"Alright, Cloverdale is next," I told them, "by the Mini-Mart. And South Lake High School. Also, this bus continues up the hill, to Prentice. We're goin' to Prentice Street tonight."
"You make it sound good!" a voice behind me exclaimed. "Make me wanna to go up there!"
"I try to advertise it as best I can!"
"Hey, it's workin'! Iss better than so much of this…." She was referring to the automated announcements.
"Tryin' t' send out some of those positive vibes, you know?"
"We need that. Especially, especially on this line."
"Ah heard that," chimed in someone else from the peanut gallery.
As the crowd thinned, a young teen in a beanie, sweatshirt and backpack came forward, asking how long have I been driving, do I like the job.
"How does it feel?" he inquired, after I'd told him I'd been at it eight years.
"It feels weird to say it, doesn't feel like it's been that long. I just feel like, I come in to work drive a bus, go home do somethin' else,"
"What's been your craziest day?"
"Oh man, I don't even know where to begin."
"The craziest, I don't even know. So many things come to mind." Visions spring to the fore, quickly replacing each other– men attempting to destroy each other, death threats and late-night whispers, a ranting LSB-Dub, hot saliva on the inside pane of your glasses, kids in the back shoving an old man around, the careful pickup of used needles, police disposing of violent drunks by putting them on your bus, human waste from every orifice, words and smells and minds which don't make sense, glass breaking, a Navy Seal beating up the guy in the wheelchair….
"I don't even know," I said aloud.
Those aren't the crazy things, though. The craziest thing is all of the thousands of times my living room of a bus, filled with its disparate, far-reaching collection of unacquainted lives, each in the middle of its own important drama, has been able to get along together, with no meaningful problems worth writing home about. That's what stuns me into storied awe, and reminds me of the great possibilities of our human family.
But that answer's not egregious enough. People want the deplorable, the heinous and insufferable. They want to wake up. He asked, "you ever been hit?"
"Me? No, not yet. Fingers crossed!"
"Good, man. I seen this driver get hit downtown, with a bottle."
"Aawwoohh, that's terrible!"
"But you know, you ever feel sometimes they bring it on themselves?"
"Exactly, he was being an asshole." Which doesn't in any way justify the assault, even if it might go some way toward explaining it.
"See, then I'm not surprised,"
"Some guy didn't have no fare, he said you better pay, then dude hits him."
"Man, he could've avoided that. For me, I say hey to everyone, how's it goin', and it kind of defuses the situation." He didn't seem like a youngster whose friends often say defuses, but he got it. People tend to be smarter than conversational circumstances allow them to reveal.
He indicated his understanding by way of paraphrase: "Bring 'em down a notch."
"Exactly, sort of help folks feel relaxed, easy...." Acknowledged. "Right from the start. I try to set a positive tone, say hi to folks, we have a good time. Puttin' out that good energy, you know?"
"Iss da mindset. If we keep it positive, keep it open instead of, 'this is gonna suck,'"
"Exactly. Exactly! If bus driver comes to work says, 'I'm gonna have a shitty day,' he's gonna have a shitty day! But if we start off with an open mind, and just go into it with this good attitude,"
"'I'm gonna make this work,'"
"Yeah. I'm gonna do my part. And it don't matter what they do. I'm gonna do my part, try to be good, look for the best in people,"
"You should a motivational, you should be a youth mentor!"
"I would love to do that!"
The automatic voice got a word in edgewise, announcing "Sixty-second and Prentice," the next stop. "Prentice," howled the mentally unstable man seated nearby, embarking on a spoken-word poem low on substance but admirably high on rhyme. He was the only passenger besides the boy remaining, stepping out now, but not before leering in close to our boy and continuing with his rhyming monologue. I wish I could remember it. Our young friend leaned back a little, uncomfortable at what was clearly a new type of interaction. I laughed off the awkwardness and wished the man a good evening, joking after he left that he's always rhyming like that, how he needs to put out an album, except maybe somebody else ought to do the music.
I may have been joking, but he was feeling reflective. He readjusted his backpack, saying, "I always feel weird around homeless people. I could never imagine what it's like to be homeless."
"It sucks," I said. "I got friends who've been there."
"I could understand you start up a business, and it goes bankrupt. Or you lose your job and then your house. But what I don't get is dudes on the street, day after day asking for some coins so they could get some more alcohol."
"I know what you mean! I feel like there's two types of homeless, the 'Have-Nots' and the 'Will-Nots.' Some folks it's a genuine misfortune hits them, and now they're hustlin' for new jobs, workin' their way back up,"
"Yeah," he agreed. "That I get. But I don't get this whole standin' 'round street corner all day... it's like this. You give a Have-Not a thousand dollars and he'll come back at you with three thousand. You give a Will-Not a thousand dollars and he'll come back with a pair of Air Jordans and some True Religion jeans!"
That got a belly laugh from me. I couldn't have said it more succinctly myself. So perceptive, this unassuming young face on the nighttime stretches of Rainier. Did he realize the genius of what he was saying, in his appreciation of responsibility and easy recognition of contrasts many people fail to differentiate? We commiserated a little further, and then it was time for him to grab his bike and head home. "You should be a mentor for youth," he said again. "you're cool to talk to."
He got me thinking. I have more to say on the subject of responsibility and perception as it pertains to homelessness, but that's a post for another day. On the bus, whether as passenger or driver, there is a lot of time to think....
"You know, I find this job oddly relaxing," I told a man with a box of cupcakes. "I basically tool around for eight hours talking to people! You never know what's going to happen, it keeps you sharp…."
That was earlier in the night. Now we're going up Pine Street, working our way through Capitol Hill. A person about my age who I think is male stares vacantly at me from the sidewalk.
"I'll just go one stop," he says.
"Sure yeah, that's fine. Come on in. How ya doin'?"
"Good." Pause. Then, not quite slurred: "How's your night going?"
He keeps staring, as if directly through my head, listing a little in the sway of bus movement. Slightly heavier, a collection of tan and olive, his shirt riding up on his navel.
I reply to his query with, "it's been really cool! Yeah, it's been very pleasant." Pleasant really has been the operative word of late. A young couple steps out the back doors, blowing me kisses. But I want to do something about this uncanny intra-cranial staring that's happening up front. To distract myself and I keep talking to him. "So are you goin' home for the night? Or uh, just getting started?"
"More like uh. Just getting started."
"Making the most of Thursday night. Thursday's the new Friday, right?"
"Yeah it is." Gazing ever still.
"You know," I continued, "ten minutes ago, this guy was on the bus giving out free cupcakes!"
Cupcakes have a way of waking people up. "NO FUCKIN' WAY," he exclaimed, as if I were immediately now fifty feet away.
"Yeah, true story! He works at a bakery. You shoulda been here."
"Did he give you one?"
"Yeah, it was pretty amazing, I have to say." This, coming from a guy who once drove up Rainier Avenue chomping on raw kale while the kids looked at me askance! I'm thinking about the rest of this cupcake. It's on my left, by the door release handle.
"Actually, I have a half-eaten cupcake over here. That, I'm not gonna eat it. I'd offer you a half-eaten cupcake but I imagine you probably don't want a half-eaten…."
He thought about it and said in a reasonable tone, "only if I can lick it off your balls."
I love this job. Where else can you practice responding to completely absurd comments with a straight face? With just your matter-of-fact let's-talk-about-the-grocery-list voice? Doing so is such a fun activity. Who knows why. You never know what's going to happen, indeed!
Missing only a small beat (give me time; I don't hear this one every day) I replied, "you know, that's nice of you to say, but uh, what I have to offer is simply. The cupcake."
"Well…," he said. Decisions, decisions, as he weighed the pros and cons of cupcake sans scrotum. He looked genuinely conflicted.
I needed to get rid of this cupcake and stay healthy. It was salted caramel, and far too delectable. "Do you want it? 'Cause it's good!"
"I'm not sick, I don't have germs, I promise. Yeah, it's good."
"Thank you. Oh, I don't care." He took a bite. "OH MY GOD," he said. Then, sheepishly: "I'm sorry for that vulgar-ass comment. Earlier."
Vulgar-ass! How perfectly self-reflexive and postmodern! We could write papers about this….
I got the sense he was embarrassed, and thankful I hadn't railroaded over his appeal for romance. I've been known to use slightly different language in my own pursuits, but I can understand a bit of his vulnerability. We become a child again in those moments, as much as we pretend otherwise, and how we interpret the responses we get can prove formative in ways that last lifetimes.
"Oh, that's fine," I assured him. "We're on Broadway. This would be the place to say it!"
"Thanks. I'ma check this out," he said, noticing a crowd of youngsters laid out on the cement by the former Castle Megastore adult sex shop. "Later!"
He tells me I'm his favorite, the best. He asks if I remember him.
"Of course I remember you!" I was just about to ask after his young son when he beat me to the punch with–
"My son, he asks about you!"
"He asks about me? I was just about to wow, he remembers me! That's so nice. Seems like a cool guy, smart guy. I remember he always knows all the street names." I couldn't stop grinning the first time this little kid got on and began quickly rattling off with, "the next stop is Holden after that is Othello after that Frontenac after that Holly then Graham then Kenny then…."
"Every single one," Bashi laughs in reply. "He is genius!"
"Yeah, he asks, 'where is my bus driver?'"
"Yeah, I was gone for a while, working early morning on different routes. But I'm happy to be back here in the nighttime!"
"And I say 'your friend, he works at night!'"
"You were doing school?"
"Let me give you some advice." He started telling me how good I am at my job. Curiously, this is the only part of the conversation I couldn't remember well enough in the minutes afterwards to write down with accuracy; I think I block rhapsodic praise out sometimes. Too much to let into the head! I recall instead the small glimmer of metallic tooth fittings in his smile, glinting in response to the dim fluorescents.
"Some drivers make it really hard," he continued. "You make it easy."
"I like the people!"
Bashi formerly worked in Metro Customer Service. He's extremely knowledgeable on the rules, the official language, the complaint system, and so on. He's aware of the type of driver who tends to get a disproportionate amount of complaints, but he's also cognizant of the sort of passenger who complains often. Bashi has a point he's working toward, but he's circling around it for the moment.
I'm thinking about liking the people and making it easy. I say, "when I was on the Eastside–"
He beats me to the punch again, correctly anticipating my thought: "they are totally different over there! Did you know, I used to work for Metro."
"Yes, I remember you said customer service,"
"They have a different attitude."
"They complain!" he exclaims, and we laugh. It's true. The societal norms are different enough to warrant contrasting results on either side of the lake: in South Seattle, unhappy passengers will simply curse you out in person, offering a 'verbal complaint,' as it were. In the 'burbs, they'll remain silent for now but strike hard later, using official channels. I'll refrain from using terms like passive-aggressive or schadenfreude to describe the behavior of this latter category.
"One little thing wrong, and they type up a big long letter!"
"It's so true," I say. "There's a different feeling sometimes too, the attitude, where they're looking down on me. I am the service worker, they are the rich, whatever, I don't know anything…"
"They are bothered very easily."
"The 7 is the best route. Here, they just get angry and yell at you right here." I can recall more than once watching drivers on Eastside routes abusing their riders in ways my 7 passengers simply wouldn't tolerate. Would they file little electronic complaints? No, they would physically intervene.
Bashi: "You know what I'm talking about!"
"I drove on the Eastside for two years."
"They don't say nothing at the time, but later when they go home to the computer… still they don't say anything, just a lot of big words. Vocabulary. They say 'thank you,' then on their expensive phone they complain to your boss."
"It's more simple here, more clear. Here they just say the F word."
"More simple, yeah. Here they say 'fuck you.' 'Shut the fuck up.' Then they forget about it!"
"Bashi, I'm glad you got on my bus!"
This conversation is an older story which happened some time ago, and had I posted it then it would have ended differently than it will now. I've been mulling over the ideas discussed above since. Something's been rubbing me the wrong way. What didn't feel right?
Our own attitude, his and mine, that's what. The gleeful criticism that of others.
A few years ago I would have been entirely on board with this skewering of the passive-aggressive upper class. That's really what we were talking about, not geographical disparities but classist ones. The story would have ended with something along the lines of Bashi's clear-eyed discernment cutting through the gauze of classism masquerading as educated grievances. His remarks above are certainly accurate, but I feel a bit differently now. I agree with Bashi's comments, but not their sentiment, nor especially their all-inclusiveness.
The fact of the matter is, I know a few too many wealthy people of impeccable quality of character, who because of their experiences or observation are unimpeachable in their compassion, perceptiveness, and lack of entitlement. These same folks might be the first to point out that their perspectives are pretty unusual within their status group (what is it about cloistered lifestyles that breed apathy so?), but regardless, I cannot comfortably make generalizations which cast entire swaths as caricatures, any more than I cannot tolerate the same being done against the homeless and low-income whom I know so well.
Quebecois filmmaking wunderkind Xavier Dolan was speaking recently about some editing decisions he made during the completion of his 2012 magnum opus, Laurence Anyways. The film is a three-hour intimate epic following ten years in the life of a man who becomes a woman, and the enormous havoc that wreaks on his relationship with his girlfriend. Among other things, Dolan endeavored the film to be a piece which didn't judge its marginalized protagonists, but simply regarded them. He shot a scene which ridiculed the snobby elite who so disapproved of the film's central union, but couldn't in good conscience include it in the final picture. Why?
If Dolan's aim, he said, was to celebrate the uncelebrated without judging them, it would be hypocritical for him to ask the audience to simultaneously judge others whose views he found backward. To be ideologically sound, the film needed to espouse a worldview in which no group is maligned. The solution is not to snark the snarkers, as it were, and return the same contempt we ourselves can hardly stand; but rather to venture out on higher roads. Trust others to be malleable, capable of expanding their views, whether or not they are. Nothing's more disappointing then being the receiver of an unbelieving gaze, the stare which sees nothing in you beyond your presentation.
Stirrings of these thoughts were galvanized out of latency one morning this past summer while driving a trip on the 3, inbound from Queen Anne. At each zone, silent commuters came aboard. Today they were particularly unresponsive, and I was reminded of my days on the 545, where lack of interaction is chronic. I was thinking of Tom Wolfe's description of maids who feel like furniture, taken for granted and ignored into nothingness until they do something wrong. At Prospect Street a gentleman in a crisp coat tapped his Orca card glancingly, such that it did not scan. He tried again.
"Come on in, don't worry about it." That sounds fine in print, but I said it in a pejorative tone. Why did I do that? I added, "We'll get it next time," which I never say, especially never in this clipped, grossly unacceptable condescending attitude I was wearing. I was grouping him as one of those, another one of them, and falling into the trap of returning the disregard I assumed he had for me.
Isn't them just about the worst word in the world?
He looked up and noticed me for the first time.
"Are you Nathan?"
Totally nonplussed: "I am!"
"I love the blog. I really love the blog. I love the attitude of it."
"Thank you! So much!"
I felt utterly shamed. I spent the rest of the ride reeling with chagrin, reflecting. This was the best moment of the entire week. His bearing in the face of mine was the stronger, and it was exactly the correction I needed. I greeted the remaining Queen Anne residents with what he had reminded me: that, like my more boisterous riders on the other side of town, we all have more in common than we don't.
Thank you, friend, for opening my eyes a bit further.
"Can I request a night stop?"
She specified a block in between stops along the Prentice loop.* She was a demure east Asian woman I've seen before but never spoken with. Now that we were alone on the bus, she said, "You're probably the most nice driver I've ever seen. You are so nice to everyone. It is really great to see. We run into some crappiness out here."
Her voice was reedy and small. She explained further, in a voice that knew the awkwardness of her words but needed to quietly say them anyway, because they were true. Sometimes a phrase will sound trite, but where else do you turn when you have no recourse but the truth? Haltingly, she said, "I have brain cancer. What I'm saying is, seeing you being so nice makes life seem worth living."
My thanks to her hardly seemed adequate. It was important for her to share, and it's all she wanted to say. We may receive many compliments or affirmations in our lives, but sometimes it's the most spare, unaffected, and passing of them which still us to the bone.
A young man named Ghost was on my 7 last night, also making use of the Prentice routing. In a different way he said something similar. We were having a wide-ranging conversation, making use of the expansive time from Capitol Hill to the bottom of the Valley.
At one point in Pioneer Square he said, "you know why I smile at people now?"
We'd been discussing the value, and rarity, of doing such. He was sprawled out over the first two chat seats, a gangly octopus dressed in oversized swaths of black cotton and polyester.
I said, "how come?"
"'Cause I read this article once. It said,"
"What'd it say?"
"It said, it was talkin' about this guy, this guy who was gonna kill himself but he didn't commit suicide 'cause somebody smiled at him."
"Oh wow. Oh wow." I looked at Ghost, processing. "That's, talk about making a difference in someone's life."
"Yeah. Just because somebody took a second to smile, made him feel human again."
*The Prentice loop is at the tail end of the 7 route, and although the 7 is very frequent (every 10 minutes all day with frequent service til midnight, plus 24-hour service) only a few trips continue on to do the loop. The Prentice Street (upper Rainier Beach) neighborhood is served every 30 minutes until about 10:30pm, and sometimes less often than that. That may sound like pretty good service, but for this transit-dependent part of town, it isn't. Elsewhere, mediocre bus service is an inconvenience. In places like this, it shapes lives. People who don't ride the 7 will tell you the Prentice service, which used to be more frequent, is underutilized and therefore not as many buses are needed up there. Actual passengers will tell you the only reason the service is underused is because of how infrequent it is.
This is one of the great catch-22's in transit planning: if the service isn't used, the company will reduce the amount of service. If the service is reduced, nobody will use the service because it isn't good. An example of the opposite would be the 545 which, upon being introduced as a frequent, all-day express route between Redmond and Seattle that ran every 15 minutes or less and covered its distance in speeds comparable to driving a car, many thought was actually too good, and believed there was no ridership to justify its existence. But people came. They materialized, because the option was so attractive. Now it's one of Sound Transit's busiest routes.
Last year there was a sixteen-car accident that shut down Rainier Avenue in such a way that a shuttle bus had to be devised that night to ferry passengers from Rainier & Rose to the end of the route up on Prentice. For convenience the shuttle driver (a friend of mine!) drove every single one of his shuttle trips up through the Prentice neighborhood. Despite the fact that Prentice service ends at 10:30, he kept going up there until his shift ended at 3am. People used the service on every trip, all night. Not only did many people ride up there, there were people waiting for the bus up there at 2am, long after bus service would normally stop. Though I don't feel every 7 needs to go to Prentice, it's undeniable that if the service was improved, people would use it.
The least Metro could do is address the (in)famous 60-90-minute gaps in Prentice service during both weekday rush hours, when there is no service to or from Prentice exactly when it is most needed. There was a time when folks thought running 10-minute service south of Othello was extravagant, but now we're accustomed to the glut of people traveling between the Henderson loop and Rose, who would definitely be walking if the service wasn't as frequent as it is. No 7 driver hasn't heard the familiar "I'm just goin' to Rose" less than a thousand times.
Planners! Feedback from a neighborhood that doesn't email in quite as much: the peak-hour Prentice gaps, plus the early quit time for bus service to that neighborhood, are the complaints I hear about the most. The consistent positive feedback I get refers to the evening through-routing with the 49, and the direct service to downtown (if the community ever finds out how the RapidRide+ corridors will split the route up, they'll riot!). The suggestion I hear most that isn't a complaint is the idea of dividing the tail into 2 terminals: every other 7 should serve Prentice, with remaining trips serving Rainer Beach Station. Or better yet, have outbound 7s turn right on Cloverdale, L on MLK, L on Henderson to either the Henderson layover or Prentice, for better connectivity and a single route from downtown that hits all three "hubs" of Rainier Beach: the light rail station, the high school, and restaurant row.
His hair wasn't always gray, but it still grows, and now it's long enough to register a breeze. With that and the tuft of a beard he keeps nestled in the small of his chin, he could be a martial arts instructor from a seventies-era kung-fu picture, the sort of look you didn't know existed in real life. He staggers in on sea legs, alcohol swilling around in there somewhere, wearing the vacant gaze you find in drunks and tired toddlers. Some drunks are loud, or angry; this man, another on the list of those I've never seen sober, is a quiet drunk. A Native American man of about forty, who keep to himself and drinks, and drinks, and drinks some more. He reminds me that heartbreaking Johnny Cash tune, The Ballad of Ira Hayes. There was a different personality in this body once.
Tonight he steps on carefully, giving me a light fistpound and a wan, glacial smile, lips spreading slowly over empty teeth sockets as he recognizes me.
Nothing but a whisper: "So how's business?"
"Business is good," I reply amiably, keeping the mood up. I think he just wants the comfort of small talk, the connection. "Nothin' too major, not too many folks out here on a Monday night you know, keepin' it pretty mellow tonight."
Nearly under his breath: "That's good."
"How 'bout you, how you been?
"I been, I been."
"I'm glad you're still around! I was startin' to wonder where you were."
"You been doin' okay?"
"Yeah, my dad and my mom and my brother been kinda gangin' up on me."
"Yeah, my dad's yellin' at me, then my mom, then my,"
"Oh no, all a them all at the same time! That's some drama! Soap opera drama!"
He listens and laughs, a gentle but full-throated chuckle. "Yeah, that's what it is!"
"That can be a lot. What they say?"
"They say. They say I gotta stop drinkin' so much the bottle."
My job generally exposes me to only the negative effects of alcohol consumption. The ugliness of some of the violence I've seen staggers the mind, and for that and other reasons I keep my own counsel on the subject, but those are opinions I try not to share. I only know what's right for me and besides, who would I be to tell Ira Hayes what to do? I'm more interested in what our kung-fu-looking friend thinks. I ask him, "what do you say?"
"I say. Well, the drinkin' and the spice. My brother from smokin' the spice, he got really fucked up in the head."
"Oh, that's bad, man. That can't be changed. It's scary stuff!" Keep it neutral, I remind myself. Don't try to change people. Just be truthful….
"Yeah. So, smokin…."
"Plus, that stuff's expensive."
"Well I don't know about the spice, but."
"They're all just yellin' at me. My mom,"
This isn't about drinking or not drinking, I realize. Is it ever? Problems have deeper roots. His soft voice is calling out for a family who loves him.
I said, "well, maybe they're just tryna look out for you."
"You know, where it's comin' from a place of love. They're trying to give you a tough love type a thing, but it's probably just comin' on too strong."
He heard my words at a profound register. You could almost hear him thinking, the silent face ticking toward a better place, eyes relaxing now, lines on his forehead giving way.
"Oh wow," he said. "Yeah. I think you're right, that's probably what it is."
"Okay," he nodded, parts of him waking from slumber, daring to believe. The headspace of believing you are loved is a different planet from the opposite.
The rest of the city was going on about its business, and only the two of us, in our small corner, got to live in this elusive moment. Times like this are why I come to work.
She's repeating. We had this exact same exchange five minutes ago. "I'm a little tipsy," she'd said upon boarding, a woeful understatement.
"Yeah you are," I'd said.
"Happy New Year, Mister Bus driver," she saying again now.
"Happy New Year to you too!"
"How was your New Year's?"
"It was pretty good, how was yours?"
"That sounds nice."
"Aaaa," yells a staggering runner. There is much intoxication happening tonight, New Year's Day. It's one giant dorm room out here. Just last trip at this very intersection a man was bodily dragging another (large) man out of the street, struggling to haul his unconscious carcass over the curb. Now there's a guy saying, "aaaa," and trying not to run into the side of the bus. After a mental coin flip I open the doors.
"Hey, how you doin'? You feelin' alright?"
Calm him down, in case he isn't. "Happy New Year."
He looks up at me. "Oh, hey! My brother! You remember me?"
"Yeah, how you been?" He looks familiar but gaunt today, wild eyed, man as hyena.
"Good, how you been."
"Happy New Year!"
"I'm twenty-nine," he says.
"You're twenty-nine? Did you say you're twenty-nine? I'm twenty-nine!" This is excellent. He's wildly unstable, and we need to make friends. Steer them toward their good side.
"When you were born?"
"1986," I reply.
"March. And you?"
"January!" he says, still standing up front.
"Siddown," says Repeating Lady to him.
"Fuck you!" he replies sharply. So much for gentle steering and similar birthdays!
"Shut up," she slurs.
"Fuck you, fucking bitch!"
Fights are never about anything important. She's a heavyset black American woman in her fifties, eyes half-closed and speaking in slow motion. He's a rail-thin black African man in a flannel and knit cap, much older than he looks. Neither one is particularly intimidating; in their verbal parrying they seem to be just going through the motions. As in, it's late at night in Pioneer Square, and we're supposed to be drunk and fighting. All right. Let's get on with it.
"Oh she's alright, she's nice," I inform him.
"Fuck you," he says to her again.
"Stay away from me, stranger."
"Get the fuck away from me, lady. I know you?"
Her lines are the type generally used to repel unwanted and scary advances; his are normally reserved for intense hate felt personally. Instead they sound like bad actors, sighing after being asked to say the same lines again a hundredth time. Maybe that's why I find it so amusing. She's practically falling asleep, definitely not afraid, and slurring out the dialogue as if it's because there's nothing else to say. He seems to be searching for a reason to be as angry as his lines require, and failing.
"Get outta my face and outta my life, smelly old man!"
"All right young lady," I say to her, though she's definitely pushing sixty. She'd asked for this stop earlier. "Here we are. You need to jump out?"
"You said you wanted the Mission, this is it."
"I wanna go downtown."
"Okay. I'll take you there. Gotta be nice though, alright?"
"You siddown like I told you," she continues to the twenty-nine year old.
"Fuck you, get the fuck out. This is the Mission," he replies, offering his own creative paraphrase of my comment.
"Get away from me."
"Fuck you. Stay away from me."
"I don't have to do anything you say!"
"Okay, okay," I said.
"Fucker fuck. Why you wanna go to the Mission, lady? That's a men's shelter. You some kind a lady?"
"Okay guys let's be nice." I'm using my Mom voice. I don't get to be a Mom very often. I'm enjoying this. "It's New Year's, we need to be friendly on the holidays. Everybody supposed to be friendly on New Year's!"
"Fuck you," he tells her again.
"Everything's okay." A young man further back had taken off his headphones to observe. I caught him smiling. Furthering the holiday spirit, I lean into the mic and say in a friendly and exciting voice, "our next stop is! Columbia! Cherry! By the ferry terminal! Columbia Tower. Dexter Horton Building. Next stop after this is! Seneca!"
You know, balance it out a little, yin and yang. At Columbia my angry twin staggers up and out.
"Oh, you're getting off here?" That's fine with me. I'm not stopping the guy. "Okay, have a good night!"
She chimes in once again, as if nothing at all had happened:
"Happy New Year, Mister Bus driver."
"Happy New Year to you too!"
"How was your New Year's?"
"It was pretty good, how was yours?"
"That sounds nice."
Ah, yes. Everything in its right place.
Patricia and I were talking about something, at the end of the Prentice loop, out there at the end of the 7 line. She's a semi-regular. Tonight our conversation is interrupted by this gent, who other drivers and I have taken to calling "mista driva," since that's what he calls all of us. He's described here, and one day, I'll actually see him not drunk. Yes, I believe in miracles. But today is not that day. He's a new face on Rainier, and given how he runs his body he wont last too long– though there are those who, like Denise or the Rolling Stones, have a resilience that quite simply defies logic.
"Do you have eyes?" he says, stumbling into a seat next to Patricia.
"What's that?" she says, politely, in her refined way. I don't think she has conversations like this very often.
"I cannot see your eyes."
"Oh, no." She says, stepping out right when things are getting interesting, leaving just the two of us.
"Hey, mista bus driva."
"Hey! How are you?"
"I'm okay. But I cannot see the eyes."
There was a watershed moment I had on my first city route, the 70. I had come from two years of suburban work on the Eastside and didn't know how to talk to unstable people, or as I like to say, the mentally wandering. A man was monologuing about his job as a leprechaun bounty hunter. Joe Biden was in town, and the going rate for a leprechaun was higher than usual. Two hundred dollars. They're harder to catch these days, he explained. I listened but didn't engage, not knowing what to say.
"So that's why you can get more for them now, a hundred dollars."
"Hang on," I said, as something clicked inside me. "I thought it was two hundred!"
Talk to them as if what they're saying makes complete sense.
Why am I ignoring a chance to take part in a conversation about leprechaun head price fluctuation as affected by vice presidential visits? Am I going to have a more interesting conversation today? Um, no. In my then woefully undeveloped street sense, I had actually been considering asking him to stop talking. What was I thinking? Bend like tall grass in the wind. You'll last longer.
"Bus driva, I cannot see your eyes."
"That's a bummer, man. Are you feelin' all right?"
"I'm o-kay. I am sad that I cannot see your eyes."
"Shoot, that's too bad." I'd feel the same way!
"I can't see the eyes!"
"Mista bus driva!"
"I can't see your eyes!"
Let's really get down to business and solve this, I thought. Let's talk about it. "Well, I can see your eyes, so you must be able to see my eyes, right?"
"Can you see my eyes?"
He rises up and stands close to my face. After thinking about it for a while: "Bus Driva. I cannot see your eyes."
"I can see your eyes. Can you see my eyes?"
"Mista bus driva, where are your eyes? I can't see them."
"Oh, they're right over here. Can you see my eyes?"
"I am looking for your eyes."
"Can you see my eyes?"
He was maybe two feet away from me. The red light at 57th and Rainier is a very long one, and he needed every second. Finally, his glassy, completely dilated orbs blinked, and again slowly, and he said,
"Your eyes are. Brown."
"My eyes are brown! You can see my eyes!"
"I can see your eyes! Bus driva, I can see your eyes!"
"Everything is okay! You can see my eyes!"
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.