The Lightspeed Traveler

My wife, daughter and I were waiting at the 77 bus stop westbound, stop #7510 to be exact, near the Trader Joe’s a block from the Hollywood Transit Center. My daughter was wearing a sorceress costume and cape and reading “The Celery Stalks At Midnight.”

Waltzing along and talking cheerfully to himself came a grizzled old guy. His wild beard, and a backpack under his poncho that shaped him into a hunchback did not disguise a friendly, inquiring face. He stopped and greeted us. The cap on his head read “Couples Retreat.”

“What does your cap mean?” I asked.

“I have no idea.”

He took a long look at the sorceress and eventually asked “Where did she come from?” His tone suggested he thought she might have some powers. He added, “A small egg?”

“From thin air,” I said.

He asked and I told him my name, what I did, where I worked, where the business was located, where we were going. When I asked his name, he asked what my wife did.

I said, “Couples retreats.”

This is actually about 80 percent true because, though she’s never actually held a couples retreat, she is a licensed therapist and her specialty is helping couples. She told him as much. He stepped back, in mock shock.

He asked if she were my sister.

“My wife.”

“Your sister, too?”

“You big joker.”

“Maybe she’s my sister.”

“Now you’re getting personal.”

“Whoa,” he said, in a voice exactly like Popeye.

The cocktail banter continued in this familiar facetious fashion, except that our new acquaintance was free associating at a speed that was leaving me behind. His thoughts would veer off unpredictably, though he never lost touch with us. His phrases were like confetti, magical while in the air and then gone.

For example, one chain of associations I was able to retain, because he said it more than once: “Information becomes truth becomes god. Christianity is insanity. God is dog backwards. A dog eats its own shit twice.”

The trigger, maybe, for that side trip was that I had told him where we were going: “Church.”

“Catholic, Muslim, Jew?”

“Methodist.”

“Christianity is insanity.”

When he wasn’t gathering information about us he was riddling, punning, improvising epigrams. When I took note of his East Coast accent, he said “Where do you think I’m from?”

“Massachusetts?”

Before the last syllable was out of my mouth he was repeating the word in a good imitation of my voice, with its West Coast drawl, then again in what I took to be a true Massachusetts accent, followed by his own, harsher-sounding vernacular. Baddaboom.

“The Bronx,” he said, to sum up the instant lesson in dialects.

He got on the bus with us. There was something else said about church, and he repeated the little “Information becomes truth” rant, ending again with “Christianity is insanity.”

I asked, “Why do you say that?”

“Because it’s a poem.” He held up a credit-card size packet wrapped in a thick rubber band, on top of which showed an embroidered patch reading “AA.”

“How long have you been clean and sober?”

He moved the rubber band down on the patch so we could read at the top, “Army Airborne.”

“Since Vietnam,” he laughed.

He said he went into the Army in 1963 and asked us to guess his age. Suddenly he was speaking French. After some wrong guesses, he revealed: “Soixante-neuf.” Sixty-nine, older than I imagined.

He talked about “The Kingdom of Heaven,” a movie he’d seen the night before. “I bought the DVD for two dollars at Goodwill.” It was nice to know he’s got a place to stay and is not flat broke.

“It’s about Saladin, a great leader of Islam. And about Christianity, which is insanity.”

I and my family deboarded at 17th and Broadway, saying goodbye, but not before wangling our new friend’s e-mail address. It will remain private here, but I can say that it would make an excellent title for a “Star Trek” episode.

The End

© Nick O’Connor: If you had been commuting an hour each way every weekday between Northeast Portland and the Sunset Transit Center at the border of Portland and Beaverton for two years and occasionally woke up, dislodged an earbud, or spoke to a fellow rider, you would have a few stories to tell, too. Nick blogs at Sardines Are Only Packed Once.

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