Last night I flew out to Portland, Oregon, for RailsConf 2007, the first technical conference thingy I’ve been to in a good eight or nine years. I had booked a pretty late flight and as things turned out, it took off two hours late, so I got in to Portland after midnight.

Bleary, legs creaking and eyes aching like the 3AM it felt like, I picked up my luggage and went out to the nearly deserted transportation area. Someone pointed me to the information booth, which called a night shuttle for me. A guy in a forest green minivan pulled up and a despondent guy got out to help me load my bags into the back.

“Just you?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you mind if I wait a few minutes to see if anyone else is going? You’re just my third fare of the day.”

It was almost one in the morning.

“Sure.”

My flight was one of the last arrivals of the night. The regular shuttle company — the one that has a contract with the airport and gets virtually all of the business — was done for the day, and what was left went to whoever was sitting in a holding lot waiting for a call from the transportation information booth.

“Do you want some bottled water? I don’t charge.”

In the back of the minivan was a small, beat-up cooler with a handwritten sign taped to it:

WATER: 50 CENTS

On the way into downtown, he told me about a lawsuit the freelance shuttle drivers were filing against the airport authority. “You’re my third fare of the day. I can’t keep doing this.”

“Yeah,” I said. “You’d be better off driving a cab.”

“I hear Vegas is a good city to drive a cab.”

“I don’t know.”

We pulled off the highway and crossed a bridge into downtown. An old ferry was docked in the river, lit up white and crisp.

“Welcome to Portland,” he said. “The third most gay-positive city in America.”

“What’s number two?”

“Seattle, I think. Or maybe New Orleans. I don’t know.”

The minivan stairstepped through quiet, well-lit streets lined with office buildings and old bars.  As we approached a woman standing off the curb, the driver slowed and rolled down his window. “Maybe she needs a ride.”

She stepped back onto the curb and looked away.

“I thought maybe she needed a ride,” he said.

We went a few more blocks to my hotel. I handed him a twenty, got a receipt.

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