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.