My head's been wrapped up in some pretty heady stuff lately, as you can glean from the post below, and from another big one I'm about to drop, regarding a passenger I've been wrestling with how to think about for months. The complexities of the street range far and wide, as do the ways of considering them.
Meanwhile though, there's also just some guys who are doin' okay, capably making it through another day and feeling all right about it. And that's as much a part of life as anything else. Like this bald-headed fellow in his forties now, gravel-flecked voice and unassuming blue sweatshirt, manly but companionable. He'd been watching me work for most of the ride, and only now spoke up.
"Day's pretty rainy, huh? Haven't seen days like this in a minute, huh?"
"Oh my gosh! Like I forgot what rain looked like, it's been so long!"
"Thought this place was California!"
"I like it like this though! Instead of it's hot all the time."
"Yup. Easier to fall asleep, when it's not hot."
"Yup yup I hear you, exactly."
We went on about the weather for a while. I'll spare you the play-by-play: how falling sleep when it's cold can also be trying, how many blankets we use to keep warm, the impact of living on lower or upper levels….
What are people really talking about when they talk about the weather?
I'd argue it's the same thing they're intimating when they quickly breathe, "how's it goin'." Sounds almost like they're asking how your day is. Sometimes that's true, but more often they're sharing something else, something different, which I find just as comforting.
They're telling you they acknowledge and respect you. They're recognizing you with a sense of togetherness. We're on an equal plane here. This is a safe interaction. We are fellow human beings, sharing time and space, and I want to take a moment to recognize that. It isn't that weather is so scintillating a topic we simply have to discuss it with complete strangers. The talk of clouds and rain, the inquiry after your well-being– it's a shorthand for something altogether more meaningful. I respect you. The number of times I've defused a situation on a bus by simply asking how someone is doing… real communication is happening there, in what we may once have called wasted air. Confucius wrote that pleasantries don't make us better people, but they keep us at the good quality we're already at. Respect and acknowledgment. That's what we were telling each other, as I explained about using five blankets in the winter.
"I got a job actually," he was saying, "where they're cool people, this place called Labor Works, it's a temporary–"
"Yeah yeah, up there on,"
"They have it in uh, they have it in Lynnwood, Renton,"
"Dude, that's a great thing for the people."
"Y'it is! Labor Works. I can go up there get paid like the same day, the next day,"
"Isn't that awesome?"
"It is awesome, and they put it on like a debit card fo' you. The only thing is as long as I don't mess up, like they say don't do drugs and stuff,"
"Right. You seem to have it under control."
"Yeah I have it all under control, but the thing is as long as I keep comin', to work you know, I pretty much got me a job!"
There was a humble pride in his tone, with a hint of self-surprise. The journey of our short conversation had reminded him he'd made it here from somewhere different. And that was worth something.
"That's beautiful, man! You got it goin' on!"
"I do got it goin' on. Alright thank you!"
I was recently telling a supervisor friend about an unpleasant incident. I don't talk often about unpleasant incidents, for reasons outlined elsewhere, but they happen. No matter how nice you are, there will be a couple days out of the year that are exceptionally challenging, and this incident was one of them.
Three months after the fact, my colleague listened, and as she listened, she grew appalled. She was visibly upset, overwhelmed with concern for me and flabbergasted such an event could transpire. What was most appalling wasn't the actions of the customer, but the lack of response on the part of Metro and King County Sheriffs, which I have to admit was as much my fault as theirs.
"Still," she said. "You deserve better than this."
She meant I as an employee deserve a timely police response. But I took the statement as something larger, more philosophically expansive. You know how I overthink things. At the time of hearing the words I took them to mean, I deserve better. I deserve to be treated well. Humanely. With respect.
What a great idea.
I walked to my shift with these thoughts in mind, realizing the perspective felt new. Maybe I as a human really did deserve respect, acknowledgment, fairness… all the time. And since I deserved all this, I could expect to receive it all from the universe. What a comforting thought. The sensation of considering it was akin to letting something go, dropping into a cocoon under someone else's control, where I didn't have to take care of everything on my own; where I could trust and expect to be treated fairly by everyone, from individuals to institutions.
I started my shift. The previous driver gave me his bus, thrilled to be done, and I hopped in, excited as usual. I trundled up and down Third Avenue like I always do, lollygagging up Jackson like any other day, sandbaggin' it down Rainier as per the norm… with one small difference. I was expecting people to treat me nicely.
It was one of the worst afternoons I could recall.
Nothing was different except my frame of mind. People walked on without speaking, as they sometimes do; they asked for free rides and transfers; they asked for second chances; they didn't think about me, my needs, or that of others, but just about their own. In their struggle to survive they didn't think about giving back to society. They had agenda items more urgent than being polite, more pressing than altruism and making sure I felt respected. The notion of deserve implies the notion of justice, and the sheer amount of injustice visible disturbed me, and the desire to participate in the right execution of fairness was overwhelming: this person shouldn't get a free ride through life while these others pay through the nose for it, and so on. It was so frustrating; I entered the shift thinking I, and everyone else, deserved fair treatment. I wasn't getting it, and they weren't getting it either. I was shocked to notice I was getting into arguments with customers. What was happening?
Normally, I wouldn't even notice most of the above. It would be business as usual, and I would work on my two tasks: be nice, and make sure not to kill anyone with the bus. As a person, I believe in the concept of 'What Goes Around Comes Around.' To me, the anecdotal evidence of this truism is overwhelming, even if we all know it doesn't happen immediately. Those wheels of justice….
But as a bus driver, I don't get to participate in What Goes Around Comes Around. I see massive injustices all day, but I don't get to do anything about them. I have to bite it, and trust the universe to work things out. All I can do is observe, and be a positive influence toward my fellow peeps– not an enforcer, not even a teacher, but just a friend. That is what I am good at.
What does it mean to deserve?
To deserve is to be entitled. I was driving the 7 with a sense of entitlement. Yeah. Should I really be surprised that didn't turn out so well?
"Don't expect people to be reasonable or do things that make sense," I tell new classes of full-time bus drivers. "That way, you won't be disappointed when they don't." It was time for me to follow my own advice. Some of the behaviors I see just aren't worth asking too many questions about. When some guy who's high as a kite urinates on a garbage can while reciting the Ten Commandments in reverse order, well… it's just not my department, and I don't have the context to understand it anyway.
Deserving comes down to a question of expectations. A line from Shoeshiner Tim came to mind. He didn't ride that night, but he often does. Shoeshiner Tim's seen his share of hardships. Halfway through my shift, I heard his jovial, gravelly voice echoing in my mind:
"The world don't owe you nothin'."
He was explaining why he tries to respect everyone as much as he can, and why there's no value in going about with evil or hatred in one's heart. "The world don't owe anybody anything. You coul' be the evilest person on earth, but I'll try to put a smile on your face, your know?"
"You're a gentleman," I'd said.
My night started getting better immediately.
As a bus driver, you do deserve a timely police response. In a relationship, you do deserve kindness and respect. Absolutely. We have societal concepts of rights that should be preserved and expanded. But those are still small. I'm talking about fundamentals here. In the larger, overarching game of life… the world don't owe you anything. As my equally wise friend Stephanie similarly expressed, "kindness is not a right. It's a privilege. It is a privilege to receive."
We don't do it for brownie points. We do it just to do it, so other people can feel what it's like to be loved, and make it through their troubles a little more easily.
Please forgive the more infrequent nature of my posts these days– I promise this misbehavin' is temporary! I'm hard at work on a couple of writing projects I'm excited to share with you in the future.
This is what bus drivers sound like when they tell stories. Pardon the jargon! The event described happened years ago, but it still means a lot to me. The things the two women in this story taught me, without even trying… these are the sorts of giants I learn from, and feel lucky enough to interact with.
I know you've got eight minutes– seven and change, really– and procrastinating can be fun! Enjoy!
Watch Nathan's other speeches at various venues around Seattle here.
I'm hugely grateful I can sell my work for gallery-competitive prices. How did this happen? I honestly have no idea. It hasn't been necessary to price them as low as $100 for a while now, and I count myself lucky; but in the interest of tradition (and fun, because why not!), it's still possible to buy my work for that price once a year, at the 57 Biscayne's glorious 100 Under $100 show– as well as that of many other excellent local artists. Stop by 110 Cherry Street tonight, for their 5pm-9pm event; I'll be present at the beginning and end of the show!
Around the corner, my work will also be up at Arundel Books' remounting of Good Arts Building's May show, "Original Hits by Original Artists: 33 1/3 TOTALLY FAKE LP Album Covers," which you may recall me writing about why it's special here. It was received well enough to be remounted here. That's also from 5-9 tonight. There's no reason not to stop in at Arundel Books. I'll pop in there too!
Apologies for the laughably late minute notice. More details here.
It's the urban fashion du jour for how to hold a phone, and it confounds me.
You hold your phone, which is not on speakerphone, like a fragile radioactive pebble of a walkie-talkie, and you constantly switch from holding the phone to your ear to listen, and more often holding it flat directly in front of your mouth to spew into. I see this only in inner-city urban areas, or amongst young people pretending to be from urban inner-city areas. None of these fine folks were alive early enough to know how to operate a CB radio, but that's exactly how they use their smartphones. I'm perfectly willing to understand others' idiosyncrasies, but it seems to me about as useful as the inner-city side grip method of firing a gun, which does nothing except make aiming extraordinarily difficult, and became popular only because it was used by fictional gangster characters in 1990s-era movies and TV shows.
Milan Kundera wrote once that all gestures are appropriated, because that's the only way they acquire meaning. I've got a shiny new dime for anyone who can tell me who managed to glamorize pretending a cell phone works like a Project 25 transceiver, and what on earth that signifies in terms of status or cool. It reminds me of a teenager shifting his automatic transmission from L to 2 to Drive, in a dreamy attempt to be the unstoppable, deep-throated stickshift-knowledgeable alpha dog male he one day wishes to become. Aw. Your $769 iPhone 7 Plus doesn't work like a ham radio, or a walkie talkie, but I won't stop you from using it that way. To be happy, in ways that don't hurt others… who am I to judge?
He was speaking to none of us, but we heard him anyway. Near the front of the bus, in nondescript clothing I can hardly remember: picture a deep turquoise sweatshirt, corduroy brown pants, gray curls on his balding pate. Despite being a good two decades older, he held his phone in proper conformance to the urban schtick outlined above, pulling it off with admirable aplomb. Way to keep up with youth culture, I thought. Maybe he has kids.
"Yeah, I'm talkin' to you! Who you think this is? Why the fuck– you get my text? Did you not get mah text from five minutes ago, and you tryin' not to call me? Man, fuck you, bitch, you ain't no lady! This ain't no way to be treatin'– what I been trying to tell you? Oh. Oh. Oh. You think I got no right to talk to you like this? Why you think I'm talkin' at you this way? You think I– is that right. Tell me why I shouldn't be talkin' to you like that. You think I got no right after what– man, fuck you. I say like this, fuuuuuu–"
He didn't look young, or hip, and at first I thought his youthful word choice worked in admirable counterpoint to his comfortably aged appearance. He could keep up with the rest of them… but wait. My snark receded as he grew more human the further he spoke. He was a man with frustrations, and a sense of the anxiety that comes with losing control. You ain't no lady. That was the generational giveaway in his words, the expectation of a certain standard of behavior, an attention to principle that was apparently being violated– on both sides. He may have had little in the way of filters, but his anger seemed less petty than righteously indignant, the voice of one pushed against their will to a place where they yield to the pressure and abandon their better selves.
Bus drivers tend to wait before interfering; it's a real hazard, intruding on someone who's already heated. The risk of escalating a situation is overwhelming, and so many incidents are best left annoying or unpleasant than elevated to that of real danger. I listened to him and calculated. The 7 has a more tolerant language and behavior threshold than most routes, but even for the 7, his final "fuuuuuu–" above compelled me to say:
"Family friendly, bro, family friendly!"
"I know, okay," he said. "I apologize."
Wow, I thought. I wasn't expecting him to say that.
"'Ppreciate it. Thank you," I replied, genuinely surprised. An about-face like that isn't the easiest thing to accomplish. He offered a few more choice words to his phone, and hung up shortly after. He paused.
He breathed out for a while.
Then he said, "listen, I wanna apologize for that outburst, bus driver. I know that wasn't cool." Turning to the others: "I'm sorry, y'all."
"Thank you for saying that, dude," I said. "I know sometimes…."
"Oh, but it's the bus and everything, and I shouldn't be… bus driver, I wantchoo to know, when all is said and done, at tha end of tha day, I'm a good guy."
"I know. It's cool. I appreciate you sayin' stuff."
"I'ma be takin' this next one here, Twelfth Avenue."
"Well, I hope you have a drama-free rest o' the night!"
"Oh, listen. I'ma be good. I'm tryin'. I'ma be good."
His earlier tirade had a sing-song quality, a rolling clutter of emotions and hard edges run amok. This was different. It was the sound of something gently rising, a person relaxing into who they are when they're not trying so hard. His voice changed. I could see his eyes now, really see them and the unnamable soul who lived behind them, not just the reductive specificity of anger. One of my favorite things is watching someone's kindness rise. The alchemy of such moments is mysterious; I feel as much a witness as a participant. Here he was, a middle-aged man in a sweatshirt, remembering with his body that he was a good man.
"You and me both," I said.