March 9th, 2005 Chris Lydgate, Kelly Clarke | Special Section Stories
 

2001

     
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The Day The Music Died

BY CHRIS LYDGATE

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, America wakes up to a nightmare. Nineteen fanatics hijack three airliners and smash them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A fourth plane craters a field in Pennsylvania. Amid the mounds of rubble and the charred corpses lies the illusion of a Fortress America disconnected from the rest of the world.

Not since Pearl Harbor has the nation suffered such a devastating blow. Beyond the carnage, the attack sends the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeting by 14 percent and kicks the U.S. economy into a tailspin. A panicked Congress passes the 300-page U.S.A. Patriot Act. Authorities detain hundreds of suspects without charges. The Bush administration invades Afghanistan and Iraq.

The aftershocks reverberate everywhere-even thousands of miles away in Portland, where police are overwhelmed with false alarms about anthrax in the reservoirs (turns out that yellow powder was tree pollen). The City Council approves a Joint Terrorism Task Force staffed by Portland police and FBI agents. The "Portland Seven" make a ham-fisted effort to join the resistance in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, local servicemen and women lay down their lives in places like Kabul, Baghdad and Fallujah.

But the legacy of Sept. 11 runs deeper than that. Once upon a time, we believed that America's power derived not just from its aircraft carriers and its computer software, but from a set of values-freedom of speech, trial by jury, the rule of law. Since that day, we have watched an anxious nation chip away at the values that once made it great, like a sculptor wearing away a block of marble, only to find he has created the face of a tyrant.

Vicious Psychle

BY KELLY CLARKE

One morning in March, a 29-year-old Mexican immigrant named Jose Mejia Poot boarded a TriMet bus at Northeast 72nd Avenue and Killingsworth Street. He was 20 cents short on his fare.

Like the mythical butterfly of chaos theory whose wings trigger hurricanes on the other side of the globe, this mundane farebox dispute morphed into a catastrophe that shook the city.

The driver flagged down a police officer, who told Mejia to pay up or get off the bus. Mejia did not respond-possibly because he did not understand English, or possibly because he was having an epileptic seizure. Whatever the reason, a scuffle ensued. Mejia was subdued, hogtied and hauled off to jail.

It was never clear if Mejia-whose mother tongue was Mayan-understood what was happening to him. After he was released from the Justice Center, he hung around the jailhouse steps, crying and spitting on the front door. He lay down in the street next to a police car. Finally, he was taken to Pacific Gateway Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Southeast Portland.

Two days later, Mejia somehow broke out of seclusion and threatened staff with a steel "safety rod" he tore loose from a security door. Panicked hospital workers called 911. Police officers ordered Mejia to drop the rod. When he refused, they opened fire, shooting him in the head and chest. He died on the spot.

At a stroke, the episode exposed a mental-health system that was truly in crisis-overworked staff, shoddy facilities, indifferent regulation, an over-reliance on the police, plus a liberal sprinkling of linguistic barriers, cultural insensitivity and plain old incompetence.

It also underscored the cultural gap between the Police Bureau and the Hispanic community-a gap that stretched even wider after the bureau gave a medal to the officer who shot Mejia.

The killing sparked street demonstrations and prompted Multnomah County Chair Diane Linn to overhaul the county's fractured mental-health bureaucracy-a messy, chaotic and intensely political undertaking. Today, with walk-in clinics, roving squads of therapists, and stronger oversight, the system is moving in the right direction-but still has a long way to go.

Kindred Spirits?

The stage was set: Local puppet-master Michael Curry had blown Broadway away with his innovative designs for The Lion King. On June 7, he planned to wow 'em again with his new Portland production, Spirits-a $500,000 project backed by local dance presenters White Bird.

With the talents of ballet demigods David Parsons and Moses Pendleton, plus BodyVox's Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland, Jefferson Dancers' artistic director Steve Gonzales and future New York "it boy" choreographer Trey McIntyre, Spirits was flying high.

In the days leading up to the premiere, enthusiastic reports on the project's dreamlike mix of dance, theater, performance art and puppetry led to pie-in-the-sky speculations that the production would launch Portland into the performance-art stratosphere. The New York Times gave Spirits a plum preview. Curry and White Bird were rumored to be shopping the show around the world.

But the night of the premiere, after the curtain fell and one of Portland's notoriously long ovations ended, Spirits vanished. Although Curry's wild puppets and intricate costuming amazed audiences, the plot and dancing never materialized. Although the production featured some of Portland's most electric performers, the end result was a big ol' flop. Was it the pressure? Bad planning? To this day, Spirits' trap-door exit has left season-ticket holders and dance insiders whispering, "What happened?" Talk about a ghost of a dance.


* Geologists announce that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is rapidly melting. How does the brand new Bush administration respond? By declaring global warming a lib'rul conspiracy and pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol.

* Port of Portland boss Mike Thorne steps down to run for governor. His departure is marred by WW's revelation that Thorne snagged a fat raise and a hefty bonus before retiring. Campaign fizzles, and Thorne moves to Seattle to run the storm-tossed Washington State Ferry System.

* Oregonians now gamble away $1 billion a year.

* I'm telling you, multiple org-wait a second, was that, like, an earthquake? Affirmative, dude. A magnitude 6.8 quake, centered 11 miles north of Olympia, rattles Portland.

* EBay turns down a Salem man's bid to auction his own mummified corpse after he dies. James Olheiser, 24, was hoping to raise money for his daughter's college education.

* Gentle Glory, Holy Lord, Learned Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom, the Dalai Lama comes to Portland to talk about world peace, inner wisdom and the future of Tibet. Thousands of admirers clog Pioneer Square for a glimpse-and, miraculously, there isn't a riot.

* Ding! ding!-the streetcar's here.

* Oregon's last JJ Newberry holds its final sale. The Lloyd Center store is the sole holdout of a Portland five-and-dime tradition that dates back to 1927. Shoppers clear the shelves, plucking discounted toilet-seat covers, stamp pads, protective scalp lotions and candy corn.

* Pill Hill researcher Brian Druker wows the medical world with Gleevec. Developed at OHSU, the drug shows dramatic results with two deadly forms of cancer: chronic myelogenous leukemia and gastrointestinal stromal tumor. Even better, the drug opens up a whole new molecular strategy to destroy cancerous cells.

* Dissatisfied with their paychecks, 1,300 Pill Hill nurses go on strike. The standoff lasts 56 days, costs OHSU $500,000 a week, and ends with the nurses getting a 20-percent pay hike.

* Merry Prankster Ken Kesey, 66, takes the ultimate trip, dying from liver cancer. The author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest embodied the spirit of the '60s and inspired the Randall P. McMurphys of the world to keep up the fight against the sinister Nurse Ratcheds.

* Merry Christmas. The bodies of a woman and her three children pulled from the water in Newport. Some of the victims had been dismembered and packed into suitcases.

* For more than a decade, Whitaker Middle School has ranked strangely high on absenteeism and strangely low on test scores. Then WW reveals that the building-whose windows don't open-has elevated levels of radon, carbon dioxide and toxic mold. Worse, top brass at the district knew about the ventilation problems-but didn't tell teachers or students. After WW's story, the building is shut down and later serves as the set for Gus Van Sant's Columbinesque 2003 movie, Elephant. It is currently slated for demolition.


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