The Opposite Field

August 2, 2014

Portlanders are nice. Very nice, actually. We greet small children and dogs as if we were greeting members of our own family. We go up to strangers with a cheery “Hello, can I help you?” In fact, just yesterday my wife let out a slow sigh as we drove to work. She had spotted a tourist standing on a street corner in the Pearl. He had been waiting at NW 11th and Glisan, scowling at a partially unfolded pocket map – probably the kind you get at Powell’s – and looking vexed. All of which prompted my wife to say, “It’s so sad to see a lost person with a map.”

I can’t tell you where our niceness comes from. I really don’t know. Niceness seems to spread through Portland like an airborne infection. Maybe the months of rain has something to do with it? Keeps us indoors, makes transmission easier? Or maybe it just makes us feel sorry for wet, lost strangers? Whatever. Spend a few months in Portland and you will become a nicer person. I’m sure that this explains why some people think I’m nice. I’m not. Before I came to Portland, no one ever accused me of being nice, but I’ve been living here for 25 years and now some people say I’m nice. If I am, its all Portland’s fault.

Nice is not just for Portland adults either. Portland children are nice too. They travel the world bringing their niceness with them. My kids are both nice. I can also tell that Jesse Katz is nice. His mom, Vera Katz, was a transplanted New Yorker, a feminist and political activist, but none of these qualities kept her from becoming nice after she moved to Portland. In fact, she became Portland’s most beloved mayor in recent memory. To those who know Portland, it is certainly no surprise that Jesse Katz is nice. He left Portland for Monterey Park, a downtrodden community on the east edge of LA, but once he put down some roots, he used patience, persistence, and above all, niceness, to rejuvenate their Little League. A true Portland son.

His memoir, The Opposite Field, is a nicely told story about his journey south. Not great literature, but, for the most part, a light gentle touch on the joys and agonies of being a transplant, a husband and lover, a father, and, most importantly (for me, anyway), the stalwart commissioner of the Monterey Park Little League.

I had bought this book for my wife. She had been a fan of Vera’s. She raced through it, but didn’t comment much. Last summer I got my chance to read it myself. On many pages I rediscovered my LA roots, my three years in San Fernando Valley Little Leagues, my lifelong regret that I didn’t get to play catch more often with my Dad, and my gratitude to him that he didn’t try to “coach me.” On other pages, I just shook my head. Jesse. You poor crazy Portland kid. You hit LA the way a Doug Fir hits the saw down at the mill. At least you survived.

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