"How you doin'?" I ask her at Campus Parkway inbound. It's nearing midday, sunny, on a half-full 70.
"Swell," she says happily, sounding surprised to see me. I won't see her smile again.
She's telling me the details of her morning, which don't sound swell at all. Sitting at the front now, putting that chat seat to use, she might be in her late teens, African-American, with short hair and flair to spare in her denim outfit.
She carries the weight of someone who knew how to be happy in an earler time, but whose circumstances have pulled her in another direction. A sonorous melancholy pervades her monologue, in my mind entirely inappropriate for the young girl she is. She's experiencing dizziness, she tells me, perhaps from low blood circulation, headaches, and sciatica-
"A lot of bus drivers get that. My sciatic nerve hurts someimes."
"Yeah, I bet it's from all the sitting."
"I don't know if I have kids, man. I dont know if they're dead or not dead, sometimes I just feel them out there, and I don't know. And it's so hard to find out 'cause I don't know how old I am, or for sure who my parents are. See I used to think I was adopted, but...."
I forget the rest. It sprang unbidden from her, shaking in her voice. I remember only the glassy look in her eyes, a face I see in the mirror when I'm very ill, those hollow liquid irises yearning for respite. I remember the downbeat inflection, a timbre that wouldn't exist if loving friends and parents dwelled in the sidelines of her existence. Who on earth am I, to be complaining about my sciatic nerve?
"My mom lives in Federal Way," she's saying.
I wonder after her family situation, and consider the decorum in asking. After a pause I say, "can you go see her, or is that not an-"
"Well, she in Federal Way but I don't know where."
"Okay." I continue, hoping that she finds her kids, encouraging her toward the echoing suggestion telling her they're alive, the validity of that instinct, the fact that intuition springs from somewhere real. A mother knows. For myself, intuition, conscience, instinct- whatever name we give to that small voice inside us- knows more than our reasoning minds can ever comprehend in a given moment. At the very least it represents the sum total of knowledge gained in all our life experiences, and shouldn't be ignored. Your gut has a simple wisdom that would take years to parse out.
"I have faith in what I believe," she says, listening.
"It's hard not to."
"Are you goin' downtown right now?"
"Yeah, I'm goin' the Orion Center."
"Oh, that's a good spot."
"Yeah, they're great there."
"They almost had to shut down."
"Yeah, money problems, they almost had to go."
"Oh, that's fuckin' bullshit and terrible."
"But they ended up getting stuff, somehow they got money and they're still there."* Always something to be thankful for.
"I'm tryin' ta get some food. There's supposed to be a lunch there, free lunch starting at twelve."
"When does it go 'til?"
"I think one." It's 12:48. I'm at Fairview and Denny. "Okay, we might make the end of it."
"Wait no, I think it ends at 12:30, 12 to 12:30, yeah."
"Shoot, well it's 12:48 right now."
"Oh, that's shitty," she breathes. No lunch today. She sighs a sigh whose burden carries the heartache of the ages.
"Do you like peanut butter and jelly?" I ask.
"Yeah, thats what's up."
"I have two peaut butter and jelly sandwiches on me, thats all the food on me. You can have 'em if you like."
She thinks a brief moment and says, "I'll take a peanut butter and jelly!"
"Okay, lemme pull over at this stop, I'll grab 'em for ya."
At Boren I reach behind my seat and hand her both sandwiches.
"Oh, you should keep one," she says, concerned.
"What? No, it's okay. You should have both of 'em. I can always... I'll deal."
"No no, you should have one too." She hands it back.
I can see she isn't going to take both sandwiches, and reluctantly concede.
"Thanks!" she says. Her eyes have a spark in them now, embers coming back to life.
"Thank you! You be safe today!"
"You too, have a good day!"
I couldn't believe it. She still had room in her headspace to think not just about her own troubles, significant as they were, but also to consider my needs as well. A friend who canvassed door-to-door for parenthood resources once told me that the people who donated the most were poor and working class immigrant families- those least equipped to do so, in other words. I felt utterly ridiculous, taking back the second sandwich, knowing how much more she needed it than I; but I could see how much she cared, how deeply she knew of the value of food and kindness. She had to behave as she did. The things you learn at ground level.
*YouthCare's Orion Center was planning to close its doors last February due to expiring grants and federal funding, but continues to remain a valuable resource due to a pool of funds coming from a holiday concert charity challenge, pledges from local foundations, and a very successful luncheon. Read about the Center here. Read here for a success story on Calvin, who today seems "a typical, if overachieving, college-bound freshman;" 'twas not always so.
You know how the 44 generally is around midday. Scattered students, errand runners, the occasional Ballard drunk and myself drifting back and forth on Market Street. Today's Monday, and things have been mellow even for the start of the week, which is traditionally the quiet time for both traffic and customers. I'm passing the time pleasantly enough, but I feel a gauzy haze in between myself and my surroundings. Am I really here? The students tend not to go in for the whole community-building interaction thing. Maybe they just need an example. I continue my hellos and thank-yous as we wind down 45th, pushing further into afternoon.
All is quiet. That is, until a man appears at the Health Sciences Building stop on campus. He's no student, though he does have a backpack, which he hurls bodily onto the bus prior to his making an entrance; the heavy black pack lands at my feet with a thud and he laboriously begins his trek up the four stairs. The Breda is only existing model in our fleet with four stairs, which sometimes throws blind passengers for a loop- all other coaches in the fleet have either three steps, or none.
My response to the backpack chucking is to ask him how he's doing.
"Hel-lo! How're you?"
"It's Friday!" he barks, his voice inflected with the gravel and sandy grit of past decades. He is tall and lanky, perhaps sixty, the white-blond hair on his arms standing out against skin tanned and burnt like red leather. Jean jacket, worn, blue jeans and boots (but no horse or motorcycle!).
"It is indeed!" I reply. "We made it!"
He works his way down the aisle and stakes out a window seat, settling in for what will likely be a long, slow ride. He knows what
he's in for. We're just getting into the part of the afternoon where traffic begins to multiply. West of Wallingford, the 44 is a breeze,
with enough dedicated lanes and queue jumps to make it feel like a Sound Transit route. Getting to that stretch, however, is the challenge. The short section from 15th and 43rd to the other side of I-5 (three-fourths of a mile) can take up to thirty minutes. Forty-fifth Street spills over with cars interested in I-5, Roosevelt, and more, and the light cycles just don't allow for the high volumes. There's nothing to do but throw your hands up and enjoy it all. Regulars know how it is.
I'm surprised then, wondering how today, at the height of rush hour, we manage to get through in no time at all; in just twelve minutes or so we're in Wallingford, pulling into Meridian and Burke.
In the crowded silence I hear him bellow out, "holy crap, we made it to Wallingford in three minutes!"
"I know, I can't believe it!" I holler back. By three, of course, he means twelve; but it's not about specifics. He sums up the 44's traffic patterns and their effects in less technical terms. Clamoring with joyous abandon in a spirit the students nearby no doubt share, he roars: "we should all be CONSTIPATED back here!"
"It's amazing!" I respond. "I must be doin' something wrong!"
"On a Friday, too. How do you do it?"
"It's like magic, only happens once in a lifetime!"
"S'posed to be constipated," I hear him muttering. Hesitant smiles light up in my mirror, faces stretching the underused muscle of convivial strangerhood. Shifts in behavior, ways of seeing, arriving at the light comfort of being yourself- these begin as kernels of thoughts, haltingly planted in the loose soil of a passing moment. Change happens slowly in the mainstream, but it does happen.
On the 7:
He looks gruff, plugged in to his headphones, light mustache and beard cut to angle downwards, as if to set his features in a permanent grimace. I've spoken with him before, however, and he's just another fellow, put-together and forward moving, scrambling to make a life for himself, as we all do. Around forty, black American, his clothes clean and sharp, cutting a figure of disciplined energy. He wasn't always in such good stead. Not long ago he was studying hard for college entrance exams, a radical change in life for him; in his gruff way he'd keep me updated, and it was a pleasure to see his smile on the day after he passed them.
Today he steps forward before getting out, earphones pulled out for real-life engagement. He's wearing a jacket of new and treated leather with fitted dark jeans and boots, an ordinary outfit, sure, but with an attention to presentation. The details are crisp, and everything is in its right place.
This evening it's rainy, and the slick roll of pavement obscures his words at the outset of our conversation.
"I lost forty-five [unintelligible]. It was thirty-three, thirty-eight, forty-three."
Forty-five what, I wonder. Pounds? Minutes? Is he angry about this loss, or happy about it? I can't tell. The gruff goatee doesn't really help. I take a chance and say, "that sounds great!"
"Yeah, forty-five pounds in [unintelligible] months!"
"All my pants. I used to have these designer pants," he continues. "A whole rack of them, you know, fancy. All them good designer jeans I had, but I couldn't wear them no mo,' 'cause they were all too big! Had to get rid of them. All a sudden they were huge. I looked like a crack dealer!"
Both of us laughing out.
"You know how crack dealers where those big,"
"Yeah, tha's why I had to get these glasses, so people stop lookin' at me funny!"
"Oh, that's great!"
There I was, thinking he wore glasses to improve his vision. Clearly I was out of the loop! It's all about that non-crack dealer image, apparently. I found the idea at once comical, sad, and endearing. Comical, because of its absurdity; sad, because for Pete's sake, the memo should be out that not all black men are crack dealers; and endearing, because he found a creative solution to a potentially troubling ideological issue, laughing it all off with aplomb and feeling comfortable enough to share it with me. Something to consider the next time you see someone wearing spectacles- or stuck walking around in unnaturally large expensive pants!
I realize in rereading this piece that it can be seen to function as a political endorsement. It was not intended as such, though I suppose I don't have a problem with it being read in that light; more importantly, rather, it is offered as a truthful record of moments and conversation between a couple of fellows, late one recent evening.
I'm beginning my last trip on the 14. It's a short run from Mt. Baker to 5th and Jackson. At the transit center on Rainier they come rushing over. I'd been holding for time in the silent nothingness of a Monday at midnight, but then they materialize, out of the last seconds, dashing across the street. I am useful now.
Like figures in a von Stuck painting they take shape as they come closer. All three are African-American men between forty and sixty, strangers to each other, shaded in muted hues of brown and blue. Here's a man shuffling, his walker leading him out of the darkness. Another fellow, heavyset but agile, quietly smiling with his arms full. He's carrying a huge box of dog food under one arm. Later I'll offer him a night stop to save a few blocks on his walk home. The thin man is third, and the youngest, sharply attired in a fitted leather jacket and beret. In each hand is a bulging QFC paper bag.
"I'm tryin' to catch the last bus to South Park," he breathes. "I think I can get it in the International District." My sign says "14 to International District."
"South Park, okay. What's that, the 131, 132?"
"132," he replies.
I ask, "do you know when it leaves?" I not sure which of those two routes closes out the route pairing for the night. I know each is only hourly after 8 or so.
"I think one something."
"Oh, good, good. I get up there at 12:14, 5th and Jackson."
He's stressing, digging in his pockets for his transfer, trying to hold onto his QFC bags all the while.
"We're still early, no rush."
In my mind flashes a moment from earlier in the night: an elderly Chinese woman scurrying up to the bus at Maynard Avenue. "One more, one more," she cried out. As she boarded there was every indication she did not have fare- her scruffy attire, the swarthy skin and odor of an alcoholic, the youthfully insolent manner in which she said she'd look for her transfer- all quite contradicting the studied presence and decorum of most of her east Asian contemporaries. I welcomed her on in, expecting nothing in terms of payment, only to be surprised later when she presented me with a crumpled scrap of H with an Orange border. "Oh, you're wonderful! Thank you," I said, silently chiding myself for making assumptions in the first place. Even if she didn't have it- we all have our reasons.
In this spirit, I say to the Beret, "come on in, we can do that later. You got your hands full."
"I trust you."
As he settles in, Walker sings out, "hey when's last 14 come out this way?"
I'm a believer in the idea that drivers should know the system. We are not boneheads, but professionals who can be expected to multitask and care about the service they provide. In the same way you expect a grocer to know where every last item is located, or a taxi driver to know every address in the city, I feel it is not unreasonable to expect a transit operator to know frequencies, major routes, last route departures, and so on. As drivers we're not strictly required to know these things, but why not take pride in one's work? Take pride in the responsibility that is expected of you as a professional. You can rise to that level. In the words of a straight-talking supervisor who recently spoke to a class of us drivers: "if you don't know what bus goes to Harborview, you need to go get a job working somewhere else. If you don't know what bus goes to U-District, Downtown, West Seattle... you have no business being here." Harsh words, but sometimes you need to stretch a point in order to make one.
Having said all that, I only have a vague notion of when the last 14 is! Most of my bus knowledge comes from years of riding buses- definitely the easiest way to learn the system- but I've never ridden the last 14.*
"Um, they tend to stop around one. Lemme check it out to make sure," I say, deftly grabbing a schedule from behind the timetable rack behind my seat. I hold it in my fingers as I drive, not bothering to try to read it- impossible without a red light.
"You lookin' at the schedule?"
"Yeah, tryin' to."
Beret interjects, saying "here, lemme look at it for ya."
"Hey man," I say, "thank you for helpin out!"
"Oh yeah, well, somebody did me a favor, I may as well do someone else a favor!"
"Gotta pay it forward!"
They work out the timetables and continue chatting. I listen in as we cruise up 31st Avenue, approaching the Central District.
"What's at you got there?"
"Spinach, bro," answers Beret. "One seventy nine."
"Where you shop at?"
"I used to stay out here."
"Used to," says Walker Man. I can't read his meaning. Referring to the spinach Beret is now enthusiastically chomping down, he continues: "that's just raw?"
"Oh yeah, man. You eat this with anything."
I yell out, "makes you big and strong!"
"Just like Popeye!"
Somehow they get from spinach to the housing market. Beret is feeling good this evening. He looks at the rain on the glass beside his face and says, "some cities, everything just shuts down at night. But here, they got at least one bus, sometimes two buses, they'll take you where you need to go. Maybe you gotta walk some, but they're there."
I'm tempted to join in, but the mellow night soothes me. I'm enjoying the role of quiet participant, observing the twists and turns of their nocturnal meanderings. They continue discussing bus service, in generally praiseworthy terms, when the 7 pulls alongside us at 12th and Jackson. It's the great Sonum driving, one of the masters of the late-night 7, and he opens his window. Sonum and I used to ride the bus home together, and I've always enjoyed his humble, well-travelled humor and tireless work ethic. He believes in a just universe.
"Hey, Nathan! Wait for me at the stop, I got a guy wants to transfer!"
"Oh, I'm only goin to 5th and Jackson. Just 5th and Jackson," I say to the concerned passenger face beside him.
"Oh, okay. Never mind."
Afterwards, Beret says, "major props, man. Respect. I give you major props for that, sir."
"Gotta look out for each other, right?" I reply.
"Oh yeah. Where I come from the frequency is good but oh man, so many times the bus is right there and it'a just drive away."
"It's a good system here."
"I think so too."
"Just hope they get that funding for you guys April 22nd."
"Yeah, well. I hope folks come out and vote!"
"Yeah, gotta keep up the service. in fact, it should be add more service, not just keep it where it is. Add more buses."
"Oh yeah. Well, it's funny you should say. The guy who runs Metro is a cool guy, comparatively younger guy, from New York,"
"Oh! I'm from upstate New York,"
"Awesome. Yeah, real solid guy, wants not just to preserve the network, but ideally someday he'd like to just about double the amount of service on the streets. There's even a plan for how to do it. 'Cause you gotta match the growth that's happening in this place. 'Course we don't got the money for it now, but one day, you know, when the money's right."
"I see it. 'Cause it's a city on the upswing."
"On the upswing, exactly. Other cities, LA, which is my hometown,"
"Oh right on,"
"When I'm down there half a everyone I'm talking to is people telling me they're leaving. Here, people are coming to Seattle. You always run into somebody just moved here. It's a city that's goin' places."
"I just moved here."
"Exactly. Welcome to Seattle!"
"Okay, here's 5th and Jackson," I say as we make the turn.
"Do you know where to get the 132 at?"
"Yeah, I think...."
I point out where 3rd and Main is, and how to walk over there. Walker Man leaves kindly, without incident.
"Alright, I say, as the bus points toward base. Time for me to go home!"
"Major props, once again, for your attitude," says Beret, from the lamplit brick sidewalk.
"Right back atcha!"
"I didn't know it was gonna be the bus of people helpin' people!"
He felt the warm glow of community, the democratic, equalizing notion of individuals considering each other as parts of a greater whole. Belonging. Here was that all-encompassing sensation that floods your system, the feeling of being comforted and empowered all at once. He walked into the night energized, beginning the final leg of the long trip home.
*The last outbound 14 leaves 3rd and Union at 1:15, every night!
"Well, you win the award for Mr. Conviviality," an elderly woman said to me as she deboarded on the tail end of the 10. It was the conclusion of an overloaded, chatty, energetic journey.
"Aw! You're so kind!"
As I drove away I was flattered by something besides her sentiment. She was making the assumption, bus driver or no bus driver, that I in my blue collar knew what the word conviviality meant. That benefit of the doubt felt good.
A day later, I was a northbound 14 at Third and Columbia. As per my usual, I plowed up to the head of the zone, the better to make room for other coaches behind me. Some passengers wait at the head of the zone. Others wait in a less populated part of the bus stop, ambling forward when the time is right. I opened the doors and looked through my mirror down the length of the zone. In the evening dimness I could discern a shape-shifting beast rollicking up the sidewalk. This man is best summed up as a lithe, agile swagger of a shadow, half of him seemingly comprised of swinging black back-length dreads, the other half made of handfuls of slack, billowing black fabric.
"AAAAYYY!" he wailed into the night. Translated, that means, "driver, please wait a moment; I'm nearly at the doors."
"Hey, there he is," I said as he swam up the staircase.
"Wha's goin' on,"
"Not a lot. How're you?"
"Just gimme a, gimme a second,"
"Oh yeah, we gotchu."
Sometimes people seem as if they need three hands, to carry everything they're holding. This fellow needed at least ten. From every pocket and fold of fabric it seemed as if scraps of life were escaping. In Underworld (my vote for the great twentieth-century novel), Don Delillo writes of garbage as the tactile evidence of all human activity, proof of a million impulses and longings, passions, kindness, selfishness and generosity- the totality of our experience in the form of clues and remnants.
Our man on the 14 reaches in every direction. Debris falls from him continuously, like a cloud system dispersing rain, receipts and kleenex, wrappers and more, and he's trying to gather every escaping shred, all the while doing his best to hold up his expansively sagging pants. He's in no condition to find his transfer, and I hand him a new one. He thanks me profusely.
At the end of his ride a doctor's prescription falls to the floor. A passenger and myself simultaneously point it out, and he's loudly grateful, snatching it up. After he ricochets out of the bus he darts back up, holding his transfer, saying:
"Hey! Will this shit suffice?"
I respond with, "Yup yup, good 'til the end of the night!"
Internally I was thinking, suffice??? Seattle really is the most educated city in the country!* How lucky I am to be in real life, and not trapped inside a stereotype-laden movie. I grinned in the darkness, thinking of the Mark Twain quote wherein he expresses that the difference between truth and fiction is that fiction needs to be plausible.
Read more from Fast Company, The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and CNN.
People often ask me what "the most craziest thing" I've ever experienced on the bus is. Naturally there are far too many such incidents to single out as an answer. Also, frankly speaking, such incidents are not as interesting to me as the moments of positivity and human interaction I recount here. A man pulling down his pants in an attempt to defecate in the articulated section of the bus but having his feces accidentally miss their aim and end up inside his pants is definitely unusual, but is it thought-provoking? Such stories also run the risk of exoticizing their subjects as the incomprehensible "other," which is not at all the thought pathway I'd like to travel on. More like the opposite. I do enjoy reveling in the bizarro atmospheres that live out here every day, but I search for the common ground.
I recall a man once approaching me on the 3/4. He was tall and thin, dressed in a conglomeration of undershirts and jackets, the sort of garb that becomes colorless when you spend enough time outside. He looked me and said, "Hey, driver. What state are we in?"
"This is Washington State," I said, in a neutral and helpful tone.
"Oh. Thanks," he replied, returning to his seat.
Of course it was tempting to make some sort of play on "state of mind," or laughing, or in some other way acknowledging the complete absurdity of the question. However, there was a very, very small but still possible chance that he actually needed that information, and it's the sort of query which is strangely hard to get an answer for. Beyond that, what could be more awesome- is there another word for it?- then the rare, golden, one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to answer such a question with a straight face! What a luxurious thrill! He appeared to genuinely unclear as to which of the contiguous states he was in. "I love this job," I thought to myself as I drove ahead.
Recently I had an interaction which, in its own special way, is for me one of the all-time unfathomables for me.
I pull into Third and Virginia northbound. Standing in the crosswalk on Virginia is an arguing couple. Rows of T-shirts and other items are on display, hanging off the top of the chain-link fence and arrayed on the cement below. A trio on both sides of the roadway engage in conversation, using their sixty-foot voices. Afternoon light glances across the scene at an angle. It is a tableaux of reds, blues, and blacks, clothing cuts of every manner, filthy and refined, set against the pale gray of newly finished concrete. I'm reminded of the benevolent chaos in Carracci's 1602 painting The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, or maybe the background of Perugino's 1482 fresco Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter- unrelated clumps of characters populating the same space, mingling in and out of each other.
There, in the RapidRide bus stop, directly in front of my open doors, a seated figure speaks to me.
"Remember me?" she asks.
"Of course! How's it goin'?"
"You don't drive the 3 and 4 no more!"
"Oh yeah, I do somethin' different every day now! I kinda like to get around."
"Oh," she says. Friendly.
"Well, good to see you again. Have a good one!"
What's so bizarre about that, you might ask. Let me tell you. The woman speaking was- was- does anything other than italicized all caps with exclamation points suffice?- yes, she was the one, and the only, LIGHT SKINNED BLACK WOMAN!
Where were the disparaging racial epithets and songs about abortion? Why no mention of miscarriages and masturbation? Were my ears deceiving me? Don't let me down here, my friend!
I closed the doors and drove away in awe. I had seen the Niagara Falls. I had heard evidence of extraterrestrial life, and made it to the jungle retreats of northern Laos. She was simply the better side of herself, chomping down on fried chicken, catching up with an acquaintance one sunny Friday afternoon. How incomprehensibly abstruse, and how terrific. I didn't understand any of it, but I was happy to be that acquaintance.
Newer readers: read a primer on the great LSB-Dub, everyone's favorite passenger, here. Watch a speech of mine recounting her adventures here.
Jim is waiting at Walker Street, the first stop on the route 4. Normally he prefers to walk off his workday by strolling over to the light rail station, but today's been a day of days. He's exhausted. The last ten minutes of his day as a Seattle Housing Authority property manager ramped into overdrive, dealing with a pysochotic ward release. He needs the peace and relaxation of a nice ride into town. Jim has an excellent sense of humor. We chat about his day, which sounds like a tough one. The ward release lost her keys; Jim had new ones prepared; but she shows up just after he's clocked out, there's a problem, and he's not supposed to work overtime but she's already asking questions, she's asking and answering in a nonsensical, patternless back and forth, something about the keys, something's not working, Jim's trying to figure out what the issue is... ah, but he made it out alive. Time to relax.
It's all over, for now. We talk about the book he's going to read. From my library years I always zero in on what people are reading, and today Jim has a copy of J.D. Robb, the pseudonym Nora Roberts uses when she's not writing those fluffy romance bestsellers.
"What's it called?"
"This one's called Conspiracy in Death," he says, holding back a smile. He'd be the first to admit this isn't first-rate literature.
"That's outstanding," I say.
He laughs. "There's this whole series. It's all about death. Everything's in death. Naked in Death. Rapture in Death. Vengeance in Death. Betrayal in Death, Judgment in Death, Indulgence in Death,"
"Wow. He's really into,"
"Yeah he is. Did you say Indulgence in Death?"
His short salt-and-pepper beard spreads into laughter. "You better believe it! Holiday in Death!"
"There we go!"
"It gets me by."
"Oh, yeah. Some good death books. Passes the time."
Jim sits back to enjoy some good Conspiracy in Death, but peace and relaxation are not forthcoming. Julie's here today, sitting at the front as always, bless her heart, and she's making business calls on her phone ("Now if I remember correctly, we agreed on..."). Jim and I are talking over her (Creation in Death, Divided in Death, and the best yet: New York to Dallas (In Death)), Julie's talking over us, and he and I laugh at the building hum. A family ambles on in at Jackson which small children, and they raise a racket- Jim moving a little further back to accomodate their massive stroller. I see him in the mirror, amused. What can you do but throw up your hands and smile?
I hear Julie explaining over her phone, clearly responding to a query along the lines of, where on earth are you? Certainly no bus is this loud! There's the screaming kids, there's me blabbing about the upcoming stops ("Let's make a stop at 12th, by the Youth Detention Center..."), there's Julie discussing matters of pressing importance, and there's Jim and I talking about J.D. Robb, Janet Evanovich, and others (Delusion in Death; Calculated in Death)...
I'm lovin' it. This bus is a back porch, an office, and a preschool playground all rolled into one, and we haven't even hit Cherry Hill.
At 17th we have a mob of hospital workers- larger than usual, since we're late. This particular run, a piece I picked repeatedly for years, is one that gets slightly more mobbed than the trip before or after it, coming in at the perfect time for those folks who get off at five sharp. I'm thankful for the extra attention. If you're jonesing for excitement, it'll be here. Many of my 3/4 stories come from this piece of work, which sadly no longer exists (or I'd be driving it!).
One of the nurses offers me strawberries with cream and streusel- "how wonderful!" I exclaim. Despite my minimal-sugar proclivity, I can't turn it down. Streusel on a strawberry- who knew? My ebullience reaches new heights. Harborview is usually where we fill up, but today we're already brimming as Harborview looms in the nearing distance. I try not to laugh as I announce the stop, because I see yet another mob- a much larger one. The giddiness surfaces in my tone, bubbling through the cracks of the microphone. Chaos makes me smile. I feel in my element.
The toddlers are doing something I don't understand, just barely managing to keep out of the aisles, the nurses are commiserating, Julie arranging a conference for later this week, Jim silent now, I think he's chuckling, watching me surf the center of the maelstrom. I'm greeting the onslaught, eye contact, eye contact, a sentence for each person incoming, the tear of transfers and maneuvering on the steps becoming a blur. I look at the masses outside, marveling at how this is all going to work. Thankfully a 3 pulls up behind me. Together we inch down the hill, a convivial, bubbling cauldron of tongues and attitudes.
"Alright, friends," I say as the bus begins to move. "Hang on tight."
"I don't think we need to today, man!" Somebody quips. "It's so many of us in here, there ain't nowhere to fall!"
"This is the safest bus in town!"
Later, Julie ends her business call and says, "wow, Nathan! What a ride!"
She's blind, and I can only imagine the multitudinous details her ears were picking up.
"I know! Hope that wasn't too loud for your call there!"
"No, of course. They were like, where are you?"
"You shoulda told 'em you were at an amusement park! That's pretty much what this is!"
The sun is shining. I find Jim in the mirror and we share a huge grin. This is no time for Conspiracy in Death! He's given up on reading. Peace will find him at home. For now there is the jubilant, howling merriment known as the 3/4, and there is nowhere else to be but the present.
I was riding the 7 one night, going out to Orcas to meet a friend. Rain peeled down from all corners of the globe and splashed against the laminated glass windows. Outside, cars of all stripes and nations roared by in the dimming evening light, streaks of illuminated red and white, railing past in defiance of the wet blue darkness all around. I sat just in front of the back lounge area, on those high-seats above the rear wheel. Looking out the window to see the front half of the bus make turns, that great behemoth with its angled front wheel, negotiating the dotted lines and wet pavement. I shivered with pleasure inside my jacket, smiling to myself at the cozy thrill of being indoors.
I've sat in the back of a lot 7s, but this one felt different. What was it? I looked around. The bus was maybe three-fourths full, a population whose figure bubbled and eddied with each stop. A laundry list of languages permeated the air, lively, stories gleaming out from under hoods, veils, caps and more, bright eyes of every shade peering out. Here were most of the world's continents, relaxing for a time, just hanging out together in a sixty-by-eight foot rec room.
Something linked all this disparity though, made it feel united. I couldn't put my finger on it. Was it the rain? The fading thrill of the last light of day? I looked down the aisle at the grooved non-slip flooring, stained and starched from decades of use. I marveled at all the noise- traffic, conversations, the occasional clink of the poles hitting the switches, the patter of raindrops hitting the fabric of the articulated section....
It was the driver's voice. Every now and then she, a heavyset black woman in youthful middle age, would come on the microphone and say something. Sometimes she would go on for a while. I had absolutely no idea what she was trying to tell us, and nor did anyone else; what with the white hiss of rain and car wheels, people talking, the compressor, all on top of an ancient microphone, comprehending her words was impossible.
We didn't need to, though, because she was getting across something more important than any literal communication about streets or transfer points: her voice was in a good mood. The only discernible element was that, way up there at the front, the woman heading this ship is happy to be here, and she cares about us because she's trying to tell us something. Her warm, kind tone came through clearly, and that energy, all at once gentle and strong, managed to eclipse the value of whatever the quantitative element of her announcements were. Hers was a motherly lullaby, subliminally taking part in every interaction on the bus, seeping its way into the goodness in ourselves. I was glad to be there.