Downtown, a woman fell into step with me on the sidewalk. She gave me an open, curious glance, and then asked, "Are you from here?"
"From Portland? I am," I said.
"Do you know where the Target is?"
I had to think about that: there is newish one downtown, I think. "I'm afraid not," I said. "I have a vague feeling it's over thataway," and I waved my hands towards the Southwest. "But I really don't know."
"OK," she said. "Thanks!" And we parted at the next corner.
People often approach me for directions downtown: I tend to meet people's eyes and smile, which makes me approachable, but I walk briskly, like someone has definite business somewhere, which makes me seem easy to get rid of. So that was unremarkable. What was remarkable was that this woman was black.
My first thought, upon meeting her eyes, was that she was African. There was an easy boldness about her, and a cheerful friendly confidence, that was not at all typical of the guarded, formal interactions I usually have with American blacks on the street, and especially not with Portland blacks. This is not a city with a happy history of race relations, nor a particularly happy present. But this woman's accent was pure Midwestern, probably Chicago, with no African trace that I could detect.
So the interaction was heartening. It was not a "here I am a black person approaching a white person" interaction, it was an "I wonder where the Target is?" interaction. Like almost all Americans, I have a desperate longing for the racial history of my country to disappear. This little interaction made me feel that it had. We could start over. The world was new.
There has been so much bad news coming over the wire that many people feel that things are getting worse, or at best, that they will always remain this way. But I don't actually think that's true. I think that comes of not ever having fully understood how bad things have been, not really having understood or digested the long white terror after the end of the hot phase of the Civil War. Things are bad now. But they are actually better. The fact that people can say how bad it is means that it's better.
A single interaction on the street is not evidence: it barely amounts even to a data point. But I'm old enough to feel it in my bones: this was not an interaction that was possible in my youth, and not one that was likely even twenty years ago, in this town. There is a cultural shift. The wind has changed.
There's everything yet to be done. But I'm filled today with an unreasoning joy, and a certainty that in the end—in the end long beyond my end, of course, but still, in the end—we are going to win this one.