“I was at Guantanamo before it was hip.” Spoken by some old guy in a bomber jacket outside the Blue Oyster Cult (aka Geezerpalooza) concert at Slim’s on Thursday night. Don’t ask me if he was serious or delusional; I decided it was best not to ask.

This wasn’t even eavesdropping, since he was talking loudly enough for the whole block to hear. I must admit, though, I sometimes tune into these weird conversations, but only when I don’t know the people. How can I help it? I’m curious, I’m constantly trying to come up with fictional backstories for the people around me, and I had a fiction teacher in college send us to the quad and the coffeehouse to listen to the world around us. I’d never realized before that just how quickly a snippet of conversation could be spun into a whole story. It makes bus rides and waiting in line much more interesting. Unfortunately, more often than not, people are talking about the inanities of life: how many calories they consumed, how their pet poodle is a genius, or worst of all, who might win American Idolatry. No thanks, I’ll tune into my own private conversation at that point.

An old friend once called me a “chaos attractor,”which sticks years later because it is such an apt description.I can be in a crowd of people, and the wackadoo will come talk to me.Or on a BART train with plenty of seats and only a few people, the raving lunatic will come sit next to me and try to engage me in conversation.

Dad says that this is my aunt’s legacy, that in airports or anywhere, strangers would start talking to her and tell her their whole twisted life story.Yay, thanks.

As escape isn’t always possible (Transbay Tube, for instance), I’ve tried to come up with means for averting chaos.There’s the iPod, a book, avoidance of eye contact, feigning sleep.This weekend, on BART, the conductor came over the loudspeaker, “Bicycle riders are not allowed to have their bikes in the lead car.Please move your bicycle to any other car.”Suddenly, from somewhere behind me, a voice said, “That’s the way to tell them!”I giggled to myself, and kept on knitting.

Next thing I knew, Chaos disguised as a semi-homeless man was nearing my seat, and saying, “I think the conductor just needs to smoke some more marijuana.That would make her more amiable.Don’t you think that would make her more aim-ee-a-buhl, if she just smoked more marijuana?”The voice edged closer to me, and I could see Chaos moving into the seat directly in front of me.Argh!All I could think was, “Don’t look up.Keep knitting.”

The scarf that saved me

My internal dialogue was something like this: “Purl four, knit eight, don’t look up.1-2-3-4, don’t look at crazy, he’s talking to the couple in front of him. 1-2-3-4.” I could see he was scruffy, could hear he was stoned (but, shockingly, more annoying than amiable), and could sense the discomfort of the poor couple he was talking to.He offered them pot and asked them how they become happy. When he said “I can tell you’re happy Irish people like myself,” my dialogue went from counting stitches to self-coaching, “Do not look up!If he sees your freckles and your Irish face, you’re doomed!Knit, dammit, just keep knitting.”I noticed he had a crusty homemade scarf on, and feared that he might see me knitting and engage me in the story of the scarf.

Instead, he started singing, “I’ve been riding down the road, trying to loosen my load…” and meandered off at the next stop.I held my breath through the “Doors are closing, please stand clear of the doors,” and joined in the collective sigh of relief as they closed behind him.

So, as I was channeling my grandma through my knitting, I managed for once to avoid her daughter’s knack for chaos-attraction!