Yesterday I rode the Max train to downtown Portland so I could shop for books at Powell’s. I stopped at Pioneer Plaza because I was hungry and there is a café on the corner of Yamhill and 6th that I like. I ordered a tuna salad sandwich and lemonade, then sat on a stool by a window and watched people, some of them young folks who were wandering about aimlessly.
Their clothing made them look as if the clock had been turned back to the 60’s or 70’s. I was dressed warmly, my San Francisco Giants knit cap over my hair, which is getting long again, so perhaps I was assisting in the perceptible time change. When I wear that cap, I fit in well with the crowd. Even with the SF logo emblazoned on it no one really pays any attention to me. Most people anyway. Occasionally someone will look at me and grin. Maybe I appear as a nondescript old guy with a bit of grey in my hair and sideburns. Maybe I look as lost and homeless as anyone else.
When I left the sandwich shop the air was colder. Though the sun was out, grey clouds were eating up the intense light. I crossed Yamhill and was trying to make my mind up whether to walk all the way from there to Powell’s or take the Max to the next stop and shorten the walk. There were no adults around, but I noticed a small boy about five years old staring at me. He was visibly frightened. I could tell that he wanted to talk to me. I knew immediately that he was lost. We looked into each other’s eyes and that encouraged him. There was a visual connection.
“I lost my mom,” he said. “I don’t know where she is. Can you help me find her?”
“Sure,” I said, though I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do. Maybe call 911? I could feel my old paternal instincts rising in me. Enneagram Type 2 stuff: if someone needs help, then help them.
“I know her phone number,” he said, through tears and fear. He was extremely brave. It had taken courage for him to ask a stranger for help.
“Let’s give her a call.” My instinct was to sit down at his level and set him at his ease, the way I would if I was photographing him. In front of the courthouse fence there is a small ledge at sidewalk level, not really designed for sitting, but it would work. “Let’s sit down over there.”
I asked him his name. “Ansel,” he said. That charmed me. I thought of the photographer as I pulled out my phone. I told Ansel my name and he said, “Hi Richard,” in a wavering voice that sounded like an out of tune oboe.
“What’s the number?” He told me, slowly and deliberately, and I typed it in. He watched me. It was a 303-area code. Longmont, Colorado. Tourists in town for Thanksgiving?
The phone rang once and a woman answered, her voice nervous and distraught. “Have you lost a child?” I asked. I wasn’t sure what else to say. “I’m here with Ansel and he’s looking for you.”
“Where are you?”
“We are right in front of the Pioneer Courthouse at the Max stop. I’m wearing a black knit cap.” I stood up so she could see me in case she was close by.
“I see you! I see you!” As I looked around, I told her my name. She hung up the phone. In a moment I saw her running across the street toward us: long black hair, blue ribbed coat, and boots.
“Ansel, is that your mom?” He didn’t reply. When she reached our side of the street, he ran to her and she bundled him in her arms.
“Did you thank Mr. Richard for helping you?” I’m not sure if he replied, he was so deeply buried in his mother’s hug. She turned to me and said thank you. I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. I almost burst into tears.
“You’re welcome,” I said. “I knew there was a reason I was supposed to come downtown today.”
I don’t know why I said that. Often when I am alone these days, I feel an unexplainable energy guiding me, even when what I am doing is no big deal: like taking the train to downtown Portland to buy books. I just blurted out the statement. There was no response from Ansel’s mother. They were already leaving.
As they walked away, I could not hold back the tears. There was still no one around me on the sidewalk. I did not understand why I was weeping. Then I remembered a time when I lost my own mother at about the same age. It was in a store in a small town in Roaring Spring, Pennsylvania during a warm summer, not in the streets of a big city in the initial stages of winter on a very chilly day. I recalled the feeling of helplessness and dread. I assume many people have had that experience. It makes me wonder about the kids who have been torn away from their parents at the border by mean spirited racists and tossed into cages. I can’t imagine what distress they must feel, especially with no one around to help them find their mother.
The Max arrived as I was struggling to hold back my emotions. I jumped on and traveled one more stop. As the train rumbled, I calmed down. The afternoon was getting colder because of the clouds that had overwhelmed the sunshine. After I exited the Max and began walking up Oak Street to Powell’s, I walked past some homeless millennials wrapped up in sleeping bags. They were smoking dope and playing guitars. They had pitched an L.L. Bean tent on the sidewalk. I had no idea why they were there. They looked healthy. They weren’t the sort of homeless folks who were obviously mentally ill. They ignored me and I ignored them.
I thought of my own two daughters. When they were children that same paternal spirit possessed me when they were sick or upset. I thought about how long ago that was and how much my life has changed since then: living alone in the Pacific Northwest not far from my eldest, who is married and at the same age I was when she was born. I thought of my youngest, living in Iowa, making progress in her cognitive behavior therapy so she can deal with her agoraphobia, supported and assisted by her fiancé.
Powell’s was remarkably busy. I always feel an essence of positive vitality there. I assume that if enough people keep reading and thinking, we can keep our democracy viable in a time when it’s cracking at the seams. Powell’s sells coffee mugs and other items printed with the words “Read, Rise, Resist.” I keep meaning to add a couple of mugs to my coffee cupboard to remind myself that there is hope in these disoriented times.
It was my first visit to the downtown Powell’s store alone. Other folks have been with me since I moved to Portland. As I walked through the stacks and shelves, I remembered the time I was there with Candace in 2007. I remembered where we parked and where we had a sandwich. It was a bright day in Spring, and we spent hours wandering through the store. The memory was vivid and in sharp visual focus like the photographs of the city that I made while we were there.
Seventeen years ago I had no idea I would be there again on a cold Saturday after Thanksgiving, searching for books on Bruce Springsteen and The Who that would give me color and facts for the book I am writing about music I experienced fifty years ago, rubbing shoulders with crowds of young people in the science fiction section, and standing in line to pay for a basket of word treasure with a rebate card from a recent purchase of a new oven and range.
It is still challenging to accept that my expectations of growing old with her were not to be and to acknowledge the fact that she left us bereft when she died without warning. I keep pushing through my new life after marriage and career. There’s no mother to help me. I do it alone. That I do accept. There is a certain freedom that comes with a life of solitude in a new geography that I am only beginning to investigate.
I thought of also heading to a record store up the street, but as I left Powell’s and felt the growing cold I decided to go home. I walked through the passel of homeless kids. I thought where are their mothers? and walked on, back down Oak Street to 5th. At one point a woman strolled on the sidewalk, wearing a heavy coat, colorful scarves, and a red hat. As we passed, we looked at each other, a full eye to eye gaze, not just a surreptitious glance. She smiled. Was it me, or my silly hat that made her beam spontaneously? I kept walking, though there was a part of my mind that wanted to stop and say hello.
I did not have to wait long for the train. There was a group of thirty-somethings making a lot of brash talk-noise, but it didn’t disturb my reverie. The Orange Line train to Milwaukie was empty. I pulled out one of my new books, a recently published volume about the history of xenophobia in America and began reading. My thoughts kept wandering to Ansel and his mother. I hoped he would be ok and not experience much trauma from his adventure and anxiety. I thought he might remember that experience in sixty years as I had remembered mine.
When I arrived home, I put Bob Dylan’s album Time Out of Mind in the CD player. My recent re-fascination with Dylan’s music has nothing to do with the book I am writing; it’s a side project. Perhaps the music interests me because I am an elder and I can finally dive into the murky meanings of his songs, especially the ones Candace loved. She was a walking Bob Dylan lyric archive. She sang along with every song whenever I played his recordings. Not well, she was rather tone deaf, but I always paid attention to the lyrics when she sang them aloud. Now I read them while listening to the tunes. The first track on Time Out of Mind is called “Love Sick.”
I’m walking through streets that are dead
Walking walking with you in my head
My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired
And the clouds are weeping.
Did I hear someone tell a lie?
Did I hear someone’s distant cry?
You thrilled me to my heart, then you ripped it all apart
You went through my pockets when I was sleeping.
The lyrics do not fit precisely into my experience of the afternoon. Yes, the streets seemed dead as the sunlight dimmed, Candace was in my head, my feet were tired, and my brain was spiritually energized. But the dark clouds were not delivering rain, no one had lied, and the only cry I had heard was Ansel asking me if I would help him find his mother by calling her cell phone.
Certainly, my heart was ripped apart almost six years ago, but it was no one’s fault. It was just one of those things that inevitably happens, that we never want to anticipate, that cannot be avoided. But as Dylan finished the song and sang “I’d give anything just to be with you” I sensed the tune searching in my pockets while I was wide awake, looking for the memories that are my treasure, hidden amid the pennies and lint.