Forgive my brief absence from the blog– life has been a whirlwind. Today I return from seeing Leroy in Philadelphia, the di Cosimo exhibit in DC, and the Turner exhibit in LA. Whenever I'm in a plane I think of two quotes– Joan Didion's comment about how all the most beautiful things she's seen in this life have been from airplane windows, and the statement in Salinger's Franny and Zooey, where Zooey (a male) says his reason for not getting married is that he'll have to forever give up the window seat!
As an unmarried male (therefore sitting in the window seat, though the aisle tends to be my preference), I couldn't help but sympathize with Didion's observation. The chaos of modern life, way down there, melds with the vast, indifferent dome of blue sky (Joyce's phrase, to throw another quote your way), and life seems to make sense. It was while gazing out that window on a near-empty plane that I wrote on the following recent memory, which I'm compelled to share:
The last thing George Orwell wrote in his diary was, "at the age of fifty, every man has the face he deserves." Meaning, by then your life has overtaken genetics in bearing itself out on your face. Harsh words, yes, but not entirely untrue.
There's a storytelling event I attend each month. Sometimes I tell stories there, but more often I'm there just to listen. The storytellers recounting their experiences come in all shapes and sizes, but lately I've found myself drawn in most by a number of the senior women there. Do you ever surf the channels and think, enough with the attractive twenty-somethings already?
The verve these oldsters possess, the vivacious glowing light, a rich twinkling humor you know is earned and strong, for it to still be here after all these years… this is what I find inspiring. Everyone's bitter over something, but I hope I can confront loneliness and loss as they have, and still have space to laugh at the fading of the long day.
A woman of similar demeanor recently got on my bus. On the older buses, which have stairs, the passengers rise into your view as they ascend the steps. From the driver's perspective, they become closer and taller all at once. For her it seemed appropriate, in keeping with her confident stride. Frizzy silver hair, still cut long, with blazing grey eyes and an unusual knit sweater– a sense of the individualistic. No mere housewife, this sprightly old thing. She paused as she took stock of me, staring as equals and children do.
"Oh wow," she breathed. "Aren't you a little young!"
"I am! I should be at home doing my homework! Gettin' the chores done!"
She grinned, and with a hint of joyful sarcasm replied, "and I should be in the garden, doin' the yardwork, and cleaning the house!" Hers was a tone which said, there's a role I'm expected to be resigning myself to, and I'm so glad I'm not. She continued with, "but we're not doing those things."
"Somehow the world will survive."
"The world will survive."
"It's good to be here."
"I'm all the happier for it."
"You and me both."
The glow on her face was writ large. Orwell would've been impressed. Let us continue to be ourselves, conforming to no man's template, thoughtful and sharp, defiant when we need to be, that we might follow in her admirable lead.
It's an overwhelming whirlwind, bus driving. In thirty seconds you'll have someone who loves you, someone who hates you, and somebody who wants to know how to get to Everett. The following list below happened in the space of an hour, over and after each other, a mental marathon of juggled headspaces and concerns. Each bus stop is another channel, another doorway, utterly separated from what came before.
-Rainier and Frontenac. A white drunk asks how to get to Georgetown, in between throwing around the n-word like Jefferson Davis was still in style. Boy, did he ever pick the wrong route to say that word on! Inwardly I wonder if I'd have it in me to intervene on his behalf if the brothers looking on felt compelled to express their frustration with him physically.
Eventually he asks to deboard between zones. "Right here?"
"Yeah, lemme get away from all these niggers." We're happy to oblige.
"You're a nigger, faggot," a woman tells him as he leaves, a comment in the running for least constructive statement of the month.
-"We need more like him," I overhear from the middle of the bus. It's a fan club of lovelies discussing me, four people who couldn't look more different– remember those photos in math textbooks of students working together? There was always one Asian kid, one black kid, someone with a broken arm and somebody with glasses… my classmates and I could never take any of it seriously. Today I'm energized to see four variations of black, white, female, and male, in all manner of dress, enthusing over my attitude. One asks my name, and we holler introductions– he's Darryl, but call him Mississippi.
-A middle-aged gent telling me about his two friends who grow marijuana, both of whom have degrees in relevant scientific and medical fields, and the various greenhouse methods, et cetera.
-As soon as the above fellow leaves, another takes up his post to chat. I'm reminded of a friend who once told me she often wanted to talk to me on my bus, but it always felt like she had to wait in line to do so! "I need to get off soon," this man tells me. "I can only take so much fun at one time! I can only ride your bus for short distances!"
-Albert, a man whose brother recently passed, is moving to New York, where his only remaining family, a sister and niece, live. Today he's passing time at the Bayview Street bus stop. "You're coming back around?" he asks. "I'll catch you on the other side!"
"We'll talk more! See you soon!"
-A woman in fluorescent green inquires into her phone, "WHERE THE FUCK IS YOU AT?"
"Wow," I say, "we don't need to say stuff like that!"
She's greatly flustered, and howls a mini-monologue into her phone about the exasperating nature of being unreliable; a friend has failed to meet her at one of the stops. I can sympathize with that. I'm reminded of a conversation I recently had with a friend where we shared our mutual feelings on much the same, praising the value of being on time, of being trustworthy. Her diatribe expresses nearly my exact sentiments, albeit in slightly different words!
-"You said the 1, 3 or 4?"
"Yeah, right here at this bus stop, the 1, 3 or 4. They'll all take you up there."
"Do we need to pay again?"
"No, just show that to the driver. Hey, what was the score?"
"Eleven to ten, Mariners won!"
-I honk the horn at Seneca to no avail– Richie Holly's on the sidewalk, and he's not paying attention. This is what red lights are for. I jump out and catch his attention, convincing him to ride for a stop. Instantly we're deep in conversation– Kate Alkarni Gallery's closure in Georgetown, the health benefits of walking, how he's feeling healthier than he can remember, how I'm working on four life-sized portrait drawings. He's uncontactable, but we see each other often enough on the street. Always a pleasure.
-Kyle Gulke appears out of nowhere. Diving into another headspace– he's thinking of Italy for the summer, and I'm trying to convince him how great Florence is. Venice, Rome, yes, both terrific, but those art museums in Florence! I spent ten hours in the Uffizi. Now we're discussing how many days you can see Florence in, and you also have things like Pisa in the surrounding territory… and he's off the bus at Belmont, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it guest appearance. Out of Italy, back onto Pine Street.
-Broadway and Pine. Why does it sound like a tropical rainforest in here? "Hey, what are those bird noises?"
"Oh, that's me," an older woman up front pipes up. "They're motion-sensing bird toys. I got 'em at the dollar store."
She tells me the details. This way her grandsons can't snoop around in her room. The birds will go off. I was going to ask whoever it was to turn down the birds, but I find all of this rather endearing. Not beeps, not alarms, but friendly chirping sounds. We let the nature soundtrack continue.
-Rory is often drunk, but he's never angry. Crabbing season is about to start, he's telling me. He's getting his boat ready. But there's a limit to how many crabs you can catch. His solution? Take a bunch of kids with you. Kids count as people for the purposes of catching crabs, and with each kid you have, you can get another six crabs. Brilliant. Why not just take more adults? They weigh too much. Kids are light, and they still count as crab-catching people. Details, details.
-A young man feels my enthusiasm as a bodily force. He's just been witness to all the above, and here we are now at the end of the line, standing up and stretching out. "Operator of the year, niggaaaa!" he roars with throaty joy, at once testosterone-filled and high on the concept of universal love, heady with genuine excitement. Another brother is looking on, and we're all grinning wide, glowing together.
-You can get a lower back brace for about $100. So says our latest buddy, who does landscaping and masonry. He prefers masonry– less bending over. We talk about the hazards of repetitive manual labor, and the importance of core strength. He's young, early twenties, and he wants to have a body that still works two, three, four decades from now. So do I.
And so on. I pull into the next zone, where a crowd is waiting...
I wanted to share this with you, as I thought you might find it of interest~ a post by the great Rex at Facing Homelessness, featuring a few words by me. Facing Homelessness is notable for its focus on humanizing the homeless by sharing personal stories (and some killer portrait photography!) and thereby emphasizing that we are all part of the same community.
The article: Please meet the very VERY remarkable Nathan Vass...
Additionally, some words (and picture!) by Rex Hohlbein regarding the idea behind his organization.
"How's it going?" I nod to a man clad in brown and black.
"I'm great," he says, even though he has a cell phone to his ear. Into it he says, "no, I'm talkin' to the bus driver. I jus' got on the bus. This guy's cool. Uh-huh. Yo, I'ma get off the phone. Aight."
To me he then directs his full attention, saying, "and how are you doin'?"
"Fantastic, man! Busy but great, you know!"
"Man," he says, shaking his head with a grin equal parts impressed and amused, "you are the best! You got one of the best attitudes of anybody out here…." He continues praising me to the high heavens while I go through the "aw shucks" routine, resisting the compliments. I have no idea how to take such kind words. He tops it all off with a joyful exclamation– "man, I don't even LIKE paying the fare! But when I see you, man,"
"The wallet come out?"
"Yeah man, I be happy to. I THOUGHT it was a good day, 'til I stepped on your bus and realized it was a GREAT day!" Turning to the fetching young thing next to him, he says, "isn't he something?"
"Coming from you that's an honor," I say in response, meaning I can see how truthful he's being. He has no reason to butter me up. I praise his good spirits as well, and we continue up the roadway, exuberantly.
"You know what it smelled like, it smelled like those stink bombs kids use. It smelled like that."
I said, "those are terrible!"
Sometimes the conversations are deep, and sometimes they aren't. One of my closest friends, Brian, is a published author, used to teach at Harvard, gives lectures at writer's conferences around the country, currently teaches Latin and more; but what impresses me more than all those things is how he never lets his considerable accomplishments or education separate him from being excited to relate to just about anyone. I recall a moment when a mutual friend, not as highly schooled, was telling him an anecdote where someone was running, but their jeans were sagging down to their ankles.
"Oh, so he wasn't able to run very fast," Brian said.
I doubt he remembers this moment. It was there and gone in a flash. But I traffic in the details, as you know. He was so present, so genuinely interested, despite the decidedly non-vital nature of the conversation. He is the rare individual who just doesn't judge, and looks forward to hearing from all walks of existence. You get more out of life when you're curious. The moment we think we know everything, we stop paying attention, and it's not a stretch to say we then give up on living, and lose the ability to experience wonder.
Plus, you never quite know where the conversations will turn. We're all more alike than we aren't.
"You know, where you throw them?" says my latest conversation partner. We're turning into the 7 from the 49 route, drifting down Pine Street. "My nephew has those. I live with him and his mom right now, and he'll just, one day he threw one behind my shirt, came up behind me and,"
"And those take forever to get out,"
"Yeah, he doesn't care. He stuffed it behind my shirt, and I smelled like aw, man. It was the worst thing. Ah said you cain't do that."
"Yeah! Not allowed!"
He's in ordinary black sweats and well-used walking shoes, thirties, just this side of grungy today, with a comb stuck fashionably in his 'fro. Seated nearby is a refined-looking woman, listening in silence, and I can't tell if her silence is amenable or frosty, but I'm not going to let that stymie this really enjoyable conversation. I don't know how we got to this subject. He speaks in a reasonable tone, which, when paired with stink bombs, I find both amusing and endearing. As in, I can see it's serious because it's happening to him, but I can't help but smile, and sometimes neither can he.
"He's got this other one that smells like cow manure. It's a spray."
"Oh my goodness. Cow manure? Where does he get this stuff?"
"I think he gets them online."
"He'll be sprayin' this stuff all around the house. He doesn't care."
"I'm sure his mom's thrilled. How old is he?"
"Oh my goodness! Old enough to know better! And plus, who manufactures spray bottles of cow manure?"
Is that the refined woman chuckling to herself? I think it is!
"We were walkin' around Lowes," he's saying.
"Anything for a buck, I guess."
"We were walking around Lowes, and he's goin' around sprayin' stuff!"
"What? Oh, no. No."
"I had to call the cops on him."
"That's gettin' outta hand!"
"I hate to call the,"
"Sometimes you gotta do it. Sometimes,"
"I mean, I hate to call the cops on my own family,"
"But if he's bein' that way... Lowes? I can't believe it! Who is this guy?"
"He doesn't care. Him and his brother, they just don't care."
"They just lie around,"
"Okay, so what'd the cops say?"
"They said that's assault."
"'Cause I told him, what if he sprays somebody, and then that guy goes to work and gets fired from his job?"
"Exactly. Exactly. People can't be sprayin' people with cow manure. That's bad manners."
"I hate to call the cops on my own family,"
"But you know, I'm glad you did. 'Cause hopefully it was a wake up call. Sometimes a person needs that, something big like that to really get up and pay attention."
"And now he's changing, starting to change. But I'm like you shoulda been changed a long time ago,"
"Well, it's never too late, right?"
"It's never too late!"
The quiet woman gets off, smiling to herself, bidding us farewell. Her silence was definitely of the amenable variety!
I'm on Paul's bus. Friends ride other friends' buses, and it's Paul's last night on the 7, ever, before going into supervision. I had ridden a quick loop already, but in light of the finality of this night, I decided to hang around a little longer. You're going to laugh, but I have to be honest: I was actually already driving home when a thought occurred to me. Why am I going home? What am I going home to do now that's more valuable than spending time with my good friend, on the last night of his driving our favorite route? What carries more meaning for me besides human connection?
Nothing, that's what. I turned around and found him again, leaped out of my car and back on board. We cackled with delight at the ridiculous brilliance of it all. Both of us are very busy people. What with my endless cavalcade of art projects, and his as well, we don't see each other nearly as often as I'd like, and the idea of spending my off day riding the 7 for eight hours quickly went from an absurd notion to an entirely and gleefully justifiable matter. Part of this involved me jumping out a couple times and driving my car to a new parking space further ahead on the route, before jumping on again, something we both found highly amusing.
All of which is to say, yeah, we go there. Time is valuable, and it's ticking away. Why not spend it on what we value most?
Now we're at Graham Street, having a terrific time, chatting the night away, holding for time here, catching up to schedule.
From behind us, in the first set of forward-facing seats, a woman's voice yells, "hello, it's a green light! You can go now!"
Paul replies calmly. "Oh, we're just a little bit early. We're gonna wait here about twenty seconds."
Details matter. I've learned more from riding Paul and Brian Jobe's buses than I can possibly express. His starting with "oh" sets the whole sentence as non-confrontational, and reinforces his friendly tone.
I turn to her and add in jest, "drivin' too fast!"
"When you're a real bus driver, come talk to me."
I look at her and then turn to Paul, saying, "that must have made the videos all the more interesting, the fact that they were lo-fi." We're continuing a discussion about electronic harp performances on YouTube. Don't ask me how we got to that. I want to steer him attention away from her negative energy, though he isn't the sort to be swayed by such things.
During a lull in our conversation, I hear her voice again in my periphery: "Hey. I'm sorry. I was rude. I'm sorry."
She didn't rush the words out. You can tell she'd been stewing on it a while.
"Oh, it's all cool," I say.
"Thank you. I appreciate you sayin' that."
"That was rude of me." She's really processing this.
"How's your night goin'?"
"I'm sorry. I appreciate the truthful answer, but I'm sorry!" That's becoming a go-to line of mine. "You goin' home?"
"Good. That's always a good feeling, walkin' through the door, you finally made it home."
"I'm searchin' for my man."
"That's why I was rude."
"I hope he hasn't been givin' you a hard time!"
"That's why. I shouldn'a done that," she says, looking down with shaking head, in a voice threatening to crack. She's really letting herself feel it, and the regret is palpable. It's as if we've traded places: she started by trying to make me feel better, and now the reverse seems to be the case.
"Hope he hasn't been givin' you trouble," I continue.
"I'm sorry. That was mean." More to herself, she adds in reflection, "it's not good to be mean."
"Oh, it's all cool. I can see you're a nice person."
"That was rude. That was rude."
"Oh, it's no problem."
"You guys are just bein' nice...." She looks at me, at Paul and I, with tears welling up. Wavering, that space where emotion is louder than volume: "you're gonna be... you're cool. And he's cool too."
"You're awesome. Thank you."
It's her stop now, and she walks toward me. "I'm sorry." In a half laugh, half breaking cry, all at once frustrated with herself and deeply thankful for the forgiving space we've made, she says, "you guys are gonna make me cry! Can I...."
A real, tight hug. She hugs both of us. You know the difference between a perfunctory hug and a real one, where two fellow beings grasp each other and themselves, no longer strangers, deriving something tangible from the proximity, the gesture of love, their shoulder blades, the small of their back familiar, reminding you how alike we all are.
After she left, I exclaimed to Paul, "That was beautiful. Oh my goodness, that was great!"
He mentions how if I hadn't chosen to stick around, I would've completely missed out on the experience. How right he is.
"Oh, that was lovely." I grab the nearest piece of scrap paper, a Fare Alert brochure. "Hang on, I gotta write this down!"