Third in a series of three posts detailing the same night. See the two posts below.
A woman from Hawai'i asks for a free ride before stepping on, explaining which shelter she's going to.
"Yeah. Hey, thanks for asking to get on beforehand, that was nice." And risky. For her sake I'm glad I was driving.
"Are you goin' up to Nightwatch?"
"Awesome, come on in. It's a good program."
"Did you volunteer there?"
"No, but I take a lotta folks over there, and they always say good things about it. There's food until I think eleven." We'll make it.
"Is it a women's, or women's and men's…?"
"They'll probably send you out to a women's. What happens is you go there with a ticket, and then they find a spot for you somewhere else that you then go to."
She's been on the street two weeks and already has three job offers on the table. She lists them. "Security,"
"Or down at Sea-Tac, cleaning or loading, for fifteen bucks an hour. I think I gotta go with that one."
"Oh, totally! I mean, Walmart, forget about it!"
"I love that you're, um. Stayin' motivated and pushing it forward during this hard time. 'Cause you're doin' the hardest thing, keepin' up the energy and tryna move forward when the you've got the least energy, the odds are stacked against you. I find that extremely impressive."
"So, you said Hawai'i. I hear they have the best kimchi in the world over there."
"Man! I'm Korean, so I'm super interested…"
And we're off, talking like a couple of regular people. I could see how much that meant to her.
Not much later I had a similar conversation with another woman, who for years I'd see around the Paramount with a cardboard sign. "Long time no see," I said. She had sad blue eyes and a frail, wizened figure. I used to give her the free treats they hand out on Trader Joe's Silent Movie Mondays. "You look good, you look healthy!"
"Thanks! I got into a program finally."
"Oh, that's excellent!"
"Thanks! Yeah, it'll be eight months comin' up."
"Wow. Wow! Congratulations." Drug addiction and homelessness. Are there challenges more difficult to surmount than these two? I earnestly share with her similar words as with the Hawaiian woman, my admiration and sheer respect for her dedication. These are heroes as big as any other.
"Thanks. I'm still out here to try to cover rent. My rent's only forty-nine a month, but you know, I'm not getting a paycheck, and I still owe the nineteen dollar late fee from last month!"
"Shoot! " This is the in-between time, the hardest part, waiting and treading water. But her course is good, and she's still moving forward. I wish her the best of luck.
Bashi drinks too much, and tonight's no exception. Some things never change. A well-dressed father going out for the evening, he staggers on board, barely able to keep balance. He kisses my hand upon recognizing me. Not necessary!
"I love you," he slurs out, vocal cords struggling through uncooperative lips. "Anybody try to bother you, I fuck him up. I, fuck. I fuck. Him. Up. I love you. You're family, you know that?"
"Same! That's an honor, to hear you say!"
"I love you, I'm a good guy, I know you don't think that,"
"Oh but I do! I know you are. You always lookin' sharp, gettin' on dressed nice." I mean that without irony. Nobody else at Rainier and Rose gets on this late in slacks, polishable shoes, and a tucked-in button-up. "That's an honor, what you're saying. How's your daughter?"
"She's fantastic. Anybody bother you, I fuck him up…."
Everyone's falling down tonight. A young man stepping out the door leaves the bus, walks a few steps, then collapses on the asphalt, as though a switch enabling him to live had just been flicked off. I stepped out to inquire after his well-being. At first I thought he's just a drunk who needs to sleep off the effects, but I couldn't just drive away. No one's gonna stop and ask this black thug-looking kid sprawled out on the cement if he's okay.
"Dogg, are you okay? You cool?"
He nodded from his prone position, as if nothing out of place was occurring. It bordered on being comical, actually. Just collapsing to the ground for a quick nap on Pike Street.
"Right on. Stay safe!"
He nodded again.
A woman slightly older than me is overjoyed by the concert she's just gotten out of. She's still riding the wave. "My boyfriend bought the tickets. They were fucking expensive," she says. "I'd totally make out with you," she whispers a minute later.
"Um, uh. You're very kind!"
As I pull away from Roanoke, my periphery catches a familiar shape, just in time for a last minute wave. She's still there, the old stalwart, a neighborhood fixture who enjoys sitting on that one particular bench and watching the evening drift past. I marvel at her reflexes, noticing me and returning the wave just in time. It's been months since I've driven past there, but we still somehow know to look for each other. Oh, how I love life!
My good friend, Celia, came out to ride my last round. I sometimes joke that my friends can be considered in two categories– those who've ridden my bus and those who don't. It's a time commitment, coming out for a ride. I'm immensely grateful. Some people get a lot out of it. I know I do. Celia chats with me, or with whomever's next to her. We share in our love for humankind. Or in the passing moments she would just watch, listening to the world go by. I'm reminded of a favorite line of mine, from La Grande Bellezza*:
"How come he [the poet] never talks?"
The day turned to night, and then to morning. Neither of us wanted to close out the night just yet. All the stirring cacophony, the multiplicity of voices and details, gradually funneled down, the evening echoing into memory, boiling down to a pinpoint, coalescing into Celia and myself standing in her family kitchen after my shift. We sampled homemade applesauce, still earnestly discussing life. We whispered, that we might not wake her cousins in the next rooms.
There is always so much to talk about.
*If you watch one film made in the last five years, let it be this one. More thoughts of mine on it here.
And that's all for now, friends! I'm dashing off to Cuba and Mexico for a spell. But I have every intention of returning; look for me on the street and on the web in a week and a half or so!
Back on the 7: 9pm-11pm
This is the second in a series of three posts describing the same night. See above and below.
Austin comes racing across Broadway, jumping in at the last minute. Red lights were made for this. Usually I'm the one who says the archaic "as I live and breathe" to people, but this time it's him. A Cornish student and violinist, with whom I used to see once a week on a different schedule. We'd talk high art and literature while roaming the populated night.
"Austin! How great that you are here, on my first day back!"
"I thought I'd missed the bus, but then–"
"You saw it was me, driving with my light on–"
"I saw it was you and I knew!"
"It was meant to be!"
"How are you, what's the latest?"
"I'm going to Cuba on Thursday!"
"What the fuck?"
"That's what I thought!"
I tell him about the new Denis Villeneuve picture, Sicario, and why I think it's spectacular. We talk about Gueros, a black-and-white gem that showed at SIFF, by a new Mexican filmmaker. Is he still spending time with that young lady he was with at the screening?
"No, she moved. She's in London."
"That's not allowed! What's she doing there?"
"It's good. Everyone should do that. Travel and learn. She's dancing in the company, she got into Laban."
"Wait. She's dancing with Laban?"
"No, she's dancing with the company!"
"Oh, okay! That makes sense! I was about to have a brain aneurism!"
There's Michael Jackson. He pauses outside the bus, standing outside the open doors, slouching with glee. I don't believe it, his body language says.
"Heeey!" I shout back. "Where you been all my life?"
"Where YOU been?"
"I'm back in the game!"
"That's how I feel! How 'bout you, where you goin'?"
"I'm headed to a J.O.B."
"Congratulations, man! Michael Jackson!" I say his name as a sports announcer does a well-loved favorite.
"Shoot! He says, 'Michael Jackson!' I haven't smoked weed in a month!"
"Keepin' it responsible, nothin' wrong with that."
"I can't believe it."
"I know, you're kinda blowin' my mind right now." He was always high, back in the day. I say into the mic, "here we go," as per usual.
"Aawwwww shoot," he enthuses, as it all comes back. To the couple beside him, who are slightly cowed by his outsized eagerness, he says, "you're gonna be seein' him on da wall!" Meaning the portraits of Operators of the Year.
"He's like, 'naaaww!'"
"I'm too young, man! Tha' be too good to be true!"
"Good to see you!" is the rallying byword of the night. The past summer, working reduced hours and going to class, steeped in Art Life, Friend Life, in and out of love, has all been a treasure. I had the honor of showing in Pioneer Square, completing a film, and the painful privilege of heartbreak. But what about Bus Life? The absence of a crucial ingredient reveals its importance. Spending mornings on the 70 and the 36 with commuters has been pleasant enough, but words like "pleasant" and "tolerable" have no traction when describing the great and towering monolith of the 7. To revel in the specific joy of getting along with these people, these unvarnished masses, more crude, more polite, more loving, more hateful... the rush of surfing along this ridge tastes like nothing else. I feel whole, buoyed up by the challenge and the responsiveness of the crowd, as they push me ever higher, closer to the ceiling of what I'm capable of. You feel yourself raising the ceiling, piercing through it a little, and no other form of exhilaration is quite the same.
To be continued...
This is the first in a series of three posts, all describing the same evening.
It started slowly and then all at once, not letting up for eight hours. Do you remember what it feels like, to be in love? Not with a person, nor an an idea or a place, but with the overriding and significant act of being? I'm helping a Middle Eastern family with their stroller, looking into the mother's eyes as I would a cousin. I'm among friends now. I put very little stock in astrology, but a book on the subject once opened itself to a page which described me to a tee:
Pisces doesn't see a particularly meaningful difference between family and strangers.
I couldn't have found more accurate words. The partiality I feel for this woman and her children, a series of bright dark eyes framed by hijabs or open curly locks, feeds and refeeds my soul. My thirst for the present usually means the person in front of me has my genuine interest, but these folks on the 7 are fulfilling me in a way I haven't felt at work in some time. No other route so compliments my thirst for the vitality, the verve and chaos of modern life in all its many-splendored tides. Tonight is my first day back on the 7, the busiest and most notorious route in the country's fastest-growing city.
What's taking me aback this evening is how many people remember me. I've been away from the route for an entire summer, but the amount of goodwill directed specifically because of prior experiences with me is humbling in ways I don't know how to deal with.
"You're the greatest," a man says. How could I be, though, when I'm just being myself? Here's another mother and stroller, distant on a parking lot sidewalk, screaming: "Heeeeaaay! Where you been!"
We catch up at high volume while her boyfriend looks at us askance. He'll just have to deal.
Moving along, we have a gentleman at Mount Baker, a perennial on that block, casually wandering until he notices me. I've seen that hooded black sweatshirt before (the same soul as at the bottom of this post). He switches his paper-covered beer can to his left hand, in anticipation of a handshake as he bounds over to my bus, yelling to ensure I wait for him.
"Heeey, brotha!" he yells, the bus tipping ever so slightly as he jumps on, like a genteel citizen tipping his hat in greeting.
"It is you! How's it goin,' man!"
"How you been?" The exuberant tones in these questions are their own answers.
"I been doin' other stuff, finally got back on the 7, this' my favorite route as you know!"
"Man, iss good to see you." I've been hearing reports from friends on the Avenue of apathetic drivers of late, and his gaze rings with meant sincerity.
"It is so good to be back! Where I belong!"
"I don' wanna bother da people," he says, indicating he just stepped in for a quick hello.
"Ey, I'm glad you said hey!"
"Hey! I'm your friend! I see you around!"
"I'm a be here!"
These people don't even want to ride the bus. They aren't even asking for transfers! Goodwill is its own reason for delight tonight. I wish the whole of our culture, all those who act as if realism and pessimism are the same thing, who with their worldview call cynicism religion, could see what I'm seeing tonight. There are moments of goodness happening they don't have definitions for.
"Iss mah luck I get one a da bess drivers," a man in a black kerchief skullcap says. His fistpound is made of loving steel. There are new faces, too: I hear a teenager crawling up from the back with, "this ain't no tour bus man, you don't gotta announce every stop!"
He hasn't been on the Nathan train before. This is just how it is.
"Oh, I got to, man! It's how I stay awake! Keeps me sharp, you know?"
"Fair enough!" he says, grinning. He just wanted something to say.
I jog across Henderson to the bathroom, nodding "wassup" at the skulking figures there, watching their serious faces crackle into smiles. That's more like it. I spend my break shopping at Saar's Market with Operator Gary, musician and night owl 7 driver extraordinaire. Kale and Mini-Wheats for me tonight. Kale is the way of the future, by the way. Throw it on the frying pan with a dash of oil and salt. Michael is the cashier, with long dreads and a beanie, and he gives me a paper bag sans charge, because, as he once explained to me, "I may need a ride someday!"
To be continued...
It Just Feels Better
I'm off to Cuba for a week. I'll try to get one more story up before I leave tonight; this one had to go out first because it introduces a character in the next story. Thank you all for sharing in these moments. I'm so glad you enjoy them!
People call me the n-word when they like me, and 'white boy' when they don't. He calls me both, and he's always happy to see me.
This Michael's last name really is Jackson, a fellow in his twenties who makes full use of the excellent napping opportunities the long 7/49 route provides. Sometimes after dozing off a while he'll simply watch me work with the folks, smiling to himself.
"Be blessed tonight. Every night!" he calls out to his friends, who've just yelled a thanks to me.
At the Henderson layover now, he's showing me photographs on his flip phone. He knows I like photography (this was before the ad about me which proclaims that fact, causing people to come up to me, ask if I like photography, and then immediately step away, as if that were a terrible thing!). Michael's pictures are pretty good. Here's one pointed directly at the sun, as Akira Kurosawa first intrepidly did in 1950's Rashamon. Another one has an emphasis on spatial dimension a la Sergio Leone, with objects situated near and very far from the picture plane. Here's another which clips the heads, letting us only see the subject's mouths, not unlike the opening moments in Malick's 2011 Tree of Life. I sum all of that critique into one word: "tight," I say aloud, expanding a little further.
"Man, you're just fuckin' the best." He asks permission, then takes a picture of me. This is the third such event tonight. Earlier a piano playing girl was excited, and before that I'd asked some men in the back to photograph some graffiti I liked and email it to me. I don't have a camera on my phone, and the graffiti, pictured above, touched my heart. One of those situations where you ask, "excuse me guys, this is gonna sound really weird, but…." I'm glad they were amenable. We have an earth to share, and we may as well get along.
Michael continues enthusing. "You're always sayin' shit, sayin' hi, and even though they angry at first they be like 'hi!' Fuckin' treatin' people good and shit." His is a wide-bodied grin glowing for days. He shakes his head in aw-shucks wonder, like you do when your favorite player tosses in a three-pointer, no big deal. "I see you talkin' into the microphone, I'm like 'that's my dude!' You're great."
All I can do in the face of such praise is turn it around. Sincerely, I say, "well, thank you for smiling, for always–"
"That's my nickname, you said it!"
"Nice! That's' beautiful thing you're doin,' smiling. I know you're positive 'cause I remember the day of the Super Bowl, after we lost the game, and you were still happy, talking 'bout how it was a good game, well-played game, good football. Whole rest o' the city's cryin,' you're talkin' about it was good football…."
He details how he watched the game at a bar on Rainier Avenue with– not friends or family, but a local police officer. Both were extremely curious about the game, and decided to step off the street and spend some time together. Michael described the ebullient nature of such solidarity, a sharing of life so unexpected it makes you just about blow up with well-being, the possibilities of goodness all around you becoming realized. It could be like this. It's like this, right now. I know how he felt; I was once in an abandoned barn in Eastern Washington making photographs, way out on those vast and unbodied plains. The officer who accosted me on scene provided me with what can only be called the greatest civilian-officer experience I've ever had. He actually presumed I was innocent. He was genuinely checking in to ensure I was doing all right. We talked about good nearby photo locations, and how a lot of Japanese tourists have been through here, how he was surprised by how much they liked photographing things like empty barns and wheat stalks. I wanted to hug the guy.
"Iss 'bout bein' positive," Michael sighs. Pawsitive. "Niggers actin' all hard and shit, forget how to enjoy life." The Dalai Lama might use different vocabulary, but the two of them would be politely nodding in agreement were they both here; who can forget the Dalai Lama's wonderful thought, phrased to perfect succinction: "choose optimism– it feels better!"
"You a cool ass white boy, man," he continues. "You a cool ass white boy, doin' your thing. Don't stop!"
"You too, man, you too." I'm referring to his resilient attitude and his ability to see all that is light, whether cool or uncool. "Stay happy!"
"You too. Hey, be blessed, be safe!"
"And you also! Be blessed, be safe!"
"Hey!" He pauses for dramatic effect, and with a grin christens me with a new name: "Nigga Nate!"
I'm in a mellower state this afternoon, contentedly focused on giving the smoothest possible ride on this 70. A youthful man in a sweater, one of those young professionals returning home from the Eastlake corridor, comes forward to stand for a while, watching the proceedings up front. After pulling the bell, he says in a congenial Indian accent, "there is something so satisfying about being the one to pull the cord!"
"There is something strangely satisfying about pulling the bell cord!"
"Yes, there is!"
How lovely, that he felt comfortable sharing such offbeat innocence with a friendly stranger. We all have thoughts like this, but how often do we refrain from sharing our love for the simple pleasures, just for the sake of petty sophistication, irony, coolness? Being ourselves, in the purer sense, is both easier and much harder. It requires a belief that we'll draw toward us those souls who are similarly minded, and a genuine disregard for the judgments of everyone else.
In an enthusiastic sense of esprit de corps I exclaim, "I think so too! It brings out the inner child in us."
He sighs happily and says almost by way of explanation, "I think my inner child is always out!"
"I think that's good. I try for the same."
"Well, thank you. Like seriously, your cheerful attitude brightened my whole entire day!"
I didn't realize I'd been doing much of anything, in my mellow state. "Thank you so much!"
When I see photographs of myself as a child, I sometimes think, that little person knows so much more about how to be happy than I do. He flutters on ahead, beckoning and unreachable, dancing a little further ahead on the path of life.
One day perhaps I'll catch up.
Love is in the Air
Begrimed is such a perfect word for this man, sitting in the front seat, staring at me. I love the English language. With 615,000 entries in the OED, you have the incalculable luxury of always being able to nail down the particular subtlety you're after. The unlaundered trenchcoat, kinked and torn and growing stiff with organic filth, fits right in on this ancient, dilapidated vehicle. The non-slip flooring is streaked with peeling paint, and the metallic panels and glass are carved about with various slogans and namesakes, their angular letters vying for attention with the natural blemishes of age.
Several of the interior lights are out, and the resulting gloom emphasizes the shadows of our friends the bulky figures. As a youngster on the 174 I remember thinking that freeloaders and sleepers seemed larger, occupying of more space, because of their need to carry all possessions on their person. Jackets over hoodies over sweaters, and bags inside of bags. On this particular late-night 7 we carry a lot of sleepers, because the short turnaround time at Henderson means a full round trip of napping. It's pointless to fight such endeavors. For those who need it most, beds are among the harder things to find.
The begrimed man at the front is no sleeper, however. He's wide awake, stubby fingers working as he regards me between thickset, narrowed slits. You know when a face in the shadows is watching you, even if the unkempt mustache conceals the mouth, even if nothing but pinpoints of light mark out the pupils.
He's growling softly. Slowly his growls become discernible. He growls, "after you get off work I'm gonna take you home and make you mine."
They say sexual harassment is usually never about sex, but about power. To think of such come-ons as genuine flirtation would be amusing if they didn't end so awfully for some. You almost want to ask, has that approach ever actually worked?
Somehow my first impulse is to laugh. I do so, saying with friendly confidence, "oh, I don't know about all that!"
"As soon as you're off, you're comin' with me." The growl. "I'll warm you right up."
I did what a female night operator once told me works for her– accept the implicit compliment and then steer the conversation somewhere else. Lead this dance, don't follow.
"Yeah, tonight's my last night before vacation, nine days," I say.
"Yeah man, I'm thankful. Doesn't happen often, lemme tell ya."
"Where you goin'?"
"Mostly I'll stay here, but I'm takin' a few short trips out to the East Coast, then down to LA, that's my hometown."
"What parta LA?"
"South Central. You know South Gate?"
"Yeah, I'm from Orange County."
"Oh, cool! What part?"
"Anaheim." Which, though it's a big city, has zero street cred compared to South Central. In the ongoing (and completely useless) SoCal geographical status dialogue, there's a hierarchy here which works in my favor. The thing to do is let him feel respected despite that, bring him in.
"Oh, cool. Friend of mine went to Chapman, the school there."
"Yeah, it's a good school," he grunts.
"So I've heard. You know what's interesting? They have a piece of the Berlin Wall there, and it's one of only two pieces of the Berlin Wall in the whole United States. In Orange County! Go figure." He's not overly engrossed by Berlin Wall remnants, but I don't care. I need to keep leading! "I don't know why. It's like you know the Lenin statue up in Fremont? That's the only Lenin statue in the whole country. I don't know what it means!"
The man's interest in discussing Communist revolutionaries and East German artifacts is approximately zilch. He lapses into silence.
As he gets out he starts saying something about penises, but I heartily steamroll right over the guy with an enthusiastic and concerned "have a good one! Be safe now!"
On my last trip he reappeared.
A distinct difference between taxi drivers and bus drivers is that taxi drivers can choose their fares. Bus drivers can't. I opened the doors at Mount Baker and a few people boarded, our begrimed friend included. But there was no cause for fear. We only talked about bus matters. There was no mention of trenchcoat removal, no dark muttering about fornication. I asked how his last hour had been, and where he was off to next. There'd been a mix-up with his keys. He need to go his landlord's to drop off a pair, and there was no bus going out that way for a while. We discussed landlords and bus routing in SoDo. As we approached Chinatown, we considered the remaining distance and figured it might be quicker for him to walk.
This time as he left he said something about beds, but once again I was entirely too busy thanking him to hear: "Be safe walkin' out there! Take it easy!"
Like nothing awkward had ever happened.
What Not to Say
She rides every Sunday night, on her way to church. Her love of God and music overtakes her body as she gives in to the rhythms of her headphones, her body shuddering as if in outright control of the beat. We might call it foolhardy for those of us with eyesight to plug ourselves into the voluntary deafness of earbuds, but for her, doing so is even more unwise. She nevertheless manages things every time, tapping out her environs with the red and white cane, gyrating to her music and simultaneously carrying on conversation with anyone who wants to listen and a few who don't. I imagine her sense of hearing dwarfs my own. Tonight she, a colorful cacophony of bright clothing and bags, her eyes permanently screwed shut and body forever dancing, came aboard with seconds to spare.
"I'm so glad I made your bus!"
"I like taking your bus 'cause the one after you is driven by a foreigner!"
Such statements rub differently in our weaker moments. At the end of a shift, tired and hungry, being our best takes effort. It's easier to laze into reactionism. I flashed to my uncles, scrubbing restaurant floors for a pittance just so their children might have a future in this country. I thought of my Grandfather, opening a market in South Central LA, barely able to speak English, surrounded by strangers who knew nothing of his prior accomplishments, his significant past life and culture an invisible memory. My Mother, looking out at the new world. When all that was familiar is suddenly absent, and those around you don't notice or care, the words humility and perseverance gain traction as no one besides can understand.
"I bet he got you there just fine, with no problems at all," I said aloud.
"Well yeah, but I just don't trust them. What if he forgets where I'm going?"
Is there a word worse than 'them?' Her use of it grates. I'm still stuck on immigrants. An accent should be recognized by more people for what it is: a badge of honor. It means that person or their relatives, had the courage, the sheer gall, to drop everything and completely restart their entire life in a strange and different place where they would noticeably stick out, be hampered by significant handicaps like language and knowledge, and bizarrely, be expected to keep up to the standards met by those with lifetimes of experience in said country.
Fifteenth and Campus Parkway, while the glowing red light gives time for these thoughts to pervade my vision. There's a 'foreigner' on the bus just now, a young olive-skinned man my generation. Wonder what he's thinking. I thought of dinners with my family.
I should not have said what said next. I turned around in my seat, a pointless gesture since she couldn't see me, and said, "okay. So if you say another word about foreigners I'm gonna ask you to leave this bus, alright? They're people just the same as you and me, and we're not gonna talk about other people in that way."
Wait a minute. I can't be kicking old blind ladies off the bus just because they have different opinions than me! In the middle of the night? Talk about ridiculous. But life has no undo button. What's done is done. I'm reminding myself that religion on the bus is always a terrible idea, and how it's probably not a bright concept to dig myself any deeper holes, like bringing up the obvious contradiction between her attitude and her destination….
"Well," she said, "it's just that I can't trust them, they can't hear me as good, they might not hear me when I want to get off!"
"Okay, so I'm a foreigner, and–"
"What? Are you Canadian?"
"–and because of the way you've been talking we're not gonna talk anymore about this, okay? I'm happy to talk about to you about all kinds of other things, but not this."
"Hey, I'm takin' my Mom to the Neil Diamond concert!"
"Oh, that sounds excellent! Where's he gonna be playing?"
And just like that, we were able to bring it back. She closed that door with ease and I followed suit, and we found ourselves as fellow humans once again. She waxed rapturous on The Jewish Elvis to myself and those around her as if they naturally loved The Diamond as much or more than she. I admired her utter lack of self-consciousness. Sometimes her brash self-absorption chafes on me, but the positives of such extrovertedness outweigh the negatives. Such bravery, going forth into the world as she does, into the crosswalks and into the silences, taking on the uncertainties of an ocean of noise and impatient voices, the multitude of beings quick to judge her, and those who may simply just not know her story. Like myself.
With Sarcasm, and Dignity
"Geezer program?! You're what, fifty? You're a young guy, man. Don't you know sixty's the new forty?"
John and I continue our conversation. We're passing the time by ribbing each other– I'm trying to convince him he'll be alive for a long time, despite the "geezer program" he's currently in, and he's ribbing me over the fact that I let myself get sweet-talked into working today, a Friday night last March, because I'd forgotten I actually had the day off. As someone constantly starved for spare time, I'm more than a little aggravated with myself, but his casual humor is just what I need.
"You'll have a lotta 'splainin' to do to your girlfriend," he says. "She's sittin' on the couch all by herself on Friday night while you're goin' up and down Third avenue all night, talkin' to a bum like me!"
"You're not a bum! And you're not a geezer, either. Eighty's the new forty."
"Hang on, I thought it was sixty! You tryin' to call me old?"
"I'm tryna call you young! And I don't have a girlfriend right now."
"Well, no freakin' wonder! Look at you, can't even remember what days off you have!"
"I know, what am I doing out here? What town is this? Okay, tell me about this geezer program."
"It's like a volunteer corps," he explains. John's a boatbuilder by trade. "It's through the same company that does Americorps, which does that thing all those college-age kids take, kids your age,"
"College kids! I only look ten! I'm gonna be thirty in what,"
"Okay okay. Well they all go through it and, you know it's a certificate program, they all get a certificate at the end. We, us geezers, they give us a mahogany casket."
"Get outta here mahogany casket! You're, I'm tellin' you, you're gonna be alive for a while...."
"Hope so! It pays pretty good, pays about the same as the kids get, six hundred a month, six fifty."
"Okay. Okay. I see your point."
He explains that he's "doin' the shelter thing now," staying up at St. Mary's, which he describes as one of the better shelters. That's fine, but my mind flashes to an earlier time when shelters were never part of a John conversation. I recall him with clean divisions, the sharp lines and confidence unsullied by the hangdog blues of homelessness. When his weathered 'n ready look seagoing men have was overlayed with an air of better straits. We would talk photography, printing, carpentry, boats, houseboats, ships, sails. Articulate, this guy. He's an artisan in several fields, but the job market favors the young. When did lack of life experience become attractive?
"Wait, what happened to the houseboat?"
"Too expensive, man," he explains. "Every time I turn around something was breaking down or needing replacing. Minute you get one thing fixed, another thing falls off,"
"That's a drag. Whole thing fallin' apart after you spend a fortune on the rudder,"
"Oh, it's crazy. I've got it dry-docked right now,"
"'Cause it needs a new hull. But the crazy thing of it is, a new hull costs three thousand!"
"Oh, fuhgeeeett about it!"
"It takes six months to a year to save up three thousand,"
"Six months?! You're good!"
Bum is a word in desperate need of removal from circulation. I don't care for its blanket implication of laziness, which is not always applicable. Climbin' the ol' ladder can be quite the struggle. John, now, a friend like you and me, sharing how he's always lived on water. He's still got it, I think as I listen, the spark that makes him singular, a man who still comes with surprises, identifiable from all other the other Johns, Roberts, Michaels. People.
He hopes someday to get a fiberglass hull to avoid the recurring maintenance. He likes the "geezer program," as he calls it. "We're supposed to be be working on, have some project, like community-oriented. Basically we walk around…." I don't remember the details. His tone– sarcastically positive– was more captivating. Finding humor in hardship is a skill, and he's a craftsman at that as much as with woodworking. He expounded on his boss and colleagues, how they make the day turn by joking through it all. "'Put that bum to work!', they'll say!"
"I like bums!" I exclaimed, attempting to wrest the word out of its definition by overusing it. "I come from bum stock!"
"Jumpin' on train cars?"
I wanted to somehow remind him of the qualities he had. I wanted to state with some kind of urgency not to lose the skill and humble pride of his better selves. That it was very important this vagabond phase doesn't beat him into anonymity. But how do you tell someone they're worth it?
Maybe just by appreciating their presence. "Hey man, I'm glad I ran into you," I said. "You made my night."
"You're still on 7's?"
"Yeah, as long as I can remember what days I actually work!"
"Well, it is Friday the 13th and all,"
"Oh no wonder! This was bound to happen!"
"I'll see ya!"
I'm not too worried about John, despite his current circumstances. He puts in the effort. This is a guy who stays at homeless night shelters but still bothers to give himself a clean shave!
"Hey, do you know what time it is?"
Southbound Third and Marion, as the world is going home. I love it when I know people's names.
"Hey, Mr. Weyling! It's 7:17." He's a spirit I know from the late-night runs, thirties maybe, angular, with a childlike sensibility unnoticed by those distracted by his penchant for stentorian volume.
After staring a moment, my face starts to make sense to him. "Oh hey, its you!" he shouts. "Do you like me?"
"Yeah, you're a nice guy."
"Some drivers don't like me," he yells. "They won't even open the GODDAMN door."
"That's no good," I reply in an agreeable tone.
"Do you know why? DISCRIMINATION!" Pause. Reflecting. "Why do I talk so loud?"
I find him endearing in a way, with his sweatpants and no-frills jacket, clothes your Mother would choose for their practicality, though she'd have found a cleaner pair; and his baseball cap, not the trendy flat-billed kind, no, just the old-school regular, a person outside the peaks and valleys of fashion. His comment about "goddamn doors" and subsequent answer are articulated with an uncomplicated passion I find oddly adorable. The last question is asked with innocence, as though he really is curious. Why do I talk so loud, after all?
I'm reminded of a long-ago memory: a girlfriend and I were waiting to cross Third Avenue in Belltown, and she circled to the other side of me, further away from a homeless gentleman on the sidewalk. The man saw this and said to me, "why's she afraid of me?" I looked at him with kind eyes, caught dry for words. Then he sighed, saying, "why's everyone afraid of me?"
"I don't know," I said. He swung his arms in the afternoon sun, one part bored and two parts frustrated, considering how the world saw a type, not a new person, when they looked at him. I wish I had bade him a good day.
Mr. Weyling likewise seemed to be asking a question not to me but to the universe. "I don't know," I said once again, in a friendly tone I haven't always known how to use so comfortably.
"Do I need to see a doctor?" he bellowed. Which sounded like, is there something wrong with me?
"No, I bet you could talk quiet if you wanted to."
"I can hear people and cars perfectly!"
Mr. Weyling grinned with pride, and without trying I couldn't help but reflect his smile. "That means you got no problem, it's all good!"
He gave me a thumbs up, his grin toothy and crooked, unfeigned, one of the evening's many sparkling whispers of the bona fide.
Let me hang on to every little moment like that. Let me have the eyes to note the positive, no matter how minute, and recognize their substantiveness, that I might not rot into jadedness, or miss out on some of the very real events surrounding me, twinkling like so many fireflies in the night. We only really see what we're looking for in this life, and the choice to be sensitive to such glimmers is a decision which has yet to tire me.
Longtime readers may recognize some of these images, but I want to share them with you anyway. The blog has built an absolutely enormous amount of new readership in the last year or so (keep spreading the word!), and while I'm in the process of scanning a bunch of new rolls, I thought you might like looking over these, scattered moments of life too rich to capture with only words. That's Watts, above, near the towers. Check out the rest here.