It's a welcome surprise when our preconceptions of how groups of people behave are broken down. Such incidents remind us not simply of the well-known fact that people don't behave like cultural stereotypes, but also of something else- a person may also behave against the established understanding of the persona they choose to project. To explain:
We're a 4, climbing the hill on James, sailing smoothly on the wire, coming in for a gentle stop outside the jail. I announce the jail as one of this stop's attractions, and we have fun getting over ourselves, asking each other if anyone wants to go to jail, et cetera. We get that out of the way.
Stepping on the bus now is a young black American fellow, late teens, and his manner of dress is, well, smooooth, as per the dictates of the latest fashion. Oversized velour Puma pants ($60), sparkling white and appropriately sagged; a poly fleece zip-up cat hoodie ($65), also by Puma, unzipped, with the hood up and strings dangling; this of course is oversized as well, bright white with blue accents; white strapback cap with a factory-fresh flat bill (~$30), gold and silver necklace chains, and top-brand basketball shoes, loosely laced, easily in the $150-220 range. Not a speck of dust on these puppies. He might play ball, but he definitely doesn't wear these when he does. Is he wearing one-way reflective sunglasses that cover his face? Of course he is.
He's a towering vision dressed in glowing white, the world's first combination of Gandalf the White and Jam Master Jay back when Run-DMC started endorsing Adidas!*
In other words, he's too cool for school. Everything about his demeanor suggests that I'm not going to get a peep of acknowledgement from him. That would be fine, but I still say something. It's my nature. After all, I used to wear flannel shirts so big they went down to my knees. Like all other humans, I give him the benefit of the doubt as I say,
"How's it goin'?"
He takes it all in stride and leisurely slurs out, in the kind voice of one young man to another: "doingoodhowboutchurseeelf?"
Oh, I love it. I love it. Who says chivalry is dead?
*Interestingly, this was the first time hip-hop and athletic wear were associated. As commonplace as the connection is now, the linking of those two worlds was considered somewhat arbitrary at the time. This gentleman wears his shoes loosely laced as a compromise between the obvious benefits of having shoelaces (i.e., ability to run) and the fashion statement of having no laces at all. Felons serving time couldn't wear shoelaces because the danger of suicide by hanging, and this was interpreted on the outside as a fashion move.
I've mentioned Nathan (no, not me) before. He shows up on Thursday evenings. He's developmentally disabled in some way, of average height but with a large head and bulky upper body. Behind thick glasses is one lazy eye, and his asymmetrical legs and feet seem smaller than the rest of his frame. Nathan is perhaps slightly older than myself- an old boy of thirty, with sad eyes and jowls.
When first starting out on the 358 I wrote that I hadn't yet ascertained what a normal shift on the 358 is like. That, as I have since learned, is because there is no such thing. Some days you're swamped, carrying a hundred people on a vehicle with only 58 seats, while other days have a leisurely ten people onboard. Sometimes you're 20 minutes late and only halfway through the route, and other nights you finish out 15 minutes early. And of course, the crowd is utterly unpredictable. The air can be sticky with the humming incompatibility of contrasting souls, alive with a vibrant mixture of colors and noise, or it can be a tranquil night out on the town. Even Aurora is quiet sometimes.
One of the rare serene evenings found Nathan and I cruising up Aurora at a relaxing 30 miles per hour. Nothing's happening, and it's a mellow dream of a ride. Nathan always sits in the chat seat. There are perhaps five other people on the bus, spread from front to back.
"I'm gonna put in a good word for ya." He says with conviction, looking at me.
"Yeah, I'm gonna talk to Paul."
"Is that right?"
"Paul Bachtel, that is." He's said these lines before. It's hard to tell if he really does know Paul Bachtel, the union president. "You're a good bus driver, and you deserve it," he continues in a slow monotone, against my smiling protestations. "Gonna get Paul on the phone, have a conversation with him. Maybe get Neal on the phone too."
"Yeah, you're gonna talk to Neal?"
"Neal Safrin, yeah, the VP."
"Well shoot, Nathan, that's real generous of you. What can I say."
Nathan's wearing a dirty sweatshirt and dark pants. Some days he smells worse than others. Does he even really know these guys?
"I sound like I know your boss, huh?" he asks, in a voice that begs to be looked up to. He wants to sound like he's "in with the big guys," as it were.
"What's that?" Rounding the curves at Linden Avenue.
"I said it sure sounds like I know your boss, doesn't it?" He looks at me with his one steady eye, his face apparently yearning to hear a "yes!"
At the time I said, "well, actually he's not my boss. He's just the union president."
"I sure sound like I know the union president," he returns. "Don't I? Don't I sound like that?"
"It sure does sound like that." This is a question he asks all the time, and I don't mind humoring him. Who knows. Maybe he really does know the union guys. I can't tell yet. "Hey, you've convinced me," I'll say.
"Guess where I was," he says after a pause. I look at his friendly pink face. In his eyes you sense a younger person than the body he's hiding in. "I was at Brian's wedding."
"Well, that sounds great."
"Brian Levitt's wedding, I mean," he says slowly, as if revealing a trade secret. Brian Levitt (I've changed the name) is another Metro driver.
"Brian Levitt, shoot, that's wonderful!"
"Yeah, he just got married."
Now, I'm thinking, is Nathan really telling the truth here? Was he actually at Brian Levitt's wedding? Who knows? Maybe he really was. Some drivers establish good friendships with riders. I decide to ask further.
"Where was it?"
"In the north end."
"Now, Brian's an older guy. Is this his first time getting married?"
"He was married before."
"I think so, yeah."
"So this is his second marriage."
"I guess it must be. Sounds like I'm really good friends with the guy, doesn't it? Invited to a bus driver's wedding. That's a pretty big deal, huh? Sounds like he knows me, huh, Nathan?"
The man's fibbing to the high heavens, I tell myself. My sympathy for him diminishes. Brian Levitt drives a lot of north end work, and Nathan probably knows him about as well as he knows me. The conversation drifts of to other things, like the children's daycare he volunteers for and how much he loves the Shoreline Police Department. A few nights later, he's there again. We snake through the madness of downtown, and after we cross 46th and things die down a little, he pipes up.
"Guess who I saw today? Brian."
"Yeah, Brian Levitt. He saw me at Aurora Village, and he signaled me to come over to have a private conversation."
"A private conversation, oh dear. What'd joo guys talk about?"
"Well, I can't really talk about it," he says with a grin.
"'Cause it was private, wasnt it?"
"Good! That was a test!"
"Yeah, he wanted me to go over and talk to him. Talk to Brian."
"There you go."
"Sounds like I'm in with the big guys, doesnt it?" he says with a proud smile.
"It really does sound like that," I say, in no way convinced. I let him off the hook, though; anything else would be unnecessary.
"I should apply for Metro," he says on another occasion.
"Yeah you should. In fact, you should be drivin' this thing right now in fact, that way I could run across the street and get a bit to eat. Whaddaya say, you do a round trip and I'll go over here to the Chinese place-"
"Well, I can't. I can't drive 'cause I can't have a license."
He looks down at the floor as he says this. There's a dejection in his voice that's real, more truthful than anything he's told me in the past three months. I sense it and try to right the situation.
"Shoot, Nathan, you'd be a pro at customer service. You should get in there. Helping people. You know the system, after all." In truth, he really does. I doubt he'd have any problem doing that job.
Later on, he's at it again. "Hey, Nathan. Guess what? For Christmas, my folks are gonna give me a ride home, so I dont have to ride the bus home." He looks at me waiting for a response, before adding, "sounds like they really care about me, doesn't it?"
"It does sound like they care about you. That's wonderful, them lookin' out for ya." We discuss the specifics of what bus he now wouldn't have to take home on Christmas night. I tell him about the bus I'll be taking on Christmas- as a bus driver, I try to drive as little as possible outside my work, and thus use the bus system quite heavily. There's a yearning palpable in his voice as he changes the subject, saying-
"To be invited to his wedding, Brian's wedding, that's an honor. Sounds like he really cares about me, doesn't it? You get that, right?" Looking straight at me.
"Yeah, he thought of you, and wanted you to be at his special day."
"And when I was in the Aurora accident on the 359, man..."
He's talking about the 1998 incident on the 358 (then called the 359, an identical route) where a gunman shot and killed the driver, Mark McLaughlin, resulting in a crash off the Aurora Bridge onto an apartment building that either killed or injured everyone on board. He's claiming he was on it. Lots of people do, though. Anyone who actually was involved doesn't hesitate to tell their story. I know the relief driver who ended his shift on that very trip; Mark had just taken over and started his shift when it happened. As for myself, I'm guilty of doing that as well, in that I tell people how I almost rode that fateful trip; this really was the case. Fate ended up intervening.
As for Nathan, I'm hesitant to believe his words. I could easily look it up, find out if he was one of the passengers, but I decide not to for some reason. I don't want to know that he's lying. He wants something from people, and I don't want to deprive him of that. And, who the heck knows- maybe he really was on that bus on that day.
"I'm so glad you were okay, Nathan."
"Me too. I was in the hospital, and Brian Levitt came to check up on me..."
I suddenly found myself wanting to cry.
Of course he's not telling the truth. Of course he's lying. But the ache in his lonely voice, the desperate yearning for recognition, respect, acknowledgement as an equal, the desire to be thought of as special...that's the truth in what he's telling me. That's the content in his words. We all have that want. There's a nakedness in the emotion behind his words, and it moves me. I don't dispute him or needle at his words. I let him talk it out.
"Think I'll go out for dinner tonight. That sounds nice, doesn't it."
"It does sound nice," I say in a quiet voice.
"I'm gonna go out tonight, have a nice bottle of wine."
"Where you gonna go?"
"Not sure yet. Somewhere nice, though. Fancy, with nice tablecloth, good service..."
We coast through the darkness as the street numbers get higher and higher. The 358 pursues a straight line, pushing ever onward, deeper and deeper out on the wide, cluttered expanses of Aurora Avenue. The bus starts to empty out. Nathan and I share a comfortable silence as the drama of the route dies down. We're approaching 155th.
"You know, I think I'll get off here tonight."
I look around. There aren't any fancy restaurants anywhere at this stop. There's Safeway, Sears, World Market, and a couple of decent gas stations.
"Gonna stop in at Safeway?"
"Yeah," he says softly. "Gonna pick up something to eat."
He doesn't try to hide it anymore. The facade is lifted for a moment.
"You have a good night, Nathan."
"I'll see ya," he says, walking unevenly across the parking lot toward the deli entrance. His off-balance gait is unmistakable in the darkness.
Thank you all for your wonderful comments, as usual. Always feel free to leave a remark- remember, I read and respond to every single comment made on this site.
And now, a round on the 358, down and back~
Aurora &180th: A friendly elderly woman with thick, bug-eyed glasses climbs on board.
"How are you?"
"Fine," she says with confidence, sounding more like a reflex than anything else. She sits in the chat seat and watches me for a few moments. Finally she says, "I have a question about the bus."
"Does this route make a stop by the funny farm?"
She'd asked it in a serious voice. I look at her face, which is serious as well. Is she pulling my leg? Sometimes it's best to err on the side of caution-
"I don't know where the funny farm is. Do you know what street it's on?"
"Well, I don't know the address," she says thoughtfully. "I just figured it must go there, since there's so many crazy people on this bus."
(Including the driver, I think to myself.)
"Oh, those are my buddies!"
She's not sure how to take that. But they are.
Northgate Way: A woman- I think she's a woman- I recognize from my days on the 10. Glasses and an oversized outdoor jacket. She did something to one of her tendons, but she'll still be able to make it to practice. She plays basketball. Quit her job at the airport- "too much hard labor at minimum wage, and no opportunity for upward advancement." She does entry-level work at a hotel now. It's good to catch up.
100th: There's a middle-aged fellow who gets on here regularly. Today he has a white coat with a hood. He hardly speaks English, and there's nothing for us to talk about, but both of us are always thrilled to see each other. "Heeeyyyy," I say gleefully. "Heeeyyyy," he responds with a huge smile. Feels good, pulling back onto the road, my smile not fading away just yet.
85th: A man behind me makes a phone call, loudly: "Hey. Yeah. Hey. I'm on the bus now, at Aurora and 85th."
"Me too," I say. The front of the bus laughs.
Winona and 73rd: Well-dressed, odorless people ride the 358 too. They get on in the Green lake portion of the route. One such lady looks at me with warm amusement. "You don't look old enough to be driving this."
"Maybe I'm not..."
Denny Way: A tall, scruffy older man with a ponytail- definitely didn't get on in Green Lake- pauses as he goes down the front steps to deboard. He'd been muttering to himself for the duration of the trip. Turning his head back toward me dramatically, he says in a conspiratorial voice:
I laugh off the compliment, saying "Oh, I don't know about all tha-"
"No. No. You're advanced, dude. You are advanced."
"Well now. Thank you."
"I'm tellin' ya."
"Advanced." It's almost a whisper. He gives me a significant glance and then walks away.
Virginia Street: "Nice to see a driver who actually gives a crap."
Yesler Way: Another man on his phone, speaking accented English at high volume. A grizzled face nearby says, "Can't hear you!"
As the man continues his phone conversation at deafening volume, not registering Grizzle, Grizzle continues riffing- "could you talk a little louder? I can't hear you so good..." "Excuse me, a little louder, please, speak up a little, can't hear you-"
The man ends his call and puts it together. He sheepishly apologizes. Grizzle ribs him good-naturedly. We all laugh. Sometimes you feel a situation teetering on the brink of a knifepoint. It's a pleasant relief to come down on the right side.
5th & Main: A young family gets off in benevolent silence. The father, a man with cornrows and a sports jersey, wears a thoughtful face. There is a sense of beginnings. The mother gathers the stroller in the dim blue light, and their toddler gazes wide-eyed with deep brown eyes, following their lead. You can tell they're grateful for being in this cocoon of acceptance. Father says to me quietly, "you have a safe shif'!"
5th & Jackson: "Hey!"
"Hey!" she responds. She's on the phone, but I know her from the 7, and we recognize each other instantly. I think she's East African, but can't be sure. She ends her call, and we begin a basic conversation about work and school. The words hardly matter, though. Sometimes it's surprising how little substantive value spoken language carries; neither of us speaks the other's first tongue, but it's hardly a barrier. The shared excitement at coming across another familiar, friendly soul is palpable. She works as an usher and takes night classes at Seattle Central. We smile in the darkness. Leisurely approaching the traffic at Pike, light from the sodium streetlamps casting moving shadows on the bus floor. You live for moments like that.
Pine: "I have a question. Do you to Bell Street?" A young dark-skinned man with an unusually clear delivery. He's enunciating everything. American.
"I'd be happy to go to Bell Street."
"Amen, brother!" He wobbles slightly as we roll out. Sitting down on the wheelchair seats, he yells, "I love this city! You all are wonderful people!"
I try to keep unstable people talking to me. I'd much rather they engaged me then the others. "You visiting from somewhere else?" I ask.
"Hell yeah, I'm visiting! And I'm here to PARTY!"
"There you go."
"Hey mister bus driver."
"You like beatboxing? You know what beatboxing is, where you make the sounds with your mouth?"
"Course I know beatboxing, yeah-"
"Well then, check this out!"
No creative use of my keyboard here will allow me to communicate even a fraction of what came out of this man's mouth. Ostensibly, yes, it was beatboxing, and it was excellent beatboxing at that- in the sense that it was impossible to believe these sounds were in fact being manufactured by a man's vocal cords- but it carried a veneer of loony abandon that can't be replicated. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, sure, but I definitely couldn't believe what I was looking at. His mouth contorted in ways I didn't know were possible. Couldn't possibly be human. You had to be there, I suppose.
I'm wondering how to get him to tone down his beatboxing fervor when he does so on his own, loudly interrupting himself: "I'm happy to be here, Seattle!"
"Where you comin' from?"
"Orlando, Florida, baby."
"A long ways from home!"
"You better believe it! And lemme tell you somethin'!"
"I don't be comin' all that way NOT to have a BIG PARTY!"
"Yeah? You didn't wanna have some small party?"
"Hell no, brotha. I came over here from Orlando, Florida, to GET CRAZY. People don't travel-" He paused, restructuring his thoughts- "if I'm comin' all the way from Orlando, Florida-"
"Yeah, Cross-country. If I'm comin' clear cross the Yoo-nited states-" he sounded like a political commentator now, using the tone of voice Al Sharpton does when he's making a point he thinks is obvious- "then I wanna do some serious partyin'!"
"Makes sense to me," I say.
"Don't nobody need no small get-together," he continues, appropriating African-American English syntax in a way that's clearly not his normal mode of speaking.
"You wanna make it worth your while!"
"Yeah, I'm gonna get down with all my homies the Seattle-ITES!" he boomed, looking around inside the bus. As luck would have it, this trip was almost entirely commuters, none of whom showed any interest in the ultimate party. Our friend was not to be dismayed, though, enthusiastically wishing me well, his receding cacophony blending into the noise of another Belltown night.
152nd: An older African-American man and I exchange fistpounds; it's the second time I've seen him today. Rhythmic pleasantries roll off our tongues.
A sullen Caucasian teenager in the front looks on. Something about our enthusiasm confuses the boy immensely. "I thought it was cool to be pissed off," you can imagine him saying.
Aurora Village Transit Center: "How old are you?"
"Twelve," I say in a dejected voice.
135th: Never seen this fellow before. Could be a teacher, could be a machine operator. "Here, have a bookmark," he says. "Let me know what you think of it next time." He's a like-minded soul in some way; it's an excerpt from the Dhammapada. "Deepen your silence," the last lines read. "Be watchful. Enjoy your empty mind." My kind of bookmark. I haven't seen you again, kind sir, but if you read this- thank you.
130th: A woman in her 20s bounds onto the bus, overweight in an interestingly lopsided, chunky way. She brightens when she sees me, and in her smile I notice a number of teeth are missing.
"I got my surgery done!" she exclaims, beaming.
"Excellent!" Have I seen her before?
"Yeah, they pulled four teeth out! I was awake the whole time!"
I must not remember her, but she certainly remembers me. One of the joys of this gig is getting to talk with people I might never have otherwise met. She stays at the front and we talk about surgeries, landlords, her boyfriend, ways that she covers rent, and more. "My landlord is seventy-six years old, so I clean the rooms for her sometimes. Today I wiped up a whole bucket of blood in one room. Sheets were red, needles everywhere..." she relates the details in a slightly bored voice. No, I wouldn't have met her if I had taken that Barnes and Noble cashier job.
She tells me she's going for a culinary arts degree. At South Seattle? No, she says. At the Art Institute. She's going all out. You can tell she's been told it's out of her league. That she doesn't have what it takes. Her strategy is not to overcompensate with groundless bravado, and nor does she carry the attitude of acknowledged defeat; no, hers is an embodiment of quiet resilience. She will simply continue, on the path of who she is, step by increasing step.
As she explains in a friendly voice how she'd worked out the funding, I begin to notice something beyond her admittedly slovenly physical appearance. The missing teeth, asymmetrical features, saliva stains around her mouth, the double chin to rival Henry VIII- none of those are it. These superficialities cease to register. You notice something else, very faint but present. It's the glint in her eyes. In that pinpoint of light is the unspoken confidence of self. Humanity. It's the world reflecting back at you. Didn't the great minds have that spark when they were young too?
Next stop, 125th Street.
*A note of apology goes out to the "303 WeatherWhiner" mentioned here and here. She has come around quite nicely. Good people come in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds.
Wanted to leave a quick note informing you that I have work (for sale!) hanging in Redmond. Details here.
Note: As always, these stories are presented in their original, unexpurgated form. In my view, a truthful story has more value than a diluted one. I hope this is not offensive.
I heard her before I saw her.
"Don't touch me," the voice said. This is on the 4, going slowly through the Central Area. Loud, belligerent voice, somewhere behind me, escalating, and then finally she stands up, introducing herself to one and all–
"I'M A LIGHT-SKINNED BLACK WOMAN! YOU'RE GON' GET YOUR MOTHERFUCKIN' CRANIUM CRACKED, NIGGER!"
Any driver who's logged enough time on downtown routes knows this lady well. She's one for the ages. The second line she's just blurted out above originates from Dr. Dre's landmark 1992 album The Chronic, and as such it's hard for me to take seriously. This gal doesn't look anything like RBX. She doesn't need to, though. With 225 formless pounds, round glasses covering pudgy narrowed eyes, and a stentorian roar of a voice, she leaves an impression.
Her strategy is to lash out at the other customers, in the hope of a response. "Don't touch me," she'll say as boarding passengers brush past her. When they don't sit next to her, she'll blurt out– "you didn't sit next to me because I'm black, huh?!" Woe betide anyone who says anything- anything- in return.
"That dress looks nice," she yelled at a (white) lady sitting across from her one afternoon on the 3.
"Thanks," the commuter said. "That's nice of you to say."
"The red is a nice color."
"I like it."
"It wouldn't work for me though. Wouldn't go well with my COMPLEXION."
Light-Skinned Black Woman– the name she loudly and frequently proclaims herself as for all to hear- was clearly hoping for some sort of response. White Commuter Lady admirably did not rise to the bait. A wise move, if I may say so.
The interesting thing about the Light-Skinned Black Woman is not that she hates white people. I'm not surprised by that. What surprises me is that she also hates all black people. And everyone else, too. She's very egalitarian in her hatred. She's awfully generous that way. Doesn't leave anyone out. "I didn't know there were any Jews left in America," she said once, to no one in particular. It's the sort of statement that begs for a contentious reply, and you struggle to refrain from going down that road. It would actually be fine if there was no one else on the bus but her and myself; I have the patience to find ways around her bluster.
Other passengers do not.
You can't blame them. The problems generally arise from her pointed comments at others, and the resulting back-and-forth escalation. A conversation on a 5 that began with the line "You're dog's cute" ended with her screaming "I hope your baby fucking dies inside your body, bitch!" at a pregnant woman.
Sometimes, if she gets off without things going too badly, I can't help but thank all the other passengers for actively working to make that happen. She's a known quantity in the trenches. We regular bus-riding folk attempt to get along with her, and sometimes it's not so terrible. The folks up front will attempt to keep her distracted long enough to keep from yelling racial slurs at the top of her lungs. "I couldn't have done that without you guys," I once announced after she'd left. I couldn't keep my tremendous relief to myself.
A story from long ago gets the idea of the LSBW across–
She's at the front of the bus. A tall, built man, in some sort of military uniform, steps on. She engages him immediately with the following: "Hey, Army Guy. I bet they give you a big gun so you can go kill a lotta black people, huh?"
"I said I bet they give you a bigass gun to go kill niggers with, huh? Government Man, killing black people for money. You probably like it. You like shooting niggers, don't you? Getting medals for it. I bet you kill a whole lotta bl–"
"Lady." The military man is speaking to her firmly and slowly. "Check this out. First of all, this is a Coast Guard uniform. And second of all. Maybe you didn't notice it– (big pause)– BUT I'M BLACK!"
The bus falls apart laughing. He continues, on a roll- "Girl, you need to start takin' TWO a those pills you take every mornin' instead a just the one, else you best be cuttin' that one pill in HALF, like this…."
After incidents like this and others, I would sometimes think to myself, "there's three million people out here. All of them are welcome on my bus, all of them– except this lady. Everyone else is my buddy. This girl can go jump in the lake."
This type of thought is a problem for me. I don't want to have to fear a certain passenger. I want to, within reason, be able to let anyone on the bus. Once she was on my bus and my happy 4 devolved into one very unhappy 4, and afterwards I felt relieved in the sense that, well, at least I won't see her for a while. Somehow you don't see her except occasio–
No. I was wrong. She was there the very next day, big and bright as life, right there at Third and Union. Noises build to a crescendo in the Central District, as we approach 23rd Avenue–
LSBW: "Don't touch me," she says to the two (black American) teenage girls sitting right behind me. "You guys are probably lesbians."
Girl 1: "The fu- what this girl jus' say to me?"
Girl 2: "I think she done said–"
LSBW: "I said don't touch me, faggot!"
Girl 1: "Lady, what the hell you talkin 'bout?"
LSBW: "Keep your hands to yourself."
Girl 2: "This girl need to shut the fuck up–"
Girl 1: "Hold up. I didn't say nothin' to you. Ain't nobody bothering your big ass, why you tryna start some shit?"
LSBW: "Stop trying to touch me with your hands that you've been masturbating with!"
Girl 2: "Wha–"
Girl 1: "The fuck is this bullshit? I didn't say–"
LSBW: "You been touchin' yourself with those hands, I don't want germs comin' from your hands gettin' on me."
Girl 2: "Hold up. This bitch say we les?"
Girl 1: "The fuck is you talkin' 'bout? Tryna say some shit about me that isn't true, callin' me lesbian, the fuck is your problem...dirty hands? What the fuck? I don't wanna touch your ugly ass. Stay the hell away from me."
Girl 2: "Yeah, tha's right. You don't wanna touch me, don't fuckin' touch me, girl–"
LSBW: "Don't pretend you ain't no lesbian, bitch. YOU BEEN MASTURBATING WITH THOSE HANDS! Don't touch me!"
Girl 1: "Ah can't believe this girl. I didn't say a motherfuckin' thing to you, I's just mindin' my own business and now you be assaulting me, attackin' my character tha's what this is-"
Girl 2: "Man, your hands is probably dirtier than anybody's. Look at 'em-"
LSBW: "Stop bothering me!"
Girl 1: "Okay, now that shit is funny. It's you that gots to stop botherin' me."
Girl 2: "Go sit somewhere else you don't like us."
Girl 1: "Go sit in the back. Stop bothering me."
LSBW: "You guys need to go get abortions-"
Girl 1 is nonplussed. The situation is so absurd she's more surprised than angry. Foul-mouthed as she may appear, she has not called LSBW any derogatory name. You can tell her profane self comes from a good place, and that she just wishes to cap the situation. She's trying to apply reason to what's going on. It's not working. In her astonishment she attempts a quick recap of the proceedings before launching further–
Girl 1: "What. The. Fuck is you talkin' about, sister? Man, you is an embarrassment to the people, takin' a shit like that up in here. Firs,' you be sayin' to everybody on this bus that me an' my friend is lesbians. Then, you be stirrin' some ca-razy mothafuckin' bullshit about I don't even know what the fuck–"
Me, stopped and turning around: "Hey. Whoa. Hey, HEY. Hey! Both a you are WAY better than this. Why you bringin' this energy inside of my house? Ain't nobody need to be yellin' about lesbians and abortions. We can talk about that later. I need both of you to do me a special favor. Don't say nothin'. I know she's bothering you, I know both of you wanna say a lotta stuff, but please. I'm askin' you for ten minutes."
Girl 1: "I'm a get the fuck off this bus, is what I'm gon' do. Come on, Keesh, les' go. You have a good day, bus driver. Sorry we got into such a big argument."
Me: "Oh man, you know it ain't your fault. You guys have a good rest of the day. I'm sorry this happened!"
Girl 1: "Me too! You have a good night too!"
Afterwards, LSBW and I got into conversation. A friend of mine attends the same church she goes to, where she apparently behaves herself; she has to be civil sometime. She was on her way to her mother's house, and she told me about the fried chicken she was going to eat. It was a relief to get her to talk to me instead of bothering other people– let alone a non-racist conversation at that. Could I be so lucky. She loves talking about the (stunningly unhealthy) food she enjoys.
I was writing above about the worrying thought that I might have to refuse her service. I'm troubled by the idea of rejecting someone because of who they are, as opposed to their particular behavior on a specific day. The latter makes sense. The former rubs against my conception of how I would like to treat people. There was a time (after she told the pregnant lady to have a miscarriage) where I wasn't quite sure where I stood on that line. I mused over the implications one day while driving the 5, back in the days when it turned into the 54/55 to West Seattle. You have a lot of time to think when driving. I pulled into the zone at Third and Pike, now an outbound 55. A lot of activity here, milling about, people getting on and off–
"EXCUSE ME DO YOU GO TO 35TH AND AVALON?"
There she is, big as life once again. You could've heard her yell the question from a block away. The awful truth is, I do go to 35th and Avalon. I hesitate for a split second before timidly saying, "yeah, I do."
"Good," she yelled. "I need to go to 35th and Avalon. I need to get there before six."
"Oh, we'll get there before six. We'll probably get there at five thirty." She's got one thing over on a lot of other passengers– she knows how to plan things in advance!
Now, I'm petrified. The 55 is an entirely Caucasian crowd. It's the height of PM rush hour, and everyone on the bus is white, and every one of them is wearing a suit. We're about to get on the viaduct, where it would be very awkward to pull over if something happens. And something is simply going to happen with this volatile mixture– a standing load of 80 white commuters who've been working all day, and one very unhappy Light-Skinned Black Woman.
She goes and sits down somewhere right behind me, where I can't see her through my mirror. I expect the heavens to fall. I'm bracing myself… and then, it's the funniest thing.
Nothing happens. There is silence.
She doesn't say anything to anyone, and nobody says anything to her. At the end of the ride I took a big, huge leap of faith, going out on what felt like a very precarious limb– I almost squeaked out the words, pretty sure they were a big mistake–
"Have a good day..."
But no! She responded with the world's gruffest version of "Thank you! God bless you!"
Afterwards I thought, Wow. She took the right dosage of meds today, that's for sure. How fantastic. After that day I always give her the benefit of the doubt, like I do with everyone else. Because sometimes she doesn't make anyone cry. Once, in a moment that should've caused an earthquake because of its shatteringly unexpectedness, she bumped into someone's dog– and apologized!
She's definitely still the Light-Skinned Black Woman, however. Make no mistake. As she got off at Virginia one afternoon, after I went out on a limb yet again and told her to "have a good one," she responded with something more along the lines of what I'd expected the first time–
"STOP FLIRTING WITH ME BECAUSE I'M BLACK!"
That's more like it. Everyone within earshot- the rich, the poor, the white, and the black– was totally nonplussed for a moment. As soon as she was gone we all started laughing.
More stories and context here, here, and here.
I'm still working on the writeup about the Light Skinned Black Woman, which I hope to post later this week. As some of you know, there is simply so much to say about the gal. I can't wait to share.
In the meantime, here are some new images in the Photography section of the site. They're from my most recent visits to my homeland of Los Angeles. These are all taken in Compton and East LA.
I have a massive, gigantic post about everyone's favorite passenger, the Light-Skinned Black Woman, coming up. Yes, you know the one. I'd meant to get it in today, but time escapes me. That will come next.
For now, a small aside-
Sometimes passengers will be short on fare and either they or I will say something like, "You can pay me next time," or "Can I get the rest of this later?" or "Let's put it on the tab." It's a polite way of saying, "don't worry about this fare stuff, just come on in and relax. It's cold outside."
However. Rarely are there are times when I am rendered speechless on the job, but when people show up and pay double their fare on my bus, apparently to cover for some other day when they didn't have fare, I am in awe. Yesterday a woman in a wheelchair wheeled herself over to my waiting 358. She had a dollar folded up in her hand. I recognized her- she's the one whose wheelchair makes a beep-beep sound when it reverses, like a garbage truck- and assumed she wanted to ride my bus and had her fare ready. i was excited to see her, but she explained herself-
"I was on your bus last week, but I didn't have the full fare, and you let me slide, and so today I'm bringing you the extra dollar to make up for it..."
I blurted it out without thinking, with a look of complete shock on my face: "You're awesome!"
She said something about wanting to do the right thing, but I interrupted her and told her to come on in.
"Oh no, I'm not riding today. I just came over here to give you the dollar."
"Oh my goodness, you are amazing. This is unbelievable." We still have a few minutes left before I pull out, so I step off the bus and chat with her. She lives a few blocks away, and hauled herself all the way out here just to hand me this folded-up dollar bill. I encouraged her to keep the dollar, but she refused. She wanted to offer some sort of gesture of thanks for how much she enjoys riding all the time. We had a lovely conversation, and we both our separate merry ways, equally gladdened by the goodwill of the other.
I took the dollar. It's like when your Uncle Albert makes that lasagna that's just okay. You take the lasagna, because it's not about the lasagna. Both of you know it isn't the best stuff in the world. It's about the gesture. He's trying to tell you that he cares about you, and when you accept the lasagna, what you're really doing is saying Thank you, I acknowledge that thought and am grateful for it. It was absolutely absurd for me to accept that dollar, but that's why I did.
(The other notes scribbled on the transfer above refer to other small moments from that day- Awesome passenger Westin and I getting carried away on a conversation about UPS, UW, and the positive correlation between taking pictures and feeling happy; me being thrilled to see some people I knew from before (including Jermain, mentioned in numerous rte. 7 posts); a moment on the 346 where a young student I'd never seen before and I smiled at each other as if we'd known each other for years; and a Twilight Zone-like last trip on the 358, where, instead of a hundred passengers, I only had three).
"Do, or do not. There is no try," a security guard said to me with a stern voice.
"Understood," I replied with equal seriousness. "I'm on it." I didn't recognize the origin of the statement. It was 5am on the 358. I tried not to think about how I wouldn't be done with work for the day for another 13 hours.
I, like many other operators both part and full-time, work a split shift. A part-time split is unpaid and ranges from 5-8 hours. What do drivers do on their split? It all depends. Often you have to sleep. Bus driving is not a job that can be done while nodding off. Or you can go to the dentist. You can play pool at the base. You go have lunch with somebody. You live as much life as you can while that daytime clock ticks. A split is almost always simultaneously too much time and not quite enough. Some drivers go catch a matinee. I knew of one who would run out to UW and sit in on classes.
As for myself, I try to nap every other day. I live and die by these naps. I go all the way home to partake in them, because I rarely fall asleep in the designated Quiet Rooms, where other drivers are sleeping- I don't know how to fall asleep when someone is snoring. It's a skill I wish I possessed.
On my non-nap days, I feel compelled to do something. On occasion I would take the advice of driver Rich- "Grab a 56 to Alki, and go lay in the sun for a few hours. Just do it." This was back when there was a bus from downtown to Alki. I'd bus out there and read and walk and bask in the sunshine. "Sleep when you're dead, dude," he would say. "It's beautiful out."
Today it's cloudy. There are no shows for me to hang, no film shoots to prep or screenplays to work on. I'm free. After pulling into Central Base, I spend some time catching up with drivers I haven't seen in a while. Then I run out to catch the 41 only to miss it by a hair- by a fraction of a second- as he drives past the stop. He had to have seen me. Many's the bus rider who knows what that feels like. Because of this I decide I must not be meant to ride the 41 home, and instead go into town on the 545. I don't recognize this driver, but he knows me, and we fall into conversation. He's been part-time 22 years, and teaches at several area community colleges. He starts telling me about what it feels like to teach the students. I'm sitting up there in the chat seat, listening to his booming tenor voice and watching the cars and people go by. It's these in-between moments that I often relish as much as the more obviously exciting parts of life. There are so many stories out there.
I stroll over to the Art Museum, excited because it's a "Member Monday," only to discover the place is closed; I'm one of those non-smartphone people. I can't predict stuff like that. What am I to do? Several hours left, but not enough to commence anything too elaborate. It's the feeling of having no plans on Sunday afternoon, where you'd waited all week to have free time, but now that it's here, it's whittling itself away, and there's less activities to do with each passing minute. Monday morning is looming, and the hours are counting down.
I run down the blocks on Second Avenue, sprinting to make a succession of 'walk' signals; when I'm running I feel whole, like all the parts of my body are coming together and have a unified purpose. I meander through the library. They don't carry Sight & Sound. On Marion I greet at a man who's missing some marbles. "Stop smiling at my white skin, you brown motherfucker," he shrieks in a guttural baritone. "Have a good day now," I yell after him. "I know you can do it!" A nearby Securitas guard and I share a laugh.
I find myself at the Kinokuniya bookstore, the one attached to the Uwajimaya building. I'm flipping through the new Jared Diamond book. He's talking about conflict resolution in primitive societies. I glance at the David Byrne book, the one with the doughy white cover. He's discussing the tendency to conflate the new with the inauthentic- something I certainly do. I glance at a selection of journals and notebooks. On one of them, loudly printed in oversized green type, is this: "Do or Do Not. There is No Try." Next to it is a picture of Yoda, from Star Wars. So that's where that comes from. I marvel at the fact that, having not seen or heard the reference in over a decade, I notice it twice in one day.
At Uwajimaya I pick up seaweed and parilla leaves. Strolling back to Central Base, where I've stored my backpack, I run into a man with a familiar face. "If you need an umbrella, I can get you one," he says to me. Ah, the kindness of strangers.
Once again, I sprint for the 41. There's just enough time to go home and cook a quick lunch before grabbing a 346 back to North Base. This time I do make the 41, and Craig is onboard. Craig's been a fixture at Atlantic for years now. He tells me about a series of interviews he's conducting on race. He's trying to compile a bunch of firsthand accounts of people's interactions with the racial divide. We talk about the value of oral histories and creating primary rather than secondary or tertiary bodies of historical information.
Next to Craig on the 41 is young woman of perhaps 30, with her stroller, plastic bags, and toddler in tow. "What are you guys talking about?" The conversation makes room for her and we all chat for a bit. She then leaves us be, trying to be polite. As she steps off at University Street, I want to wish her a nice day- but I hesitate. We only talked for a minute. Would it be weird? Would it make sense? Who cares. I just go ahead and say it, as she's struggling with her stroller: "have a good one!"
"Thanks," she says with a mild exclamation point. She wasn't expecting that, and you can tell she's warmed by it. Her afternoon is now a little different than it was before. I'm reminded of a moment on the 13, where I had asked a man how his day was. "It's been kind of okay, actually," he said. In a tone of surprise he went on, "you know, nobody's asked me that all day. I'm glad you said something."
You've had days or afternoons like this, where nothing really happened, and there wasn't really anything you could do. You had a few extra hours to aimlessly drift in space. You search for something, or I do, some sort of internal calm that lets me be happy doing nothing. Trying to get away from that feeling of wasting time. And then finally you push through, experiencing the gentle pulse of the present, unclouded by obligation. Here was a day where I had accomplished no great feat, but somehow I felt very fulfilled. You aren't wasting time. You're living in the present. You're attuned to details. It felt real to wish that mother well, to see the lines in her forehead disappear for that moment.
I'll end with a quote from Anna Quindlen, extolling the need for the Whitmanesque in our times:
"I don't believe you can write poetry, or compose music, or become an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity....There is ample psychological research suggesting that what we might call 'doing nothing' is when human beings actually do their best thinking, and when creativity comes to call. Perhaps we are creating an entire generation of people whose ability to think outside the box...is being systematically stunted by scheduling."
There have been a number of recent and ongoing developments that limit the amount of customer service a Metro driver is able to offer. First it was the introduction of the low-floor coach, insisted upon by the ADA, which puts the customer seating further away from the driver. The front right wheel of the bus is in the way, and although low-floor vehicles in other countries put seats on top of the wheelwell, that is just not done here, perhaps because of safety standards.
For many reasons, the low-floor coach is a great idea, most obviously because disabled customers can use the bus considerably faster and with less hassle. People can get on and off the bus more quickly. There are pros and cons to everything, of course; there are also the negatives of less seats, higher possibility of passenger injuries during an accident (because the passengers are now at ground-level, alongside the cars), and so on. And sometimes, to be honest, it's nice to have the chat seat a little further back, such as when you have a stalker or someone who talks loudly about knitting.
For me, the big con is not getting to talk to people. You just don't have as much interaction when you're driving a low-floor. Why is that? Firstly, there's the aspect that the "chat seat" is now ten feet away from you, rather than an arms-length. There are certain conversations you just can't have when you're yelling (ever tried talking philosophy at a loud bar?). You also can't casually ask someone how there day is when you have to turn all the away around to see them. It's awkward and unnecessary.
There's also the "driver in the throne" aspect. On a low floor, the driver's way up there somewhere, in the high heavens, busy sitting on his throne. He's elevated. He's above you, remote and untouchable. In life, you generally don't talk to people on untouchable thrones. Compare that to a high-floor coach, where the chat seat is right there, the driver is right next you, and the two of you are sitting at the same level. Just a couple of guys sitting next to each other, taking up space. Often on the 3/4 the front of the bus- the driver and the passengers lounging around in the front area- will get into conversation together, and there's something intensely rejuvenating about that for me. It's fairly specific to that route, and it's great. A temporary living room of strangers, people who'd never otherwise talk to each other, laughing in each others' soft glow.
Is the bus driver supposed to be a bartender, having animated conversations while running over telephone poles and small children all over the city? No. I don't mean to suggest that. I hear it's frowned upon. But I will say that if I couldn't talk to the people, I wouldn't have too much interest in keeping the gig.
A couple years ago Metro tested The Shield- a plate of bulletproof glass separating the driver from the passengers. Some other cities use it. A test bus (#4186) was outfitted with it for a couple of months, and drivers gave feedback. The Shield was met with such overwhelming resistance on the part of drivers that it was abandoned altogether. Thank goodness. "It'd be great if I hated the people," grumbled one operator. "But I don't. This job lets me do the last two of the three things I love most in life: make love to beautiful women, drive, and bullshit with people!"
As for myself, I actually dismantled the shield and removed it from sight whenever I got that test coach. I couldn't stand the thing. Aside from the fact that it's actually not safe (driver is trapped; shield creates glare that interferes with driving visibility; glass doesn't discourage assaults so much as change how people assault drivers- out with punches, in with pouring hot coffee over the top of the glass), think about the message the shield sends to passengers.
You're getting on the bus. You notice that the driver is encased in a gigantic bulletproof cocoon. What does that tell you about your safety? He may as well be holding up a sign that says, "I'm not going to get shot in here, but you might!" Not necessary. In my opinion, stellar customer service is a much more powerful tool than the shield. If they can get by without shields in South Central LA, where I used to ride the 210 up and down Crenshaw Boulevard, we don't need them here. I was proud and thrilled at the Metro driver populace's response to the idea. I don't want to have to look for another job!
The other element that threatened to eliminate customer service opportunities was OBS- the automated stop announcement system. I spent years worrying about this, but it ended up being a non-issue. You, the driver, can still make your own announcements and be there with the people. Walter does it. Nancy does it. I learn from these guys. Thankfully, I've discovered most passengers prefer this to hearing "Kate" (the robot voice actually has a designated name) go on and on about Orca Card Vending Machines. I know I definitely get tired of hearing her blather on. It is enjoyable, however, to hear her completely mangle the names of certain streets (Okanagan Lane, Pend Oreille Road). She does her best, that poor girl.
I was at North in the bullpen talking with Report Operator Dennis, who's been around since the dinosaurs and still has a good attitude, and he had something interesting to say about it all: people don't change. Despite all this technology, or different seat configurations or automated systems, all this new stuff, there will always be people who talk to each other. We might complain about people zoning out because of their iPods and smartphones- but aren't those the same folks who in earlier times just stared into space? "There's always gonna be the guy who wants to tell you how it is; the guy who wants to marry you; the guy who's having the worst day of his life..." he went on naming the classic archetypes.
I actually find this comforting. There's a constancy to the human condition that exists underneath all the shifting surfaces. The thing that stood out to me in my visits to Asian countries is that beneath the vast cultural and attitudinal differences, you still saw everyone happy, angry, spoiled, kind, greedy, selfish, loving, bored, or stressed: they were all simply people, like ourselves. In the realm of universals, cultural differences are not so significant.* It ultimately doesn't matter if there's a wheelwell at the front of the bus, or an automated grocery checkout. If you want to talk to people, you'll always be able to.
It's not as easy as it used to be, but people are still human, with that ever-reaching need to make contact, to know and be known. I'm thrilled when someone is bold enough to come up and stand by the wheelwell and chat it up. I had the 73 early one morning, low-floor, with OBS, and that didn't stop an enterprising young homeless man coming all the way up from the back to talk. He was coming from Texas, on his way to Alaska (the 73 only goes so far north; I did the best I could). We had a great conversation. Later that morning a young lady introduced herself and we had a gem of an interaction. Such days are not over.
*Read Irshad Manji's book Allah, Liberty, and Love for more on this. She argues that cultures do not necessarily deserve respect; humans, however, do. The most obvious example is when a culture actively encourages the disrespect of certain humans (like women, for instance).