Recently on the 3/4, a young man in a red beanie, huge red sweatshirt, massive gray sweatpants, and oversized basketball shoes boarded with his girlfriend. He recognized me.
"Wha's UP, bro?" he hollered, as we bumped fists.
"Ey, good to see you!"
"Good to see you too! You're the cooles'!"
As they left out the back door, I yelled, "thanks guys!"
"Have a good one!"
"You too," said the girl.
The boy tarried for a moment and roared, "STAY OFF THE 7!"
"Oh, I love that thing!"
He frowned, pausing on the back door steps. "WHY?"
"I like the people!"
"Aw, SHUT UP!"
We both laughed. He laughed perhaps because he found my thought absurd. I laughed at his ebullient tone, and wondered if he thought I was sarcastic or serious. Faithful readers, you know that I really do like the people.
Some time later, I was strolling around the Henderson Street layover around 11pm. They play classical music from the loudspeakers over the Saar's Market parking lot, which I love. There's something so refreshingly anachronistic about hearing Tchaikovsky in the ghetto that it almost seems appropriate. The rich emotions and high drama, violins and cymbals crashing above a heated urban discussion– doesn't it kind of make sense? The scene feels steeped in time, anchored in the universality of the ongoing human condition. Down on the ground near my feet is a sleeping figure, a regular on this stretch.* He recently thanked me for the biscuit I gave him; he'd wanted my offering of biscuit, but not of boiled eggs. Clearly the guy doesn't know what a perfect boiled egg tastes like.
Tonight three men are in the bus shelter, passing the time. One is older. The other two are pushing their hands together as a show of strength. Garbage flutters around little circles, signs of life in your periphery. On first driving the 7 I remember being struck by the fact that people hang out at bus stops on Rainier in ways they don't elsewhere. Not even on Aurora are bus stops destinations in their own right, the urban answer to porches and park benches. The men look at me as I walk toward them.
"Have a good night, gentlemen," I say.
"You too," says the old man. "Don't work too hard, bumpity bump on those roads out there!"
"I'll try not to!"
I'm stretching my shoulders as I walk away, one arm straightened out, pulled towards me in the crook of the other. I'm a fiend about stretching on my breaks. Keeps my body feeling happy.**
"Ey, how you do that," one of the other guys says. I show him how and then cross Henderson street, now empty of traffic.
"Eey, my friend." It's the third fellow, walking out after me. I turn back. We meet in the middle of the roadway, standing on the double yellow line together. I know he's about to ask me for a transfer. Several blocks away a building was shot up with automatic weapons a week ago. Sixty bullet holes, not counting the shattered glass windows. Sometimes you hear firing at night. Of course I give him a transfer, but I'd do so anyway, because of the dark spirited eyes, the wrinkled brow, the curly hair... don't these describe friends of yours, of mine?
"Happy Father's day," I say.
"You know what? God bless you," he says, patting me on the shoulder. I've never felt safer standing in the middle of Henderson Street. He thanked me again a few days later, introducing himself by name. Elbee.
"You are just the sweetest," a pair of girls said later that night. "You deserve that paycheck!"
They're followed by an older man who recognizes me from a long time ago. He talks about how he likes my attitude, and I tell him how I love the route.
"I know you're telling the truth," he says.
"Yeah? You can tell?"
"Yeah, I'll tell you how. We, us number 7 riders out here, we see all the new drivers come through here, all the new guys who get forced onto this route. You see all these new faces. And then, after a shakeup or two goes by, they all get the hell out of here and you never see 'em again. As soon as they can pick other routes, they're gone. But you've stayed! I first saw you out here something, five years ago! And you're still here!"
"Thanks, man! Thank you!"
"Aaaaand, and your attitude is exactly the same as when I first saw you!"
"I can't help myself!"
*As it turns out he is no longer a regular on this stretch of cement– he was completing a probationary thirty-day stretch before being allowed back into a shelter downtown. Now he sleeps in much greater comfort. "Two more days," he grinned at me as the thirty days were winding down.
**Is your job a sitting job? Please, for the love of all that is holy, stand up. Do it now. Standing up, even for a few seconds, makes all the difference. It gets your blood flowing again and restarts your metabolism. Standing up for thirty seconds every hour will do more good for your body than running five miles on the weekends. You don't need to buy a bowflex machine. Just stand. There was an excellent flurry of articles in the New York Times detailing this a couple years ago. Read more here, here, here, and here.
"FUCK YOU," he says to his friend as they board, with such unhinged force I can only find it comical. Fifty-year old East African man in a sweatshirt and slacks, holding a wooden chair in one hand. I don't know why I think this is so funny. I think it's because he looks fairly refined, one of those serious middle-aged types. Phawk You. Maybe I should be afraid sometimes. But honestly, where would that get me?
"How you doin'?"
Upon hearing me and seeing my tone he instantly shapes up a little. "I'm good, how are you?"
Confucius said pleasantries don't make us better people, but they do keep alive in us the goodness we already possess.
"Excellent, thank you!"
"Tha's good." He smiles, appreciating my acknowledgement of his personhood and complete ignorance of his earlier attitude.
He and his friend sit down near the front. The second man is younger but taller, dressed in a huge lightweight blue and burgundy rain jacket. He expands like a sea star, spreading out, covering as much surface area with his body as possible. The two form a compelling visual image. I want to paint these guys. Don't think I'll ask them now, though.
"I don' care where you from," says the fifty-year old, apparently continuing a thought with his friend. They're are sitting behind me. "I keep my mouf shut. I keep quiet. I don' care, shit." Sheeyit. "Why I'm gonna care?" He continues. "I don' say no thing, I don't care." He expounds a bit further on his promise of keeping quiet before doing so.
Two young Cobain-lookalikes board, one with a guitar in hand. "Oh, hey, it's you again!" says the one to me, excited. To the second man I say, "ah, an artist! You can play whatever you want, I won't stop you!" I'm sure I'll regret saying those words one day, but sometimes you get some really good acoustic work wafting up from the back.
We're filling up. It's a night run on the 49, pulling into Convention Center. Here's a few more getting on. A young European couple, twenties, hesitant in their step. Must be visiting from out of the country. She asks, "do you go to Broadway?"
"I do! Where do you want to go?"
"We want to go to, is it, Broadway and Allison? by Fuhr, uh,"
"Oh. Allison, by Fuhrman, and Harvard?"
"Yes, I will take you there!"
"Okay! Thank you so much!"
Sparkly eyes, now full of youthful vigor. They're quite the attractive couple– not tall enough to be supermodels, and too friendly to be on magazine covers. Just perfect, in other words. What they also seem is very much out of their element. The dominating presence on the bus now is a three-way argument between the two East African men and a third black man of ambiguous heritage, wearing a Seahawks jersey, the current neutral Seattle uniform of choice. The two accost him regarding his birthplace, abandoning their self-imposed promise of being quiet on such matters. To their credit, they speak in low tones, but that just makes everything seem all the more menacing.
"You not from Ethiopia. I know." The tall guy. "I'm from Ethiopia! I'm gonna know. I know. You Somali?"
"I'm from Ethiopia," says the Seahawks man quietly.
"You're not from Ethiopia. How you gonna fool me? Live my whole life.... Eritrea? Eritrea. Eritrea maybe. You from Eritrea? I can understand that. Tell me you're from,"
"I'm from Ethiopia."
"You're not from there. Why you say you're from Ethiopia?"
"That's where I from," he says, maintaining his quiet tone. Impressively cool. He leans his bulk forward.
"Where are you from?"
Have you noticed how most fights– in the street, in the bedroom, the kitchen– start over the most inconsequential things? It all seems so intense in the moment.
"I'm from Ethiopia. I'm Ethiopian."
"I don' know why you keep saying that." The tall man's face is tilted back on the headrest, coolly looking down his nose at the other. Legs splayed out, jacket big and wide. Sotto voce: "I know. I know your face."
"You know my face? I know my face!"
"You from Ethiopia? What part Ethiopia you from? What tribe?"
I see the European couple shifting uneasily in the side seats above the middle wheels. I know what this all looks like. The impressively intimidating argument dominating the first half of the coach, bubbling chatter elsewhere, the Cobain lookalikes talking loudly in the back, a group of college girls going on about transcribing and transcriptions, various street guys peppering the room... and all of them in their own comfortable worlds, exclusive, uninviting to outsiders, not realizing they're forming a young couple's first impression of Seattle. A friend recently described to me her first impressions of the reality of American life as "uglier and scarier than anything [she] had imagined," and looking at the couple back there I get the sense they feel similarly. When you read a bunch of guidebooks warning about the dangers of travel in strange new cities, and then find yourself in this environment at this time of night, yes, the mind does wander....
For me the scene is different. I know the Cobain kids and the street guys. They're fine. And East African immigrants in their forties and fifties don't get in physical fights. They just don't. I let their argument play out, fascinated. The Seahawks man really is from Ethiopia. He speaks some language samples and specifies a few words and locations. All is well.
At Roanoke the European girl comes forward, followed by her boy. We're two stops away.
"Hi," I say to her. "I think I can take you closer. Almost there!"
"I did not forget about you!"
She smiles the warm smile of relief, the enveloping feel of safety coming back. Acceptance.
"Is it a restaurant, or a house?"
"It's a house."
"Oh good. Yes, we are very close."
The boyfriend pipes up: "finally, someone in Seattle is nice!"
"Oh no! Oh, no!"
"Yes, everyone has been so unfriendly,"
"Oh, I'm sorry! Welcome to Seattle!" Waving my arm in the air.
"Thank you! Now we feel welcome!"
"Where are you visiting from?"
"Oh great! Which city?"
"Excellent. I have three weeks in January and I'm trying to decide where to go, I want to go somewhere in Europe...."
She says, "you can stay at our house anytime!"
"You're so nice, thank you! So here's your stop, and Allison street is right behind us...."
"Thank you! Thank you. You're such a wonderful person!"
I'm surprised at their initial impression of Seattle, and can't help but reflect how just a few interactions can shape one's view of an entire city, especially when that's all you have to go off of. There are always friends, even in the furthest corners. I hope the rest of your trip is terrific.
Soon Mr. Phawk You deboards, singing a very different song as he leaves the bus– it's as if he's undergone a positive mental bath of sorts: "Thank you, my brother!"
"Thank you, my friend! I'll see you again!"
I will see him again, in about an hour. Everything will be fine.
"Don't get on!" says the other driver to the passengers. She's brought me her bus at the end of her shift, for me to take over instead of continuing with my own broken bus. A coach change, as it's called. "Should I let 'em on?" she asks me, as I get my things from the broken bus and prepare to board the new one.
"Okay, you can get on!" she hollers, leaving with the defective coach shortly thereafter. I saunter onto the new coach with the last few straggling passengers. The interior lights are turned off, and it's dark tonight. Everything's pitch black, save for the subdued orange glow from the sodium vapor lamps outside.
"What d'you think," I say to the crowd inside, "should we have the lights on or lights off?"
"You want 'em off?"
"Say you want 'em off?"
"Good! Me too!" I say as we get in gear, driving the 7 into downtown in 'stealth mode.' "May as well make it interesting."
"I like it like dis," says an older gentleman up front, dressed in a sports jacket and shades. I've never not seen him wearing shades. "Yeah, man. It makes everything kinda sexy!" He drawls out the last two words for maximum effect, to agreeable giggles all around. Kiiiinda seeexehh.
"You should do radio," I tell him. "You got the voice!" He and others nearby continue chatting, brought together by the anomalous situation of Stealth Mode. The people seem unusually excited by my willingness to bend the rules– not a big surprise, I suppose, but this isn't the same as letting people ride free or get transfers. The thrill has a different root.
They're not benefitting in any way.
Tonight there is simply the innocent excitement of doing things a little differently, of getting to be here for this moment, unlikely to be repeated. Those parts of life you tell your friends about, and you can tell it doesn't quite translate; maybe the ephemeral joy was too small, too precious, not quantifiable enough to be a story. But you were there, and it was kind of wonderful. The street woman in the chat seat thanking me now for being "awesome" is referring, I think, to the sense of equality she feels, the easy willingness of me to engage the crowd as a friend, not an authority figure. It's not really the lights. It's her and I joking around, the latent respect, unspoken but real, friends leaning back on the front porch chairs. Do you ever get that sensation of the yearning for belonging satisfied, an acceptance that sends tingles down your spine?
Passengers get on as we continue through town as a 49. Some are nonplussed. Others get revitalized, echoes of playground excitement on their faces. The hipsters try not to act surprised; others actually don't seem to notice, which makes me smile even wider. The street folk are delighted– lights off plays a little better to the 7 crowd than the 49 crowd, but we're all into it. I make an informational announcement in any event, just to let these new people know that I'm actually sane.
"Just want to let you know we've got the lights off tonight," I say, trying to figure out on the fly how I'm going to explain this. "When we were on the 7 part of the route some of us thought it would be, uh, 'kind of cool,' to turn off the lights... of course let me know if you want the lights on again, I'm happy to turn the lights on... welcome aboard the 49, everyone...."
Photo by Chad Solomon.
Thank you, friends, for making that opening such a wonderful event! I was babbling to you wonderful people without a pause from the moment I walked in the door until after the place had closed! I couldn't ask for more. Time is such a rare commodity; thank you for choosing to spend some of it with me.
Did you miss the opening? You might think you did, but wait!
There are two more receptions– a second reception on Thursday, October 16th, from 6pm-9, and a Closing reception on November 20th, also a Thursday, from 6pm-9. I'll be there at those times for both dates. The shows line up with Georgetown's Third Thursday art walk, and there's a lot of galleries inside Seattle Design Center (including COCA!) besides my show! Come check it all out!
Details, dates and directions can be found here.
Photo by Tim Willis.
I'm going to hold off from posting for a week or so as I go into what some of my friends call hibernation mode– not sleeping, mind you, but preparing for my September 18th show, which promises to be different from all the ones previous! Meanwhile, I'll leave you with this, a collection of interesting moments I've had recently, which all strike me with the unexpected nature of how events sequence themselves....
What the uninitiated would call a "crazy lady" boards and sits near the front. She speaks to the air in front of her. Another woman with more regular brain function, strangely affluent for the 7 and somewhat out of place as a result, boards at Union without paying. "I owe you $2," she says by way of explanation, and sits next to the unstable speaker. She ends up earning her ride through much more useful means than paying me cash– she speaks to the rambling woman next to her and keeps her at bay, artfully engaging her and keeping the thread of decorum alive. She probably didn't know how valuable her presence would end up being on the bus, but I was very grateful. "This one's on the house," I said later.
"God bless you," says a thug at Henderson after I give his friend a transfer. He shakes my hand in the ebullient glow of acceptance. Two hours from now he will be in the Saar's parking lot, fighting another young man, smile gone and a crowd gathering.
Two young men in an unwashed beige four-door, let's call it a Honda or Nissan or somesuch, nothing fancy. They catch my eye as I jog across the street in Rainier Beach because one is black and the other is white, and both seem dressed like– well, as if they just applied to Dartmouth and both like listening to classical music and progressive talk radio. Less than twenty minutes later I'll see them again. The beige car will be smoldering and crumpled from the rear. They'll be standing outside, hands on hips and foreheads, nerves fraught and struggling for balance. But that hasn't happened yet. For now they're simply driving, laughing about something, carefree and present.
A wheelchair is rising up on the lift. One set of wheelchair seats is occupied by an older Muslim woman. The other is a white guy in a suit in his forties– the only white guy in sight, and currently the only fellow around with a suit. He remains motionless as the wheelchair enters. Seeing this, the Muslim woman offers her seat instead to the wheelchair. I stand and walk back to get the straps, and right as the Muslim woman is hesitantly moving out of the way, before I can catch myself, I've said it out loud to the Man in the Suit:
"You don't feel like movin'?"
When he stares slowly and doesn't respond I say "okay," and ask after the wheelchair lady's day. Prejudice earns my disrespect very easily, and I try to forget about it. I ought not to have said anything.
But he pipes up carefully and politely during a break in the conversation: "I actually just finished donating blood. I'm feeling, really woozy right now."
I stand there a second and take him in as an individual. He wasn't a rich white guy preening at all the colored folk around him. No, he was merely a guy, a guy working through some issues, like every single other person. How idiotic of me.
"Oh my goodness, okay. I understand. You're fine. You should relax."
"Oh yeah, let's get you home." Pause. "Listen, I didn't mean to be testy in my tone back there."
"Hey, you're okay. All you did was ask a question."
"Thanks for understanding."
He'll say the same to me when he leaves.
I'm sitting in my seat, turned completely around, elbow on the farebox, talking down two violently furious drunk men. Both have verbally assaulted myself, others, and each other, and will continue to do so with increasing intensity for much of the remaining ride. The police will prove particularly useless this afternoon, both in their failure to respond but more curiously in one officer's regrettable behavior to one of the principals as he boarded, thus instigating the debacle in the first place. I aim for that delicate mixture of asserting myself and remaining flexible, bending like reeds in the wind and never breaking.
One of the screaming men, drowning in a pathetic and ugly hostility, continually restates his former military status. I feel the heady rush of working, really working, struggling to stay on top of a situation. I wonder when I'll see this man again– probably sooner rather than later. I don't know that it'll be just a week, exactly a week, and although next Friday afternoon he will be unkind and unhappy, he will also be sober. He will sneak on the back, all rage and muscle, never mind the fare, tearing his own transfer in a rash of entitlement. But, as he deboards at Othello I'll say to him, without irony, "Thank you, Mister Navy Seal! Thank you for serving!"
And he will slow a little, disoriented and uncharacteristically appreciative, stumbling through words of gratefulness he's not used to using. His voice is an odd fit for "thank you," but he does his best. Confusion. I want to hug the guy, but as in hugging a porcupine, I have myself to consider. I hope he finds more of what is missing in his life.
Triangle Park, across from the Frye– the very same "it's-not-the-Frye-unless-there's-an-ambulance-out-front–" right in the heart of upper Pioneer Square, is not known for harboring commuters with an urgent need to catch specific buses to outlying destinations. Especially not at midnight. Nevertheless, tonight a runner streaks out of its dark recesses toward my stop at Prefontaine, right as that famously short light turns green. As I've said before, I've noticed many runners are "impulse riders" who don't actually need your specific route. They just need something going up a few blocks. But you just never know. His eager smile and hustle convince me to tarry– African-American man, bald, in a huge black sweatshirt with some sort of red lettering.
After some pleasantries, we're rolling. I'm curious. "Did you need the 49, or are you jus' goin' up the street?"
"I needed the 49. I just missed the 66."
"Well shoot, I'm glad you made it."
This man didn't just need the 49, as it turns out, he needed it clear to the end of the line! And, would you believe it, he ended up being a Metro employee! He cleans the buses every night, and we talked shop and life for the rest of the ride. I never would've guessed, him flying out of Triangle Park like that. Today was a double shift for him, and he mentioned in a complaining tone that upon arriving home, he won't be able to get to sleep instantly.
"'Cause my kids, man, they gon' ask how my day was...."
He says it in a tone indicating he knows he shouldn't be complaining, buuuutttt....
I cut in, exclaiming, "that's 'cause they love you, man!"
He grins, relaxing.
"Yeah, dude!" I continue. "They're gonna say how was your day, they gonna ask whatchoo did, you're gonna ask what they did, they'll probably show you some stuff, and it'll all be beautiful! It's the great human condition! You know!"
The girl sitting behind us, with the wavy auburn hair, smiles as she listens.
I won't be there, but my work will! You might see me on a 7/49 going by. This show is unique in that the art is amazingly, stunningly affordable! Information above. Stay tuned for an exciting new upcoming show at KAG as well!
They get on at inbound Campus Parkway, having just passed up a 71. "So I'm just goin' to Capitol Hill, not Downtown," I explain. We're a short 49, merely going down Broadway and eventually back to Base.
"What?" says the first man.
"That's fine, Capitol Hill perfect," says the other. "You go down Broadway, right?"
"See, Broadway," says the second fellow to his friend. "Perfect."
I hear the second man muttering. They're the only people on the bus– it's my last trip, a late-night short 49 to close out the evening. The pair strike me as first-generation African versions of the Odd Couple, or maybe Laurel & Hardy, except this time Hardy's not tall and heavy, but the short squat fellow. Just as self-serious though. Laurel in this case is the second guy, taller than in those classic films, lanky and very fit this evening, one of those folks you sense feels pretty jolly regardless of the circumstance. Hardy over here, not so much. He's muttering darkly. "Well, that 71 stops at Convention Place, which is closer. Had we known."
"Hey," Laurel pipes up. "Where you go on Broadway?"
"I go south on, I go all the way down Broadway to Jackson."
"See?" he says to Hardy. "That's perfect!"
"Excellent!" I say. "Where do you want to go?"
"On Pine, close to Broadway, but a little bit...."
I think he's about to say 'west,' so I cut in with, "like down by Belmont, Summit? Bellevue?"
"Yeah, over there."
"Oh, yeah. I'd say its about equidistant between the 71 and me. And this way you get to walk downhill!"
Stan Laurel smiles, revealing rows of shiny, spotless white teeth. In an East African accent he says, "my friend just don't want to walk! I'm blue collar, he is white collar!"
He and I laugh in solidarity.
"He's the bossman," Laurel continues. "Me, I got my running shoes,"
"You ready for anything!"
"You guys going home?"
"Yeah. Well, not yet. We make a stop first, my friend he wants to see some music." I can't get over the deep fearless baritone of his voice. One of those men whom you have no idea what their past life consisted of, but you better believe it required confidence.
"Excellent! Yeah, don't go home yet!"
"Yeah, is' just a small band, one of our friends, underground, but they're good, you know?"
"Sometimes that's the best!"
We fly up Harvard, approaching Roanoke, making that wire sing. Nobody's out here. I think about not inquiring further about their friends' show, in the name of respectfulness... but how lame that would be! "What are they called, what's the band's name?"
"Yeah, Third World."
"Cool! Thank you!"
"Yes, they play at the Baltic Room, on Monday nights."
"The Baltic Room yes, right over there,"
"Yes. Monday nights. Nowadays the interesting genres they play on weeknights. Reggae, International, this type of thing. And then the hip-hop, R&B takes over all the weekend."
Hardy's too busy sulking to take part in the conversation. He gets some good alone time peering out the window. Laurel and I, though, we could be anywhere– a ship's hold, back of a kitchen, janitor's closet, folding hotel laundry– all the nooks and crannies where the working folk air their opinions, listening and making hand gestures in forgotten rooms, all over the back sides of the city. Populations choosing to spend the in-between moments talking together, sharing something– life– in common. Wiping your forehead with a rolled-up sleeve. Aren't you glad to be alive in this world?
I'm nodding. "Friday Saturday, more normal,"
"More normal, yeah." Slightly pejorative and okay, just a little delectable tones from both us, as in, we both know there's more than just that type of music, and we feel snobbishly good about this.
"Well, that makes me feel good, because I have weekdays off."
"Perfect. Yes, lot of Somali musicians play here around town. Like Fatima [unintelligible] was just here in Seattle, she just played here."
"Fatima Djari...?" Who? What? I lose it in the noise.
"Yes, Fatima [unintelligible]. She's terrific, getting very popular. In huh twenties. The international music is great,"
"Expanding your horizons!"
"Exactly!" He leans forward and back, elbows on legs spread apart, too charismatic, too enthusiastic to fit in one passenger seat. We build on each other's energy.
"Yes," I agree, "because the world is so much bigger than just the, United States,"
"Yes! I tell my friend here–" heeah– "sometimes you have to listen outside your comfort zone!"
"Yes, and discover new things! I say, if you only ever listen to stuff you already like, you may never find things you absolutely love! Things you never would have guessed!"
We dissolve in a joyful ball of agreement, nodding furiously. Hardy looks out the window. He rolls his eyes when Laurel slaps him on the shoulder, trying not to smile.
Tenth Avenue and Newton. After a pause: "hey. How do you spell that name? Fatima I know, but the last name?"
"Oh yes." He spells it. Diawara. "She's great! Very fresh!"
"And then Third World, that will be easy for me to remember. Thank you! Now I have something new to listen to!"
"Yes, you will like it. They ah very different from each other."
Hardy speaks. "Hey, could you let us know the closest stop for Broadway and Pine?"
"It'll be this next one."
"Just if you could let us know the closest,"
"Why are you worried?" Laurel speaking. "Everything is fine! It is a short walk."
Good-naturedly: "Stop trying to make it seem like a far distance! We ah already here, I could get off now even and be right there already!"
It's clear now it's really the Laurel who wants to see the music, not his friend, as he first intimated. But no mind. They are a regular comedy duo, one forever happy, the other forever the opposite, an odd couple, griping and laughing their way through a good time. The second man reminds me of myself as a child. Remember those moments when your mother was doing everything she could to get you interested in trying this meal, or getting in the water, maybe taking off those training wheels? And then you discovered how much you loved it? We don't know at that age what lies beyond the comfort zone. I hope Mr. Hardy has a similarly and unexpectedly good time at the show tonight.