I'm talking with somebody about how Rainier and Kenyon, where he lives, is like Watts. We're both from South Central LA. We're talking about South Gate, talking about how if you really think about it–
"Well, I don't believe it!!! To what do I owe this GREAT HONOR!"
It's Carlos, stepping on and into the conversation like a jolt of energy never before seen at 0700 hours.
"As I live and breathe! Carlos!" I reach out for a firm handshake. "Where you been all my life?"
"Nathan, shit, man! What's goin' on? You on this one now?" Referring to the route we're doing this morning, the 13.
"Naw, special guest appearance, one day only."
"Well, iss a honor for this route to have you, only the best."
I can see he means it. "Aw man, thank you!"
"Don't you work nights?" For some reason everybody remembers me from the 7. "Doin' what, 7's and 49's?"
"Exactly, that's my baby. Love that stuff. I'll be back soon enough! Now tell me 'bout you, where you been?"
"Well, actually, I got this injury."
"I'm sorry! on the job or off the job?"
"Good. I would hope it's on the job, I mean if you're gonna get injured. So they pay."
"Yeah. I slipped on this chain in the warehouse…" He explains the details. "I go in for an MRI on Monday."
"I hope it goes well. Shoot, Carlos. I'm sorry this happened, it's a bummer this happened."
"Yeah. But it's off-shore maritime, so I've had the last three months off,"
"Yeah, still gettin' paid,"
"Oh great. There you go," I say.
"I still gotta show up every day though, you know how they do it, the rules and everything. Sit around for seven hours."
"Oh man. Bring a good book!"
"Or, bring some sleeping pills and sleep the whole time!"
"I did that yesterday."
I offer to help a middle-aged woman with her suitcase down the stairs. "Oh, wow," she says.
"Yeah, it gets me outta the seat, gets the old blood flowing,"
"Your butt must be numb! What's your normal route?"
"Oh! Oh." Her grin turns into a look of respect. "You got your work cut out for you!"
"Listen," Carlos is saying after she's left. "I wanted to tell you about this. So I'm on the 131 goin' home late at night, real late, midnight somethin'. I have two ones and a twenty, so I put in the two one-dollar bills."
"Okay yeah uh huh,"
"Yeah. I put in two ones, but I don't have–"
"The remaining fifty cents."
"Yeah– actually, I had $2.25. So it's just,"
"Just the twenty-five cents left,"
"Yeah. But the driver won't give me a transfer!"
"Oooh my gaash!"
"And it's midnight!"
"You gotta get home!"
"Yeah! I've gotta get this transfer. So the whole bus chips in, they all put in together like twenty-five pennies,"
"Oh cool. That's impressive. Sometimes it takes a village!"
"We gotta look out for each other!"
"And still he doesn't wanna give me a transfer!"
"He says, it don't matter that everyone else–"
"That's ridiculous! Okay. That's ridiculous. And you know what, okay. People talk about you gotta pay the full fare because in McDonalds if you only pay partial they're not gonna give you a whole hamburger, but that analogy doesn't make sense here because at McDonalds they have the ability to return the money you've already given them! Here, that's not possible. He has to give you a ride. He has an obligation to give you a transfer, 'cause you've already put money down. Plus, it's the middle of the night!
The 131 is hourly by that time."
"It's the middle of the night!"
"You gotta get home! We gotta look out for each other!"
"Maybe he hates his life." He says it in a sympathetic tone. "Or hates people."
"This is a people person job!"
"Exactly. You know, you hear about these drivers gettin' skateboards thrown at 'em, and I hope you don't mind me sayin' this,"
"I think I know what you're about to say, and I agree."
"Half of 'em bring it on themselves! Course I'm not saying every situation,"
"Oh of course,"
"But honestly, when you're,"
"What are they exactly, how are they expecting people to react?"
I add, "'cause I gotta think about if I'm treating this person a certain way, I may see him again in an hour! Or maybe, he may have five brothers!"
"Haha, yeah! You're thinkin' ahead."
"Whatever energy I put out, I'm gonna get back in my face multiplied by ten."
"Totally. Totally. That's how it works. Man, lemme know what. Of all these bus drivers. You're my favorite, Nathan."
"Man, Carlos, thank you. There's some good guys out there. Good drivers."
"Yeah, there's some good guys out there."
I don't think my way is the best way. There are many good ways to do this gig. But those "good guys out there," as we put it (and gals!), they can make one world of a difference.
First of all, thanks to those who bought pretty much everything I put up at my last show at 57 Biscayne. Many of you have been asking when the next show is, and I'm happy to say it's in conjunction with the biggest art fair ever is happening in Seattle for the first time. You may have heard about it! Time to go to Pioneer Square. Many related events are taking place, and friends of mine will have art in various locations (check out fellow alumni Serrah Russell, among others, over at King Street Station); I'll be showing photographic and drawing work in the great Teresa Getty's studio space, alongside her own excellent work which you should also come see!
I'll be there all weekend (7/30-8/2): Thursday 2-5, and Friday-Saturday-Sunday 12-6. Yes, it's free to stop in! Yes, the art is for sale! Stop by and let's talk each other's ears off!
Thursday the 30th is the day when hardly anybody will be there, if you want to have long deep discussions about life. Which you know I love. The following days are when the Art Fair proper will be happening all through the neighborhood, if you're looking for more excitement! Which you know I also love! In addition, this work will also be showing on First Thursday in (Aug 6) and September (Sept 3), the evenings of which I will be present for as well.
The studio is called Project 106 (106 3rd Ave S), which contains Method Gallery, on the 3rd Ave side of the Tashiro Kaplan building.
I'm telling them about 12th Avenue, by way of the microphone. "Okay here's 12th Avenue, 12th, good for Youth Services, Labor Union Hall, King County Recovery. First stop for Seattle University." Part of me wants to announce the Arco gas station and the new Korean place, but I hold my tongue.
A Central District resident sitting up front leans forward. "Does the, does the, does the,"
"Does the thing not work, what is it called, the system? Does the system not work? What's it called?"
"The system, yeah." This older gentleman and I are inbound on the 4, coming from the Center Park. He's talking about the automated voice announcer, which actually does have a name designation ("Kate;" as opposed to "Fred," the voice type used on Radiohead's Fitter Happier). "Oh well, it does, but I mean, I like to,"
"–like to do it myself."
"Yeah, everybody now sends emails, or texts, but I like to still go to the store and get a card, send it out in the mail."
"Yeah, the personal touch."
"I feel like it's important, you know? Th' personal service, the personal touch."
"It means so much more. I send out a letter, and people really,"
"Oh, it makes a difference. It's such a bigger gesture."
"It's huge. Man, I'm so glad you think that way. I wish everyone was like you!"
He laughs. "Well, yeah, I just, for me, like, I got this issue with the IRS right now. That's fine. But they give me the option of I could
call this number and talk to this person, or I could call this number, or this other one... I prefer just to go into the office and talk to somebody one on one."
"Less hassle!" I think about adding, "if you've got the time." Curious, how busyness in life seems to account for or exacerbate nearly all life problems. As with the bus, which day after day I realize is such an apt metaphor for life at large, I get so much less out of the experience if I'm hurrying. Out loud I say, "it's easier, and it's also,"
"Like my bills. I know I could pay my bills on the phone, or with the card, but I go down there in person. Because it gets me out the house, I go and there's people there... that's life."
"That's life happening, exactly! Livin' life, talkin' to people. Never know who it might be. I still bust out a handwritten letter every–"
"Aw yeah, me too!" Fistpound. Definitely the only fistbump I've had pertaining to handwritten letters! He says, "Check it out. I write my dad a letter every year for his birthday? He LOVES it."
"I bet he does! I know I would!"
The doors are already closing, but we can still just barely hear each other saying, "good talkin' to you!"
"Good talkin' to you too!"
This fellow was older, but I've noticed it isn't only the older generations who thrive on the tactile. It's ingrained in some of us, no matter our age or background, a certain hunger pushing us toward the pulsing immediacy of reality. Who after all wants a life half-lived, all secondary stimuli, with no wildcards thrown in for good measure? This whole thing is a curveball, life. We may as well grab it by the horns.
My friend Celia once pointed out that I get a lot more excited when the 7 part of the 7/49 route combination begins. I'd never noticed, but it's true. There's nothing wrong with the 49 crowd. They're a bunch of fine regular and irregular folks, from varied backgrounds. Broadway's a lot of fun, especially at night.
But none of that has anything on Rainier Avenue. How cute, that 49, with its spectrum we thought was diverse. The 7 explodes all that to smithereens. The left turn onto Third Avenue marks an entry point into another universe. It's several orders of magnitude more, more people, more textured grit, higher highs and lower lows, more everything.
These are my people, I intuitively think, as we pull up to a crowd of outcasts, ne'er-do-wells, workers with dirty hands and haggard brows, the great multifarious sea of life which makes up the wide base of the pyramid upon which our city sits. The air is thick and pregnant with a hum that could swing hard toward any extreme, and it's on me to offer everything I can to guide that hot energy into something wonderful. Nowhere else, among no other group of people, is positive energy more thankfully received. This is where I belong.
But I'm not driving the 7 today. I'm driving the 2. We're going through Madrona, not exactly sleepwalking here but okay, passing the time in an environment where not nearly as much is required of me. It's afternoon, and the methadone crowd is gone, without which the 2 can become rather mellow. But at 23rd, dipping into the Central District, I pop up with enthusiasm as an exhausted construction crew steps aboard. I don't know them, but I feel comfortable. My friends have arrived!
"So you graduated from the 7, huh?" one of them asks, recognizing me.
"No way, man! This is just for today, special guest appearance on the number 2. Workin' some different hours this shakeup. Variety's good, right? How are you?"
"Did you work mostly outside or mostly inside today?"
"I was outside. Flagger today."
Not the first sign-spinner I've talked with. I'm curious to hear how this gent will respond to a question I've asked before:
"Hey, I have a question. Do you get a lot of people waving thank you? I always try to wave,"
"Um, yeah. I get more waves than flippin- offs."
"Phhh, I would hope so!"
Who flips off the flagger, I think, as he says, "I just had a Porsche almost run me over. It's always the Porsches and Audis and…."
"It's the same from my perspective too. When cars are doin', uh, crazy things, it's always beamers* and Lexuses."
"Yeah, cause they think they're entitled to it."
"It's never the Honda Civics. You're not gonna get a Geo Prizm running anybody over,"
"You know, in my experience, the consistently worst driving in Seattle is in upper Queen Anne, best real estate in town–"
"Oh yeah. There was this lady on Mercer Island, on her phone, goin' past at forty miles an hour, not seeing one of our dump trucks…." He explained how he jumped in between the vehicles, banging his sign on the truck repeatedly to get attention and through a complex set of circumstances effectively saved the woman's life.
I looked at him. I could see he would do that no matter who was driving, Geo Prizm, BMW or otherwise. "That's good of you, you know, to do that for her. I mean, you saved a life."
"That's what I do."
He relayed an issue wherein he spoke up over a safety issue, regarding practices on site. His boss listened to him and then laughed dismissively, telling him, "safety's not your job! Stick to what you know!" Our friend quit in protest and wrote up his boss as well.
"I'm glad you did! That's unconscionable, him saying that. Of course safety's your job, that's the whole entire point of our types of jobs!"
"That's what I do," he said again with conviction, staring levelly at me.
"You're one of the unsung heroes, man."
"It's a thankless job."
"I know how that feels!"
"I enjoy it either way, though. I mean that. The thing is, the great trick is to figure out a way to be happy!"
He chuckled. My thoughts clustered in silence. I remember thinking that 'thankless job' was a misattribution of sorts. We both get thanked sometimes, he and I, and for myself I know I'm intermittently showered with a level of gratitude– from all class backgrounds– which I couldn't be more thankful for. I hope the service workers and others I so eagerly spend time with on the road also receive some measure of acknowledgement at their respective jobs. It feels good to be thanked, but sometimes it feels even better to fly under the radar.
Earlier today I helped a young single mom with her suitcases onto the bus behind me. The buses were so crowded she didn't even notice anyone had helped her. Her heavy luggage just somehow lumbered with her through the crowd, following close behind like magic. I ducked away and snuck back to my bus before she could realize what had happened. I don't know why, but I felt great about it.
*That's not me blowing around a snarky classist opinion, I promise! Here's the relevant research to back it up. Below are two articles discussing a recent study;
Wealthier Motorists More Likely to Drive Like Reckless Jerks
Science Confirms That BMW And Prius Drivers Are The Worst
And, if you're in the mood for exhaustive primary data, as I often am, complete with bar graphs and numbingly boring pages of stats, here is the 2013 study itself: Higher social class predicts increased unethical behavior.
On occasion people won't really want to talk with me, so much as simply watch me work. There's an enthusiasm they'll sometimes later reveal they enjoy being in the presence of, as I beam at the incoming crowd, working out hello's and directions and traffic and pleasantries with an ebullience bordering on the unreasonable. I recall a French visitor on the old 10/12 perched in the chat seat, silent, but with her smile so wide I could feel it without ever looking over.
Finally she shared that she couldn't believe what she was looking at, that such an undiscriminating joy could exist in such a space, the sort of place she had until now thought could only be stressed and unpleasant. The idea that our circumstances can be a product of us, rather than the opposite; that's what blew her mind. We can bullwrestle our surroundings into something wonderful, just by being our better selves.
That's what this bicycle guy is doing today, standing with his helmet on toward the front of the 120, observing it all. I'm excited about the construction guys going to their homes on Delridge. I'm excited about taking the S-curves at Graham and Holly without making people sway. I'm excited about this woman's smile, a mirror of my own happiness, along with so much more. Braking just smooth enough, maximizing the space I have between the coach and the stop bar up at Thistle. You don't want it to be too easy.
He's watching me, thinking. Then he apologizes to a lady with a screaming baby. "I'm sorry I shouted at you," he says to her. "I'm sorry I shouted at you earlier."
She knows enough English to understand, and nods okay. They build a smile together, grinning in rueful understanding at an infant with just too much to say.
He comes to the front and we chat about the day before he steps out, grabbing his bicycle. This interaction in turn makes a nearby teen feel confident enough to ask me directions. I go out of my way to interact with teens, in whatever small way I can. They'll make it to the future one of these days, and I want them to feel relaxed among strangers, comfortable living outside of category types. I want to be a hazy memory, a distant idea in their head, that there are ways of operating in this world where forgiveness and kindness aren't bourgeois, coolness is irrelevant, and daring to let down your guard can be the doorway to most of the best things you'll do.
"Are you enjoying your summer?"
"Yeah!" he says in a high-pitched voice. Puberty hasn't struck yet.
"I miss having the summers off!"
He laughs, thinking. It occurs to me he might not feel too socially accepted these days, and I want him to not worry about that. So I say, "It's such a great time, summer, no matter what you're doin'."
He must've been thinking about how to cheer me up about not having summers off, because he says in turn, "but you got the weekends off!"
"Oh yeah," I reply, "plus actually I'm working reduced hours this summer, tryin' to focus more on writing and photography, I do photography–"
"–so it feels like a summer vacation kind of. Plus, but, I mean, I like to drive the bus."
"I can tell!"
"Yeah, I've been doin' this thing where I'm trying not to refer to driving the bus as a "job" or "work." Because,"
"Exactly, it is fun!"
"I bet it must be a kinda hard challenge sometimes, with all these babies crying and stuff…."
"Oh, it's all cool. I bet I cried like that when I was little." Right turn on Barton. "I try to think about how it looks from their perspective."
"You make it a good time in here. You're good with people."
"Thanks, man! Thank you for being friendly, makes it easier for me!"
"Well, yeah, you have a good connection!"
"You also! Thank you! Hold up, lemme announce this– 'okay everyone, we got Westwood Village here, 25th and Barton, 26th, transfer to a number 60, or a RapidRide, or a 21….'"
For me, it's the little throwaway moments which hang in my memory like crystals, coming to me in times of reflection or pain, firming me up and reminding me of the beautiful, many-layered texture of this vast and detailed life. Your castoff hello, your smile in the afternoon light; the warm glow we built together, felt like nothing at the time, but I can't deny it's part of the rising mass inside me, pushing me toward a better self.
My patience for those with prejudicial perspectives toward people they don't know is limited. To put it lightly. Part of this stems from the fact that when I hear such comments, I know the faces and stories of the people the speakers think they're so knowledgeable about.
I sometimes feel duty bound to report how far from stereotype some reality truly is. It's a responsibility of sorts. The conversation below is not particularly amazing in its own right, but it's one we won't find in most media portrayals of black men in their twenties. It's just a record of what a couple of young men were chatting about late one night, rolling down the boulevard in a forgotten corner of the city.
"Hold up," he said, catching his breath after running for the bus. "Are you old enough to drive dis bus?"
"That ain't the first time you've heard that, huh?"
"Oh, maybe once or twice!"
"Yeah, usually at least once a trip, somebody says somethin'!"
"Can I ask if your background is Asian at all?"
"See, you got those good genes!"
"Well, you do too, man! Both of our culture's old folks, they're supposed to be sixty they look forty-five!"
He laughed again, settling in the front seat. Dark jeans worn, hanging low on his hips, with a correspondingly long black printed Tee draped around his upper body, the folds of fabric pooling around his slouching midsection like a Bernini marble.
He's saying, "well, those Asians got it goin' on. They got philosophy for sure. I been readin' the Dalai Lama,"
"Yeah, he's written a whole bunch a books, and man, that man is wise."
"You know what I love about him, is how humble he is."
"Yeah! And he has a sense a humor! You be expecting him to be all serious,"
"Yeah, but naw, he's crackin' jokes about hisself!"
"Always laughing, or smiling or something. That's how you know he's on to something. Aaaand, he don't go around saying he got all the answers."
"Yeeeaah, see that's good, he puttin' his own words into practice. But yeah. This book is something else. He's talkin' about like the three D's- adapt, adopt, improve. Hang on, that ain't it. That's a whole other thing, that's from–"
It's from Monty Python, but I don't call that out. All conversations could benefit from a Python reference. He's thinking of the three R's– respect for self, respect for others, and responsibility for one's actions. Both triumvirates aren't half-bad as mantras, though.
Out loud I say, "Well, I kinda like that right there. I especially like it's called the three D's!"
"Which one is it, which book is it?"
"The Art of Happiness."
"Cool. That's awesome. You know, he was here, in Seattle–"
"–maybe ten years ago, yeah, when I was in school. I saw him."
"Oh man," he says, imagining it.
"It was incredible. What took me by surprise was like we were sayin', he's so humble, so human, he'd be crackin' jokes with people. No sense of, uh, I don't know. It was really impressive."
"Yeah, it just be opening my eyes to all my conversations with people, their struggles. Thinkin' 'bout where they're comin' from."
"It cleanses the mind."
"Brings out the best in you."
"Yeah. Changes how I see things. Isn't that amazing?"
Oh, and how!
Sometimes people yell across the street at each other because they're angry. Other times, it's more like this. While taking the turn from Jackson to 4th at "walking speed" (as per the old rulebook), a man at the island stop howls into the dark night,
"Mister 49, how you doin!" He draws it out. Doo-in. Picture the thick Italian accent, a supporting character from Goodfellas.
"One of the best drivers in the whole city!"
Modesty doesn't work when screaming is the only acceptable volume. I respond with, "how are you??"
"Whuh joo think, I'm beautiful." Beeayootiful. "I love you, man!"
"You're a gentleman!"
When I looked up in the mirror a minute later, everyone was still smiling. You can ride the buzz off a small moment like that for hours.
Later, a drunk man at Andover called out to me: "hey, pretty lady!"
"Oh," he said. Disappointed. Now, embarrassed. "Oh." And finally, just plain friendly: "hey!"
"Hey! Have a good one now!"
"What did he call you?" asked the grave shift man as we pulled away, on his way to work at 7-11. Yes, he works 11 to 7 at 7-11.
"He called me pretty lady!"
"That's what I thought I heard, but I couldn't believe it!"
"Yeah, that's when you know it's time to get my haircut!"
Please forgive my minimal presence on the blog this week– things are exceptionally busy in both the bus world and the art world right now. I suppose this is good, but it means the great backlog of stories wells ever higher... I'm looking forward to having more for you next week!
Also, great to see so many familiar faces on the 70 today, which I haven't driven in over a year! You all made that traffic a lot more fun than it could've been. Who knew sitting around on Stewart Street for thirty minutes could be so pleasant? You're threatening to make the 70 as exciting as the 7! Don't draw me away from my baby!
I remember it quite clearly. In the late winter of 2009, I was riding in the passenger seat of a small two-door car, which belonged to my ladyfriend of the time. She was driving. We were eastbound on 45th, approaching University Way and looking for dinner, hoping to turn right. In the left lane, at the head of the intersection, was a semi-truck with its emergency flashers on. The right lane, which we were in, was clear, but we stopped behind the truck while remaining in our lane because we weren't sure what he was planning. The right lane looked narrow with the huge truck on the left and the trees and sidewalk on the right. The light was a stale green, and we let it cycle out. Maybe the truck was going to attempt a wide right, or back up, or something.
After a full light cycle, nothing had changed. The semi was still sitting there in the left lane, at the very front, with its four-ways on, motionless. The light was now green.
We began to drive forward.
Her car was passing by the truck, which was still stopped. We were getting by, about to make to make our right turn. Soon, we would be clear.
But we would never be clear. That moment would never arrive, because now the truck was a moving shape, simultaneously fast and slow, an unstoppable living glacier, a beast awakened and angling into us, with force. I do not remember sound. There was only the inexorable quality of this massive object, a figure in your dreams coming closer, governed by laws outside your understanding, the kind you know you can't escape.
The truck's trailer now, filling our vision from the left, a mass of aluminum white cast in sodium streetlamp orange. He was also turning right onto University Way, whether or not we mattered. Allison's little car didn't stand a chance. I wanted to tell her to honk, to really lay on it, but the moment was too large. In times of extremity we are reduced to children, awestruck by the strange and terrible newness of it all.
Here is her car on the sidewalk, tires forced sideways, the trailer forcing us up and over the curb, me briefly wondering is that even possible, is this something that can happen. We are on the corner, with the moving semi-trailer on the left and a steel utility pole on the right. The car is getting smaller now, crunching together but without sound, as the truck continues pushing in from our left and the utility pole stands firm on the right. I remember Allison's hair, lit by the light of the drugstore opposite, her hands on a now-useless steering wheel, a frantic question in the darkness. My passenger side door is crumpling, and I notice my passenger seat is becoming smaller...
People are starting to stare.
The ever-moving crowd is slowing. I register still figures in my periphery. But against that stasis, one of them is running out there, a middle-aged woman. Hers is the only voice I can hear, screaming, clapping her hands at the truck driver, her arms making big waves as she races in front of his gigantic vehicle. It's a homeless woman, steadfastly standing in the truck's path and yelling at him, pointing at us. She's thinking about our lives, not hers.
Only then did the truck stop. Allison checked if I was okay, then immediately got out to ask if the truck driver was alright. Wow, I remember thinking. What a tremendous soul she is. I learn from such giants, the lovers and friends who've been kind enough to share me in their passing lives, and I hope her empathy lives on in my character and touches others as it did me.
I stepped out of the vehicle slowly. We three involved were uninjured. Allison and the truck driver and the homeless woman were talking. People were pointing. The time for rapt staring was over, and the the period of gesticulated arguments was underway. I wandered slowly, stopping often.
Sometimes someone would ask what happened, or if I was okay, but these generalities didn't mean much to me. I looked up beyond all this noise, noticing the age of the upper stories of the buildings. How long had they been here? I looked at the contrast of the indigo sky with the neon brilliance of the storefront signage. I noticed with irony that we were blocking a bus. Hands in my pockets, walking with legs that worked. I was alive.
Where was the homeless woman? I needed to thank her. My able-bodiedness was due to her decisions and nothing else. Her life had offered a half-century's worth of experiences which collectively led her to react as she did, to think this was the right and necessary thing to do. She had run out there without a second thought, and I'd be injured or worse had that not been the case.
But she was already disappearing into the crowd. I returned to that intersection often afterwards, looking at the faces lining the sidewalk, hoping to see her again and thank her. What did she even look like? The face was receding from memory already. I can still see the figure though, to this day fresh behind my closed eyes, a spirit who cares for others without thinking.
There are strangers to whom I owe my presence in this fragile life. This is an understatement. There are people and other episodes too personal to mention, and if by a twist of fate you come upon this blog, know that I am forever grateful. With reference to the above story, I've heard the homeless on the Ave described as lowlifes, hobos, garbage, sewer rats, gutter trash, wastes of space, losers, parasites, bums, bloodsuckers, scumbags, dope fiends, gritters, grifters, and indigents.
I'd like to add another name: angels.