Three fundamental truths of the universe: The sky is blue, force equals mass times acceleration, and Portland is rainy. Aside from homelessness and the familiar smell of cannabis, rain is the most defining experience of this great city. And yet, if you look around the city on a wet Portland afternoon, you will find a distinct lack of umbrellas. Sure, they’re not unheard of, but an umbrella is seen by many Portlanders as a telltale sign that someone is “Not from here.” And the facts seem to back this up. A 2017 poll by The Oregonian found that 66% of Oregonians simply never use an umbrella. That figure rises to 70% if you only count people who have lived all or most of their lives here.
So the ethos rings true: most Portlanders don’t use umbrellas. Personally, as a Portland native, I don’t use— and, in fact, cannot open— umbrellas. But why all the anti-umbrella sentiment? Well, most respondents to the Oregonian poll said they simply like having their hands free; but people are stupid, and their reasons are stupid, and they need a skinny white kid to explain their actions for them. They need me. I’m the skinny white kid. There must be a good explanation for why umbrellas are so much more uncommon here than everywhere else, and “Portlanders value their hands more” does not strike me as a good explanation. So I, as an umbrella-rejecting Portlander, decided that I would join the dark side and use an umbrella for an entire week to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Day 1: It didn’t rain today. It was actually very pleasant outside. I didn’t use an umbrella because I would feel dumb and I would look dumb and I would be dumb. I’ll start tomorrow.
Day 2: It rained today! In the morning. On a school day. By the time I got outside, the clouds had gone away, and while the ground was wet, the sun was bright. I’ll get it next time.
Day 3: Good news! The weather was miserable today! But while it was gray and wet outside, I would be lying if I said it was pouring rain. It was sprinkling at best. Using an umbrella in this weather would be like seeing a spider on the windowsill and killing it with a tank. I’ll use my umbrella when it rains for real.
Day 4: It’s that analogy with the spider and the tank again. I’ll start tomorrow.
Day 5: It rained! And I wasn’t at school! But I was hungry so I made ramen and by the time I was done the rain had stopped. Oops.
Day 6: It’s sunny again. I give up.
Day 7: Nope.
A week has passed, and I am still no closer to knowing how to open an umbrella. But my week of thinking about using an umbrella and deciding not to actually illustrates a good point: I have a terrible work ethic. But also, Portland isn’t actually very rainy. “Portland isn’t rainy? Is the sky green!? Does force equal mass times eight!?” No, no, calm down, the world isn’t falling apart. There are simply multiple ways to define the raininess of a city.
When you calculate the number of days with precipitation per year in each US city, Portland takes the number one spot, with 153 days per year according to NOAA. (Okay, technically Rochester and Buffalo are in the 160s, but that’s just because NOAA includes snow in this statistic, and Upstate New York gets two months of snow per year. So yeah, Portland is the rainiest.) However, when you look at the total amount of rain in inches, Portland doesn’t even reach the top ten. Essentially, Portland rains often, but it’s rarely that much rain. The result is a city that is always wet, but which you rarely need an umbrella in.
On top of that, the weather is notoriously erratic. It can change on a dime, from cold and cloudy, to bright and sunny, to wet and rainy, then back to bright and sunny again. Unless you want to be taking your umbrella in and out of your pocket every 30 minutes, your best bet is to simply dress in layers.
So there you have it. Portland’s rejection of umbrellas isn’t due to some vague cultural pride in getting wet, or because we place a higher value on the use of our hands. It is simply due to our climate and weather patterns making it the least useful option for staying dry in the rain. Personally, as a Portlander, I hate the use of my hands. If you gave me a choice between using an umbrella or cutting off my hands, I’ve already got the butcher knife. You’ll have to cut off the second one. I won’t be able to.