Saturday, October 22, 2011


My nephew and his wife were having a housewarming. For the occasion, I bought a cast iron bottle opener in the shape of a bird.  It's definitely a bird, but definitely not a specific bird. It doesn't matter.  It's the thought that counts, right?  Right?

Anyway, the party was scheduled from 3 till 9 p.m. on a Sunday. I got a late start but expected to make it on time to see the house, greet the family and present the bottle opener.

At 7:20, the 77 bus picked me up at the corner of 17th and Weidler.

At 7:40, I got dropped off at 58th and Halsey to wait for the 71 bus. There was still some riding ahead, but enough time to see the house, greet the family, and give the gift.

I noticed another guy waiting a couple doors down the street, back towards 57th. I thought maybe he was standing there for a view of the 71 bus, which turns left from 57tth coming south onto Halsey and heads east. But no, he wasn't close enough to the corner to see up 57th. Then I had the impulse to walk back to 57th and see for myself if it was coming. The instant I moved in his direction, the guy crossed the street.

That's when he showed how far gone he was. As he crossed, his legs were misbehaving and he did a little half squat every few steps to keep from launching sideways. I calculated he was about one drink from final splat.

I think he was avoiding me, not because I look badass -- I'm a medium-size, mild-mannered, middle-aged guy in glasses – but because alcohol had short-circuited his judgment. I've been there. I think brother man was alarmed by his condition. Whether I was coming over to rob him, hit on him or just ask a question, he couldn't trust his wits with a stranger. He could die on the spot, or be humiliated and not even know it. But if he started moving now, into the well-lit, wide-open street, he had a chance.

When I returned to the stop, he returned as well, squat-lurching back across the street and then trying to keep his balance on an undulating piece of sidewalk about 10 yards away.

I had mislaid my cell phone and also maybe to screw with him a little, asked if he knew when the bus was due.

He managed to call the tracker. “Ten minutes.”

A conversation followed. He complained about the transit tracker's inaccuracy and praised Tri-Met, “rated the best in the country” (repeated three times, slurred not spoken), because “we do good work in Portland.” And never mind how good we are here, he was mad that the fares keep going up.

This sent us on a side trip to the Tri-Met budget, the federal government, unions and ultimately, his union and his job.

“I'm in mail. I just do mail.” At a printing company, he said.

He called his supervisor “a turd” – only the tip of the shitberg, of course. After railing against the supervisor, he railed against the company owner, who inherited the business and had no idea what he was doing.

“Two bad bosses -- I feel for you, man.”

“What?” He squinted hard at me.

“The supervisor and the owner. Right?”

He said, “No, It's just one guy. He plays video games and drinks beer every morning in his office.”

According to my unnamed acquaintance, his boss is not only a slob, but he overbids jobs, resulting in not getting the jobs, resulting in too little work and too little income.

“I was laid off for years. I had 18 vacation days taken away. Eighteen.”

I asked how the company could strip benefits with a union in place. He shrugged and said, “They've got no money.”

I nodded sympathetically. He said again, “They've got no money.” Shrugging again. Bottom line.

He said “They've got no money.” a couple more times, shrugging each time. He seemed to be fading.

It was about 25 minutes into our talk, and I excused myself to take a refreshing walk to the corner and back. He used the break as an opportunity to get behind a bush next to the front porch of the nearest house, where he took a leak. He concluded the festivities by dipping a wad of snuff into his cheek. Then he took a little walk down Halsey the other other way from me, using the entire width of the sidewalk as a giant balance beam.

He made a show of looking up the cross street. Then he looked down Halsey Street towards the neon signs of a couple of bars. For a second, I thought maybe he was going to go top himself off at whatever bar he'd recently left. Wisely, he chose to return to the busstop.

We continued the topic of his work. In that overly forceful and blurred way drunks have, he confided “I'm just about ready to say 'Fuck you' to the boss.”

I said “The bus?”

He repeated himself, verbatim but louder. “. . . THE BOSS!”

I could relate. Though my current boss and company are relatively enlightened, experience as a member of three unions has convinced me that labor and management are natural enemies.

The walk had revived him. He had a lot more to say about the printing company, the boss's family, the dire economic situation, and where was I going, anyway?

The boss finally arrived at 8:40. We called each other “buddy,” as in “Nice talkin' with ya, buddy.” He boarded, but it had grown too late for me; I crossed the street and walked all the way back to 42nd to catch the 75 homeward, feeling extra safe with my hand in my jacket pocket on the cast iron bird.

Nick O'Connor
Copyright 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011


On October 5th, the day before Occupy Portland began, I witnessed a miscarriage of justice. As I came onto the inbound platform at the Sunset Transit Center around 5:10 p.m., a woman's raised voice got my attention. She could be heard clearly along the entire platform. Every passenger was looking her way. She was standing near the middle on my side, holding onto a bike and dressed in riding gear. She was talking to a Tri-Met cop. At the far end of the platform, where the front end of the trains stop, the cop was trying to ignore her. He had his ticket pad and pen out and was talking with a young man.

The woman accused the cop of harrassing the youth, saying he was “misusing his position of authority.”

Though loud and with an edge of anger, her voice was even and her thoughts rational. The cop shouted back, “Sir---”

“I'm not a sir.”

“Ma'am. This is none of your business. You don't even know what we've been talking about.”

“I've heard everything you've said,” she replied. “Your conversation has been loud enough for everyone to hear.”

“I'm doing my job. I'm investigating a violation. You have no say about this.”

“I certainly do if I witness an abuse being committed.”

“I'm doing my job. You're interefering.”

“I can speak. I have a right of free speech and I'm exercising it.”

“You don't have free speech to interfere with my job.”

“I'm not interfering. I'm nowhere near you. I'm just speaking.”

This went on for about 30 seconds before the cop ran out of patience. He left the young man to half-stalk, half-run over to the woman. He was about six foot eight. She was portly, middle-aged, and showed no sign of being intimidated.

I noticed my train pull in and decided to stay for the next one.

“If you don't keep quiet I'm going to cite you for interfering with police business.”

“I guarantee if you cite me you're going to end up in court.”

“You could get 30 days.”

The cop saw that the young man had fled up the stairs. He trotted after him.

I took a seat a respectful distance from the woman, got out my phone and fired up the camera.

The cop came back, agitated. He walked up to the woman, rolled back another page of his citation book, and said, “I'm citing you for interfering with police business. May I see your identification, please?”

As she got her card out of a saddlebag, I held up my phone to get a picture. The cop spotted it right away and bolted over to me.

“I have to tell you that it's against the law to take a video of anyone in public without the knowledge of everyone who's being filmed.”

“I consent,” the woman shouted.

I said, “It's not a video, it's a still camera. Are you saying I can't take photos of you, as a public officer, doing your public duty?”

“I'm not saying that. I'm saying that you can't take a video or sound recording without the knowledge of everyone in the area who might be filmed.”

“It's not a video.” I was holding up the camera so he could check it out but he was already on his way back to write the ticket.

There was a woman who had been sitting quietly nearby throughout the scene. I asked her if she'd seen what happened. She said yes, but hadn't tuned into what was going on between the cop and the young man.

The woman who had riled the cop was quiet as he wrote the ticket. The next train came and I felt the call to get home to my family, dinner, the evening schedule. At the same time, as a witness I should stay and let the woman know I could back her up, if necessary.

Force of habit got the best of me and I boarded the train. As soon as the doors closed I got witness regret: that's when you don't take a stand even though you were right there watching. So if by a remote chance the cited bicyclist is reads this, please get in touch with me:

                                                   THE END
Nick O'Connor
Copyright 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011


I was riding the 75 bus north towards home on 39th avenue in the dark, damp evening, somewhere between Powell and Division, reading a book on the topic of working memory.  Working memory is the stuff you try to keep in mind while doing something else.  It's similar to the "copy" function on your computer, if the thing copied always rapidly decayed and disappeared, like a lump of sugar in an ocean of coffee.  Working memory is a good indicator of the fitness and health of one's brain.  Generally, better working memory equals a sounder brain.  That I can recall all this confirms that my own memory was working during the bus ride and sets my mind at ease -- at least until the next time I leave the burner on.  

I was sitting in the frontmost forward-facing seat, behind the handicapped and senior love seats, when a little girl draped her arms over the divider and started talking to me, as if we had an appointment. She was about two, with a head of thick Shirley Temple curls. She told me, sentence by sentence, about her life.

“This is our bus.”

“It's your bus.”

“Aaaand my momma, too.”

“Aaaand your momma, too.” This is how I talked to our daughter when she was little. The research shows – I don't know what research, but people I trust (i.e., my wife) told me -- that when you say back to a child what she just said to you, it helps her learn to talk. It's called “mirroring” (“Does my hair look okay?” “Does my hair look okay?”). My daughter, now ten years old, talks like a 35-year old professor (of stuffed animal psychology), so I believe mirroring works.

The girl's mother was sitting on the other side of the girl, and said, “Anna, he's trying to read.” I said “No problem, I like talking with kids,” and the mom went back to her conversation with her boyfriend.

The little girl told me that Christmas was coming, aaaand that she was gettting new toys, aaaaand that they were going to visit grandma, aaaand that Garglegee had pushed Impkiss down the stairs.

“Who's Garglegee?”

“Garglegee's my guardian.”

“Garglegee's your guardian?

“No! Garglegee's my garden doc.”

“Garglegee's your garden doc?”

“NO! Garglegee's my guard dog aaaaand...”

“Garglegee's your guard dog.”

“....and she pushed Impkiss down...the stairs....”

“Who's Impkiss?”

“Impkiss went down the stairs... aaaaand...”

A woman sitting across from the girl and her mother and the man with them yelled out, “Don't mess with me!,” obviously meaning them.

The mom yelled back, “No one's messing with you.”

The woman was muttering and rummaging in a monstrous handbag, one of those soft black leather and brass designer items that perfectly complement a full leather outfit and not much else. She yelled across the aisle again, “Stop bothering me.”

The mom raised her voice higher. “Listen, lady, I don't know what's your problem ---” The mom's boyfriend, or husband, or brother, or whatever laid a hand on the mom's shoulder, stopping her.

He leaned halfway across the aisle and muttered something to the woman. She listened. She took a couple deep breaths. He muttered. She relaxed.

Wow. A Psychopath Whisperer. The man was dressed like puke, a thick slab of prison muscles covered in blurry tattoos – in other words, a typical Portland high school dropout.

The little girl was still talking to me. She was saying “Impkiss is okay. He's okay. He didn't have to go to the hospital.”

“He didn't have to go to the hospital.”

“Aaaaand he didn't have to go to jail.”

The mom gently pulled her away, saying, “She hasn't stopped talking since she said her first word,” to me, and then “This is our stop, darlin',” to her.

“Bye,” the girl said to me.

“Bye,” I said back.

Nick O'Connor   Copyright 2011