There is a neighborhood in Portland called Felony Flats.
Unofficially, of course. I’m not sure what actual neighborhood Felony Flats inhabits. The nickname itself has become contentious; the neighborhood has a high African-American, Mexican-American and immigrant population and the nickname has racist overtones. A lot of the residents were pushed out of the NE Alberta/Mississippi area as gentrification went into full force over the last decade. The boutiques and breweries moved in, young couples and families with disposable incomes followed, and taxes went up accordingly. ‘Felony Flats’, and the whole NE-SE corridor in between 82nd Ave. and Gresham was the closest neighborhood with affordable rent, and so that is where a lot of the overflow from the now hip inner N/NE neighborhoods had to go. Consider this history, and the fact that Felony Flats is something you will largely hear from the mouths of those who took over the neighborhood that the newer residents of the ‘Flats’ were forced to vacate… you can see where the offense here might be taken.
My thoughts on this issue are complex. I was one of the first young, broke, (mostly) white kids that moved into the Alberta/Mississippi area and I have a lot of complicated feelings about it. I might write about it later, elsewhere. In this context I will say that I try to walk the line between monitoring incoming fares by any means necessary (this being largely visually and energetically) to ensure my safety, and not falling back on cultural stereotypes of who reads as dangerous. I am more careful in certain neighborhoods, based more on what kind of drug activity occurs there than what racial or ethnic group makes up the bulk of the residents. Most of my frightening or at least, disquieting, fares have been with white men, from supposedly ‘safe’ parts of the city.
The fact remains that Felony Flats has an unsavory reputation and I am wary of picking up fares around the 82nd Ave. portion of the Flats. It is without question a part of the city that is popular with the users of crystal meth, and those people scare me, regardless of race, age, or gender.
I’d ended up in that part of the city after dropping off a fare somewhere in the neighborhood. It was a slow night, and so when I noticed there were fares waiting close-by, I took the chance and booked in, rather than drive back towards the river and a more familiar part of the city. I pulled up to a Chinese restaurant off Foster. The restaurant took up half of a run-down building that also housed a convenience store, heavily fortified with small windows and metal bars. There was no one waiting outside, so I locked the cab and went in. The front room was small and bare, lit with overhead fluorescents. To the left of the door stood a high maroon counter, and the room held about 6 tables. Each table was laid out nicely with white tablecloth and silverware, and each table was empty. A small Asian woman stood behind the counter, fidgeting with a pen and staring vacantly at her hands. I asked if someone needed a cab and she gestured towards a back room, never making eye contact. I walked around her and through the door into a tiny rectangular room, dark but for the light of a row of video poker machines against one long wall. Along the opposite wall was a long bench. The room was silent but packed with people who sat at the poker machines and along the bench, vibrating and fidgeting, with the frenetic energy that I immediately identified with tweakers.
I stood in the doorway for a moment, surveying this eerie scene, but no one looked my way. I considered walking back out again, but I’ve been trying to give people (or at least good fortune) the benefit of the doubt, so I squared my shoulders and asked into the center of the room, “Someone need a cab?” There was a shuffle and a number of heads turned toward me, zombie-like, with wide, vacant eyes. I stared at them for a minute, unnerved, and was about to leave when 3 people started to stand up and walk towards me. I took this as assent, and walked outside to the cab to wait. A young-ish man and older woman came out first, but they moved towards the pay phone outside the convenience store. A black man, looking to be in his mid-60s, came out after them.
He had a wild, unstable look in his eye, and a handful of plastic grocery bags. Some appeared to hold clothes, some papers, and one was full of to-go containers, apparently from the restaurant. He put most of this in the trunk and then got in the back. He didn’t buckle the belt and sat on the edge of the seat. I started the meter and said, “How’s it going?” He told me he needed to go to the waterfront downtown, and before I could ask any clarifying questions, began to tell me that when we got there, he would need me to keep his bags of clothes and food in the backseat until he called for me to come back. He spoke quickly, frantically, hands fumbling with his pants and the door, head turning endlessly back and forth to look out the windows, eyes never meeting mine. I replied that, first, I’d need an address or at least a cross street, that I wasn’t going to just ‘head downtown’. Second, that I would under no circumstances be holding his bags in the trunk of my car. He argued with me for a few minutes about both of these points, and I calmly restated my position against each of his rebuttals. He was getting more and more aggravated, but we finally settled on a general destination and he agreed to take his bags with him. The waterfront is quite a ways from 82nd and Foster, and I had a terrible feeling about this fare, so I told him that the final piece of business before we could start driving was for me to get payment up front. This is standard procedure for longer fares or any fare in which we feel concerned about getting payment, and is a 100% legitimate request for a driver to make.
My customer, already high on something speedy and extremely annoyed with me, freaked out. He began thrashing and flailing around in the backseat, screaming at me that I was a racist, that he had money, that he was going to call the general manager of our company and complain. He referred to the GM by name, and I have no idea what relationship they actually have, but at that point I didn’t care, because he had crossed a line. The meter was only at about $4. I told him I was not going to be taking him anywhere and that he’d have to get out. He pulled a huge wad of money out of his pocket and waved it in my face. I could see that it included a number of large bills, but I was absolutely done with this person, and fairly frightened for my safety at that point, so I reiterated –calmly!—that he’d need to get out. He continued thrashing, and so I got my phone ready to dial 911, got my radio ready to call dispatch, and got out to remove his stuff from my trunk, hoping he’d follow and I could get back in and drive away. He did follow, but I was still in the process of taking his bags out of the trunk when he came around the cab and grabbed the bag of Chinese food out of my hand, screaming “Get your hands off my food, bitch!!” and tossing the bag onto the ground. I retreated to the front of the cab and he followed, hand raised in a fist and eyes bulging with rage as he came after me, still screaming. I yelped and ran around the front of the car, screeching that I was going to call 911 and that another cab was on the way to help me and that he better get the fuck away from me.
I was convinced, in that moment, that I was about to be murdered or at least beaten severely by a psychotic tweaker on 82nd Avenue, thus fulfilling my worst cab driving fears. I kept scurrying around the cab and he kept following, like we were playing some sort of twisted nursery game. As I came back around the driver’s side of the cab, I noticed that the young man/older woman were still standing at the payphone, completely oblivious to the drama happening not 5 feet away. I yelled, “Hey… hey… HEY!!!” at them and they finally turned slowly towards me, with drugged out, blank faces. I said “HELLO?!”, gesturing towards the man behind me, and they continued to stare vacantly. I felt a surge of rage at drugs and drug users, and a sinking terror that there really was no help coming and I was going to have to deal with this man alone.
Somehow, though, my yelling at the zombie couple pulled the attention of my soon-to-be murderer away from me and onto them, and he ceased his pursuit and walked over to them, gesticulating wildly and ranting about the injustice of my refusal to give him a ride. I used this distraction to pull the rest of his stuff from the trunk and throw it on the ground next to his Chinese food, and then jumped into the driver’s seat. He turned towards the cab, face darkening again with anger, and I locked the doors. As he started back towards me I put the car in reverse, backed out of the parking spot, and peeled out onto Foster Rd., heart pounding and hands shaking with adrenaline. Once I got onto the road, I checked the rearview mirror. He looked after me from the edge of the parking lot wuth a look of hurt and confusion on his face that surprised me. As he grew smaller and smaller in the mirror, I saw him turn and begin to pick his things up from the sidewalk. I called dispatch and told them not to send any more cabs to that address as I headed back towards the river, and away from Felony Flats.