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."