Monday, June 27, 2016


Because a lot of people who are homeless, mentally ill, in the throes of addiction or otherwise marginalized don’t drive, they ride the bus. In the impersonal and crammed aisles and one-size-fits-all seats, they’re commonplace. And though climate change is killing us, very few average middle-class people have abandoned their cars for the wiser alternative.

The underclass, I’m saying, is well represented on public transportation. They’re not the condiment, they’re the main course.  And because a bus ride is often the only shelter available, there’s always a good chance some visibly unfortunate rider is dealing openly with the pain, sickness, demons or grief a middle-class person would handle at home.

Today, James Junior (not his real name), riding my 75 bus, was dealing.

As I boarded, James was sitting on the right front bench, preaching his personal gospel to a teen sitting on the left front bench straight across the aisle from him. The topic was “Respect.” James was on fire about respect.

He was declaiming, “You don’t let nobody disrespect a woman. Ever. EVER!” He repeated this assertion more than once, and glanced around the bus to show that, though he was talking to one person, we were all included in the situation.

James’ emotional state contained notes of anger, grandiosity, vulnerability, and a hint of possession. He leaned forward in his seat and spoke to the kid in the tone of an overbearing, disappointed father.

“They are queens. Every woman is a queen.”

He said this again, and then again. And then, to stress the point, James Junior greeted women around him.

“Hello, Queen! You are a beautiful creature and I love you!”

He seemed sincere and passionate. One woman smiled. Another one tried to ignore him.

James declared, “I can have any woman I want.” He meant it, and repeated the statement, but I doubted him. No woman there stepped up to get a piece of James.

James’ fiery speech was meant, as I say, for all of us. And though he filled the bus with self-esteem, he got nothing back from us. No surprise. From what I’ve seen, a fiery speech given on public transportation does not fall on deaf ears. Instead, it falls like a small bomb into the midst of captive strangers who are trying to block out their ride. Half of bus riders wear earbuds. Most riders are going to take even divine inspiration, if it interrupts a podcast, as a really annoying distraction, if not a sign of mental illness or even a threat.

James carried on.

“I’m James Junior and THERE IS NO HELL. NO ONE goes to HELL. I’ve died and come back and I guarantee there’s no Hell to be afraid of. And anyway, you can’t be afraid to die. If you’re afraid to die, you can’t live.”

He was seized with feeling – tears, broken voice – he was fighting against an invisible enemy for something he believed in. 

He repeated and repeated and repeated that no one goes to Hell.  I had to get off the bus before he was done, but I think I got the gist.

I take James’ point. I’m a little afraid to die, not because of Hell, which I don’t believe in, either. What I fear is reincarnating into a life worse than the one I know and suffering in ways I can’t even imagine.  

Now, that might be Hell.

Friday, March 18, 2016


There was no coffee in the house.  A bus was  due in nine minutes, probably time enough to walk a block and a half to Delphina's for an Americano and then pack myself into the sardine can at the stop near the store. And in case of a near-miss, the next bus was only three minutes behind.

The plan went smoothly. I reached the busstop with my drink as the bus hove into sight three stops away.

A car slowed on the far side of the street. The driver rolled down the window and waved at me.

"I have to talk to you."

I almost trotted over. But the bus was now two stops away, and I was carrying two bags and a full cup of coffee. Plus I had never seen this guy before. I tried to put all of these thoughts into a wave back at him with my "free" hand.

A car came up behind the waver, honking. My man drove ahead, pulling to the curb about 100 feet away and continuing to wave his arm emphatically out the window.  

I glanced around in case something dangerous was closing in. There was nothing.

The man kept waving.  I got bus ticket in hand as the bus roared up. Without slowing, it roared past.  Funny, there were empty seats in it. Sometimes, of course, a driver skips a stop because she's behind schedule or is returning to the garage for repairs. Usually, I believe, the reason for passing up riders is that the vehicle is full, and this drive-by was definitely less than full.

Well, the next one was due in three minutes.

The waver drove to the corner, turned around in the intersection and headed back towards me.  He pulled up, leaned hard to put his face near the window. The moment of truth.

"This is not a busstop anymore."

I glanced up. In fact, the busstop signpost was gone. I recalled that the last time I waited at the stop a couple weeks ago, there had been an announcement posted on the signpost that may have said something about a change to the stop.

I looked back at my interloper.

"This is what I've been trying to tell you."

"Oh.  Thank you."

"My wife did use this stop every day. That's how I know."

This stranger's assertive generosity suddenly sank in. He had detoured from his trip, probably losing a few minutes from his commute to work, to save me a few minutes' trouble.

I thanked him again and "ran" to catch the next bus. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Blazing on the Crazy 8

I boarded the 8-Jackson Park just after it turned off Multnomah onto 15th Avenue. Standing room only but a bench seat opened up at the next stop and I snapped it up like the true geezer I'm getting to be. The atmosphere was subdued, the passengers mostly commuters keeping to themselves. 

Across the aisle facing me a young man rummaged in a small shoulder bag. His movements were deliberate, in slow motion. He pulled out a smaller zip bag, zipped it open silently and poked a finger around in it.  He took something out of the bag, keeping it hidden in a hand. Then he took out a device, an implement, a tool or useful item I couldn't immediately identify. I watched carefully, not wanting to be surprised by a weapon. (Crazy, huh?) 

The thing was a vape pen. I watched as the young rider slowly and silently loaded it with what had to be bud. Loco weed. I looked around and saw no one else taking this in. 

Weed has been legal for almost six months in Oregon, so I shouldn't be surprised to evidence of its use, even in public, even on a crowded bus. 

However, I did not expect the man to light up. But light up he did. The guy put the pen to his lips and inhaled. There was no sign of smoke on the inhale, which is the point of vaping, I guess. But then a brief, thin wisp of personal smog came out of the corner of his mouth.  

I was the only one shocked. No one else noticed that law was breaking in plain sight like a vinyl record hitting the sidewalk at your feet after being tossed out the window of a second-story condo. Why, I remember when the founder of the White Panther Party, John Sinclair, was busted for possession of two joints and sent to Marquette State Prison for ten years. A bunch of counterculture celebrities got together and busted him back out with a concert: 

The revolution has arrived.

When the man hit his vape pen again and the wispy evidence trailed from his lips, I said -- loudly, because I wanted the driver to hear me in case there were repercussions -- "Dude, are you vaping on the bus?" 

No one cast a glance except the vaper himself, who looked up at me for the first time, caught my eye and smiled. I had to laugh. Then he quietly dropped the pen back in its bag, dropped that bag into the shoulder bag, stood up and walked to the back door. At the next stop, Fremont, he sailed out of there into the future on invisible wings. 

Like wow, man.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

We All Lived

It was after work and, as usual, I had fallen asleep on the Max. It's an art in which some part of the brain remains aware of the stops and I wake up just as the train pulls into the Hollywood Transit Center.

But I woke a stop early, at the Lloyd Center. I didn't want to, and tried to go back down. A guy had just sat down to my right, on the bench seat, and had muttered something I didn't comprehend. Another guy, sitting directly across from me, was smiling in a fixed way.

He said, "I don't give a fuck where you from," the smile still fixed. He was gazing at the guy on my right.

Now I was wide awake.

The guy on my right said, "I'm not from Portland," in a "what's the matter with you?" tone.

The guy across the aisle said again, "I don't give a fuck where you from." He kept smiling, the smile maybe bigger or maybe just closer to me, and leaned forward. He was solid, athletic, a forearm across his leg noticeably enlarged by weightlifting. He seemed calm.

I, however, was alarmed.  I said "Don't do it, man."

The guy turned the smile on me, blinked once or twice, and then turned back to the other guy.

"Please," I said politely, "don't duke it out here."

I looked around. No one else was paying attention.

The guy to my right began to slowly, deliberately, remove a watch from his right wrist.

A woman immediately to his right said, "Aw, look. He's taking off his watch. Damn."

She turned to a woman who looked like her -- maybe a sister -- and said "Get my baby out of here." The sister got up and pushed a stroller that was in the aisle further down to the right.

The first woman stood up and got right in between the two men. She was tall and queenly. She had a neck tattoo. The only emotion I could discern was the amused sternness of an authority figure who has done this a hundred times. She looked down at the guy to my right and said, "You don't know what you're getting into here." The guy looked unconcerned, almost bored. He said nothing.

She put her face close to the guy across the aisle and spoke quietly to him. I heard her say, "We're getting off at the next stop. Let's go." He flicked his eyes at her and the smile diminished.

"Let's go." He got up, putting the mad dog stare back on my neighbor, along with the smile.

The woman laid a hand gently on her partner's or brother's or good friend's arm and urged him down the aisle after her sister and the baby. She kept herself deliberately between the men until they were well away from the guy next to me.  Her guy kept his eyes and smile fixed on a spot to the right of my shoulder.

That guy to my right slowly put his watch back on his right wrist.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

He Lived

After tens of thousands of hours riding public transportation, the worst physical violence I had experienced personally were a couple of punches to the head that did no damage. And I'd never seen another passenger assaulted (I'm just lucky, I guess.) Then, a couple of weeks ago, I had my first brush with serious violence.  

The first thing I remember about it was walking absently down the concrete steps from the Max to the bus mall at the Hollywood Transit Center. Why so many people there, between the Max platform and the bus mall? They were mostly teenagers, milling, shouting, cutting up. Leaning and leaping. Racing by. There were a lot of them at the bottom of the steps, too.  Maybe there'd been a game at Grant High School.

Once on the ground, finding my way through the crowd, I heard the angry shouting.

A couple of teenage boys had taken off their shirts and were loudly challenging someone, who was hidden from my view by the multitude. One of the boys was fearsomely muscled. He was bellowing threats and emanating fear. I slunk by – dinner was calling.

About 20 yards from the madness, next to the northbound 75 busstop, a a young man sat on the curb. His right hand held his neck. Blood was pulsing from between his fingers and soaking his shirt. A man came up next to him, bent over and said a few words while adding his hand to the hand trying to stop the blood flow.

The extra hand slowed the leak to a slow ooze. The crowd was quickly thinning, most of them fleeing up the steps to the Max. A security guard called 911. A couple other bystanders were making phone calls. Most people walked by, either unseeing or uninterested. 

The shirtless kids stopped by.

The big one said, “He's my cousin,” speaking to the amateur EMT and meaning the injured kid. To his cousin he said,“Come on, you got to go.”

The kid shifted in his spot and put a hand down to help himself up but was being held firmly in place by his rescuer, who said “Sit here and stay calm.” 

Another man, who looked more like the kid's cousin than the self-proclaimed cousin, repeated “Stay calm.”

The kid was not going anywhere, and a moment later the shirtless ones had disappeared towards the Max.

For about three minutes – or it may have been just one, time felt sped up – nothing much happened. Hands were on the kid's neck, blood leaked, people were on phones, people walked by. Some of us were waiting for an ambulance. The kid tried to get up again, but was told to sit and stay calm and did so.

His eyes, which had been restlessly roaming, grew still. He spit up some blood. The man holding the kid's neck took his hand off, gesturing futilely, and shouted, “If we don't get an ambulance here quick, he's gonna bleed out.” I thought so, too. The kid's shirt and jacket were more shining red than not. The man got his fingers back on the kid's neck.

I ran down to a medical clinic a block away, realizing it was probably pointless but not knowing what else to do. The clinic was closed. A woman coming out said yes, there were doctors inside but they were not allowed to work outside the building. A siren started up nearby. I went back to the scene.

First came two police cars. At the scene, four cops hit the asphalt and assessed the situation. They were in no rush. A couple of them got within a step of the kid and looked him over. Our hero exchanged words with the cops, which I couldn't hear.

Next came a fire engine with an ambulance on its tail. The EMTs exited the vehicle already sporting blue latex gloves. At the same time, a small group came out of the building, also in blue latex gloves. Two of this group, young women, stood by like trainees waiting for orders. A third woman in blue gloves joked around with a young man who wore the gloves and a shirt that read “Personal Trainer.”

While the EMTs bandaged the kid's neck and hoisted him onto a cot, a middle-aged  man showed up and tried to convince them to let him ride in the ambulance to the hospital.

“Who are you?”

I couldn't hear what he said, but the response was “We can't do that, sir.”

“Somebody who knows that boy should be riding with him.”

I couldn't hear why the EMTs wouldn't let him ride in the ambulance, but iI suddenly had a theory of why he wanted the ride

The kid was African-American. Every other one of the dozen or so people in the close vicinity, including the man who had been tending the kid's wound, was white, except for this black man asking for the ride. I believe he was concerned that the kid might die on the ambulance ride with only white witnesses there to say what happened. I think he didn't trust the EMTs to do everything they could to save his life. 

Makes sense to me.

The story as reported by the Oregonian:

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Eternal Questions

I was waiting at the southbound 75 stop, 7537, at Northeast Sandy and 42nd Avenue on a gorgeous, sunny weekday morning. From around the corner, a frail old lady on a walker came into sight and shuffled up. She sat on the blue mesh metal seat, well-protected from the glaring beauty of the day by a hat, sunglasses and long sleeved sweater.

She gazed towards where the bus would come from. Then she turned towards me and asked, "Why do you think people become Christians?"

Why do people ask questions like this? That's the real puzzler. But my mind machine sorted automatically through responses for something both kind and truthful. Didn't want to offend an old lady.

"I don't know. I'm kind of a borderline Christian myself."

She waited.

"To answer your question,I suppose most of them are born into it," I said. "I was. I was born a Catholic."

"That doesn't count," she snapped. "You have to accept Jesus as an adult."

I didn't know that rule. But, fine.

"Oh, okay."

The old lady said, "The reason I'm a Christian is I don't want to go to hell."

Why, Grandma, why? The statement sailed past my frontal lobe, landing right on the "You're wrong, lady" trigger.

Still trying to respect my elder, instead of "You're wrong," I said very gently, "What makes you think there's a hell?"

"Well, just look at all this." She waved at the world. "Man didn't make all this."

"What's that got to do with hell?"

Beams of spiritual pity shot from her sunglasses at me.

"If there's a heaven, there must be a hell."

"Oh." Faith. Blind faith.

"Jesus spoke of heaven and hell in the Bible." Where else?

"I have to tell you, I'm not convinced."

She shook her head and seemed about to reply but at that instant the bus came. I trotted to a seat in the back where I could miss the rest of the conversation.

At Belmont and 42nd, I disembarked. So did the Christian lady.

We crossed 42nd on the same light, though I reached the other side first. Then we stood waiting for the next Belmont light together. She turned to me, eye beams undimmed.

"You really should accept Jesus into your heart."

What if she's right? What if I'm bound for Satan's sad, painful and eternal workhouse? It's possible, I guess, but the day -- this day God has made -- is too fine to dwell on something as remote as the hereafter.

"I've actually thought about it quite a bit."

"I'm sure you have," she said, and turned away.

The light changed. I won't say I skipped ahead, but I left her behind to do God's work on her own.

Friday, June 12, 2015


Near the 75 north bus stop, #7449, on Cesar Chavez near Gladstone, there is a 24/7 Plaid Pantry and next to it, a 24/7 Compassionate Caregivers -- a marijuana dispensary. As I crossed Chavez towards stop 7449, my stop, around 7:30 pm on a Wednesday in May, it was still very light outside. A guy was yelling in anger. He was at stop 7449  gesticulating like a children's storyteller to someone seated in the bus shelter.

I slowed down, approaching with caution. The guy was in his 20s, athletic, head shaved, black T-shirt, brown shorts (I was thinking of how to describe him to the police if I had to). His feet were bare.

The object of his tirade, I saw, was a young woman.

"Come on, come on. Let's go," he bellowed.

She said, "Give me my purse."

She was crying.

I was pretty close to them now. They paid me no mind.

He said, "You're embarrassing me, standing here with my butt in the street trying to get you to move."


"Give me my purse."

He did, indeed, have his hand on the strap of her purse, a red leatherish bag. She held the other strap.

She stood up and turned to look at me.

Tears streaming, she said, " He's trying to rob me."

"How am I robbing you? I'm getting my Social Security card out of your purse, which you put there. I suppose it's my fault you're homeless now, too?"

"Please call 911," she said. "This is a robbery."

Her makeup was running, her face was melting, and I was putting the phone to my ear.

The man released the purse. The woman walked past me, looked back and the man was at her heels, yapping on. She said something to him that I couldn't hear. He muttered back to her.

They went around the corner.

During the next 30 seconds, I waited to connect to the 911 operator. Meanwhile, my bus shlepped by.  I sauntered to the corner to keep tabs on the couple. They had vanished.

The operator asked me what happened, what the couple looked like, whether  any weapons were in play, and where they were now. I felt superfluous. The woman had retrieved her purse from the scary boyfriend and was already behind an unidentifiable apartment door with him.

As the call ended, a police cruiser rolled slowly by, past where Romeo and Juliet were last seen alive. The car drove on, a block, two, three blocks before turning left.

I was really hoping I would see the cops roust the angry guy but, no. Just another 911 call without a resolution.