He started, quietly. A grizzled look about this man; he had the air you carry after you've been travelling.
“I just wanna say I appreciate your attitude.”
“Aw thanks, man!”
“We need more of that, you know?”
“Thank you,” I said. “One person at a time, right? I feel like my arms reach this far, and it's within there that I can effect change.”
“Well, I think it's it's a little bigger than that.” Agreeable.
“Yeah, you're right. Paying it forward. How was your day?”
“I’ve been trying to be more mindful of when I say good and bad, basically trying to cut those out of my vocabulary. Dualities.”
“That's smart. You know– okay. So I grew up in a Korean household, and my parents both speak Korean. But for the longest time I never knew the Korean word for ‘no,’ and the reason is because you actually usually never really need to say that word. You don’t have to directly contradict people.”
“Wow," he replied, thoughtfully, really taking it in. "I like that."
"Yeah. ‘Cause if they something that's obviously wrong, like 'the sky is red,' you can say something like 'sometimes it looks red.' Or 'I think it looks blue.' You don't have to, like, bulldoze them, you know what I mean?"
"Do you have any philosophy or faith system you subscribe to?”
“You know, I don't know. Yeah. That's the most truthful answer I can give. The longer I'm alive, I feel like the less I know about how the world works, so I mostly these days just try to listen.”
“That's cool. Listening is better anyways. Faith systems... That's just what we resort to when we don't understand something.”
“Wow! I'm gonna have to write that down!”
It was a pleasant exchange and unexpectedly candid, borne out of the years of who we were. It brought me up. But.
I had no idea how differently this conversation would sit in my memory five minutes from now. Because right now everything was still okay. We were another ordinary Tuesday evening rush hour, coursing down 35th passing Edmunds, no big deal. Do you remember the moments just before your tragedies, when everything was still possible? When you could chuckle about topics like this without your heart collapsing?
Part II here.
What does it mean to be urbanized? What does living in a city require of us in terms of social engagement, and to what degree could we be benefitting more than we are now? Click to watch my recent speech about what strangers can give us that friends et al can't!
A big fat thank you to every one of the lovelies who did the hard work to make this happen. Only they will know how much had to go into the creation of this mammoth undertaking. I hardly know myself, and simply count myself lucky they wanted me to crash their party. It's about the little people.
Thanks for watching (and sharing! Don't be shy about it!)!
Please pardon the semi-intermittent nature of my posting these days. I'm in the throes of (um okay finally) finishing my latest film, as well as a lot of behind-the-scenes fun in keeping the book going big and strong!
Never in a million years. That's what I thought when we applied for this thing a year ago. A pipe dream. You apply for it for the same reason you apply for Ivy League colleges, the Green Card lottery, or Oscar-qualifying film festivals. It's not actually about achieving the summit of those anthemic heights. It's about being able to go to sleep at night telling yourself you tried. I like sleeping. Relishing the mundane is more important than making your pipe dreams. It's the trying of it that's the thing.
We applied for this award, the most prestigious literary award that isn't national, because why not. Yes, we're the scrappy underdog book applying for something that usually only goes to authors with major New York publishing deals.
But isn't that what underdogs do?
We applied, designer Tom and I, and then we forgot about it and went about enjoying our daily lives. I carried on with driving and writing, writing and filming, filming and photographing... and somehow, here we are. I woke up to an email that went directly to my spam folder. And why wouldn't it, with lines like "You've been selected..." "We're delighted to inform you..." The very same happened when Seattle Magazine named me one of their 35 Most Influential People: "You've been chosen..." Ah, spam. The folder with either the least... and some of the most life-changing missives I receive.
What can I say here, now, that I haven't said here (Wall of Fame), here (Seattle Mag), here (book talk), here (film crew), here (birthday), here (SAM tour), here (darkroom show) and elsewhere, when enormous accolades have been thrown my way, and all I can do is blush? You know I'm no good at this sort of thing. I'm good at writing about incredible things happening to me that I may or may not deserve, but I'm no good at actually receiving them. I'm better at just driving around in a city bus...
I bow in gratitude to every judge, every twist and stroke of fate, to designer Tom and editor Jacqueline. I bow in gratitude not simply for the sake of the book and I, but because a vote for this book is more crucially a vote for a particular way of seeing. Of thinking about people. Of treating them a certain way, taking care and compassion.
Contemporary politics would have us believe empathy is dead. The incredible support this lil' book of mine keeps getting, topped off (so far!) by today's announcement, stands as the perfect rejoinder. That's why this matters. To get to take part in such a statement, to reinforce the existence and value of kindness in our age, is profoundly humbling. All of which is to say–
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: Thank you.
More about the Award and its other finalists here.
Purchase the book online from Elliott Bay Books, here or from Third Place Books, here. No, it isn't available on Amazon. If you're a local bookstore, owner of any sort of mom'n'pop store or other small business, pay rent in Seattle, or are homeless, you don't need me to explain why.
We've sold through three print runs in record time without needing to go there. We've been a consistent top 5 bestseller in the city's largest independent bookstore for months because we haven't gone there. Supporting the little guys just feels better, doesn't it?
I am hugely grateful the demand for this book has been so high that we've been able to afford taking this route. We'll stay this course as long as we are able, and/or until the book shifts ownership. So, again: Thank you all!
More about the book, including a KING 5 interview with yours truly and more purchase locations, here.
It was the most elegant piece of furniture I'd ever seen dumped at a bus stop. How exciting!
"Hang on a second, I just need to look at this awesome chair," I explained to my companion inside the bus. It was midnight. You can do stuff like that during the witching hour, when things that don't make sense suddenly do.
I skipped out of my nigh-empty vehicle. Just my friend and an oblivious smartphone-gazing youngster back there, who never even noticed me leave. His loss. "Look at this amazing chair," I practically squealed to the homeless woman sitting nearby on the regular bus shelter bench. I forget her reply, which was a cautious affirmative. She's always like that, a sweetheart sleeper who talks like your sarcastic but loving aunt.
My thought was, who would pass up the incredible opportunity to sit in this thing? Would you sit on the regular bus bench if this beaut was right next to you? Or maybe do something silly like drive the bus right past without smelling the roses, as it were?
I plopped down on the plush black leather and loved everything about it, giggling at the absurd angle of the recline– clearly some rear supports were missing, making things all the better. When it comes to comic value, shifting any chair to a forty degree backwards tilt is a major improvement. We were looking at the world's first mid-century modern La-Z-Boy.
The woman explained that it'd been there all day. "That's fantastic," I decreed. "This is definitely the best bus stop in Seattle right now. Look at this thing!" I exclaimed to another passenger who was walking up, a young woman who rarely speaks but always smiles. She grinned, chuckling at my enthusiasm. "Here," I said. "I'm gonna angle it so that they can see the bus coming more easily..."
Yes, it could've been wet. It could've smelled. It might've had chemicals or paraphernalia or stains or razor blades or animals... But it didn't. Sometimes what-ifs and paranoia are important, worthwhile.
And sometimes they're for the birds.
You've gotta go with your gut. Your intuition is the amalgamation of all of your life experiences, and it always knows more than your conscious mind does at any given moment. You can always reason yourself into doing something, and your emotions can always come up with cause for fear and holding back. Your gut is in between, and it's quieter and deeper than either. Wiser. Sometimes it knows that getting excited about a broken couch with a couple of chuckling strangers on a dark night will be just fine.
Did you miss Wednesday's broadcast? It's all here. Host Deborah Wang and I chat about "who (really) rides the bus" in Seattle, and so much more. Click here for KUOW's page with a link to the full radio hour (fascinating stuff!), as well as a direct link to my piece; scroll down for my segment.
Huge thanks to everyone at KUOW who put this together, to you who stop by the site and take an interest, to Metro for letting me be me, and to the peeps out there for being exactly who they are.
For other interviews with me on NPR, various podcasts, television, and print outlets, click here.
You would know if you’ve seen him. No one else here in Seattle, whether mentally stable, unstable, housed or employed or otherwise, has the happy-go-lucky gall to dress up like a king outside of Burger King. I don’t even know if the restaurant has anything to do with it. Travis stands out there most every day, like any number of folks you see at freeway exit ramps or major intersections. If you spend enough time in such places, you’ll notice a pattern: there’s often a second figure standing by in the wings, waiting for the first to vacate his position so he can “start his shift,” as it were.
But nobody else panhandles in Travis’ spot. Who would follow a king? You’d be forever doomed to be second-rate. Look at that stubby smiling fellow, complete with flowing black cape and gold crown, sword and shield, a grin ever-visible beneath the appropriately regal beard. His sword remains sheathed, and instead of holding a sign he moves between the cars offering a gesture of prayerful supplication and a well-wishing smile. Like my older friends who don’t need to wear logos or slogans on their shirts, who simply are themselves and you have to talk to them to know them, his being, his life force, is his sign. I’ll open my driver’s side window for a brief chat at the light, or else tap the horn twice as I roll by. He always knows it’s me.
Today, though, Travis was a mile or two further down the road, collapsed on the concrete expanse of Mount Baker Transit Center. I pulled up and opened the doors as other intending passengers came aboard. He cried out from his prone position on the ground.
“I need somebody to help me up.”
“Hey, Travis,” I called out.
“I need somebody to help me up.”
I stepped outside, toward him. “Okay, let’s see here.” I had to do something. You don’t just leave a monarch sprawled on his belly on the side of the road. Especially a benevolent monarch. “How’re we gonna do this. How about I reach under your arms like this, and then we’ll both stand up, okay? Let’s do this.” He’s a smaller guy. This was doable. “Okay there we go. Great. You got it. Now do you wanna go sit on that bench, or do you want the bus?”
“I want the bus.”
“Okay, let’s go get on this bus. But listen Travis, if you sit down on the bus, are you gonna be able to stand up again?”
“I’ll stay standing.”
I wondered how long he had been lying there. I didn’t ask.
“Hang on, lemme put my sword down,” he said as we settled inside.
“Yeah, they say no swordfights on the bus…”
After a chuckle he said with complete seriousness, “Nathan, thank you. Thank you. I’m so glad you came by.”
Me, trying to brush it off: “I’m so glad I did too!”
“I’m so glad it was you.”
Actors try for sincerity that unvarnished. It was a simple sentence, but it answered my unasked question: he had definitely lain there for no small part of the afternoon.
“I’m so glad too! And I’m glad I get to see ya! It’s an honor to have a King onboard…”
I kept it in between a joke and earnest gravity, the better to let him lead. I like that he chose the latter. “Man, Nathan,” he mused, “I remember the first time I met you.”
“Me too. You were just in from what, Texas, right, Austin?”
“Yeah. You make me feel better every time I see you. Thanks for every single moment.”
“You too, it brings me up every time I see you! And I love what you’ve come up with, being King and all. Nobody else out here has even thought of puttin’ together a cool outfit like that, havin’ some fun with it. You know?”
“Hey, I’m trying to make Seattle happier one smile at a time!”
“I think it’s down to just you and me doin’ that, but I think we’re doin a bang-up job!”
“I think so too. I just don’t like fallin’, man.”
“Yeah, fallin’ down’s no fun. Falling can be a bigger deal than people think.”
“Yeah it is.”
“But even a King needs a lil’ help every now and then.”
“We gotta help each other out, right?”
“You make me feel appreciated, Nathan.”
“Right back atcha.”
“I’m so glad it was you. I love you, brother.”
“Love you too, man. I’ll see ya soon.”
He stepped off on his own, slowly. You could say regally. Travis pulls off the king act so well because he’s humble. He’s an educated man, well-spoken and with a sizable knowledge of the law. He has reason to be proud, but he isn’t. The gaze of pride is inward, and as such it risks blindness. Travis walks with his eyes open.
“That’s the king right there,” I said to whoever was in earshot, half to myself, as I drove away. I felt lucky to know the guy.
A figure seated behind me called out in response: “yes sir!!”
Two weeks later Travis’ longtime girlfriend would step aboard my 7. I don’t know her name. She’s almost pathologically quiet, but on this day, and for the first time in the four years I’ve known them, she would lift her eyes up to me and speak. She said, “Hey. Travis told me you helped him up onto the bus when he had fallen down.”
The years of silence beforehand, knowing of her introverted character, vested the moment with enormous size. It was the type of sentence you worked on, rehearsed, you who for whatever reason don’t like speaking, find it hard to talk to strangers. But you did it on this occasion because it was important.
“Yeah, I did,” I replied, my jaw slightly agape with wonder, still processing the fact that she had just spoken. “He’s a good guy.”
“Yeah, he is. Thanks for doing that.”
“Oh, of course.”
I never heard her speak again.
Real quick– I've got a few upcoming stories I'm particularly excited to share, including a four-part series covering an event that turned out rather differently than I expected. Stay tuned.
For now, I invite you to tune in to KUOW once again, tomorrow (Wednesday the 3rd) at noon!! You'll hear me on The Record then with what are hopefully some interesting tidbits both factual and anecdotal regarding who, really, rides the bus in Seattle.
Deb, Adwoa and the KUOW crew went way beyond the extra mile this time to host me. If you knew the circumstances... I'm still falling down with gratitude. Show them and their terrific station your support by tuning in! Listen to previous appearances with me and a whole lot more here.
Coming from NPR and new to my site? Hello! Here's a primer on my book, and here's a curation of popular posts from the past year! Welcome!
Bookstore Location Updates
Lastly- the book is now available at more locations. You'll find copies for sale at
Third Place Books in
-Lake Forest Park,
-Seward Park, and
-Ravenna (buy from Third Place online here!);
Elliott Bay Books (buy online here!); &
Is your bookstore not listed above? Pester them about my book! I'm super excited to support any local bookselling enterprise that isn't, you know, named after a rainforest...
Photo by Quinn Hallenbeck.