You may have seen the video above, about a fight on my bus. The video is new, but the event happened a few years ago. It's something I've been carrying around for a while, and right after it happened, I had no idea how to talk about or even write about it.
The energy of the two men, especially Mr. Navy Seal, and beyond that the unforgivable actions of the Sheriff who started it all… I still have the notes for everything the principals said, and the buildup and conclusion of the event was larger than I indicate in my speech. So too was the fallout of subsequent interactions in the months after. But it was too much to write about (though I'd briefly mention the incident at the bottom of this post, over a year later). Maybe one day when this blog is a book, I'll go into all the details. It was a long time before I could see it all clearly enough to laugh about it.
These men live in our heads, but they go on existing in real life too, and not always how we expect. Last night Mr. Navy Seal got on at the first stop in Rainier Beach. He slowly put his cigarette out, took his time loading his bike. Don't get angry. If he's trying to irritate me by being slow… don't fall for it, Nathan. I grabbed a sheaf of papers from the dash, reading over notes for an upcoming interview.* I took a deep breath when he stepped in. I said hello. I went for it, enthusiastically greeting him by name. Let's start things off on the right foot here.
And wouldn't you know it, he responded in kind. We bumped fists. Something different in his air now: I'm noticing how clean shaven he is, the better repair of his clothing. Smooth dark skin, crisp and fresh in casual dress, as though he'd aged in reverse over the last five years. Taking care of yourself can do that. He chats up one of the ladies seated nearby; they grew up together. He asks after her children. The man's always been boisterous, but now, tonight, he's friendly.
After she leaves he turns to me.
"How you been?" I asked.
"Ah been good, man, it's a good time now. Way better than before." And then he tells me. I remember the explanatory kindness latent in his raspy, masculine brawl of a voice. We all have our low years; his was 2012. He used to work on the Light Rail.
"Thanks for puttin' that train in place, dude," I quipped. "Much appreciated!"
"Well, I had an accident, man." An industrial work accident involving a dump truck and steel poles, and a truck that wasn't inspection-certified, instead cleared under the table. This oversight led to a severe on-the-job injury I won't describe, followed by intense back pain and the call of booze. "2012, man, that year was a motherfucker. My back tore up, drinkin' like crazy, caught up in stupid shit, my momma sick, then mah dog died…."
"Oh my goodness, the dog too! Everything all at once,"
"All at once exactly."
"But look at you now! I'm so glad you… pushed through all a that. I admire that, I respect that. 'Cause it isn't easy."
Don't you wish you could know the story behind every angry soul, every dangerous drunk? To understand the shape of things, the beating and wounded hearts, their voices strangled by loss and vice.
Look at his smile. Those eyes, which have suffered and seen so much, crinkling into crow's feet. Nothing malevolent there anymore. A working man getting off at a decent hour, headed home to a roof he can call his own. I tend to believe that people don't change.
I love being proven wrong.
*I was studying up for a treat I think you'll enjoy– the podcast, Bare Naked Bravery, wherein I was interviewed by the great Emily Ann Peterson! It won't air for a while, but when it does you'll be the first to know!