Atop Mt. Tabor, for years, there was a statue of Harvey Scott, the founder of the Oregonian newspaper. Scott was reputedly a terrible racist and misogynist, and his statue was periodically spray painted and defiled by protesters, though always restored again somehow to its unblemished state – until, that is, in mid-2020 when vandalizers knocked down and destroyed the statue once and for all.
For several months, where the Scott statue had been, there remained only a blank concrete monument base, until the bust of York – the first African American to reach the Pacific coast (as part of the Lewis and Clark expedition) — mysteriously appeared, along with a brand new plaque that detailed the salient facts of York’s life.
I’ve reread that plaque numerous times, and I always take a moment to contemplate the bust of York – the ethereal presence of York – when I visit the top of the mountain, which is most days. There is often a small gaggle of people there, gazing at York and reading the plaque.
The other day, as I approached that spot, two couples were there, two men and two women in their 50s or 60s (I’d guess). One of the men was referencing the old Harvey Scott statue, saying that his ancestors knew Scott personally, and that he himself was a fifth-generation Portlander. Scott was an even bigger asshole than most people knew, he said, chuckling. And he proceeded to recount stories of his great grandfather and how his family’s once-immense wealth evaporated in the stock market crash of 1929.
The conversation then turned to the topic of legacy-rich families who lost or squandered their fortunes over the course of a few generations. Someone said something about how Gloria Vanderbilt was still doing okay.
It was exciting to stumble into such a spirited conversation, but I was starting to tune out a little – not because I was bored, but because I was distracted by something the other man was wearing (not the guy whose ancestors knew Harvey Scott, but the other guy) — a greenish cap with a red star, the symbol of Communist China.
Remarkably, only a few days earlier, I’d also been on Mt. Tabor and had seen a different guy wearing a green t-shirt with that same red star and the words “People’s Republic of Portland.” Because I was with a friend, I did not stop to talk to that man about his shirt, but I’d had several conversations with him in my mind over the few days since. Now, apparently, I was getting a second chance, though this was a different fellow.
At a little pause in the conversation, I looked at this gentleman and said, “Sir, I actually want to ask YOU something. That star on your cap – that’s the Chinese Communist star, right?”
Thoughtfully, he confirmed that yes it was, and he took off the cap and held it in his hand and studied it, as if looking at it – really looking at it – for the first time.
I proceeded to tell him about the other man I’d seen days earlier with the t-shirt whom I’d wanted to talk to but didn’t – and also that I was currently reading a novel (which I happened to be carrying with me in my fanny pack!) that included some horrific scenes from Mao’s Cultural Revolution: a mild mannered professor being ceremoniously beaten to death in a public square for the sin of having taught the “counter-revolutionary” Theory of Relativity in his science classes; a young woman sentenced abruptly to years in prison for being caught with a Chinese translation of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and so on.
My point was that the Cultural Revolution was hell, and to bear the Chinese Communist star on one’s head was not too far, in my opinion, from brandishing a Nazi insignia.
I conveyed all of this respectfully.
And the gentleman took no offense. He thanked me. In fact, he already knew I was right. His wife – who was standing there too – had been to China. He conceded, “It’s good to be aware of these things.” And he added, “Believe it or not, I just wear this hat for its aesthetic value. I like how it looks. I know that sounds weak but there it is.”
“I understand,” I said, because I did understand. It was a cool-looking hat, suggestive of a kind of radical chic.
The man, whose name was Jeff, continued: “I also have another cap that’s similar, from Vietnam. Not sure how you’d feel about that one.”
His wife affirmed, “I like Vietnam.”
I acknowledged that Vietnam seemed like a more complicated case. Based on the little I knew, I wasn’t sure there had been any “good” side in the Vietnam War, but surely Ho Chi Minh had been a more humane figure than “our” guy, President Thieu of South Vietnam.
“And I don’t know what Vietnam’s government is like now,” I added. “Or China’s for that matter. I get that they’re iron-fisted and authoritarian and repressive, but very capitalist now too, right?”
Jeff’s wife nodded. “They have to be.”
Jeff asked me, “Have you ever read To Get Rich Is Glorious? It’s a great book about the evolution of the Chinese government and economy since the late ‘70s, written by a New Yorker style reporter.”
“That sounds fascinating!” I said. (Later, I looked it up online. It does look great. I will order it soon from alibris.com.)
I showed Jeff the novel I’m currently reading, The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, and he looked it over and read the blurbs on the back (including one by Barack Obama!) and then took a picture of it with his cell phone.
Also, it turned out that Jeff’s wife and I had both taught community college classes in the Bay Area for several years decades ago – she in San Francisco, me in Berkeley.
After a few more minutes of amicable chatter, we said our smiling, friendly goodbyes. As they strolled away, Jeff replaced the cap on his head. Apparently, I hadn’t influenced his apparel choices, but at least I had learned about a cool book that I’m excited to read soon.