Neither Here Nor There
Although it has nothing to do with buses and almost nothing to do with cinema, I find myself drawn by "the Will Smith moment," because it has everything to do with human behavior, which we know is the only reason any of us are interested in the above two worlds in the first place.
1. A Different Stage
The uncensored video of the incident, which international audiences saw live, just plain fascinates me. It represents in microcosm a multitude of things, one of which is rarely to be found on television: I appreciated seeing a moment of actual true emotions, expressed with zero pretense. In watching the sort of exchange I'm rather more familiar with seeing on the nighttime street, I realized how much context can make a thing seem stranger than it is. We live in a world where the image of something seems to count more than the thing itself. But this was not the image of decorum. Here was The Thing itself, ugly and terrible but real, borne out of force and truth and shame and guilt and anger.
This was no performance; this was a man who always has to perform, and for thirty seconds decided not to. Do we decry him for this blip alongside decades of good behavior? By what standards do we measure a life with different problems than our own? In pointing fingers at others, are we trying to draw attention away from our own flaws?
Last night Will Smith responded to a perceived barb as many folks have on the 7, the E Line, or in Philly, where Mr. Smith comes from– except instead of those milieus it was in an elevated and rarefied atmosphere. The shock on people’s faces; the pregnant and confused silence as recorded by writers who were present; Rock’s shaken replies, making clear this is no stunt (as Smith’s manner in repeating his line also makes abundantly clear). We thirst for truth, and found it in an unexpected place last night.
The most inexplicable part of it for me was watching Smith, who initially laughs– and not a little– at Chris Rock’s joke... and then watching him wallop Rock for precisely the same joke less than ten seconds later. I can’t help but wonder if being caught by his wife at laughing inflamed in him a desire to overreact against himself, against the shame of his own initial lackadaisical reaction.
What further intrigues me is that Smith has been very good at sustaining a nigh-universally likable public image that convincingly conveys being in control and being easy-going. While I have no expectation of someone being those things all the time, as a public figure one knows one has to moderate one’s responses disproportionately, especially in a live broadcast environment. The hitherto-unsullied degree of Smith’s reputation and his longevity in being well-liked in the industry suggest his amiable persona is probably accurate.
He had to have known how long-lasting and ignominious the damage of such a rash action would be, to himself and those around him, and how messily it would complicate his career. I wonder if he felt a desire to rebel against an encroaching pressure of keeping a good face on at all times, as he has now so obediently done for decades. I’m reminded of Tom Cruise firing his publicist in 2005 and behaving in a way he likely found liberating and truthful, even if it cost him fans. As Sasha Stone, another journalist who was in attendance pointed out, Smith's smug confidence as he returned to his seat is entirely at odds with the Smith we think we know.
3. Damage Control
I’m also intrigued that Meredith O’Sullivan, Smith’s longtime publicist, and others (namely Denzel and Tyler Perry, as well as Nic Kidman, who stopped by to give him a hug) huddled with Smith during commercial breaks, with O’Sullivan consulting with him quietly but earnestly during every single commercial break between 'That Moment' and Best Actor. To me this implies resistance on Smith’s part to take O’Sullivan’s advice, which had to be some variation of what all celebrity apologies require to be effective:
1) taking responsibility for one’s actions,
2) acknowledging the hurt they’ve caused in a manner that suggests self-awareness, and
3) (though it’d be too soon after the event for this one) indicating a concrete plan for self-improvement.
I imagine Smith said he was willing to apologize to everyone except Rock, since that’s exactly what he ended up doing. (To no one's surprise, Smith released a predictably thoughtfully worded piece hitting all the right marks today.)
I can’t help but wonder if his rambling if heartfelt six-minute speech, waffling as it did between defending himself and apologizing to secondary and tertiary parties, made things even worse. While imperfect messiness is to be expected when forced to comment without deliberation on such a recent mistake, his lack of apology to Rock is an omission that deafened in its silence, and subsequent notices of him dancing the night away at afterparties to his own previous musical hits don’t do him any favors.
It was a highly imperfect speech. There was an opportunity to restage the event hypothetically ("here’s what I should’ve done"); there was an opportunity to transform the moment into a teachable one ("learn from my mistake"); there was an opportunity to emphasize that people act in ways they regret ("a person is more than their worst moment; I ask for your forgiveness"); and an opportunity for Smith, a father, to iterate to boys everywhere that violence is an inappropriate response to non-violence (“yell at comedians, don’t punch them”). As Ms. Stone notes regarding abusive relationships, what follows a physical altercation is the tearful apology. I find it strange to listen to Smith extolling the virtues of love mere minutes after punching someone out in front a global audience, with the expectation that we should take both moments seriously– but such is the nature of the contradictory human animal.
4. Matters of Principle
I find more curious his unquestioning advocacy for “protecting” women, and am reminded of the great writer Susan Faludi’s articulation of the “protection racket” in her monumental study of postwar emasculation, Stiffed: the Betrayal of the American Man. The "protection racket" is the long-standing practice where men seek to “protect” women from other men they deem worse than they, but in the course of doing so sometimes exhibit behavior just as oppressive. I can hardly think of a better example than last night. Does Jada Pinkett Smith need Will’s "protection?” Support, certainly, but… this? In 1963 Betty Friedan argued that women are adults who can take care of themselves. Conversely, Tiffany Haddish calls Smith's reaction “the most beautiful thing I've ever seen” and “what your husband is supposed to do, right?”
Clearly mileage varies...
Either way, I believe Smith’s motivations were entirely personal, and naught to do with Jada’s honor, but his own definition of himself as a man in relation to Jada, and in relation to Rock. He wasn't thinking; he was being. The host of factors and principles which impelled him out of his seat are too myriad to name. For me, the thought of Smith noticing his wife's hurt at his own laughter at a joke made at her expense, and finding reprehensible that part of himself, is touching. How human of him to try to stamp it out, to erase with vigor and conclusiveness the actions we most regret.
Who has not been at war with the lesser versions of their self?
How easy it is to make things worse. You learn in the Chinese board game Go that some mistakes just have to be moved on from, their losses accepted, because further intervention only worsens matters. You can't fix everything. We do our best.
5. The Thing No One is Talking About
Which brings us to Chris Rock. After doing what he often does– improvising and taking chances with jokes that push the envelope, often with cutting insight, though rather less so here– Rock shifted gears, realizing the mood of the person antagonizing him was not at all in jest. I find it riveting. Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane is a positive portrayal of a strong (bald) female character, which is probably why Rock felt like chancing the joke, in poor taste though it is. Complicating the moment is Smith and Jada already being made fun of earlier in the same ceremony, as well as Rock poking fun at Jada’s expense at a previous Oscars in 2017. Will and Jada have also been having their own relationship difficulties, though I’ve made an effort not to read about that (not my business!). Basically, it’s never just the last straw.
But the one thing no one is talking about is also the thing I find most impressive:
The fact that Chris Rock did not strike back.
In America we think of the doer as the subject, whether in grammar or otherwise; that's why we speak of this as the "Will Smith" incident. But inaction is as powerful as action. Restraint can save the day; silence can speak louder than words.
Such non-action as Rock displayed in last night's heated moment takes guts and character, as we know from the world of the street. It is easier simply to act. Rock chooses to think first, refraining from responding physically– despite the mano-a-mano challenge in front of a massive audience of peers and strangers numbering in the millions. Susan Faludi would be impressed. A recent NYT profile of Rock detailing his newfound passion for therapy and emotional investigation now further serves to explain Rock’s reaction, unequivocally displaying how that approach has paid off. It helps to think a few chess moves ahead.
It helps to think, period.
(That Rock manages even to remain standing is its own feat, given the size difference between the two and the complete unpredictability of the event. There is a significant physiological difference between having even a slight expectation of physical conflict, and predicting none. Rock predicts none because this is the Oscars, and he still manages to keep his footing.)
That Rock regains his composure and goes about the business of presenting Best Doc (to Summer of Soul, in a moment of almost absurd irony) in under a minute is impressive. I call that consummate professionalism. He’s being paid to do a job, does so under humiliating duress, and completes his task. If either of these men is at all qualified to give a rambling six-minute monologue on an international live broadcast about the importance of tolerance and loving others, it would be Chris Rock.
6. What Didn't Happen
Additionally, Rock benefits from Smith’s overreaction in that it rather forcefully swings the spotlight away from the misfire of his own joke; without it, all our Monday morning carping would have been about Rock’s misstep as a comedian, and how comedians have a tricky job of pushing the envelope and trying to search out where the line is. That type of work, because it involves taking risks, necessarily requires that there will be mistakes. There will be moments of going too far. Like perhaps this one.
It is human to make a mistake.
If Will Smith had instead boldly walked up on stage, as he did, but instead asked for the microphone and said, "Chris, I think what you just said is hurtful and unkind. My wife has been battling this auto-immune condition for years and I'm right by her side, and because of the heartache and pain and disruption it has caused us we are unable to tolerate your wisecrack. You're better than that."
You know what would've happened. Chris Rock would've stood in cowed silence, as he did, except as a monumental dolt, and we would all nod our heads, agreeing that making fun of alopecia is, yes, a mistake. But that is not what happened. What happened is that Rock's flub will forever be a minor sidebar in the conversation of someone else's history-making overreaction, a monumental lapse of judgment which will make comedians everywhere nervous to try out their jokes, however (mis)calculated, for some time to come.
7. What I Saw
It is human to make a mistake. When I see Chris Rock I see an enthusiastic jokester who improvised a line he quickly realized would've benefited from more consideration.
When I see Jada Pinkett Smith I see an actor in failing health doing her best, here in support of her partner's big night and trying to make the best of things, tired from the beguiling fact that no matter how easy life gets, it remains primarily a series of struggles.
When I see Will Smith I see a devoted husband who saw a look from his wife and no doubt recalled their shared struggles with her illness, no doubt recalled the tearful nights and hard decisions and times shared high and low, and realized with forceful passion and deep anger that he had violated himself. That moments of painful weakness with his wife were being ridiculed in broad daylight. And he saw that he no longer wished to play along and wear a dumb grin after every comment made. That his allegiance was not to cameras or fans or even career but to his life partner. I saw a man furious with himself, furious that he had betrayed something precious to him for things less important. Who stumbled through his acceptance speech about as well as you could hope given the pressure and circumstances, who plaintively tried, and partly succeeded, to convey with inarticulate and unstudied words that he, at large and deep down, endeavors as best as he knows how, to the absolute upper limit of his human abilities, to be a good man.
Now that I do believe.
Let’s talk about it.
What of the great unwashed? “They,” who have broken your windows, stolen from you, robbed you of health and sleep, forced you out of the neighborhood? The fundamental question here becomes less what to do than how to think.
People don’t do the things they’re now doing because they’re diabolical monsters, but for rather more banal reasons better explained by things like brain chemistry and childhood trauma. What happens when these folks don’t receive care? When they reach for easily available band-aid solutions (needles, pills, straws, foil) instead of turning to longer-term systems that strike at the root of the problem (education, medication, therapy, housing)? We could blame the individuals if there were only a few isolated cases. There are not. The problem is not individual.
1. What's Goin' On
Yes, people are smoking fentanyl and doing other things on buses in profusion. Yes, there are new policies which allow unsafe behaviors and reduce quality of service. Whatever you’ve heard, this is an unusual case where the reality is more extreme. The incidents happen so frequently that for us drivers, documenting them seems pointless (though Security Incident Reports on drug use inside buses have risen from 44 in 2019 to 73 in 2020, to 398 in 2021). The new and constant refrain among operators is, Never call. No help will come. Or if it does, its hands will be tied. Non-using passengers know this too, which is why they don’t get mad at me when all I do is politely ask whoever it is to stop having a party.
No one knows better, though, that no interference is coming than the tempted downtrodden themselves. They comprehend per a new pattern of non-enforcement that smoking cigarettes, crack cocaine, inhaling fentanyl, displaying weapons and shooting heroin are all allowed on Metro buses.
Deal with it.
I have witnessed each of the above and more with regularity, and mention them here without exaggeration or hyperbole. They are simply the new facts of existence of living in Seattle, of sharing enclosed spaces with others, just as smoking once was in our nation’s airplanes, bars and offices. Seattle is trying a well-intentioned new approach, and I won’t tell you what to think about it. I will say, however, that your belief in this method’s efficacy may be linked to how much face time you’ve actually spent at the intersections and streets named here, and which buses you ride and at what times. The tone among my transit-dependent riders has changed; now they tell me they’re saving up to buy a car, confessing that they now carry weapons because others do too, or are looking for a different job because the commutes have become too scary.
Washington State no longer arrests for drug possession, and although I can perceive the intent behind that move, I’m not sure solutions yet exist for a number of its unexpected outcomes. As a security officer told me recently: “as soon as we get on, they stop. As soon as we leave, they start again. There’s nothing we can do!” With the new policy of non-removal on buses being known, Metro is the ideal new venue. And the public is now becoming aware of how badly some people are hurting, and the methods they're resorting to.
I haven’t had this much secondhand smoke stuffed down my throat since my childhood visits to Grandma’s house. But unlike her house, some of our buses don't have windows that open.
2. What's Been Goin' On
Let’s remember that opiate abuse has been in existence for longer than six months. It was always possible to light a cigarette on a bus before last summer; it just didn't happen. My friends working in transitional housing and other social services are not surprised by these newly public behaviors. The difference is there used to be places where they could happen out of sight. Many of those locations are now closed, and the boundaries of the remaining spaces have to accommodate what used to take place behind closed doors. To the parks, libraries and buses we go...
Perhaps it would calm us to remember that street folks are processing trauma as best they can, in a society that doesn't provide much of a social safety net. They are resentful toward a system of institutions that has rejected and ignored their plight, which pays lip service to "the homelessness crisis" while appearing to glibly pocket your well-meaning taxpayer dollars. Can you blame them for being depressed, tired, at their worst? Are you not also angry? Disappointed?
You, who are infinitely better off than they?
This is the bad time.
My friends on Jackson and Third Avenue reach for the solutions that are available to them. If you are mentally stable, have no addiction challenges or criminal history, and have your paperwork in order, homelessness is merely a stumbling block. With the resources this city has you’d be on your way, no big deal. But heaven help you if you have any of the above four obstacles. Drugs tempt because they seem to fix things– like untreated mental health or unresolved trauma– for now.
Famous last words.
The slope is slippery, but anywhere along it the truth remains. Let’s repeat it: these people are doing their best to process trauma using means easily accessible to them, without a social safety net.
3. The View for Operators
I listen to my operator colleagues bemoan the passengers, sharing their horror stories with me. I listen without trying to change their mind; I have my horror stories too. But I make every attempt to avoid yielding to despair. I do not brag at the base about leaving passengers behind. I do not boast that I don't even open the doors for people, or abandon the schedule and leave all the riders for other bus drivers, as some of my colleagues selfishly do. They are trying to survive, I think, and survival is inherently self-absorbed. It makes you disregard the problems of others.
There has been no new training and precious little acknowledgement from management on the problems we now face, nor an official explanation of why formerly useful resources work differently now. A brief example:
The lack of interdepartmental and interagency communication is so far gone that operators are quite literally unaware of certain resources set aside specifically for them. These days on Aurora Avenue in particular, you’ll often have a KC Sheriff trailing your bus as you drive, just in case anything happens inside your coach. This is a resuscitation of a service I was trained on in 2008. Back then it then was called a ‘trailing escort.’ If something happened on your 358, you stopped your bus and put on your reverse lights, which alerted the officers behind you that something was up. Not only do today’s operators not get that brief training, they do not even know they are being helped. I’ve had five different drivers tell me variations of: “I keep getting tailgated by cops on my route, and I have no idea why!”
The operators around me are mostly new, due to recent workforce turnover, and the team ethos of my former colleagues is absent at the precise time when it's needed most. We have forgotten how to help each other, stick up for each other, recognize we are part of a larger community.
I wonder if my coworkers realize they have something in common with the afflicted users, the unstable and hungry denizens they so fear and struggle with. They, we, us– all feel abandoned. Those street folks are not them– they feel as we do but moreso, we drivers who feel our superiors have left us. We working people at jobs of all kinds who are now asked to do more, risk more, pay more, "figure it out yourself," for less. Does that sound familiar? The folks on Third Avenue, the broken heart of Seattle (as my colleague Yen poetically calls it), feel that abandonment too, but on a deeper and more biting scale.
Humans were never meant to be isolated from each other. The toll this pandemic is taking is as much mental as physical, and no one is unscathed. We are all infected. A light used to burn within us, and it is in danger of going out.
You are better than that.
4. The Problem Is
Pessimism simplifies what you see. It tempts you to believe it. It’s the easy route. So is finding a villain. Your fear will tell you that the solution is to arrest everybody. That’s as much of a band-aid solution as fentanyl is. While addressing matters in the short-term, let’s remember to ask: What are people experiencing such that they search for these coping mechanisms in the first place? What basic needs could be addressed, that aren’t? When mental health, housing, and medication access are available, other problems tend to diminish on their own. You stop needing the coping mechanisms. Fentanyl seems like it’s the problem. It isn’t. Vandalism, vagrancy, burglary, assault– aren’t the problem.
It would be so nice if they were. That would be so easy.
Last week I listened to another driver as I scarfed down lunch at the base. He’s one of the great ones, and I learn from his charitable views. He was sharing a moment on his bus which stopped his heart. A young man with a cart of belongings was talking to him on his 60. “No one cares," the kid had told him. "I want to move forward. I’m ready. But no one will help. No one cares about us. They leave us out here like this, every night.” My operator friend could do nothing but sympathize, and watch as the boy deboarded and walked off into the black evening, empty-hearted and catastrophically alone.
Most of us are sad. All of us are lonely. When morale is low, you the driver take it out on the passengers. When morale is low, you the youngster light up another one.
The problem that needs to be addressed is the sensation that people believe they are on their own.
5. Where I'm Coming From
I do not write these words from a place of distaste for the people. I like the people. I love the people; you know that. The sweetest man on my trip last night was a young fellow of the trademark ash-stained hands, with foil, torch and straw in hand. He was having a hard time putting his bike on the rack while also holding onto his paraphernalia. I stepped out to join him, helping him lift his bike and securing the handle.
“Hey, how’s it goin’. I can help.”
“Aw thanks dude! I really appreciate that.”
“For sure, no worries. Hey man I just gotta ask, could you put the foil away for the bus ride?”
“Oh yeah man, yeah no problem. Of course.”
And he did. There are good people everywhere. I am especially grateful to the brazen passengers who take matters into their own hands to help the crowd at large; more than once I’ve been saved by such courageous souls. Unlike me, my superiors, police, security or any other authority figure in King County, they have the unique ability to remove, by force, a passenger doing the above-mentioned activites. It’s an unfortunate truth that that is sometimes necessary.
Nor do I write from a place of anger with Metro management. I’m on friendly terms with many of those folks, on up to County Executive, and I’m not qualified to evaluate their performance from my bus-driving armchair. There are politicians here I like and respect, including some who have reached out to me personally and who bend over backwards fighting the good fight. There are police(wo)men I personally know and appreciate. As ever, the problem is not individual. John Steinbeck spelled it out for us 83 years ago, and it’s still true today: it’s the System. These officials, like me, like my using passenger friends, like my dispirited colleagues, are ordinary (and understaffed!) people under extraordinary circumstances. I’ll admit I do wish our top management came around to the bases more often like the last two administrations did, because nothing brings people together like, well, coming together in person. But hey, maybe there’s a pandemic happening.
I write rather from a place of disappointment. Fentanyl and the other misbehaviors I mention above are primarily a draw for young people– my generation and the new one under it (I’m not getting a lot of beef from the old-timers). I am excited about the prospects of young people. Sure, they’re obsessed with technology and not very good at talking to others, but they have their qualities, don't they? They were so good at caring about many promising things– equality of all stripes, the environment, innovation. The nice thing about Fentanyl is that its high makes one docile. The problem is that it’s unbelievably good at killing people. And I’d prefer not to see my own generation wipe itself out before the pandemic is over.
Go easy on yourself. On others. It isn’t only you who is suffering. You will make it through the night.
I’ll be out there, waving at ya.
6. Low-Cost Suggestions for the Short Term
For those in positions of power who read this blog:
For everyone else: