I'm looking out at a small sea of blonde, Anglo-American faces. They flutter around, cherubic, on the green lawns of Rogers Park. It's quiet out here, at the end of the 3 route, nestled in the comfortable affluence of upper Queen Anne.
Various parents and adult volunteers supervise the excited melee- the children look to be in the 6-8 range, and the game is a variation of no-contact football. This is Queen Anne; the proceedings are organized and considered. The children have uniforms, cheerful and immaculate, representing opposing teams. Streaks of blue and red, cavorting about on the aerated green expanse. I see the jubilant twinkles in their blue eyes, sunlight reflecting off their pale skin; everyone is white. The caretakers blow on their whistles, imposing order from underneath spotless baseball caps, sculpted bodies, and elegant jewelry.
But off in the corner, over by the margins of it all, there is something else. A young East African boy is playing alone, tossing a short stick in the air above him. He has no tailored uniform or blue tassle. None of the others go near him. He is alone, with his gray sweatshirt, no logo, and nondescript brown pants. Off to the side stands his father, watching.
The stick rises, each time farther above the boy's hands, spiraling in the air before dropping back into his grasp. His father stands with arms crossed, surveying the scene, certainly aware of the status dichotomy on display. I see the smile on the boy's face, and it is different from all the other smiles here today; his is a carefree purity that radiates, shining past any exclusion or judgment he might feel.
There is no hesitancy or worry about conforming to perceptions and rules, or frustration with peers, or confusion with...no, in him there is merely the undiluted joys of a simpler state, effervescent light made whole by his eyes and form, a joy unaware of itself. White teeth and eyes sparkling, picking up the stick from the grass for another throw.
I'm too distracted by what I perceive as a pathetic division of class status; the boy's father, if he isn't thinking the same, is probably regarding his son's safety; the others are preoccupied with following and making the rules of their game. Only the boy knows the elation he is feeling.
He is without artifice, unaffected, his actions unconsidered except by the irrepressible verve coursing out of him. He is unaware that he's being avoided or marginalized or looked at or ignored, and I am moved. He is alone, and he is happy. The stick rises and rises, higher, higher and higher, into the waning heavens.
Driver Gregg and I are sitting outside our buses at Third and Main, on the overpass, sitting on the railing there, talking. We like to talk. Except we're at Third and Main, which means we're liable to be interrupted at any time.
Two fellows are approaching. They're arguing. One feels he knows all about the midwest, but the other one, well, he feels differently. "I'ma Indiana boy," the second man says confidently. "Grew up out there."
"Fuck that," says the first man, a disheveled character with curly hair and a windbreaker on at the height of summer. His knuckles have blood on them. He pauses when he sees Gregg and I, slowing down. Indiana Man walks past us and carries on alone.
I make eye contact. "How're you doin?"
"I'm OKAY," he says forcefully. He seems mentally unsteady, and primed for a bar fight.
"Yeah, you're doin' okay?"
"Yeah, well, it's what happens when things rush up to ya." He holds up his fists for me to observe. The wounds have clotted, and some are scabbing over.
He looks at me for a moment, taking me in. "You look like you don't do SHIT," he says finally.
"You know, sometimes I just DON'T. Sometimes I just get up late-"
"I just got back from Alaska."
"Oh, man. How long were you up there?"
"Three months, like three months."
"Right on, man. That's work."
"Were you up there for work? Were you on a boat?"
"Fuck," he says, as naturally as breathing. "Yeah," he says, trailing off, balling his fist.
He's a little too unstable for this moment. I'm not sure how long this conversation can stay civil. I decide to wrap it up.
"Okay. You have a good night now."
"You be safe now."
"Yeah, you too. And don't... SUCK ON TOO MANY WIENERS," he yells suddenly, almost losing balance.
"I'll try not to," I respond in a reasonable tone. Hey, I've gotten worse advice in my life!
"See? He's gonna try not to," he yells at an unsuspecting woman, following her down the street and continuing his haranguing. "It's the best we can do is TRY..."
The layover at Third and Main is not really a break. It's a break from driving, sure, and there is a restroom, which is great, but you're still very much at work. You've got to stay "on," as it were, what with the characters sauntering by. I'll leave my doors open and usually be standing somewhere just outside my bus, reading, stretching, eating. There've been a couple wonderful interactions with people I've had in the past because I've left my doors open at terminals, and because of those few incidents I tend to leave them open most of the time now. It's in line with Metro's notion that buses are "always in service," even if they're on deadheads or Y-routes.
In any event, there's always people hanging out at Third and Main. I can understand the appeal. You have the railings which are convenient to sit on; there's the terrific views facing both north and south; the sight and sound of the trains passing by below; and, though unused by me, multiple nooks and crannies for urinitating and defecating. Someone's always hanging around. Once at 6:00 in the morning a man walked by. "UUGGHAAOOWWWUU-UU," he said to no one in particular, roaring into the foggy quiet. The fact that Foster/White and a number of other genteel galleries are just around the corner amuses me; what business do they have in this neck of the woods? Ah, but they are equally part of the neighborhood. Such conflations and collisions of worlds are among the many joys of Seattle.
Today we have Walking Man (he goes for long pre-dawn walks) loitering on the south side of Main; on the north side are Those Three Guys, a contingent of three (or four) folks who've comandeered their own section of railing to sit on; they like being by the back of Foster/White, and always say hello when I jog past them. (Part of my routine includes running up to the bathroom a block away and running back).
Further up is Kneeling Man, living up to his name by kneeling on the ground and staring into space with a sad face; sometimes he takes a break and lets his body rest, slumping on the concrete and taking sips from his paper bag. I've spoken with him only when he's on my bus. He's a mellow presence, and typically unresponsive. Maybe there's a lot on his mind.
There's also I'm Hurting. I'm Hurting is around forty, and he logs serious time at both Third and Main and Third and James. Judging by his cleaner skin and his clothes, which are not quite rags, he has a better living situation than Kneeling Man or some others. Nevertheless, that doesn't stop him from Hurting. I think he's a champion actor- and that's a polite term for it. Every time I see him, he's got a story.
"Hey man, listen," he'll say, tilting his head at an angle to evoke sympathy. "I'm hurting. I need two transfers. I been out all..."
"You gotta say please, dog!"
"Please, man. Iss for me and mah wife, we been runnin around-"
I don't recall the rest of the story.
They say faking a limp is notoriously difficult because most people tend to over-fake it. They'll put too much into the movements, exaggerating everything, as compared to someone with an actual limp. I'm Hurting is similar in his outlandish appeals for sympathy. I can see that he isn't telling the truth. Yesterday it was his wife, today it's his girlfriend...but not every actor can be perfect right out of the gate. It can be a long walk to stardom. I'm Hurting is still working on his craft. The following day he's there again, not terribly respectful this time as he solicits me once more.
"As long as you go for a ride," I say.
"Sure okay, I'll go for a ride," he responds, though after he takes the transfer, he doesn't go for a ride, somehow managing to be oblivious of my request.
Several days later he's hanging around again. I'm coming back from my bathroom jog.
"You runnin' late?"
I slow down, and we walk together for a short time.
"Naw, it's just gets my blood flowin,'" I explain. "You know, keeps the energy up."
"I can dig that. Get them endorphins up."
"Exactly, gettin' the endorphins goin,' keepin me alive..."
"Cool cool. Listen Boss, I'm Hurting."
I've decided it's time to say something.
"Alright my friend, check this out. Every time you see me you be hittin' me up for transfers. I can't be doin' that every day (This behavior is getting a touch egregious). Today I'm a hook you up (But I'm not overly miffed). But. I need you to be hittin' me up only when you REALLY need that (However. Recognize this is a privilege). You understand what I'm sayin'" (I'm not angry at you; we're on the same side).
"I gotchu, I gotchu." He's paying attention.
"'Cause I appreciate you bein' respectful, man (If you show respect, I'm grateful for it). That's what it's all about (This is important to me). As long as we got this respect goin' bof' ways, we could make it work" (It's not about the money. It's about the gesture, humans acknowledging other humans).
"I can dig it" (I can dig it).
"I appreciate you, man. You have a good evening, be safe tonight" (Thanks for letting me get that off my chest).
"Yeah man, always. You too now" (Thanks for treating me like a human being).
An older man in the Central District, telling me how he looked after his dear friend until she passed on. We'd just been talking about the Federal Way shootings, and the conversation had drifted on to taking care of ourselves.
Everyone else had gone, and he'd come up to me at the end of the line, conspiratorially showing me a picture of his late friend in his wallet.
"Her name whuh Shirley Cooper. I took care a her 'til the day she died." A crack in his voice, tentative and unbidden, carrying the weight of the years.
Sometimes we're moved by the size, intensity, or drama of things; honesty floors me more than anything else.
Something Getting Through
A big, serious brotha- perhaps the love child of Xzibit and Ice Cube- wearing an offensive printed tee, chain necklace, and hat with a big, fat, silver dollar sign- steps out of the back door. Voluntarily, at no prompting from me, he says, "Thank you, sir!" in a kind and meaningful voice. It's at complete odds to the image he's projecting. I think to myself, what???
"This guy's the best driver ever," another man yells as Appreciation steps on in front of him. This fellow's older, black American, tall, built, with a look carefully tailored to say "don't mess with me." The top ridges of his sunglasses tilt inward, giving him the impression of a permanent frown. In the past he would show up with his girlfriend, and they would always have nothing but the kindest words for me.
"You're the best driver in the whole bus system," he and his girlfriend/wife once announced as they walked to the back.
"I'm not that good!" I said in response.
"Don't feed me that, dude. We speak from experience, you the best one there is."
The three of us used to chat amiably as we wound through the Judkins neighborhood. Lately, however, there's been a shift. The woman is nowhere to be seen, and he's been unresponsive and prone to moods, curling up in the seat, walking into things, avoiding eye contact, shoving earplugs into his ears. Once he stood up at the front, talking in serious tones about complete nonsense; I nodded solemnly in complete agreement. "Oh, yeah," I said in earnest. "Uh huh. You got that right," I affirmed, having absolutely no clue what he was saying.
The screws were on tight before, but they're slipping out of control as the weeks go by. Today he slaps a ladyfriend's behind, and goes to the back before getting out. He angrily confronts the passengers in the back, threatening them all in a voice all the more unnerving for how quiet it is. They look at him with frightened eyes. I still give him the benefit of the doubt, as I do everyone, and say, "have a good one!"
He yells "thank you," back in my direction. Something's still in there. The circumstance feels a little odd, being on the good side of the guy who just threatened to strong-arm everyone else. The remainder of the bus was ever so polite to me for the rest of the trip. Decorum was at an all-time high. I hoped whatever the man's going through would improve in the coming months.
He's since returned to his former self, though it can be a bit of touch and go- still a bit heavy on government conspiracies and butt-slapping his acquaintances every now and again. Possibly it's a medication issue. His mind takes turns between being here and somewhere else, and the days don't discriminate. I smile when the kindness I know he has takes a chance on surfacing.
Going back to base, I pull in behind a 1 at 12th and Jackson. Through the back window of the 1 in front of me, I can see a figure seated in the back lounge area. A group of guys back there, a kaleidoscopic collection of flat-billed hats, oversized puffy jackets, massive sports jerseys, shiny bald heads and cornrows- and here's one of them now, straightening up, a sinewy dark figure in enormous clothing suddenly wired with animation as he recognizes me. Are those frowning sunglasses? Can't tell, with this glare. Doesn't matter. There's an avalanche of goodwill in his excited form. The man's hand shoots in the air, waving, and through the glass I can make out a set of delighted white teeth. He waves. I wave. That's all- he then returns to his buddies- a tiny moment, really- but there was such torrential enthusiasm in both of us. Energy, made real. I think I smiled the rest of the way back to base.
"Sometimes you coul' make the hardest dudes say 'hey,'" a man once rumbled to me.
"Yeah man. Something's gettin' through there. It's beautiful."
"Yeah it is."
"I brought this sun from Santa Barbara! Smile, motherfuckers, it's not the end of the fuckin' world!"
He's yelling it over and over, with subtle variations. The sun is indeed beaming down on his tan and weathered skin, the light catching on his dirty blond mullet and coarse, grime-filled clothing. He shuffles across Jackson Street, and chats up the resident Real Change seller there.
"Listen," he says, pointing at the sun slowly. "I brought that thing clear up from Santa Barbara."
"Is that right?"
"Is. Check that thing out. These motherfuckers really need to smile," he says in a bemused tone, looking around. Stone-faced commuters rush past, perhaps thinking him unstable- but who's really crazy in this picture? After a moment he moves on, continuing to proclaim the good word. "I hauled this thing all the way up from Santa Barbara. You assholes really, really need to smile!"
To be offended by his language would be to miss the idea. Mullet or no mullet, the man's got a point. I take his advice.
I'm at the 3 terminal in Queen Anne, walking around Rogers Park. Six PM, and the sun is still streaming across the open lawn. Far away from the madness now, literally walking on greener pastures and chomping on my pesto sandwich. I stroll about in aimless circles, food in one hand and book in the other. I'm doing that odd dance with my hands, trying to turn the pages with one hand while I eat and walk. You know the feeling.
Over there, in the middle distance, is a small picnic; voices mingle with the warm breeze. Sounds always seem to carry further on the hot nights. Wafting gently toward me are their voices, and I hear snatches of their conversation, filtered by the summer air:
"That guy over there's the best bus driver."
"There. Walking by himself."
"That's a bus driver?"
"Yeah. No, he's the best driver ever. He's amazing. He says hi to every person that gets on the bus. And I mean every single person, doesn't matter..."
"Huh. He looks like a kid!"
I smile to myself. How can I not? Briefly I consider walking over to them, to thank them, to ask after their day- but no, no need to wallow further in congratulations. It's not about that. I'll let them have their picnic. Somehow it's better this way. I've heard what I needed to hear. Everything in its right place.
Just some whispers on a summer breeze.
Absurd Carnival / Kansas City!
I'm inbound from Queen Anne, at 6pm, on my way to Center Park. Route 4. This trip is traditionally a bit lighter; rush hour will be over by the time I go through downtown. We'll fill up the bus, but there's always a few seats left over, and nobody will have to stand. The leg of the route between Queen Anne and downtown is usually particularly empty.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I pull up in to a zone in Seattle Center and see fif- is that- yes, fifty! Fifty people at the Space Needle stop waiting to get on! They're all dressed in business casual, and most have name tags. Naturally they're all part of the same group, and they make their way in hesitantly. What is this strange Metro bus? Each has an Orca card, and none has ever used such a thing before; I take advantage of the opportunity to welcome them in and make them comfortable.
Best of all, they are very loud, creating a din of pleasant chatter that makes the place feel like a mix between business convention and school bus field trip. And they're not just going to downtown, no- they're headed all the way to 12th and Jefferson. They're here for the long haul, going all the way across town! Additionally, by "pleasant chatter" I mean a veritable roaring cacophony through which I can barely hear myself blaring the announcements. Personally, I think this is all pretty fantastic. How will all the regular passengers fit? Only time has the answer.
It is a festive and excited group, and one rather out of their element. They watch me with warm fascination as I interact with the regular folk getting on. After a while I ask after their day, and what brings them out here. They're a Kansas City leadership group. That's not too surprising, but what is surprising is the fact that they've chosen to incoporate the public bus- and not just any bus, but the 3/4, no less- into their itenerary, and I tell them so.
A younger woman informs me that some of the fellows on the team are transit enthusiasts, and couldn't help but plan this quite specifically. As we trundle down Third, picking up our regular motley crew of folk on their way to Harborview and points beyond, the crowd onboard in no way diminishes their roaring din of happy business-oriented conversation. It's the evening commute as wedding reception.
Mild confusion and light bemusement shows on the faces of the street folk entering, confronted as they are with the scene inside. You can see them thinking, "this is the 4 to the Central District, at 7pm. Why are there fifty white people riding this bus?" I'm thrilled to welcome everyone, and be at my best in my interactions. "We're on a number 4 today, goin' out to the Center Park project housing," I announce in a jovial voice. It feels like the party bus- even more so than the 4 already normally does. I'm practically yelling into the mic- the decibel level is still so loud I can hardly hear myself... Ah, heaven.
I overhear other passengers, regulars, telling the KC group about me. "This driver is always like this," somebody says by way of practically apologetic explanation. "So many crazy people ride this bus, but he's always like this... to everybody!"
"It's the happy bus," I tell them, butting in. "This route is insane. It's madness, pretty much all the time- but that's what makes it so completely awesome! I'm so glad you guys get to be part of all this!"
A woman in a tailored dark blazer looks at me. After a moment she realizes I'm being serious.
"What amazes me is how many people you know," she says.
"I just really love all this stuff," I say as a self-styled 'hard-ackin brutha' steps on, utterly confused by the mob in front of him. "The fuuuuu...?" he muses to himself, in a pleasant tone.
I tell the young woman and the man beside her about the uniqueness and novelty of the trolley vehicles. They're interested. At Third and James we make our left turn, and our bus can hardly hold any more people, but- it's Third and James. Is there a mob waiting? Of course there is. The motley crew is waiting, and we're late because of how busy we've been, and the mob's been growing in size, an expanding and compounding sea of faces and walkers and smiles and oxygen tanks and garbage bags...
I'm starting to feel giddy.
Ordinarily I would tell people about how there's a 3 just down the street behind us. But today I'm too excited to let these fine folks pass up an opportunity to ride on this absurd carnival taking place inside my coach- happy out-of-town executives, secretaries, and managers- right alongside nurses, wannabes, clerks, students, freeloaders, the have-nots and will-nots, the working folk, all crowding in here...and jovial banter amongst all.
"Let's try to please move back and make room for all these really nice people getting on," I announce, as my familiar ragtag crew looks on in bewilderment. Eighty-odd people on a bus with only forty-two seats, and most of them in suits, holding manila folders and apparently thrilled to be here... "Don't wanna leave my buddies behind here, let's see if we can make it happen..."
"You're optimistic," says a woman in the street.
We do indeed make it happen. Somehow we also fit a few more people- though not all- on at Fifth Avenue. "See if we can make room for our friends getting on here.." There's no real sense of urgency, since there's another bus a block behind us; mainly I'm just addicted to the atmosphere, and love the tectonic collision of worlds taking place. Whoever that driver is behind me, well, he's having a really easy trip. It's working out for the best for both of us.
"Say hi to your neighbor, make some new friends," I suggest into the mic.
Eventually we arrive at their destination, Twelfth Avenue. "Here's the stop you've all been waiting for-" cheers and whoops- "yes, the Great Twelfth Avenue, by the Juvenile Court, King County Recovery Center..." and so on. All kinds of good stuff over here! They're going to a restaurant several blocks north.
They prepare to get out while we're still at the red light, momentarily confused- "we'll let you out at the bus stop right across the street here. Just gonna enjoy this red light a little longer, folks, build up the suspense a little... There we go. Thanks for hangin' out with me, and have a great time tonight..." They do a fantastic job of representing Kansas City, that's for sure. They're all smiles and thank-yous as they pile out excitedly onto the street.
Who says adults can't be as happy as children?
One man, coming up from the back like so many others to personally thank me, tells me of what two guys in the back told him- "that you're like this every day, and that just by bein' friendly and sayin' something you make their whole day better, and they feel great whenever they get on your bus."
I never know what to say to things like that. Such things humble me, and remind me how wonderfully small I am. I could say precisely the same thing about what I get out of driving the bus and being with the people. The change we can offer to other lives is incremental, and tiny, but it is change, and it is elemental.
Victor Hugo said it 150 years ago: there are no small moments. These passing experiences, ephemeral and in-between, are the firmament of life. They are the memories that will come to us, years from now. After the crowd had all left, I began to wish they were still here, and that this ride could drift on endlessly, but of course it couldn't; it is already all fading inexorably into the past.
A few quick notes-
If you haven't already, know that you still have a chance to check out my show before it closes on Saturday! I'll be taking down the show at 5pm Saturday (you might catch me there earlier in the day as well), but feel free to stop in between now and then anytime!
Michael Upchurch of the Seattle Times reviews the show here. Gallery hours (basically, 1-5) and directions here. Information about the show here, including video of the opening monologue.
Also, a long-overdue new batch of photographs await in the Photography section of the site.
Check back for a sizable new story I'm particularly excited about in a day or so!
The afternoon sun was burning off, fading slowly as the shadows took over. The energy of the day may be waning, but on the 4 things are as lively as ever. We've got a good crowd tonight, headed home to the Central District after a hot day. There's a festive quality, fed perhaps by myself, but also by the gregarious nature of some of the passengers, which encourages people to open up. Sounds like a birthday party in here.
At 20th a lanky teenager comes forward; this was during the days of 'pay as you leave.' He'd been taking part in the joy, joking and relaxing as if all these strangers were friends. We have to remember that many teens, especially those who don't work with the public, haven't really had the chance to talk with people they don't know. It's a new experience, and a significant one. You can't be quite so self-absorbed. I get exhilarated watching him talk, holding his own with the others, of different generations and races; sometimes, if the light is right, you feel like you can almost see it- one of those tiny moments where people come of age.
Afterwards, he comes up, about to get off the bus. "Hey man, I don't got no money left," he says to me, throwing his hands in the air. People are listening.
"That is all right," I respond. "I appreciate you tellin' me!"
"Thanks, man," he says sincerely.
Spontaneously, he adds, "Sometimes I lie... But not this time!"
The bus dies laughing. I say something like, "Thank you! I'm honored!" and we continue giggling over it as we drive on. His statement is endearing, in addition to being totally ridiculous; but what it also is is honest. Inwardly I smile, that we were able to build an environment where he felt comfortable enough to be his cheeky growing self.