Commuter Conundrum

Portland Steel Bridge

So it’s Monday, and so many poor schlubs are back to work today.  Not me!  But I have a true story…

Long ago, in a land called Portland, I worked full-time for a company called Aspen, now Lockheed-Martin.  No, we had no defense contracts.  We did not build fighter jets.  We were contracted to the Energy Trust of Oregon, all 7 of us, to help commercial and industrial firms achieve greater energy efficiency by offering incentives, formerly known as “rebates”.  But rebates sounded too white trash, so we nixed it.  The ETO was very green – literally – and Aspen had done energy work, in fact had a whole division based out of their Silver Springs, Maryland headquarters.  It was a good union of contractor teaching this new, intense client everything they needed to know about saving energy on a high level.

At this point in time, where our story picks up, I had been working for Aspen for over a year.  I commuted to work from our NE Portland home. I either rode the bus to the MAX, or drove and parked at Lloyd Center and caught the MAX downtown.  Ssh!  I was not supposed to park at the Lloyd Center for free but couldnt’ afford to do it any other way.  I did eventually get busted, but that’s another story for another day, chilluns.

The car was very full this particular day.  Chivalry is dead, in case you didn’t know, and feminists killed it.  I include myself in that number.  Being young(ish) and able-bodied, nobody offered me their seat when I entered the mostly full train, and I didn’t expect it. It was quiet, filled with other commuters like myself, and students going to PSU.  I found a place to stand and hold onto a pole in the middle of the car, near the exit doors.  Men and women read newspapers. Some souls looked longingly out the windows at the gray day as we crossed the Steel Bridge.  The Willamette was gray-green, rippling cold in the chilly breeze.

As we wound our way through Old Town, a man climbed aboard.  He didn’t find a place to sit either, so he held onto the pole with me.  Our hands touched, briefly.  I looked at him.  Not too long, because that would be impolite.  Portlanders are rarely impolite unless someone cuts in line at Voodoo Donuts.

He was in his 50s, I presumed, salt-and-pepper hair, full beard and mustache.  He was a little taller than me but not much.  He dressed like a homeless person in camouflage and an old flannel shirt and hoodie. All items of clothing had seen better days, possibly with someone else.  Sheltonians  could learn something here about wardrobe.  Still can’t tell sometimes – and I’ve lived here 6 years – if someone is homeless or just dirty.

Everyone’s expressions near to the pole radiated mild disgust, or perhaps tolerance would be a better term.  This particular route – called the Mall – was free.  This man could ride up and down, back and forth across the river all day.

To make this fair, I remember what I was wearing.  I had on a mint green turtleneck sweater, khaki corduroy pants, and black shoes.  Black shoes were practically required if you worked downtown.  You could still look good in the rain, just avoid suede.

The man made eye contact with me.  He eyed me up and down, his blue eyes cool.  I shuffled a little, uncomfortable by the stranger’s scrutiny.  I was pretty covered up.  Nothing to see here, pal.

He smiled.

“Nice earrings,” he said in a gravelly voice, indicating my ear bobs.

I thanked him politely.

“Did ya steal ’em?”


I started laughing.

“No,” I choked out, shaking my head.  “They were a gift.”  They were!  I got them from my stepgrandmother as a high school graduation gift.  Really!

That was the end of our conversation.  There was nowhere else to go from there.  Besides, I couldn’t keep a straight face.

Was this everyday conversation for him, asking people if they’d resorted to petty thievery to acquire their possessions?  Who was he, anyway?  Did I look shifty?  Were my shoes too shiny?  For the rest of the day, every time I got discouraged about my job, duties or co-workers, I remembered him.  I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself.  After all, it could’ve been me riding the MAX, accosting strangers about their attire.  Maybe next time…


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