There she is. I'm swaggering onto the 7 at Genessee, like so many youngsters have done on my own bus. Just a humble passenger today. There's almost always a familiar face on board when I step on the 7. As I fistbump with Gregory, the driver, I notice a hulking edifice seated nearby.
Ah yes, there is someone here I know.
A monolith with alienating vibes is just a few feet removed, with the same squinting eyes set behind round glasses we don't dare mock as being Harry Potter-like. She expands with territorial heft into her two seats, clad in her trademark XXXL pink t-shirt and fuschia tights. We're in the presence of a legend. There's only one Light-Skinned Black Woman (Learn more! Writeup here; video speech here).
The trick is to play it cool. "Hey, M–," I say, addressing her by name. "How are you?"
"What are you doing here?"
"I'm takin' the bus!"
I settle in a few seats further back. Close enough to keep an eye on the situation. Don't sit too far away from a forest fire.
"It's that bus driver," I hear just within earshot. "He's so nice to everyone, knows how to talk to anybody." I'm in civvies, but they've found me out anyway.
"Hello," I say.
The voice is a passenger I've had before, Melanie, and she and her male companion are seated directly behind the great and hulking presence known as LSB-Dub. Melanie and I discuss our respective jobs and their similarities. She's in social work and appreciates the good moments despite the significant challenges. In our two professions we interact with many of the same people.
Her companion joins in the conversation, and he's a little frustrated. He's just been chewed out by you-know-who, and feels compelled to vent. He may think he's safe, because LSBW is currently berating other passengers. That would be incorrect. LSB-Dub hears everything. In her own way she's extremely intelligent. I can tell she's picking his words up, storing them to address later. For now she's too busy "speaking" (polite euphemism) to someone else.
"It takes all kinds," I tell the Melanie's friend. "She is a character."
"I guess so," he says. His guess is drawn out to include all the phlegm and chagrin of resentment.
Later on, the Lighthouse for the Blind (or LFTB, as it were, for the purpose of this narrative) crew is boarding, and fills up the front of the bus. They are a collection of kind-hearted souls and seeing-eye dogs, making real the stanchions and seats around them through touch. LSBW quickly realizes that demanding they not bump into her isn't going to work, and relocates to a seat in the middle of the coach, nearer to me. She stares perniciously at Melanie's friend for a while, gears churning, and then bellows,
"WHAT! You pity me because I can't get a man?"
"Yeah," he says. "Ah do!"
"Well, at least I don't have to get any ABORTIONS," she roars balefully, adding as an afterthought: "don't touch me!"
"You know what–"
"I know what you two are up to. You're gonna do it ten times and then have to get ten miscarriages!"
I'm happy to be here. I'd been in Columbia City on photo work, and had been debating whether to take the rail or the 7 back into town. It would only be appropriate for me, of all people, to take the 7. Who am I kidding? The 7 is many things, and boring isn't one of them.
When I got on the bus and immediately noticed her, I felt glad about my choice. Because this way, I can hold hopefully hold her attention and try to keep things at bay so poor Gregory can actually do some driving. It really helps to have another operator there when things are barely holding together. We're packed, late, and abuzz with an energy teetering at the intersection between awful and calamity. Good. I'm feeling useful.
Though she is strangely quiet for today's ride, she'll periodically offer an interlude from the silence, such as: "STOP TOUCHING ME, PROSTITUTE! Are you a prostitute? How many guys have you slept with with today?"
"That's not very nice to say," I reply, in a pleasant singsong voice. She answers with silence.
"Yeeeah," somebody says, I think in response to me speaking up.
It's turning into a ticking time bomb in here. We're overloaded. The LFTB have overtaken the front of the coach, LSBW is alternating between silence and wreaking havoc in the middle of the bus, where I am, and in the back, well, who knows what the guys are up to back there. Here's a few more people with walkers, and a man with a huge box of lettuce, which he plants in the middle of the aisle. There isn't anywhere else to go. Thank goodness Bredas have three doors instead of just two, or this would've imploded a long time ago.
I decide to engage LSB-Dub a little more proactively, in the name of preemptive damage control. Goin' into battle here, I think to myself. Everyone's watching. I don't care what she says to me, but I want to draw her energy toward me instead of onto other people.
"So how are you doin," I ask.
"Don't talk to me. I heard what you said. TWO FACE. 'It takes all kinds.' Backstabber."
"Oh, now there ain't nothin' negative about that."
"I heard you say that, 'it takes all kinds.'"
"There's nothing nega–"
"Bein' all nice to my face and then stabbing me behind my back."
"Don't turn that around on me now, there's nothing negative– nothing negative about that at all, there's more than one kind a good people." It's important to me to resolve this, because I need to stay on what little good terms I've established with her in the past, because she doesn't go away, and she remembers everything.
"You don't like me 'cause I'm black."
One of the worst forms of racism is the innocuous kind, the kind where the offender doesn't even realize (s)he's compartmentalizing, where a hierarchical attitude toward ethnic groups is so ingrained it becomes invisible in the mind of the thinker. I'm reminded of the great director D. W. Griffith having to be sat down so colleagues could point out to him which parts of his 1915 KKK-starring film Birth of a Nation were intolerant. One of the reasons I value LSBW is that she's good at calling this out. Although, that may be by pure accident– she just calls everyone racist!
"Hey, that's a good thing in my book," I reply, immediately regretting my words because of how they could be taken prejudicially, in the reverse-racist sense. Is she going to pick up on that?
Not today. "You probably hate me 'cause I'm light-skinned."
"Oh, I don't hate you at all."
Sighing theatrically, she stares ahead, saying, "I'm always going to be a light-skinned."
"That's alright with me."
"You probably hate black people."
"I actually don't hate black people, M–. I like everybody."
"Uh, we're gonna leave that where it is."
Gregory smiles. Somebody behind me says, "Word! Right on, brotha."
"Well, I don't wanna talk to you," she continues to me.
Pause. "And you don't have to STARE AT ME FOR THE ENTIRE RIDE."
"Actually I was lookin' out that window, just like you."
A minute goes by. The neurons are firing. Something gets connected in there and she turns to face me directly, saying, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be rude." Her tone is heartfelt, that of an apologizing mother who belatedly learns the child she was hounding was innocent all along.
"Oh, that's okay," I reply. "I'm sorry for sounding negative."
"I'm sorry. My mom just died."
"Oh, I'm sorry! When was this?"
"In November. And my sister is going in for a colonoscopy tomorrow."
"Tomorrow? Oh wow." She elaborates on the details. On paper it might sound like she's lying, but she appeared honest. I took her words as truth. Whether or not they were isn't really the point, though: what was clearly genuine was her desire to smooth out our interaction. "Hope it goes well. Lemme know next time I see ya!"
I see her and I as neutralizing equals. She screams at people; I smile at them. I glide over differences, seeking what I have in common with others, while she blows up over things which don't even qualify as conflicts. And visually, you can't deny we'd make a pretty good Laurel and Hardy of sorts. I want somebody to photograph us in the manner of this Annie Leibovitz portrait of Rick Rubin and Jay-Z, who I think look so good together precisely because they appear to have come from entirely opposite galaxies, and yet clearly respect each other's company. That's true for LSB-Dub and myself. Sometimes. Right?
Later on she would return to the sway of her demons. Her last words to me were a more characteristic, "get away from me!"
But for a moment the clouds parted, and a bit of blue sky shone through.
One of my favorite, if less bombastic, moments with LSBW here.
You're way out at the end of the route, just you and the bus, doing the turnaround in a residential setting. It's a different headspace now, miles removed from the clamor and heat of the city's vortex, out here where the stories echo only in your memory and you're more preoccupied with the mechanics of driving, how to wrap the forty-foot vehicle around this hairpin turn, trying not to daydream.
Cremona is a narrow neighborhood street, the sort just barely wide enough for two cars. You have street parking on one side only, and if a vehicle of any size is parked or stalled on the other side, well, a bus certainly won't fit through the remaining space. At least, that's what I thought.
As I come around the corner from Nickerson onto Cremona, a scene presents itself. On the left is the ordinary row of street-parked cars, which we expect, and on the right are parked two huge green garbage trucks, partly on the sidewalk and mostly in the roadway.
I've always thought it was a marketing masterstroke for Waste Management to repaint their vehicles fluorescent green. They were a much less environmentally suggestive rasin purple when I was growing up. I can see the truck drivers standing in the street nearby relaxing, cigarettes in hand, one with his teeth smiling out as he joshes with a street regular.
Initially I park the bus in the middle of the street in front of them, throwing on the four-ways, all set to sit until they move out of the way. That would be the smart thing to do. But… loafing around and staring holds interest for only so long. I decide instead to drift up to where the guys are, to engage.
Leaning out my window: "Sorry to interrupt the smoke break! Ah apologize!"
Garbage Man lets loose a big smile. How often in a given day must he have to deal with irate motorists who think they're the first to ever be blocked by him? I think he appreciates my genial approach.
"Heey," he says. "Can you get through?"
"Um, no. I don't think so. I could try…."
"Want me to pull the mirrors back?"
That would be much better. "Yeah!"
He runs back to his truck and starts folding the exterior mirrors in, giving me more space. It's a question of inches, in scenarios like this. While he's doing that, I turn to the slightly tipsy street man standing near the sidewalk, who's been watching. "How's it goin'?"
"I DUNNO!" he yells, at boisterous volume but with an expression that looks like it's speaking quietly. "WE'RE ABOUT TO FIND OUT! I DON'T WANT YOUR JOB RIGHT NOW!"
We guffaw together.
I begin what Bob Dylan calls the midnight creep. This is fun, but it's also pretty serious, and my brain straddles both headspaces. If the bus touches any fixed object (like a garbage truck, or tree), it's a preventable accident and my fault. On the other hand, it's a game, a game of professionals helping each other, a game whose rules any bystander can understand, the simple pleasure of seeing if we can make the squeeze.
Don't try this at home.
I move slowly through this game of inches, with an audience who's participating. Garbage Man has folded aside all the mirrors of not just the trucks but also the cars, scurrying to and fro, addressing the situation. The tipsy guy takes a swig from his paper bag and leans his weight to one side, a beggar-philosopher contemplating the angles.
Here's a young woman in her Civic, approaching from ahead, pulling over to allow me through, and she attends the proceedings from her front-row seat with a certain interest. Would you really want to be watching anything else right now? We smile brightly at each other. The second garbage truck driver– nod and a grin from his weathered face– appears and observes as well. Garbage Man One is up in front, guiding me. Just a little further this way, he says with his body, practically dancing.
It's a warm sensation, to be reminded of that very natural part of ourselves, the part we all have that just wants to get along. This little quintet of fellow beings, who will never reunite, all took a shared pleasure in the simple delight of yes, the bus driver was able to make it through. People smiled, at themselves and each other, and with that little experience in hand went on about their daily lives.
"Thank you!" I hollered out the window, before it was too late.
"Come work for us!" he yelled back, those pearly teeth still gleaming. "Come work for us! Get paid more!"
"No way man, come work for us! Have a good one!"
"You too!" he said, with a smile you can still hear, its memory manifesting on your own face, even after you've gone around the corner.
"Anyone who fails to go along with life remains suspended, stiff, rigid in midair. That is why so many people get wooden in their old age."
"Accept what is in front of you without wanting the situation to be other than it is. Study the natural order of things and work with it rather than against it."
-Tao te Ching
"You got really excited when the construction guys started getting on," Paul Margolis once said to me while riding my 70.
"Really? You could tell? It was visible?"
"Yeah!" He laughed.
I've mentioned elsewhere that I feel an inordinate fondness for the working class and low-income. "It's my peeps," I'd think to myself as I pulled my 5 up to the stop just south of the zoo, by that place with the free dinners, where there would be a horde of fifteen scruffy men waiting for my bus. I tilted my head, smiling, ready for more life. On a late-afternoon 5 of largely silent "regular people" (what does that even mean anymore?), this genial horde was a welcome surprise. No ostentatious silence or mid-level management cold shoulders from these folks. If I said hello, they'd bowl me over with smiles.
I was recently asked to speak to an incoming class of new full-time bus drivers. An older gentleman was asking me about ways of getting along with all the different passengers. His part-time career had been spent entirely on driving peak-hour express routes on the Eastside, and was aware of the different world he was getting into with full time. He impressed me. Most people try to control the world around them and get frustrated when this isn't possible. He was genuinely interested in adapting the only thing we can control: our mindset toward the circumstances around us. He doesn't have anything to worry about, I remember thinking, old age stereotypes be damned.
I gave an answer having to do with empathy and choosing what frame of mind to be in, but I could've said more. I kicked myself afterwards for not mentioning that as compared with commuters, the "folks who come out of the woodwork" will sometimes be more (c)rude, but they will also be more polite. It's just more, on all fronts. They may be more drunk, more malodorous, more angry than commuters, or they may not be. But they will definitely be more present. Your kindness will mean something. You won't be looked down on as the help, or furniture. Your acknowledgment, respect, compassion– on the street these things register with significance. The indigents, mendicants and supplicants are a shinier mirror, reflecting your behavior toward them in a more potent fashion. They know how to interact with other humans as equals, whether positively or negatively.
We night drivers have conversations after our shifts sometimes, sticking around the base at 1AM a few extra minutes even though we're more than ready to go home. There's so much to talk about, and so many ways to think about it. It's a sensory and philosophical overload out there. During one of those midnight chats an operator told me, "when you see them smile, and say thank you in a present way, you're seeing yourself. In their expression, their voice, you're seeing a mirror of your own good intentions."
And that mirror is all the more clear with these guys. No doubt this, among other reasons, is why I choose routes populated solely by such groups.
The bus I ride to work these days is a different story, however. It's the 4AM run of an express route which, at that hour, is utilized exclusively by commuters. You see the same faces each day, bleary-eyed and well-dressed, still on their way to being human in the pre-coffee hour. Generally I get on and greet the driver, sometimes making some comment about our identical uniforms ("I like your outfit!"), and then I try to find the best available seat for napping in. Third row forward facing, door side, is available, the one with a headrest and smaller window. Perfect. I love naps.
But this morning was different. We held for a minute at the park-and-ride while the driver talked quietly with a woman. Never seen her before. Her stringy grey hair, unbrushed, her clothes wrinkled and stained; clinging to her were the backpacks and jackets and stuffed pockets that come about when you have to carry all your possessions on your person. I overheard her asking for directions and a free ride. On this bus she stuck out like an unwanted Christmas present, unloved and the worse for wear. One of my people, I thought to myself.
The genteel crowd surrounding her looked upon her with a haughty impatience, anxious to both despise and ignore her. A woman in business casual seated up front, throwing up her hands after the bus didn't move for twenty seconds. "Jesus Christ," she said.
Upon arriving at Westlake, our friend paused, then walked quickly to the front, asking the driver, "is this Pike Place Market? Is this by McDonalds?"
"Stupid bitch," a commuter said.
The driver answered her question with a nod. A gangly African-American man on the platform kindly assisted, referring her to the appropriate staircase for her destination.
"Thank you sir, very much," she said to both of them, and shook hands with the guy on platform. She was lost, and people had helped her.
"What a bitch," the working man said again.
"Unbelievable," a prim secretary seated beside him concurred.
Those two were seated in front of me. Behind me another contingent of office workers chatted about her after she'd left.
"What can you say."
"First she wanted the E Line. Now this."
"I think we should put her on the first bus to County!"
Please don't judge my friends, I thought.* Just don't. Please don't pretend to know something about other lives. Especially my less fortunate friends who are shamed into the awkward position of having to ask for help often.
Her handshake was the first act of thankfulness I saw this morning.
*Why didn't I say something along these lines? Trying to change other people stresses me out, mainly because it's impossible. They've had a lifetime of mentors, parents, teachers, friends, pastors... and if those folks in their efforts haven't impressed anything of the idea of kindness or manners or whatever the issue is, well, I'm certainly not going to accomplish anything besides in two minutes. This is why I don't honk at cars to try to "educate" them (an idea I find rather amusing!), or reprimand passengers who make terrible life decisions. It's a short life we're given. There are other things to do, like love each other. And work on ourselves.
On a long enough timeline, all clothes worn in the elements turn brown. It's a muted shade of that hue which cloaks these two men now, but that's not to say they're lacking in personality.
"Do you go as far as Broadway?" says the first, before stepping in. I couldn't place his age– twenty-five? Forty-five?– but he had overgrown stubble and curly locks mangy enough to be fashionable. Imagine Raiders in a baseball cap. His friend is wobbling on the sidewalk with drunken sea legs, holding a bicycle, doing the dance where you and your partner (or bike, as the case may be) try to keep from falling.
It occurs to me while listening to Friend Number One that asking such questions takes a little courage. Riding a bus network you're unfamiliar with, especially in a new city, can be intimidating. Trains are easy, what with the lack of deviation and standardized propensity for copious maps and signage. Planes even moreso, because of the focus on (cough– revenue– whoops) customer service.
But buses, with their reroutes, detours, schedule changes, unpredictable running times… then there's the whole matter of personal interaction, which you know I love, but which I know can be stressful for people. There's a stereotype of what bus drivers are like which only exacerbates this. I'm thrilled so many people are willing and able to take that leap, to just walk outside and put their faith in the universe. It's worked out so far, I suppose. I try to reward that intrepid vulnerability with focused and helpful kindness, that it might grow further. Who knows what great doors their knocking will one day open. Never mind that at the time of this story, every single route at this stop did go to Broadway. But we have way bigger concerns than how intelligent the questions are.
"I do. Come on in." We're a 49, eastbound at 8th Avenue.
Friend Two puts his bike on the rack.
"You're an awesome bus driver," Friend One, the sober half of this crew, tells me. "You're really awesome. I have to say that though, 'cause I don't have any fare!"
"Ha! I'm gonna choose to believe you! I'll take it!" I quip, as I jump outside to help the other guy with the rack. Those new yellow bike rack handles may be tricky, but they work. It's impossible to get the handle onto the front tire, but you want that. It means it's also impossible for the bike to fly off.
"You really are awesome, though," Friend One says as Friend Two and myself reenter the bus. "You know, you're savin' this guy's life by giving him a ride. 'Cause if he tried to ride home in the state that he's in…!"
"Bike riding drunk, oh no! What'll the people say!"
Friend Two, having finished thanking me profusely, feels a memory stir. "You drove the 358, and the 5," he shouts.
"You've got a killer memory!" I yell in reply. "The 5, wow. That was years ago!"
"I know you remember my sorry ass!" Half-laughing, half rueful.
I take another look at his face. Lively brown eyes, storyteller's eyes, gazing out from hollow sockets; thin, tan frame, wearing clothes two sizes too large, maybe from an earlier lifetime. There's something immensely charismatic about him, though. Some people, by virtue of their quality, the sheer magnetism of their character, manage to overwhelm even their own appearance. You've gotta love these guys. "I know I've seen you, but the question is from where?"
"Well, I used to always be at Denny and Aurora…."
I look at him, comprehending. Then I practically scream his name: "SHADOW!"
A hundred scattered memories coming together: "Shadow! Oh, my goodness! At Denny and Aurora!"
It's the middle of the night, but it may as well be noon. "Third most photographed sign in all of Seattle!" I howl. That's what he would always say. There was Pike Place Market, the Pink Elephant sign, and then there were Shadow's cardboard signs with the jokes.
"Haha, yeah, you remember!"
"Shadow! This is huge. 'Cause I've been wondering what happened to you, man! I haven't seen you in years!"
I can hardly conceal my joy that this man is still alive. When faces on the street disappear, you fear the worst. First they're gone for a day or a fortnight, and you think nothing of it. But as the months go by you remember there's something odd about this street corner. Something's missing. They may have hardly registered when you first passed through, but their absence, over time, gets louder and louder. A void has made itself known. Longtime readers will remember Andy After Death, or my take on the late Gaylen.
But Shadow, both in physical form and in my memory, is far from dead. He's standing right beside me, saying, "I got an apartment now!"
"What! And a haircut!"
"My real name's Russ."
"Russ, my real name's Nathan."
"Good to meetcha."
"Likewise. Oh my goodness, you're alive!" The cortisol and epinephrine are running high as we choose to keep our dialogue at shouting level for no real reason. I'm feeling great. "Buddy a mine is a filmmaker! Said he was making some kind of something, documentary about you!"
"Yeah, I don't know him too well, but we were wondering where the heck you went,"
"His name's Michael."
"Oh man, he's gonna blow up when he finds out you're still alive. We were talking about you not more than a month ago! This is fantastic! An apartment, holy cow!"
"Oh lemme pull the bell," Friend One says.
"Dude, he knows where we're goin'," Shadow says.
"Hey, I do pirate impersonations," Friend One continues.
In the remaining blocks our conversation went into overdrive, as we, three men from different walks, yelled with glee about everything and nothing, about apartments, pirates, bicycles, bus routes, signs, haircuts, about all the great and terrible things in this turning globe, about life, and death, and life.
"Hope we didn't take away to much from your music there, screamin'," I said to the girl with earphones seated at the front, after they'd left. She'd been there for everything.
"Oh, I turned my music off to listen to you guys!"
"Excellent! Yeah, I'm just so overjoyed to see him again, because you see these faces, and then you don't see them for years, and you wonder if they've died, and then sometimes you'll hear that they did die, but he, but, Shadow's not dead! He's completely alive!"
"And doing very well it sounds like!"
"So incredible. What were you listening to?"
"Oh great. You know, I like Demon Days more than the first one that's more popular. Demon Days is hard to find on vinyl though…"
My trolley bus may have not have a transmission, but bus driving is all about switching gears. I dive into a completely different headspace as she and I continue discussing music. But as a part of me always remains focused on driving, so another part of me remained on Cloud Nine, smiling long after it made sense. I can hear the joyous echoes of his living voice now, and now, and now still.
"Wait, what kinda music?"
There'd been a long pause lasting several stops. With some folks you can comfortably switch in and out of silence during such circumstances when you know you'll be together for a while– plane flights being the prime example. With others there's this odd pressure to fill the dead air or else. The gentleman here on the 70, in the chat seat now, falls in the former category. An African-American fellow, my generation, who greeted me with more verve than anyone else on the route this morning: the kind of hello you give not out of obligation but because you want to, because the connection feels too life-affirming to pass up. The Amazon crowd has just abandoned us at Harrison, and the bus is thinning out as Pioneer Square approaches. We'd been talking about activities besides work, and he'd said something about music. It felt entirely natural to lapse into silence and then blurt out the above question minutes later.
"Anything I coul' get my hands on," he replies, "but I play piano."
"That's AWESOME!" I exclaim, without irony. Stephen Pinker once wrote about the extremization of language, in the sense that words formerly used to described things like hurricanes and fear of God are now used to define items like toothpaste and cupcakes. The downside to this is that when something truly astonishing actually occurs, we really are speechless, having no vocabulary left over to describe it.
For me that's just not the case. I really do think certain toothpaste is awe-inspiring. I'm so grateful for whoever ingrained this perspective, whatever chemical imbalance, who knows, that exists in me which allows me to be so thankful– and therefore so easily excited– about so many things in life. My dear friends are kind. They patiently listen as I continually express astonishment at things like cars letting me in or sunlight filtering through trees.
"I'm easily thrilled," I'll say, by way of explanation.
"I know," they'll say.
Our friend on the 70 smiles. I continue. "I'm learnin' that now from my Mom. She tried to teach me when I was little, and I hated it at the time. That was a mistake!"
"Well," he says. "You, just. You bleed enthusiasm, man. About life in general."
What a great turn of phrase, I thought. Bleed. That's one of the nicest things I've heard in weeks. "Thanks, man!"
"I can see it. Like I said 'piano,' and you were like, 'awesome!'"
We fall apart cackling.
He says, "'cause a lot a people live real extravagant lives on the outside, but,"
"There's something missing on the inside,"
"On the inside, yeah."
"Oh that's painful. To see. And the thing is, I don't know where it comes from. I be driving the bus in the middle of the night and somebody will ask me, why are you so happy? And I'll be like–" hands in the air– "I don't know!"
His laugh, colored with joy and vigor, making all things new.
I say, "and maybe it's good I don't know."
"Yeah, no need to find out what it is, or bottle it up. Just keep pumpin' it out, man, cause it's rubbin' off on me!"
"Tha's why I'm here!"
I wish I could've been outside at Third and James as he got off there, if only to see his effervescent grin totally out of context, the last sort of expression you expect to see on that block. I hope some stranger on the sidewalk was able to witness it, catch some of its edge and then maybe, however briefly, look out at the world with wonder.
"Wow, I've never been so close to a bus driver before! Or seen one so friendly! This bus is so crowded!"
This youngster is bubbly with energy, like I am. I love when field trips get on my bus. A group of thirty-plus eight and nine year-olds is piling on through the back door at Virginia, on our way to Seattle Center. They're filling up from the rear, and are now oozing up to the front. Closest to me is the aforementioned youngster, leaning in with enthusiasm, a young African-American boy with close-cropped hair and reading glasses. Everyone's wearing the same blue print T-shirt and some manner of shorts.
"I've never seen a bus this full!" he exclaims.
"Yeah, it's kind of exciting!"
We ask each other how our days are. We're both doing really great. I'm driving the 1, and they're going to the new park at the Center. What could be better? I ask how he likes his school.
"Seven out of ten?"
"More like six out of ten."
"Oh, no! I hope you've got good people around you there, good friends."
He asks about bus driving, and I expound briefly on my love for it. Because I'm on the second of three shifts on this particular day, I find myself talking both to him and myself about the value of keeping things positive, keeping the stress down– "keepin' it light," as one driver told me. That stuff doesn't register with him. What does register is tech talk. He drinks up the dials, speedometers and tachometers and more, talk of the wire and deadspots, which he intuitively understands. I'm explaining why intersecting lanes of wire need to be dead in one direction, sometimes a hard concept to convey, but he just gets it. "Otherwise the electricity would go everywhere," he says.
I talk with a lot of people about kindness, humanity, film, why I take pictures. All that is great. Those are meaningful conversations, but they're founded on generalities. It's not every day I get to bounce back and forth with someone about dynamic versus regenerative braking, or the changing concepts of perfection in pre-Gothic and Gothic art. These things just don't come up that often. Recently a fellow film photographer rode my 70 and we instantly dived into a discussion of film stock and paper that was probably– okay, definitely– unintelligible to everyone around us, but as for ourselves, well, we were wallowing around in high hog heaven. We all have minutiae we carry around, but which doesn't often get to crawl out of its hiding places. Static and accelerated fatigue testing. Nicomachean ethics. Fake nails in gel versus acrylic. How best to reinforce the top lift and counter. What resides in the hallways of the mind sitting next to you?
We're having a great time, in other words, this pre-teen boy and I, throwing three-syllable words around. He asks, "so tell me, what do all the dials mean?"
Before I can continue our joyous technical discourse a man sitting in the chat seat interrupts. He was on my morning shift, hours ago.
"Can we like, get going here?" he snorts.
"Oh, we are," I say. "Just gotta keep it safe."
"Well. I've got a schedule to keep!"
"You and me both!"
As he lapses into disappointed silence, I make sure to answer the boy's question. I want this kid to feel comfortable talking to strangers, to have a good experience doing so, not be cowed into conforming to a wash of tiresome pessimism.
"So that's the speedometer of course, and even though it says eighty trolleys can only actually go forty, and over there is the voltmeter, which has to stay in that green area…."
When they all leave, after he's lined up on the sidewalk with his classmates and their anxious chaperones, he waves at me and waves again, eyes bright and full of promise, the energy you have before you get hurt.
Now it's time to be present with the grumpy guy.
"Okay," I say, "let's get you where you're goin'!"
"I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't mean to sound like a, you know."
"Oh, it's all right. You probably wanna get where you're going, I can understand that."
"Yeah, but you know. He sounded like a good kid. Real bright."
"Real bright yeah, he was sharp. Don't see that all the time. Or I don't. How's your day been so far? I remember I saw you this morning on the 2."
We're both working split shifts today, as it turns out. I'm doing an unusual three-shift marathon, for reasons too boring to elucidate here (read: bought too much film!), and he's on his long break now, with just enough time to go home for lunch before racing back for his second shift. We talk about long days and lunch breaks, ways of getting by. He shares about a recent injury– a gash in his foot too large to sew up. The only way for him to address the wound was to tape it up. The whole affair makes walking difficult.
"I can imagine!"
"Yeah, the first few steps are the worst, but after that it gets easier."
A sentence which holds true for many things in life. "Oh good," I say aloud. "Now I hope it's a temporary thing, this, not a permanent thing,"
"Oh god no yeah, it's temporary."
He left me feeling better. He had a severely curved spine, and a somewhat disfigured face, possibly Bell's palsy, but I think I detected a smile.
Soon after, a third person came forward. Elderly Caucasian female, smartly dressed.
"Whats your name?"
"Nathan. And yours?"
"Patti. I just want to say thank you for being so good at your job, and handling all the crazy people the way you do. You're so good at it."
"Oh, thank you! For saying that. You don't always get the feedback, you know?"
We were just about at her stop. I could tell she wanted to tarry, stick around a little in this strange friendly environment. I did too and would have, were I not driving the 1. What's more beautiful than that sensation, when society dictates this should be a short interaction because of class or time or status, but they don't really want to leave, because of how good they feel around you? Are there higher compliments, stronger statements of equality? The girl at the cash register, the man making your gyros. You want to break the rules and just keep talking, learn something about their life and yours, and get to that space where we're not afraid anymore, where conforming to silence is so last month....
I feel a sense of comfort when low-income or working class people get on. Maybe it's because I come from a similar background. It might have to do with our often sharing in the outsider status of being non-white. Or perhaps it's simply because these folks are generally nicer to me than their upper-class counterparts. I don't know. In any event, I'm comforted by the sight of this black American man stepping onto an otherwise thoroughly silent 13, populated at this early morning hour by commuters boarding from their homes in upper Queen Anne.
Unlike the rest of the bus, this gentleman's wide awake, sipping demurely from his tall boy at six AM already. Different strokes, I guess. I'm a water man myself. I don't press the issue. There are times on the 7 when you pray for a drunk this friendly. We greet each other loudly and with gusto.
He's telling me what happened just prior to the bus arriving. A woman out for a stroll with her dog had reacted with alarm upon seeing him. "She was like, 'oh, get away from me!'" he recounts. "Done ran across the street and everything."
My mind flashes to Obama's Trayvon Martin speech, wherein the President described what a lifetime of people moving to the other sidewalk or locking their car doors when you approach feels like.
"She was up outta there. Dog was happy to see me though, tail waggin' and everything."
"Dogs don't lie," I say with a smile.
"Dogs don't lie, that's right. Animals are cool wit' me."
"Well, maybe he'll teach his owner a thing or two."
"Le's hope so. She was beautiful, drop dead gorgeous at six o'clock in the mornin'."
"Well now, looks ain't everything, you know,"
"Looks ain't everything, that's fa sho! You need the outside and the inside."
"Gotta have a little somethin' upstairs, right?"
"I said, 'hey, don't need to be scared o' the only black person in Queen Anne!'"
He's saying it in a joking voice. We waver, hovering between gravity and the cure of levity.
"This ain't the 1700s!" I say, declaratively. "S'pposed to be the twenty-first century!"
"I thought this was Seattle! We're not in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. We're not in, Pawtucket–"
"Oh, this ain't Seattle! I don't know what they did with Seattle, but this sho ain't it!"
"Aw, now you're gonna start breakin' my heart. We got one or two good people here!"
"Yeah, but then we got these other folks still stuck on Jim Crow."
"Workin' offa stereotype."
"I'm supposed to have jobs, and smarts, and stuff."
He was joking up until the last line. You can hear the child in his voice, frustrated and confused. How to keep up when the same is expected of you, but odds and circumstance sway so far from favor? Punishing ourselves with blame seems as bad as projecting our problems on everyone else. But here he is now, finding the humor again. Who was it who said the only way through life is with laughter?
He's saying, "I'm tellin' you, don't be gettin' no tan, man! You be in for it! I see you gettin' a little dark around the arms, watch out!"
"You tellin' me I gotta get some sunscreen?"
"Some of that 30 SPV?"
"Yeeeah! Hey, let's have a seat for the lady!" Referring to the senior now getting on.
"Thanks for bein' a gentleman! This is the polite bus." Into the mic I let them know we're switching routes. "Folks, we're gonna continue as a 2; this'll be the 2 route today, goin' out to First Hill and then the Central Area..."
"We'll be goin' out to the ghetto this morning, ladies and gentlemen," our friend says in mock tour-guide tone. I don't know what the rest of the bus is thinking, but we're sure enjoying ourselves, riffing off of each other. "Gonna see how the other half lives on this fine Wednesday," he continues.
"Go somewhere a little more interesting!"
"Little bit of excitement comin' up this morning–"
"Gonna wake these folks up a little!"
"Roll them windows up a little but don't be scared, everyone!" Theatrical sigh. "It's tough, bein' spokesman for the ghetto."
"It's a tough job!"
"Standin' on top o' the Columbia Tower, batman cape on,"
"Wind blowin' through my hair,"
"Well thanks for pullin' this tough gig, walkin' the walk! Keepin' me company!"
We alternate between our energetic nothings and real conversation. I ask him what he's been up to. He's just returned from Phoenix, where he has family, along with a few other cities.
"You got people everywhere!"
"Hey, Abraham Lincoln said it was all right!"
"Oh well hey, if he gave the go-ahead,"
"I checked it out with old Abe."
I fare well to some deboarding passengers. The nurses are leaving us at Virginia Mason. "You guys are hilarious," one says. "You made my morning!"
"Aw thanks! That's why we're here! Have a good one."
"Change the world!" he calls out after her.
"Oh I like that," I say. "Change the world. I'm gonna use that. That's way better than 'have a good one!'"
Later on he'll tell me I made his morning too, repeatedly, and he won't take my "aw, shucks" deflections for an answer. He's leaning in with intention. Our gabbing had accomplished something beyond mere jest. "No, really," he said, searching for the words, thanking me for being myself but also something else, too: there are those who don't always get to live in the equitable, uncritical glow of egalitarian spaces. For fifteen minutes he didn't feel judged, evaluated, or avoided. We'd simply sat and stretched the old talking muscle like, to borrow a phrase from both Michael Mann and W. Somerset Maugham, "a couple of regular fellows." I could see how it had impacted him, and was thankful to have taken part.