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.

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