Friday, November 16, 2012


On MUNI, San Franciso’s excellent transit system, riders get it: 1) that when the seats are getting full, they have to move to the back of the bus to let other riders board; and 2) that one fare entitles a rider to one seat.  I rode the buses and street cars and cable cars in that city for about 11 years.  Almost always, as a bus got packed the standing riders would drift to the back without being asked.  When a driver did have to call out, “Move back,” or “Make room,” people moved.  

There was a guy who sometimes got on the Market Street bus with me at rush hour who liked to holler “Lady with a baby!  Make way!” if the crowd was a little slow to move to the back.  He didn’t have to do it very often.

In that city I seldom saw a rider splay himself or his stuff across multiple seats.  Nor did I ever have to tap one on the shoulder to get his attention and explain why I wanted him to free up a seat.  

I also commuted by public transit in Los Angeles.  There, you might never see the same driver on the same route and the vastness of the city gives a background vibe that is overwhelmingly impersonal. Of course, drunks and the deranged occasionally got out of hand.  Sometimes a petty crime took place.  I was punched in the face once.  I watched pickpockets at work.  Fare evasion was rampant.

But in L.A., people were usually as well-behaved as angels when it came to moving back and keeping seats open.  (Maybe they were just trying to stay out of harm’s way?)

Yet in Portland, a tamer town than either of those California grease spots, it’s standard procedure when standing to plant oneself in the front of the bus; and if seated, to keep the seat next to you handy for your stuff or for kicking back.  

This week on the 75, crushed between boarding riders and a mash of beings stopped behind, I had to ask twice “Could you please move back and make room?”  And the lug at the end of the line, who had six or eight feet of space behind him, glanced at me without acknowledgement. But worse, not a single one of the rest of the group inhaling each other’s air said a thing. 

Why is this?  What dumb territorial impulse is at work? And even if you are not guilty of the original transgression, why don’t you urge the stand-in-fronters to move back?  Why aren’t there more righteous passengers demanding civilized behavior from their fellow citizens?  

Is it a cultural thing?

Sunday, October 28, 2012


One morning last week, the fare inspectors were thick as ants on a PB&J sandwich.  A team of them, including a couple of Portland cops, were waiting at the Hollywood Transit Center, human speed bumps on the way to my destination.

I boarded and found a seat.  A couple of inspectors boarded right behind me.  I'd seen the one who was working his way towards me before.  He's an efficient one, glancing at passes and tickets as fast as they appear with a "Thank you," taking a second longer to acknowledge a transfer, taking his job seriously and calmly.

I showed my pass for the second time in five minutes.  Two seats down, a man flashed his wallet and the inspector said, "That's September.  Do you have an October pass?"

The rider was a 30-something white guy dressed for work, definitely not a typical target for harassment.  But he did not have the pass.  As the conversation continued, his voice rose higher and higher, as if he were being harassed, which he was not.

In his defense, the rider showed that he was carrying passes from several prior months and even found a receipt  proving that he had bought an October pass.  The officerr opened his ticket book.  The rider blurted out that his wife must have borrowed it over the weekend and not replaced it.

At this point, I knew the man was in trouble. You might assume, having bought a monthly pass, that you could loan it to another person.  Obviously, only one person at a time can use a pass, so what's the problem?  Well, in its accounting for estimated income from passes sold and estimated income from people nabbed using passes wrongly, the head bean counters have concluded that the best numbers will occur when there is no pass sharing. Remember, these are the same people who eliminated Fareless Square and significantly cut back service within the last year or so.

"May I see your identification, please?"

The man replied, "Hold on," and made a phone call.  The inspector, to my surprise, kept patiently quiet.  I suppose the rider was hoping to find out if his wife had returned the pass to his lunch bag, or some other unlikely but possible spot that would save the cost of the coming ticket.

But the call didn't connect, and  the cop had to ask again for ID.

"Why?" the violator asked, handing over a driver's license.  "Don't you like me?  Are you trying to bust my chops?"

The cop muttered something about procedures while scribbling.

The violator said, "This is not fair, that I should have paid for this month, not to mention many other months, and this one time. . . "

The cop glanced up at him.

"My wife borrowed it and didn't return it to me," he said. Whining and trying to blame his poor wife. I felt sorry for (and superior to) the violator for his ignorance. 

The inspector gave him the ticket, saying "Sharing a pass is not allowed.  The pass is issued to one person, for his sole use."  The violator stared like a dead trout.


The inspector went on to explain the violator's options.  He could pay by mail or credit card, or he could appear in court.  The inspector had conveniently already set the court date and time.

The violator was done protesting.  The cop was done explaining. The $175 (or more) ticket was doing the talking now.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


It seems like everyone now is fixed on their electronics. My guess is that better than 50 percent and maybe as much as 75 percent of reading on public transportation is now done cybernetically.  It makes me wonder what they're reading, which is seldom obvious.

It is much easier to see what those readers who are reading "real" books are reading.  I have, therefore, documented here some titles of paperback or hardback books recently being read on Trimet (with some commentary):

Missing Persons by Stephen White.  The reader was a middle aged man wearing an Obama badge.

Quantum Leaps In The Wrong Direction: Where Real Science Ends...and Pseudoscience Begins.  It took me so long to write down the title that the guy reading it left before I could make a note about him.

The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis.  This looked like a 50-year old paperback. The reader was a young woman sporting a baby-doll look including: ruby red lipstick with matching shoes and white knee socks.

If Looks Could Kill.  Amazon lists at least six different novels by this title.  As I didn't catch the author's name, I can't tell you which one it was. The reader:  a middle-aged woman.

High Noon by Nora Roberts  ("This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is really important."  Oh, sorry, it's not that High Noon.)  The reader:  a middle-aged woman.

A Japanese paperback.  The reader:  a young woman with Asian features.

Victims by Jonathan Kellerman.  I did not make a note about the reader.  Assume I was distracted by another title.

Organizing Knowledge.  The reader was, I'm pretty sure, judging by the PSU jacket, a student.

My Monumental Suffering.  Actually, this is the title of a book I intend to write.

Another Nora Roberts book.  I could see Nora's huge name on the spine and cover, but not the book's title.  The reader:  a middle-aged woman, a professional secretary type -- graying, well-fed and well-dressed.

An Agatha Christie book.  Again, the author's name was plain to see and much larger than the title.  The reader:  a 60ish man.

A Nick Hornsby book.  The reader was a slender, sad-faced woman in black jacket, black jeans and long, black hair.

Interviewing in Action In a Multicultural World.  The reader was a young woman in matching blue-green argyle swirl vinyl rain jacket and vinyl cowboy rain boots.

A J. K Rowling book.  Must have been the new one that's got nothing to do with Harry Potter, as it was only about 250 pages long.

Can't Find My Way Home.  To judge by the worn backpack, boots, beard and long hair, the reader was a hiker (Of course).  He was reading avidly and about halfway through the book.

Prime Witness.  Steve Martin. The Steve Martin?  The reader was an extremely middle-class, middle-aged white guy, wearing crappy PayLess shoes that looked like they were chopped out of old tires with an ax.

This seems a likely random stopping place.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


There's the hip Portland of bikes, beer, food carts, sustainable businesses, urban farms, jobs in the comic book industry or IT, and, of course, Portlandia.  And there's Portland, The Center for White Liberals Who Don't Know Any Black Folks. There's the city that boomed during the heyday of the shipyards and the timber industry, adding 160,000 to its population during World War II, the same city with a current official unemployment rate of 8 percent that is probably closer to 15 percent after counting those who've stopped looking for work, who never started looking, or who are part-time.  There's the city crawling with thousands of medical marijuana cardholders. There's a city trying to keep itself Weird, where zombie walks and 200-tuba concertos and heavy tattoos are supercool. There's a city with a police force that shoots too many unarmed citizens. And there's a town that gets six or seven months of rain a year, which a national magazine determined a few years ago to be the unhappiest city in the country. 

(I don't believe that last one, though.  Dark colors and extra weight do not depression make.) 

And there's the Portland seen riding on Tri-Met, which gets reported on here. 

I came across some people recently who are located in Portland, but whom you will never, ever see riding TriMet. They are beautiful and handsome. There are beautiful and handsome folks here, but not like this. These have come from somewhere else, I'm pretty sure: L.A. or New York or outer space. Oh, they may have started out as children in any old towns. But somewhere between birth and now, something happened. They emerged from the 99% into the realm of big media. Their faces, and more, have become commodities.

They are being sold by a company called "Option Model and Media," which has an address in inner Southeast not too far from OMSI.  (The nearest stop is where the 15 Belmont meets the Morrison Bridge.  Stop No. 4028.)  Here's the link:

There are three faces -- headshots -- on the landing page:  a male "Actor" in a checked shirt, a female "Model" wearing heavy Goth eye makeup and a "Kid" who is impossibly still and grave. The eyes of each of these people look out at you with startling clarity. Bravo to the photographer who captured these faces.  Bravo!

Saturday, September 29, 2012


Take this guy coming down the Max aisle on his way out.  Who dressed him this morning?  He looks like Elvis Presley's runty brother.  He's got bedhead, his eyes are slits, the expression on his face suggests he's getting a second taste of the Cheez Kerls and Cherry Garcia he had for dinner last night.  But his shirt is clean and tucked into his Dockers and he's wearing new shoes and it's 7:30 a.m., so he must be going to some kind of job, right?

In my own way, I've been there.  Slept through the commute.  Missed my stop.  One morning, a guy sidled up to me in a standing room only train and whispered "Your fly is down."  Imagine trying to zip up in that situation . . . Somehow, I did.

Another morning, after changing an inside-out sock discreetly at my desk, followed by a conversation with my boss, I found a booger poking out of my nose.

So, looking at this young man I was looking at myself.  But in slow motion.  He moved freely enough, without a prosthetic, cane or other helpful technology, without leaning on the seat backs for support, in a lucid, syrupy dream.  As he oozed along, his face stayed smooth and bland.  He put one pod in front of the other.  Took a moment.  Put the other pod in front. Took a moment.  If I could have just heard the motor in there, I would have known he was remote controlled and figured the battery was about gone.
But perhaps he was "Being Here Now," savoring the moment -- the Cheez Kerls coming around for the second time, the smell of the crowd, the fluorescent limelight.  What is a journey on Trimet, anyway, if not life's strange journey in miniature?

Shorty Presley finally reached the door, watched his bus go by, said "Damn, that's what I get for making music," and with surprising energy, trotted out onto the street.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


The Max was bulging with passengers.  They leaned to make space for me.

A young guy said "There you go" in a friendly tone and pushed aside a hanging bicycle so I could claim my one square foot.

He was joking with two other guys, having a great time.  His voice and delivery reminded me so much of the comedian Bob Saget that I'll call him "Bob."  Bob was doing most of his joking with a guy who looked like he was cut from a block of lumber.  I'll call him "Woody."  Though they never used one another's names, Woody and Bob both called their mutual friend "Taylor."  So Taylor it is.

Woody, Bob and Taylor were crammed tight next to each other in a semicircle, in that order..

 "How's that feel?" Bob said to Woody. Woody's look was unreadable..

"Can you grind?  I like the grind,"  said Bob.

Woody had some play in him.  "Coarse grind or fine?" 

"I don't care.  Just so I get cream in my coffee."

Woody said "I'm going to pry open the train door and push you out."

Bob said, "I have a hand in Taylor's pocket so it might not be so easy.  Taylor's built like an anchor."

Taylor said, "In prison they told me I was built like a Barbie doll."

Bob said, "You got some hips, Taylor, but I don't know what else those good old boys were looking at.  Did you stuff some TP in your shirt?"

There followed jokes about Barbie and Ken.

"Ken was actually gay, you know," said Woody.

"Oh, yeah.  He was all over G.I. Joe."

"Right.  I suppose Rock Hudson was gay, too."

"Who's Rock Hudson?"

"You are so young, Taylor."

They compared ages.  Bob was 27.  Woody was 23.  Taylor was 22. 

Taylor said "I turned 21 the day I went inside."

Bob said, "Taylor, you need a father figure.  You can be my son.  But you've got to have respect for your elders."  

Taylor didn't respond and Bob asked him what was the matter.  Taylor said he was tired.

Bob said he had lots of energy, though "not as much as when I was tweaking."

Then Bob asked Woody if he was tired, too. I looked Woody over.  He gave off a whiff -- covertly, but still -- of the threat and fear that sometimes hangs around ex-convicts.  He said that "Last night the X-man tried to get in bed with me."

It was chilly last night," chirped Bob.

"I told him he better move on or I'd kick his ass."

Taylor said "X-man couldn't sleep and he kept going to the front for Ambiens.  I'm sure he had no idea what he was doing."

Bob said to Woody, "But you'd still have to kick his ass, right?  Whether he formed an intent or not?"


"Man, you have got good boundaries. I'm proud of you for that."

They were silent for a long moment.  Then Bob said, " I was going to say something rude but I held back.  Out of respect." 

He went on, "You're too young to be tired, Taylor.  Look at me -- much older than you and I've got plenty of energy." 

"I always had plenty of energy when I was tweaking," said Woody, lifting his eyebrows to touch the brim of his cap. 

"That's where I got all my confidence from," said Bob, striking a tone of irony, self-deprecation and truth that Bob Saget couldn't touch.

Taylor said, "You got a little overconfident." 

"That's right, son.  Do as I say, not as I do.  When you get a little older, I'll teach you about the birds and the bees." 

"Too late, Dad.  My girlfriend's pregnant."

Bob said, "Who's the father? I want to congratulate him . . ."

They got off the Max at Third Street, heading towards Pioneer Square.  Happy to be free.

Nick O'Connor
copyright 2012

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Bus Bangers

“Hellloooo, people. We’re stopped indefinitely. There are signal problems at Gateway and trains are backed up all the way to Orenco.”

Great. We’re stuck at the Sunset Transit Center with seven miles of Max cars stopped ahead of us.

As the driver suggests over the P.A., “You may want to take the 20 bus into downtown,” I’m already trotting down the platform.  About half the trainload is right with me.

The 20 Burnside to Gresham arrives like a prompt ambulance and we cram into it. I’ve got an aisle seat and I’m bobbing and weaving as the backpacks and shoulder bags and elbows push past.

As we pull away from the stop, the driver announces,“If you’re going to Beaverton, you’re on the wrong bus.” Comedian.

Once we’re well underway, he comes on with “Welcome to the real public transportation. Those of you who are riding a bus for the first time will notice that we sometimes make right and left turns. This is a skill Max drivers are not required to have.”

This gets some laughs and cuts the tension.

The driver notes the heavy traffic and estimates that downtown is at least a half hour away. Soon, we’re crawling at about 10 MPH.

A young woman standing next to me says, “This is bullshit.”

She’s talking to a young man who points to the woods lining the highway and says, “We should get off and find a place.”

She lets her body continue the conversation, pressing herself against him until he takes her face in both hands and kisses her for a long time. Geez, why don’t they just slide the key pieces of clothing a few inches off home base and do it?

Eventually, they unclench and gaze out the window, not touching, silent as strangers. Stud Muffin wears a modified basketball uniform: long black and white silk shorts, gray cotton singlet, chrome shades, a dragon tattoo on his upper arm. He discreetly adjusts the pants, which have somehow become too tight.

If he’s on the varsity, then she’s a cheerleader with a full arm tattoo and extra thick blue eye makeup.

Again, he points at a shady grove. “There’s a place we could smoke and fornicate.” He and his girlfriend trade little secret smiles, as if he had gently whispered into her ear instead of loudly and clearly enough to elicit a physical reaction from half the bus.

A ringtone: it’s hip-hop, all ego and beats. I, of course, have no idea who the artist is, but he really puts it out there.

The kid answers. On the short call, he’s mainly listening. He clicks off and the girl says, “Well?”

“My mom. I got a warrant or some shit.”

“What did you do now?”

“It’s old. I owe $135 for court fees.”

“That’s nothing.”

As we near downtown, passengers get off and on. A woman in bicycle togs, glittering with sweat, takes the seat in front of me. A faint sweet and sour odor wafts from her.

The girl says, in a fake whisper, “Ew. Smell that B.O.?”

Her partner says, “Glad that’s not me. Then everybody’d know I’d been having sex for three hours.”

Outside, the traffic remains heavy, though moving faster now. A car slowly passes; a pair of bare feet sticking out the passenger window, nails painted silver.

The kid says,“Hide them shits. Them’s claws.” The homecoming couple bust out laughing about this.

They get off at the next stop.

Nick O'Connor
copyright 2012

Friday, June 29, 2012

Sacred Citizen

Sitting across the aisle from me, a man sports a full face tattoo. His faded beige pants stop halfway down the shins. The arms of a black windbreaker are folded back to let his hands out. He's zipped the jacket all the way up so the decorated head sits abruptly on top like a sculpture on a pedestal.

The man is absorbed in a graphic novel. When he moves his head from side to side, a short, greasy, brown-blond ponytail flops into and out of sight behind it. He's propped a wooden walking cane at an angle against one leg.

I want to steal glimpses of the guy; it's not hard to do as he's glued to the book. But I feel queasy and uncertain. Others are casually getting a load of him, too.

The man is tall and bony, adding to the scary factor. I can almost read the title on the cover of his book: “Strong,” or maybe “Strength,” written in drippy gothic letters over a background of swirling demons.

A glance at a time, I check out the face art. It's nothing more than an elaborate, symmetrical doodle of snaky curlicues, with flanges added to the smooth curves next to the eyes, and in the corners of the jaw. Done in a single shade of medium blue, shaded to add dimension, it looks exactly like an ironwork mask.

I'm afraid to look hard at him, though he's inviting it, isn't he? I imagine the conversation:

“You lookin' at me? You lookin' at me?”

“No, I'm lookin' at that . . . grease stain . . . on the seat.”

“You're lookin' at my face tattoo!”

“Sorry. Yes, I am. I'm staring at your unbelievable face tattoo.”

“You could just say 'Hey, that's an awesome face tattoo.' It's not like I'm hiding it.”

"I'm really sorry, man. Your face tattoo isn't that awesome, anyway.  I looked on Google images ( and there are some real  monsters out there."

In my mind it goes like that.

He looks up once in awhile from the book, as if startled, eyes following an invisible moving spot floating around inside the face cage. I could move to another seat but the fascination grips me tighter than the horror and I keep my seat. 

As he gets up to go, I'm staring at him. I want our eyes to meet. I want to see the person in there. Is he trying to get out? I'm sure if I could peep into his soul windows for an instant and catch a gliimpse of the emotional and sensate being catching a gliimpse of me, the mystery would lose some of its charge.

But no. He shows no interest in anything outside of the book. He gets up and leaves at Skidmore Fountain, walking slowly, thoughtfully, alone. Towards Old Town and, I imagine, a free breakfast at a mission.

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Girls giggling: perfectly normal, perfectly natural. They had boarded the Max inbound near Lincoln High School around 5 p.m. and sat together across from me. Three nice, middle-class girls, all apparently with an extracurricular interest in shoes and eyeshadow. They were comparing birthdays – they were all 17, one was soon to turn 18 – and boyfriends, and boyfriends' birthdays.

“Jeremy is 27,” bragged one with huge, Dora the Explorer eyes and raven hair.
Her friends were silently impressed. “He had to make $400 yesterday.”

I strained discreetly to hear what this could possibly mean, picking up that his occupation was “returns.” She told of him returning a $300 leather jacket to Buffalo Exchange.

“When the employees got all suspicious and huddled up in the back, Jeremy just left.”

The other two girls radiated coolness. Fascinated but not asking any stupid questions, like “Who does he work for?” One of them, a fair-haired gamine whose cherry red lipstick overpowered her face, confided that she keeps her stuff at her boyfriend's place. “Shampoo, hairbrush, cosmetic kit. I've got access 24/7.”

The third girl's boyfriend had taken her to a cool party house.

“It's totally soundproofed, with lights and cameras all over the place. There are little secret nooks for hanging out, a kitchen anybody can use, and a runway.”

“A runway?”

“Yeah, like for fashion shoots.”

“Who's the owner?”

“Some forty or fifty year old guy.”

Being a forty or fifty year old guy myself – with a daughter – I was alarmed. How about putting these girls and their parents all on house arrest? Was I jumping to a wrong conclusion in smelling criminal activity?

One said she sold “four, five, six, seven a day at school.” What she sold, I didn't hear. Somehow I don't think she was talking about handmade wristbands or zines. Jeremy's girlfriend said she didn't like to drink “much.” (Bless your good judgment, I thought, while her friends giggled.)
They made calls and set up a meeting in front of a hotel at the Convention Center. At the Convention Center, they got off and I had a chance to look at them more closely as they walked by. Yes, they were all pretty. They wore more makeup than the average schoolgirl but so what? This was all overheard in public. They could have been exaggerating to impress. Jeremy could be a casual friend and the “return” business his own hyped-up exploit to impress her.

And the Convention Center hotel?

Social Skills

It was a nice weekday morning in Northeast. Three middle-aged men boarded the 75 bus together -- all around 40 years old. One using a cane, old before his time, sat across the aisle from me.  His friend took the seat behind him -- he was a rangy guy, all knees and elbows and a mane of gray-streaked red hair topped by a ragged ball cap.  A quiet one, whom I barely glimpsed, ended up right behind me.  The tall boy played with a flip phone and streamed comments to the guy in front of him. 

"Look at that.  I got a new account.  Is that cool or what?  Check it out...," thrusting the phone forward so his partner could glance at it. 

"Uh-huh.  What is it?"

"That's a Boss Mustang.  A 429, the big one, not the little one. . . and look at that cop car.  That's a nice one.  That'd make you want to go to work, wouldn't it?"

"Huh.  Hey, in the shadow there you can see the guy he stopped. . ."

They shared a giggle.

"You'd just be hoping for a high-speed chase in that baby."

"Here's an XKE.  Robin's-egg blue.  XKEs are really rare."

He showed it to the quiet guy, who stayed quiet. 

Middle-class drone that I am, running my life in a rut, I often wonder what other people are doing for money. You never know if you don't ask, of course, but these guys appeared to be unemployed. That would  be very much like 10 or 15 percent of the local working population. And they were dressed for hanging out.

Meanwhile, a few seats back, a young man and woman were getting to know each other.  They'd caught my eye when they came past.

I've been noticing the steady dive of one segment of the PDX fashion trendsetters, past grungy into a deep dumpster full of the baggiest, most faded, most unkempt and stained rags. Naturally, this garb leads to a heavy reliance on tats and face jewelry.  What's next?  Rolling in mud and shaping scabs into bunnies?

These two were were only dipping their painted toes into that demographic. She had boarded first, legs sheathed in black, ripped tights and black knee-high leather boots; up top a holey black t-shirt under a brown, fringed leather vest, and above that, black- and henna-dyed hair ratted out in alarm.  God, the freedom!  To be young and freewheeling!

The young man-boy had Charlie Brown's face, round and simple, and instead of dots for eyes, marbles. In his hoodie and permanent neck art, he gave off the air of a street operator. 

She and he sat together, talking in outside voices about their travels.  He'd been to Cabo and Hawaii.  She'd grown up in New York.  Both loved New York City.

He asked, "Do you want to hang out later?"

"Yeah, sure."


Friday, May 4, 2012

Money for Nothing

Waiting at Pioneer Square in the morning for the Max to the boonies, a guy is approaching each of us waiting there, holding up a book or booklet.  A Bible?  Asking for directions to a landmark in his travel guide?  He gets a couple of “No”s, shuffles towards me.  Homeless, obviously.  Every physical attribute that would suit a person for TV – regular features, gleaming smile, relaxed good humor, eye contact, tailored clothes, voice of friendly authority, warm, charm, physical grace – this man was missing. 

“Excuse me,” he said, looking slightly past me.  “I need five bucks to get into the shelter.” 

He held the booklet close to my face and pointed to a yellow highlighted section. The small print challenged my vision, but the man kept it steady.  Yep, there was City Ministries at an inner Southeast address -- five dollars a night.  I had time to grasp that the publication was one of those free pocket-size handouts listing all the social services organizations and emergency numbers in town.  

Handing over a dollar, I said that panhandlers had been hitting me up for money to get into a hostel at $35 a night. 

“Fancy,” he said.

“How do you  know you can even get into this mission?”

“There’s lots of room.  I was there last night.” 

What am I to think?  That a $5 a night flop is going to have guaranteed space?  That this fellow is really going to spend my morning dollar on an evening shelter?  That this dollar would be better spent on the lottery? 

Doesn’t matter.  Anyone who begs money on the street can have my dollar, if I’ve got one.  Sometimes I’ve said “Spend it wisely,” to the receiver.  No longer.  Now I mutter “Spend it any which way you want.”  It’s a token of the existence of human kindness, which is not always practical.  

The End

Monday, April 16, 2012


This is the third occasion in less than six months that I’m writing about cops on TriMet.  There was the arrest at the Sunset Transit Center in which a crew of boys (and a girl) in black (not blue) were collaring a scrawny pipsqueak in what looked like a Special Forces operation.  And there was the cop who almost lost it when a woman loudly and persistently called him out for harassing a kid who apparently did not have a fare.

Generally, I respect the police.  I very much appreciate the hard job performed by peace officers, a job that a guy like me could never do.  Long ago in Detroit, cops interrupted a pair of bad guys who were robbing me and a friend at knifepoint.  I’m forever grateful that cruiser happened by when it did.  And cops cleared a mean drug dealer out of our Portland neighborhood a few years ago.  So any police who read this, please understand that not only do I see you as people, I believe that some of you, sometimes, are heroes.

Last week, as I was getting off the Max, again at the Sunset Transit Center, two cops boarded – a big one and a small one.  The small one held a leash in both hands against which tugged an eager German Shepherd.  The dog led the cops through the car, sniffing for all it was worth – empty seats, backpacks, shoes, even crotches. 

Before the team got far, a young man burst out, “What is this, Nazi Germany?”

The dog handler smiled photogenically.  As they worked the car, the heckler revved up:  “Do you want to know my race?   National origin?  Ethnicity?  Age?  Sexual orientation?  That’s what the Nazis did.  They used dogs.  Hey, maybe I’m hiding an alien under the seat.”

When the dog sniffed him, the heckler said, “Look at this. What do you hope to find?  This is an illegal search!” 

Perhaps that’s not word for word, but it captures the spirit. 

Credit to the cops, they stayed cool.  Not to their credit, they brought a big dog into a car full of people without warning, maybe a well-trained dog for their purposes but with no apparent respect for riders’ personal space.  The heckler has a point.  The situation reeks of fear and sadism.  

The big cop was about as warm and friendly as the mountain he resembled.  The small one seemed to genuinely enjoy the sideshow they were creating.  They finished and without a goodbye disembarked and waved the train onward.  I passed them on the platform, sharing a nod with the big one.  His name badge said “Stoner.”  Really.  But his face read, “On duty.  Don’t touch.”  

I was able to ask a TriMet guy who was checking fares about the searches with the dogs.  He told me these are training runs.  The dogs are learning to find explosives.  

“Not drugs,” said my informant.   “It’s fun, though, to see all the people who get off the train when the dog gets on.”  And he gave me a wink, which I had trouble returning. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Somebody tell me if you've been played like this.

It happened to me on the Max riding eastbound during the evening commute.  Coming through downtown, the car was getting full.  I was reading a book called "The Anatomy of Peace."  The book tells how to get along with others, which I'd like to do better.

A woman sat down next to me.  I glanced over and we exchanged weak hellos.  This should have been my first clue that I was in the crosshairs but I was off guard. It's because people have been more friendly to me lately.  Maybe it's the charisma of my new cap -- it's a nice wool poorboy, which gives the illusion that the wearer has a personality.  In any case, I was a little too relaxed, so when she spoke to me I joined the conversation, instead of treating her like an obnoxious drunk. 

She asked, "Are you getting off work?"  Showing definite interest.

One can ride public transit for weeks without exchanging a word with another person.  That is, if you can avoid the fare checkers and signature gatherers and phone blabbers.  Silence is the rule.  As I write this, I've been on the Blue Line for six or eight stops and can see 20 riders in plain sight.  I swear that not one audible syllable has eked out of the lot of them.

Wait, I wrote too soon -- a woman stifled a sneeze!  And there -- a passenger excused himself to get past another one! 

Thank god that commotion was brief and my heartbeat can get back to baseline.

It is this tendency towards quiet and solitude in the crowd that raises my suspicions when someone does speak up.  I knew this woman's innocent question was not so innocent, but the book was working on me, and, as I say, I was off guard.   I closed the book.

"Yeah," I said.  "Did you just get off work, too?"

"Six forty-five this morning."  That fit the face -- the blue eyeshadow beginning to smear, eyes working hard to stay focused.

I asked  why she'd been up all day.  The story fell out like she'd told it a hundred times.  Running from domestic violence in Phoenix.  Staying with her three kids at a Convention Center hotel.

"How long have you been here?"

"One month and one day and I sure don't want to go back."

She was working as a caregiver and her paycheck was due in a couple days.  The day after getting paid she was scheduled to move into a place at 70-something and Southeast Foster.  For tonight, though, she had a $39 hotel bill and only $9 to pay it.

I received a text from my wife, who was at a restaurant with our young daughter.  My wife had mistakenly eaten something she shouldn't have and was feeling a severe pain.  I texted back some sympathy.

For the woman next to me, food was an issue, too.  She didn't have any.  

"Where are your kids?"

"They're at the hotel.  The oldest is 15," she said with a gesture I took to mean child care was the least of her concerns.

Though she was missing some teeth, a good sign of drug abuse, and though I know I'm gullible, having emptied my wallet for strangers in the past, I believed her story.  She seemed to be what she said she was -- a poor, desperate mom with three kids who was trying to start over in a new town -- and not a junkie lying her ass off to get money for dope. 
"My name is Nick."


The phone buzzed.  My wife was saying the pain was worse.  I texted back, "Is there something I can do?"  She thought she could make it home to lie down.  She wanted me to pick up some groceries. 

Miranda's stop at the Convention Center was coming up fast.  I gave her the $11 lollygagging in my wallet.  As I handed over the bills I realized that eleven bucks wasn't going to do the job, was it?  I got off the train with her to make a phone call to my church.

Miranda readied a notebook and pen while I tried to reach Pastor John. He was out but would return soon.  I gave her John's contact information, which Miranda diligently wrote down, like a rookie reporter at a White House press conference.  Five minutes later, I boarded the next Max.

When I got home, my wife was lying down, watching a video.  She said she was feeling better, and in a couple hours was up and about.

The next day I learned from Pastor John that Miranda had called him.  He had delivered a box of food to her at the hotel, and paid for her room for one night. 

I'm pretty sure now that Miranda was not scamming.  And I'm glad I was generous.  And sorry I led you on. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

From My Collection: Men: The Introverts

Anyone who rides public transportation to and from a daily job sees the same riders all the time.  They stand next to you, sit across from you, frankly assess your appearance with a glance, and when necessary, acknowledge you.  You may have shared hundreds of hours of travel and recirculated air with someone but positive contact is still normally limited to a smile or “Excuse me.” 

Surprises happen:  On a crowded Max train one morning a man standing nearby edged up to me and whispered,“Your fly is down.”  (I swear nobody noticed me zip up.) 

For the most part, the familiar strangers who dot my commute make about as much impact as the stuff in my spam folder.  And in this era of smart phones, public transportation seems almost to breed introverts.  My personal collection of TriMet introverts includes the following samples. 

A man reads standing up, usually in the spot where the train car is hinged and the floor moves, so he has to constantly adjust his feet to stay upright.  He never leans against the wall or uses a hand for support .  In fact, his hands are full; there's a book in the left one and, in the right one, a pen for making notes in the book.  The book is always covered in plain paper, hiding the title.  Some days it's a big book and sometimes a small one, but the practice itself never varies. 

A mountainous, fair-haired fellow sits on the side bench, holding a large, worn briefcase on his lap.  He's worn, too, overrun by middle age, though he could probably still take me with one hand tied behind his back.  He's not plugged in, never reads, never interacts, just glazes over and often nods off.  His style is Rumpled Business Casual.  Now and then he spruces up – a pressed shirt, a pristine pair of shoes – as if embarking on an upgrade.  A few days later the shirt is wrinkled and the shoes scuffed. 

A young man in a business suit, always impeccable, haircut fresh, shoes shined, listens to a music player.  He keeps a stolid, unchanging face as he walks deliberately, falling behind the rest of us on the walk from the bus to the Max.  His attention is wholly on the player and what's coming through it.  He manipulates it constantly, as if sponging up every last bit of goodness from the same eight bars or the same affirmation and then doing it again.  And then again.  Or maybe just searching, searching without success for that one good tune.  Whatever the sounds he's hearing, they stop somewhere deep inside of him.. 

Though he has the long, white hair of a retiree, he's on the same schedule I am.  Every weekday, he gets on the car carrying a fold-up bike, which he takes to a seat.  A tiny rearview mirror is attached to his glasses.  Sometimes the helmet stays on; today he doffs it, revealing a thin, insulating cap.  He sports an outfit of beige and browns consisting of a fuzzy, armless sweater from which poke the sleeves of a checked shirt.  Shapeless dockers complete the look.  The right pant leg is tied up, showing off a few inches of bald leg and an argyle sock.  From a shoulder bag he pulls a laptop, followed by a pair of big headphones, and goes to work.  I can see the screen, which in no time is packed with columns of numbers that he cuts and pastes for the rest of the ride. 

Now you know as much as I do about these men and their individual routines for coping with the commute.  They share an emotional remoteness.  I can relate.

Next:  The Women