Down and back on the 7, Thursday:
3rd and Union: Miranda. Thirty, with a bright face ready to smile. She's ridden before, out to Wendy's, where she works. We talk about how long of a shift she has- tonight it's easy, only five hours. She's going for the Assistant Manager position there, and certainly seems qualified- perhaps overqualified. She asks about bus driving, and we talk about ways of dealing- maybe interacting is a better term- with people. Traffic is ridiculous; the president is in town. He may not have been on Rainier Avenue, but his presence was certainly felt in the amount of stop and go traffic; we spend an hour getting from Pine to Bayview, a distance that should comfortably only take 30 minutes. There's time to talk. Miranda's attitude is invigorating in a quiet way- she has three children, works all the time, and you can wonder at the stress that must be brought upon her, but what you read in her face is the expression of someone who is both weighed down by a busy life but also made stronger because of it; her resilience is a rejuvenating one, and you sense the outlines of a character you want to be around, or at least emulate. Her smile is a real one. Sitting next to her is Ha'la, a Somalian woman, and they talk about food, motherhood, the challenges of working with or raising mentally disabled children, the rate at which the brain develops versus the body, and I wish I'd had a chance to tell them about Jack, an acquaintance of mine who once told me he couldn't believe how lucky he was, that he got away with having the children that he did. That one of them had Down syndrome didn't even occur to his universe as being something that might be negative or some kind of lost opportunity. Thank goodness for such people.
Rainier and Walker: Older Asian man: "You are having fun!" Me: "How can you tell?" Him: a knowing smiling cackle.
Rainier and MLK: Franklin kids getting off. "Gentlemen, good morning!" I say, before catching myself. It's 5pm. They smile. I get excited when teenagers acknowledge people outside their social circles.
Rainier and Walden: Two middle-aged ladies of ambiguous heritage, hands filled with groceries.: "hey, young man! I like you," one says, simplifying what is probably a more complex thought with the second language of English. As they sit down I hear them muttering to each other, in an accent I can't place,"he's a good driver. He says 'hang on,' 'how are you,'" etc.
Rainier and Alaska: A girl at the stop: "Can we get on the back door?" I say, "gimme one second, it's only one person [getting off]." She looks exasperated, and her dark hooded eyes send that message. She's probably been waiting out there for a while. As she steps on, I say, "how's it goin?" And suddenly there's this shift in her face, as she sees me as not "the other" but as one of her own. A friend. Her whole countenance changes. "Fine," she responds, coyly.
Rainier and Edmunds: "Keep up the enthusiasm," a quiet Caucasian gentleman says, with an unintended hint of menace.
Rainier and Orcas: Another passenger says it again: "you're havin' fun out here." A busty young mother gives me the classic line, which I hear at least once a day: "Man, are you even old enough to be drivin' this bus?" I offer the classic response: "no."
Rainier and Graham: a young, pale-skinned teenager with a striking face. I smile at her in the mirror as she and other passengers get off. You can ride the wave of a smile like that for some time, like it was all you needed, and nothing more, to complete your day.
Rainier and Holly: Younger lady with a lot of makeup, getting on by the senior center: "It's my birthday!" "Happy Birthday!"
Rainier and Othello: An senior-age east Asian man comes up with his family. In English he says to me, "I'm 19!" I look at him and we both burst out laughing.
Henderson Street: I'm doing upside down push-ups on the ceiling of the bus. A dude and his lady walk by. He leans into the bus- I have a habit of leaving the door open at terminals- and asks me what kind of exercise I was doing. He tells me how they're on their way to the beach. I tell him to enjoy the water for me, and he tells me to drive safe tonight.
Rainier and 52nd: Two teenagers dressed in loose-fitting dark basketball clothing. The one smiles before he even gets on, recognizing me. We give each other the upward nod. His friend warmly introduces himself, saying only his name as we shake hands: "Jamal." With that they go running to the back.
Rainier and Rose: A guy on the other side of the street yells out a falsetto "haayy!" I shoot my hand out the window, waving in response.
Rainier and Myrtle: A guy by the car wash yells out a greeting as well- "Aaauuuu!" Once again I wave in return.
Rainier and Holly: "Hey, Doogie. You hijack this mother?" I laugh and say, of course I did. "Props to ya, man." "One day they'll maybe even give me a license!"
Rainier and Orcas: "Heeeyyyy, man. Good to ride witchoo again." A big guy with a deep bass voice and his lady friend. "Welcome back," I say, "always a pleasure;" they go sit in the back.
Rainier and Edmunds: A pleasant older lady with a nice hat and I take pleasure in conversing in grammatically correct and complete sentences, like "I'm having a splendid afternoon, thank you, and how about yourself?"
Rainier and I-90: Younger guy with dreads says: "cool hair." Service worker behind him: "Yeah man, looks good." Prior to I-90 I had thought I was having a bad hair day, but what do I know.
Rainier and Charles: "Hey," she says, taking me in. She's thin, shoulder length dirty blond hair, maybe fifty, or prematurely aged from a life on the street, her once-white skin deeply and irreversibly tanned and roughened. She has a few teeth left, and tells me about how good the food is at the bowling alley. "The best American food, that is. The best Chinese food is up here [at Toshios, on Massachusetts], and the best Vietnamese food is [I forget]," she tells me.
"How's your day been," I ask.
"Oh, it's been alright. My back hurts. Your hair looks good."
[trying to get away from conversations about my hair-]
"Uh-oh. It hurts just when you're walking, or when you're sitting?"
"All the time. Only about a third of the time is it bearable."
"Oh, no. How long has it been hurting?"
"Ever since this guy hit me over a table,"
"Oh no. Oh, no. I'm sorry. Was that recently?"
"Eight years ago."
[trying to bring it back to something positive-]
"Oh, I'm sorry. That's terrible. I gotta try that place out," I tell her. "The bowling alley. I never been in that bowling alley before."
"Oh, yeah. How old are you?"
A burst of life in her cackle of laughter- "you lie!"
"Oh yeah, twelve. Thirteen maybe,"
"You lie. You're cute though."
[trying to get away from the "cute" stuff-]
"Tell me more about that bowling alley. You said American food?"
"Yeah. I'll be your date!" she says hopefully. Sometimes I just want to hug everyone. Sometimes I don't. Maybe it wouldn't be the best idea.
Rainier and Weller: "Big Guy" from Orcas comes up to the front of the bus and sits behind me, cursing his ladyfriend to himself, something about arthritis, apologies, and motherfuckers; he's trying to contain his anger, distancing himself from her for a moment. She's still sitting in the back. He's making an effort to control himself, and I let him get it out of his system. After a string of staccato phrases he calms down and goes back again.
Jackson and 14th: "Big Guy" gets off through the back door. Into the mic I say, "have a good night," and he yells in kind- "have a good day bus driver!" Contained in his tone is an implied apology for the profanity at Weller.
Jackson and 12th: Bowling Alley Food Lady is having trouble deciding where to get off. She thought about 14th, but settles for 12th, before noticing a man across the street: "I'll stay on another stop. Don't let that guy on the bus. Keep me away from him."
"Sure. What's the deal with that guy?"
"Oh, he raped me once."
My attempt to offer condolences after that sentence grates in my ears. There just isn't enough I can say. I'm back to wanting to give everyone a hug.
Jackson and 8th: She does decide to get off here. She leans a little closer, revealing her upper tooth with a smile. "What do you think of what I'm wearing?"
"You look good," I say. Her flirtatious attitude makes me uncomfortable. I don't want her to get raped, but I also don't want to go out with her. I've had bowling alley food before. I didn't pay too much attention to her outfit, but as I drive away I notice that it is indeed a pretty good one- dark women's slacks with a vest over a collared shirt. Not bad.
This was Friday morning. I'm back on the 3/4, just for that day, for the first time in months. It's difficult to contain my enthusiasm. I drift down 3rd Avenue, trying not to look to psychotically happy. One of my favorite parts of the route is making the left onto James off of Third ("making a left because we're a 4," I say into the mic), and seeing the bus zone that's there come into view. That's where the seething masses await! One of the busier zones in the system, it is never empty for more than a few seconds all day, and usually contains a veritable, unending swarm of humanity, ready and willing to somehow fit onto your already full bus. We make it happen. A multitude of "hey's" and "hows it goin's" and "welcome's" as all of us enter the vehicle, doing our best to become an American version of a sardine-packed Chinese subway. We try hard, but somehow people here just don't cram as close together as they do in the far East. An African-American man who may have been a passenger comes up the outside of the bus to the front door and faces me on the sidewalk, putting his hands together as if in prayer, and says to me, "konichiwa," with a huge smile on his face. I smile back, returning the prayerful gesture, and he strides off, waving and saying 'have a good day' to the back half of the bus through the still-open back door. I smile at the randomness of his goodwill- I'm pretty sure he didn't know anyone back there.
Long before I ever drove the 3/4, which is known for its wheelchair-bound passengers, I remember a piece of advice given me by an older operator out of Bellevue Base. "You have to condition yourself to love getting wheelchairs and walkers," he said conspiratorially. "Don't hate it. Stop thinking about how long the lift takes, or that it's annoying to strap them in. First of all, it isn't annoying. It's easy. It's not the Bataan Death March. Second of all, don't sit there and heave a huge sigh to let them know that they're an inconvenience. They already know that. All day long, people have been telling them they're an inconvenience. You need to be the one guy who doesn't do that. Who just smiles and says, 'hey, man,' like they were a normal regular person. Which, of course, they are."
Unlike Atlantic, I didn't run into too many drivers with great attitudes at Bellevue Base, but there certainly were a couple, and he was one of them. He told me a number of other things that have proved invaluable. In any event, I was reminded of his words as I pulled up to Harborview, inbound to downtown, on a 4, and noticed a familiar face leaned over a walker, waiting for the bus.
I've had this lady many times before, and she remembers me "from way back when you was a little baby bus driver," as she often reminds me. She'll tell the bus about how young I looked when I started (and how young I still look). This is okay, I suppose. Heavier gal, late 50s, dark-skinned, hair in a bandanna, always with a walker. I enjoy how happy she usually is to see me, but today, she doesn't say anything about my age. When I ask her how her morning is, she gives me the mumble.
Me: "Could be better, could be worse?"
"Yeah, my husband just died."
"What? oh, no..."
"You remember him?"
"Yeah, I do."
"It was our thirtieth anniversary," and she's struggling to hold it together. Tears welling up. We talk a bit more about that, and then she says, "somebody stole my computer. Couple a addicts,"
I say, "where was this, Third and Bell?"
"Oh, as if you had to guess!"
And she tells me how she had been jumped, how she had identified their getaway car, informed the police, who did nothing, and about how she went searching for the car herself on Third Avenue, found it, reported the license number, and so on; about how the computer, a laptop, had been a gift from her daughter, and how she'd been computer illiterate but had "picked it up like that," loving the window that it provided, to learn and explore and keep in touch with friends. It was mainly the fact that it was a gift from her daughter that brought tears to her eyes. That, in conjunction with the death of her longtime husband, was putting her in a dark pit of a mood.
I let her get it all out, and then told her how impressed I was with her for locating the car, that it was useful that she reported it, as that would show up the next time- you know there'll be a next time- those guys get pulled over and questioned by police; tellin' her, "I bet that's not the last computer you'll ever have in your lifetime."
"Oh, you know it, baby,"
"Exactly. Don't let 'em get you down."
"I'm not gonna let 'em get me down."
"You did everything you could do, and it was worth it, and here you are still in one piece-"
"Man, I'm glad I got on your bus. You make me feel better." She pauses for a moment, looking at me, and then she goes, "they still makin' fun of you about your age?"
"Oh hell yes," I say, and she laughs. She thanks me again for talking, telling me how much better she feels. I can see the fresh slit scars on her wrists, where she tried to kill herself; she had shown them to me earlier in the conversation. That's why she was coming out of the hospital. "Don't let 'em get you down," I say once again as she rides the lift down to Third and Pike. I hope I see her again.
On the 4, outbound, nobody's left on the bus, and I whisk past Hill street on MLK, and there's two local youngsters, teenagers probably, hangin' out on the sidewalk. I wave to them but I have no expression, my face frozen in some sort of totally unnecessary zen zombie driving face. One of them makes eye contact with me, and offers a warm smile. He must know me. The split second is past as I drive by, but it was there. I really wish I could've been smiling then. Shoot. His was warm and real and genuine and contained the multitudes a tiny moment can easily handle. All I had in return was a blank stare, like a water buffalo who's not hungry. Hope he knows I smiled wide the moment I went by. Hope I get another chance. That guy's quick on his feet.
I have a couple of huge posts coming up, at least one of which will go up over the weekend. Meanwhile, I have a question-
Recently I came across a commendation given to me some time ago. This was when I was doing the 10. A passenger- I believe, an older gentleman- had written in, praising my attitude. The bus was utter chaos that day, and I had handled things in a way that impressed him. I'm quite tempted to reproduce his description of the day here, but I blush at his kind and generous description of my actions, and I suppose I ought to preserve the privacy of his writing. Anyways, it was great to get his feedback, and I was thrilled. It's one of the better commendations I've ever received, and I'm thankful that the gent took the time to write it.
I was struck by one of the closing sentences in the commendation. It reads, "This is an exceptional human being. I would get to know him better if I could."
Now, my question to you is, what on earth does that mean? I'd get to know him better if I could? What societal pressures is he referring to that make him think he is unable to do just that? Do we live in a time and place where people cannot meet with others unless they have an agenda- political, romantic, or otherwise? Are we supposed to avoid contact unless there's a personal gain to be had, or an ongoing interaction to be created? Do we admire rather than interact, for fear of spoiling that which we enjoy observing, or because it's the easier path to take? I don't know myself. Maybe he was just passing through Seattle, or had a sore throat that day. I'm quite curious to hear your thoughts, whether in the comments below, or email, or the next time you and I chat. Don't be shy!
Rollin' back home on Rainier Avenue, deadheading to base. That's when the front of the bus says "Atlantic Base" or "To Terminal" or somesuch. It's a gray area as to whether we're required to pick up people during those stretches, but we can if we want to- and I, of course, want to.
At Rainier and State an odd quartet got on- a white woman between 30 and 40 and her toddler daughter, and two African-American gents who were slightly younger (20-30) than the mother and a lot taller. They all knew each other, and were in good spirits. The mother mysteriously kept apologizing for her friends, though I could find nothing amiss with their behavior. "I'm sorry," she said sheepishly, as one of them bounded on with a huge smile. I could tell they were happy to see me, and one of the gents, who had put a bicycle on the rack, seemed to revel in particular in the warmth of the good feeling on the bus.
You can tell when it's unusual for someone, for the bus driver to be such a friendly entity. The feeling of being comfortable. A look of benevolent discovery on his face, the pleasant joy of finding something unexpected- what's this, a smiling driver who looks 12! They all sat in the back and talked and laughed. Nobody else on the bus as we drift the rest of the way to downtown.
As he got off at 5th and Jackson, he turned to me and said, "I've got a Cadillac." I said, what? He pointed to his bicycle and said, "check it out," in a sort of humble tone, hesitant to be proud or gregarious with a driver. Sure enough, his bicycle had the Cadillac logo on the front and back, and as there wasn't anyone else on the bus I got out of the seat to look at it. For a moment it was just a couple of guys, standing around a bike. The toddler, oscillating between being distracted and watching us with curious eyes. I asked him if he put those on there, the logos, and he laughs- No, they really do make bicycles! You got a Cadillac, I said, and we- him, his apologetic white woman-friend, his decidedly unsober buddy, and the toddler- parted ways with many pleasantries exchanged. I drove away, wondering where they were off to next.
We're deep into the Judkins Park neighborhood, coming out the other side onto Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. It's dark out by now, and I turn the bus slowly around the corner. There's a couple standing there, at the zone. A younger dark-skinned fellow with braids, maybe mid-twenties, facing me, and his Caucasian girlfriend hugging him, her face buried in his shoulder, perhaps to stay warm. It's winter, and it's quiet- you can hear the hum of the sodium-vapor streetlamps. The echo of the larger city, in the distance. I gesture, rolling slowly, saying it with my hand- "you want this bus?" With one of his hands that's around her, he gestures back- no. I give him a wave, "okay," and he gives me the peace sign, two fingers. I smiled back to his upward nod, as the electric bus whisked away into the night, making hardly a sound. What I liked about that moment was that it was an acknowledgement between two people that was so minute, occupying such a short space of time, that it will hardly ever be shared or known by anyone else- likely not even his girlfriend, who was standing right there but facing away. And yet, it did happen, two people registering in each other's brains, for a sliver of a moment, living in space and time. Someone once said that we prove our existence by existing in the minds of others. Solidarity in the nighttime hour, underneath a streetlamp.
Sometimes when you're doing a split shift you try to keep yourself in reserve, the idea being that you can somehow dole out your energy in small dollops for the whole day. Not too long ago I was driving a week-long morning piece on the 2/13, which began at 4:31am, in addition to my regular shift on the 7, which gets done at 8:30pm. 16 hours is the maximum "spread" that your split shift can be, and you definitely feel those 16 hours, even if there is a 5 hour break in the middle. I thought I would do the "energy in reserve" thing, and go easy on the 2/13, hold back a little, and quietly make it through the mornings without running people over. It seemed like a good idea at the time, especially because the 2 has the tightest schedule ever (no break longer than 10 minutes on this shift). I put it into action by not engaging in very much conversation, having a quieter "air" about me, and thinking of it as an endurance test of sorts- endless loops on the 2. I still said hi to everyone, but in a (more) silent way.
What a dumb idea this was.
Halfway through the week it occurred to me that I must be giving off the appearance of someone who is miserable. I wasn't, but what else are you to make from watching a young, bleary-eyed fellow who doesn't say much, mechanically says hello, who talks in a flat and tired voice and stares into the middle distance at red lights?
From riding the bus often, I know that the mood of the driver affects everything. When your driver puts his head on the steering wheel and sighs heavily (as I once witnessed), it's hard for you, the passenger, to continue having a great sunny day. There's a guy five feet away from you who's obviously miserable, and it's infectious. I certainly wasn't going to that extreme, and was probably still happier-looking than most operators, but for my own standards, I was getting too close to that precipice. I was a non-singing, non-dancing lackadaisical route 2 sourpuss. What was up? Retardation, that's what. For lack of a better phrase.
Many of the commendations I get make a point of the driver being present. "This guy makes eye contact with everybody," they'll say. It makes a difference to them. He is there, he is open and present with the people. I thought to myself, in Quiet Route 2 Mode, am I in a time machine? Is this how I'll be ten years from now? No! I can't allow it!
I once told a passenger a couple years ago, on the 43, that if they ever saw me in ten years, and if I was a grump by then, that I wanted him to punch me in the face, and remind me of this conversation. I forget who the guy was, but I'm holding that passenger to his word, and I don't want to get punched!
On the next trip I decided to make an effort, actually live a little, and return to the standard Nathan self. I looked people squarely in the eye. In your frontal lobe are what are called "mirror neurons-" they respond in kind to what's presented before them. It's why a depressed person around you can make you depressed, and why you yawn when other people yawn. I projected out positive energy- not just "how are you" or "hey" but "hey" with conviction- and it started to come back in spades. Eye contact. "You're so cheerful," said a nurse, excited.
I decided to talk with the older regular who'd sat there before, about the wire, trolley buses, smooth driving, wondering why the bus was so empty, where he was headed. We laughed about flying out of bus doors (how the conversation got to that point I'm not sure; you'd have to have been there, I guess). I quieted down a screaming young lady who was embarrassed at having to go the ER. Bringing it back to a better place. That look, that double-take where they notice how happy- or is the word present- you are.
On another trip we were "late, crowded, and fun," as I like to put it, having a conversation with the front of the bus, myself and a couple older ladies riffing about local companies engaged in rackets involving business attire that's loaned out for interviews (the things you end up talking about). Wonder if that pretty girl in the back can hear us. More than that, I wonder, or rather I hope, that they all take something away from it, walking into the mid-morning air, energized in a small or big way, happiness growing larger, expanding them to their potential.
Whether or not it affects them, I know it energizes me, and I feed off that energy in a way much more useful and fulfilling than my original "energy in reserve" idea. Here, I'm making the energy as I go along, building it with myself and others, and the tight 2 schedule doesn't matter anymore- I'm taking my break while doing the route, just hangin' out with my people.
Small moments that I scribbled down before they were lost in the swirl of everyday life-
A not-exactly-sober Native American woman in her sixties, dressed in street clothes and clearly unwashed for some time, is getting off the 55 at 2nd & Columbia. "You're so freakin' nice," she mutters to me, stumbling in and around her friend as they come up to the front to exit. She had gotten on through the back door, and had only heard my voice. Now she notices my appearance for the first time and stops and looks at me. She slurs out, "damn, you're hella cute," saliva dripping onto her jacket collar. It looks like she's thinking it over for a brief nanosecond, and then she yells out, "I'M AVAILABLE! I'M AVAILABLE!"
On the 7, two first-generation African men in traditional clothing board at Dearborn. I greet them with an enthusiasm that comes from an unknown place, like I knew them in another lifetime. They smile wide, and the first shakes my hand. "It's nice to see anotha brotha!" he says in accented English. I have no clear idea what he means, but hey, I'll take it. He's happy to be here.
Kids at the Franklin High School stop swaggering onto the bus, outbound. This particular group excites me. Not all the kids are like this. Their faces impart an awareness and perception that we forget to associate with ghetto youth culture. All of them return my "hey's" and "how's it goin's." None of them have headphones in. They are present. Neutral expressions, ready to smile, open to the world around them, a world with people other than simply them. In between the oversized starch-black denims, hoop earrings, sagging insignia-laden backpacks, hands hidden in sweatshirt sleeves- don't forget to notice the depth in their eyes.
Downtown. Two young American girls, probably also high school age, dark-skinned with ponytails and sweatshirts and tight pants, are walking an older, slow-moving blind white woman to my bus. "She needs your bus," one of them says. "We walked her all the way over here from McDonalds." I'm floored when people are nice to each other. For some reason I am simply unable to get over it. These are gestures that never become tiresome. "You guys are amazing," I say, staring. One of them smiles. The other is still guiding the blind woman onto the steps. "Wow," I say. "I'd buy you guys lunch if I didn't have to, you know. Drive the 4." They laugh, some pleasantries are exchanged, and they drift away into the whirlpools and eddies of the CBD.
He would usually get on somewhere, anywhere, along the 7 route. Occasionally his girlfriend would be with him- is it his girlfriend?- Yes, I think so, from the relaxed silence the two of them shared. They made for an interesting couple; she, 40s, worn from the vagaries of life, skin aged and coarse- you glance at the rosy color in her cheeks and wonder: what memories, what ruminations drift through the halls of her nights? The play of light and shadow on a wall, unearthing some long-lost scene in another life.
The man, with lighter skin, is still clearly east Asian, like her; his round eyes quiver with the vitality of youth, but it's muted. Hard to place his age. Thirties perhaps, somewhere after that day when you first feel it- the knowledge that your time on this earth is limited. You knew it before, sure, but it was only knowledge then; the truth of it hits you now, and you know the value of your days. That subtle, sobering patina, ever-present, aware that you will one day have more past than future.
And yet- his eyes.
They may bespeak hardship, and contain the far-off echo of one who has "seen things," but in the face of all that- he is here. His eyes are alive with the notion of the breathing now- of things yet unfound, of discoveries and joys and who knows what else. This verve energizes his gaunt form, and he responds to your smile with one of his own- every time.
"Hello, my friend," he'll say, recognizing me. Before he knew me he would simply nod and say, "give me two transfer!" It is a request, a benevolent command, and a greeting all at once. I don't question him. Who knows what stories he has passed through- this day, this decade.
Yesterday in Vietnamtown I saw him again, but it was all different. He is alone on the sidewalk, hands behind his back, and a burly cop stands nearby, posturing and faceless. They're holding him there, but I don't know why. The lights on the patrol car spin ceaselessly. Our friend, gazing nowhere, achingly alone, stuck staring into the middle distance.
Bus full of people as I pull around slowly.
I'm trying to get his attention, my hand hesitantly searching for a chance to wave. And then he sees me, and it's a second before he recognizes me- the lock of eye contact- and then those eyes of his light up, as his hand comes out slowly, from behind his back, to return the wave. Feels like slow motion. His smile is tentative at first, then widens, and he keeps waving. Both of us happy just to be alive. We'll live through this, I tell him with my eyes. Whatever it is. You'll laugh about it with your friends someday. See you on the other side.
There are many answers to this question. All of them are accurate. Seattle Weekly gets a word in here, and The Seattle Times offers their take here. It moves 11,000 people a day, runs 24 hours, and if Metro had to start cutting routes, it would be the last to go. Armchair critics who think the 7 should be deleted can read Publicola's defense of this, perhaps Metro's most useful route, here. The worst days of my career have been on this route, but so too have the best days. It's a tie for my favorite route in the system (along with the 3/4). Here is my answer to the original question, which will hopefully explain why:
All of this happened two days ago, on Friday. I'm taking over the bus from another driver (a "road relief") midway through the route, inbound at 5th & Jackson. As I walk over and wait for the bus to come, I recognize Wheely-Popping Wheelchair Dude, who says "Hey, Driver!" I excitedly respond, glad to see him- he's always very alive, very present. He'll pop his wheelchair over a curb even though there's a ramp two feet away. He's the guy with the colorful backpack and backwards hat. An older man of ambiguous heritage and more than one missing tooth smiles at me, saying "Hey Bus Driver, good to see you!" An Arab woman with sparkling eyes flashes a smile as she walks past. I recognize a notorious fare evader/extremely friendly guy standing around with his friends. I greet him loudly and we shake hands; then my 7 pulls up, and Bill, the driver, is glad to see me and ready to go home.
Some drivers take their time getting situated, and that's okay. I don't. I adjust the mirrors- you've gotta set the mirrors- and then I get outta there. Everything else- seat adjustment, logging in to the radio, adjusting the steering wheel, emptying the trash bag, setting up the farebox- that can all wait. We've got places to go!
As I pull forward to get on the right-turn wire on Jackson, I glance in the rear-view mirror at the passengers. I like to look up there and see who's in the house. My attention is drawn there because there's a lanky, excited blue-gray-brown shape hovering in the middle of the bus, waving at me with a toothy, genuine smile. I light up with recognition and yell out, "CALVIN!"
The great Calvin from Michigan lopes up to the front. He was one of the good people at Real Change (Seattle's best newspaper), and always has a dapper outfit and a positive attitude. Two summers ago you could find him at the intersection of 4th & Virginia (NW corner), but he's since moved onward and upward. We start chatting about the sunshine, and he can't stop himself from mentioning his enthusiasm over all the beautiful women that emerge in the summer, and I can't stop myself from agreeing. "The sun comes out and the clothes come off," he intones, and a challenge thus presents itself. We're on a bus filled with people; this conversation needs to stay Grandmother-friendly. The 7 has pretty relaxed standards as to what's considered Grandmother-friendly, but I strive for some sense of decorum. I'm thinking about how to steer this conversation when he says, "I was in LA once, in a fashion store, I overhear these two girls talkin.' One of 'em says, 'how much did those cost?' The other one goes, only $4,000, I got a deal!' The she says, 'no way, lemme see 'em!' And she lifts up her shirt right there in the store in broad daylight!' You believe that?"
I say, "unbelievable," and glance up in the mirror at an older Vietnamese woman. I can see it's not her favorite conversation to listen to. What does one do in a situation like this? Do you antagonize Calvin by telling him to stop talking about breast implants? No. He's a nice guy, after all. You find common ground with them, is what you do. "Put me in a room with anyone for 30 minutes," Barack Obama told Charilie Rose in 2008, and I bet I can find some kind common ground that we can both agree on." I aspire for something similar. Recently in Madrona on an early-morning 2, a loud, expressive gentlemen defied the silence on the bus as he bellowed his dislike for Seattle and all of its "man-loving-man sissies who don't know how to box for money like they teach you in Acapulco." How do you find common ground with such an individual? One feels around for it, gently and confidently. You might ask what I have in common with a swarthy, bigoted fellow who drinks at 6 in the morning. Frankly, I was curious myself. As it turns out, both of us think it's great that in rural Wisconsin, you can raise your own turkeys and buy cheese at a discounted rate.
Back to Calvin on the 7, who now says, "But I'm not into that, man. I like 'em natural."
Me: "Exactly. That's the great thing about Seattle. People be talkin' about all those California girls,"
Calvin: "Oh, forget about it!"
"'Cause it ain't about the exterior-"
"Exactly. I'd rather have an ugly girlfriend,"
"'Cause then you can talk to them,"
"'Cause then you got somebody to talk to, exactly."
"All this focus on the surface-"
"Doesn't mean anything-"
Calvin, more to himself than anyone else- "You know- yeah, man! I'd rather have an ugly girlfriend!"
Calvin gets off at Prefontaine. I'm genuinely excited to see him, and wish him well. Somebody standing outside at the bus stop yells, "best bus driver ever!" Then I start chatting with the Vietnamese woman, who is Tjang- she's very excited to see me ("You are here now!"), because she remembers riding my bus back in 2009. I had recognized her instantly when she got on the bus on Jackson. In '09 her son was in high school, but now he's in college; today she's just getting off of work, and is looking forward to a chance to rest. We start talking about Vietnam, and she tells me of a white friend of hers who moved over there and fell in love with the country. I mention my recent escapades in China, and she asks, "why did you go over there?" I say, "for fun!" She erupts in a burst of laughter I didn't think could come from her small body. We shake hands as she gets off, and she looks forward to our next ride.
Even though the 7 comes every 10 minutes all day, when I go through town at 4pm, I feel like I'm the only bus that's been through there in ages. It's standing room only through Chinatown and Vietnamtown, and doesn't let up until we're deep in the Valley. It's a pleasure to look in the mirror downtown; passengers getting on the back door will sometimes glance up to see who the driver is, and as they recognize me you sense a smile of relief, as in, "oh, it's that dude. I can relax now." I notice a tall, sullen man in a heavy jean jacket with an angry expression who comes up to me around Walden Street, showing me his crumpled transfer. "This thing's expired," he says. I say, "d'you wanna do a trade? Let's do a trade," and I give him a new transfer. What strikes me is that he took the time to admit that he didn't have the right fare. He face brightens- at being acknowledged, silently amused at the novelty of trading transfers.
Colors and noise, rustling clothing, multilingual chatter- the sound of everything happening at once:
On Third Avenue I inadvertently cut off a route 5, in my attempt to get around a car who's illegally driving on 3rd. "I'm sure that 5 is thrilled that I just cut him off," I say to the guy next to me. On a whim I wait for him to pull up beside me at the next red light and I open my window and apologize to him. He's surprised that I said anything, and he understands. I like apologizing for stuff like that. That sensation of filling out the contours of all that's possible.
Southbound at Dearborn, one can often find a man dressed in black rags standing on the corner. At red lights he'll amble amongst the stopped cars, smiling and holding up his cardboard sign. Strong facial features and matted hair. He and I have a special wave: two short fistpounds to one's solar plexus, followed by a Dr. Strangelove-like stretched-arm salute. Once I opened my doors to say hi to him at a red, and he started talking as if we'd been friends for years- "I was in the hospital all night last night!" Anyways, today he's facing the other way as I drive past. I honk gently to get his attention, he turns quickly and sees me, both of us making big faces of mock surprise and shooting our arms into the air. He's out of sight now, but you know he's smiling.
At Letitia a gregarious basketball-player-looking character steps off. He always seems to know everybody. He'll get on the bus, plunk down somewhere in the middle, and a minute later be laughing with a couple passengers. People know each other out here. Once he stepped out of a Lexus sedan right in front of me and ran onto my bus. "From the Lexus to the 7," I quipped. A big grin as he said back, "from the rich house to the po' house!" I say, "hey, best of both worlds!" Today he says, "you're awesome, man. You always be in a good mood." "I try!" "I'm'a put in a good word for you. Ain't nobody gonna give you no trouble out here!"
I help a young mother with her stroller, lifting it down the steps onto the sidewalk with her. A Somalian fellow gets off carrying a CPU under his arm. "Don't drop the computer!" I say, and he laughs, strolling into the evening. A tall Caucasian man, his skin and faded tattoos tanned from years of outdoor work, recognizes me in the mirror. I say "hey man!" as he comes up to leave, and upon my asking about his day, he tells me he's about to have a son. "I got three girls but this'll be the first boy," he says with an excitement that's palpable. Two guys from Turkmenistan express their delight at what a great experience they've had with the bus here, how helpful everyone is. I bring up mid-19th century Central Asian textiles- there's an exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. They're interested, but they're more interested in making it to the Rangers game. I see a passenger who's already ridden my bus twice today- first, at 05:00 this morning, and again around 5pm, and here we are again, at 6:30! We laugh about it. "I expect to see you again!"
A close-cropped haircut and sharp sunglasses contrast with sagging blue denims and an oversized plain white tee; here is a man who straddles both worlds. His silver necklace dangles next to me as he stands at the front with his friend, about to get off; he's showing me his handful of bills. We leaf through his entire stack, and like our friend in the first post, he's only got massive denominations totally inappropriate for a quick bus ride. I say, "should we put it on the tab? Yeah, let's put it on the tab," and his smile sends a message stronger than any spoken word. He's bursting with happiness, not because he got a free ride, but because of the acknowledgement. I hear him saying to his friend as they walk away, "See, I like this guy! I like this guy!" The lines of race and class and judgment, flitting into nothingness for a short time. Possibilities. Sometimes it feels like a make-believe world, too good to be true. Meanwhile a woman laughs and says to me, "did you just say 'let's put it on the tab??" Laughter, echoing off the walls.
A man with a trash bag of aluminum cans and scrap metal runs for the bus at Charles Street; he'd gotten to the metal recycling place after they've closed for the day, and I steer his frustration away by chatting with him about the various metals they take, and which are easiest to find. "You could make some serious bills movin' them junk cars," he notes. "You see them signs sayin' we buy your junk cars for $200, $300, then you haul that thing out to West Seattle, where you get maybe five, six bills." "Pure profit." "You got that right." "You responsible for haulin' it out there with your own means?" "Yeah, all's you gotta have is a friend with a flatbed, or a hook on the end of their pickup...."
I get to the end of the route, do some exercises, and whip out my copy of Anna Karenina; there's enough time to get a few pages in. I'm standing by the farebox (I try to never sit during breaks- I do enough of that during the route) with the door open, parked right there at Saar's market on Henderson Street. A high-school age girl with an nice-looking braid is strolling by with a preschool-age girl holding her hand; Braid Girl sees me and says, "hey!" I step out onto the sidewalk. I'd seen her on the bus around there once before; I remember complementing her hair. She hesitates and then walks forward, saying, "hey. I jus' wanna say, I know this is not a safe neighborhood, and I wanna say thank you for bein' out here, and being so nice to everybody. It means a lot to people. I love you and thank you." We shake hands. She is Tanisha. I'm trying to remember the last time someone of that age was so emotionally open and truthful with a stranger, as I tell her that I grew up riding the 7, that it's one of my favorite routes, that I genuinely enjoy being out here with all the good people. Those were the words I used, but I hope the fact that I meant them got across. One of those moments where you're driving away afterwards, replaying the incident, living in it just a little longer as the moment hangs in the air. Wondering if you said it right, if you could've said less or more.
It's almost 8pm, time for my last trip into town. Anna Karenina goes back in the backpack, and the shadows become longer. If the 7 during the day is an acquired taste, the 7 at night is even more so. Around this time the gargoyles begin to stir, and the standards of what is Grandmother-friendly go flying right out the window. I chose to get trained on the route at 01:00 in the morning- "I want the worst experience possible," I told the driver. What do you do? The exact same thing you always do. Stay present, and remind yourself, all these people are your friends. Anything else introduces a contradiction of terms.
Rainier and Seward Park Avenue. She steps on with a vibrant smile and a collared shirt that says "Pacific Medical Center." I've never seen her before, and can't place her age either. She might be 35, but she might also be 20. It's the smile that registers, and deep, present brown eyes. I ask her about Pac Med, where she enjoys working, though "it's not gonna be my retirement job, let's just put it that way!" We start talking about what her ultimate field of study is, and the notion of identifying one's passion, of having a lot of energy and not knowing where to direct it. Another lady joins in, describing her love of sculpture and physical therapy. This lady is on her way to Swedish tonight, late 40s perhaps, a frail but lively presence in a breezy summer dress. She's feeling poorly but even on this, an off-day for her, you sense the vitality that's there, a face drawn with lines from years of smiling. She marvels at me, basking in the glow of warmth the three of us have built.
I've been awake since 3:36am, but I'm excited. Maybe it was Tanisha and her comments, or maybe it's Pac-Med girl's (let's call her by her name, Gabrielle) rich, perceptive presence, or maybe it's the coalescing of all the beautiful moments that have happened today, but I feel particularly happy to be here, and it rubs off on everybody.
Gabrielle is visibly blown away by my interaction with the people. "Just watching you with everybody, I am, well, awestruck...I mean, this energy that you have-" I try to hang on to her words through the breeze and zing of the electric wire. What excited her most was that the outpouring of excited goodwill was directed at every (very different) person equally, which lead her to believe that I wasn't merely responding to each person's attitude, but generating the energy from within myself. Who can say if it's true; I certainly hope that was the case. For a time she just sits back and took it all in, with an expression one reserves for watching either natural disasters that defy description, or...this.
A girl, all made up to go out, at Fisher Place, noticing that I had forgotten to change the transfers to all-nighters for this trip- "I need one a those Owls!" "That's right, I forgot! Here's let's get you one of these. It is Friday night after all!" "Yeah man, I wanna go party!" Two hairy guys with open shirts and deep voices- "Guys be safe tonight-" "thanks man, you too;" A slick gent with sunglasses giving me a fistpound as he steps on: "You mus' be the youngest bus driver I ever seen!" I throw my hands in the air and say, "I believe it!" "Tha's a good thing," he smiles back, and we yell out goodbyes as he later exits out the back doors. An older east Asian man recognizes me and offers no English but a huge smile and wave, as he always does; a Middle-Eastern fellow, happy to see me as he says, "I been on your bus before!" Chatting with Gray-skinned Wheelchair Guy at Andover, who chooses to take my bus even though it's lightly less convenient for him; helping an older Muslim woman with her bags of groceries down the steps. "This looks pretty good," I say, handing her a gallon of milk.
At Bayview Street a girl waiting for another bus returns a wave; she smiles wide, exposing braces. I tell the amazed Gabrielle that it's partly thanks to her that any of this is happening. "It goes both ways, this positive energy. People building off of each other. It's because everyone is so receptive out here-" slowing down for that left turn onto Jackson- "that I'm able to have a good time. You put yourself all the way out there, and out here, you get a lot back." I'm reminded of another driver who told me once, "when you get into a neighborhood that's not affluent, and you smile at people, they love it- once they get over the shock of it. Because nobody does that."
Sometimes, that's what a day on the 7 is like.
These are from two different days, both on the great 3/4~
So I'm making the left turn off of southbound Third onto James. It's the 3/4, in the morning, and the seething masses are ever forming- no matter how many buses go through there (the 3/4 comes every 7 minutes, the most frequent daytime headway in the system), there's always enough people to make a full bus going up the hill. Especially at 0800 in the morning. Anyways, I'm turning, and there's a scraggly-looking gentlemen in the crosswalk that I should probably yield for. There's always someone crossing there. Once I was turning there, creeping (safely) towards a businessman crossing. "He has insurance," I said aloud, pretending not to slow down. The front of the bus erupted in laughter. Anyways, back to the scraggly-looking gentleman. I probably should yield for him and let him cross, but the timing isn't right, and I turn in front of him; this ends up blocking his path in the crosswalk, and he has to wait for me to finish turning before getting out of the street. He's angry, and I can hear him yelling. "Extremely bad vibrations," to quote Mr. Thompson, wafting through the air, and I'm silently thankful that he's not on the bus. But...no, here he comes, storming up onto the bus, and with fire in his blue eyes he yells, "did you not seem me crossing? Did you not see me?!" I look up at him, take a deep breath, and I say slowly, "You know, I apologize. I shoulda waited." In an instant the day restarted, all the steam was out of his sails, and he said in a normal tone, "that's all I wanted to hear. Thank you." Sometimes all somebody needs is the acknowledgement. He and I had an amiable conversation the rest of the way up the hill.
Just another "regular day" on the 4. My favorite kind. You can never be sure if you're gonna make it to the top of the James St. hill. You might lose the hill brake, the bus might lose power, we might roll back...it's the second steepest grade in the trolley network, with a slope of 18.4 degrees. The trolley bus can handle it, but there's something slightly nonsensical about taking a bus packed to the gills up and down that thing, and it's one of the many things I love about the 3/4. Basically, that it's ridiculous. Plus you get that nice moment of relief when you actually make it to the top and turn off the hill onto 9th avenue. The great edifice of Harborview is there waiting to greet you, and the street guys on the right corner hang around like permanent institutions, reminding you of all the wonderful constancies in the world. I can almost sense a collective relief on the part of the passengers sometimes as well, since that's where most people get off. One day I hopped out there myself to empty the trash bag, and one of the street perennials recognized me. Taller middle-aged fellow of medium build, dark skin and baggy beige sweats. He came over to say hey, and we exchanged fistpounds and wished each other well. It was a tiny moment, nestled in between thousands of others, but you can get high off of an exchange like that- two people interacting with each other for no other reason to spread some goodwill around. No agenda. Two guys on a sidewalk, just a smile and a fistbump. Works for me.