Somebody tell me if you’ve been played like this.
It happened to me on the MAX riding eastbound during the evening commute. Coming through downtown, the car was getting full. I was reading a book called “The Anatomy of Peace.” The book tells how to get along with others, which I’d like to do better.
A woman sat down next to me. I glanced over and we exchanged weak hellos. This should have been my first clue that I was in the crosshairs but I was off guard. It’s because people have been more friendly to me lately. Maybe it’s the charisma of my new cap — it’s a nice wool poorboy, which gives the illusion that the wearer has a personality. In any case, I was a little too relaxed, so when she spoke to me I joined the conversation, instead of treating her like an obnoxious drunk.
She asked, “Are you getting off work?” Showing definite interest.
One can ride public transit for weeks without exchanging a word with another person. That is, if you can avoid the fare checkers and signature gatherers and phone blabbers. Silence is the rule. As I write this, I’ve been on the Blue Line for six or eight stops and can see 20 riders in plain sight. I swear that not one audible syllable has eked out of the lot of them.
Wait, I wrote too soon — a woman stifled a sneeze! And there — a passenger excused himself to get past another one!
Thank god that commotion was brief and my heartbeat can get back to baseline.
It is this tendency towards quiet and solitude in the crowd that raises my suspicions when someone does speak up. I knew this woman’s innocent question was not so innocent, but the book was working on me, and, as I say, I was off guard. I closed the book.
“Yeah,” I said. “Did you just get off work, too?”
“Six forty-five this morning.” That fit the face — the blue eyeshadow beginning to smear, eyes working hard to stay focused.
I asked why she’d been up all day. The story fell out like she’d told it a hundred times. Running from domestic violence in Phoenix. Staying with her three kids at a Convention Center hotel.
“How long have you been here?”
“One month and one day and I sure don’t want to go back.”
She was working as a caregiver and her paycheck was due in a couple days. The day after getting paid she was scheduled to move into a place at 70-something and Southeast Foster. For tonight, though, she had a $39 hotel bill and only $9 to pay it.
I received a text from my wife, who was at a restaurant with our young daughter. My wife had mistakenly eaten something she shouldn’t have and was feeling a severe pain. I texted back some sympathy.
For the woman next to me, food was an issue, too. She didn’t have any.
“Where are your kids?”
“They’re at the hotel. The oldest is 15,” she said with a gesture I took to mean child care was the least of her concerns.
Though she was missing some teeth, a good sign of drug abuse, and though I know I’m gullible, having emptied my wallet for strangers in the past, I believed her story. She seemed to be what she said she was — a poor, desperate mom with three kids who was trying to start over in a new town — and not a junkie lying her ass off to get money for dope.
“My name is Nick.”
The phone buzzed. My wife was saying the pain was worse. I texted back, “Is there something I can do?” She thought she could make it home to lie down. She wanted me to pick up some groceries.
Miranda’s stop at the Convention Center was coming up fast. I gave her the $11 lollygagging in my wallet. As I handed over the bills I realized that eleven bucks wasn’t going to do the job, was it? I got off the train with her to make a phone call to my church.
Miranda readied a notebook and pen while I tried to reach Pastor John. He was out but would return soon. I gave her John’s contact information, which Miranda diligently wrote down, like a rookie reporter at a White House press conference. Five minutes later, I boarded the next Max.
When I got home, my wife was lying down, watching a video. She said she was feeling better, and in a couple hours was up and about.
The next day I learned from Pastor John that Miranda had called him. He had delivered a box of food to her at the hotel, and paid for her room for one night.
I’m pretty sure now that Miranda was not scamming. And I’m glad I was generous. And sorry I led you on. And sorry if the story is “So what?”
© 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.