You may have seen the video above, about a fight on my bus. The video is new, but the event happened a few years ago. It's something I've been carrying around for a while, and right after it happened, I had no idea how to talk about or even write about it.
The energy of the two men, especially Mr. Navy Seal, and beyond that the unforgivable actions of the Sheriff who started it all… I still have the notes for everything the principals said, and the buildup and conclusion of the event was larger than I indicate in my speech. So too was the fallout of subsequent interactions in the months after. But it was too much to write about (though I'd briefly mention the incident at the bottom of this post, over a year later). Maybe one day when this blog is a book, I'll go into all the details. It was a long time before I could see it all clearly enough to laugh about it.
These men live in our heads, but they go on existing in real life too, and not always how we expect. Last night Mr. Navy Seal got on at the first stop in Rainier Beach. He slowly put his cigarette out, took his time loading his bike. Don't get angry. If he's trying to irritate me by being slow… don't fall for it, Nathan. I grabbed a sheaf of papers from the dash, reading over notes for an upcoming interview.* I took a deep breath when he stepped in. I said hello. I went for it, enthusiastically greeting him by name. Let's start things off on the right foot here.
And wouldn't you know it, he responded in kind. We bumped fists. Something different in his air now: I'm noticing how clean shaven he is, the better repair of his clothing. Smooth dark skin, crisp and fresh in casual dress, as though he'd aged in reverse over the last five years. Taking care of yourself can do that. He chats up one of the ladies seated nearby; they grew up together. He asks after her children. The man's always been boisterous, but now, tonight, he's friendly.
After she leaves he turns to me.
"How you been?" I asked.
"Ah been good, man, it's a good time now. Way better than before." And then he tells me. I remember the explanatory kindness latent in his raspy, masculine brawl of a voice. We all have our low years; his was 2012. He used to work on the Light Rail.
"Thanks for puttin' that train in place, dude," I quipped. "Much appreciated!"
"Well, I had an accident, man." An industrial work accident involving a dump truck and steel poles, and a truck that wasn't inspection-certified, instead cleared under the table. This oversight led to a severe on-the-job injury I won't describe, followed by intense back pain and the call of booze. "2012, man, that year was a motherfucker. My back tore up, drinkin' like crazy, caught up in stupid shit, my momma sick, then mah dog died…."
"Oh my goodness, the dog too! Everything all at once,"
"All at once exactly."
"But look at you now! I'm so glad you… pushed through all a that. I admire that, I respect that. 'Cause it isn't easy."
Don't you wish you could know the story behind every angry soul, every dangerous drunk? To understand the shape of things, the beating and wounded hearts, their voices strangled by loss and vice.
Look at his smile. Those eyes, which have suffered and seen so much, crinkling into crow's feet. Nothing malevolent there anymore. A working man getting off at a decent hour, headed home to a roof he can call his own. I tend to believe that people don't change.
I love being proven wrong.
*I was studying up for a treat I think you'll enjoy– the podcast, Bare Naked Bravery, wherein I was interviewed by the great Emily Ann Peterson! It won't air for a while, but when it does you'll be the first to know!
Note on the above: I have to note that that's not some stock image– I actually took that photo. I was a preteen running around in the late 90s, with no idea I'd one day be driving those strange buses with the poles on top....
What is the Knife's Edge Dance, you ask? I will tell you. First described here, it's the dance you play as a bus driver when you know one wrong word, one wrong tone, will cause the whole thing to collapse. All bus drivers have had to play this game. It's no one's favorite way to pass the time, even for someone like myself, who loves talking. The risks are just way too high, and you really can't screw it up. I'm not an expert, but I can offer two tips: learn when to let them win (always), and learn when to be silent (extremely rarely, but there are those times). Also: you'll do way better at this if you ate and slept well recently.
"Fucking 7," this younger man said, after I said I don't go to Bell Street. He'd lobbed his body into the bus at northbound Seneca, saying he just needed to go to Bell. A twenty-something white man with nothing to lose, hair stringy and matted, dressed in every shade between brown and orange.
"What's that," I said, too sternly. I hadn't eaten. Wrong tone, I immediately realized. Where's my A game? Can't sleepwalk through this one. I leaned toward a more genial tone. "Come on up," I said, trying to get his angry self away from the other passengers. "Where you trying to go? I go to Pike."
"I also got a terminal at Virginia, you wanna go to Virginia?" I don't usually mention that, but now seemed a pretty good time to throw that bone out there. There's a time for everything.
"What," he replied, looking up vacantly. "Yeah."
"Best I can offer, you know."
"That's my destination."
We're sitting in bumper-to-bumper bus traffic in the dead heat of afternoon rush. The hour from 4:30pm to 5:30 is the most heavily traveled of all the twenty-four hours, and we're in the middle of it. If there was a blockage ahead, I'd never know; all I can see is the back of the two enormous buses right in front of me, one in each lane. I try to assuage him. We could be here twenty minutes. I need to stay friends with him for however long this takes.
"We might not get there fast, but we'll get there."
"I gotta be there in... five minutes." He speaks erratically, standing and sitting again, a live wire ready to flame.
"Uh oh, that might not happen with this bus, dude, we got some traffic tonight. I mean if it was up to me, I'd just run 'em all over."
"I know you'll get me there on time," he rumbles. "We got, we got three minutes."
Three minutes from Seneca to Virginia? That's so impossible it's downright adorable just thinking about it. I try to set him up for noble failure: "I gotta say, we might not make it. But we might, who knows! Just don't get mad at me if we roll in a lil' after, you know?"
"Oh I know you're good."
"You got a horn, I know it works."
His voice, pushing toward irritation: "You got a nice big horn right there."
"Yeah, he probably wouldn't hear it though, he probably got the air conditioning on." Referring to the bus in front of us, and the notoriously loud climate control on the new buses.
"Oh yeah! Ha! Hum." As I throw a hand up toward a fellow operator, he chortles, "waving at bus drivers, I LIKE how you guys do that."
"Yeah you know, keeping it positive! Never know what they might be going through, bringin' up someone's day even just a couple minutes." Pause. "What takes you up to Virginia? If I may ask. Just hangin', or…"
"I'm looking for my friend."
"That's nice uh you, hope your friend appreciates that. We gotta look out for each other sometimes, help each other out."
His voice, husky and dark: "Don't ever question me again."
Let them win. If you can let people get away with having the last word, your life will be so much easier. I learned the hard way once, and remembered a previous incident I was determined not to repeat. I said now what I should have once said before:
His mind was now free to go elsewhere. "When is this traffic gonna MOVE?"
"We'll get there. It all depends on when he gets there! I don't think I can run him over though."
"You can do it!!!"
I smiled, and a few minutes passed in silence. He studied the clock on the Orca reader, counting down the minutes. Then he looked at me. He stared unapologetically, stepping closer. A drawn out glare, piercing and slow. Finally he spoke. He said it in a low voice.
"Are you intelligent?"
From his tone, his bearing, and those piercing eyes, which I avoided for longer than a glance, you knew there was definitely a wrong answer to this question. I forced a chuckle. "Ha, I'm not that good!"
He kept glaring. Remember your training: pretend to be confident, and it will turn to real confidence. I said it again.
"Yeah no, I'm not quite that good. I got a little something, but I'm not up there." Pause. Keep going. I still had his full attention. He looked ready to pounce. I glanced at him again, with a smile. "I don't have all the answers. Anybody tries to tell you they have all the answers, ahhh…." I made the wishy-washy hand motion, as in, take it with a grain of salt. He nodded with a grin, dirty yellowed teeth, making the same gesture with his hand. He understood. We've all got something in common.
"But you look intelligent," he growled.
"No, that's just the glasses!"
"That's all it is!" Like Samson's hair! We're pulling reasonably close to Virginia Street now, on the same block, still sitting behinds mounds of traffic. It's a veritable bus doggie-pile out here. What a perfect opportunity to coax him off the bus early. Aren't some rules made to be broken?
"Well here, it's a red light, and that's Virginia right there, do you wanna jump out here while it's red?"
"No, I wanna go to Virginia. That's my destination."
"Right on." Stay friendly, I told myself, and calm. Engage him. I ramble, searching around for a topic. "You ever go there," I asked, pointing at the storefront. "Bed Bath and Beyond?"
"Bed Bath and Beyond?"
"Yeah, right there? It's all right. I used to have the biggest crush on this girl that worked there."
"Yeah, at the register. She's gone now though. One day she was there, one day she was wasn't."
"Where she go?"
"I think she went to Chicago."
"Lemme off right here."
By now we were in the middle of turning the corner, so close, mere seconds away from an acceptable stop on Virginia Street. I replied with, "for sure, lemme finish this turn real quick, I can't let you off in the middle."
"Yeah you can. Yeah you can!"
"Lemme off right now!"
If you can, let them win. People like winning. This would be easy to explain to a supervisor anyways. Safety is paramount, moreso than stopping during a turn and potentially waking the dormant beast inside this man.
"Okay," I said. I opened the doors.
And that's the story of why there was no police called to Third and Virginia, or Third and Seneca, no additional traffic blockages, no security incident, no frightened passengers, no further delayed service, no injuries to myself or others. Just a weird blip of a moment where a bus downtown, for some reason, stopped in the middle of a turn, and let someone out.
"Real life is so hard to find."
-Knight of Cups
Directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, et. al.
Synopsis: A woman explores love, identity, and selfhood against the backdrop of the tumultuous Austin music scene. 129 mins.
In 2009, as I was finishing my tour of duty at UW, I got excited. I was restless, and I wanted to birth out something of value, really push myself. I wrote a 457-page thesis about Pure Cinema, a form of filmmaking I consider the ultimate possibility of what movies can do. My professor wasn't exactly thrilled, but was still kind enough to nominate it for the Library Research Award.
Briefly (in an effort to keep this post under 457 pages!), Pure CInema can be described as films, or sections of films, that communicate to the audience in a manner possible only in the film medium, bypassing the derivations of literature and the stage, relying instead on a potent mix of moving images and sounds.
Have you ever noticed how your favorite scenes in movies are never the ones about story mechanics, but rather those immersed in the present moment, the parts which plunge you into the pulsing immediacy of life? Movies can be used to tell stories, and being a linear time-based art form they're great at that. But they can also do so much more. Most pictures don't take advantage of that possibility, and settle for something closer to filmed theatre.
In my thesis I wrote about the director Terrence Malick, noting that with each successive film of his, he was getting closer to abandoning narrative entirely in favor of something more direct, more immediate, closer to our pure and fragmented experience of life and memory.
In his 1990 novel Immortality, Milan Kundera wrote that memories, as they exist in our heads, are closer to photographs than films; they rarely involve a complete beginning, middle, and end. They're more like fragments. Malick aims for this, and the result is hypnotic. We don't get scenes; we get glimpses, glances that catch in our eye or in our heart, the things we notice but which are too subtle to talk about. These are films about the thoughts we all have but don't have the norms to express. His next picture after my thesis, 2011's Tree of Life (trailer), would delve deeper into this realm than ever before, and his next three movies would form an informal trilogy of sorts which communicated to the audience as no director has ever even attempted.
The subjects of the three films aren't new ("a fall from grace, a journey through despair and finally a restoration of innocence and hope," respectively, as Justin Chang notes in his review below), but the execution is. Malick really is developing a new visual grammar here, no less seismic than Antonioni's initially derided L'Avventura, 47 years ago. That film was so radical in its photographic, structural and editing decisions that a volatile Cannes audience booed it at its first screening, threw things, and physically threatened its director and star to the point they had to flee the theatre! And wouldn't you know, it's a classic now. Growing pains….
That's why I'm writing to you about these weird abstract new large-scale art films that a lot of people are deriding. I have to do it. Change happens slowly in the mainstream, and when it doesn't it's hard for people. The attitude toward these films is going to change dramatically over the next decade, and if you'll forgive my saying so, you heard it here first.
We might ask what all these movies actually look like. Try this trailer for Knight of Cups, the second film of the trilogy. It's condensed, of course, but the approach is pretty truthful to the experience of watching the film: you get an impression of a successful screenwriter in Hollywood feeling adrift despite his material successes and access to pleasure. By way of a very active and probing camera that focuses on details, along with narration giving voice to the characters' private, interior musings, we get a palpable sense of the protagonist's yearning for substance, for a spiritual awakening of sorts, but not knowing quite how to get there. It's fresher and more involving than ordinarily blocked and scripted scenes of the same. You don't think the movie; you feel it.
Almost all criticism of late-period Malick has to do with complaining about the fact that his movies aren't like normal movies. I say walk in with an open mind, and dare yourself to watch it without judging it by the standards of something it isn't trying to be. Others may cry pretentiousness or portentousness, but should we really take an artist to task for actually trying to do something, for taking his craft seriously and attempting to reach beyond his grasp? Here's what I wrote in 2013 about watching To the Wonder (trailer), the first of the trilogy:
The film assumes your understanding of the basic plot and chooses to go deeper, dispensing with story and exploring instead the textures of this search. The approach feels both broadly sketched and startlingly intimate (especially in its use of voiceover) at the same time. Definitely the most abstract of Malick's already fairly abstract work, the content of To The Wonder is told mostly through its elliptically sequenced images. Affleck told audiences at Telluride that the film "makes Tree of Life look like Transformers," and indeed, it's a challenging film- but only if you're expecting a normal movie. I say let the images wash over you. The joy of the camera, swinging through the trees in Paris, making tangible the energy of early love; the mystery of the last two shots, which when paired together evoke a loss, but also the calmness of having been found; whispered nothings on the soundtrack, ruminations of lonely people, as they walk around in the corners of the widescreen frame. Don't try to decode everything- let the ideas and sensations work their way into you, right-brain style, of their own accord. Things will click together on your drive home, or a day later.
I'd go on about how much I love the director's lack of irony and why that makes him ahead of his time, or the natural light cinematography and the beauty it sees in the most unlikely of realms, Malick's process of searching for extemporaneous moments with the actors instead of using a script, his tendency toward articulating a pre-considered outline by improvising the details... but I don't want to bore you (links to all that below).
Just go watch the thing.
It's a trilogy in theme only; there's no need to have seen the previous pictures. All three films involve searching for solace in the cacophony outside oneself, and eventually finding it within. You may be fascinated by that and love it, as I did, or you may leave it (I've never seen more walkouts than during a 2012 Tree of Life screening in Bellevue), but you'll never have seen anything like it.
When your friends start complaining about how American movies aren't original, or modern movies aren't daring anymore, you'll know what to say.
Song to Song is currently playing in NY and LA. It opens in limited release in Seattle on Friday.
The thoughtful take: Song to Song: Terrence Malick's Romantic Idealism: Richard Brody (The New Yorker). Brody boldly championed Knight of Cups a year ago, and continues here.
The lively take: Terrence Malick's Song to Song film review: A masterpiece, life-changing and other superlatives I stand by (Chris Hooton, The Independent): "It is suffused with that feeling of when you want to cry but can't."
Legendary: Terrence Malick Makes a Rare Appearance at SXSW 2017 and Digs Deep On His Process (Indiewire). This is seriously the stuff of legend: Malick, a notorious recluse who once took twenty years off between films and was photographed less than five times before the invention of the internet, does his first interview here since 1979!
Song to Song (review). Carson Lund (Slant).
Cosmic Questions (ASC): Creating emotionally resonant imagery on Tree of Life. Details the rules Malick and Lubezki established together for how to shoot the films.
Terrence Malick's 'Song to Song' finds beauty, frustration and hope in the Austin music scene (review). Justin Chang (Los Angeles Times).
Song to Song review – Terrence Malick returns to form with lyrical love triangle (The Guardian). Thoughts from across the pond.
Images courtesy Broad Green Pictures.
Note: I'll be gone for a week, but I'm leaving you with a nice, big, fact, juicy one here! Hope you enjoy it!
They're a fine bunch, the operators. Bus Driver Appreciation Day was originally designated in Seattle, and I'm not surprised. We've got good people here. Like all bunches, there's a portion of sour grapes. I recall a passenger blurting out one evening, after some apparent thought: "ninety percent. That's about what it is."
Before I could ask him to elaborate, he did. "Take any group of people, any race or workforce or whatever, and ninety percent of them will be pretty cool. They'll be basically all right. Most folks in any group are all right. Homeless people, bus drivers, rich guys. You always get a few assholes, but hey, whatever. Yeah, I'd say about ninety percent."
There are some great folks out behind those big wheels. It's a test, requiring a commitment to patience and self-generated positivity, a commitment that has to be re-upped daily, sometimes hourly. City bus driving takes a special breed. Few jobs require such an extreme level of technical driving prowess simultaneous with such a prodigious understanding of human psychology, and no other job requires a dexterity in these unrelated realms to the degree where the lives, jobs, and the safety of many are at stake. I'm honored to work alongside my colleagues, whether old, young, beautiful, fat, trim, crabby, or happy. They are the lives unsung, expended with great effort, largely and forever unknown. But they– we– did happen.
The best way I can appreciate my fellow cohorts is by sharing a few of the valuable nuggets I've gleaned. As with art and film, much of what I've learned about bus driving I've "observed" (stolen outright) from others. Some are technical, others personal; some will only make sense to operators, but it's interesting how many others are universal.
I hope reviewing them reminds us that we can search around the edges of any activity, any profession, and carve it into something ever more capable, more meaningful, with greater relevance and a kind of beauty. In another life I might have scoffed that bus driving has no business being among the transcendent, all-encompassing human endeavors. I would have been wrong. Bus driving is nothing less than the full human organism, up close, and it is, intriguingly, an experience that ends up being largely what you put into it. I suppose that's how the world turns.
To me, this list is so short. There are so many more operators than the ones mentioned here whom I adore and respect beyond all reason. But a short list is better than no list!
Regarding customer service:
Regarding downtown & night operations:
You can go above and beyond. You don't have to go as beyond as some of these giants, but the ceiling is high, and there is room to play:
All of which is to wit: say thank you to your bus driver!
Incredibly, the thought didn't occur to me until Celia broached the idea.
"You have to do it," she said. "It's your thirtieth!"
We were finishing up the Prentice Loop on the 7, and the bus was empty. Sitting at the long red light on 57th; it makes sense somehow that big ideas are birthed in small places, the hushed excitement of voices daring at the possibility. I was skeptical. She wasn't.
"A birthday party? Really?"
"Yeah! You can make it a big thing!"
The next person I talked to about it was Leroy. I mentioned the idea, but also shared my trepidation that no one would come. Isn't the whole thing a bit frivolous? Who would show up for this thing, anyway?
"Shut the fuck up," he said. I started laughing. "Nathan, seriously. You really need to shut the fuck up right now. I love you, you saved my life, you're a great person, everybody loves you…. just shut up already! You're Nathan Vass, the–"
"Dude, no, no–"
"Shut up, Nathan! You think people aren't gonna come? Do you remember what happened during Paris last year?"
"Yeah, I guess there was that…."
"Uh. Yeah. Don't even worry about it. If you have a party, they'll come. Hell, I'll make them come!"
In a way he did, as he ended up catering the event. He was a Le Cordon Bleu student at the time. We quickly realized there'd be far too many people to feed with only catering, and the party became a potluck as well.
I'd like to share something regarding how this all came together that you might find interesting. I find it miraculous.
The party was originally planned to be on the roof of The Post, the luxury apartment building downtown. Kate Alkarni, of Kate Alkarni Gallery, lived there at the time, and she offered me the space (click here to watch a speech by me concerning my first and last time catsitting for Kate at The Post). All she had to do was reserve the roof on a date of our choosing. She did so.
A week beforehand, Leroy and I stopped by The Post because, as a chef, he would benefit from reviewing the kitchen facilities and appliances they had. I wanted to take a look at the walls to see if we could hang art. I still remember the guy's name at the front desk. Brian Chow looked us over skeptically, slowly, telling us no such reservation had been made.
He was the fellow you talked to about such things. Not only had no reservation been made, the roof had been reserved by another party, and despite the rule that the space could be reserved for only four hours, it had been blocked off for the entire day by one of the senior staff members there, and as such there would be no chance of any party, especially not mine, happening anytime at all on that date. Brian Chow pretended to look into the details, to see if there was anything he could do. The minutes ticked by. Leroy, who could see over his shoulder, would later tell me Chow had simply been surfing the net during those moments. A strange man indeed.
Bus driving isn't even on the top ten list of most stressful jobs. Event planning is. It's just a few rungs down from air traffic control. I'd always wondered why; now I knew. I'd just invited a thousand people with time and place details which were now inaccurate and unrealizable. I called Kate. What had happened with the reserving of the roof? She didn't know. No one knew. She proposed we have the party spread out in three locations– her apartment, The Post's game room, and a nearby movie room. Discussion with Post staff (I insisted on talking to someone besides Brian Chow) quickly revealed this would be impossible. The quantity of our guest list was a hilarious violation of fire code, and staff would be forced to lock the elevators to prevent any more attendees from overflowing into rooms with capacity limits of twenty, thirty-five and fifteen. Fuhgetaboutit. For reasons we couldn't fathom, The Post was dead in the water.
I was despondent less at the thought of no party than the thought of disappointing people, coming up short. Friends had gotten time off work. They were telling me what they were cooking to bring. They were excited. I resolved that the new venue needed to be secured in 48 hours, had to be in the same neighborhood as The Post, and take place at the same time on the same day. I spoke with galleries, restaurants, hotels and other event venues and faced dollar amounts far beyond me. Reserving a space for hundreds of people in downtown Seattle on a Saturday, with two days notice? It was comedy, the level of rejection you get from that one. My 48 hours were almost up.
The hero of this story is Chad Solomon. Friend and former bus driver, now streetcar operator, he saw me wandering anxiously about Pioneer Square as he finished up a shift.
"Are you looking for a new venue?"
Moments like this make me believe in angels. He knew of my search by way of social media, and happily showed me his building. Like Kate, he lived at the time in a luxury apartment building, not just downtown but a few blocks from The Post. Like The Post, it had a roof, except it was much larger. Was it available on the day we needed it? Yes, but in the afternoon, not the evening as I had planned. That's fine, I said. That's completely fine. I couldn't believe my good fortune. O, Chad. Thank you so much for reaching out that day. And for happening to walk by me at just the right moment.
The shift to an afternoon time turned out to be another stroke of fortune; it was a Sounders game day, and parking and traffic would've been a nightmare for all. We managed to avoid all that. O, Universe. You really are too kind!
Even that, however, was not the ultimate marvel. The real miraculousness is this, friend. At the last possible minute, Kate Alkarni got called away to Los Angeles to attend to an ill family member. If that original reservation at The Post had been correctly logged, Kate would not have been able to let anyone into her building, due to her unforeseen obligation in L.A. No exaggeration: the birthday party would have had to have been cancelled on the day of.
Brian Chow, how I love you.
In a recent post I described the guests thus:
The attendees at my "first and last" birthday party last year included a hundred or two of my favorite actors, artists, engineers, nurses, authors, professors, cooks, city and county government employees, social justice workers, hairdressers, millionaires, students, playwrights, bus drivers, photographers, storytellers, architects, musicians, bankers, dishwashers, community organizers, poets, businessmen and women, filmmakers, administrators and homeless people. The only connection points linking them were that they knew me, and that they respected kindness.
There people who came all the way from Florida to be there. There were people who came out from the hospital against their doctors' orders, bruises still on their faces. There were people who spent the night at their jobs to get the day off. I'll never be able to adequately express my gratitude.
Other people get married; this was my wedding, a celebration not of me but of the goodness in humanity which I so dearly love. I bungled somewhat the speech I gave at the party, overcome as I was with excitement; I was trying to link the thankfulness in the bus incident I retold with my thankfulness for everyone present, my indebtedness to the mysterious ways of this world we live in.
There's an architecture we can't see from here on ground level. We scoff when coming upon a deux ex machina in stories, but that's only because fiction, as Mark Twain said, has to be plausible. Life doesn't. In life, it is not unreasonable to entertain the possibility of miracles. Help yourself in your journey, but trust yourself too, and trust in the universe to provide.
Just as the group photo above sadly leaves out as many people as it contains, the pictures below don't cover the half of it. What I mainly want to stress here is the cake. Look at that thing! It's an anatomically correct German chocolate version of a favorite coach type of mine, with a coach number and route I drove regularly (photos of the bus included below for reference!). It involved months of prep (unbeknownst to me) and its positioning and stand is based on an old photograph of mine (which contains the same route but a different coach type), also included below. Courtesy of one Hazel Margolis, who was eleven years old at the time. Will I ever receive a cake that grand again? Obviously not! It's all downhill from here, cake-wise...
Our conversation was drifting on to other topics, but I needed to clarify something.
"Hold up. Did you say that game was at eight o' clock in the morning?"
For us swing shift folk, making it out to an event at that hour is akin to your average joe showing up to something with a three a.m. call time. He was referring to his daughter's basketball game, which he enthusiastically supported by attending, despite the jarring conflict with his sleep schedule. I was impressed.
"You're a good dad, man. I can respect how hard it is to get up for something at eight o'clock in the morning."
It was another late night on my way home. I was happily exhausted, sprawled out in the front seats, as he navigated the bus through another intersection. "All I need's my coffee, I'm good to go," he replied.
"Right on. That means something, that you're there. I'm sure she appreciates you being there. That means a lot to kids."
"I try to flatter her with confidence."
"Yeah." I reflected further. It felt okay to share, out here on the empty night bus. I saw this operator about every week, and I once trained him on the 7. We'd gotten to know each other. I said, "I try to make sure I never break promises that I make to kids. You know?"
"Yeah. They don't forget stuff like that."
"They need people they can trust."
"They don't never forget stuff like that." After a pause, he shared further himself. "I was state in high school. One of the top athletes in mah school."
"My dad never came to not one of my games."
"I'm sorry. That's not cool."
"Yeah, I still got three shoe boxes of medals and pennants and stuff. Kinda hard for me to throw them away, you know?"
"I hear that."
We were stopped at a long red light. He explained, "I had a half scholarship to USC. That was when my mom got colon cancer though. So I stayed."
"I woulda done the exact same as you, man."
"In a heartbeat. Easy decision to make."
"I didn't even question it."
"She woulda done the same. She did. She gave up all her hopes and dreams for me."
I reeled at the weight of his sentence. Wow. "That's not easy to do," I said.
"We can find ways to be happy."
"Other pleasures in life."
He said it with the humble peace that comes from immense gratitude. He was aware of his mother's sacrifice, and that for him, loyalty to those he loved would give him greater solace than achieving his aspirations in sports.
I'm a big subscriber to the notion that despite superficial shifts, the pillars around which human life are built remain largely constant. Everything changes, and everything stays the same.
A few of the superficial shifts have had larger ramifications, however, and the newfound multiplicity of choice is one of them. For centuries, life involved having too few options, and choosing the best available. The contemporary western world, for the first time, faces a more complicated present: the unprecedented issue of having too many options.
Before the economic boom following World War II, life in America revolved around surviving, as it did (and often does) in most places. The seismic attitudinal shifts between the generation which purchased homes after the war and the generation raised in those homes have mainly to do with the bewildering new concept of leisure time and how to fill it. The adults, many of them children of the Depression, saw time as a valuable resource for survival.
The new youngsters, on the other hand, growing up in comparative luxury and with no corresponding experience, found survival easy, and irrelevant to the forming of their identities. They focused instead on what prior generations never had time for– concepts like "lifestyle" (a coinage new to the period) and defining themselves with fascinations that come from having luxury capital, like clothing and music. The concept of the lifelong sacrifice, so painfully known to their forbears, seemed unnecessary and awful to them.
Is living in a world with a plethora of options better than being in one with a paucity of them? I think so, but I feel the challenges of both are so diametrically opposed that it's impossible to imagine the issues of one having lived only in the other. The several generations prior to ours understood sacrifice at a level we will probably never know. We alive now struggle with what they wished for– a plethora of options– in ways they couldn't have imagined. They would scoff now when our biggest problems are heartbreak and boredom, as we might chide them for defining themselves only by their careers, neither side understanding what the big deal is. We, today, wrestle with how to draw the outlines of our identities, surrounded as we are by avalanches of stimuli, drowning under heaps of suggested goals and desires, career and life paths, new catastrophes on the far corners of the globe. Modern life is the act of editing. What quantity of all this stimuli do you push aside, such that you can still see straight?
Marriage and family are the most obvious examples involving lifelong sacrifices. The suppression of certain aspects of self, forever, to make things work. That takes colossal guts, and I admire what my operator friend was saying above about his mother. That's a level of commitment I know nothing about. It's worthy of great respect, but concurrently, I believe with equal fervor that the danger of lifelong bitterness, resentment and depression is never greater than in such decisions. Is there a more unequivocal path to misery?
I sometimes wonder how my ancestors might behave, were they alive today. Sacrifices aren't going anywhere. We all make them. There's an excellent argument for sacrifice being the organizing principle behind all societies, and sometimes it remains the smartest thing to do, the one that benefits the most people.
And yet. What would they do now? Would they still stick it out in situations where they were obviously miserable? Or would they use with unparalleled enthusiasm the options we have today, sensibly pointing out the ridiculousness of giving up on dreams in a world where you don't have to?
Our operator friend's situation above has no easy solution, but what I admired about him was how fully he seemed to know his priorities. He didn't have to sit there and think about what was more important for him in life. He knew and he acted, decisively, with the peace and confidence that comes from being true to yourself. My decisions may be like his, or they may just as easily not be, but I hope one day to have his clarity of vision, to navigate truthfully in this corner of the world, where options abound.
Photo by Keira Booth.
Paul Constant is (among other things!) the co-founder of the excellent The Seattle Review of Books. He recently interviewed me for his site. We chatted about the blog and its future, my influences, the purpose of living and writing these stories, and so much more. Read all about it here.