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.