From where I live, I see Oregon Health Sciences University rising high in the west hills like a second downtown. To get to Pill Hill you have to wind your way up through a stand of lush green trees, as if you’re heading out for a hike in the woods. But instead, at the top, the road opens up on a sea of concrete, steel and glass. Towering walls of glass. On the last sunny fall day that I visited my friend in the ICU, a slanted October light filled the walkways and waiting rooms. The view was of a blanket of orange and yellow leaves stretching all the way down to the river. Mt. Hood was visible in the distance wrapped in a gauzy swirl of clouds.
Accumulating research shows that views of nature can help the healing process. Clearly the architects of this building understood that. Not that the views offered any comfort on my first visit there. In fact, at the time, all that bright beauty felt like a thumb to the nose. But a week or so after that, when my friend was over the worst, most life-threatening aspects of his illness, I was able to appreciate the difference between the expansive views from the waiting room and the limited view of another building across the street that my friend had from his room in the ICU.
He was able to talk a bit by then and I told him when I left I was going to take the tram down to the waterfront, just because I’d never been before. The Portland Ariel Tram is a silver, pill-shaped gondola that runs from the Kohler Pavilion at OHSU down to a new OHSU building on the South Waterfront. “It’s a beautiful view,” my friend said in his gruff whisper. The fact that we could look at each other and talk was beautiful enough, but I was seriously hoping that I wouldn’t have many more reasons to come to this place. Quite frankly, I never wanted to have a reason to ride the tram ever again.
It’s a short ride, a quick smooth slide over the roofs and backyards of the residents of the Corbett neighborhood. There was some strong protest when the tram was being built about this invasion of privacy. As a homeowner there, I’d have been pissed at first, and then, I suppose defiant (like this man), and then, probably, indifferent.
As a voyeur, however, I was kind of thrilled. The tiny thrill that comes with seeing a glimpse of something you weren’t meant to see. I’m no hardcore voyeur, though. I prefer the innocuous to the scandalous: leaf-covered garden beds, mossy lawn furniture, broken tools, forgotten toys.
Floating above those houses reminded me of the days when I commuted regularly from the suburbs to Boston. Not only was I on a train, a slightly old train that hadn’t had all its character squeezed out of it for the sake of two degrees of extra comfort, but I was clacking away past one sad backyard after another, past the graffiti-covered walls of warehouses and patches of nature marred only by the occasional beer can or tire. I loved these less-perfect pictures flashing past me.
A beautiful view is beautiful. Mt. Hood looked gorgeous. The hazy light across the trees was lovely. But I preferred the simple view straight down.
I didn’t see any people down there in their yards. And when I got down to the South Waterfront and got past the OHSU building attached to the tram, there were barely any there either. If the leaf and mud yards looked half-abandoned from above, so did the half-empty (?) condos and apartments of this relatively new neighborhood. The most interesting thing there was a patch of pumpkins filled with crows which sat next to a commercial plot of dahlias (grown by this cool guy). These plots as well as the river itself were all separated from the highly manicured walkway by a long line of chain link fence.
Like the hospital just above it on the hill, this was its own little city of concrete and glass. Unlike OHSU, it felt mostly forgotten, mostly useless, mostly sad. I suppose somewhere down the road this could become its own vibrant community. I’m sure there are people working to make that happen, but for now, it offered me nothing but a reason to escape quickly back onto the tram, up over the backyards and past the views of downtown. Back to my car, back to my house.
And as luck would have it, it was good that I rode the tram that day because just a handful of days later my friend was released, sent home to finish his healing. Yesterday, I visited him in his apartment where we talked for hours. On my walk home, feeling pounds lighter than I had the week before, I relished the comfort food of the familiar: the shops and houses and bus stops, the rose bushes, pine trees and mossy porches I’ve been walking by for twenty years. I sat happy in the comfort of having had a simple conversation with a beautiful friend.