When we first moved to Portland we had a rule that we could only walk out the door if we had enough money for bus fare home and enough money for a phone call. That would have come to about two bucks back then. You never know what could happen while you are out and about. As it became more convenient to buy books of tickets the rule evolved to carrying one extra bus ticket, and then eventually the phone call turned into a phone. The principle has never changed: always be prepared to get home, no matter what happens, and always be prepared to call for help. I broke the rule.

One evening as I left the house for a meeting I realized the location was not within easy walking distance, but that in downtown I still had plenty of time to take the bus. With luck on my side, as I stepped up to the corner the bus pulled up to the curb. I reached into my bag for my ticket pack and pulled the last ticket off the stack of perforated stubs. I winced. My meeting was scheduled to run for three hours, and there was still a half hour before it started. TriMet transfers are only good for two hours.

I inserted my very last ticket into the fare register, hoping for an extra long transfer. I greeted my driver with an extra cheery, “Hi! How are you this evening?!” I usually greet my driver, but somehow I hoped that if I was extra nice and happy I would get extra time on my transfer. As usual, I did not look at it until I took my seat. 8:30. Truly, that was a generous length of time before the transfer expired, but not long enough for me to get back home without purchasing another transfer.

At that point there was nothing I could do about it until after the meeting ended. I thought briefly of leaving early, but I had made the commitment to attend, and it was an important meeting. Leaving early for lack of bus fare is poor planning. Generally speaking, lacking bus fare is just a minor inconvenience.

At 9:00 on the nose my meeting concluded. I packed up my things, bundled up and made my way through the southwest end of downtown. Normally, my change pocket is full of paper clips, butterfly claws, nail clippers and the like. Almost never actual money. Something made me think there might be a dollar or two in my change pocket, so I made a bee-line for the stop in the unlikely chance I had enough fare I could get on the bus.

Walking adjacent to one of the many parks I heard, “Excuse me, ma’am?” I turned my head in the dark to see two young men. They were both clean and tidy, though it appeared the young man talking to me had not shaven that day. He was missing an upper incisor. In the dark it looked like he might be missing a second tooth. It was chilly that night, and without heavy jackets or overcoats it appeared as if neither one of the boys were wearing enough layers. Underdressed seems to be a common phenomenon in Portland.

“Ma’am do you have any extra change you can spare?” I almost laughed out loud at the irony of the question.

“Oh honey,” I responded, “I’m not sure I even have enough bus fare to get home.” Yes, I called a perfect stranger honey, but anyone who calls me ma’am is asking for grandma treatment.

“Yea, we need bus fare. That’s what the change is for.” Normally, I would have handed each of them a bus ticket and been on my way. I asked if they wanted a hot meal, and offered Sisters of the Road coupons. They smiled and were glad to accept them. The boys were both polite. As we parted they wondered aloud about the scurry of activity across the street, observing a number of police cars. I did not know. It looked like maybe an exhibit change at the museum. We walked in opposite directions and it occured to me that maybe they were worried about their own safety. Or maybe they were just curious.

Three blocks later I arrived at my well-lit bus stop. The nearby coffee shops had long since pulled their tables and chairs in for the night, and a woman in a heavy, black jacket was already occupying one of the two seats available at the bus shelter. I found a place under a lamp to balance my bag to begin digging for fare. With a little sifting a dollar bill emerged, and I could hear a coin or two. After wiggling, shaking, and sifting a few more minutes, by some miracle my change pocket produced four quarters and a penny. Since we usually buy multiple books of tickets at once I could not remember immediately the exact fare I needed, but I was certain I needed at least a few more cents.

I dragged my heavy black bag over to the bus shelter and asked the woman what the exact fare is these days. Two-ten. Drat. Nine cents short. She offered a dime, and mentioned it would be a 15 minute wait before the bus arrived. As she dug through her own handbag and produced a dime I said, “Well shoot. I practically have enough time to walk down to the square and swipe a card to get a ticket from the machine and get back again.”

“Don’t be silly,” the woman said to me. I thanked her and gratefully accepted the dime, assuring her of the good karma she generated. It was not freezing out, but even with my heavy, regal, silk lined, gold coat I had no interest in standing out in the breeze any longer than necessary. If I left the bus stand to purchase a ticket and could not return before the bus arrived it could mean waiting an additional 30 to 45 minutes.

“Just return the favor next time someone asks,” she said.

I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. I had the equivalent of a platinum card in my change pocket. I could have easily walked straight to the square with the two boys and purchased bus fare for all of us. Three bus tickets would not have compromised our ability to make ends meet. I am not certain that the two young men, one with missing teeth, would have received the same receptive treatment I received. Where was the karma?

What will I do the next time to repay the karma bank and preserve a sense of justice? I do not know. For a number of reasons I am not in the habit of giving out cash when asked. One reason, among many, is I almost never have any. I also prefer not to make unnecessary purchases or use ATMs on the street when unaccompanied by someone I trust. Doing so when accompanied by strangers is unjustifiable. I am frustrated with myself for not thinking ahead.

My rule is as important as ever, but at this time in my life the underlying principle is beginning to evolve. The rule was first made out of necessity. If we could prepare for unforeseen circumstances we could have some options in the event anything adverse happened. We still need to be prepared for the unexpected, but with the privilege of stability “preparedness” no longer means bus fare and pay phones. With the privilege of stability I can also be prepared in the event someone else encounters unforeseen circumstances.

The revised rule: Always leave the house carrying at least one extra bus ticket, plenty of meal coupons, and other essential resource cards so that no matter who I run into everyone can get home safely. You never know what can happen while you are out and about or what might cause someone to be out and about unexpectedly. It is better to be prepared.

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