A twenty-something couple approaches the front, late at night at Othello Street. They're about to deboard.
"Um," says the girl. "Hey, can we ask you a,"
"Are you gonna ask how old I am? Every one asks that."
"Haha, well, you do look really young. No, we wanted to ask, how are you so happy all the time? 'Cause every time we get on you're always in such a,"
"I don't know! That's a great question, I,"
"-Sure you don't need a pee test?" the boy asks.
Cackles of laughter all around.
"I don't know what it is," I continue. "'Cause I've thought about that a lot, you know. A lot of people ask me, but I feel like if I was to discover what it was, it would vanish, like a whisper, you know? Like it's some magic secret thing and it would go out like a candle."
"I got choo. Yeah."
"I think it's just, i really like the people, being nice to the people, something... they give me energy. The people give me energy."
"That's so great."
"I love being nice to the people."
"That's great," she says. "Especially on this route, which is not always, uh,"
"Oh, it's an adventure! And I looooove it!"
We laughed in each other's gleaming faces, sharing in the buzz of my euphoria. They could see I meant my words. I didn't make clear enough in the post below that I happen to really like these people. As I recently told another operator, I choose to drive the 7, the 358 and others not because they're the most dangerous routes, or the "most coolest," but because the passengers are the folks I genuinely most want to spend time with when I'm at work.
I don't mean to ignore that some of them, like you and I, make ugly and terrible decisions, but here more than elsewhere I feel loved. Gestures of kindness echo with greater resonance. I learn from them, about compassion, appreciation, perspective, actions and consequences. Lessons are stronger at the leading edge of life, on ground level, where things are played out in a high key. These two instinctively got all this, without my having to mention it, let alone try to explain it. They knew, as I continued by describing the 7 as "freaking awesome," that the silliness in my exuberance was borne of something deeply rooted, something they knew the language of too. Who besides us actually likes this stuff, being out here in this crazy maelstrom, riding high on the everlasting wave?
Note: the links at right have been revamped, with a few more easily accessible popular stories which longtime readers will recognize (share them with your friends!), as well as consolidated links to some of the film reviews, and the explanatory trolley post.
Rainier and Othello is not an inviting place. You know the landscape: one and two story buildings, mostly residential, with buckling and otherwise eroded and collapsing sidewalks. There's the auto parts store, with the owner standing just inside the doorway with his hands on his hips, shaking his head from who knows how many robberies; the Western Union exchange across the way; a Mexican restaurant on the southeast block, seemingly closed more often than open. Iron bars cover the windows of all these establishments and the homes behind them.
Then we have the famous Valero Gas Station (yes, capitalization is necessary), dominating the landscape on the southwest corner. In the same way the Morrison Hotel downtown isn't the Morrison without an ambulance parked out front, so too is the Valero Gas Station not the Valero without a crowd of guys and gals loitering in, on and around. There are men who more or less live here, dealing, fighting, drinking, and shooting their way through life in a manner far riskier than necessary. Tricked-out classic Oldsmobiles and American muscle cars roar into the lot, throaty and gleaming and oversized, trading people or goods with dilapidated Camrys and unwashed, decade-old Lexuses. Occasionally the folks residing will get on the bus, but generally most don't, preferring to finish their beer or light another joint, wait for a delivery, or continue a conversation or argument. The fluorescents of the gas station behind only dimly illuminate them as silhouettes in the darkened bus shelter, looming and receding in size, expansive figures in puffy jackets and sagging jeans, shuffling amongst a patina of litter their own in the making.
There are also regular working-class folk who use this stop to go home, and they leave the zone quickly, keeping their head down and walking in a path determined, away from this mass of unpredictability. There's a regular lady who asks to be let off thirty feet past the bus stop, and that short distance can be the difference between life and something ugly. These are places where a little bit of help can be significant.
Leroy was on the bus one evening, out for a ride, just to talk. A thought occurred to me as we pulled up to the great Valero.
"Hey, you wanna know something kinda crazy?"
"So you see this bus stop right here, how it always looks really, super sketch."
"It looks fuckin' terrible."
"Yeah, every time we come through here,"
"It looks fuckin' awful."
"It reminds me of being in South Central."
"I know, it's like Philly."
"It looks like a disaster."
"And I used to drive up to that stop feelin' kinda apprehensive, a little bit nervous, you know?"
"But, the crazy thing is, and I just realized this recently. So I've been driving number 7 through here since 2009. But check this out. The crazy thing is, man, in all that time, I've never once had a single problem at this intersection."
"Yeah, can you believe that? Look at this place. The whole time, every time I've ever rolled through here, never had a single problem with any of these dudes. It always, everything always just works out. They get on, I say hey. Can you believe that?"
"I know, it's amazing!"
"Wow! Damn. Well, that's cool!"
"So, yeah. Go figure!"
I don't think it's possible to overstate how powerful kindness is. In a phrase or evanescent gesture you send so many messages– esteem, consideration, tolerance, appreciation, and the egalitarian, loving belief that we both have a place here, despite our significant differences... I've heard tell of some of the things that happen at this intersection, and seen their aftermath.
But somehow, this 7 has so far averted the disasters here. I greet them all as if they're friends of mine, and since I've been part of the neighborhood for so long, many of us really are friends, and they jump on happy to see me. The folks treat me as they are treated, and as the days turn to years we accumulate our mutual good works, dignity seeping through the cracks as grains of sand, something besides weeds buckling through that asphalt, our well-wishes and roundhouse waves building to a new kind of normal.
Note: follow-up to this post in partial response to the comments below, here.
I pause at inbound Henderson, waiting for an indecisive runner. Why am I irritated? What is this rushing stress which bubbles inside of me on rare occasions, rearing its head like a stranger within? Something to work on.
"How's it goin'," I ask him as he pauses outside the front doors, staring into the middle distance. He decides to step aboard, a white fellow in middle age, thin and very cold, underdressed on this February night. His bowl-cut hairdo, parted in the middle, has the precision of a machine.
"Hey," he asks. "Are you going towards Garfield?"
"Yeah, I am, yeah. Come on in. How you doin' tonight?" Sometimes when I'm feeling less than stellar I'll force myself to reach out further, asking about people's days or complimenting their hats. You can use the people to bring you back up, get yourself out of your head.
"Oh, not so good," he responds with a companionable sigh.
"I'm sorry to hear it. I appreciate the truthful answer, but I'm sorry to hear."
"Well, it is what it is. We're here."
"And that's a good thing. We're alive, we've got our arms and legs,"
"Hey, there you go,"
"Lot to be thankful for." Reminding myself as much as anything else.
"You got that right. Hey, you go up towards South Edmunds?"
We sort out the geography. I can tell he knows the terrain, but perhaps hasn't been out here for a while. He asks how my night is going, and I mention how much I love driving the 7. "It's a favorite of mine."
"It stays interesting out here. High energy, a lot going on, a lot of color,"
"Man, you're positive."
I laugh. He notes that he most recently saw me on the 49, and I mention how the two routes are interconnected at nighttime.
"Yeah," he says, "my girlfriend and I, we were together about ten years,"
"Yeah, she lived at the end of the 49 line, and I lived halfway down the 7 line."
"Oh, excellent. That sounds like a pretty perfect setup."
"Yeah, it was a perfect setup. She was great."
"You know, she actually ended up killing herself."
"Whoaaaa. Oh, no. Oh, no." Suicide guts me on a level other violence doesn't come close to.
"Oh." A heavy exhalation of air, the fitful attempt to release a burden.
"And it was totally unexpected, she was a positive person. She just,"
"Oh, my goodness."
"She was just, sometimes she would get real down."
"Was it like a clinical depression thing?"
"No, it was more of a bipolar type thing. She would have these moods, I don't know. She had a head injury way back, and ever since that,"
"Yeah, it affected her mood, affected everything,"
"Like a chemical imbalance,"
"Yeah. She did it on a Monday, man." Silence. "She knew I was always busy running around on Mondays, and she chose a Monday when I was just payin' some bills."
"Oh, my goodness. That's heavy. That's, wow. Oh, man. Suicide gets to me pretty hard." I mention a couple of incidents which took place when I was a child, and he tells me similar events happened amongst his acquaintances as well.
"So yeah, it just gets to me. And the thing is, it's not really her, but that chemical imbalance, the injury,"
"Yeah, can't blame her."
"Can't blame her. It feels strange to say it, that she's gone."
"When' this happen?"
"Three months ago."
"Oh, wow. Oh, man." We drive in silence for a short bit. Here's Othello Street. Here's Frontenac, here's Graham.
Me again: "but you know, I'm really glad you guys got to have those ten years together."
"I mean, that's huge. She's always gonna be part of your character,"
"And that's good. Ten years, man. Longest relationship I ever had is three, so ten, my goodness, that's just beautiful. I admire that. You know, somebody said once, 'we're gonna lose everything we love in this life,'"
"Yeah, yeah." Nodding.
"'And all we can do is just figure out how to enjoy it while we have it.' That's the great magic trick to getting through all this, this life."
"Yeah. Yeah. Well, so, uh, hey, how've you been?"
We both laugh together, the pent-up sorrow belching out into something more familiar. We bring back the conversation, discussing such banalities as the number of round trips I have and how there's hardly anyone out tonight. We cling to the ladder rungs of the ordinary, speaking and sharing our way out of the depths, rising slowly, such that we might feel all of life's colors, and not just the thudding, aching blows.
Her profile is distinctive. Short, compact, fit, young spirit in an older body, with that angled hair at the front. Yeah, it's gotta be her, driving the 14, heading south on Third. Tracy. I'm right behind her in my own bus, pulling into Union. Seeing another driver you love and respect out on the road, experiencing the same madness you are, can really bring you up. Getting that wave, or just seeing them in action out here in the vortex, can reorient you, remind you of the better sides of yourself.
On a whim, while we're all stacked up here at the zone, I decide to race up to her open door and yell, "Traaaace!"
"Nathan! What's up?" Excited, but then concerned. Drivers don't run up to other drivers for no reason at all... except when they're me!
"I have nothing important to say," I explain animatedly, "I just wanted to say hi!"
She starts laughing. We reach across the doorway for a handshake. "Aw! Love you!"
"Love you back!"
I note her bus number as we trail down Third, making a note of it so I can wave if I see her later in the night. 4112. Great. At Fifth and Jackson, still behind her as we now sit out a red light, I realize that yes, I actually do have something to say to her.
I race up there again, wanting to feel real and valid and useful, to exercise that hunger in you to be unique, to somehow prove to the universe that yes, your presence here makes a difference, and it was worthwhile to show up to work today, because your actions might cause thoughts and feelings in others which wouldn't have become manifest otherwise. We want to assert the specificity of our existence in this world and prove, perhaps a little selfishly, that we are special. Right now I want to make a few people smile.
A liquid haze of these ideas is running through me as I bound up the stairs, going all the way inside her bus this time. Jackson can be a long red light, thank goodness. She speaks first upon seeing me.
"Nathan Vass! I told them all about you!"
I think I just like yelling people's names. Then I turn to the passengers inside, full house of commuters right now, and address them in a stentorian voice– as if what I'm about to say is of pressing urgency.
"Excuse me everyone, I have a very important announcement to make. Your driver today is the best bus driver in the system. She's the greatest! Say hi to her on your way out! She's gonna be Driver of the Year one day! Yeah. So on and so forth!"
I can still remember individual faces, looking up with delighted surprise. There's only a few drivers I'd do this for, but Trace is definitely one of them. I remember her looking up at me, wondering what I was up to and then a little shy but excited too, and there was a latent magic in the air that bubbled up spontaneously, as one person cheered and then another, and here we were now, all clapping, making it a round of applause we never knew would happen a minute ago.
I returned to my own bus and continued on, where things were much quieter. I couldn't conceal my smile though, a remnant from the buoyant celebration a moment ago, slightly silly and a little wonderful, still echoing in my memory and permeating out in the texture of my greetings and announcements.
"You seem very happy today," a departing commuter said quietly. "I like that."
The younger man puts in carefully counted change. He's just asked how much the bus costs around here. After I give him his transfer, he says in a pleasing accent, "Hey. I am trying to get to Everett?"
"Oh, I wish you had told me that before you paid, 'cause this transfer won't work on the Everett bus." I can see that for him, every coin counts. "I would've just had you pay the next driver. I'm sorry!"
"It's okay. It is my first day here! I come from Uganda, Africa!"
"Oh, wow! Welcome to Seattle!"
"Thank you! Can you let me know when it is time, I will sit up here so I know where to get off. I am just a little bit nervous, I don't know where anything is."
"That's okay, you just came across the ocean! This will be easy! You have already done much more difficult traveling! Seattle to Everett... you're not going to have any problem!"
He laughs, warm with relief and the glow of acceptance.
Tenth Ave at Miller, slowing toward the curb on a gentle downhill. I haven't seen that face in a while.
He looks about as much like Mr. Cobain as a long-faced swarthy taller man can do, with one key difference: this Kurt grins with such infectious verve as to make you forget life's problems ever existed. This guy could make Buster Keaton lose composure. Who else in their late fifties smiles with this level of enthusiasm? The man's just about bursting!
He steps aboard, takes a stance, and says, as if it's very important, "are you still announcing?"
"Are you still calling out the,"
Announcing the stops, is what he means. He's asking, am I starting to slack off? Or am I still Nathan, a little bit off the rocker and a little bit not, keepin' it crazy cool in Club CuckooLand?
"Oh, oh yeah. Definitely!"
"So sweet, man!" he says, unreasonably excited. Fistbump with sparks flying. "That's definitely the 'bring-it' part of the ride!!!!"
P.S.– That's my good buddy in the image, one of the best drivers in the entire system. Not everyone announces all the stops and stays happy while driving the 358 for eons– but he does. Such things take massive amounts of character. I learn from standing in the shadows of such giants. Say hi to him if you can! (The photo is from us riding the last trip of the last night of the 358, which was definitely the loudest– and quite possibly the best– bus ride I've ever experienced!)
Photo by Ned Ahrens.
You may have seen the ad I'm in, available here, regarding working for Metro. I'm linking it only because I thought you might find it of interest. I actually haven't seen it. You know how you just can't bring yourself to listen to your own voice in voicemails? It's a little like that. I'd rather tell you about three wonderful interactions I recently had on the 7:
A middle-aged black man in rags and dark shades is rushing across Pine, toward the island stop, pushing a manual wheelchair filled with buckets and painted boards. "Hey, hey, hey!" he yells.
"I gotchoo, Darryl!" I yell in reply. The 'sexy hood bunnies' (to use a friend's perfect phrase) sitting in the shadows chuckle in appreciation, realizing I know the man. I whip out the wheelchair lift before he's even at the doors. On routes with a lot of lift usage, your hands flip the necessary switches in seconds, reflexes borne out of habit.
When people speak at high volume, I like to match them. Darryl and I enjoy yelling at each other late at night, our throaty roars ranging over a variety of topics. Despite his rangy appearance he's an educated man and an artist, and lately we've been discussing astronomy. He'll get on after a week-long absence, settling in behind me, standing by his loaded wheelchair, and expound. I'm impressed by his memory. He'll add a bit of minutiae to something he said a week ago: "So like we were saying about the Great Red Spot, you know, on Jupiter," he recently bayed, "for a hypothetical journey out there, something to remember is that it's the worst point of entry, but the best point of exit!"
"Worst point of entry, how come?" I shrieked in reply.
And we're off. We discuss the need, on a manned mission, of a spacesuit that has its own force field, as this would be the only effective way to resist the drastic pressure and temperature shifts in the atmosphere, particularly during entry and exit. We go over the materials which would be necessary for such a suit and estimate its total cost, before moving on to potential threats one might encounter on an all-gas planet. I love diving instantly into such acute detail, when a moment before I wasn't even thinking about Jupiter, or the Great Red Spot, or spacesuit force fields.
He's excited to hold forth on the devastating weaponry one would be compelled to take on a Mars mission, but I mention that the crew would likely meet its demise through something more banal than aliens, like unstable oxygen levels.
"Yeah," Darryl says, sounding almost disappointed.
After he leaves, all talk of astronomy ceases, and it's time to dive into a completely different life– each new bus stop is like a door opening, utterly unrelated to the worlds preceding it. Here's that woman now, who I haven't seen in months or maybe years, instantly aglow upon seeing me. She's around thirty, dressed in a traditional habesha kemis, with a netela loosely wrapped round her head, that gauze-like white fabric which somehow seems so appropriate tonight, a literal manifestation of the radiant elation in her face.
We shake hands, both hands tight, long into each other's eyes– not romantically, you understand, but as different lives who can't quite connect because of circumstance, but who nevertheless feel whole, for this brief minute. What else is there, after all, besides those fleeting but oh-so-real moments?
When she's with her friends she emits a buoyant youthfulness. I can't understand Amharic, but it's not hard to tell when someone's joking, bringing out the light in those around her, a soul unafraid to dance. Last time we spoke she worked a job cleaning airplanes at Sea-Tac, but I learn she couldn't continue; something to with an allergy to the sanitation materials. Now she works in Queen Anne. Such subject matter, utterly ripe for a depressing slog of a conversation, is relayed by her with a casual effervescence which warms my heart. I shake my head in wonder. It is possible to be thrilled about allergies and lost jobs at Sea-Tac! I count myself fortunate she feels comfortable enough to share with me so openly. We bask in each other's glow. I hope I see her again soon.
The world wipes to yet another scene, inbound at Mount Baker:
"Watch this. Watch this. Watch this. Stand right there. Check this out, how he know me."
The speaker is a man I recognize, one of those faces who wanders Rainier in the wee hours– a strong-featured gaze, eyes and lips of an expressive, confident size. Dressed in black sweats and built like a former lineman. He's talking to his friend, and older fellow I don't know. They're outside, last in the line of people boarding, and when it's their turn he looks at me and says, "HAAAYYYY!"
It's our customary greeting. "HAAAYYYY," I respond energetically. "Wha's happening?!"
"I neeeeedjoo!" I need you. "I needjoo tonight, man!"
He practically howls it, grinning richly. I'm happy to supply him with a transfer. I say what I sometimes say to repeat transfer requesters: "One day, my friend, I may ask you for help!"
"Hey, you're mah man. Thank you." He extends his hand, and we shake. "I got choo," he says. "I gotchu. I always remember you helpin' me."
He's still shaking my hand, and he says "I gotchu" five or so more times. With each "I gotchu" I notice more clearly a transition taking place. He was in high laughing spirits at first, speaking out of habit, but I can now see my line is hitting him. He says his phrase seriously now, slowing down, registering the weight of what it is to help another, to give and receive in equal measure. Solidarity.
Is that water in his eyes?
There must be a word combining the actions "to witness" and "to take part in." Many of the options– participate, attend, behold, engage– lean too heavily toward one action or the other. Princeton alumni, give me something that's four syllables which hits the nail dead on! The sort of bus driving I like to do often results in moments like the three above, which I feel impossibly lucky to both observe and simultaneously have a hand in creating. We build the good moments of our lives together, you and I, and I'm thankful for every minute.
I'm yelling out the window at friendly faces. We're on the 7, going through lower Pioneer Square. First it's a man I don't know, but who knows me. Then there's the guy who's always dressed in fluorescent construction gear. There he is, outside the Men's Shelter deep in conversation with somebody. He recently lost his school textbooks. When I honk to get his attention, his eyes light up. On Jackson, I spy Grover across the street– Grover is a driver, and he bucked the popular trend by actually losing weight when he went full-time. That's how you know anything is possible!
I hop out of the bus at the red light to look at the exterior signage; someone told me it wasn't displaying correctly, and they're right. Later, during the time a new bus is sought for, I will make a handmade sign and hugely enjoy the antiquated throwback nature of such. For now, Grover walks past, asking, "Nathan! Wha's goin' on?"
"Oh you know, just hangin' around on the 7 here! Not a bad way to pass the time!"
He laughs with (not at!) my enthusiasm.
"Have a good one!"
"Have a good one!"
A last minute runner, fumbling for his fare, pulling out a $2.50 ticket– "I'm s'posed to only be paying .75," he mumbles to himself.
While he's smoothing out the ticket to put it into the machine my brain cycles through the ideas articulated here, and I say aloud, "you should save that." Tearing him off a transfer. "Use it for a driver who's givin' you a hard time!"
His smile carries the warm, open-hearted realization: ah, the world is not against me. I do have friends out here. "Thank you!" he says, with feeling.
Another fellow, very serious, tanned red by the sun, boards with a gigantic inch-thick steel square. At four by four feet, it looks like it weighs more than I do.
"You've got the goods today, I see!"
"Are you takin' that down to the Recycling place?"
"Do they measure the contributions by weight, or...?"
"Yeah, by weight."
"Well then, looks like you hit the jackpot!"
A man and his toddler son form a distinctive pair in the mixed-race tableau of the 7, being about the only Caucasians on board.
The child is curious about God. "Did Jesus die?" he asks, wide-eyed.
The father replies without concern for being judged or ridiculed by those around him. They discuss theology in subdued tones, the father gazing out the windows from time to time, as slanting afternoon sunlight glances in. I'm reminded of Rockwell's Saying Grace. As they exit, Dad says to me, "you're kinda like the mayor of the number 7!"
As night approaches, Eric steps in, introducing me to a friend of his ("this is Mike." Mike nods). Eric is tall, dressed in large, dark, faded outdoor wear, textures of plaid and padding, well-used denim built to withstand the strain of a difficult life. He has a perpetual baseball cap and long stringy hair framing a gaunt, pale, hollow, and loving face. Blue-gray eyes which have seen much, and yet aren't afraid to wear emotions easily. You know the type. He would travel four hours to see his aging mother in Bremerton once a week no matter what, until he one day told me she had passed. You could see how it hurt him. Today he's happy to have made the bus.
"Oh, hey, Nathan! I wouldn'a jaywalked if I'd known it was you, since I know you woulda waited!"
"I'm glad you made it! I appreciate the hustle!"
After they settle down in their seats, Eric comes back up. "Hey, do you want some girl scout cookies? These are the really good ones. Caramel, chocolate and coconut. With coconut flakes."
"Coconut, oh my!"
"Yeah, let's see." He reads off the gory details. "Crisp cookies coated in caramel, sprinkled with toasted coconut, and striped with a dark chocolaty..."
He had me at crispy. "That sounds outstanding! I would love some!"
"Have you had these ones?"
With enthusiasm: "No!"
"Well hey, why don't I give you this row, and then these can be mine and these can be for Mike."
He's about to give me five cookies! Yes, I am glad he made it!
"Eric, you're amazing! This is so perfect, because I forgot to bring dinner!" Normally I don't go for sugar, and as I write this now I can't believe I actually ate five of these things in one evening, but in my dinner-deprived state my decision making skills were definitely elsewhere. You think differently when you've just spent seven hours eating brown rice crackers somebody gave you from the food bank. Plus, uh, coconut's healthy, right?
After he opens the box and supplies me, he asks the rest of the bus if they want girl scout cookies. Even with the mention of chocolate and coconut, they have more self-restraint than I, or maybe they're confused by Eric's ramshackle appearance. I know better though. Looks can be deceiving.