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.