On The Road is “Think Out Loud’s” radio road trip series: conversations with wanderers, tourists and residents along Oregon and Washington’s back roads and highways.
Normally we drive — and once we walked — but this time we figured we'd try something new: public transportation.
We chose TriMet's Line 4-Division/Fessenden, which is one of the longest bus lines in the system. There is a longer route, distance wise: TriMet's Line 30-Estacada goes from downtown Portland to Estacada. But in terms of the time, it takes to go from one end of the line to the other — about two hours — nothing beats the number 4 line.
We started off at the intersection of North Syracuse Street and North Richmond Avenue. The stop has a view of Forest Park across the river, and it’s right down the street from St. Johns Theater & Pub, near a Safeway.
One of the first people we met was TriMet employee Theresa Lemke, who drives the number 4 line. There are high schools on either end of the bus line, and Lemke said the kids who ride the bus can sometimes be a challenge.
"There's always that threat of walking," she said of her technique for dealing with rowdy teenagers on the bus. "Sometimes the threat is enough to give them the idea."
"What a frustrating bus," said rider Kevin Marnell of the number 4 line. He described waiting an unusually long time for the bus recently.
"I should have left in five minutes," he said. "I ended up waiting 40 minutes for a bus that then missed all of its connections."
Fortunately, our bus was running pretty much on time. We stopped off at Kenton Park, where we met Tatiana Marion, who was pushing a baby on a swing. She told us it was her second day as a nanny for the 7-month-old girl.
Back on the bus, we saw a young man with a distinctive look.
When “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller asked the man, Omar Ali, about his style, Ali described it as "simple, easy." He also had a recommendation for Congolese music, which is what he had been listening to before Dave struck up a conversation with him.
At the Rose Quarter Transit Center, we talked to Sharif Sadak — the Sharif behind the Sharif's Coffee kiosk right in front of the MAX train tracks. He's been running his business there for 10 years, and he said he has a lot of regulars: Freddy gets a caramel macchiato; Ken orders a cranberry juice, regular coffee and a croissant sandwich. Sadak himself is partial to the white chocolate mocha.
"Everybody's a creature of habit. They pretty much order the same stuff," he said.
We rode the bus across the river where we met another TriMet bus driver, Mallory Christensen, at Pioneer Square. She described the number 4 line as a particularly busy bus route.
"There's no part of it that isn't busy," she said. "You're moving a lot of folks."
Christensen went to school in Las Vegas, where she worked for a couple of years as an interior designer. When the Great Recession hit and the work dried up, she moved back home to Portland and followed in her father's footsteps to become a bus driver. As a kid, she assumed his job was easy.
"I remember after my first full day of training, actually sitting in the bus, I went home and said, 'Dad, I am so sorry. I had no idea.'"
While we were downtown, we also talked to Cedric Issac. He has a job cleaning trash cans and keeping an eye out for drug needles and garbage along the bus mall. He told us he's been doing that job for about two months after going through a recovery program to get off of drugs. He says he's been clean for six or seven months.
"It's a great job," he said. "It's a beautiful blessing to have this opportunity to just, you know, be out here and be able to help Portland clean up."
We grabbed a quick lunch and then walked over to the bus stop at SW 5th Avenue and Main Street, where a man, a woman and a little girl were waiting for the bus. Stephanie Beasley, Charles Dobson and little Dede were on their way home to southeast Portland. When Dave asked how the three of them were related, they laughed. Beasley said they get asked that question a lot.
"She's my girlfriend," Dobson explained. And Beasley said she thinks the question comes up often because of the 15-year age difference between the two of them — he's 50 and she's 35.
"I'm not disrespectful. I don't hit on women," Dobson said in his deep baritone. "I treat people the way I want to be treated. I'm not one of the bad guys."
The bus rumbled across the Hawthorne Bridge, and we got off around SE 7th Avenue and Clay Street. A block south, we saw a sign for a business called Oregon Carbide Saw. The shop specializes in sharpening everything from garden shears to saw blades.
Dallas Buker, the shop's foreman, told us about the unusual piece of machinery he was working on — a tuna descaler. It consists of 10 blades in a cylinder — and it looked formidable.
We kept walking south along SE 7th Avenue, and it wasn’t long before we came to a beautiful brick building with big double doors and a plaque on the front that says “Engine Number 23” — definitely an old firehouse. However, the neon green cross in the window and the “Cannabliss” sign above the door made it clear that it was now used for a different purpose.
The marijuana shop still has the fire pole firefighters would use to quickly get from the second floor to the first floor. Dave asked if anyone still uses it, but the staff told us that's against the rules.
Budtender Nate Toups said that he has climbed up the pole — and then reluctantly admitted that he then slid down, despite the company policy.
Back on the bus, we started the last leg of our journey along SE Division Street. The number 4 line runs along Division Street from SE 7th Avenue all the way to the Gresham Transit Center. As we were riding towards SE Cesar Chavez Boulevard, rider Matthew Welsh told us he was running some errands.
"I'm checking out a few Asian shops," he said. "I love Asian cooking. I'm a huge cooking fan."
His favorite thing to cook right now? Grilled cheese sandwiches, he said. Dave asked Welsh about his very distinctive voice and that's when the conversation took a dark turn.
"I actually had a tracheotomy years ago," he explained. "I was physically abused when I was about 3, and I had to undergo a tracheotomy and some boreholes drilled in my head."
Our next stop was at Warner Pacific College, just south of Mount Tabor Park. We saw a young woman in fringed boots twirling a hula hoop on the lawn. She introduced herself as Paisley Armstrong and told us she always keeps hula hoops in her car, and she was hooping while waiting for a friend.
"It's fun, it's exercise. It puts me in a meditative state. It's relaxing and I enjoy it," she said.
When she's not hooping, Armstrong makes jewelry and art. She also has a job as a server at Red Robin. She said her dream is to live on a farm with a million dogs and make art all day. She's already started her canine collection.
"I have one dog," she said. "He's my life, my love, and I would love to have a million more of that around me."
Back on the bus, we met Stacey Boyko, who was learning about riding the bus from her friend Shay Bennett. Boyko explained that she usually rides the TriMet LIFT bus, which is for people with disabilities. Boyko told us she is visually impaired and has also been diagnosed with autism and major depressive disorder.
"I eventually don't want to take the LIFT bus anymore because I want to be more independent," she said.
After Boyko and Bennett got off the bus at SE 122nd Avenue, Dave overheard someone behind him and struck up a conversation with her. Maliyah Burnett, 17, was happy to tell him about a disagreement she had with a customer at the Dairy Queen where she works.
"She was just telling me that I couldn't count the right way, and I got mad and told her that she doesn't tell me if I can count or not, and then my manager told me that I shouldn't talk to customers like that. And then they suspended me," she said. "She gave me the wrong change and she tried to tell me I counted it wrong."
Burnett also has some strong feelings about Dairy Queen's signature treat — the Blizzard.
"I hate them. I do not like making them," she said.
We finally arrived at the Gresham Transit Center, about seven hours after we first got on the bus. Driver Colethea Glass was taking a break on her empty bus before turning around to begin the journey back to St. Johns. She was eating some applesauce and using her phone to check in on her kids, who are 9 and 4. Glass told Dave that her long work hours make it hard to spend quality time with her kids.
"I'm a single parent, so I have to work," she said. "It's really hard, and I'm missing out on some of the good stuff."
Glass also works weekends. Her days off are Thursdays and Fridays.
“I pick them up from school, and I try to pack as much stuff as I can into those days.”