Saturday, July 16, 2011


I hit the Hollywood Trader Joe’s at least once a week. T.J.’s has deals, like $2.99 for a bottle of drinkable wine or a can of organic beans for $.69. (My family is as organic as a benzene ring.) And the store is on the way home.

One dark, wet, cold evening, I was in my T.J.’s, loading up. Into the shopping cart went deals on two pounds of organic, fair trade coffee for about $12, a couple of chocolate bars for under $2 each, a bunch of (organic) bananas, and a few jars of (organic) tomato sauce.

The store, which is always either busy, or some level of busier than busy, was busier than usual. Carts were jammed in every aisle. Despite the usual friendly efficiency of the employees, eternity gained ground. Lines got snaky long.

At last, my turn came. The cashier rang up $22 and change. I slid my debit card. Tick tick tick -- the moment got snaky long.

“No, it’s not working. Please slide it again.”

I slid it. Tick tick tick.

“I’m sorry, it’s disapproved. Showing insufficient funds. You can try it again, as credit.”

Only midly surprised, I slid it again.

“No, sir. It’s not approving.”

All right. I probably sighed loudly. I asked the cashier if she would keep the bag of groceries at the checkout for a moment. She nodded and turned to the next customer.

I sat down on a kid-size bench kept near the front door. I pulled out my phone and tried to reach my wife to have her move some money over, which would take no time, problem solved. But she didn’t answer.

After a couple of tries, I looked up. A woman I didn’t know was standing there, smiling warmly and fanning some currency at me.

She said, “Here, let me take care of your groceries.”

“No,” I replied politely but with some force. “No thanks. You’re very kind, but I’ve got it handled. Thanks.”

She went away. I tried again to reach my wife, while entertaining resentful thoughts, like “I’ve got a job,” “I’m not at the end of my resources,” and “Do I look like I need a handout?” Again the electronic connection failed to materialize.

There was nothing to do but leave. I zipped up my jacket tooth by tooth, pulled my hat down and adjusted it, over the left ear, over the right ear, took my gloves from my jacket pockets one at a time. But the call did not come.

Then the cashier was coming at me. She had a bag of groceries, which she set down at my feet. I could see my tomato sauce and bananas.

I said, “Did that woman pay for these?”

“Yep. She said to pay it forward.'”

The angel was still at the checkout; I caught her at the door and thanked her.

“Enjoy,” she said pleasantly, without slowing down.

“Do you want to exchange names?” I said,

“No, just pay it forward.”


Friday, July 8, 2011

The Coolest

Every Thursday evening, the Liberators’ comedy improv class ended at 9:30.  Like the clockwork inside a $20 Rolex, I left the class and the Falcon Building.  Feeling funny, I walked the half-block to the corner of Albina and Killingsworth to catch the 72 bus eastbound towards home. 
There was always someone at the busstop whom I would have crossed the street to avoid, but the tentacles barely visible in the shadows over on the other side - though they beckoned in a friendly way - kept me on this one. 
I always said “Hello” to the driver, who was almost always the same woman.  I flashed a smile along with the transfer obtained two and a half hours prior.  She coldly read every word on the uncrumpled scrap of newsprint as if it were a ransom note, and assessed me as if I had typed it and were delivering it for her approval. 
“Go ahead,” she would say. 
One Thursday evening, the bus arrived ten minutes late.  Otherwise, everything was as usual.  I said “Hello,” flashed the transfer and the smile, and she said “That’s expired.” 
I wanted to say, “I thought you were my friend.”  Instead, I pointed out that she was late, and that if she had been on time the transfer would have been ---
“… almost good.  Almost good is still expired,” she said.  “This line runs every 15 minutes, so you would have been expired even if you caught the last bus.”
I’m expired?  I’m expired?  I pulled out my wallet, containing a lone $5 bill. 
I said to the dozen passengers, “Does anyone have change for a five?” 
Blank dogfaces dared me to further disturb their peace. 
I thought I heard the driver say, “I’ll take you by a store and you can get change.”   
“Excuse me?”  She said it again.  I would have been more surprised if she’d given me a pair of free Blazers tickets, or a fresh caught salmon, but not much. 
I stood just behind the yellow line while she drove from stop to stop to stop.  Just as I was thinking I’d slip through the barrage of stimuli and demands she was fielding – checking fares, bantering, driving – she stopped, gestured at a convenience store kitty corner across Alberta Street and said, “I’ll wait for you.” 
We were at 10th Avenue, more than a mile from where I’d boarded.   I ran into the store, waited for two customers to get what they needed to make it through the night, broke the five on a box of spearmint TicTacs and ran back to the idling bus.  I paid up and thanked the coolest bus driver I ever met. 
Nick O'Connor  Copyright 2011

Friday, July 1, 2011


I boarded the 75 bus northbound at Sandy Boulevard in front of the Hollywood Burger Bar about 6 p.m., like I have a hundred times before. The driver was a big fellow, who said “Hi” like he meant it, as always. About a third of the way to the back of the bus I stopped shuffling and stood, because my back hurt and standing felt better than sitting. It's the last leg of my trip home; I was probably daydreaming hard.

There was a shout from the back and then another shout and eventually, slowly, I turned around.

A blind man (white cane, dark glasses, uncoordinated Goodwill clothes), and therefore a TriMet Honored Citizen, stood by the back door. He held a folded wire shopping cart under an arm and was talking seriously with an agitated woman in business clothes, whom I recognized as a regular rider.

She pushed roughly by me to the front and complained quietly but emphatically to the driver about “she.” The driver pulled over, heard out the complaint and made a garbled announcement over the P.A. to the rest of us. Only the last few words came through clearly: “... will be out on the sidewalk.”

A glance at the rear of the bus was inconclusive. The half dozen teenagers were all innocent looks and faint smiles; the few adults gave off blank indifference.

At the next stop, several riders boarded, so to get out of the aisle I sat down, ending up right in front of the back door.  To go easy on my back, instead of settling into the seat and then straining to get out, I sat on the edge facing about 45 degrees into the aisle. The Honored Citizen had taken a seat in the middle of the bench facing the back door, putting him at my left, across the aisle.

At the next stop came a shout and scuffle and a young woman – a girl, really, about 14 – was attacking the Honored Citizen. She was right on top of him, cursing, punching his face, and spitting. He managed to get his feet up and kick-shoved her away but she came around the legs on my side for another go at him.

She was by my left elbow, facing away. Without really thinking, I reached my left arm around her neck and grabbed her right upper arm with my right hand. She struggled for a few seconds, but I had a solid grip and to my surprise she calmed down.

A skinny middle-aged guy wearing a “CSI” cap paced up and down the aisle, yelling for someone to call the police and saying that he saw it all, that the girl started it. I held on. The girl resumed cursing at the Honored Citizen but was not fighting me at all.

It's hard to estimate time when violence and adrenaline are flowing, but I'll guess that no more than 20 seconds into all this, a couple of the girl's teenage friends made their way from the back up to the situation. The two boys were bigger than me. The girl was between me and them. One said to me, in what I took to be a neutral tone, “You can't keep holding her like that. That's not right.” Still, I felt vaguely threatened. I took my hands off the girl and she and her friends bolted out the back door.

A second later, before the door could close, she stuck her head inside and spit and screeched at the Honored Citizen one last time. I couldn't understand what she said. Then she was gone.

The driver announced that he would wait for police. The Honored Citizen stood and walked calmly to the front, cart under his arm. I looked for blood, bruises, torn fabric, but saw none. On my way to the front door I overheard the Honored Citizen talking. 

He said to the driver, “I was just sitting back there and that girl next to me was making rude remarks. Saying somebody was filthy and smelled like you know what and should wipe himself before going out in public. And then I realized she was talking about me. . . . “

The whiff I caught of him was not fresh, but more like a dirty shirt than soiled underwear.

Not wanting to take time for the cops, I jumped off. The girl and her entourage were nowhere to be seen. My heart was still racing, with my breath right behind it. I checked over my shoulder for a posse all the way home.


Nick O'Connor - copyright 2011