I'm inbound from Queen Anne, at 6pm, on my way to Center Park. Route 4. This trip is traditionally a bit lighter; rush hour will be over by the time I go through downtown. We'll fill up the bus, but there's always a few seats left over, and nobody will have to stand. The leg of the route between Queen Anne and downtown is usually particularly empty.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I pull up in to a zone in Seattle Center and see fif- is that- yes, fifty! Fifty people at the Space Needle stop waiting to get on! They're all dressed in business casual, and most have name tags. Naturally they're all part of the same group, and they make their way in hesitantly. What is this strange Metro bus? Each has an Orca card, and none has ever used such a thing before; I take advantage of the opportunity to welcome them in and make them comfortable.
Best of all, they are very loud, creating a din of pleasant chatter that makes the place feel like a mix between business convention and school bus field trip. And they're not just going to downtown, no- they're headed all the way to 12th and Jefferson. They're here for the long haul, going all the way across town! Additionally, by "pleasant chatter" I mean a veritable roaring cacophony through which I can barely hear myself blaring the announcements. Personally, I think this is all pretty fantastic. How will all the regular passengers fit? Only time has the answer.
It is a festive and excited group, and one rather out of their element. They watch me with warm fascination as I interact with the regular folk getting on. After a while I ask after their day, and what brings them out here. They're a Kansas City leadership group. That's not too surprising, but what is surprising is the fact that they've chosen to incoporate the public bus- and not just any bus, but the 3/4, no less- into their itenerary, and I tell them so.
A younger woman informs me that some of the fellows on the team are transit enthusiasts, and couldn't help but plan this quite specifically. As we trundle down Third, picking up our regular motley crew of folk on their way to Harborview and points beyond, the crowd onboard in no way diminishes their roaring din of happy business-oriented conversation. It's the evening commute as wedding reception.
Mild confusion and light bemusement shows on the faces of the street folk entering, confronted as they are with the scene inside. You can see them thinking, "this is the 4 to the Central District, at 7pm. Why are there fifty white people riding this bus?" I'm thrilled to welcome everyone, and be at my best in my interactions. "We're on a number 4 today, goin' out to the Center Park project housing," I announce in a jovial voice. It feels like the party bus- even more so than the 4 already normally does. I'm practically yelling into the mic- the decibel level is still so loud I can hardly hear myself... Ah, heaven.
I overhear other passengers, regulars, telling the KC group about me. "This driver is always like this," somebody says by way of practically apologetic explanation. "So many crazy people ride this bus, but he's always like this... to everybody!"
"It's the happy bus," I tell them, butting in. "This route is insane. It's madness, pretty much all the time- but that's what makes it so completely awesome! I'm so glad you guys get to be part of all this!"
A woman in a tailored dark blazer looks at me. After a moment she realizes I'm being serious.
"What amazes me is how many people you know," she says.
"I just really love all this stuff," I say as a self-styled 'hard-ackin brutha' steps on, utterly confused by the mob in front of him. "The fuuuuu...?" he muses to himself, in a pleasant tone.
I tell the young woman and the man beside her about the uniqueness and novelty of the trolley vehicles. They're interested. At Third and James we make our left turn, and our bus can hardly hold any more people, but- it's Third and James. Is there a mob waiting? Of course there is. The motley crew is waiting, and we're late because of how busy we've been, and the mob's been growing in size, an expanding and compounding sea of faces and walkers and smiles and oxygen tanks and garbage bags...
I'm starting to feel giddy.
Ordinarily I would tell people about how there's a 3 just down the street behind us. But today I'm too excited to let these fine folks pass up an opportunity to ride on this absurd carnival taking place inside my coach- happy out-of-town executives, secretaries, and managers- right alongside nurses, wannabes, clerks, students, freeloaders, the have-nots and will-nots, the working folk, all crowding in here...and jovial banter amongst all.
"Let's try to please move back and make room for all these really nice people getting on," I announce, as my familiar ragtag crew looks on in bewilderment. Eighty-odd people on a bus with only forty-two seats, and most of them in suits, holding manila folders and apparently thrilled to be here... "Don't wanna leave my buddies behind here, let's see if we can make it happen..."
"You're optimistic," says a woman in the street.
We do indeed make it happen. Somehow we also fit a few more people- though not all- on at Fifth Avenue. "See if we can make room for our friends getting on here.." There's no real sense of urgency, since there's another bus a block behind us; mainly I'm just addicted to the atmosphere, and love the tectonic collision of worlds taking place. Whoever that driver is behind me, well, he's having a really easy trip. It's working out for the best for both of us.
"Say hi to your neighbor, make some new friends," I suggest into the mic.
Eventually we arrive at their destination, Twelfth Avenue. "Here's the stop you've all been waiting for-" cheers and whoops- "yes, the Great Twelfth Avenue, by the Juvenile Court, King County Recovery Center..." and so on. All kinds of good stuff over here! They're going to a restaurant several blocks north.
They prepare to get out while we're still at the red light, momentarily confused- "we'll let you out at the bus stop right across the street here. Just gonna enjoy this red light a little longer, folks, build up the suspense a little... There we go. Thanks for hangin' out with me, and have a great time tonight..." They do a fantastic job of representing Kansas City, that's for sure. They're all smiles and thank-yous as they pile out excitedly onto the street.
Who says adults can't be as happy as children?
One man, coming up from the back like so many others to personally thank me, tells me of what two guys in the back told him- "that you're like this every day, and that just by bein' friendly and sayin' something you make their whole day better, and they feel great whenever they get on your bus."
I never know what to say to things like that. Such things humble me, and remind me how wonderfully small I am. I could say precisely the same thing about what I get out of driving the bus and being with the people. The change we can offer to other lives is incremental, and tiny, but it is change, and it is elemental.
Victor Hugo said it 150 years ago: there are no small moments. These passing experiences, ephemeral and in-between, are the firmament of life. They are the memories that will come to us, years from now. After the crowd had all left, I began to wish they were still here, and that this ride could drift on endlessly, but of course it couldn't; it is already all fading inexorably into the past.