Somewhere around Walden
He's one of the street guys you see around Martin Luther King- sometimes Walden, sometimes Forest. There's a few of them. This guy is bald, missing a few teeth, always with a ready smile. African American, 50, thin, with a lanky gait and wearing a couple of sweatshirts. "My son!" he yells when he sees me today.
"Heeeyyy!" I respond, playing along. He sits in the wonderful chat seat and is overwhelmed by the positive energy making itself known on the bus.
"Every time I get on his bus," he says, talking to the others gathered around the front. It's hardly a bus in times like this; it's a living room, and we're relaxing on upholstered couches sharing popcorn, watching the game. "Every time. I never seen another driver make people so happy. I get on here, and I just feel good, man. I see you smilin,' I get up in here," he continues, pausing, searching for the words, interrupted by his own surge of well-being. "If I can make someone happy, make somebody smile, then I've fulfilled my purpose."
"'Cause that's huge."
"It is huge. It's inspiring. Look at this guy," he says to the others, pointing at me. "He's my son."
Two Caucasian high schoolers look at me, then at him: "Is this your token white son?"
"Hell yeah. My kids could be white."
"It's the 21st century," I say.
"It's all happening."
"I got two daughters, one of 'em's 5'9", the other one 6'7".
"Six seven?!" I reply, and we continue talking about his family. He has two tall daughters, and he's the short one. They're both in college. He was in the service. The tall one is doing computer programming. We cruise through the neighborhood, streaking along the wire, dotted lane lines flitting by on either side. Darren drives his 7 past the other way, looking amused at my too-big smile. It's a beautiful night.
The Ride Free Area died tonight not with a bang, but with a whisper. I have no tumultuous stories involving its demise, which took place at 6:59pm today, ending a 38-year tradition. Like many large events in one's life, it was defined not by a cataclysmic parting of the seas but rather by the simple and pleasant banality of everyday existence. I drove down Third Avenue, and all was as it always is, me throwing open all three doors and welcoming the whirling masses, glancing in the mirror as my friends the service workers, thugs, nurses, students, janitors, bankers, managers, grandmothers, engineers and freeloaders stepped on, slinking through the back doors and looking this way and that, ascertaining which was the best seat for them. It was just like any other day on the street- only there was the thought inside me, and perhaps in others too, that it won't ever be like this again.
Some have defined the sublime as the intersection between the mundane and the transcendent. I'm not about to say that the end of the Ride Free zone was sublime, but many of the great moments on the bus fulfill that definition.
I was driving the last trip on my 7, and a middle-aged African-American man was thanking me profusely, ostensibly for the transfer I gave him, but that wasn't really it; I think what impressed him more was this warm, shared spirit we had built, lighting up the darkness of a dimly lit bus on Rainier Avenue. Some of those old Bredas are dark inside, as not all the interior lights work (drivers: you know, where the switch goes both ways but neither turns on all the lights, only half), and that, combined with the ever-present litter on the 7, odd smells, stained floors and knife-scratched windows and seats- all this combines to form an atmosphere that could easily tip into a very unpleasant realm. In fact, it almost seems ideally suited for that.
But here we are, having built the happy bus, what with friendly hellos and waves and announcements- it isn't important that they understand what I'm saying into the mic so much as they hear the tone of the driver's voice- that the guy in charge of this thing is happy, kind, welcoming, whatever label we want to give it. He's in a good mood. That's what I'm really saying when I say that the next stop is Andover Street, close to Safeway.
The most unlikely people say thank you, and the timbre of their voices carry a strength of meaning that humbles me. A hispanic man, always dressed in black, with an interesting face, a face you'd want to photograph, quietly saying, "you have a wonderful evening, bro." Self-proclaimed ghetto boys taking a moment to be genuine. "You have a good rest of your shift." To hear such a thing blows my mind. Kindness towards another, for no gain. I know they have that in them, of course, but the surprise is that they choose to show it. A young African man, thirties, speaks softly, with an unexpectedly clear accent, thanks me and wishes me a good evening with an earnestness that bespeaks tremendous mutual respect. It's an honor to be counted as an equal among these people.
After the fellow who was profusely thankful for the transfer and the goodwill stepped off, the man getting off right behind him turned to me and said, "you're rare." He's tall, thin, forties, black American, with shades and clean athletic sweats. Something about this fleeting exchange hits me, and I remember the moment lasting longer than it did. His bald head and shades catch what little light there is, this tall human form lurking in the half-light above me, kindness, and respect for kindness making themselves known in the dark. "You're rare," he says again. Maybe he wants to make sure I heard him. "Keep it up."
It's these small, fleeting moments that live on in your memory. The details. Today was my last day on the 7, and on the wire in general, for a while- you probably know that I was forced out to North Base for Winter shake-up- and I've been savoring these last days for the great life experience that they are. Being out there, amongst people who know me, a city I've become part of. I unfortunately can't write about something that happened earlier this week, but for those of you who were there, that was fantastic. You live for moments like that- small and unremarkable when retold, but massive in a personal way.
Today was no more or less different than a typical day on the 7 for me. It was lighter than usual, and there was minimal Friday night madness in the Valley. As I said earlier, there were no monumental climaxes to be had. And yet- there were, as there always are, those moments, which tonight took on a pathos of things ending, color drifting away in the fading light. A couple street perennials and I on the sidewalk at inbound McClellan, joking around together as I wait for my schedule to catch up. Me, interrupting the automatic talking lady to do my own announcements. Turning right onto 7th from Virginia, making sure I have enough momentum to clear that deadspot. A young man and his Caucasian girlfriend at Holden, standing at the front, listening and talking with me briefly but eagerly, happy to be a part of it all.
Ah, yes. Not a bad way to pass the time.
I'm sitting at a red, at Cedar and 4th, eastbound. A sports car convertible flies across the intersection and slams to a halt just opposite me, blocking traffic. The driver, a man in his 40s, leans out of his open top and says to me:
"What day is it?"
"It's the 20th."
"That's right. Thanks."
And then he roars off, slamming to another stop when he reaches the end stop sign at of the block.
Not all of my 7 passengers are people I would invite over for dinner. We'll put it that way. I love the guys, don't get me wrong, but I only have enough groceries to go around. My place isn't that big. The transitory nature of the bus can be a virtue- you do have to learn how to hang out with everybody, but you only have to hang out with everybody for a set amount of time. On routes like the 12, if you've got someone being bothersome, it's not a huge issue, because they'll be gone in 10 minutes. Big deal. On the 7, however, they might be there for an hour. It's a long ride to Rainier Beach.
One such lady shows up periodically. Like many problem passengers, she's cordial to me and rude to the riders. American, dark-skinned, 50s, not too many teeth, perennially drunk, hair covered with a wrap-around shawl. Today she responded to my greeting in kind ("I'm doing excellent!"), and reminded me that she loved me, and that she "got me covered, anytime you need anythinganytimeyouneedfivethousanddollars I be there for you." I thank her and tell her that I might be calling her up for that five thousand. Beer, spilling out her jacket pocket, soiling her pants and dripping onto the floor. It flows back and forth, forming rivulets in those non-slip grooves on the Breda floor. Fleetingly, it crosses my mind that a biologist would have a field day with the floor of one of these beasts. The tactile residue of a million stories, evidence of happiness, sadness, anger, greed, love, sympathy, loss and all the rest.
She slurs, "I got it for you 'cause I love you bus driver, I got five thousand ten thousand whatever you need just call me twenty thousand. Don' gotta worry 'bout nothin.'"
"Now that's really generous of you."
"I got, I got,"
"I might have to take you up on that. Might have to give you a call."
"You need something twenty thousand," she yells bodily, getting excited. "I take care a you!"
Later she sits down near the front and argues with a few passengers. She's larger than life, a beast in the cage of unhappiness, or an embryo pushing out, clawing at the walls of its shell. Manic energy and no place to go. When the passenger next to her gets up to sit further away, she says, "yeah, walk away. Act like you scared a me. Retardo." She adds the label at the end as if it's a devastating and terrible revelation. You know, like revealing someone to be a communist sympathizer in the 50s.
I can't help but smile, and glancing in the mirror I see two young African girls watching me, watching the situation, with rapt attention. These are the days memories are made of. Our friend continues to badger the people around her, and they're skilled at this sort of thing- you get the impression they've been on the 7 before. They ease her away from conflict as many times as she steers back into it. Her open beer can somehow shifts, turning upside down in her jacket and guzzling out, recoloring her groin and shoes.
When she finally gets up to deboard ("lemme off the bus here, driver," she says to my relief), clear down at Orcas, I can feel the entirety of the bus paying attention. I remember the whites of the eyes of the two girls, watching and wondering what the driver will do, and what she'll do. But there is no explosive confrontation. She simply yells, "I got no bus transfer today baby," and I say "hey, I appreciate you telling me. Thanks for bein' honest."
"Oh Ah always be real wit' you, bus driver, you don't gotta worry 'bow me."
"Well thank you for stoppin' by."
"I always like your bus. I got no money," she adds, forgetting her prior offer of twenty thousand dollars. You wonder if she's trying to goad you, by bringing up her lack of fare again. I'm not falling for it.
"Hey, I appreciate you bein' honest. Le's put it on the tab, how's that sound."
"Aw thank you bus driver," she says, in a way that somehow just doesn't endear. Maybe it's the beer on her pants.
"Yeah, we'll put it on the tab." As she stands there listlessly, I 'tell her to leave-' that is, I say- "I see you next time!"
After she leaves, the tightrope slackens off, and you can feel a collective sigh of relief. I look in the mirror and then straight ahead, smiling to myself. That sort of releases the crowd. Laughter. I say, "hey, it's better than TV!"
"I know that's right," someone chimes in.
"Daytime TV, oh yeah."
Will I let her on in the future? I will. I have already, in fact. Why, one might ask. I have no set answer. It is simply my nature, to give them the benefit of the doubt. She has been civil on the bus before, and there's a chance she just might be again. It's not a very big chance, but it exists nonetheless. Looking through her eyes you remember: she used to be a little girl once. There's still a little bit of that somewhere inside her.
The two African girls step off at Graham, wearing New Balance tennis shoes under their traditional garb, both beaming out smiles of warmth and acceptance and what else, a gladness at the sight of positivity in the face of negative energy. Practically lighting up the whole neighborhood.
Over in the Photography section~
These are not my best pictures of people. These are the ones- and there are many more- where something registered. You were party to something, present in this moment that will never again repeat. Some are from the ancient, living past, and some are from a month ago. But in all cases, whether it's someone I knew and loved for years, or a passersby on the street, it's small moments like these I cherish. We gaze curiously out at life, and there are fleeting glimpses that feel like they contain answers to something, or details heretofore unnoticed. There is the suggestion in these moments of something larger, a shape we can sense but can't define. I don't mean to equalize the great relationships of my life and the unknown masses in a way that's demeaning- I can't express how thankful I am for the time I've had with each of those special people- rather, I feel I can learn from everyone, strangers, friends, lovers, past and present. I am the result of these moments and thoughts, shaped by the answers, or the questions, they offer.
Happy Seven II
Rainier and Orcas. It was an afterthought. Middle aged mixed gentleman stepping out, and I had said to him my customary "have a good one," to no response. But after he steps off he returns to the present, registering my gesture. A slight turn of the head. "You have a good night too," he says, glancing back. You almost want to reach out and grab those moments, snatch them out of the air and put a lid on the bottle before they float away.
Similar but equally affecting situation happens with a thug hopping out at Holden, busy on the phone, his mind somewhere else- but enough of him is still here to hear me, and I hear his "you too" aimed at me, amongst the bustle of an ongoing dialogue.
Working man with a rake and a bucket of tools runs up at the last minute at Henderson. Often runners don't need your bus- if they did, they'll typically have been at the stop already; many's the time I've waited for a runner only to have him get off at the next stop, or somehow ignore that there's another bus right behind me. Having said that, however, there are those moments when you can tell this person would really, really benefit from making your bus, and this guy, Working Man, was one of those. It's evident he's been working long hours, and I say, "All done for the day?"
"Right on. Congratulations."
"Oh, you said it."
"You're a workin' man."
You can sense he appreciates being complimented as a working man. The solidarity of it. Of a worldview formed in hard work, in the tactile nature of most blue-collar professions, of the knowledge of performing something valuable- where you're actually doing something. Sometimes I have difficulty explaining to people that I am out here by choice. Someone on a bus once asked me,"you gonna get your GED?" "I have a four-year degree from the UW," I responded. The guy looked at me as if he just got paralyzed. He temporarily lost the power of speech, as if his brain couldn't process the implications of what he was looking at. "What?!" he said, as if someone had just insulted his family. There are essential jobs and there are non-essential jobs. Working Man and I smile. I hope he is proud of the implements of his profession.
"Wassup widdit," a young man inquires as he boards. "Not a lot," I say. As he and his ladyfriend deboard later at Henderson, I wish the line of passengers well. You can't say the same phrase to every single person. I throw out the "take it easy"s, "have a good one"s, "be safe"s and endless other variations of goodbye with abandon. I overhear the lady say to her friend, "man, he got a line for everybody!"
"Next stop is at Othello, by the gas station," I say. There's a classic Cadillac convertible blocking the exit to the gas station. Sunlight gleaming off polished surfaces, glare filling out the space between shadows. The driver and passenger of the car are exchanging places. I recognize one of them- it's Gregarious Basketball Player Man (a fun fellow; mentioned here), and I honk as I roll slowly by. His whole body lights up as he yells, to his friend's momentary consternation, "That's my guy!!! That's my guy!!"
"You are nice man," a first-generation African grandfather says. I tend not to wait for people when I'm doing a frequent route, but for him I did. I try not to be preferential, but how do you resist that smile? Lines creasing into goodness, transforming his weathered skin, an expression he's worn off and on since childhood.
"You always so nice! I love riding your bus!" They blurt it out without premeditation, two girls getting off at Rose, and it comes out with a bald honesty and enthusiasm that you couldn't replicate.
Me: "How's your night goin?"
Mid 40s, Rainier and Genessee: "Oh, not too great."
"Uh-oh! That's not good. I appreciate the truthful answer. But still."
"Yeah, I can't complain."
"What happened, if I may ask?"
"I be checking up on my daughter, she got into an altercation last night."
"That's terrible. She's okay?"
"Yeah, she's okay. She can take care of herself pretty well."
"Well, it's good of you to come out here to check up on her."
"Hey man, it's just what we do."
"Gotta look out for each other."
"I know that's right."
Beat. He lapses into silence, watching me meet and greet. He doesn't bring up his problems anymore.
"You got class, man. Keep it up."
A sense of rejuvenation in his tired voice.
"HAPPY MAN! HAPPY MAN!" greets the old Chinese man at Fisher Place. I saw him at the zone as I was pulling up, and waved big. He's been on my bus before. Both of us smile way too much.
On occasion I get to chat with "the Great Todd," as I call him. He's a newer full-timer (and highly skilled Brazilian jujitsu master) doing his tour of duty on the 7 at night for this shakeup. He rode my bus when he was just starting the 7 and I was glad at the chance to show him a few things. I really like when other drivers come hang out on my bus. Today, parked outside of Saar's Market at Henderson Street, he asks how I'm doing. I respond as I often do, with a low rumble: "eeexcellent!" He laughs. "You are one strange guy," he says.
I scribble down notes on transfers at red lights sometimes so I remember all these little moments. I'm looking at a note right now that says "kind of ugh lady tries to give me a kiss, then tries to kiss waiting passenger afr. lady, she and i share a weird/grosss smile."
That about sums it up.
"Kind of Ugh Lady" was getting out at Walden, really enjoyed the ride, and wanted to express that by kissing me. In my opinion this was entirely unnecessary. Her corpulent, significant form leaned toward me in a hug, gently tilting the bus with her weight (or so I imagined). I restrained myself from saying "no kissing on the 7," and instead turned my head away and thanked her. I locked eyes with the passenger waiting outside who'd been watching this awkwardness- that's the "Waiting Passenger Afr(ican) Lady." It didn't matter that she and I didn't speak each other's languages- it was obvious we were both thinking the same thing, which was, "eewww!" She avidly stepped away from Kind of Ugh, who approaches her with similar intentions. WPAL got on and we burst into laughter.
A young African boy standing at Rainier and Seward Park Avenue recognizes me as I make the turn. "Yosef!!!" I thunder out, as if announcing a starting lineup. "Nathan!!!" he screams in reply. The guys who always stand around by the haircut place glance over, confused at this heedless expression of joy. Yosef had been on the bus earlier that day.
Same with another young guy, except this time his name is Ahnus;
A mild-mannered teenager in the requisite thug getup comes up before we hit Cloverdale inbound, urgently asking to be let off. A group of girls had just walked past the bus. I look around, wondering if something's amiss.
"Sure," I say to him, slowing down.
He says, "I think I fell in love, goin' the other way, as we crossed paths." I smile. I can get into that.
"Like ships passing," I say.
"Exactly." There's something of a poet in this young man. Appearance means nothing.
An older East African woman in the chat seat, silent with a friendly air. She watches me, head tilted, smiling through wizened eyes at my interaction with the different people. I meet their dialogues halfway, without consciously thinking about it.
I'm waiting at 5th and Jackson to start my shift. A man sitting in the back of another 7 is gesturing wildly through the window at me. "YOU'RE FIRED," he yells through the glass. It's that guy! We exchange waves. (I've mentioned him in the past when he was on my 3; the phrase is his new trademark).
Androgynous Safeway Passenger gets on at Andover, as (s)he is often wont to do. He/she always has a great, warm air, as if excited to be here. I know I am. I think the fact that she's just getting off work helps. Dressed like a man, shorter with glasses, body full of energy, coiled like a spring.
Jermain's friend is standing at Walden, not at the zone but waiting to cross the street, and we recognize each other at the same instant- big wave, his "heeyyy!" still audible through the glass as I drive by.
Again, waiting at 5th and Jackson, I'm waiting on the sidewalk and someone in the back of another 7 recognizes me- this time it's Jermain, all smiles- who I will miss. We do a through-the-window fistpound. The girl sitting next to him watches wide-eyed. The next 7 rolls by, and Big Guy is sitting in the back, and he recognizes me as well, his dreads flailing in the air as he does a double take, and his crooked teeth flash in an expansive smile. With much silent gesturing we communicate "hey," "what time you come back around?," and "other side 5:30."
Carl with glasses comes up from the back once he recognizes my voice on the speakers. "I just had to come up and say hey!"
I'm riding the 41 home, exhausted but happy. I'm standing on the packed bus by the back door, looking out the glass at the platform at Convention Place. There's a young couple sitting together on one of those white benches. They're trying to lean heads against each other, but he's a little tall, and she's a little short, and they have to kind of crane their necks to make it happen, looks maybe a little uncomfortable- but they don't care. It's worth it.
"Whores ride for free, right?"
It's not the kind of question that you hear every day. He says it again-
"Whores ride free today, right?"
It's Tuesday. I wasn't aware. "I'm gonna leave that up to you guys," I say. What's confusing is that the lady following him up the stairs onto my bus is obviously not a prostitute. She's obese and dressed nicely. "That's my husband," she mutters. They sit down at the front and chat with each other (argue loudly) while holding hands (batting each other's arms). I ask if they're alright, and the pleasant attitude of the bus washes over them like a drug. "We're just clownin,'" he says, though they obviously weren't, and they speak in quieter tones afterward.
The lidded man gets on right after them; you've perhaps seen him before, moving up and down Third between James and Pine. Tall and imposing, with a face carved from years of hatred, and eyes that peek out from under heavy lids. "Can we get a five minute bus stop?" he says. I don't know what that means. "Can we get a five minute bus stop? 'Cause Renton is all the way, far away, all the way down. Renton is five minutes. We need a five minute bus stop tobacco shop."
He's one of those people you can't talk to. His ears might be able to hear you, but his mind is somewhere far away, drifting out at sea.
The man in the front seat who's been watching starts humming the twilight zone theme. "Doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo," he observes.
"That's definitely where we are," I say.
"Just the way I like it."
The southeast Asian man from the "Hesitant" posts (here and here) gets on and looks at me. Without saying a word he points at his tummy, tapping it a few times. "Looks good," I say.
As I look up in the mirror to close the back doors at southbound James, I notice a tumultuous slow-shutter blur in the back of the vehicle. Two men are savagely beating each other up. I forcefully tell them to step outside and continue their fight elsewhere, but they can't hear me. Other passengers begin to step off. Usually fights on the 7 involve kids, but these two are older- 30s, both of them, and they tear each other up with a ferocious concentration. I'm reminded of lions or tigers fighting over territory- lithe bodies endlessly shifting and clashing in conflict, only this rumble is different: they're fighting in complete silence. It's disorienting. I feel like I'm the only one yelling. Both are in top physical condition, and the only sound is the echo of bodies being slammed into the hard edges of chair corners and stanchions. These guys are serious. They leave the other passengers alone. No drunkards here. The elastic shape comprised of the two of them rolls forward, over and under each other to the middle of the coach, where I again tell them to step outside, which they do. Only thirty seconds have gone by. Worlds can happen in less than a minute.
Occasional regular passenger Margaret stops by and gives me some danish.
"Back door!" someone yells. I gesture with my arm for him to come up. I don't care about fare, but I do care about which door they use- probably a bad habit of mine. "Back door! Why can't I go out the back door?" he shouts, walking forcefully up. I deflate him with, "Thanks for comin' up, man, I appreciate that. No biggie."
"There," he says showing me his transfer. "You got it?"
"Alright, black man," he says, derisively. By his tone I can tell he intends the label as an insult, but I'm confused: this guy himself is black. I've often been called "brother" or "dawg" or "boss" by African or African-American passengers, but it's always intended as a compliment. This is a first: Older black dude tries to piss off young whitish-Asian kid by calling him black. Go figure.
By now it's dark outside. The inbound 7 is a fun feeling: you rise slowly, from the depths of the Valley, moving block by block towards downtown.
An older man irregularly stomps his feet and hands, without rhythm or reason. Sometimes his words make sense and sometimes they don't. He comes up to me, teetering on the brink of balance. "My mind is gone," he whispers in a hoarse voice. "My mind is gone..." I marvel at the part of his mind that recognizes this. Part of him is still here.
At Rose a young East African man with bloodshot eyes makes his way up the steps. He's clearly under the influence of a heavy something- that point where decorum is a struggle, and you have to work hard to have some semblance of normality. He sees me and makes the gesture of hands in prayer, nodding at me. He tries to put a dollar into the farebox, but it's the only money he has, and the motor skills required to place a dollar into the slot are too complex for him right now. Something tells me I need to have this guy on my side. "Hey. You should save that dollar. Maybe need it for something else."
"Thanks man. You cool." In a quiet voice he adds, "If anyone disturb you, let me know."
I can see that he's deadly serious, and thank him.
"Hang tough, brotha," a dark-skinned gent says on his way out.
At Othello two Caucasians appear, clearly way out of their element. One, with ruddy skin, unwashed hair and flat eyes, does the talking; the other doesn't make an impression. They carry bags of clothing and who knows what else.
It turns out that the flat-eyed fellow, Jamie, and his friend, Scott, were hitchhiking from Philadelphia when the car they were in stopped for gas at Rainier and Othello. The two of them stepped out to use the bathroom there, and when they emerged from the convenience store the car and its driver had vanished. They were confused and terrified, having utterly no idea where they were, not knowing who these strange faces were lurking in the shadows. There are always lurking figures at the Valero gas station there. That they were the only white people around for miles didn't make them feel comfortable either. "Let's go for a ride," I say. I learn that Jamie, in his four years in the Marine Corps, was stabbed 14 times and shot in the back, and that he's about to lose custody of his twin girls because he can't hold down a job, and that he's been checking out the day labor spots and is familiarizing himself with the resources here and has a shred of hope, but if he can't cover rent soon, CPS will come and take his kids away because he can't afford to keep them...
Me: "so this is some Danish that I'm not gonna eat," I say as I hand them the pastries that Margaret left me. Margaret thinks I'm too skinny and always brings me such things. It won't solve all Jamie's problems, but it'll make the 358 he has to get on a little more enjoyable. He is very thankful, more for the chance to be in a protective space, a warm space, than the food. His handshake at the end of the ride carries multitudes.
A new batch of images over in the Photography section, this time an assorted set taken in LA.
Continuation of the same day as Waves, X with a black border:
Amman, driving the 36, and we're excited to see each other. As he drives past me he turns his head completely to gesture and wave, cutting an unintentionally dashing figure in his hip sunglasses. Milan Kundera once wrote that your memories tend to be still images more often than moving scene with beginnings and ends; the glimpse of Amman with his head tilted and his two finger wave is one of those images that hangs in the air after it's already gone by.
At the Henderson layover, I lean out the door, bellowing out at Danielle, one of the other perennially happy Atlantic drivers. "Have a good night," I holler. "You too," she yells from across the Saar's parking lot.
Jermain's friend (who surfaced recently) shows up without Jermain, and I greet him as a friend, though I've never actually talked to him. African-American, high-school age, in a big white tee, gray sweats and basketball shoes. We chat for a bit about school starting, and then I hear him talking to another passenger. Sometimes I like "kickstarting" a conversation- getting it going, and then stepping out to let it grow into its own thing amongst the passengers while I merely listen. When our friend steps out at Walden he lingers on the sidewalk as a couple of east Asian grandmothers deboard.
What's he doing? Standing there, with a big bag of takeout in his arm. It turns out he had volunteered to carry out one of the grannies' bags for her. Mentally I want to selfishly take credit for that gesture of kindness, in that I fostered a positive example and environment for it to happen, but really, he deserves all the credit. What a guy. Not sure if he would've done that if a pack of his buddies were with him, but this is him too, big as life. Helping out for no personal gain.
Later Jermain himself stops by with another friend of his. I hear him telling his friend about me as they step on. "As-Salamu Alaykum," says Jermain. It takes me a split second to summon the response- there's so much going on in your head when you're driving the bus- but I'm there for him with a hearty "Wa' alaykum a-salam!" His towering friend laughs approvingly. Jermain goes for the classic bone-crushing handshake. Interestingly his other friend from earlier prefers the three-pound fistbump (up, down, head-on), which I don't see too often anymore.
Grizzly Tony, beer-guzzling panhandler extraordinaire, who first met me on the 4, now logs serious hours at Rainier and McClellan. He rides my last round trip with me. His life is a storied one. He mentions his 21 years in the military, and then we laugh about a little kid who recently tried to jump him with a penknife on Rainier. "Put that piece a shit away," he'd muttered to the boy. "I've shot down helicopters." The youngster had retorted with, "what if I start stabbing you?" Tony: "I probably wouldn't give a shit. Now go on, get outta here." Which is exactly what the bewildered would-be robber did. Lesson: bluster and experience with helicopters count for something.
I pull alongside Abdul on Stewart Street. He's on the 70 today, and with his sunglasses he looks like Jean Reno, except happy. He opens the doors and says, "we're gonna miss you at Atlantic!" Yet another of the greats at that Base.
On Third Avenue. Red-Haired Operator of the Month, a part-timer like me; she's out of North Base, but got forced to East for next shakeup. I tell about how I wanted Atlantic, but got forced to North. We continue our conversation while skip-stopping up Third- she'll pull alongside me at a red light, we'll exchange a few sentences, and then I'll pull alongside her at the next zone, and exchange a few more. Interesting way to carry on a dialogue.
It's nighttime now, inbound at Rose. I step outside to help out someone with their groceries. Grizzly Tony is still sitting around on the bus, killing time, and watching me he says to a genteel lady passenger, "isn't he great?" She responds with a look of incredulity and says in a tone of comically unpleasant shock, "I know. I was gonna say, what planet is this guy from?"
The last wave of the night is a double-whammie; the first part of it is between Dawna and myself. Dawna drives the 14. Maybe you've had her before. She's yet another one of the greats, smile beaming out of her bus at all hours of the night. I don't know how she does it. You get the impression that rather than life happening to her, she happens to life. She's possessing of a kindness unflappable, a worldview cemented in stone- an attitude that she and other great figures of our time project. Something I aspire toward.
In the moment that I wave at her, I notice an amorphous white shape on the other side of the bus, to my right. It's a stranger in the night, but he or she knows me, because (s)he's waving at me in a big way, with the same kind of extended arm salute that I often throw out at people. All I can see of this person is the white shirt waving and white teeth gleaming in the night, that universal expression of what ought be regular human existence- what we call happiness.
I'm reminded of an earlier moment in the day. At 07:00am, I was doing the 70 myself, laying over at University Heights. I was sitting on the grass reading my Tolstoy (just cracked the 700-page mark of Anna K!), and a crusty older street guy walked past. On impulse I greeted him. He responded warmly, and paid it forward to a "regular" woman walking toward him. She was pleased at the hello from him, and responded in kind, and when she got to where I was sitting, I said hi to her as well, mostly because the street fellow had done so. She looked mildly surprised as she continued past me, glowing in a temporary bubble where everyone says hello. I felt secretly excited at hopefully making her wonder, "why is everyone saying hi to me?" Later on this day as I was walking to the bus stop to go home, and a middle-aged black American guy strolled past me in the twilight. I said "hey," and he said, "how's it goin.' Good seein' you again."
I've never seen the guy before. Is this what John Travolta feels like? When people come up to him and go, "I loved you in Phenomenon?" Who knows. What I do know is that it feels good to be building something; a rickety, perhaps easily destroyed, perhaps temporary, but still real structure, an imaginary house where people are kind to each other, out here on the open streets, where such a house of kindness might not be expected. Ephemeral, yes, but present for now. What else is there, after all?
It's a day of waving. I don't where the energy comes from. I say hey to Chappelle at 5th and Jackson. I think he's finishing up a 7. Miranda is with me, and I can't help but say to her as buses go by, "that's Mike. He's cool. That's Bridget. She's great." Who knows how interested Miranda is in hearing me say the names of bus drivers driving by, but I can't help but extol the great energy that surrounds me at Atlantic Base. Each base has its own unique culture, and I feel comfortable saying that none of them have the camaraderie, skill, or positive attitude that Atlantic, as a collective entity, possesses.
Of course every work environment has its bad apples, but here that's exactly what they are- anomalies, irregularities that don't register in one's overall description of the place. I think this great energy results from how punishingly difficult and demanding the work is, and paradoxically, how satisfying it is because of that- it's work that draws a certain breed. You're either too new to go anywhere else (meaning you still have a good attitude), or you love the work (meaning you definitely have a good attitude, and are maybe a little bit crazy like me).
Even before I began driving I've enjoyed waiting around at Fourth/Fifth and Jackson. A good Service Planner friend of mine once told me that she enjoys her view of that intersection from her desk at King Street Center, because by watching that one intersection, through which such a massive percentage of the network passes, you can tell if something's brewing. You can sense it in the air.
As for myself, I like being down there because of the eclectic mixture of souls haunting the place- a hodgepodge assembly of friends and strangers, various Atlantic drivers (like myself) sitting around waiting to relieve other drivers, various street people who recognize me, and others passing through. We'll forget for a second about the people who fall asleep standing up or urinate in the corners. There's Joe's, the infamous bar and grill, around the corner, helping keep things, uh, interesting (and okay, shake-your-head bizarre); there's the sitting area by the fountain, the Tunnel entrance for a quick getaway, the beckoning tranquil space of Union Station, and the totally, completely out-of-place establishment that is FedEx Office, which has utterly no relation to anything happening out there except the fact that the owners very kindly offer Metro a bathroom for drivers inside.
Big Tony sees me on my way to work, riding the 41. He yells what he always yells to me ("BABYFACE!"), and I yell my standard reply ("BIG TONY!"). At least once a trip someone will ask me if I'm old enough to drive. Do I need to stop shaving?
I yell across the street at Roderick, on the 36; incredibly, he hears me, and we share a smile, the kind where you're both sharing an unspoken secret. I'm not even sure what ours was in that moment, but if I had to put it to words I think it was a shared understanding along the lines of "yes, this work is ridiculous, and yes, we each understand that the other totally loves it precisely the way it is." We share a passion for the work that's quite similar in outlook. I've learned many things from talking with him. He's the driver that looks like me in ten years.
Friendly Laotian appears inside my bus. I notice him in the mirror, and turn around and say the traditional Lao greeting just as he's taught me: hands together in prayer, a small head nod, and: "Sabadi!"
A big wave through the glass windows of Bed, Bath and Beyond at Roy, the Bed Bath and Beyond "bouncer." You know the guy. Always has a word for you, and for whatever young lady happens to be walking by.
Real Change Willy and I wave and yell at each other at Columbia, pretty regular occurrence;
Driving the big 7 up Third, I see 3/4 Tony (with the beret), Piano-Playing Joseph, and "Awesome Dude with Normal Name That I Always Forget"- drivers all, walking the sidewalk- and I honk and wave, overcome with enthusiasm. I'm gonna miss these guys.
Doing a difficult merge at 5th & Jackson eastbound while negotiating the three deadspots there, I wave at 211 Guy (the older fellow I see every day driving the 211). He smiles back with an expression of mild wonder, marveling at something about me or my bus- who knows. I give him a big grin every day.
Black Power Salute exchanged with Charles F.;
Dearborn "I Still Got Your Water Jug" Dude shows up again at his usual spot- Rainier and Dearborn, northwest corner. Same tattered black rags, one-armed leaning gait, and matted hair framing genuine eyes. Still smiling. Like he'd be making any other expression. It's easy for us to despise money, because we have it; but to find that awareness (of what money does) in the homeless impresses me. Depending on where you're sitting, those truths can be both easier and much harder to see. Dearborn Dude may not be in terrific physical health (it took me a while to figure out how many arms he has), but his mind can see things.
Today, it's another last-minute wave- we make eye contact at the last possible instant, through the traffic, grab bars, scratched bus windows, and construction haze- contact, for a millisecond, eliminating all else for a moment. Nothing else in the world in that brief iota of time. Just a couple guys smiling at each other.
Spur-of-the-moment wave at Chicken-Eating Dude- unwaved at as yet by me. He's the fellow who usually sits at Rainier and Plum eating chicken. After a moment of comprehension between bites of chicken, he returns the gesture. What was interesting to me about this was that he was clear on the other side of the street, five lanes of traffic away. How did he understand that I was waving for no reason?
I yell out at Hoarse Throat Man (the guy who got stuck with me at the Prentice St. accident, detailed in Orange T). He's also on the other side of Rainier, around Weller, where I'm stuck in traffic. "Hey, my friend!" I holler out. "Wha's goin' on?" He can't yell back a response, but motions in return. A few hours later he stops by inside the bus and says hey.
Cruising down Rainier past Holly ("our stop for the Senior Center"), I notice a man walking by himself; I give him the upward nod, and he responds just in time, raising two fingers and a thumb. I wonder what he's thinking. Secrets that I'll never know.
Group of kids getting off my 7 at Othello inbound, stepping out the very back door. They take their time, saying goodbyes to their friends who remain on the bus, and trying to hurry along one of their toddlers. I look at them all, wandering out, and smile at their ease. I wonder if any of them will look up or wave to the driver on their way out, and the last one does. I'm excited by the thought of whatever kernel of empathy, thankfulness, or togetherness, compelled that last fellow to throw up his arm in that lazy salute. There was something there that was real. Smiling to myself as I pull away from the zone.
Continued in the next post-