Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Supposedly Fun Thing Invades Portland

From midsummer until the end of fall foliage season in late October, cruise ships like the one pictured below dock at the Maine State Pier in downtown Portland, Maine. When they're in port, they loom over the small city's skyline and disgorge thousands of well-fed passengers onto our downtown city streets.

The cruise ships that arrive here are taller than most of the city's modest high-rises, and with 2500-3500 passengers, their arrival increases the city's population by about 5%. They have a certain looming effect on the city's landscape, and not just from their striking physical resemblance to the alien mother ships that blot out the sun above human cities in movies like Independence Day and District 9 (see below at right). They flood the city's streets with a certain breed of well-fed, middle-aged idler, toting cameras and stylized cartoon maps of the downtown district.

The effect isn't limited to the infusion of strangers - it also changes the behavior of the city's native residents.

When a ship's in town, improvised kiosks selling lighthouse paintings, secondhand junk, and items marketed as "redneck wallets" proliferate near the ferry terminal. "The Screamer" and other familiar victims of the state's social service cuts become mysteriously absent, while there's a marked increase in downtown police cruisers. Slow, rubber tired omnibuses roam the downtown area behind incongruous teams of draft horses, a bizarre, segregated, and for-profit public transportation system for tourists.

In short, the cruise ships, while they may look innocuous, also seem to beam advanced psychoactive waves into the city's brains to stimulate desperate entrepreneurial pandering. There's money to be made if we behave like a quaint second-world outpost replete with cheap handmade crafts and sweating, shitting modes of transport.

An acquaintance today remarked that the city's transformation reminded him of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, the concept of quantum physics that tells us how the observation of certain properties of a particle limits our knowledge of other physical properties.* Or, to put it another way, that the simple act of observing something, and your choice of what to observe and how to observe it, can change various properties of that thing's essential nature.

This elegantly applies to tourism, especially the mass-market variety of tour buses and cruise ships. An entertaining thought experiment: how would Portland (both the physical landscape of the city and its citizenry) change if the hundreds of thousands of tourists who came here every summer instead arrived as undocumented migrant laborers? How would the city look if those thousands became occupiers of an imperialist army?

And which of those two landscapes - the city of cheap labor, or the occupied city - is more foreign from the city we know today?**

The idea that we occupy a different, parallel universe from the one that our tourists reside in - and that I, as a tourist anywhere, am unlikely to know the true essence of the places I visit - feels as lonely to me as an insomniac night on a cruise ship at sea, "when all the ship's structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased."

But then again, shouldn't the possibility of changing the city you know with a shift in perception also offer us new frontiers to explore without leaving at all? And doesn't the uncertainty principle also apply in all sorts of other ways - not just in how we perceive places, but also people and things? We hear rumors of a scandal and a trusted person becomes repulsive to us; make eye contact two or three times across a crowded room, and a stranger becomes an object of fixation.

So even when you live in a small city that's frequently colonized by tourist hordes, there's no need for us to get discouraged when we perceive ourselves in a rut, in an absence of strangeness and possibility.

There's an infinity of alternative cities available to us, all similar to this one and different in significant ways, every time we seek a new way of seeing things.

*Credit for this insight goes to Dan, who's highly versed in the idea of how shifts in our perceptions can affect our lifestyle.

**Personally, I think that our wealthy tourists and our customer-service-oriented culture make us a lot closer to the empire/colony dynamic than we are to being a land of opportunity - then again, that's just the product of my own observations.

1 comment:

Turbo said...

This is all fabulous, and better than I could possibly have said myself. Whatever you were taking that gave you these insights, I want some.