Sunday, August 30, 2015

Eternal Questions

I was waiting at the southbound 75 stop, 7537, at Northeast Sandy and 42nd Avenue on a gorgeous, sunny weekday morning. From around the corner, a frail old lady on a walker came into sight and shuffled up. She sat on the blue mesh metal seat, well-protected from the glaring beauty of the day by a hat, sunglasses and long sleeved sweater.

She gazed towards where the bus would come from. Then she turned towards me and asked, "Why do you think people become Christians?"

Why do people ask questions like this? That's the real puzzler. But my mind machine sorted automatically through responses for something both kind and truthful. Didn't want to offend an old lady.

"I don't know. I'm kind of a borderline Christian myself."

She waited.

"To answer your question,I suppose most of them are born into it," I said. "I was. I was born a Catholic."

"That doesn't count," she snapped. "You have to accept Jesus as an adult."

I didn't know that rule. But, fine.

"Oh, okay."

The old lady said, "The reason I'm a Christian is I don't want to go to hell."

Why, Grandma, why? The statement sailed past my frontal lobe, landing right on the "You're wrong, lady" trigger.

Still trying to respect my elder, instead of "You're wrong," I said very gently, "What makes you think there's a hell?"

"Well, just look at all this." She waved at the world. "Man didn't make all this."

"What's that got to do with hell?"

Beams of spiritual pity shot from her sunglasses at me.

"If there's a heaven, there must be a hell."

"Oh." Faith. Blind faith.

"Jesus spoke of heaven and hell in the Bible." Where else?

"I have to tell you, I'm not convinced."

She shook her head and seemed about to reply but at that instant the bus came. I trotted to a seat in the back where I could miss the rest of the conversation.

At Belmont and 42nd, I disembarked. So did the Christian lady.

We crossed 42nd on the same light, though I reached the other side first. Then we stood waiting for the next Belmont light together. She turned to me, eye beams undimmed.

"You really should accept Jesus into your heart."

What if she's right? What if I'm bound for Satan's sad, painful and eternal workhouse? It's possible, I guess, but the day -- this day God has made -- is too fine to dwell on something as remote as the hereafter.

"I've actually thought about it quite a bit."

"I'm sure you have," she said, and turned away.

The light changed. I won't say I skipped ahead, but I left her behind to do God's work on her own.

Friday, June 12, 2015


Near the 75 north bus stop, #7449, on Cesar Chavez near Gladstone, there is a 24/7 Plaid Pantry and next to it, a 24/7 Compassionate Caregivers -- a marijuana dispensary. As I crossed Chavez towards stop 7449, my stop, around 7:30 pm on a Wednesday in May, it was still very light outside. A guy was yelling in anger. He was at stop 7449  gesticulating like a children's storyteller to someone seated in the bus shelter.

I slowed down, approaching with caution. The guy was in his 20s, athletic, head shaved, black T-shirt, brown shorts (I was thinking of how to describe him to the police if I had to). His feet were bare.

The object of his tirade, I saw, was a young woman.

"Come on, come on. Let's go," he bellowed.

She said, "Give me my purse."

She was crying.

I was pretty close to them now. They paid me no mind.

He said, "You're embarrassing me, standing here with my butt in the street trying to get you to move."


"Give me my purse."

He did, indeed, have his hand on the strap of her purse, a red leatherish bag. She held the other strap.

She stood up and turned to look at me.

Tears streaming, she said, " He's trying to rob me."

"How am I robbing you? I'm getting my Social Security card out of your purse, which you put there. I suppose it's my fault you're homeless now, too?"

"Please call 911," she said. "This is a robbery."

Her makeup was running, her face was melting, and I was putting the phone to my ear.

The man released the purse. The woman walked past me, looked back and the man was at her heels, yapping on. She said something to him that I couldn't hear. He muttered back to her.

They went around the corner.

During the next 30 seconds, I waited to connect to the 911 operator. Meanwhile, my bus shlepped by.  I sauntered to the corner to keep tabs on the couple. They had vanished.

The operator asked me what happened, what the couple looked like, whether  any weapons were in play, and where they were now. I felt superfluous. The woman had retrieved her purse from the scary boyfriend and was already behind an unidentifiable apartment door with him.

As the call ended, a police cruiser rolled slowly by, past where Romeo and Juliet were last seen alive. The car drove on, a block, two, three blocks before turning left.

I was really hoping I would see the cops roust the angry guy but, no. Just another 911 call without a resolution. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


I boarded the good old 75 bus southbound. Going from home to the Hollywood Library. I sat on the front left bench. Across from me two very large women were chatting. One, in a wheelchair, was wheezing for breath despite inhaling oxygen through a nasal tube.

Her friend sat directly across from me. The two were nodding and quietly cracking each other up. Though I tried, I couldn't hear the words.

A skinny woman boarded and traded nods of recognition with the other two. She held a worn Bible in one hand and tread carefully, as if on a small boat. She sat down a couple rows back from me. At the first stop, she tread very deliberately to the front as if leaving. But instead, the woman grabbed a handful of paper towels from a dispenser next to the driver. On the way back to her seat, a towel flapped to the floor.

The wheelchair lady looked at me, looked at the paper towel, and then gestured. She wanted me to pick up the towel and give it back to the skinny lady.

I picked it up, and as the skinny woman turned around to sit, held out the paper towel for her to take.

"I don't want that paper towel that's been on the floor."

"Okay." I withdrew the towel.

"Would you use a paper towel that's been on the floor?"

I shrugged and tried to smile, thinking I might use one, depending on what kind of mess needed cleaning up.

"No you wouldn't."

Oooh. Were those fangs?

"l just got out of the hospital and I'm not going to use a dirty paper towel."

OH. Oh. Aha. All right, I got it. I glanced over at the wheelchair woman, who had encouraged my kindness. She smiled. Her friend smiled. I smiled back as best I could, feeling uncomfortably warm.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Cracker Jungle

Last Saturday was library visit number 387. Every Saturday afternoon since before she could read, my daughter and I have gone to the Hollywood library. As she's now 13, it may have been 500 weeks since this weekly ritual got started. We've missed weeks, usually because she was busy, but not many. So call it, conservatively, 387 visits.

Some aspects of the ritual remain unchanged. It's the day I make breakfast for her – tea, bacon, toast, a lettuce leaf or two. I pack a lunch. We check online to find out which library books are due and which can be renewed. We often get mad as we're leaving the house because we're trying to catch a bus and one of us remembers something at the last second that causes an anxiety-provoking delay.

Some things have changed a lot. My girl now reads anything and everything. She tore through all of Harry Potter years ago. She dresses stylishly, more like New York City than Portland. Recently she' s been leaving before me and taking the bus on her own, and I catch up to her at the library.

Today I caught up to her before the 75 bus came and we boarded together. At the next stop, a couple got on. The woman I hardly noticed, because the guy was so riveting. He was not wearing a shirt. Warm day, right? But he was not only naked from the waist up, he was fat, hairy and wore a couple of large Band-aids on his back. Grimy baseball cap over a curtain of greasy hair? Check. Three-day beard? Check. Blurry blue tattoos? Yep. Missing teeth, torn jeans falling off his butt, and working his way through a bag of Twizzlers? Indeed so.

Six decades into my own sometimes unsightly life, seeing this character was not a shock. The streets of Portland are littered with such bedraggled unfortunates. No, the sight was touching. I really thought: That could be me. In fact, he's more like me than most of the world. That guy is white, American, and can buy candy any time he wants to. And it appears that there's a woman in his life. Our politics might be the same. For all I know, we're related.

And then my daughter said, “Dad, you've got something on your face.”


She showed me. It took a couple of tries to brush off the bit of chocolate bacon or whatever the hell it was, largely because of my three-day beard.

Her look said, “What a slob.”

Thanks for not calling me a slob.”

She just shook her head.

I am so exactly like that guy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Riding With The Enemy

This morning the Max was very full at the Hollywood Transit Center
and I was resigned to standing. But a couple riders got off the bleachers - the five seats in rows that face each other -- and I took a place. A talkative woman was weighing the plusses and minuses of bicycling the Springwater trail on her own for the listening pleasure of a man I thought must be her husband -- such a good listener he was.

"Transients hang out there," she said, talking herself out of the trip without any help from the man.

As she got up to leave a big, blond guy sitting on the bench down from me, across from her said, "You're afraid of a transient who sleeps out in the cold and drinks beer all day? Kick his ass!"

The guy's big laugh infected me and drew grins from all directions. He got talking with the man I had thought was the husband, asking "What do you do?"

"I'm an electrician."

"That's a good job. Pays good, too. That's where you're goin'?"

"I go to school today."

"What are you studyin'?"

"To be an electrician."

"So you're not legal yet?"

"I could be more legal."

"Do that!" The giant laugh filled the train car.

The big blonde mentioned he's been in the Marines, GI bill, studied computer science. His buddy went to nursing school.

"We all basically laughed at him, but he was working already when he was in school, got everything paid for, was making good money as soon as he got discharged. Thirty-four dollars an hour?  Or forty-three? I forget. And when he started, as much overtime as he wanted. Not so much now, but still plenty of work."

The two agreed nursing was a good job. Travel anywhere and work. The husband guy told of a friend who did that -- a nurse, worked three months here, six months there.

Blondie said he worked for the IRS. I suddenly felt a little different about him, like I knew we could never be friends. He told a loud tale about a man, a self-employed roofer, who made $90K a year but only claimed $30K on his tax returns. He was injured several times, as roofers often are, and in his fifties applied for Social Security disability.

"They qualified him but only for two-thirds of 30K benefits, from his 1040s. He was so upset he protested that he'd been making 90K, talking with an IRS revenue agent. Agent said, 'Yep, you been makin' 90K for quite a few years.' So he got more disability but was in debt to the IRS for hundreds of K."


"Yeah, he netted less than the 20K he would have had on a 30K income."

Blondie went on. "When the Revenooers come for yor assets, they've already sent at least three warning letters and they're no longer negotiating. They're itemizing. Inventorying. They'll take everything but your house and car."

He paused to glance around. I looked away.

"We don't want your stuff. We can't sell it for what it's worth. We just want your money."

A minute later the Blond Bomber left and a mentally disabled guy spoke up.

"Who was that? Is he a comedian? What was he talking about?"

"Taxes," someone replied.

"What's taxes?"

"That's when they take your money away and give it to someone else."

Happy Tax Day!

Monday, March 23, 2015

The White Dress

The White Dress from inside looking towards The Real Mother Goose

I was waiting at Stop 8333, for the Max traveling east. This is the next stop on the suburban side of Pioneer Square in front of The Real Mother Goose. It was about 9:30 on a Tuesday evening. No longer early, not yet late, the street lights seemed harsh, other waiting riders were still, barely breathing, shapeless, anonymous, like heaps of rags dipped in a mud bath. Probably just my mood.

I watched a young woman adjust a wedding dress. 

The White Dress is a bridal shop directly on the other side of the tracks from Stop 8333. In the window are two mannikins in pure white wedding gowns: lacy, layered chiffon and satin.  Behind the mannikins, the room is large. A row of dresses, all white, hangs along either side, creating a corridor, or maybe a walk-in closet fit for the cast of an opera. Every corner of the store shines white except the dark, gleaming, wood floor. Two chandeliers cast a soft, searching light from above, but much of the glow seems to emanate from unseen sources. 

The display artist wore a brown jacket over a forest green shirt, with black tights. Her hair was a popular shade of red -- burnt ochre, maybe. Serenely, she adjusted a dress. She was behind the "bride," maybe pinning together a fold to pull the gown snug. The whole magisterial work of art moved an inch. 

The woman then came around the front of the mannikin and made miniscule adjustments to the shoulders. She smoothed the front, and as her hand traveled, she looked over at me suddenly, as if she'd been watching me watch her. She looked boldly, holding my glance for about three seconds. The thought occurred to me to look away but no, I gazed back at her. 

She broke the eye contact and stepped back from the bride, assessing. She then turned directly away from the window and crouched to shape the bottom edge of the gown. Seconds later, in one move she stood and turned to face me. A different look on her face. Caught, embarrassed, I turned away. 

I suddenly remembered that my daughter has accused me of dressing "like a hobo." Though I had been imagining myself a charming bystander, silently admiring the artist at work, I now realized that she may have been thinking of me differently than I was. 

After a moment I glanced over and she was still working, partially behind the second mannikin, facing out in my direction. Fussing with the hair. I turned my head away so my attention seemed to be elsewhere, but I was cutting my eyes her way. I saw her checking on me and so turned away and walked a few steps. 

The Max pulled up between us. I took a seat on the near bench. As the train moved, she had come around the mannikin to stand looking out the window. We shared a final second of eye contact.

Ruminating on the woman in The White Dress, I thought of my wife. In a few months we'll have a 20 year anniversary. That is a chunk of a life, almost a third of mine. I feel lucky. The chunk has been more difficult at times than I would have liked, less prosperous, with less wisdom gained (on my part) than I might have liked But I declare the chunk to have been good, with many good laughs and a loving, talented daughter. All the credit goes to my wife, who actually knows a few things about marriage. 

And though a wedding day belongs, above all, to the Woman in the White Dress, the trip that follows is shared, like a Max ride at night.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Virtuous Fare Inspector

My favorite fare inspector boarded the westbound Blue Line at the Rose Garden.

He once let me go when I had boarded without a fare because I was clearly under the influence of pain medication. I boarded in front of Kaiser Interstate, arm wrapped in a bandage, and my man was right there. He escorted me off before the doors closed, ticket book and pen ready.

When I explained that I was "out of it," he said "I can give a certain number of breaks to riders each day. Today you're one of my chosen people."

So I like the guy because he was merciful.

This more recent day was a different story. The fare inspector and his partner got on, one at each door of the car. His buddy was at the other end, behind me. My friend started in my row. At the next stop, Chinatown, a bicyclist tried to drag his mechanical up the middle stairway. The inspector was there and said, "You have to board by the back door, near the bike hooks."

The bicyclist said, "Are you gonna hold the door for me?"

Not "Would you mind holding the door for me?" but "Are you gonna..."

The fare guy said "No. If the door closes, push the button."

The biker went to the back door and hoisted his supercool road bike up into the Max. The inspector was working his way back there.  "Fare please.  Thank you.  May I see your fare?  Thank you."

A shlumpy lump of anonymity swaddled in a giant hoodie had no fare. The inspector began to write him up. He was straight across the aisle from the bicyclist.

The bicyclist I could then see in all of his glory.  He looked like an advertisement for a high end bike shop. Tall, lean but with broad shoulders and a magazine smile, golden hair curling out from under his helmet. He wore all the beautiful gear -- the moisture wicking shirt in bold colors, the matching pants showing off the rippling thigh muscles, hi-tech shoes -- the works. He slid a phone out of his backpack and flicked it.

"Hey," he said, waving the phone at the inspector. The inspector glanced over, peered at the phone and said "That's no good."

"Excuse me?"

"I'll be with you in a second." He turned back to the shlumpy rider.

The attitude coming off the bicyclist as he waited wafted back to me. He was nursing a little grin that said he intended to master the situation.

The inspector handed out a ticket, said a few words to the shlumpy fellow and turned to the biker, who again showed him the phone.

"I can see you've got the app but you haven't paid the fare for this ride."

"I'm paying the fare right now." He swiped and showed the screen. "I was waiting for you."

"You're required to pay the fare before you get on."

"I was a little preoccupied.  You interrupted my attempt to board."

The inspector leafed to the next citation on his pad. "Can I see some I.D.?"

The biker whipped out an I.D. and followed up by showing the phone again.  "See, same name as on the phone."

The inspector took note of the name and called in to find out if the subject's name was already in Trimet's database.

"Look," the biker said, continuing to wave the magical phone like a Bible in front of a werewolf. "Look, I buy a bus ticket every day. There's the record."

In a clear and empathetic tone the inspector said "I believe you. But the rule is you need to pay the fare before you get on the train."

He handed the biker a ticket and explained, among other things, that the fine was $175, but if the biker went to court the judge could discount it. "Any questions?"

The litttle smile, which had gone away, appeared again on the biker's face. "How do you live with yourself?"

"It's dealing with good people like yourself that makes my job worthwhile."  And the inspector moved along.

So I also like the fare inspector because he's fair. Handing out mercy and justice, what a great guy. Made my day.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Whine and the Crash

Riding east on Barnes Road on the 20 Burnside in December just after dark, I'm nervous. Barnes is snaking down a hill and the the bus is picking up speed on the wet pavement as the driver makes it whine. The bus feels too big for the lane. Bursts of commuters zip by to the left, an arm's length away. I try put it out of my head, the crash. It's silly to think about a bad moment that will probably never come. Whether we hit a car or a tree it would be bad, yet at no more than 35 or 40 miles an hour and the driver taking some evasive action, the trauma should be survivable. And the crash will transform my life in a way that I can't spin as actually good. Pain, blood, broken bones or deep lacerations, shock, lying out on the miserable freezing asphalt in muck and gravel waiting for an ambulance. These stupid thoughts keep pushing into the foreground.

The nightly commute down Barnes is loaded with these uneasy thoughts. My heart rate climbs. To keep the old ticker in check, I read. I write. I breathe deeply. I remember the odds are with me. The heartbeat plateaus at a wakeful pace.

Not long ago, I had an accident on this very line. I boarded in front of my building across the street from Providence St. Vincent and left the emergency room behind. The 20 bus is usually pretty empty at this point, but that night it was pretty full. I saw that one of the cozy corner seats in the very back was vacant, and headed there.

As you may know, some of the newer buses have two levels, with a couple of steps leading up to the back mezzanine. This was one of those. As I stepped up, the bus surged forward, i.e., opposite the direction I was walking, executing a perfect judo throw on me. I reached ahead to catch myself and the extended thumb of my reaching right hand, bearing most of my weight, caught on a vertical support pole and bent backwards, hard. This saved my face from floor damage. But it really hurt. I yelled something and went to my knees.

Several people asked if I was all right, including the driver, who asked more than once. I got up and walked to the seat in the back corner saying, "I'm okay." several times.

I curled over in the seat, trying inch by inch to accept and deal with the pain. The driver asked again and again I lied. "It hurts but I'm okay."

I was pouring sweat. For such a short fall, the pain was shockingly bad. It was worse than the cat bite last year, worse than the knee in the groin in eighth grade, worse than the broken nose from a Tae Kwon Do kick that ended my quest for a black belt. God, I hope it doesn't hurt like this when I die.

For the next half hour, until disembarking at Cesar Chavez, I gently, gently manipulated the thumb, deciding whether to skip the hospital. The digit would move through about a quarter of its range, with an unpredictable stab, stab, stab, like a toothache. I could close the hand half way. A bruise, which had discolored the hand, stopped spreading. So did the swelling. 

The thought of home was soothing, the thought of an emergency room sad, so I went home.

I lived. The injury was slow to heal but it did. Advil at bedtime helped. Now, months later, it's just a story without a middle.