I'll tell you about last night soon, but first I want to share the second best New Year's I've ever had, which was two years ago. I finished up a pleasant afternoon on the 358 and met my friend Paul, whom you remember from when I did the slightly ridiculous thing of riding his bus for almost eight hours on a day off. I believe his son was nine at the time, and together we headed over to one of their friends' dwellings in Columbia City, populated with a collection of parents and children of like ages. It was the happy house!
Imagine wood trim and warm white walls, decked with color, paper, glitter, light… picture streaks of movement as children run around and about, making the rooms jungles or deserts or mansions, cries of delight and concern. Music from another room, standing in for silence. The parents and their friends are hardly less joyful, nodding with cups in their hands, bursting into spontaneous laughter.
I used to have a great fear of being at a party where I knew no one, but everyone else knew everyone else; how did this now feel so invigorating? A space which made you real. Cup in hand, going back to the kitchen for more; here is the sort of house where squeezing past others in a hallway invites goodness, strangers who say hello. You live for moments like this, where every need is satisfied, for an hour or for a night.
All clocks had been set back three hours, that the children might understand it was midnight, experience the excitement, and then get to bed at an hour where tomorrow could still happen. The rule was everyone there had to make a hat. I sat amongst parents and youngsters, equals all, reaching across the table for scissors and feathers and colored paper. Talking out of one ear about music and jobs, the other about glitter glue and pink versus green. At the intersection of wisdom and the carefree lies something very special.
Upstairs a pillow fight was brewing. Taking part felt essential! I joined Paul's son Hazel and several others in a room with green walls, and we howled and spoke in the laughter of tongues, flying blankets and feathers filling the spaces between. Sometimes you, as an adult, will play at such things at half-speed, or half-strength, so as not to overwhelm the children; not necessary tonight. Here is a girl giving her all swinging those pillows, and the devil help anyone holding back.
The seconds began counting down, and we gathered, and whooped, and cheered. That was New Year's Eve One, with the children. Paul and I were in the kitchen when he said, "hey. Do you wanna go to the Space Needle?"
"Sure yeah, let's go!"
That was a little after nine. The kids went off to slumber, corners were squared away, and around ten Paul and I walked out to a 7. Having come directly from my 358 shift, I was still in uniform. We pretended to give the driver, whom we knew and liked, a hard time, yelling about this and that, before sitting down on the warm and ancient Breda. I began to explain to Paul that I was about to do something important, but odd:
I've done many things on the minute of the New Year, and one of them has been meditating. There are so many things you can do in that first moment– first person of the year to eat a carrot, make a field goal, say a sentence about both aluminum and hippos– that sometimes the fairest thing seems to be to do none of them, and simply meditate, rise into the new year. Or better yet, actually be asleep, and rise by waking up into the New Year. You get the idea. Which is why, I told Paul, I needed to meditate for five minutes on this 7, even though there's people around and it's going to look weird, me sitting up with my eyes closed. He said cool, let's do this.
I came back to wakeful consciousness from whispered voices nearby, women's voices. I could hear three girls sitting to my right. "Yo," one said to another, quietly, "tha's that driver I was talking about."
"Him, right there?"
"Yeah, he's the best one. He's nice to everybody…" and so on.
"Are you guys talking about me!" I smiled in a singsong voice, coming out of my reverie. What a great way to be woken up, by these three grinning stranger friends. I dearly wish I remembered their names. One was in Muslim dress, another had her hair down; they were united in their rich, beaming faces. I told them the man next to me was one of the exceptional bus drivers ("this is the great Paul!"), and they shared about their experiences on my bus. I asked how their New Year's was progressing, what their plans were for the evening and the year.
Theirs was the time of going off to college. One was accepted to UW, the others to the Ivy League, one of them Yale. A part of me trembled with deep satisfaction, at the thought of these three beautiful women of color making it, succeeding against stacked odds by anyone's standards. It's not that the colleges were prestigious, but that they were embarking on their initiative, and right, to aim high. Later it occurred to me they embodied the intersection I'd been thinking of earlier– carefree but wise, light-hearted but thoughtful, playful and intelligent in a single breath.
Paul and I got off in Chinatown and walked the remaining two miles or so to the Space Needle. His hat, made at the party, was enormous– a Seahawks helmet with a large double paper cone on top, plus feathers and other paraphernalia. People leaned out from their balconies screaming, "SEA…HAWKS!" Men took pictures with him. Others recognized me from busland. Chatting up restaurant owners in Pioneer Square. Fists were pounded, and hugs given out. The air was filled with cheer. With his hat and formidable beard, and me, the skinny smiling guy in uniform, we were quite the pair. I think we balanced each other rather well.
Under the Needle now, it's less hectic than I imagined. It's not a zoo, the way it looks on television, but more of a garden; the crowds are definitely present, benevolent huddles massing in the darkness, but between the clumps of humanity this place is easily navigable. Ever present is the massive edifice directly above, wreathed in fog tonight, nigh-mystical, the air thick and tangible. Extra buses are parked everywhere for afterwards, and we wave to our friends. Supervisor Tamara snaps our picture.
What is it about fireworks, I ask myself as the bursts flame out. We strangers below are united, brought back to the sameness of long ago, staring up at a cascade of sound and light. The sparks hang in the air vapor as never before, coloring the fog, a humble Borealis of our own making. Something similar is touched in each of us as we marvel.
When you know someone for long enough, you can sense the child they used to be; that youthful sense of wonder is there still, made awake in the early moments of a new beginning, a gentle voice from long ago, reminding us of the potential we have, gazing wide-eyed up at the heavens, higher and higher into the living night.