Can-collecting movie star

June 7, 2008

I see her every day, part of the movie flickering past my window.

Driving an electric scooter chair, she talks to herself, occasionally gesturing as if stressing a point. The woman is among a cast featuring bicyclists galore, women carrying yoga mats, kids chattering to and from school, a United Nations of leashed dogs, and speeding cars I imagine reducing to embers if only I had a rocket launcher.

I watch this cavalcade from my home office, habit of an easily distracted mind. Who is this woman beneath a stocking hat, scanning the terrain for empty cans and bottles? As she whirs into view this morning, I see that her white dog with the doll-like face, usually peeking from her sweater, is missing. But tiny bears and other stuffed animals swing from her handlebars.

The other can collectors scouring Irvington, my Northeast Portland neighborhood, blend into the urban backdrop and pique no curiosity. Their travel patterns are either irregular or don’t register with me. This woman zipping past is an unnamed star in my window movie, worthy of top billing should it end and credits roll.

I jump up from my chair and chase her down, spectator barging onto the set. She pokes the scooter into a neighbor’s open garage and peers into a recycling bin. I call out, interrupting a mumbled conversation with herself.

“Hi there. What’s your name?” Her scowl fades. “Patty” she says. And so begins a curb-side conversation beneath century-old linden trees.

Patty says she can’t haul too many cans and bottles at the moment because her scooter’s front wheels need new bearings. Her dog, a Pekingese and poodle mix named Sparky, is taking it easy at her apartment. They had their picture taken together recently — Sparky wore a new outfit, and Patty can’t wait to see the photos. The cans and bottles help pay for Patty’s food, supplementing Social Security checks. She has diabetes and back problems that make walking difficult and painful.

Six years ago, a guy in a parked car opened his door into her scooter’s path. Patty won the lawsuit. “He lied and I proved it!” She proclaims this like my mother would have, as if speaking of good triumphing over evil. My mother: tethered to an oxygen tank for years until smoking herself to death, unable to climb down stairs and reach the scooter she bought but never used.

I retrieve my empty bottles from beneath the kitchen sink, and Patty stacks them in her basket. I ask her to look for me in my office window. She promises she will.

The movie will never look the same.