Seattle Magazine / Third & Cherry
If you’ve read this, you won’t be surprised at my reaction to Seattle Magazine choosing me as one of their 35 Most Influential People of 2018 (!). I feel outrageously, ridiculously humbled. Let’s put it this way: I’m no Bob Ferguson! (Read my in-depth praise of Bob's actions in 2017 here).
And, forgetting about the fact that it’s me they’re talking about, I feel excited and proud of a publication that recognizes the little people. It’s not just a list of old and new money. There are people on that list who are doing the difficult work because they care, and the element I was most thrilled by in talking with my fellow honorees is that they weren’t doing what they were doing to get noticed. I certainly am not. You don’t go into bus driving to get famous!
It’s just in the DNA of who we are, and probably who you are: you have things you care about and you act accordingly, whether or not anyone notices. To make a difference. Attorney General Bob (my personal hero among several on this list, as you can probably glean from my rapturous writeup linked above) does so in large-scale fashion; I do it in my own way, which some describe as small, others as large.
I continue my work on the streets instead of ascending the administrative ladder because the contribution is direct. Unadorned. Elemental. Without intermediary. It’s me, smashed up against the face of the world, on a tightrope with a gift: the opportunity to make someone feel human. Acknowledged. Respected. A face that might stick in their mind and be a kernel of motivation months from now. Or at least something to feel good about.
I love being out there in the trenches, and sharing dispatches with you on this blog. To hear the degree to which it’s inspired people– operators, passengers, others– quite simply brings me to my knees in gratitude. I’m not even going to get into it. I’m thankful that the powers that be at Metro and King County support me as they do, and create a work environment where I can do the work with this focus; they don’t box me up behind a driver’s shield, for instance (THANK YOU). I dearly hope they never do. They recognize it’s about more than shifting people around. I’m grateful for Seattle Magazine and so many other outlets for recognizing my work.
Last week a man came up to me at Third and Cherry. Fifty-something black American man, mid-length tall and tired from work, a face from long ago. He must have recognized me from years past. He grinned.
“You still drivin’?”
“They can’t get rid a me!” I joked in reply.
He chuckled. “Right on. Iss the other ones they gots to get rid of! You and Juan, man…”
“Thank you!” I exclaimed. I’m trying to get better at actually accepting compliments, instead of just turning them around all the time. But he meant it as more, and continued with force:
“Man, it ain’t no thank you. I’m telling you the truth!” Troof. “How you greet the people. And you don’t just tolerate the crazy assholes, even though that’s what you’re supposed tuh do in a public service job, they’s gonna be crazy assholes and you know it, and you just know to ever let that bullshit affect you personal, never let yoself take that home which you. But I’m gettin’ sidetracked. Bruh. You don’t just tolerate. You engage actively wit the community. You know people. And man, you got no idea how much good you’re accomplishing just by bein’ yoself on this bus right now, every night. Straight up.”
Would you believe me if I told you his words meant just as much to me as getting honored as one of the city’s 35 most influential people?
You better believe it!
I’m taking a two-week vacation from November 1st through 16th, and will also be taking a break from the blog during that time. I’ve been running ragged for a while now. A book, a show, the last darkroom, film editing… please understand my need for a short breath away from everything. Time to recharge!
For now, I've updated the link for new operators with a few more elements. It's not the easiest gig, but it doesn't have to be the hardest one either. Like so much in life, it's all about state of mind: For New Bus Drivers: Thoughts, Tips, and Stories.
Coming from Seattle Magazine and new to the site? Welcome! Here's a fun introductory link: Nathan Vass 101.
Love you all. I’ll be back on the street and back online come November 17th!
Third and Prefontaine Place, northbound. Nobody's first idea of a safe place to wait for a bus at night. You know the terrain, the way the little things all add up: uneven sidewalks, an out-of-commission reader board, the magnificently poor lighting, almost as if on some city planner's evilly gleeful purpose; the tents and cries from over there, tensions boiling across the street, and you, clutching whatever you clutch in your pocket, trying to be gracious in your thoughts as figures lurk about, shifting in the dark urban floor, letting you know they're alive.
I roll up slowly in my 7, now signed out as a 49 to the U District. I open the doors to a zone with two people, neither of whom wants my bus: a young white woman, early twenties, in a demure white puffy jacket and nondescript ponytail and jeans. She looks at me through the open bus doors.
The other person is called Chosen. Chosen is a black American man two generations too old to be sagging his pants, but he does it anyway; every tatter of clothing on his body sags, and the phrase "dressed in rags" is here, finally, not an exaggeration. If you depicted him in a painting as he is, exposed skin and frayed dead fabric, viewers would accuse you of caricature, saying no man over forty really stumbles about in this bad of shape... with a face like that.
Because his face is perfect.
The unkempt beard cannot conceal the beauty of his features. Look now at those high cheekbones, the perfect cheeks below them, hollow, like I wished mine were when I was little; his proportionate eyebrows and sockets and the big emotive eyes within them. Expressive eyes. Thin, skin and gaunt bones, with a perfectly proportioned and evocative face: he should be in the movies. You want this guy to play a black Jesus. I think he'd be perfect. He may have a drinking problem, sure, but so did Richard Burton...
I will always have a soft spot for Chosen because I once saw a group of girls pepper-spray him on my bus for no other reason than that they thought it was funny.
"You know you want to, nigga," they laughed at each other, with the same voice you'd use for ordering fast food or trying on jeans. They violated him because he was helpless and homeless, and it amused them to destroy something beautiful, like a child stepping on a butterfly. It was the second ugliest thing I've ever seen. The stinging tears streamed down those beautiful cheeks of his, the Jesus cheeks, and I sat with him as he sat blinded, after everyone else had ran off, and tried to guide him toward the doors.
Tonight Chosen is in far better circumstances: same tattered garb as usual, but no apathetic gangster gaggle of girls to worry about. Between the two of us, hopefully I'm the only one who even remembers the incident. He is slinking about on the sidewalk, mildly disoriented as per character, closer to me than the girl in the white jacket. I recognize him and call out a nonchalant hello. Just another acquaintance at the office:
"Oh hey, Chosen!"
"How ya feelin'?"
"Aw pretty good."
"Right on, man. Have a good one!"
"Aight," he said genially, slinking onward, receding into the night shadows.
The high point of my entire night was the girl's smile.
She had watched the interaction, and her and I locked eyes now. I grinned in return, cheekily. Her smile was the smile of relief, where you don't realize you're letting down your tensed shoulders.
Everything's fine. Sometimes everything's just fine. She almost laughed: the inherent silliness of our banal pleasantries and good-natured tones juxtaposed with Chosen's terrible appearance, and the pleasure of her discovering what this bus stop can be. That guy wasn't a threat. He was just Some Guy, with a name, and a friendly bus driver who knew him and who was clearly enjoying being out here, at this hour, on this block.
We both smiled wide, teeth gleaming, and I think we both kept smiling our separate ways for a while after.
This is for you fine folks who might not have made it out, or who found it too crowded in that room. Yes, I'll admit it. I like it when the attendance numbers for an opening of mine are measured not in tens or dozens, but hundreds (can I thank you enough for coming?? I can't!)... but is there really a less conducive environment for taking in art than an art opening? I'm speaking honestly here. What could be worse for introspective, thought-provoking reflection than being jostled by dozens– oh wait, hundreds (thank you!) of friendly (thank you!) people? People don't really look at art when they go to art shows. They want to, sure. But usually you end up chatting with your friends, or the artist, or the nice guy behind the reception desk. There's human connection happening here. The art can wait. If the stuff really moves you, you'll stop in again later when everyone's gone, when there's actually space to hear yourself think.
At my most recent show, however, the art couldn't wait. That show only lasted four and a half hours of one evening. Two-hundred and fifty-odd people later, it was all over, never to resurface. The ephemeral beauty of a one-day show was one of the reasons I accepted the offer; thank you all for making it the raucous, joyous cacophonic din of a celebration it was. I'll never forget it.
By request, this post includes all the photo-related materials you might not have had a chance fully take in: the statements, the darkroom explanations and more (we're going to forget about the book for a second; it's photo time!). I'm also including representations of all the photos used in the show in a slideshow, below.
But please remember: none of the pictures in the slideshow are art. They're just representations of art. They're copies, and especially as the show was so much about the beauty of what analogue prints look like in person, you can understand how pointless the digital negative scans I include here are. They're for reference only. Those of you who were there will remember the richness of the colors, the deepness of those silver halide blacks, and the burned-in light bleed and negative sprockets surrounding the images, like so:
Sometimes you just have to see things in person. But I hope these thoughts and pictures of pictures offer a record, and something to chew over. Enjoy!
Here we are diggin' a lil deeper into what separates a film print from a digital print. Obviously I can't show you the subtleties of what we're going on about except in person, so we'll have to exercise our imagination/memory a little here. But all the same holds true of any optical print of a negative onto light-sensitive paper, which, if you've been alive long enough to know what Y2K means, is probably what most of your family photos are. Reach into that old Bartell's envelope.
Color darkroom: What's the big deal??
What are the narrow image strips with different bands of brightness? They're called "test strips," and you make them before doing a full print. They help you determine how much of which color of light to shine onto your paper, for the right color cast. Note the color shifts from one test strip to another. They also help figure the amount of light you want to burn those crystals with: the banded image is 2 seconds of light on the lightest end, then 4 seconds, then 6 seconds, and so on.
Again, the scans below are just to give you an idea. But you can still tell they're film– the dreaminess of the grain, the color scale and tonal range, the multiple exposure possibilities. On prints I like to file the negative carrier (pictured below the slideshow– with the "Yay" sticker) so light can burn through the edges and leave a surrogate border of burned light and exposed sprockets, as evidence of the process, as if to say: this was made by hand and light. On negative scans, where that isn't possible, I like to leave dust and hair on the scanner glass, to similarly reinforce the origins of the format: this is film. For some reason this is really important to me. Hover over the images for titles and film stock info.
Also available at the show were hard-copy handouts of this epic teardown of Evergreen's failure to keep its own world-renowned color darkroom going. Here's the Ilford color processor they ran for decades; Ilford only made one color processor. This one. If you talk to people about color processors, and you tell them you worked on an Ilford, they won't know what you're talking about. This was it. It was great. It made everything at my show. Now it's walled off in a dark basement.
Yes, I was handing out packets of reading material at a show on a Saturday night. I realize this puts me somewhere between overexcited schoolteacher and communist leaflet dispenser... but it's my passion! A friend told me it's "the only post where I actually sound angry for once!" I can't help it, my dears. It's the art form we're talking about here. I link to it above one paragraph ago. Here it is again. Share it around!
The biggest reason film still exists is because, well, there's nothing else like it. Put simply and objectively, it yields a better image. But there's also something undeniably attractive about that which is tactile, tangible, real: Books. Vinyl. Talking to people. Film. Lived experience. Working with your hands. The process of light hitting crystals, and chemical baths and organic nature of the development.
If you're still reading this, it's because you're curious about life. Interested, not just in your own field, but in the world around you. The little things. Like differences in how photos are made. Why I take pictures of people. This blog is itself a celebration of that type of seeing; it is nothing if not a compendium of thousands of little moments, things that happened between real people, things that tell us a little something about life works on this earth.
Thank you for taking an interest.
Prints of mine are always for sale. Inquire!
After the Whirlwind
I came home finally, sitting now in the empty living room, a black futon next to a banker's lamp, finally with a chance to leaf through a copy of the book,* marvelling that any of this had ever happened at all, and so recently.
Only hours previous was the show. You were there. Can I let myself believe it actually happened, that friendly whirlwind? A couple hundred souls at least, in the room of the building on the block to be, fusillading their good cheer from before the show's official start until long after it was over. People telling me this is where all the noise is, the place everyone's talking about. I could hardly believe it. I flashed to my younger self, watching Antonioni's 1961 La Notte, the early scene where Marcello Mastroianni has a book signing and everybody's there, it's crowded. Thinking that looks interesting, I wonder what it would feel like, would it feel nice, or empty, or stressful or what. Thinking, well, I'll never know.
Tonight's event was the expression of joy it was because of you, who support the blog and the book and its ideas in life. It was real because you made it so, by caring, and the joyous, heady, lovingly enveloping tornado I felt myself in the thrall of is the greatest gift I can hope to receive from a crowd.
There were a lot of Stephens there; I was telling one how pleasantly surprised I am that the gritty optimism of the blog has resonance for such a wide group of people. I started the blog (first story ever here) with absolutely no thought toward it gaining any popularity. The attitude is too unusual, the incident too humble. This'll just be for myself and my friends... Only to discover that you friends are everywhere, and even though Seattle had a disproportionate amount of goings-on that particular night, this crowd mobilized and made the time, took the effort toward this room in Georgetown, which is nowhere near anything. I rode the bus down (you kind of have to ride the bus to your own bus driver blog book event), and to meet others onboard who were heading to dinner and then...
I couldn't be more humbled.
There were people there whom I hold in such high estimation I could hardly believe they would come, but they did. My 선생님, the Color Crew, the operators, the filmmakers, other authors, and friends from long ago; people with whom I shared the confusion of childhood, or the intrepid ventures of art school. I stood overwhelmed, and were it not for the speed of the room I would have been at a loss for words with gratitude.
I didn't get to talk to everyone, but I saw everything, believe me, and there were so many glancing faces in the periphery I registered and desperately wanted to greet... But the melee. You understand. What can I say but say now:
Hello, you. Thank you for coming. If you picked up a book, thank you so much for your support and interest. Send me an email if you like. Didn't make it out? No worries! The book will be available for purchase online shortly. Stand by for details. If you would like a copy immediately, email me directly.
In the compressed hotbed of cacophonic joy that my events often are, where my time spent with each person is unfortunately measured in seconds rather than hours, each brief interaction is massive to me. I know how busy these things are. The crowd, the lines for autographs.
Can I thank you enough? Is it possible? It isn't possible. For not only being there, but taking the extra effort to wait, to find me and chat, even if only for a moment. To me, it means the world, your generosity. Sharing your inspiration and enthusiasm, making the room the wellspring of kindness it was- that's as much you as me. To be told afterward it felt like a safe space, a welcoming and friendly space, despite the numbers and noise... Words are insufficient. (And thank you for the technical photographer questions- a favorite part of mine at things like this, finding another language in common, diving into nitty gritty film stock tech talk!)
I close my eyes now to sleep, just another Seattle soul in an apartment like anyone else's, but it is all still there, the whirlwind, the sounds and sensation of hands shook and moving from one person to another. The intensity of the room, its blazing energy. It is all so surreal to me. Maybe all that was the dream, and as I fall asleep I'll return to waking life.
See you there.
*I compare the event to a wedding in an earlier post, and in one way it really was like one: due to scheduling I didn't get to see the published book until that night, and didn't get a moment alone with it until after the show had ended!
Last Call: You're Invited!
I'll stop talking about this show the minute Saturday's over with, I promise! I can't resist one last bugle call, though: if you come to one show of mine this decade, let this be the one. Here are some reasons why:
I don't have weddings, baby showers, housewarmings, birthday parties (except THAT one), initiations, graduation ceremonies or holiday parties. I just have book launches and solo art shows. This is my wedding.
ArtForma Visual Art Space is located at:
6007 12th Ave S, Fl Second
Seattle, Washington 98108
Saturday, October 13
The show will run that day only, from 5pm-9.
The Little Things
UPDATE: The book will be available for sale online soon. If you would like a copy immediately, email me directly.
I want to tell you more about this book. It isn't big or fancy. It doesn't have backing by a major house. It's the underdog book. It has no marketing machine or massive print run behind it.
Yes, this book has endorsements from Charles Mudede and other Seattle luminaries. Yes, it's been designed and edited to within an inch of its life by high-level professionals. But in the ways that matter, it is small. Handmade. Homemade.
You know that I have an agent in New York, and that he and I continue to explore the route of interesting a major publisher. Even if that does happen someday, the result will never replace this book- and I don't just mean that another book won't feature the stories within this one, although that's true. There won't be a replacement of what this book means to me, and why I want to offer it to you.
It was created by artist and craftsman friends in close collaboration, on a scale small enough to not require major compromise. Every aspect of this book is exactly what my collaborators and I wished to create. If a New York book were to happen, it'd be the equivalent of dinner at a fancy restaurant. Sure, those are nice, but that's not what this is. This is people in rooms late at night, still plugging away for the passion of making something good. Knowing they're going to lose money on this, and time, but what besides would you spend those on but your passions? You do it because it's part of who you are. No, this isn't a fancy dinner.
This is a home-cooked meal.
And no matter how many fancy dinners you have, you know the things that make a home-cooked meal precious. The intangibles. I want to believe we've captured something of the spirit of that, thanks to the grassroots approach we've taken. I don't expect this to be a popular book– we just don't have the finances to go there– but it will as ever be a unique one. These are the stories your bus driver friends, public service and customer relations acquaintances will nod their heads over, and add onto. The ones that tell us the shape of life in the urban now, the stories I personally selected because they're close to my heart.
The book will be available at my show this Saturday, for $20. After Saturday, providing we find a venue, it'll go up to $25. Skip a couple coffees and that breakfast sandwich, and stop by this weekend. Take home the armchair version of all those beautiful little moments I see out there in the street, in the dark nights, night after night. The moments that make me love humanity.
Let's make this home-cooked meal the little book that could.
Details and location here.
If you come to one show of mine this decade, let this be the one. There won't be another that has a book version of this blog debuting. There won't be another celebrating the closure of the last major color darkroom, ever.
I'll keep this brief:
More on the book. It's a personal curation of this blog, and will be available that day only for $20. If it becomes available after the day of the show, it'll be $25.
More on the last color darkroom: details on how Evergreen College, once a leading fine arts institution failed itself and the community that thrived in it; thoughts of mine written during the darkroom's last days.
Find me at the show at:
ArtForma Visual Art Space
6007 12th Ave S, Fl Second
Seattle, Washington 98108
Saturday, October 13
The show will last from approximately 5pm-9.
Get there early– or come later! this one's being advertised in The Stranger!