The Thorns had won by an eyelash, and the enthusiastic crowd had gone wild. It was all a surprise to me. All of it. I’d been in Portland on a sightseeing trip, and as I had no plans for the evening, and I’d never been to a professional soccer match, I’d said to myself, what the hell, and decided to take in the game. I did things like that, now that I was older, by myself and free to follow my whims. Take a bite out of life in ways I hadn’t during my stuffier, younger years.
That was why I’d taken the light rail to the game. I hadn’t done that before, either. I’d driven before. Using public transportation was going to be as much of an adventure as the game itself, so why not go whole hog?
I’d thought the stadium would be half-empty. It was a weeknight game, a women’s game, and so I’d figured there’d probably be a small crowd. I hadn’t realized that Portland had a mania for anything and everything soccer. Men, women, kids, pro, amateur, school teams, independent leagues—soccer! The stadium was full; people were chanting and singing during the game; drums were beating; scarves were waving; coordinated cheers were bandied about. I’d never seen anything like it.
After the game, there were long lines at the light-rail-system stop. I was taking the train back to the station where I’d left my car. When I finally boarded, it was like entering a sardine can as a sardine. The seats were all taken, the aisles in each car were jam-packed with standing passengers, and you were lucky if you got close enough to a pole to hang onto.
It would be about a half-hour trip for me, so I accepted my fate and thought how to spend the time. That took no thought at all: I’d do what I always did. I’d watch the people around me, watch their body language, see how they related and reacted to the folks nearby. How they acted at stops when people behind them needed to get off. How they glanced at the fortunate people who were seated; how they considered their chances of snaring a seat when it was eventually abandoned; saw them work out their various strategies and reposition themselves so they could up their odds of nabbing one.
I am enjoying myself, looking around. I’m taller than many of the other standing riders and so can see over the heads of most passengers.
My eyes land where they often do—on teenage boys. I see several threesomes, quartets and quintets of the creatures and one lonely pair. The boys are generally hyper and can’t contain themselves. They are wearing soccer gear, so I assume they were at the game, as was much of the crowd on the train. I don’t know if the boys’ energy is due to the home team winning. It could be because of the marvelous header off a corner kick in the 89th minute that broke the 1-1 tie, or it could be just that the boys were out at night with no supervision. Too, it could simply be their inexhaustible teen energy. But whatever the cause, they’re full of themselves, they’re happy and alive, and I can’t take my eyes off them.
I look at the different groups of them, but it is the pair who are standing apart from the others that my eyes keep drifting back to. The other groups are interacting with each other. Maybe they all go to the same high school. Or are in the same soccer league. Or whatever; it’s clear that all those boys know each other. They take no notice of the people around them. Those people, especially the older men like me, generally look pained. They generate an air of discomfort toward the kids—or more truthfully, disapproval. Why? The kids aren’t bothering anyone; they’re just being happy, perhaps a bit boisterous, kids. But the old men don’t like them, don’t want them there. It shows clearly in each face, eye and posture.
The pair is set off from the other groups. Those two boys aren’t in any way being boisterous. They’re just standing together. They seem oblivious to the other groups which are tending to meld into one as the train is making stops and unloading more passengers than it is boarding. The smaller crowd in the aisle has caused a change in the dynamics of the people still standing and has allowed the groups of boys to coalesce.
The pair is still standing alone, though; they’re speaking to each other now and then and looking around.
Then one of the pair’s eyes meet mine. Sudden confusion. Should I look away? No, that would be too obvious that I’d been doing something wrong by looking at them. Should I smile and nod? NO! Way too aggressive, too interfering.
What I do is meet that pair of eyes for a second and then move mine slightly, passing by, in no hurry, just looking around, making it look like that’s what I was doing when our eyes met. Just coincidence.
I glance back surreptitiously a moment later, again passing my eyes over the two. Now both boys are looking at me, the first boy speaking in the ear of the other. He’s talking about me. No doubt about that.
Well, if they’re allowed to look at me, shouldn’t I be allowed to look at them? I certainly think that’s fair.
I couldn’t have done that a few years ago. Had I been anywhere between 30 and 65, I still couldn’t have done it. In today’s climate, with all the concern about pedophiles, it’s simply too dangerous. You can’t stare at boys no matter their age if you’re a man in that age group. Well, you can’t, but still I always did, even when younger. The appeal was too great not to. I was careful, of course. But I looked.
Now I am older. Approaching 76. A frisky 75, but still . . . . I don’t think I look like a risk to anyone. And I’m not—never have been. But I am well aware of what I look like to the two teens who are observing me. I am old. Old men give teens a hard time as a rule. And one basic rule that affects teen boys is: don‘t you dare be gay in front of an old man, because old men hate gay boys. Those men grew up in a time when gay people were opprobrious. That’s a generality, of course, but for too many men of an older generation, it’s an axiom.
I allow my eyes, soft and accepting, to fix on them. That puts the ball in their court. Look away from me? Ignore me? Stare back? What will it be?
It’s none of those. It is better. Far better! They don’t see me as a threat; that’s obvious. They see me as something far different.
With both their eyes now on mine, the whispering one says something to and grins at the other, then drops his eyes and his hand, and that hand takes the other boy’s hand. They hold hands, and then the boy slowly lifts his eyes back to mine. There’s a look of pride on his face and just a smidgen of tentative—tentative what? Fear? No, not really. Curiosity maybe? Or perhaps hope? Mostly pride. And then, a moment of conspicuous happiness.
I feel my heart speed up a bit. But I can’t be sure why they are doing this. Do they recognize a person who might be enchanted by their courage, by their age, by their brave approach to whatever lies ahead of them? Or are they playing a game, wanting to humiliate me if I show approval? Point at me and laugh?
No, they don’t look like that. It looks to me very much like this is the first time ever they’ve had the courage to do this in public. Maybe that’s what this is: a test. Not so much of me, but of society. And, of course, of themselves.
All sorts of thoughts and possibilities skitter through my head, along with the sad recognition that I’ll probably never, ever know the real reason they have for what they’re doing.
But I realize I knew what I was going to do all along, without all these extraneous thoughts. I’m going to show them my approval. I’m going to assume they are using me as a sounding board, using me as a window into the feelings of society as a whole.
I start to smile at them. Then I plan to wink and nod my head. They’ll see how supportive I am of them. So, I stand a bit taller—then hear a young voice. “Sir? Mister? Would you like to sit? Here, sit here?”
I turn to find a girl, probably the boys’ age, middle to late teens, speaking to me. She’s sitting but rises, pointing to her seat, a sort of embarrassed smile on her face.
I’m shocked. No one has ever offered me a seat on a crowded train or bus before—not that I’ve ridden that many. But her gesture gives me the sudden realization that now I am officially old. I’ve never thought of myself as old. But this girl sure enough thinks I am. I’m being offered a seat! Because I’m old! My God!
I am old, but I’m not stupid, and sitting down is very welcome. I thank her and accept the seat. I never do get to smile and wink at the lads. When it’s my stop, I get up and off, and the boys are nowhere to be seen.
What did they think? That I turned away from them for all the wrong reasons?
I’ll regret not being able to give them that wink and smile for the rest of my days.
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