Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Giraffe Lady...

...lives with her aging mother out in the suburbs. She used to have her own place before the recession. She used to have a job and spent her nights with friends in a garage band on Lake City Way. She tells me all this at a bus stop at 6:30AM on a Saturday. There's no cover over the stop, so we stand under a fir tree to semi-avoid the drizzle. The streetlight gives her pale blue, watery, red-rimmed eyes a purblind cave fish look. Her frizzy, chin-length red hair sticks out pyramidal from the crown of her head, making her look like a goofy One Piece character. Her breath smells like alfalfa. She is on her way to the zoo, where she's volunteered for decades. She spends every Saturday morning mucking out giraffe pens. All the giraffes have Buddhist and Hindu names, and she tells stories about them like they're her children. Her favorite giraffe was transferred to the Oregon Zoo. She talks about him like he was her boyfriend. His Hindu name started with an H, but what everyone called him was "Houdini", because he always found a way to escape his pen. The Oregon Zoo staff once had to retrieve him from the streets of Portland's Pearl District. He was found looming over a hot dog stand.

She really misses Houdini. It broke her heart when they transferred him. Once, she and her mother dove down to Portland to see him. The Oregon "keeper" took her out to Houdini's field, and he definitely remembered her. She could tell by the way he immediately looked up when he heard her voice.

On the bus, I try to get my own seat, but she insists that we sit together. "It'll be packed soon," she tells me. "We might as well sit with someone we like." I try to look enthused. I'd rather be reading my Aleksandar Hemon, but I try to convince myself that every day life brings us unique opportunities, and that we need to be receptive to them. Besides, I'm cornered in the window seat. What can I do?

She tells me about the length of giraffe gestation, about giraffe lifespan, giraffe nutrition, giraffe illnesses. When she runs out of giraffe facts, she gets a nostalgic look in her eyes. She smiles, shakes her head, and wistfully reminisces, "That Houdini... He was really something." I silently vow to never catch the 6:30AM Saturday bus again. Listening to her makes me want to bolt. Her soul feels lonely. Her breath must smell exactly like a giraffe's. It is more than I can handle.


  1. "Give me your attention and your admiration and your sympathy and pity. I've survived, stranger, worship me." Squawk-vulture bus parasites.

  2. I do find that one of the single most important differences between media such as books, television, or music and between reality is odor.

  3. Shark, I totally agree. David, your comment made me laugh! Nice!

    I'm glad someone else feels the conflict between being receptive to a stranger's stories (which can be really cool and interesting in hindsight) and wanting to withdraw instantly from the crazies. For me, it depends on how much energy I have at the moment. Crazy strangers like to suck mad amounts of energy I've found.

  4. Ah, the joys of public transport. There seems to be an uncommon frequency of odd people using the bus these days... not that I'd know personally, but my sister seemed to attract some odd types when she was riding them. Sometimes, they were even driving the bus!

    ...My mother used to collect giraffey things (I'll bet you never heard that adjective before), but she hit flashpoint a few years back when she got sick of having so much giraffiness around the house. I wonder if she was attracted to the animal for the same reason that your Giraffe Lady was? Some Freudian thing, perhaps?

  5. It seems the only way around the dilemma of chaos is to be patient all the time... That being said, alfalfa? Really? And Giraffe breath, yuck!