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Portland lights sparkle off the Willametter River at the end of 2014.

I stood in the middle of the Hawthorne Bridge last night and took lots of blurry photos. I don’t know if it was the vibrating bridge that shook a little more each time a car pounded past me, or the dry cold air blasting into my face that had me in tears the entire time. No, seriously, ha ha. Tears streaming down my face from the cold wind in my eyes. Almost funny enough to keep me from being annoyed.

When I arrived in my fancy Jeep, the two dashboard screens read: 27 degrees. My first thought was, “oh, that’s chilly!” My second thought was, “and that’s about…60 degrees warmer than my buddies in Burlington!” That morning on facebook, one of my forecaster friends (remember I was a forecaster in my past life?) had posted a National Weather Service temperature map of Vermont, showing 30 degrees below zero in Burlington and 50 below out in the Northeast Kingdom.

(I mumbled my sincere thanks to the Universe for not having to live through Vermont winters anymore.)

I parked under the I-5 overpass where it meets the Hawthorne Bridge on the East side of the river and returned an enthusiastic “Hi,” and “I’m doing great!” in answer to the homeless man walking briskly past in Carhartt overalls, asking how I was that evening. He seemed very cheerful despite the weather. I walked past two dozen tents and another dozen sleeping bags under the bridge before I came to the ramp that led me up top. Under the I-5 overpass is a good place to sleep. It’s large and sheltered and dry and clean. 27 degrees while taking nighttime photos is one thing, 27 degrees and trying to sleep in a tent is a different thing. A woman sat outside her tent in a hat and fingerless gloves, with a cigarette and the blue screen of her phone lighting up her face.

When I was done collecting all those blurry and colorful photos for you, I returned to where I had parked and took the Jeep farther under the overpass till I could find the right street to pull me to the surface of the city. It feels underground there, where the multiple bridges across the river intersect with the huge I-5 bridge and beneath all of it are restaurants, and warehouses, and parking lots and office space. And tents, and tents, and tents, all along the streets beside the river.

I waited for a passing train beside a pretty sweet spot on a concrete slab bound on four sides and just big enough for two tents covered in tarps, two outside sleeping bags, and a large tricycle with a basket on the front. The spot was directly at the base of a staircase leading to the bridge, so the space didn’t feel so trapped. There were three young men and a young woman talking and laughing beside the tents, and hopping around in the cold, slapping their hands together. Everything about their spot seemed perfect except for the train, about 12 feet away, shrieking and rumbling along the tracks. The red flashing lights and warning bell: “clang, clang, clang” the whole time. Really loud. They must be going deaf if they live there.

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The Willamette River, Morrison Bridge with the blue and green lights, Moda Center (home of the Trail Blazers) in red, and the identical towers of the Oregon Convention Center on the right.

I guess what struck me – what I’m trying to say here – is that I saw people living their lives. I wasn’t squashed as much as usual beneath the burden of privilege next to a person at a bad place in their life. I felt instantly guilty at first, when I climbed back into the car and it was still warm from the heater, but the feeling didn’t last long. Mostly I looked at all the tent-dwellers and felt interested in their lives. I’m sure that must be terribly arrogant, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt like, for one rare night, I was able to see the humanity and the community and the emotions of a group of people who are usually closed to me. I saw that the unusual cold was drawing some of them together like shared events do, and making some of them more animated than usual. And I felt lucky to be a part of this city, with all its citizens.

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