Yes, they vary wildly in temperament, outlook, attitude... but isn't that what you want in a group of people? Look at them. There are so many reasons to become an operator, and accordingly you really do have all walks working here. There was a time when most any trade or service job paid enough to raise a family with; those days are long gone, and with them much of the middle class. Bus driving remains a unique anomaly (to the point that saying thank God for unions, as I do, is less a political statement than a practical one).
Some of them are authors, musicians, pastors, comedians, teachers, here so they can afford to live their passion. There are students, morticians, sports coaches, sneaking in for a few hours before heading off to the rest of their lives. Some of us have doctorates and MFAs (when the bus drivers in a city have four year-plus degrees, you know there's something wrong with the job market...).
For others, this is highest-paying job they've ever had. The gateway to a new life in a new country, a job that actually pays enough to make the dream real. Others are single parents raising children, or homebuyers, or here because the benefits will cover procedures and operations that are important to them, their families, paths to having agency over their lives. Or it's a second career, something you always wanted to do for a few hours a day.
Some of us just like to drive. The heady mental rush of stimuli.
Some of us appreciate the faux-military nature of the outfit, perhaps familiar from earlier days. Others enjoy having coworkers who speak their language, who pray in their tongue and that of their forbears. And some of us really, really like the people, forwarding the tradition of being on this Earth to serve others. You know how it feels better to help others than to be helped, better to give than to receive?
What all of Metro's drivers have in common is an remarkable amount of aptitude and responsibility. By any reasonable yardstick of measurement, it is difficult to get hired here.
Every driver you see succeeded in jumping through hoop after hoop of licensing certification, written tests, appointments, aptitude tests, equipment knowledge, intensive customer service and operations training, driving tests... they showed up early to class every day for a month, because they knew if you're one minute late, you're gone.
They stayed up nights studying for the CDL walkaround test, memorizing all the different parts of the bus and what to look for when inspecting each one, so they could recite it and demonstrate their knowledge with no notes and no mistakes, as required.
They prepared for the infamous air brake test, the one so many of my friends have failed, which involves verbalizing and executing a series of fairly complex actions in a specific order.
They tried their hand at the even more infamous driving test, where you're thrown out onto the streets of Southcenter, with the full knowledge that if you run over even one curb, you're toast, and it's six months of waiting before you can reapply. It's six months of waiting with no guarantees if you fail at any of the above. All of my colleagues set themselves up for that challenge, applied themselves, knowing the stakes, and managed to succeed, every step of the way.
I find that impressive.
They show up to work now in uniform, every day, signing in within a grace period that's measured in seconds. I imagine each operator is probably the most time-aware person in their respective friend/family groups. I know I am....
When I wave at my colleagues driving past, I wave out of solidarity. Only they know, truly, what it feels like to be behind that wheel. The particular aches in our shoulders. The way you can process the entirety of the city's demographic and traffic flow geography instantaneously, on a micro and macro level. How we can roll our eyes together at the zany and ridiculous chaos of these multitudinous streets, together knowing the weird safety in not expecting people to be reasonable or do things that make sense. We've learned the weird bliss of not asking too many questions, of exchanging logic for humor.
I love you all, my fellow brothers and sisters in arms. I love the lively chatter at Atlantic Base, and I love the mellow rhythms of North. I love you when you're happy, resilient, healthy in mind and body. When you help a blind customer cross the street... and when you succumb to the pressure and abandon your better selves. When you're insecure, standoffish and angry. It has its challenges, this gig; but we do it together. I even love you when you're watching that awful news channel on the North Base TV set. (Meanwhile, somebody please grab the remote....) But most of all, during every moment you inspire me by trying to be a good person.
Jack, Jesse, Patricia, Paul, Abiyu, Ibrahim, Michael, Mitch, Greg, Dawna, Brian, Tyler... the way they love the people. The way they keep an even keel, through all this ridiculous madness. Apathy is easy; they put in the discipline for something greater.
Siret and I, both running late today, planning out a way to share the load using two buses leaving at the same time. The Control Center won't help us now, at the height of rush hour; we figure it out ourselves, with aplomb. Our combined efforts result in him getting a break at the terminal he wouldn't have gotten otherwise– and he spends part of it with me, sharing food from his home country by way of thanks, in brotherhood.
The way we breathed a grin of exhausted relief at the end of the busy trip. No one else can understand the unique multitude of things contained in that grin. That's the swagger I'm honored to be a part of, and excited to share on this blog with you.
Kindness In the Days of After
We knew each other once, intimately. The trim figure, the vivacious brown eyes and half-smile that just about screams vitality, even when silent. Many people merely repeat the headlines they've read; she was different. She could give a reason for every word she blurted, no matter how unconsidered they appeared. She had complete ownership of her thoughts.
I'll refrain from describing her appearance further except to say the boys always had a word and a glance for her, and she knew exactly what to say to every last one. Street smart and book smart, spirit strong with a lot left over.
Here she is tonight, wrapping up her swing shift, a figure in the dark ready to go home. I tilt my head in a smile. Am I glad to see her? Of course. We've drifted apart in the intervening years, sure, but it's been amiable. That takes two, and I'm thankful for her graciousness. You take care of the people who were dear to you, never mind that they're no longer part of your life; they were once, and they're still kind, and that is enough. You give them a safe space, put in a good word; you let them down gently, because they are softer than before you came.
"Why is it every time I have a shitty day I'm visited by an angel?" she asks rhetorically, opening a smile for me. She's explaining her groan of a response to my pleasantries. Tough day for her. I extend my arms out for a hug, reminded of a night two Novembers ago:
The 2016 presidential election had just been lost, and Seattle was devastated. People were hugging each other in the streets, sobbing in the arms of strangers, clusters of disbelief. We were hanging on to what we thought we knew about the innateness of human decency, despite the wake-up call on every news channel: there are people out there who just don't care.
Not even the most cynical depressive could have believably said in 2015 that we would have child concentration camps proposed in our American future. That citizens in the 21st century would fail to see an inconsistency between "pursuit of happiness," "liberty and justice for all," "all men are created equal..." and forcibly separating families who believe in those ideals, endorsing assault toward other Americans, implementing laws designed to disadvantage women and people of color, misinformation disseminated with impunity, and redistributing wealth with an eye toward reducing the living standards of the middle and working class.
The Trump win was most potently a win for apathy. With the possible exception of certain morally unjustifiable wars in the early and mid-2000s, it unequivocally represents the crowning low point in postmodern American consciousness, and reinforces the country's defining trait in a landscape where individuals feel ever more powerless to effect widespread change: complacency.
By now we know that the Trump win was a minority opinion, a result of 77,000 voters in three swing states. That paltry figure was enough to decide a nationwide election due to an obviously flawed electoral system, and the fact that system hasn't been overhauled since is as compelling an example as any as to why complacency rules; complacency* is the opposite of hope, and it's what you do to survive in a system you believe you cannot change.
But 77,000 isn't a majority. Nor is nineteen percent– the amount of the country's total population who voted for Trump (26% of the voter-eligible population). It isn't just that he lost the popular vote by a healthy 2.9 million, as we now know; that's borderline misleading in its suggestion of a close race. It was never a close race.
My concern here is not who won, but whether or not Trump's prejudices represent the American consciousness, and 9.7 million against 231 million does not a majority make. The Trump win only felt like a win for apathy. It was a win for gerrymandering, swing states, and the electoral college. Remember this, when the night is dark:
There is no actual American majority represented by Mr. Trump's views.
We didn't know it at the time, though, and we felt worse than we needed to. On November 8, 2016 the lady above and I barely knew each other. I saw her walking home alone, crossing the street in front of me. Like many of us inside the bus and out that night, she was crying. Ours was the mood of the city, the country, the collective who'd become accustomed to tolerance, stunned that greed and selfishness could have such traction as virtues.
I write above that our society is structured to minimize the ability for an individual to effect widespread change. That's not to say it isn't possible, but even more importantly: isn't the most potent impact we can have on others always and only ever the personal, the one on one?
I tapped the horn lightly, opening the doors where she was. We looked at each other. I'd never hugged her before.
I said, "do you need a hug?"
Red lights were made for this.
We embraced tightly, searching for words of comfort. Loss, failure, triumph; these are the things that make us one. "I'm so glad I ran into you tonight," she said, a wan smile beneath her mascara-streaked cheeks.
Tonight, lifetimes later, she has hardships once again, but of a more personal nature; family troubles. She's waiting for an important phone call, and fills me in during the interim. I've seen her only in passing for ages now. Somehow we've managed to bypass the awkward stage, the post-mortem of hurt and clawing insecurities.
There is just the easy comfort of a person who once cared and still does, in a healthier way. Let them down gently. Lord knows how many times I've failed to do so, but I learn from those with more patience, or less, than I.
Eventually her important phone call came, and she withdrew for the remainder of the ride, relaxed, safe in my space, the Nathan 49 Living Room.
She rose to exit, still on her phone. Into it she said,
"Hang on. Lemme say bye to the bus driver. He's a good friend of mine."
I sighed with gratitude and hugged her tightly, again. She'll never know how much those lines meant to me. Kindness after a relationship has already concluded has no agenda. It is simply kindness, genuine, given for its own sake, because it is consistent with who we are. Is there a bigger relief then being so accepted, after everything is over, by someone who knows your every weak point?
Love. We do what we can to help each other, and to get by. The answer to despair is never reason.
Note: That's someone else in the photo. It's less an individual I wish to celebrate here than a sensibility.
Sources and further reading–
For Every 10 U.S. Adults, Six Vote and Four Don’t. What Separates Them? (The New York Times)
What Affects Voter Turnout Rates (FairVote.org)
Voter Turnout Infographic Shows Women, Older People Most Likely To Come Out On Election Day (The Huffington Post)
Characteristics of the typical American voter (Angelo)
26 Percent of Eligible Voters Voted for Trump (The Mises Institute)
Who Were Donald Trump's Voters? Now We Know (Forbes)
Trump was elected by a little more than a quarter of eligible voters (Vox)
Poll: More than half of Americans strongly disapprove of Trump (NBC)
Donald Trump will be president thanks to 80,000 people in three states (The Washington Post)
The Election Came Down to 77,744 Votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan (Updated) (The Weekly Standard)
Trump's Lies: The Definitive List (The New York Times)
100 Ways the Trump Administration Is Harming Women and Families (AmericanProgress.org)
Trump migrant separation policy: Children 'in cages' in Texas (BBC)
Trump’s tax-cut scam will only deepen racism and inequality (The Washington Post)
The Muslim ban ruling legitimates Trump's bigotry (The Guardian)
The Day the Music Died (ruminations of my own on driving on election night)
*Congressmen with consciences- we humble plebians can't do much, but you know you can. You don't get in the history books by passing legislation or making a lot of money; people haven't been eulogized for their wealth since the days of Carnegie and Vanderbilt. No one cares. You get eulogized for kicking out unprecedented presidents using unprecedented means.
The guy has his qualities, I'm sure, but being president isn't one of them and we all know it. There's no reason for him to still be in office. Look to Section IV of the 25th Amendment for some pretty solid boilerplate language designed for just such circumstances. How convenient. Then guilt-trip your colleagues with a choice quote or two. Here's one from Ella Wheeler Cox for starters: "To sin by silence when we should protest doth make cowards out of men."
The Principled Gesture
There's a lot of time to think when you're driving a bus. There shouldn't be, what with the incredible amount of mental multitasking involved; but you get into a rhythm, and no matter what task you're working on, there is room to daydream. I heard his voice and my mind took off, and by the time I landed I felt altogether better, able to see things from a healthier slant. The places you can go sitting in stopped traffic. It began with a few words from one of our grizzled street brethren, seated behind me on an evening 7:
"I don't steal. That's why I panhandle. I prefer to ask people than steal from them. They know I could steal. But I'm not going to. It's like you ask the driver if you can ride the bus. They're required to say yes. It's not up to them to eject you, that's the job of transit police. But you still ask anyway."
It was another day of vibrant, immediate life, lived moment to moment to moment. He'd been impressed with my attitude upon boarding, and mirrored it with his own, burgeoning forth. His voice was enthusiastic; compelled to share the above to the neighbor seated beside him, for reasons of bubbling well-being neither he, you, nor I could articulate.
This is the good work we do everyday, by being ourselves. Bringing out our better angels, together. We tend to define self-worth by accomplishments we can measure; awards won, income gained, status markers achieved. We forget the larger thing. Character. Who you were in the dark, when no one else knew. How we treated others.
That person is the center of their own life, and you were kind to them. That is the lasting and final act of being human. It isn't what we did, or made, but how we were. All else is secondary.
This is a companion piece to this story, another brief moment of principled street gesture.
P.S.– In response to the Comcast piece below– I've found a new home at CenturyLink! No contract, a locked-in lifetime price without random increases, a cheaper rate for faster internet, a friendly and knowledgeable face installing the goods... comparing favorably to Comcast isn't exactly difficult, but it sure is hugely appreciated!
You will one day decide that you want to quit Comcast. Admit it, friend. You were never in love with those guys to begin with. When is enough enough?
Let's hypothesize and say the impossible is true: you're somehow not experiencing myriad technical issues, service dropouts of unholy frequency, or trying your hand at wading through the legendarily awful customer service. Even in that (impossible) case, how happy are you when your bill goes up twenty percent with no forewarning- not once, not twice, not intermittently, but at the unpredictable whims of the Xfinity gods and goddesses?
The issue isn't whether or not you can afford such shameless hikes. Most people can't, but never mind. Let's expand our thought experiment. You're a financially comfortable baby boomer (don't be fooled by the polemical and didactic nature of contemporary discourse, or even the celebratory nature of much of my writing on the poor; there are plenty of wonderful human beings who also happen to be wealthy. People will surprise you). The $25,000 condo you bought in 1991 has exploded more than tenfold in value. You very wisely invested $1,000 in Netflix in 2002, which translates into $300,000 now. You got your electrical engineering degree back when a quarter at UCLA cost $433. Yes, your kitchen has an island. You can afford the Comcast bill hikes.
But it's the principle of the matter. You weren't always rich, and the spendthrift in you won't die. Standing at your kitchen island you read the latest bill, thinking, why am I paying twice what I did two years ago for the same service?
Maybe you aren't rich. You're an international student paying $12,500 a quarter in loans to attend what is basically a glorified community college here in the States. You already have a degree from your home country, but no one cares and you have to start all over. You'll be saddled with debt on top of the debt you already owe for the rest of your life, and your two part-time night jobs have got nothing on the state's lack of rent control. We won't talk about the lack of study time and the hour and a half bus commute with some crazy young driver who keeps announcing the stops and talking to everybody. You're realizing that for the foreseeable future, you won't be able to afford the basic need of internet at home, because Comcast only offers income-based discounts to those who qualify for affordable housing, and you make slightly too much... but not enough to survive. The story for so much of Seattle.
When I signed up for Xfinity cable internet, it was $20 a month. By now you've heard the narrative: the introductory rate eventually expires and each year they raise it, and each time you call them saying you want to cancel. Instead of cancelling your service, they extend your current rate or a slightly higher one for the next year.
But that game eventually gets eclipsed by another, where they do raise the rates. You get bills of uncertain denomination, and spend time on the phone learning that your needlessly fast, super expensive internet is actually the cheapest plan, and you try to rationalize the fact that internet, the 21st century version of water, is costing you double what you were once paying for, and by October you'll be paying triple.
Let's call it the "Comcast Tipping Point."
Everybody has one. My cable internet was dropping out approximately 90-100% of every 24-hour time span, and thus proving completely untenable. I won't clutter the web further with stories of my negative experiences with customer service, but suffice it to say the issue wasn't getting resolved.
But did I really want it to get resolved?
Or was this the sublime justification I'd been looking for all along? No bird wishes to be cooped up in a Comcast cage forever. Thank goodness for malfunctioning internet.
Legally, corporations have the same rights as people. If Comcast were a person... actually, hang on a minute. There is no equivalent. Only a many-headed beast from Dante's underworld would do all* of the following:
I'm scratching the surface here. Refer to the links below for concrete data backing up every claim made in this article, and more evidence as to why Comcast is entirely deserving of being named Consumerist's Worst Company in America in 2014.
Most notoriously, even beyond all this, is the fact of how remarkably difficult it is to cancel your Comcast service. How do you get a virus out of your bloodstream?
When you call asking to cancel (the option isn't available online), you're directed to a person whose job it is to prevent you from cancelling. It's called the Retention Department. The Retention Department doesn't have the ability to cancel your service. That's someone else. They pull out every trick they have, and they are the major element in Comcast's dismal customer service ratings, beyond all of the above. They:
That's how hard it is to cancel. You can't, in so many words. They've got you. The actual Cancellation Department is much smaller. As you can guess, not a lot of people make it there. You have to get past the Retention people first, and you'd better be prepared to take those guys on. And in the words of one employee (again, all sources are linked below), "even the cancellation department is a sales department."
How do you beat the Comcast virus? Is it even possible?
I've done the research, and it's my duty as a fellow living, breathing human being to share it with you. There is a single sentence you can say that unlocks the gates and sweeps aside all barriers. They won't try to question you. They won't put you on hold, charge you anything, call you names, or tell you you have to keep paying them after you die.
I called them. I said the twelve magic words. They said, okay. We'll cancel everything immediately. No problem. They even sent me a refund.
Don't ask me to explain it. Just know that it works. One elusive sentence. Put it in your pocket and save it for that special time, when you've paid one bill too many.
"I'm moving to a new place, and I don't know where it is."
That's your ticket out, friend. Freedom awaits. Thank me later.
No picture for this post because I don't currently have internet. Casting about for an ethical telecommunications company....
The Child: II
Ah, Fifth and Jackson. There I was, crossing over to Hangout One (click here for a detailed ethnography of all four corners of the infamous intersection). Hangout One has been vacant of late. With the waterfront streetcar steps chained now off from access, there are still places to urinate, but nowhere to sit. Good thing there’s three other corners to choose from. Hangout One beckons me today not for lavatorial reasons but because it’s the corner I need to be on to begin my evening shift. My bus’ll be here any minute.
The corner is deserted as usual for this time of day, save for one soul: the middle-aged Laotian man squatting back against a pillar. I’ve been saying hi to him for at least a half-decade. He taught me the traditional Laotian greeting years ago: hands together as in prayer, a head nod down, and the word, “sabadi!”
I greet him just so, and he smiles in return. There are a few teeth left, and his silver-grey strands toss lightly about, almost as if underwater. His appearance is a medley of amenable grit and texture, jeans torn not from fashion but use, blemished surfaces and split ends, that olive-skinned grin somehow sustaining through it all. What is he doing out here? The maxim of homeless Asian people being nonexistent isn’t entirely true, but you’ll agree there’s a reason for the adage. It’s rare. He mostly keeps to himself, a quiet sort who doesn’t fit in quite with Hangout Three’s obstreperous bawdiness. He has a gentle smile for me every time I see him.
Today though, I get more than a grin. He rises and walks toward me, one arm held out, trying to thrust three one-dollar bills into my hands. “Here, for you,” he says.
“What? No, my friend, no way! You need that way more, I think!" I have to put some effort into turning his gift away. "Thank you though, that’s really nice!”
He explains how his brother has just won the lottery, and that the whole family will share. He’s thrilled, and feeling generous. We talk about the details. I want to make certain his brother knows how to find him; really did win; really will share. It all seems to check out, but for now our friend is happy, and maybe that’s the most important thing.
A family is approaching from across the street, coming closer now. European, dressed in relaxed casual, a mother with short hair pushing a stroller, with another toddler alongside holding father’s hand. Perhaps they’re tourists.
Our friend moves quickly toward the stroller. He extends a filthy loving hand as he did to me a moment ago, holding out the three dollars to the toddler inside. He is smiling, nodding: “here! For you!” The mother is shaking her head, “no, no, no,” confused, scared. For her it is all happening quickly. The father doesn’t notice; he’s walking ahead. The baby doesn’t understand what’s happening either, but accepts the proffered bills.
Giving. Why does it feel so much better than receiving? I knew the sort of high Mr. Sabadi was on. It didn’t much matter to him how they responded. He just wanted to give, and was searching for the most worthy recipient in sight. Of course it was the child.
Afterwards he turned back to me, laughing. He was utterly unswayed by the mother's attitude.
He said, “they do not know I am a good man!”