Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Passing the Day Away

I ran into a friend on the morning 75 and we caught up for 10 minutes.  She’s working intermittently, as a project manager through a consulting company.  In both of her necks of the woods – software projects at large organizations and social justice work – money is tight.  But she's working today, and seemed optimistic.

She got off at Lloyd Center.  Miles went by and I suddenly noticed that we were on 5th Avenue – dang it, I got on the Green Line – and I had to get off to catch a Blue or Red Max at Pioneer Square.

Often, there’s an event going on at the Square; that morning it was quiet.  I was looking around at the big buildings and imagining the waves of human intelligence and labor that created a city:  those who were stunned, flung and crushed by Progress, those who swam confidently into the warm waters of the middle class or better, and the few stars who had surfed the American Dream, doing tricks and gaining glory as they went. 

Two men stood in front of the ticket machine, talking.  One was tall, bony and worn.  The other, small, plastered in Army camouflage, held a $5 bill in one hand.  He looked up at the tall man, and the way he extended his neck up and out to make eye contact reminded me of a pet turtle. 

Tall One was showing a TriMet day pass and saying “Five dollars.”  I could hear the rural accent immediately. 

He continued, “Help a homeless feller out.  Look, it’s the genuine article.” 

The Turtle took the day pass, looked it over and gave it back, saying, “I’m sorry, I just don’t know.  I’ve got to get to work and I can’t take any chances.” 

I tried to intervene.  It so happened I had a book of day passes with me.  I showed the Turtle.  
 “See.  Same thing.”  But he turned away and used the machine. 

Tall Guy looked around.  What could I do?  I had a five, which I exchanged for his day ticket. 

The Tall Guy was gone and ankling down the street so quick I had to check the gray market day pass against my genuine article for signs of counterfeit. 

But it was good.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Sometimes riders show up whose suffering is beyond what one should have to bear. For instance:

A garbled human exclamation pierces the train behind me, loud enough to make me jump.  A moment later, it happens again.  It is unhappy.  The sound repeats and repeats. It is like coughing and talking at the same time, and doing both badly.  I turn to see.  The vocalizations are coming from a person in a wheelchair.  I can only see the back of his balding head.  No one is acknowledging him.

Tourette's maybe?  Choking?

As the man continues in this way, I get up and walk to a seat past him from where I can see if he actually needs help.  He is wearing only light clothes, though the temperature is close to freezing.  The clothes are old and dirty.  He is shivering violently and coughing.  He is a portrait of misery.

There is a big sleeping bag on the seat behind him, which slips to the floor and alarms him.  He yells what sounds like "Please help me."

I jump up to put the bag back on the seat but a woman who is sitting closer to the man beats me to it.

At least, I think, he's not being ignored.  I sit and resume my role of secret gawker.

A minute later he's calling out.  "Otter!  Otter!"

Sitting between the man and me are a woman and two men who've been talking with one another and are also carrying sleeping bags. The woman turns to the man in the wheelchair and says "You need water?"

He shakes his head "Yes."  I have none.  There's some head shaking from a few other passengers. But the woman offers him her paper cup of coffee, which he takes.  "Thank you," he says distinctly, and he visibly relaxes.

His shivering lessens.  After a moment he says, pretty clearly, "Green Line?"

The woman says, "No, this is the Blue Line.  You'll have to get out and go back to the Rose Garden to catch the Green Line."

When he doesn't get out at the next stop, she reminds him that he's got to get off the train and go back the other way.

He nods and says, "Too cold." 

She says, "That's all right, baby, you'll get there."

Sunday, February 3, 2013


It was just before dawn on the Hollywood Transit Center Max platform. The daily commuter population had not yet exploded.  As usual, I walked to the far end, hopeful of easier seating at the front of the train.  I paced slowly a few steps back and forth like a caged cat, trying to feel a little more alive.  

Nearby, another human cat was marking territory.  He was more tiger than kitty.  His path completely encircled mine.  He was punching the air.  He was angry.  It was in the low forties, but he was dressed for playing tennis, in shorts, sneakers and a light hooded sweatshirt. He wore a gray ball cap. As we passed, he growled and spat out a flaming F-bomb:  "F***!"   Maybe he had lost a tough match.

I gave him room.  He was talking to himself, not to me, but I gave him room, because he was scaring me.  I watched him, without making eye contact, because eye contact with an angry predator is asking for a fight.  When I was a kid and got into fights, I was sometimes the angry predator reacting to eye contact.  But that was a lot of testosterone ago. 

He got on the train with me.  I curled up peacefully on a seat.  The other cat paced on, spitting an F-bomb every five to ten seconds.  He paced nearby, back and forth between car doors, muttering and punctuating the mutters with "F***."  Every person within earshot was watching him; no one was making eye contact.

After a few minutes he walked from between the doors down the car to where I could neither hear nor see him behind the gathering crowd.  A few minutes later he came back past me and took a spot between the next set of doors.

Something was pushing the man's buttons over and over and over.  I could not relax and read.  There was nothing to do but just wait for one of us to disembark.  Oh, I thought of asking him if he needed to talk to someone, offer to buy a cup of coffee, but I couldn't muster the courage. At my stop, the Sunset Transit Center, Tiger got off a few steps ahead of me. 

I put some space between us by waiting at the foot of the first set of stairs while he climbed them  I pulled my beanie over my ears and gloves onto my hands as he marched upwards, bare legs flexing.  They were lightly tanned, and I thought maybe he was angry with himself for not packing warm clothes for the trip from Paradise.

He went out of sight.  When I reached the top platform, Tiger was taking his first steps on the second stairway, the one that leads up to the bridge over Highway 26.  That's where I was going.

I followed him across the bridge, wary in case he smelled my fear.  At the intersection on the other side, he turned and marched in the direction I was going.  Was he headed for my office?  It was possible.  the business where I work has plenty of walk-in customers.

When he reached the short street that led to my work, to my relief he walked past.  I thought he was headed for the Sunset Strip, a strip club located in a former Denny's.  Then he turned, as if he might be coming around the block.  I walked slowly towards work, and could see that no, Tiger's destination was not the Sunset Strip, but the Rodeway Inn motel. And he disappeared into it.

A couple hours later I was taking a break outside the back of the building where I work. The area is surrounded by a six-foot wooden fence.   I was stretching and bouncing around.  Somebody said, "Getting some exercise?"

I looked up and a guy had come through the gate to stand nearby.  He looked a lot like Tiger, except he was dressed in warm clothes and a blue ball cap.  He walked over to the cigarette butt holder and went through it looking for good ones while we chatted. He was friendly.  Could it be Tiger? 

He asked me what I did in there, and when I said I was a business writer he said he wished he'd taken his father's advice and learned computers.

That's all I recall from our five minute conversation, because the whole time I was trying to figure out if he was Tiger.  Coming to get me because I'd seen too much.

Eventually he said, "Have a good day, I gotta go."

"Okay," I said, "Have a good day."

He mounted a bicycle he had left leaning against a dumpster and rolled away.

A co-worker told me, "Oh, yeah, that guy comes around all the time and scavenges cigarette butts."

Good set up for a scary movie, eh?

If this turns out to be my last blog post, you know which motel to check for clues.