Somewhere in the deep and ancient bowels of this blog there's mention of a thin, wiry old soul who once rode my 358. She was part of the methadone crowd. There was a time when she could walk without a walker. She used to scamper through the air. She was in her fifties, and she scampered. If you saw her from behind, you'd underestimate her age by at least three decades. I knew her when she was homeless, and when she wasn't. Now she has her own apartment, moves a little slower, and a friendly red walker joins her on her escapades.
We can't choose how time takes its toll on our bodies, but we can control much of how our minds age; hers remains spry, always with a ready grin when I show up. Stooped over her walker, a ninety-pound waif with a map of hardship and laughter writ softly on the lines of her face… I'll honk and wave from across the street, and she comes back to life, eagerly returning the wave. You never know how much a little effort like that can make someone's day, how it reminds them they live in the hearts of others. Dawna. She's known me longer than some of my closest friends.
"Alright, miz Dawna," I said as she was rising to leave my bus. "Thanks for stoppin' in!"
"I'm blind in my left eye now," she said from behind her round spectacles. "If you're blind in one eye, does that mean you're blind?"
"Well, I'm glad you still got that other one to work with."
"Yeah, but I got cataracts in my right eye."
"Well, you know what they say."
"In the land of the blind... the one-eyed man is king!"
I don't know why I said that, or what compelled me to do so. It barely made sense. It was hardly relevant.
But it was the perfect response to that moment. Dawna processed the line, and then lit up the night sky with her devil-may-care grin. I still count for something, the line said. Out here in this crazy world, I've still got it. That was the true meaning of the sentence, and that particular sequence of words somehow burrowed the sentiment to a place where she could feel it and be proud. We smirked at each other, winking with our whole faces, and we knew as long as we reached out to each other, gave a little love, everything was going to be all right.
Photograph by Susan Newbold.
This interview very much falls under the "everything-you-always-wanted-to-but-were-afraid-to-ask" category. William Pennington interviews various local luminaries here in Seattle, and he's not afraid to go in depth. We really talk about everything here, and if you've ever wondered why bus tires aren't solid, whether or not there's "a Mt. Rushmore for bus drivers,", and what bus driving has to do with the myth of Sisyphus, this is your ticket! Click the link below for more, and enjoy!
Thirty-Three Questions With Nathan Vass, Artist, Photographer, Filmmaker...And Metro Bus Driver
Photo by Victoria Holt.
"Nathan! There's a friend who wants to meet you!"
This is a conversation that's happened more than once. I'll reply:
"Well, tell them to come ride the 7 to Rainier Beach! At night!"
"Um, ha! I don't think that'll go over so well!"
I lovingly think of my route as my "office hours." Anyone can stop in, and everyone does. Office hours are designed to benefit students, and it's here the metaphor breaks down: I feel like I'm the one gaining the most, learning from what I see and hear. It's a terrific way to pass the time, listening to the world go by. Even better, though, are office hours where I'm not distracted by the fact of, you know, making sure people don't get killed….
Which brings us to gallery sitting. What better place is there to chat than in the safe, spacious company of art and sunlight wafting through the windows? I might answer by suggesting extremely expensive, thirty-ton roving industrial vehicles filled with the perfect mixture of mentally stable and unstable people and constant interruptions, but that's just me. Galleries aren't so bad as a runner-up.
Which brings us to May 20, when I'll be sitting at the gallery for the show I wrote up here, and which opened on the 4th. There's nothing urgent about this, really; it's a fun show, not a crucial one, and although the piece I have in it is personal to me, I do only have the one piece (the show is 33 "totally fake" record covers, each by a different artist).
Openings are about seeing and being seen, but this isn't an opening. Office hours are better. Everyone's already come and gone, and now that the kerfuffle's died down there's actually time to sit down and talk.
Stop in if you like!
700 1st (on Cherry, just east of 1st)
Saturday, 5/20, 2:30-4:30
Bare Naked Bravery is a podcast hosted by Emily Ann Peterson, the singer songwriter, author, teaching artist, and creative entrepreneur. On it she celebrates the lives of luminaries from all backgrounds across the country who've shown bravery in their own special and inspiring ways. I'm so honored to be included among this group!
Join us as we discuss... just about everything!
Thanks for listening.
A friend and I were strolling through the plaza at Fifth and Jackson, on our way to Daiso Japan. Incredibly, I'd never been, and was excited. The night was dark. Figures to my left and right, huddling in the gloom, a nightmare with the right assumptions. Has the effort I've laid down over the years toward these people helped me? Do such things make a difference?
They do and they don't. The reason for my kindness isn't a desire for protection, nor the expectation of the same in return. Those are frequent and wonderful benefits for which I'm thankful, but they're not why I'm nice.
There is no tip jar for public bus drivers. This fact separates it from many other customer service jobs, and it's one of my favorite aspects of the gig. Why?
Because without one, the public knows your kindness is completely genuine. There is no incentive, no reason for pretense. A friendly bus driver means something to people. That woman or man piloting this vehicle, out here amongst the chaos, actually just likes being nice. There are people like that.
Of course I love it when the contagiousness of kindness reveals itself in others– without this job I wouldn't know that it happens basically all the time, amongst all people– but I have to remember to give folks the space necessary to be who they are in that moment. They don't need to reply. They can have some room. I greet everyone once, keeping in mind Mr. J. M. Barry: "Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle." That good energy you make comes back around in unexpected ways. It's something real you built, and they build it too.
In the plaza a man came toward us, tall, dark, cloaked, with an imposing figure and strong build, mysteries in those sagging pockets. Hard to make out his expression in this gloaming. I felt short in his presence.
"Excuse me, young man and young lady, I was wondering…," he began, reaching his hand out.
Then he recognized me.
A grin exploded out of him, the type of beaming smile that would make any person's face beautiful. He radiated convivial vigor. "It's you!!! Hey, man," he exclaimed, as we shook hands long and firm. He turned to my friend. "This guy is the best! He is the best, nicest, friendliest…."
"Oh no," I laughed.
"It's good to see you! I'm sorry I'm not driving today! But I'll be back Saturday!"
He wished us both a great night, still beaming. He didn't ask us for anything at all. I was touched by that, because he looked like he would have benefited from doing so. I believe he refrained out of respect. Which moved me. Or perhaps we gave him what he needed, in the form of joy, the animation of delight and all it reminds us toward.
He certainly gave me the same.
This is a continuation of the story below– scroll down or click here!
The Kristofferson-John Wayne hybrid mentioned earlier, having long ago finished blessing the ridership, now pipes up after watching me in my element.
"You the best of the best, brutha," he rumbles. "You're pretty good, brutha." Puuurty guhd. "The best of the best! You're pretty darn good…."
It's nice to hear at first, but the guy won't let up. I guess I should be grateful.
"You're gonna jinx it, Larry!" I reply. One of my favorite sleepers, Liz, stirs awake at Larry's low-frequency voice and its ceaseless adulations.
"Best of the worst, more like," she groans in mock displeasure. "This guy he love you. Have to invite him to your wedding!"
And so begins another of our epic bantering sessions. I love her Jamaican accent.
"What wedding is that?" I ask.
"When you get married! You have to invite all of us!"
"I didn't know I was getting married!"
"Of course you are, Nathan!"
"You know, that's actually something I think about. If I ever was to get married, I would invite all the passengers. Free food!"
"And free booze!"
"THEN they'll come! No one cares about food!"
"Yeah, nobody wants food," she laughs. "They just want booze. Except me, I want a soda."
"Yeah, I don't drink booze."
"Gimme some orange juice, I'm good."
"Wait," I say. "Who am I marrying?"
"Oh yeah? Do I know her?"
She cackles. "Yeah! You're gonna meet her on the bus."
"I'm so glad to be learning this information!" I quip. "Is she a bus driver?"
"What? No. Nathan. She's an office girl."
"An office girl!?"
"She works nine to five!"
"Nine to five, wow. One of those. Oh I get it, and I'll meet her on her way from work."
"No, she's at home right now. It's too late for her. She doesn't ride the bus this late. She's a good girl."
"Oh that's good. I'm glad I'm marrying a good girl."
"I'm just looking out for you, Nathan. Yes, invite everyone."
"Oh, I will, believe me! I especially have to invite you, since you know everything about me!"
"It'll be you and me, Liz, drinkin' some lemonade, and everyone else fallin' down drunk!"
We continue drifting deeper into the southlands. Unable to contain my enthusiasm, I greet an incoming passenger with, "Happy Sunday!"
He frowns. "Happy Sunday? Da fuck?"
"I'm just tryna keep it light, keep it positive, you know! Gotta do what we can, right?"
He sees something in me he responds to– truthfulness perhaps, or experience. He comes around. "Das whussup!"
This guy's the love child of Kawhi Leonard and Keegan-Michael Key. At the end of the line he asks, "when do you go back?"
"We're gonna park it here, mother nature's callin' me! I apologize!"
For some reason my verbalizing my bathroom needs compels him to proclaim, "you got GAME, bro! Don't gotta apologize for nothin'! You cool, light-hearted!"
Feel the enthusiasm, so rich in the air. Where does it come from? To what degree did we build it ourselves? I watch him and a young white man come together in search for his missing Mike and Ike's, connecting over Redman and Method Man. I can't catch all of their conversation, but I can feel its goodness.
Two young men got on, angry with each other. That was half an hour ago. But look at them now, standing up in the back to shake hands, coming together in a handshake hug. They bound out together, white teeth glowing.
Liz looks at Larry. She asks, "so what happened to your face?"
"Oh, I, uh. I fell down some stairs."
"Oh yeah? Nobody beat you up?"
"No, I just fell. But it's still funny."
"You got a great attitude!" I say. He's chuckling. I could learn from this man.
Liz responds, "it looks like it hurt!"
"Yeah. But it's good."
"Well, that's good," Liz answers. "Did you cry? Did you cry one little tiny tear?"
"It's okay to cry!"
"I'm a tough guy!"
"Tough guys can cry too!"
"I'm a tough guy."
"You're a tough cookie!"
"But my heart hurt a tiny little bit."
It's okay to cry, John Wayne. We know you're human too.
A randy octogenarian stares at me from outside, inhaling for a howl. "You are CUTE," he roars.
The night carried on, effervescent, moment to moment, making as much or as little sense as it needed to. I didn't want to be anywhere else.
Friends! I'll be featured on next week's episode of Bare Naked Bravery, a podcast "hosted by Emily Ann Peterson exposing the threads of heroism behind the stories and people we love most..." Eep! Stay tuned!
Scattered conversations, shadow and light and primary colors, bodies and smiles sliding past each other. Look at this beautiful cavalcade.
Here's a tall fellow, love child of Kristofferson and John Wayne, his disheveled hair cascading out so jauntily it's downright dapper. This is inebriated bedhead done right. There are bloody wounds on his face, only recently healed, but he's working his way up and down the aisle like a renegade pastor, grinning despite the blood and his gravelly voice, saying emphatically to each passenger: "God bless you. Hey. God bless you too. Oh hey there hi, God bless…."
I call the stops out with fearless friendliness. Another man is standing alongside, watching me perform. A grin slowly forming on his face, wider and wider: he can't take it. "Yo," he finally blurts, unable to contain his enthusiasm. "Yo, I like your STYLE, bro. Keep it UP!"
A moment later, from another: "you are too SMOOTH, muhfugguh! This bus ride' the best birthday present ever! Jus' a lil' too SMOOOOTH, unh!"
Be yourself. This is the only weapon I have. Be your good self, and offer it to others without imposing it on them.
The Earth turned today, and you could feel its joy, spilling out of all these beautiful people. Look at the spirit in their eyes. Springtime came early, not in nature, but in the heady bounce of every person's step, a careening delicacy of ebullience, washing over all. The happy were happier, and the heavier souls walked as though they weighed a little less, a mystery, gifts from somewhere far away.
The night had a snap to it.
I've barely started, still loitering around the plaza bus stop, waiting for my shift to arrive… and here's a man with flowers bounding over. He is Mason the flower seller, I learn, and he knows me even if I don't in return; "you're the best damn driver in this whole city put together," he exclaims, unwittingly echoing The Great Gatsby.
His scruffy denim, the nine o'clock shadow, the immaculate daffodils offsetting it all… I wish I had my camera. "Normally I'd charge a love donation of one dollar, but these are free for you! Presto!" he declares, with a flourish.
Not a minute later and here's a young lady from Starbucks holding out a croissant with my name on it. Look at her big eyes, wavy hair framed by the nondescript Starbucks uniform. Everybody looks better in black. Am I really worth the trouble? Walking a croissant all the way down here, taking the effort to make sure it isn't squished? What a sweetheart.
Another friend stepping in, with a smile representing years. My first notes from ages ago describe her as "Genessee Lady With Cool Walking Stick." I daresay we know each other a touch better now. Rainier Avenue has room for every personality type, and hers is at the upper end of generosity; tonight she brings ginger udon noodles and tofu cold noodle salad from PCC, with a message of hello from one of their staff who knows me. To say "thank you," as an indicator of the overflowing gratitude I feel, seems paltry by comparison. How can people be so kind? When I tell people this job makes me love humanity, I think they think I'm being sarcastic. Faithful reader, you know otherwise.
Mason's daffodils get passed on to the "Lovely Ladies," my term for the group that heads up to St. Mark's for the women's homeless night shelter there. I call them that with loving irony from earlier experiences, when they were always uniformly angry. Yes, I know they have plenty to be frustrated about, but their resolute commitment to bickering was something I couldn't help smiling at. It was predictable to the point of being endearing. Having them onboard is a production: regular passengers know what they're in for, as we spend light cycle after light cycle deploying the lift and situating everybody with their bags and materials. It's a zoo.
Personally, I love it.
I don't know if it's me who's gotten better at setting the mood, or if they've mellowed, but my original appellation is starting to have non-ironic meaning. I really enjoy picking them up, and they seem to feel that now. Or maybe they're just happier in the evening than at six A.M., when they get unceremoniously booted out of St. Mark's and left on the curb for twenty minutes. Tonight I call out a handful of farewells ("thanks for hangin' out with me!") as they– half the bus, easily– mobilize to get off. "I love you all," I holler, adding to one of them, "here, you should have these flowers. It's for all you guys." They're as thrilled as I.
"You're a lovely lady," an elderly gent says to one of the Lovely Ladies, before they all left. He's no flirt; just a complimenter. "What's your name?"
"Todd," she replies. "Short for Harry."
He waits until she leaves before waxing wistfully with his friend. "She said she was sixty-five! Are you kidding me? She was beautiful."
"Women don't age like they used to." They sigh longingly at each other as I try not to giggle. A man calls out from the sidewalk, "I loved the most recent blog story!" Now it's my turn for my heart to melt….
The doors open and close and open again, and I recognize yet another grin. Last year I wrote of Tran, the scrappy Vietnamese auto mechanic, thusly: "Certain people, in the impression they make on you, overwhelm their own physical appearance with sheer magnetic force of personality. His scrappy, frankly vagrant look doesn't register nearly as much to me as his beaming disposition."
Nobody's ever given me ice cream before. "Are you sure, Tran? Thank you, gosh!"
"Don't thank me! I have another one fo' myself!"
"Tran! You're so awesome!"
It's one of those tiny Häagen-Dazs samplers. It's delectable, but… how am I supposed to eat this stuff? Good thing the roads are empty. Although I have driven up Rainier with seaweed salad and chopsticks in one hand, vainly hoping for red lights, ice cream is another matter. I struggle valiantly until Yesler Way, where I jump out to perch it atop a solar-powered garbage can, plastic mini-spoon and all. It should go to someone with the stress-free luxury of being able to use two hands at once. "Ice cream, everybody," I bellow excitedly at shifting figures in the darkness. "Finders keepers!"
They're confused. Who is this boy, who jumps out of his bus to leave ice cream on garbage cans in Pioneer Square and yells about it? In the receding view of my mirror I notice an intrepid soul taking up the offer. I smile to myself. This vivacious pulse of flowing life is a gift, and I must keep it alive, breathe on the flame of it, that we might feel its verve a touch longer. It is worth it.
Too much fun for one blog post– this story continues here!
Blue sweatshirt, flat forehead. It was the last time I ever saw him, a street character I encountered not infrequently on my Rainier Avenue route; not homeless, you understand, just scruffy. I liked saying his name. He was the definition of boisterous, and he talked way too loudly, but I didn't mind. He was a sweetheart when you got right down to it, and always reacted well when I called out: "inside voice, Little Leon, inside voice!"
This morning both of us were strangers in a strange land. I can't remember why I was driving the 70 at seven A.M., and I know I'd never seen him out in Amazon tech-head land before– definitely not at the crack of dawn. What were we doing out here? Why was I out of bed? He was more of an evenings-on-Rainier type of guy. Like me. But the day was beautiful in its own quiet way, one of those cloudy Northwest mornings, the brightening grey that blurs the moments before dawn and afterward.
"Little Leon, good morning!"
Even as I said it, I could tell something was different. His eyes were more than sober; they were shell-shocked.
"Hey, man, what's goin' on," he mumbled, his eyes trained on an invisible distance far beyond the material. He stumbled into the front seat. On the old buses, that was right next to me, the driver. The intimacy of it felt appropriate for our conversation, though given Little Leon's volume habits, everyone in the sparsely populated interior was surely within earshot. Somberly: "hey, guess what."
"Tell me," I said.
"My mother died last night."
I looked at the moistness of his eyes, two deep brown pooling wells. There was something wrong with this day, something particular that had never been wrong before. His hush following the sentence spoke louder than any scream. We're all of us going through this life for the very first time. We're beginners in this racket, and we have no experience for something so new, so large and silent and terrible.
I'm sorry to hear it. What an enormously forgettable phrase. People who have lost know how meaningless it is. But what can you say? Sure, it's overused, but the sympathy is real. You have to say it. You want to say it, and you mean it. I did. I meant every syllable.
Little Leon, a thin-framed broken man, African-American, too early to middle age, today clad in a blue sweatshirt, blue jeans, and battered white sneakers. Survival already trumps style for many of my street-denizen friends, but for Mr. Leon today, as would be the case for any of us, fashion was especially meaningless. He sat as a man consumed entirely by the past, the present an afterthought too bitter to bear.
"Thanks, man," Little Leon said, pausing. "It's so many ways we can go."
"Gotta go with dignity."
There's a film that's special to me– I won't spill the title because I'm giving away the ending– about a man who slowly loses everything, including his life… but not his dignity. I've always remembered that, and I voiced it now.
"We gotta go with dignity."
"Dignity, that's right. And she did, she was beautiful right up until the end. It just hurts,"
"It hurts 'cause I was uh only child."
"You and me both!"
Little Leon leaned forward. He meant every word he said.
"Hey, lemme ask you a favor, king bus driver. By the way this guy's the best king bus driver in all the whole a Metro. He's he's he's,"
"There ain't nobody else, cause every single time he sees me, he treats me the way he would wanna be treated."
"Thanks, man. I try!"
"You do. But lissen, I got to ask you one favor."
"Just, next time you see your mom, just give her a big hug, man, hug her tight. Don't matter what she's doin', she's comin' outta the bathroom, hug her anyway."
"I will. I will."
"I'm glad you got to spend time wit' her."
"Oh yeah, my mama raised me. My dad, I never met him." The raspy inflection, halfway between tears and a hard place, the plaintive voice rising, helpless: "I tell you, when I make it to those pearly gates I'ma ask him just one thing." Trying not to shake. "I'ma ask him why he was never around, why he was never there, so I coulda maybe learned something from him." His voice cracked, and cracked again.
"Oh man, Leon. I'm sorry."
"Death is so huge."
"Just hits the bottom of your soul."
"We're gonna lose everything we love in this life," I said, half to myself, gazing out at Mercer Street, reflecting as we waited out the long light.
"Well, we won't lose it, it'll just… you know, king bus driver, I saw somethin' a long time ago that I couldn't believe. I saw this guy just bawling. Just heaving, cryin' and cryin'. I said why and he said he'd just lost his wife."
"I don't blame him."
"Oh no me neither. But I didn't know grown men cried. But he was. I mean, it was his wife! Ain't no girlfriend… so that's why I'm cryin' now, I understand."
"'It's like you lose one person and the whole world seems empty,'" I replied. That's from Joan Didion. Joan Didion, Little Leon… doesn't matter what world you come from. This stuff is all the same.
"Yeah," he agreed. "Exactly. Yeah."
He paused. He spoke. He told me he was writing a song in anticipation of the funeral, at which he planned to sing. "I ain't done with it, but the first part goes like this."
And then he launched into it. Reader, would that you were there. A century and a half of the gospel blues tradition had existed for the purpose of building to this moment, a broken man on a city bus singing to his friend. To hear his deep, sorrow-stricken, gospel-inflected voice… this was a blues with no affectation whatsoever. It was shattering in its heartrending truthfulness. Was I really going to tell him to quiet down now? Did I care what the other commuters thought about their morning trip to work?
Not for a second. They one day will be where he is, and we'll give them room then, too.
I couldn't help but consider myself in his shoes. "I don't know if I'll be able to handle it," I said.
"Oh, when my my own mom passes, I's thinkin' I don't know if I'll make it."
"Well, don't rush it, man. That's pain."
"You know though," I said after another pause, "it's better than the opposite. This is better than us dying before our parents do. Ain't nothin' worse than a parent losing their only child."
"Yeah. Yeah, that's true. Yeah."
"This is part of the cycle."
I could see he was noticeably buoyed by this idea. Mourning happens in waves: a step forward, and three back. Though they may seem as nothing more than drops of water in an ocean, every one of those incremental steps forward is a milestone. This was a step forward, and it was just what he needed then. As we came to his stop, he exclaimed, "iss a reason I ran into you this morning, king bus driver!"
"I'm so happy you got on my bus, Little Leon!"
"You're tellin' me! Love you, be safe!"
I watched him walk away, a man in blue, shivering in the wind. He wasn't Little Leon anymore. He was just Leon now, and his grief will be our grief, has been our grief. Do we lose everything we love in this life? We do, except we don't lose their spirit. We don't lose the good they built in us, which is the most important part. In your good actions, the grace or humor you learned from them… that's them, reaching out at life through you, with you.
Keep that goodness alive.