#388: Zero Plus Three

October 20th, 2014

In that projected tone where the speaker wants to be overheard, a male voice called me over.

“Let’s see. Maybe he knows.”

He was a young Hispanic man, maybe in his late 20s. Short but muscular, he was wearing a tight shirt that said “Cherries R Da Bomb.” His hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail cinched twice – once at the back of his head, once toward the bottom so the ponytail didn’t flare out.

He was sitting, sharing the step of a doorway with a middle-aged black woman who looked at me with amused, commiserating eyes.

“What’s half of two plus two?” the man asked me.

It was the westbound bus stop at North and Ashland at the early part of Friday afternoon’s rush hour. Streets glutted with cars, buses, cabs of people sneaking out of work on an already gray and awful day.

I thought for a moment.


“Why do you say that?”

“Well, two plus two is four and half that is two.”

“You’d think that. You’d think that, wouldn’t you? Let’s see what she thinks. What’s half of two plus two? Now I say it’s not two.”

The woman next to him on the stoop and I talk for a while about different options. He repeated the question a few times, kept tossing out “Maybe she knows” in an effort to lure a pretty young woman waiting for the bus as the third guesser.

He kept repeating the riddle, slightly increasing the space between “two” and “plus.”

Finally, it hit me.

“Three,” I said.

“What makes you say that?”

“Because half of two is one and one plus two is three.”

“He got it,” the man said with a big smile. “All right, now how do you make three even?”

The woman and I looked at each other and smiled, started coming up with solutions. My answer was to turn it on its side to make it symmetrical. The actual answer turned out to be 1.5 and 1.5.

“Now how do you make seven even?”

We shrugged. I guessed 3.5 and 3.5 and then had to step away to answer a text. I didn’t hear the woman’s guesses. I stepped back in time to hear the answer.

“Now I say it’s take off the S,” he said. “Now listen. You’ve got 36 sheep and one of them dies. How many do you have?”

She guessed 35. I guessed 36 because you still have the last one, even if it’s dead.

“Now I say it’s 29,” he said. “Listen. You have 36 sheep and one of them died. How many do you have?”

We each repeated our guesses.

“Now I say it’s 29. Listen. You have thirty-six sheep-“

At that point I realized what he had actually been saying.

“Oh! It’s 30 sick sheep!”

“That’s right. That’s right. Last one. Last one,” he said, looking over at the impending bus, waiting across the light. “What’s zero plus three? Think about it. Think about it.”

I’m proud to say I got this one right.

“Zero plus three.”

The woman had long since given up answering. She just shrugged and shook her head.

“Zero plus three.”

The man hoisted himself from the doorway, walking past us to approach the bus. He turned to face us, nervously checking over his shoulder to make sure he timed the revelation perfectly with the bus’ arrival.

“It’s three,” he said.

We got on the bus. It was a packed, Friday afternoon affair. Standing room only. The man and I were the last ones let aboard, stuck by the entranceway and the Ventra card reader.

The man with the ponytail and the cherry bomb shirt put his money into the machine, looked at the bus driver and said, “You’re good at math, right?”

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