There are times when I can't tell if it's the world opening up, or just myself. You feel exhilaration coursing through your arteries, the kind you felt as a child, when it was okay to be silly. I'm running back to the base after a day on the 12. I'm always running around on the lot- from the coach to the base, from the base to the parking garage, from the garage to the... you get the picture. Why? I think what everyone supposes is that I'm always late to sign in. "You're gonna make it," they'll yell, in encouragement.
I'm not late. I'm just excited. I began the routine after noticing an ex-military crewcut of a man hustling across the lot, his shoulder bags and other gear bouncing uncermoniously off his sides. He had a lot of gear, but he was moving.
Why do you do that, I asked. Run across every day.
Well, he said, if I run this short distance every day, I'll know I can at least do this. I may not have time to exericse, but at least I'll know I can do this every day.
That's a great idea, I said. I did it the day after and every day since, probably looking totally ridiculous. The only people who heedlessly run into the base are drivers desparate to sign in on time... and me, grinning wide and high from all the endorphins. Have you ever noticed how runners for the bus are almost always smiling- even before they make the bus?
I tear through the base today, dropping off my leftover transfers and timetables, putting my runcard away. "Hello, friends!" I say to Vickie and Ashish, deep in conversation, other drivers who went through full-time class with me. Great people. I fly through the restroom, washing my filthy trolley hands. Two other operators in there. On my way banging out the door I realize they're discussing LSBW. "She started yelling this song about abortions..." yup, I thought, chuckling. Definitely her.
I grab my bicycle and meander up the road. There's time before my bus home. I loop aimlessly through the 505 Union Station plaza, and drift over to Jackson Street. A 14 pulls up and I ask the driver, Nebiyat, how his night is. It's going well. We talk up the good points of the 14, and with the green light he's off. I nod a hello to the Sheriff watching the bus stop. His night's going well also. Nothing's happened, he says. This is a good thing. Continuing my aimless loops, here's a man outside Starbucks, setting a single padlock down on the center of each of the outdoor seating tables.
"What's the story here?" I ask, slowing down on my bicycle.
I thought it was some sort of art installation. But no, the real story isn't as exciting: he's simply the security man, locking up the chairs and tables for the night. Of course. He laughs at my idea, having likely never considered the mundane task in such a light. I wish him a good evening, and as I turn away there's George, a regular from the 358. I'm excited- more than he is, I think; never seen him here before. Across the way a Metro maintenance truck ambles by. It's a guy who helped me earlier. We wave. He'd come out to check the carbon inserts (shoes) on my poles. He was happy to follow me for a bit as I did my route, while we tested a new shoe. "Are you the guy who runs?" he'd asked. Apparently that's how they know me at the base!
I get home and put the bike away, and then begin driving my car around on errands. At 145th I'm stopped in the left lane, reflecting on the day, when a bus pulls up alongside and the driver's motioning, pulling on my peripheral vision. I turn to look, and it's Sonum driving, waving wildly at me, both of us waving now in shock and glee- our faces are maps which read, what are the odds of this? I couldn't get over him recognizing me in a car and civvies.
What confluence of airs had led to these little mini-reunions and moments of warm exchange? So many, in such short succession. Was the burgeoning glow coming from me, or was I standing in a passing shaft of light and time, the planets already fading out of alignment? Neither seemed plausible. Luck is a poor excuse for explaining most things, and it'd be silly for me to take credit for such great vibes. No, it felt like a mystery greater than myself. That surging, airy well-being that flows, built in part by you, sure, but also by whatever it is that holds us all together. That's the universe, glinting out from all those eyes. I'm thankful for whatever the reasons are. I just keep running through it all, trying to feel, to reach out and touch something real in this life. It gives me the heady, impossibly light sensation of feeling whole.
A follow-up to the original post, Name Caller, recounting the names I've been called. Here are the updates!
Doogie (this one just won't go away)
Babe (not by a woman; not by a gay man; no, by a straight man who was very disappointed to learn I was male!)
Nathan (why is this of note? Because it's from wonderful blog readers like yourself, who know me by name even as we first meet! Thank you for saying hello!)
"You got one more comin'!"
I look in the right mirror, and it's true, there's a streak of red of blue, running for me at Rainier and Letitia. I'm feeling generous, and wait with doors open. In a few seconds he's on board, breathing heavy and grinning. He sits down in front, a high schooler in primary colors, athletic gear by the looks of it, close-shaved dark head and a black backpack.
"Hey!" I want him to know I'm not miffed. "Perfect timing!" I say, in a friendly voice. "That was beautiful."
"How you been?" he asks. I wasn't expecting him to continue the conversation, and as I look at him now I realize he's Jermain's friend, the kid who once helped an old Asian grandmother with her bags. As an aside, Jermain, as the odds would have it, stopped by earlier today to tell me how the food at Silver Forks is. "Yeah Jerry told me if I ride the bus every day for two weeks he'd pay me," he said, managing to sound both relaxed and out of breath, "and he did, took me out to Silver Forks, we had some breakfast it was pretty good." Apparently Jerry, a father figure, wanted to imprint the value of being on the bus at a young age. I've been seeing a lot of Jermain lately; he's a black American high-schooler who looks, dresses and talks the way we're cultured to expect, but has seeds of something else in him. I look forward to finding out who he grows into as the years wear on.
Back to his friend, having just made the bus~
"I been great!" I say, in response to his query. "Happy to be on the route! You goin' home, goin' to work?"
"Nice, it's the right time a day." Late evening now.
"You almost done wit' your shif'?"
"Getting there. I'ma go all the way to U District- all the way back to Rainier Beach- back to Downtown, then call it good."
He knows the route well enough to know that means I'm only about halfway done; I think he was expecting me to say I was nearly finished. In a tone of encouragement he says, "right on. Gotta make that paper!"
"Oh yeah! Good to pay the rent when the rent's due!"
He laughs, seeing I'm happy to be here.
There's an enterprising spirit he and Jermain both have which transcends expectations. The adolescent brain doesn't have a fully formed pre-frontal cortex; the ability to consider the needs of others and empathize isn't completely formed until about twenty-five. It's a growth mechanism. Ostensibly, in earlier life you prioritize your needs over others so you can survive. Then your frontal lobe finishes growing and you and everyone else in the village help each other to survive.* I catch myself being mildly surprised- a teenager asking about my day?
Recently Jermain was on a nighttime run of my 14. We were talking when a bewildered man got on, a stranger to both of us. "You sound like from you from Down South," he said to the guy. They built up a conversation together, staccato consonants and lackadaisical drawling vowels- food, street names, weather. Young J hopes to move to Atlanta, and considers the South as his adopted home, much the way I do Seattle. Mainly I was struck to see a young person reaching out to strangers. When was the last time you saw a teenager talking to an adult they didn't already know, without trying to get anything out of it for themselves?
*There are plenty of books on neuroscience, some by pop psychologists and others by actual researchers in the field. There are far too many neuroscientists to suggest reading here, and thus I restrict myself to one: Jill Bolte Taylor, who temporarily lost all ability in her left brain due to a stroke. Eventually the cells regrew and the neural pathways reformed, but she describes that period as by far the best in her life. Learn more from her book, My Stroke of Insight.
"You keepin' me smilin' with that deep sexy voice o' yours," says a gravelly ball of waning energy on the 358. She's over forty, mixed race and short, from places I can't figure.
"Oh gosh," I say, trying not to blush. "It's not that good!"
I'm terrible at taking compliments. As a child I couldn't stand my rosy cheeks, and for a long time thought there must be some way of peeling them off to take them back to normal, the way everyone else's were. Never ended up getting around to that.
"Yeah it is!" she exclaims. "You should be a radio guy. Should be a DJ."
Time to change the subject.
"How's your day been?"
"I hope in a good way!"
"Uuhhh," she proclaims.
"Oh no! You got a chance to relax comin' up?"
"Oh yeah, Friday!"
"That always makes it easier. Even if you're busy now, when you know when your next chance to just sit around and stare out the window is. You've got that waiting on the horizon."
"Yeah. I got to get ready for Seahawks!"
"There you go."
"I'm tryin t' decide whether to make gumbo."
She said it as if it was a difficult decision. I burst out laughing as we cross Marion Street.
I'm saying, "well, of course! The answer's yes, you know that!"
She chuckles, adding, "well, my hubby want jambalaya."
"Ooooohhhkay, I see." Recognizing the gravity of the situation. "We do got a dilemma on our hands," I say, pretending to be very serious. "I thought this was between gumbo or no gumbo."
"Oh yeah that'd be easy. This,"
"That would be a big piece of cake. No contest! Case closed!"
"You got that right."
"This' a little more complex right here."
"A tough life choice indeed! We got some figurin' out to do!"
She laughs with her eyes and voice, a husky, fluttering ray of light and rising sound, her exhausting day forgotten.
I'm riding home from Sea-Tac with a dear friend of mine. The last train headed for downtown has already left for the night, and we thus opt for a late-night 124 to work our way back into town. For decades Metro offered 24-hour service from downtown to Sea-Tac; maybe someday when there's money they'll consider doing so again. But nevermind. My friend and I pass the time pleasantly at Tukwila International Boulevard Station- yes, such a thing is possible at 1:30am! She and I talk around in detailed circles, always with more to say to each other, sharing space with the working few.
For tonight at least, the hour has since passed for drunks and users. Now is the quiet time, that elusive pre-dawn realm populated by people who very much need the bus. Cruising down the Boulevard now, I look around at the nations seated beside me: hollow cheeks and thoughtful, tired eyes, gazing into the middle distance, statuesque and contemplative, resting on the go.
Mostly men here, but not all, dressed in layered practicality: raincoats, work coats, sweaters, hoodies, windbreakers, reflective jackets... all with a tinge of earthy scrappiness. We're on Pac Highway after all, and this is no place for the careless. The globe, our globe, balances precariously on the services and elemental labor these folks provide, and would swiftly crumble if not for their continued presence.
The 124 driver, also a friend of mine, takes us gently through the night like the seasoned pro that she is. One of my favorite things about being an operator- and something I never anticipated- is the sense of being surrounded by people you know whenever you're going about the city on foot or by bus. Those are all your friends or acquaintances out there, familiar working faces on the move.
Seated- sprawled is a better word- about the front seat is a thin African-American man of roughly thirty. Oversized dark gray sweater with the collar turned up, black jeans and fuzzy cornrows ending in a bun behind his head. He stares vacantly, head resting on the top of the seat, his body draped in an expansive slouch, conforming to the surfaces around him.
At some point an older woman boards. She steps in slowly, heavier, hobbling forward on swollen limbs, colorful knee-high socks mostly covering her pale and puckered skin. She's white and sixty-plus, with friendly eyes and her hands full- a bag, a backpack, a cane.
Cornrows notes her presence entering and, without waiting for any suggestion, gets up to offer his seat to her. He's already stepping away when she manages a "thank you."
"Oh, that's no problem at all," he says. He says it fluidly and quietly, a natural kindness, in a cadence I wouldn't have expected based on his dress and stance. Had my eyes been closed I'd have thought he was Cary Grant. Sometimes the 124 is more than worthy of the "Jerry Springer" designation; tonight we've got Jimmy Stewart in here. We've got Sydney Poitier.
"Hey hey, how's it goin'?"
"The man of the hour! Good to see you, my friend. How's it been today?"
Tony is the vet mentioned here, where I designate him as "Grizzly Tony, beer-guzzling panhandler extraordinaire." That was two years ago. Today he and I are still doing our thing. I still spend large quantities of time smiling up and down the length of Rainier Avenue, and he still pulls down long hours working along Rainier with his cardboard sign.
I know it might sound incongruous to describe panhandling as work, but it's tougher than one might think. Certainly it's not hard to picture the difficulties of being outside for long hours for minimal return; what's more difficult to imagine is the psychology necessary. You have to diminish your sense of identity until you hit a place where you can present yourself publicly in a state of abject failure. You know you have dignity, but to choose to show yourself to the world in a way such that they'll see you as having none... a number of homeless friends I know don't panhandle for this reason. They don't want to wrap their heads around that frame of mind if they can help it.
As for Tony, I don't think he cares that much. He's an educated man, a vet, and he likes to booze it up. Caucasian is a misnomer; his skin is red now, tanned from daylight exposure and bleached a rosy hue, that swarthy quality that comes with too much alcohol. He has a knack for being able to talk to anyone, and his past, involving work in all sorts of disciplines, gives him a starting point for conversation with most people. I first met him on the 4, when I heard a voice augmenting my announcements.
"We're closin' the back doors," I'd say.
"Now we're closin' the front door, we're about to close the front door," he'd say in his gravelly voice. I see my announcements as pertaining to matters of importance along the route- the stops, asking them to hang on, et cetera. He saw them as me simply verbalizing everything that the bus was doing. He found the idea hilarious (which it is!), and added to it in the spirit of comic exaggeration.
Me: "Here we go!"
Him: "bus is moving forward, everybody!"
"Next stop is 4th and James,"
"We're drivin' through the green light here, folks,"
This was in 2009, when I still somewhat new to driving downtown routes and the folks who use them. I knew getting all uptight would be a mistake, though. The trick here is to flow with, rather than against. "You should be doin' my job!" I holler out. "Sound like a pro!"
"Makin a left turn, makin a left turn here, everybody pay attention left turn," he's saying. It's my turn to augment him.
"Makin that left turn on James, stoppin' by the courthouse."
"Bus is about to open the doors, watch out,"
A block later, I'm saying, "almost at 5th avenue, by the Municipal Court, Muni Tower, Jail..."
"Jail?! Holy cow, I wasn't even gonna say jail!"
We've been on good terms ever since. What I find most amusing about him is how serious he can keep his face when saying silly things. He has a comedian's ability to keep a straight face. Throughout the above he generally wore his poker face like a champ; but he'll always break down at the end and respond in kind to my "good to see ya."
Back to the present. We're on Rainier and McClellan inbound, and I'm asking him how he's doing. "Soaked to the skin, man," he says. "Soaked to the skin, they got so much rain comin down out here..."
"Where you goin' now, you goin' home?" I think he likes me because I treat him without pity, as just another guy, with only a few small differences in life choice and circumstance separating us. An equal, in other words.
"Goin' a go see my fiance."
"What? Congratulations!" I say, turning around. "That's fantastic!" I think I'm more excited than he is. Friends know I'm easily thrilled. "You got one up on me, man. I hope one day I can tell you I'm goin' a go see my fiance!"
"She's alright," he deadpans.
I can't help but laugh. He continues with, "I gotta go get her some beers."
"Yeah, she drink different type a alcohol than me."
"Yeah, I drink PBR, she drinks buttercups." In that serious tone, as if this is a particularly dour issue.
"Gotta keep the lady happy, that's what they say,"
"Don't want a woman trippin' on ya," he says, in a tone so humorless I find it comical.
"Gotta get those buttercups."
As he settles in behind me, I hear the chatter continue. He's telling a story, and I hear intermittent smatterings amongst the wet pavement and rolling wiper blades- "ATF," "had my clothes on," "fiance," "shooting down here," "mulberries." Then I hear the echo of unconcealed truth in his tone as he tells someone, "oh, no no. I could never afford a real ring. I c'afford a Cracker Jack ring, that's about it."
I feel like I see so many fragments of universes, the visible tips of deep and storied lives, icebergs whose temperatures and histories we can only guess at. Here are the glancing shades of a few-
Shan ("not Shannon, just Shan"), standing at the front of my 358, telling me how she broke up with her emotionally abusive boyfriend and thus felt a new and heady sensation of release. She's developed a heretofore untapped appetite for exercise and has lost 150 pounds in ten months. I look at her beaming face, long hair and the first beautiful aging lines, letting all that vitality hit me.
An old but hardy man, perhaps a seafaring type, getting off at Seneca, quipping to me as he leaves: "okay, you can go home now!"
At Beacon and Lander. An African-American man stands up inside the coach, yelling through the open window at his friend across the street: "IT'S TEN O' CLOCK! WHASS UP CHUCKIE!" I glance at my watch. It's 3:42. Maybe he means New Zealand time.
On the 36, a little south of Judkins outbound. Who's that Chinese senior walking with her head down, a half-smile on her face? I know that profile. I've pulled up to the stop, way past her, she's back there somewhere, a hundred feet away, walking away- but I know that face. I saw her yesterday, for the first time in months. I throw on the parking brake and jump out of the packed bus- "gimme a second-" and cup my mouth as I yell, "MELBA!" That's her name. "MELBATOAST!"
She looks up, looks to her right, now she's turning around- that half-smile transformed, exploding as she recognizes me. "Nathan!" she shouts. We wave. I wish her a good day and jump back inside.
"Don't mind me," I tell the passengers. "Just sayin' hey to my buddy!"
A working girl (you know what I mean) in a leering tank top, straps and bra straps, cleavage for miles, midriff exposed. No makeup today. Her sweatshirt is tied round her waist, somehow matching her hair tied back in a high ponytail. "Thank you," she says as she gets off. She's carrying, among other things, a hub cap for a Honda Civic.
Halfway down the bus sit two older Vietnamese, easily seventy, one a man and the other a lady. They sit across the aisle from each other, in their own separate seat pairs. Not relaxed around each other enough to be a couple; maybe they're neighbors. They're passing a cantaloupe back and forth. One really wants to give it to the other, and the other is just way too polite about it. Gestures of "no thank you, really" and "here you go," until finally they grin back and forth, crinkling into ageless humor.
An East Asian woman at Dearborn, standing by me on the 7. "Next stop is Dearborn, by Goodwill," I announce over the intercom.
"Is the next one Dearborn? By Goodwill?" she asks in accented syllables.
"It is indeed!"
The redundant question is hardly bothersome, and I can see she feels comfortable. Good. I look at her and she looks at me, and there's a shared desire, as if we'd both love to keep talking, keep connecting, but we don't know what to discuss. That's what the weather's for, isn't it?
I'm about to mention the rain when she says, "what is this rain?"
"Yes, I don't understand! I thought it was going to be sunny!"
"Me too, the clouds were light, the sky was blue,"
I want to say, "looks can be deceiving," but I can't be sure of her proficiency in English. Will she know what 'deceiving' means? In that moment I decide to go for it. It feels good to be given the benefit of the doubt (a la the woman who trusted me to know the word conviviality). You're acknowledging the possibility.
"Looks can be deceiving!"
She laughs, a rich, comprehending, mellifluous chuckle. "Oooh! So philosophical!"
On the incredible 3/4-
A young man on the other side of Jefferson makes a noise. It's Jermain (from here and here, among other stories). He yells a quiet hey from across the street, and I'm happy to see him. Great. I get excited when young people show a buried promise, and you can wonder at what considerable accomplishments they have in them to achieve in the future.
Several hours later, as I pull into Third and Virginia southbound, mulling over how the zone feels like a landing strip because of how huge the sidewalk is, I start lightly tapping the horn- it's Genevieve!!! In the living breathing flesh! She's a nurse at several Swedish's, and used to be something of a regular; I haven't seen her in over a year. Here she is again, out of the blue. The multiple exclamation points really are necessary; her ebullient energy is infectious. I ask her about her twelve-hour night shifts, her multiple degrees, other interests, children, and her passion for burlesque... and how it is that she still has room to be happy. We get to talking, and both of us are very excited. We both suffer from the same problem of looking ten years younger than we really are, and are able to commiserate on such matters. At James and Third I see Jermain again at the zone, and I'm excited to say hey once more; but I focus on the individuals getting on in front of him, making eye contact with every person in the crowd, knowing I'll get to talk to him in a minute. Each person needs that moment of contact, however brief. The difference between a short second of eye contact and a slightly longer moment is not so great; the difference between eye contact and no eye contact is vast.
The last guy steps on. It's a young black American teen with basketball shoes and a T-shirt that's too big, so far so good... but wait! Who's this kid? That's not Jermain! Just a lookalike!
Where on earth is the guy? Is he still at the zone? Maybe, as there's still a few fellows loitering around. I want to get out of the seat, lean out the door and yell, "Jermain! As-salamu alaykum!"
I don't do this. Instead I mutter darkly, "why isn't Jermain on this bus?" as Genevieve and I resume our conversation. Later, I'm puzzled. Why didn't I lean out the door and say hey? Why? What makes us hold back from ourselves, from the actions we know we could perform and share? Why do we avoid interactions which we have every confidence will go over well? It's not like I would have made a fool of myself- okay, maybe I would have, but who cares? Not in this instance. What strange virus is this, that forces timidity where there is no reason for it? I feel lame afterwards. I resolve to be more open with myself.
I pull into Third and Pike, notice the wonderful tiny old Filipino woman, Rose, and pull way beyond her to the head of the zone to load passengers.
As soon as they're all onboard I, in a moment of utter overcompensation, completely step off the coach, and yell down the zone, through all the people: "ROSE! ROSE! HAVE A GOOD DAY!" She's confused, then thrilled, as she pieces this bizarre situation together. She returns the wave as energetically as her aging arm is able.
Continuing in this vein, I embark on a waving bonanza. At 21st & Jefferson, I arbitrarily wave for no reason at all a man waiting across the street. I guess I'm banking on the fact that he knows me, or that he's into waving at strangers. He returns the wave.
I'm announcing an upcoming zone, and my hands are full with holding the mic and the wheel, but I see a man with a walker on Third looking up at me from the sidewalk. We're nowhere near a zone, and he doesn't want to get on; he just seems likes he wants to wave. His hands are full too, maneuvering his walker. In the midst of announcing, I give him the upward-head nod and smile, and he returns it with a nod to the skies and down again, a face of joyous mock surprise.
The energy is flowing. "JAGPAL," I yell, upon seeing Jagpal across the street, driving the 358.
Sometimes this openness falls completely flat. I'm inbound at Seneca now. A young businessman in his thirties, dressed in a navy oxford and black slacks, steps forward, preparing to get off. He has earphones in.
I glance at him in the mirror and say, "How's it goin'?"
"Whhuuu?" he intones, taking out an earpiece temporarily. He gives me the face I probably make when I'm in foreign countries and people are yelling at me.
"Just sayin' hey, nothin' major," I answer.
After a pause: "Ooooohhh."
"What are we listening to?"
A lady nearby and I burst out laughing together- she says, "he can't hear a damn thing!"
"Must be some pretty good tunes!"
The man's earphones are back in, and he doesn't hear a word of our cacophony. He's the 21st century zombie: slick, fast, well-groomed, and completely and voluntarily deaf. He goes racing down the street, a man on a mission.
Another wave at a middle-aged Latino man walking on a street somewhere in the Judkins neighborhood. His stance seems to say, "it's that crazy bus driving kid who waves at people." It works again as I pass by the dealers and users at Parnell's, the mini-mart at Dearborn. They're notoriously unresponsive when it comes to interaction, but today one of those faces transforms into a beaming grin, bloodshot eyes relaxing around the corners. Another fellow in a wheelchair offers a lazy salute.
Continuing through the Judkins area, a petite young lady kneels down by her dog as I pass by, returning my friendly demeanor with a bright smile.
While I'm in the mood, not quite knowing what's come over me, I wave yet again- an extended fist way too much like a black power salute- at a man and his friend hanging out in the parking lot adjacent to the Center Park project housing at MLK and Walker. I definitely don't know these guys. It's completely random. There's no reason for it. It doesn't make any sense. They return the wave, getting excited, new smiles where there were none before.
I think her name was Katherine, on her way to a haircut. She was up front, just boarded, watching bright-eyed as I greeted the masses on the 10. We were talking about positive energy. I was telling her what I often say, about how when you put a lot of yourself out there, you get a lot back (this is one of my reasons for picking the routes I do; why is the heavy work so much more conducive?).
"Yeah," she said, listening. "It gets magnified by the universe and then it comes back to you."
"Yeah, and– wow," I said abruptly, more carefully registering her thought. "That's a great way of putting it, magnified by the universe. I'd never thought of it in those words."
I repeated it, to make sure I'd gotten it right. The notion that the energy we put out there didn't just simply come back, but that it underwent a process by simple virtue of existing in our world. Of course, I thought. Our efforts and perception return to us colored and seasoned by the pulsing universe, coming back around as something fresh, de novo, unexpected... and yet also, yes, vaguely familiar, that distant echo of ourselves we'd feel lost without. We are the world we see.
She shrugged a natural smile, youthful and easy, tossing her braid back like it wasn't any big thing.