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."