Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Traveling on the Max from Northeast Portland through downtown and beyond with me was a young man who looked like Stacy Keach, the actor – Keach 30 years ago, that is – but smaller. He gripped one of the upright crossbar support posts with both hands. He had placed the point – or cleft – I couldn’t see the shape – of his chin on the post, bending his head back towards the ceiling. From the Lloyd Center until I got off at the Sunset Transit Center, he held that position as if tied down. As commuters disembarked, the car steadily emptied. Occasionally, the man's lips moved.

Physically, the man seemed sound – youthful, robust, standing on his own power, no tremors, seizures or outbursts. He was, however, breathing fast.

Unusual behavior, but since he was keeping to himself, no one else was paying attention. He wasn't doing anything wrong, wasn't violating anyone's personal space. You have to wonder, if a passenger dies peacefully in his sleep, will the passenger sitting next to him notice? And will the live passenger, anxious to get to work on time, interrupt her schedule and the schedules of the other passengers, to push the call button to the driver?

“What's up?” I wanted to ask the man. “What's up?"

Had I taken the initiative and asked him ,“What's up?,” what would he have said? Nothing, maybe. Waved me away. Blinked, like a cat waking from a nap?

What are the chances he would have been happy to talk? I didn't ask, so I'll never know. There are reasons for acting like you're in a waking coma. There's anxiety. There's the reaction to a drug taken for anxiety. There's “Rapture of the Ride,” when you're heavy groovin' on the tune coming through the earbud, or, less commonly, on the Tri-Met experience. There are chiropractor’s orders. There's trying not to throw up after a bad burrito. There are those who want attention but are too shy to get it directly. There are dozens of mental or emotional conditions from OCD to a phobia, and dozens of ingestable substances, from PCP to MJ, that could have been affecting the dude.

My favorite possibility is that he was a pilgrim on a spiritual quest, a self-transformative journey. He was praying for the rest of us. Why not? Why not take Tri-Met to the sacred grounds and study compassion on the way? A bus or train car is a cauldron of milling humanity. Where else in little old Portland can you consistently, daily if you like, take in the whole parade, every strata, color, and state of mind? For two dollars and change, your spot on the ride guarantees an opportunity to – in reality, not online – be with and tolerate strangers you generally want to have nothing to do with. This is a good practice.

Or maybe he was trying to win a bet. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Seats in the “new” Max cars – those of the yellow and blue color scheme and plentiful plastic – were designed for people smaller and chattier than the average Portlander. This is indisputable.

There are at least three discomfort zones in each car. At each end is a C-shaped curve of seats that is meant to encourage either conversation (which doesn't happen in Portland, in my experience, but don't get me started), or disorientation. You could be traveling backwards, which is disorienting by itself. But facing forwards in these cars can make you self-conscious.  Half the faces in the car look back at you and half face away.  Where to look? At the same time I wonder if the person whose reflected face I'm studying in the window is studying me, and if I'm alarming this or that rider by looking at them for too long.  Is it better to smile at strangers or keep a blank face?

Another dubious innovation is the conversation group of four seats. In this arrangement you sit directly across from another rider and so close that it takes an effort to keep from bumping ankles. And you're elbow to elbow with a similarly lucky couple. It's like being on a double blind date without so much as a glass of water, much less a waiter.

Then there are the seats situated behind the structural components, like machine gun nests. Each of these new Max cars has four pairs of seats blocked in by either a perpendicular extension of the wall, that is, a bulkhead; or by the plate glass divider next to the middle door of the car. Maybe the idea is to keep the riffraff from falling asleep.

I was stuck in this last discomfort zone behind a bulkhead, and had wedged myself into the window side, making room for a small child or contortionist. I had my notebook open, pen in hand waiting for a thought worth mentioning when, at the Lloyd Center stop, a young woman was asking if there's room next to me.

I shove over a little further for her. She smiles and comments on the tight squeeze.

“Yeah, you can hear the click as you snap into place.”

She said, “I see you're writing.”

Stop right there.

An attractive young woman might entertain a conversation initiated by an attractive young male stranger, if he happened to strike the right chord of bold sensitivity or raffish humor, and depending on whether her mood was on the upswing or downslide, and if his clothes were socially acceptable in the circles to which she aspired or in the slums she wanted to tour, and if Venus and the moon were aligned, and if the dog had been walked and the rent paid, and so on. All that having fallen into place, a charming and fortunate man, a young man with potential, might strike up a conversation with her.

No attractive young woman starts a conversation with a stranger in a crowded train by showing genuine interest in his notebook scribblings, and certainly not with a man whose jowls sag and whose hair is thin and graying, like her dad's, and whose smile is very slow to appear. Does she?

That's my basic line of thought.

So imagine my surprise when this young woman sits in the uncomfortable seat next to me and wants to talk. Her question about my writing led to my job, which led to my asking what she does.

She was on her way home from an all-night tango dance.

It had been her second night in a row of dancing all night, starting after dinner and going until dawn. Portland, it turned out, was hosting a major tango festival.

“Tonight's the last night. I'll be there. But it's only till midnight.” I shook my head sympathetically.

I've done some dancing, almost all of it during the first years with my wife. So I asked some informed questions, and we had more of an interview than a conversation, largely about the tango scene in Portland (500 impassioned tangueros and tangueras), but also about the dance itself (sternum to sternum!), her love for tango (“I'm obsessed,” naturally), and personal details I shouldn't tell here. I'll just say that tango has boldness, glamor, drama and melancholy, and it might attract people who have those qualities.

My wife and I used to contra dance, which is the opposite of tango. A contra is a line dance, with a caller (“Do-si-do and back to the line!”), like square dancing, backed by a string band playing traditional music. Gentrified hillbilly action to you, Snarky. We tried swing and lindy hop. We waltzed and square danced a little. But we met at a contra dance and contras remained our meat and drink. We danced at the local weekly contra dances, at weekend festivals with names like Fiddling Frog and Harvest Moon, and traveled hundreds of miles to week-long camps where you could dance till you dropped . And we attended a few all-night dances. I proposed marriage at the all-night New Year's Eve contra dance in Pasadena as 1994 became '95.

While my new acquaintance spun her glittering web, a whiff of those whirling nights came back to me. My wife is an excellent dancer; I'm not. But with the band smoking, the women flaunting their assets, the mischievous sideways glances and blatant stares, the stomping and shouting, the parade of attractive strangers, why, even a limping curmudgeon from the planet Grim might feel some pleasant intoxication.

At the Sunset Transit Center I said goodbye to the tango fan and slipped past her. She said “You should come tango sometime. We like beginners.”

It's a stirring thought, but no. not me, not now. The occasional dancing I do anymore is with my wife, in the kitchen, to the radio. Sometimes our daughter joins in. Maybe some day, when I've recovered from parenthood and a scientific miracle has restored my youth, tango will be in the cards for me. Still, as I cross the footbridge over the freeway, I'm tangoing in my imagination.

In my fantasy, I'm a tango master. My tuxedo fits like a second skin and feels like silk. My wife is dancing with me. She reminds me with a glance and a shift of her hand on my shoulder why I married her. We glide like tigers through a jungle of other couples. The music is so intense the bows want to fly from the violinists' hands into the hearts of those who are the most tangotastic.

At the office, I hung up my jacket and settled into the cubicle. I had trouble getting down to work; I was surprisingly aroused. Within a short time, however, the office worked its magic. It is, after all, one of my comfort zones.

Nick O'Connor

Copyright 2011