hairless dome (and, yes, I'm looking at you, Conor Casey, bastard) can still expect to hear "He's bald, he's shit, his head is like a tit..." roaring down on him from the Shed End.

But the league is worried about frightening the horses. And the children. So we don't bellow "You SUCK, asshole!" everytime the enemy keeper takes a goal kick.

We gave them that.

But the old stadium still thunders and shakes with us as we build bonfires for Seattle and Vancouver.

I've talked about this before, but it's hard not to repeat it because it's so close to what forms the heart of the night and the place; the peculiar power to being part of a massive single voice, of joining in with everyone around you to try and will yourself onto the pitch, to make your voice and the voices around you a wall of sound to support your team and to press down upon their opponents. It's wonderful and sometimes fearful; it was that sort of power that the Soviets and the Nazis exploited, that sort of power that must have moved our ancestors to join in ritual chants and songs back to the caves. There's a fearful, bestial glory in that power, and one that we don't often find elsewhere in our lives.

Perhaps that's not always a bad thing.

But within the old concrete walls we take it, and shape it, and use it was a weapon to stouten the hearts of the locals and call down havoc on the visitors.

Tonight we unveil the first tifo of the season and it's a delight; our iconic "When It Rains It Pours" Morton Salt supporter girl with her scarf and ball, surrounded by a field of twirling, dancing green-and-white umbrellas.

All we lack is...rain. It's Portland, in early March, and yet the sun is still shining; not a raincloud in sight.

The barren pastel-colored puffs of cumulus drift past overhead like truant children strolling past their schoolyard trying to look guiltless and failing. How can it not be raining?

On the pitch the players jog and stretch, focused on their warmups.

Up in the North End we enjoy a moment of unintended comedy; since ESPN is showing the match one-time US defender and TV B-list celeb Alexi Lalas turns up, corporate in his heavy overcoat looking distracted and much diminished from his Nineties heyday when his wild ginger mane and scraggly goatee made him look like Uncle Sam's cheerfully shiftless dope-smoking nephew.

He twits us mildly, we mock him gently, and both sides part company fairly well pleased with themselves.

We settle into our rituals; the crowd kicks off with the anthem and, painfully, the visitors from New York sing the first ten minutes.

The home side is nervous, jittery, our veteran centerback frantically unhinged as the Red Bulls bomb attack after attack at us. Almost before we know it a horrible piece of defensive ineptitude has us down a goal. Oh, God, we're all to pieces; terrible memories of the Lost Season past come flooding back. Our singing takes on a desperate tone as we try and push away the fear that nothing has changed, that our doom is settling upon us, that unlike the clouds that humiliation is closing over us.

Last season our team would have given up a soft early goal and folded; they lacked something vital, some inner hardness or some outer direction that would enable them to fight back through hardship.

But not last night.

Like lightning from the cloudless sky, midfielder Diego Valeri collects a bounding, rasping pass. He looks as the New York defender charging down on him, flicks the ball up and past him, settles it with his chest into his path and pokes it casually past the onrushing Red Bulls' keeper to level the match.

We go mad.

This isn't the team we dreaded last year; even though they make two more awful errors that have us down 3-1 at the turn. They don't give up, they don't give in. The other terrible sameness from 2012 was our late-match failings. We would run out of gas, ship soft goals late, turn wins into draws and draws into losses.

But not last night.

Instead the Boys keep fighting. Our young centerback Jean-Baptiste smothers the New York star, Thierry Henry, scuffling and tackling him into impotence.

We claw a second goal back. Our big Columbian forward, Valencia, "The Little Train" comes on and begins imposing his force and pace on the tiring visitors.

Our new captain shows he's a harder man than the man he replaced, stalking over to Henry (who is theatrically stretched out on the pitch time-wasting) and furiously bollocking him. Will Johnson is so furious that he even tosses the Red Bull trainer's water bottle carrier over the touchline and bottles spill out of it as if frightened to flight by our captain's anger.

Diego Chara is buzzing everywhere as he does like an angry Columbian wasp. Darlington Nagbe is refusing to fade away as he did last season when he was marked out early, instead pushing up, pushing up, and this is rewarded as he puts away that second goal. The entire team is swarming now, raining attacks on the bunkered visitors.

And finally the tying goal as Valencia collects a rebounding shot and slams it home off a defender's legs.

We roar and leap. The woman behind me fist-bumps her teenage son, the capos' flags whirl in a blaze of color as smoke billows out from the Shed.

The couple at the rail embrace, and as the match resumes we implore our team for a fourth goal, a winning goal, and the entire North End groans as Ryan Johnson's spectacular bicycle kick goes barely a ball's-width wide. A young woman in a green and silver tinsel crown looks up in desperation, her eyes pleading with the scoreboard for more time, imploring the relentless clock to run slower, slower to give us time for a win.

It isn't going to happen. The man in the yellow shirt raises his arm, the long whistle cuts through the singing and the two teams run off even.

Still, the singing continues as the team collects itself and performs its ritual walk around the pitch to the North End. The scorers collect and lift their log slabs, the supporters roar, and slowly the singing fades, the crowd flows up the aisles and the evening ends in a haze of thinning green smoke and hoarse throats.

The ride back up through the mountain is crowded and chatty, the great crowd thinning away just as the smoke thinned out in the night sky, first becoming large groups and then smaller groups, then clumps and couples, and finally there's just myself, alone, driving the little Honda back down the nighttime arc of the highway to my laboratory.

The pavement gleams with the late-arriving misting rain.

The wipers hiss like a fuming green smoke grenade and thump like the drums, and the soft folds of the green-and-white scarf on the seat beside me are still warm from my neck as the bands of streetlamp light and evening dark arch past it.


Lisa said...

What a great summation of a day. I appreciate your tabulation of minutiae, human and animal.

Per, "Merging does something quiverish and fretful to us" -- I have seen this all-too-often in FLA. What should be a simple system of road obedience becomes this helter-skelter fraught undertaking, resulting in anger and resentment. We don't seem to know how to let people in, do we?

FDChief said...

Glad you liked this one; I wanted to paint a sort of word-picture of what it's like; I do love matchdays and wanted to convey the why.

Well, I think that the safe anonymity of the inside of a vehicle tends to bring out the worst in people. Generally if Oregonians had a driving fault it's being TOO meek; I wish I had a nickel for every time someone on the freeway on-ramp slows almost to a stop at the merge rather than speeding up to highway rates and sliding into the traffic. But merges just touch something very evil inside Oregonians. We REALLY suck at it because we just have this thing about getting into the travel lane ridiculously early; the normal merge behavior of everywhere else (driving up to the actual merge and then merging) seems like Linear B to us. Dunno why, but it's ridiculously irritating.

Leon said...

Chief, you must establish dominance with the geese. If you don't, then the geese win. I learned that from some politician some time ago...

Regarding lost creeks, I took a course on the history of my city (Toronto) and I think most people would be surprised to find out the number of creeks and streams that disappeared underground.

Lisa said...

Re. match days, I just read this by way of explanation:

One Way to Cheer Up: Cheer Harder".

They are too meek in FL, too. Meek in that ordinarily sane people become discombobulated when trying to assess the flow of traffic and finding a way into the flow; also, they will not pull into the intersection to make a red light at a busy intersection. Oh, but they have no problem being oblivious and blocking a sideroad from entrance into the main traffic flow.

Southern politesse is but a half click from rudeness.