Friday, August 26, 2011

Poor in Spirit

As the evening Max train passes through downtown towards Northeast and fills up, I'm sunk into a story about our U.S. Congressman, poor David Wu, and thinking how truly Portland weird it is for him to appear on the front page of the Willamette Week in a tiger costume. I barely notice the woman who takes the seat next to me. But then she gets on the phone for a personal conversation. She's intermittently loud, talking to a girlfriend, and streaming regrets: she can no longer keep a dog, she hasn't spoken to Benjamin for a year, she shouldn't have left San Francisco impulsively. And I'm hooked.

I peek: her camelhair coat complements her golden locks, which are pulled back in a sleek French braid. She's about 37, healthy, intelligent, middle-class or above, more like one of the lawyers I used to work for than their assistants. She's wearing an ostentatious diamond wedding or engagement ring on her right hand – a row of rocks shooting sparks. How badly off could she be?

I was soon annoyed, both because she couldn't suck up a few ordinary setbacks, and because she was half out of earshot. I stretched my left ear towards her, covering my morbid interest with occasional soft humming and page turning.

She was slamming Portland. “I'm stuck here, and want nothing more than to get the hell out.”

She whined about her small room, grumbled that she was only making a couple hundred dollars a week – not enough to leave. She had left her heart in San Francisco.

“And I need money for shampoo, books, cookies . . . “ She laughed. At herself?

And what's so bad about Portland?

“No one talks to anybody they don't know. When I first got to town I went out a few times. I couldn't get served because I was alone. It's all about couples.”

Well, huh. I sure wasn't going to talk to her.

She laughed again, this time bitterly.

“Aliens came and took all the men my age. . . Sure, I can date, if I want to date a 26-year old. There are plenty of those.” Her voice reminded me of no one so much as Terri Gross, the NPR interviewer. It had a pleasant warm tone and something like curiosity in it, all but ruined by her constant discovery that the world is not full of beautiful souls and fascinating mysteries, but poor choices, unfortunate turns of fate and a jungle of indifference.

She brought the volume down and for the next few minutes I strained in vain for an earful. In retrospect, I should have given her the article on Wu. Such a gesture would have shown her that sometimes, in Portland, strangers do make contact. Maybe she would even have contemplated the possibility of networking her way to Wu – hey, he's over 26, single and powerful [was].

But in the moment I sat like a lump, hoping for another tidbit that never dropped, and then she was gone.

Friday, August 12, 2011


I'm riding a five p.m Blue Line crammed with Portland's huddled masses. Most everyone is guarding their bubble of personal space -- plugged in, zoned out or just plain inscrutable.

“But how can that be?” A young man loudly takes the floor. Standing with a friend, he shakes his head and keeps shaking it. “It is just unbelievable, you have to admit.”

The friend admits. “Yeah, wow.” Nods his head sheepishly and keeps nodding.

Battered backpacks hang over their shoulders. What news, what wonder of the world is this vagabond bringing to light? Alien abduction? Resurrection from the dead? The minimum wage? A 1,000-year tsunami astonished Japan. Can he top that? I remember when I was his age. Standing on a mountain peak for the first time. Following the moon landing. Watching Richard Nixon resign. Unbelievable.

“If you had a 1953 Willie Mays, for example, that card would be worth $12,000. More, if it was signed in perfect condition.”

Baseball cards. Amazing.

“That was the first year he played, know what I mean? If I had that card and showed it openly on the street in San Francisco, I'd get jumped, man. That card is like a $12,000 bill, do you know what I mean?”

At the next stop, the “friend” escaped. Disembarked without saying “goodbye.” The loquacious kid took the seat across from me, made good eye contact and continued the spiel. Out of all the strangers on all the Max trains in the world, this budding old-school flim-flammer had landed the fly on me. I try not to advertise it, but I'm a sucker.

I once gave $12 to a guy begging on the street who said he needed a shirt for a job interview that afternoon. Very sincere. He was at the same corner the next day, still needing a shirt. And I gave $8 to a fellow I met at a laundromat in L.A. so he could get back to his apartment where he had left the key to his parents' nearby house, which he was caretaking. Nice guy. I gave him my address so he could return the money, but he never did. And I lost $20 in one throw on a three-card monte game on a San Francisco bus.

I steeled myself against handing over any cash.

It turns out a Willie McCovey could be worth anywhere from ten dollars to a few thousand, a Michael Jordan is too recent to have much value unless you've got a complete set, and a signed LeBron James will someday be worth a house down payment.

He came back around to Willie Mays and, to let him know he wasn't doing all the thinking, I told him I'd seen Mays play when I was a kid.

“Yeah?” He paused, waiting for the story.

Had I? I thought fast. Mays played in the National League and my hometown was Detroit, an American League town. My uncle did take me to see a Cubs game on a visit to Chicago when I was about six. All I remember from that game was, in the ninth inning, upchucking three hot dogs.

“Oh, yeah. He was amazing. Incredible.” The kid looked suspiciously at me so I cleverly asked him if he'd ever seen a clip of Mays' famous one-handed catch.

“Of course,” he lied.

Now that we had a level playing field, it was time to talk business.

“I've got some toys here,” he said, and, glancing around, pulled a black binder from the backpack.

Inside, on top, in a clear plastic envelope lay an 8 x10 of Willie Mays swinging a bat. It was signed: “Willie Mays.” On the back, the envelope was notarized with some legal verbiage about authenticity.

I said, “It looks real.”

The kid exploded, but softly, in a conspiratorial whisper. “No one can forge Willie Mays' signature. That's a federal offense.” I was reminded of a dollar bill I'd recently defaced with a mustache.

The binder contained maybe a dozen album pages, each one designed to display six sports cards (or, e.g., expired TriMet passes). It was about half-full.

He read them off. “Michael Jordan. LeBron James. Five years of Magic Johnson.”

“Lakers,” I said, testing him.

“Kobe.” he said, testing me back and pointing to another card, but looking me in the eye.

“Bryant,” I said, looking back into those glittering marbles between his forehead and nose without glancing at the name on the card. Letting him know the playing field was as flat as a polished basketball court.

He became quiet. I asked if he wanted to deal.

He said, “No, I'm just making conversation.”

Somehow, I knew that the strongest move I could make at that instant was silence.

A few seconds went by and the kid said, “Yeah, I could use some money.” Like the thought had just occurred to him. He was good.

I said, “Do you take credit cards?”

Obviously, he didn't want to appear too eager because he packed up and got off at the next stop, which happened to be the Lloyd Center, saying “See you later.” Not that I had expected a phone number from him, but talk about strong moves! Unbelievable.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


In the rear of a Max car – old-style with the padded seats, not the newer plastic design – the seats face backwards. The car is symmetrical, I'm sure you've noticed. There's a driver's cab at each end, and no matter which end is in front, the seats nearest the driver face forward and those at the other end face backwards. No doubt several years of well-paid engineering effort went into figuring out this scheme, and in engineering terms, it may be brilliant. In rider terms, depending on who shows up, those 15 seats are a ghetto.  Or a rez, a barrio, a hood, if you like. 

I sat down in the ghetto across the aisle from three loud riders. Not my homies. One greeted me, so I greeted him back, “How are you doing?”

“Flying like a hawk,” he said. He made a flying bird with his hands. He was sitting alone but turned towards the aisle so he could talk with his friends, a man and woman sitting right behind him.

I stuck my nose into How The Irish Saved Civilization, about my homies, which I badly wanted to enjoy.

A moment later, a young man in a leather jacket garlanded with chains and a ball cap customized with many buttons sat in front of me. As he passed, the woman said “Nice shirt,” in a tone unmistakably mocking.

What color is your underwear?” the man in front said to the kid. The provocation drew a shrug.

The man in back said, “It's probably brown.” Now they were laughing. The kid hadn't turned his head, but was sitting tensely. Maybe thinking of getting off the train?

No,” the woman said, “it's lavender.”

The man in front said, “Indians don't wear underwear, you know.”

The other man said, “Rough riders. We're tough.”

Tougher than fucking cowboys.”

The kid turned to them and said, “I'm half Cherokee.”

They were all quiet for a moment, then the woman tried to remember a movie she'd seen. It turned out to be Powwow Highway. “That was a good movie about Indians. Funny, too.”

Indians have a good sense of humor,” the front man said. For the first time I looked squarely at him. He was smiling through a face that was recovering from a recent violent encounter with something solid. I looked away.

He said, “Each face has two sides, you know.” He was looking at me. I didn't know what to say.

His friend saved me, saying “What is that, a Kiowa proverb?”

No, I made it up myself. Pretty good, huh?”

You must be a shaman.”

Defrocked. I'm a defrocked shaman.”

The woman said, “You can only get focked, not de-focked. ” We all laughed hard at that one, including the kid, who turned to look. He did look Native.

At Pioneer Square they were out the door, discussing how much money they had all together and whether they should spend it on food or drink.

When the kid in front of me got up to leave, I saw he was wearing a knife on his belt.  He caught my glance.  I asked him if he was really half-Cherokee. He stopped cold, smiled at me sweetly and said, “Navajo, but I didn't want those Chinooks to mess with me.”

"How could you tell they were Chinook?"

He shrugged.  "I'm from the rez."  

The End

Nick O'Connor 
copyright 2011