I had just finished my grocery shopping, and had put all the bags in my car when I saw an elderly gentleman feeding a large group of seagulls. I’m in the habit of taking my camera with me just about everywhere I go, so I slung it over my shoulder, grabbed my car keys and headed across the parking lot in his direction. By the time I reached him, he had run out of bread to throw and had already started to walk away. I approached him anyway and asked him a question about himself. He stopped and thought and then said if I’d follow him, we could get a cup of coffee and sit down and he’d be happy to give me any information I wanted. I said sure, and followed him back into the grocery store. On the way, he picked up several pieces of garbage he found in the parking lot and threw them away. “My name is Ted Coates and I was born on May 23, 1926. I’m 87 years old, and I was born and raised in Portland. I’ve seen and done it all. I’ve never been in jail or prison, and the FBI isn’t after me, but other than that, I’ve about seen and done it all.” I smiled and chuckled a bit, still feeling out this man’s character. He didn’t budge.
Once inside, he was very concerned about whether I had brought something to take notes with. I told him I usually prefer to just sit and listen, and then take notes later. “Well, if you can’t remember all the things I’m about to tell you to use it for whatever you’re going to use it for, then what’s the point?” I remained unchanged, but felt slightly uneasy as my process was under judgement by this stranger.
"Well," he started once we sat down, "you’re about to meet the most unusual person you may have ever met." He unfolded and laid out three brown napkins in the center of the table. I wasn’t sure why. I noticed he had the ends of two fingers missing. I wanted to ask about them, but once he began talking, the things he said took over and I never inquired.
One by one he began pulling things out of the breast pocket of his button up shirt. A notepad, a plastic bread bag (perhaps from feeding the birds), a pen, and several napkins with writing on them. “You know, there is probably a reason why you were sent to talk to me. I don’t know whether you are a positive or a negative force, but a test will make it clear.”
"You’re going to give me a test?"
"I am testing you." He picked up one of the napkins. "I wrote this this morning. Question: Are humans the primary species in existence in the universe? If so, we have a lot to do. We have a large task at hand." He was an intelligent man and a skilled speaker. He spoke clearly, eloquently, and animatedly as he shared his thoughts on the world, and on the current dynamic of good and evil. His thoughts and plans were so grandiose, it was difficult to discern between genius and delusion. I eventually asked to borrow a pen, and took one of the brown napkins and took crude notes. It didn’t take long for me to realize he was right, the conversation was so lengthy and so rich, his ideas so dense, that my notes on his ideas don’t do them justice.
Among the many ideas he shared with me, these stand out in my memory:
He wants to see a statue erected in tribute to Motherhood. “There is no such tribute to the motherhood in the world. Without women, there is no life. I believe the time of women is rising.”
He has plans to propose a humanitarian project to Barack Obama that will be a country-wide competition between the 50 states resembling the Olympics. State-a-cade is what he called it.
He wants to see all roads and house numbers painted with luminous paint for visibility. “Not white paint, but luminous paint, so that old people who can’t see very well would always know where the road is. And every house ought to be required to have their numbers painted and visible from the streets so the police and firemen can see them clearly and they won’t enter the wrong residence by mistake and find themselves with a lawsuit on their hands.”
He believes that we ought to have an underground tunnel for travel, like the Channel Tunnel that runs from England to France. “They built it under the ocean, why can’t we do that here? You’ll never hear talk of it because the people who run this city are invested in steel, not concrete.”
He held many jobs in his life, including a carnival worker, a Kirby vacuum salesman, a used car salesman and a booking agent. He recited a poem from memory that he had written about himself and his realization at a much younger age that he was a skilled con. At the time of his realization, he was smoking a cigar and threw it out the window, vowing to never smoke again until he became the true version of himself. “That was 47 years ago.” He said.
He pulled out another napkin with a drawing on it. It was a wheel with the letter Y in the center and the word “EIGHT” on each of the eight spokes, creating the word “EIGHTY-EIGHT” in any direction. Underneath the drawing it reads, “When I am eighty-eight, I will be on a roll, moving forward. Ted Coates, Jan 1-2014 Portland OR”
"I’ll be 88 in May this year."
He spoke a great deal about the significance of numbers. The number of letters in his name and their significance, as well as the number of letters in mine, the numbers of certain words and phrases, and their numerical ties to other things in life.
"I’d like to invite you to learn about the 5 positive attitudes that you need in order to accomplish whatever it is you set out to do. Hold out your hand." He pointed to each of my five fingers and one by one, recited, "I should, I could, I can, I will, I must." Now, I want to invite you to learn about the 5 criteria. Hold out your other hand. Reason, need, cause, purpose and benefit. Now hold out both hands and I will tell you the most important 10 word phrase, consisting of only 2-letter words. IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS TO BE ME."
"I should have been a prophet or a pastor."
"I can see that about you," I said. He gave me his first and only real smile.
An hour had passed since we first sat down, my groceries waiting in my car. I told Ted I needed to be going. “Briana Cerezo. Six letters and six letters. You’re a 12. Huh. Maybe someday we’ll work on a project together. Or maybe I’ll never see you again. Either way, it was a pleasure to meet you. You’re a good listener, and I see you’re not a negative force.”