The clock had just struck midnight, and a young man stood up front. He was dressed like me at home on a Sunday morning: comfy shorts, unfussy hair, white print tee with a logo from long ago.
We forget that college students, especially freshman, may not have much experience talking to strangers. They may be coming from towns smaller than this one, or have only interacted with adults in easy, predetermined modes, like teachers and parents. If you haven't worked a summer job (especially a customer service gig), entering college can be bewildering, like high school without the training wheels. Let's not take them to task for their adorable awkwardness or staggering lack of street smarts; I want to be welcoming to them out here in the world. How else will they grow to feel comfortable?
I amiably engaged him, and he amiably responded.
"Are you going to Broadway?" I asked.
"Naw, I'm going down by Schmitz hall."
"Oh just right there, perfect!"
"Yeah, I'm going to Odes, time to study."
"Tight. Man, I've spent so many hours in there, up all night getting ready for finals, up editing something,"
"Gotta do watcha gotta do, you know,"
"Yeah," he said. "I mean you could kick it with your friends for a while, but only for so long."
He was unwittingly elucidating a point from Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons. I furthered it: "Yeah, that's the thing, everybody likes to talk about how they go party, they go out, but what all of them are also doing, is hitting the books. They don't say they're doing it, but they are. 'Cause that's the only way to get anywhere!"
"Exactly, it's the only way!"
"You just gotta do it. No one says they do it, but you better believe they do it."
"Yeah somebody told me there's three things. Social life, good grades, and personal needs. And you gotta sacrifice two, or, you gotta sacrifice one in order,"
"You can only have two?"
"Yeah, you can only have two at a time."
"You know, that's so true, because even now, after school, I have to choose between either time with friends, or time alone. I can never have both."
"Yeah! God bless!"
And with that, he was bounding off toward Odergaard Research to get it done. My circumstances these days are similar; you know from recent posts I'm currently in a "Hermit Mode" of sorts, trying to establish headway on a few major art projects. The social life, blog, and personal needs are taking a temporary back seat as I plow ahead on film work, blog book, and advanced Korean study. I like his rule; maybe mine is that I can only have three things in my life simultaneously, not six. I look forward to a time in the near future when I can return to more regularly sharing the world of the road and all its revealing, delicate, sharp-edged beauty with you.
For now, check in soon for a humorous breakdown of what I've been focusing on (or to use the more accurate term, pulling my hair out–) of late! Stay tuned!
"A nice dress shirt," Leroy said. "And jeans."
I looked at him over the top of my glasses. The Skeptical Dad look.
"Jeans? Are you sure?"
"Khakis, my friend!"
Okay, I'll admit it. I was being a Dad. Sorry, Leroy. Bear with me here.
He was going in for a business meeting the next day. A local organization trying to figure out why people of color don't frequent their business had enlisted Leroy for his perspective. Would I wear jeans to such an event? Never. It's the European in me that wears dress shoes all the time, the Asian in me that wears socks indoors, and the Nathan in me that can't bear to wear sweatpants to the airport, or casual wear to a business meeting. But then again, he's Leroy, not Nathan. I should give him the agency to make his own choices. And, I wanted to hear his perspective.
I said, "khakis? Or jeans?"
"Well, like we was talking about, I like being comfortable. But I see what you're saying."
I had an alternative idea, and started to chuckle. "Well, you could go the opposite extreme, and just do the full on, most exaggerated stereotype of… check it out. Sagging pants with no underwear, a black hoodie two sizes too big,"
I imagine he was thinking I'd say something actually reasonable, and my unexpected ridiculousness caught him by surprise. He was dying. "No underwear!?!"
"Basketball shoes with the laces untied,"
"Yup! Or one tied and the other one untied, sagging pants and a wife-beater–"
"Exactly. Maybe put the brass knuckles down on the table."
"And make sure it says biiitch on it."
We were both getting carried away laughing. I said, "perfect. I love it. 'Cause they're not gonna say anything. They're gonna think you're being… 'authentic!'"
"Maybe bring a holster, but no gun. And be like, you know, 'I decided to leave the gun at home. I really thought about you guys.'"
"Oh my God!!" He was falling over. We both were. After the laughter subsided, he responded to the seed of my original query.
He said, "really though, the reason I like to wear hoodies and headphones and jeans and stuff, the reason is because, when I dress like that, I can sense that the people around me are thinking I'm a danger."
"But when I then behave as I do, you know, nicely, it blows them away."
"You know, okay. I see what you're saying. It's more constructive, what you're doing, doing it this way. Because if you wore a three-piece suit, and you were nice to people, that wouldn't be surprising to anybody. This way, you're expanding their minds. So every time they see some other guy in a hoodie,"
"They'll know, they'll have a wider experience of possible behaviors to expect from that person."
"I love it."
Smart man, that Leroy.
More with Leroy: by now you've probably read the Seattle Times article he and I are featured in, or watched the Fresh Ground Stories video detailing where I expound to a local audience on how we met; here too are a few times where he pops up in the blog, regarding homeless laziness, my birthday party, status in ghettos, Rainier Valley, connecting with people, the lineage of American racism, and some thoughts of mine as shared by Rex Hohlbein of Facing Homelessness, who helped Leroy during his first days in Seattle.
Also one which only mentions him tangentially, but which I want to re-share, in celebration of my older friends.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was a high school student riding the Metro bus to school. There weren't cell phones, and the internet hadn't taken over yet. Those were the years of calling the movie theatre for showtimes, or looking them up in a newspaper. Of finding a payphone to call that girl you had a crush on. You called her home landline and suffered the embarrassment of speaking with her mother first. Remember that?
I noticed the other passengers, all adults, were talking about a disaster movie in very serious tones. It almost sounded real, the way they somberly detailed explosions and collapsing buildings. What were they saying?
9/11 was probably the last major historical event to be understood slowly. It took hours of watching the news networks just to comprehend the basics of what had happened, and most of us wouldn't be aware of the full scope of the event until the following morning's paper, with further details being illuminated only later, throughout the rest of the week.
Sunday night's Las Vegas incident took place in a different landscape. It's the same world now as 2001, with about the same emotions, desires, sorrows and goals, but they express themselves through different concerns and at a different speed. What took a week or more to understand in 2001 we already know, and more, about Sunday night. We have videos on social media from the crowd, minutes after the event. We have the recordings of the police response, and a clear, eyewitness-level understanding of the intolerably continuous duration of the shooting. The horror is that much closer to us.
How do we react to such an incident?
On that fateful Tuesday in 2001, the TV was on in our AP English classroom, but only for the start of class. Professor Arkle was a Vietnam vet, and for him, a man who had seen a lot of death– year after year of young, poor, tired men killing each other at the behest of their respective governments– the best way to deal with this atrocity was to get on with the business of living. At some point we have to just get on with it, he said.
Other teachers in the building reacted differently. They left the TV on all day, they talked and hugged their students, or they went home.
What is the right way to deal with something like this?
Massacres are always tragic, but the ones stateside have until now been numerically quite small when compared to my experience in 2015 Paris. This is the first time I've been reminded in a truly potent way of what those days felt like. This is one site rather than six, but the quantifiable magnitude and sheer, punishingly ugly nature of the Vegas event put it in its own category; and I'm not just referring to injury counts. We know that radical ideologies are no excuse for organizing mass murders in major western cities, but we recognize the explanation. They thought this, and so they decided to do that. Terrorism is an attempt to shift thinking through fear. It may be the worst form of communication in existence, but it's still communication. It has meaning– however repulsively misguided.
This lacks even that.
The utter and absolute meaninglessness of Sunday night represents a yawning void much larger to me, much more bewildering, than similar events. We don't even know if this guy hated the crowd he was shooting at. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he found it amusing.
One night on my 7 a group of teenage girls pepper-sprayed, at point-blank range, a homeless man who'd been minding his own business. I think they thought it was funny. It's the second-ugliest thing I've ever seen on a bus, and I think the reason I think so is because it had no meaning. Was the Vegas gunman's motive simply a hugely multiplied form of their violent apathy? The Great Universe doesn't explain itself, never shows its cards, and I find that confounding.
Kendrick, a passenger, rode my bus a few nights ago. "You a good man though," he said, after a discussion about his term papers back in college. "You steady doin' commercials, and I'm steady lookin' for 'em! When I see you on the side of the bus I say heeyy, that's my guy, that's my friend!"
I chuckled. "Can't get away from that dude!"
"Just like that!"
"Thank you so much. I'm so thankful,"
"Man. If you stay thankful and humble–"
"That's the key right there. It allows us to be so much more happy through life."
"If you stay thankful and humble, you'll always prosper, bro."
"You'll always have the perspective to see it."
"Just like that!"
I then finished my shift and caught fellow driver Ernie on our walk to the parking garage. Ernie spun around happily.
"How was your evening, good sir?"
"It was particularly fabulous," I exclaimed, returning his beaming persona. "Some really wonderful people out there."
"I echo the sentiment!"
"We're really living the dream out here."
"It's so true. We really are. I feel so fortunate."
"Humble and thankful," he said. "Humble and thankful. That's the theme!"
"It so is!"
"Humble and thankful. If we can do that, everything will fall into place. Everything."
"I'm gonna put that in my pocket!"
Ernie doesn't know Kendrick. They have no idea of each other's existence. Does the Universe really never show its cards?
Their words, so alike and in such close succession, reminded me of a best friend I once knew. After experiencing what was unquestionably the most horrific and brutally prolonged moment of her short life, I listened as she was asked what she wanted to do now.
She didn't hesitate to respond. To the degree that she was able to speak, she spoke quickly.
"Be more grateful to God," she said.
Such humility. Such thankfulness... in the worst moments of her life. How? I'll never forget it. These three people don't know each other, don't have the same belief systems. Their only commonality is they've each Been Through Some Stuff. And this is what they had come up with.
There is no right way to react to an incident like Sunday's. But embodying the ideas voiced by these three friends seems like a good place to start.
If you haven't read them already:
Paris, One Year Later: A Personal Perspective: reflections on my time in Paris with a focus on the Confounding Why, one year after the attacks.
Deserve, the Concept and the Song: further thoughts on thankfulness and the notion of being deserving.
The Soulful Stench: the Confounding Why, as seen from a cancer-stricken passenger.
It's October. My posts here will be intermittent for next six weeks, and I want to share why. I'm throwing my weight behind: redeveloping my book proposal for turning this blog of ours (meaning me and you, reader, since you keep the whole enterprise alive by coming here to enjoy the stories) into a book; developing two new screenplays; scanning and printing negatives at Evergreen College's color darkroom, the only public-access color darkroom in the United States(!!); and studying fifth-level Korean at City University.
And driving the bus.
The stories keep coming in, and I have so many to share with you, but much of the above is time-sensitive. I'll still be posting stories, so stop in when you like, or take a peek into the (now seriously voluminous!) archives. But new material might only be weekly for several weeks. I wanted to let you know why– not due to any flagging interest of mine, and ceeeeerrtainly not due to lack of material out here on the street. It's a zoo out here, as it ever was, with little diamond glints of positivity abounding. There's so much I can't wait to share with you.
It's the great conundrum. I really want to turn the blog into a book... but the only way to find time do that is to take a break from the blog!