Friday, June 24, 2011


Sometimes the Max from Hillsboro is already packed when it takes on the homeward bound commuter swarm at the Sunset Transit Center. Then we have to suck up one another's garlic breath, intense perfume, loud (but private) cell phone conversations, and, now and then, the ranting of a sociopath. But on this particular Wednesday evening the crowd is light and I hit the Trimet jackpot – a seat next to an empty seat. Ahhh! I unfold the Willamette Week and leaf through like a cool breeze.

At Pioneer Square, the train stops. And stays stopped. No matter; even without reading it's going to take me ten minutes to tear ten pages of music ads into confetti. A Wednesday practice of mine. For someone who never learned to actually play music, it's satisfying to virtually destroy the hopes of scads of earnest young musicians, to imagine being Darwin, God and a radio program director all in one. A few geniuses will slip through and have careers, sure, but that's life.

I've reduced a couple hundred band photos to chicken coop fluff when, into the corner of my eye, up the aisle and to the very front of the train just three rows ahead of me, strides a seven-foot tall man tricked out like a tinker from a fairy tale, in swaddling rags and a matchingly grimy but cute hat. I mean King Hippie in layers of motley, multiple scarves and fingerless gloves, a homeless leprechaun with giantism. He takes off the hat, which is bumping the ceiling, and places it upside down on the floor. He faces the half dozen of us he's now trapped. We face back at him as if summoned up for his performing pleasure. He smiles lovingly and says “Hi, I'm Allen. I'm going to give you a music lesson.”

Shit, he's got a didgeridoo. Now I'm pissed off. Isn't this disturbing the peace?

“This is a didgeridoo and I'm going to teach you to play it.”

I remind myself that this guy was once his mother's baby. To calm myself, I read my horoscope. Rob the astrologer says we Virgos should be more open to experience, especially the eccentricities of others. Okay, Allen: You've got one minute.

“The didgeridoo is an ancient instrument of the Australian aborigines. It's basically a hollow reed, as you can see.”

Oh, I get it. Allen's on a mission. He's a white, upper-middle class American who found himself wandering in the outback, had an epiphany and has returned from the dreamtime to “so-called civilization” (as I imagine him saying) with a vision of tribal rituals going viral. Or maybe he's a sophisticated robot constructed at Burning Man.

“To play requires a technique called 'circular breathing.' The player keeps the air flowing continuously through the instrument by inhaling through the nose while exhaling through the mouth.”

He's gesturing circularly, with an arm as long and fibrous as a didgeridoo. A couple of my fellow captives try to read. One young woman, however, is beaming. Smitten. Transported. Well, there's no accounting for animal impulses.

“If anyone cares to give a small donation, please use the hat.”

I have not been transported. In fact, we're still at Pioneer Square. Allen raises the mighty instrument to his lips. I stand. Make my way to the aisle. Allen pauses politely. Loathe to break the delicate trust we've established, I suppose. He gazes at me lovingly but I keep moving, on and out. The deep, crudely modulated mooing begins, and as the train doors close and the Max grinds ahead, I see that Allen's admirer is mesmerized, swaying in her seat like a hollow reed in a desert wind. 

Copyright 2011 by Nick O'Connor

Saturday, June 18, 2011

On The Edges Of Our Seats

The blonde was standing on the Lloyd Center platform, scoping out a seat through the windows as the Max pulled in.  She negotiated the crowd smoothly, ending up in the last vacancy in sight, in the middle of the five-passenger bench straight across the aisle from me.  Though perspiration was already glittering on foreheads, she seemed cool and relaxed in a pastel summer dress.  The bare shoulders set her off from the sober, gray, pressed schmeer of commuters.   She could have stepped out of a cigarette ad created by Don Draper. 

She was probably in her early thirties, and she sat in a comfortable, balanced posture that suggested a dancer or athlete.  She smirked, privately.

I had begun scanning with her hair and now reached the pale, bare shins and slid my eyes straight down to the hot pink nails peeking out of a pair of sandals.  But --- wait ---

That ankle bracelet.

What look was she going for?  A thick white plastic box the size of a deck of cards held by metal rivets onto a thick white plastic strap.  Oh, wow, a real live parolee.  "Must have a desk job," I thought.

I was staring at the ankle bracelet.  
When I glanced up, I swear she winked.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


My wife, daughter and I were waiting at the 77 bus stop westbound, near the Trader Joe's by the Hollywood Transit Center.  My daughter was wearing a sorceress costume and cape and reading “The Celery Stalks At Midnight.”  My wife was cooling off in silence after a heated family discussion.  If I smoked, I would have been doing so.

Waltzing along and talking cheerfully to himself came a grizzled old guy.  His wild beard, and a backpack under his poncho that shaped him into a hunchback did not disguise a friendly, inquiring face.  He stopped and greeted us.  The cap on his head read “Couples Retreat.” 

“What does your cap mean?” I asked.

“I have no idea.”

He took a long look at the sorceress and eventually asked “Where did she come from?”  His tone suggested he thought she might have some powers.  He added, “A small egg?”

“From thin air,” I said. 

He asked and I told him my name, what I did, where I worked, where the business was located, where we were going.  When I asked his name, he asked what my wife did. 

I said, “Couples retreats.”

This is actually about 80 percent true because, though she's never actually held a couples retreat, she is a licensed therapist and her specialty is helping couples.  She told him as much.  He stepped back, in mock shock. They were amused with each other.

He asked if she were my sister. 

“My wife.” 

“Your sister, too?”

“You big joker.”

“Maybe she's my sister.” 

“Now you're getting personal.” 

“Whoa,” he said, in a voice exactly like Popeye. 

The cocktail banter continued in this familiar facetious fashion, except that our new acquaintance was free associating at a speed that left  me trailing.  His thoughts would veer off unpredictably, though he kept  touch with us.  His phrases were like confetti, magical while in the air and then gone. 

For example, one chain of associations I was able to retain, because he said it more than once:  “Information becomes truth becomes god.  Christianity is insanity.  God is dog backwards.  A dog eats its own shit twice.” 

The door, maybe, for that trip to the mental dump was that I had told him where we were going:  “Church.” 

“Catholic, Muslim, Jew?” 


“Christianity is insanity.”

When he wasn't gathering information about us he was riddling, punning, improvising epigrams.  A mention of the brain led to vagus nerve and then Las Vegas.  He asked where I was from. 


He held up his right palm, the instant map of Michigan, and I pointed.  “Detroit?” 

“Right.  And also. . . ” I pointed again.

“Flint?  Lansing?”


When I took note of his East Coast accent, he said “Where do you think I'm from?”


Before the last syllable was out of my mouth he was repeating the word in a good imitation of my voice, with its West Coast drawl, then again in what I took to be a true Massachusetts accent, followed by his own, harsher-sounding vernacular.  Baddaboom.

“The Bronx,” he said, to sum up the lesson in dialects.

He got on the bus with us.  My wife took on the conversation as we traveled, which improved her mood dramatically, thank dog.  There was something else said about church, and he repeated the little “Information becomes truth” rant, ending again with “Christianity is insanity.” 

I asked, “Why do you say that?” 

“Because it's a poem.”  He held up a credit-card size packet wrapped in a thick rubber band, on top of which showed an embroidered patch reading “AA.” 

“How long have you been clean and sober?” 

He moved the rubber band down on the patch so we could read at the top, “Army Airborne.” 

Gotcha.  “Since Vietnam."

He said he joined  the Army in 1963 and asked us to guess his age.  Suddenly he was speaking French.  After some wrong guesses, he revealed:  “Soixante-neuf.”  Sixty-nine, older than I imagined. 

He talked about “The Kingdom of Heaven,” a movie he'd seen the night before.  “I bought the DVD for two dollars at Goodwill.”  It was nice to know he's got a place to stay and is not flat broke. 

“It's about Saladin, a great leader of Islam.  And about Christianity, which is insanity.” 

This is the bare bones of our twinkling talk, which lasted all of  20 minutes.  Free fun with a complete stranger.  

I and my family deboarded at 17th and Broadway, saying goodbye, but not before wangling our new friend's e-mail address.  It will remain private here, but I can say that it would make an excellent title for a “Star Trek” episode. 

The End

Monday, June 6, 2011


I pitied the sleepers at the Skidmore Fountain Max stop, framed for me this dawn by the lacy ice growing on the train window pane.  There were at least a dozen of them sheltering here, under the high ceiling of the Burnside Bridge. 

Three or four of them, sleeping bags dragging, beards bristling, boarded together.  All were shivering but one.  He was not only clean, but looked rested and even relaxed.  Had he just come back from a Buddhist retreat?  Been released without bail?  Or it could be the meds.     

He stood in the aisle holding out an upturned palm, scanning riders for contact.  I am not a fan of begging on public transportation.  It makes me want to shout, “I'm sorry things haven't worked out better for you, old boy, but I'm broke, too.”  I avoided his glance.

But wait.  Something in his hand was moving.  A mouse?  That would be a good pet for an animal lover sleeping on the street.  But no, the pet was flexing its wings.  It was a large, beige butterfly.  The wings had eyes, one on each wing, looking at me, looking away, looking at me.  The huge insect covered the kid's palm. 

He said, to anyone at all and no one in particular, “He was right next to me on the sidewalk when I woke up.  I thought he was dead.”

A woman in a beige Columbia jacket and tan pants that matched the butterfly's colors said, “It's a Polyphemus moth.”    

He said, “My friend told me it looked liked a … a . . . an Emperor moth.”

“He does look like a lot like an Emperor Gum moth.  But the Emperors live in Australia. ”

The kid said, “He might not make it.”

“If he doesn't make it,” she said, “at least he had a friend for awhile.”  Nicely done.  Like a trained social worker.   

The kid looked at the moth, at the riders, at the woman, at a spot in the distance, thinking hard.  His hand was still up, but drawn in close to his body.  “Yeah.”

The wings flexed.  The kid blinked empathetically. 

“Everybody needs a friend,” the woman said.  The kid nodded. 

She gathered herself to go, placing a purse strap on a shoulder, shifting her weight to the front of the seat.  As the Max shussed to a stop, I noticed her metal cane.  She wrapped both hands around it.  She positioned it front and center for maximum leverage.   She strained – once, twice – she budged – once, twice – aaaaand – she was up. 

She walked.  “Bye,” she said.

“Bye,” he said.  

Wow.  Sometimes a lepidopterist social worker shows up right when you need one.


Copyright 2011 by Nick O'Connor