Returning to the 7, Pt I
I walk out to the parking garage, or to the bus stop home as the case may be, feeling the sensations of the day as tactile, lived-in memories resolving in the act of heading homeward; a collective cacophony fading out into the night. It was the present moment, so recently, a thousand times over.
A baseball player hears the bat-crack echo of the game in the empty stillness following. I, too, hear the intensity of multitudinous present action receding, shaking itself off my form, as it must. Most nights I breathe a sigh of satisfied exhaustion, coming down off the high, searching for a gentle landing. A few evenings out of the year are spectacularly difficult, but those are not the norm.
The norm is me looking up at the vast indigo dome, thankful for whatever has taught me to be, well, so thankful. Years of habit-forming tendencies have me savoring the good moments, and they are always myriad:
My shoulders ache. I'm sweaty in my uniform, sticky with dirt on my trolley-driving hands, and my face in the base's bathroom mirror is sleepier than I feel; but I am here, and I feel deeply and truly good.
“How you doin’!” I exclaimed, immediately realizing that given this man’s appearance I sounded way too enthusiastic. I couldn’t help myself: I was clam-happy and dead serious interested. Haa ya doin!?? I hoped desperately that he was picking up on the genuineness of my inquiry. No sarcasm here, even if it probably– okay, definitely– sounded like it. Fortunately he was a mind-reader, this down-and-out, barrel-chested, bone-tired sleeper I hadn’t met before.
“Magnificent, I suppose,” he sighed in reply.
I tried to firm up my non-sarcasm by adding, “hangin' in there, I hope.”
“Trying to. I have a transfer. Would you like to see it?”
“No. But hey, do you want a fresh one, for ease of use?” Again, trying to emphasize that I really did care. These guys must get so much of the opposite.
“Yeah,” he said, nonplussed, then grateful. "Thank you. What's your name?” he asked in an amiable, fully enunciated rumble. An educated man.
“My name's Nathan.”
“What's your name?”
“Nice to meet you.”
“You know, they were best friends,” he said. “Nathan and David.”
“They were, back in the olden days! And here we are again, reborn!”
“Ha! Good to see you.”
He sat down and I carried on as I usually do, calling out the stops as though the automatic announcer had never been invented. It’s about the human touch. He must have felt it too, because he bellowed out, “Merry Christmas, Nathan.”
“You too, David.”
I called out the stops some more. This was during my 5 & 21 days. Eightieth, seventy-eighth, seventy-sixth, seventy-fourth…*
“How old are you, Nathan?”
“I’m 33, but I tell everyone I'm 17.”
“Ha! Well. Your public service is outstanding.”
“I try! Workin' with what I got! Thank you for your positive energy, man.”
“It's conscientious awareness.” Conscientious. It was the sort of word you read more often than say, and which makes you smile when you hear it aloud.
“Well, thank you,” I replied. “We need more o’ that.”
“Find yourself, feel yourself, love yourself. The edification of the soul.”
“You got that right! Man, David! Say it again!”
You know me, reader. You know that just then I was smiling in the dark, hanging onto his phrase, trying to hang on– don’t forget this one, Nathan. Why? Because the blog? For another book? Well sure, a little. But mostly because Life.
Because I always feel like I’m a student in this crazy racket, studying for an exam that will either never come, or that’s happening right here in the ever-present now. Learning how to be, scrambling about for clues as much in a philosophy text as in the castoff words of a street companion. Every (wo)man is my master, in that I may learn from him. I started writing things down out here because they were too beautiful, the thoughts people would share, the gestures and looks. Kernels of wisdom too precious to forget. They were, and are, the delicate and winsome grace of existence considered, something sublime just within reach.
These are the lines that make us.
*If you can get the stop spacing for the 5 on Greenwood to go to every 5 blocks instead of every 2, I’ll buy you a steak dinner. Metro’s tried to do it repeatedly, but there’s nothing doing. Apparently the folks out there must want shoddy service; stopping every 2 blocks over a 100-block distance (not an exaggeration) slows down the bus like you wouldn’t believe… not to mention decimates your right knee as an operator. I’d still be picking up shifts on that route otherwise.
After receiving an enormous amount of responses in a variety of places regarding the subject matter of a certain recent post, I wanted to add a few items I feel are worth concretizing in a follow-up entry.
1). The best outcome of all of this would be everyone's voice being heard and taken seriously. I've enjoyed hearing feedback from those who agree and those who disagree, and most of all from those who recognize the problem is thorny and complex, and that any viable solution would be best if it was actually a collection of solutions, all of which respected the variety of voices and interests involved.
2). I've said this elsewhere, but it bears repeating: my biggest role models are other compassionate bus drivers. I'm thinking particularly of certain of my female night operator colleagues who own their deescalation tactics with humble pride and ease of skill, and from whom I continue to learn from. I don't think it's a wild presumption to guess the reason my female friends tend to be better at this type of deescalation might have something to do with the avalanche of bull they have to tolerate in workplaces and elsewhere. Deescalation training, even if self-taught, gives you a lot less headaches in the long run than gettin' physical.
3). A tip, as my colleague and friend Abdi once reminded me: "You cannot act tough. If you act tough, they will act tough. And they've got nothing to lose. They don't care about going to jail, they have already been there many times. What could possibly go wrong for them? They don't have anything." You who are on the job, on the other hand, have a lot to lose. Gotta be clever– or as I like to call it, respectful. Loving. Endlessly patient.
4). What we're really talking about here is the mental health problem in Seattle. The Homelesness Crisis is really the Mental Health Crisis. If I'm being reductive in saying so, I'll hazard the supposition that the statement is more true than untrue. Third and James, Third and Pine, Second and Washington... these places are not scary because they have homeless people in them. They're scary because of the amount of mental instability.
And the Mental Health Crisis isn't Metro's problem. It's the city's.
Solving the question of safety on buses is an issue that risks a narrowness of perspective that'll result only in band-aid solutions. It isn't safety on buses that's at the root of things here. It's safety in the city at large. In public spaces. The southeast corner of Third and Pine and southwest corner of Third and Pike are what the City of Seattle allows to continue every day. The condition of Seattle's citizens there and elsewhere must be considered, on some level, as condoned by the city. Appropriate enough to allow to continue.
It's a decision noticed on the world stage, as the positioning of the Market and Westlake dictate that nearly all our tourists walk through there. This is how this city treats its population. Luxury housing, cranes, and... this. Now that's a problem to look at, and any entity pressuring Metro to do something about it, rather than the city or another cash-flush operation in a position of power (cough Amazon cough) ought to be ashamed of their misdirection.
Homelessness isn't a bus driver's problem to solve, but the city doesn't have the resources to fix it right now, and thus we operators end up shouldering that unanswered load by carting around sleepers every night. Seattle's not housing these guys, so we'll do it in the meantime. That's what I remind myself. It's what has to work for now. But Metro shouldn't be looked to as the entity to blame on these issues. I'm not qualified to offer solutions, but ramping up into a barricaded police state isn't the answer, and nor is bumping everyone down to the next block.
Thanks for reading!
Thank you, lovelies, for coming out to these things. It moves me in ways I hope I intimate in my overly excited hugs and handshakes. To be a finalist in this year’s book awards still carries the aura of impossibility.
Sitting there giggling during the group photo; feeling loved by the small ocean of friends who surrounded me in the bleachers; reflecting on how I’m nominated in the same category as friggin’ Charles R Johnson… no, I didn’t win the top award, but, well, neither did he, and you don’t hear him complaining about it. Personally, I’m still trying to figure out how I actually got nominated in the first place!
I couldn't be more honoured to stand in the company of such a vastly talented group of finalists and winners, and no matter how many accolades come my way I’ve got a sneaky feeling I'm always going to feel like an ugly duckling crashing the party. Can we help who we are? I’m pretty sure I’ll always feel most at home taking the S-curves on Rainier at Brandon, or sitting in the back of the 358 talking to somebody about where to buy the best flowers. But before heading back out into that world, you bet I had a blast with you all who were there, eating those fancy cupcakes and clicking our dress shoes.
Meanwhile, we've got a few exciting items lined up if you weren't able to make this event. There's more besides these in the works (like that film screening! Give me time!), but in terms of what's been nailed down thus far:
What Counts For a Pass
A middle-aged man dressed in working class exhausted, baseball cap and fishing rod and dirty tee shirt, sat up front watching me drive. We were headed north on Broadway. After a while he piped up.
"Does this turn into the 7?"
"Goin' the other way, yeah. I just came up from Rainier Beach."
"Aw yeah." He looked out the window for a spell before saying, "they get a little rough out there."
"Sometimes. I like it though. It's good people everywhere."
"I ain't been out that way in a while."
"Yeah it's changing even down there. Columbia City–"
"Once you get down past Othello though. It get kinda rough. 'Specially after a certain hour, mang, those folks be kinda tough."
"Yeah, you kinda gotta know somebody."
He replied, in a tone of mock proclamation: "If you don't have no ghetto pass... It'a be yo ass!"
I laughed. "Ha! You got that right!"
"Right about now, 8:45, when them streetlights starts comin' on, that's when I go home! Remember how like you're momma said, when them streetlights come on, iss time to go back inside?"
My world is the world of the streetlights. Someone's got to be out there for the people who have to be, and if doing so makes me as happy as it does, well, I feel lucky.
He's right, there are some tough characters. It may not come across as such on the blog every time, because I tend not to describe them that way. But some of these folks are the guys you cross the street for, not because they're black (or white), but because there's a look in their eye you're smart enough to figure out.
It isn't supposed to involve you.
They're the guys I hear other passengers complain about nervously after they get off, because they managed to avoid a fight.
The fact of those men recognizing and responding to my acknowledgment, my respect, reveals something I find humanizing: They value kindness too. Because there is no They. Don't you value kindness, enjoy the sensation of being respected?
To all of you "rough characters," what I have to say is: thank you. For appreciating compassion. For valuing generosity of spirit (let's call that what it is– love) to the point that it qualifies me for a "ghetto pass."
Because I don't have anything else.
Cowboys of the New Age: Status & Respect in the American Ghetto
"Everybody Need to Quit Acting Hard and S**t"
Nathanbabble: III of III
Respect, Currency of the Street (from my book!)
The Great and Terrible Fifth & Jackson: An Ethnography
High-wire, Lowbrow Explosions
Let's be honest. I'm not actually expecting this thing to win. I'm not in some small local debut author category. I'm in the Non-Fiction category, going up against Pulitzer Prize winners and NYT bestsellers. For a scrappy underdog book like this one, the nomination is the win. I'm just excited to be considered in the same breath as my fabulous fellow nominees.
This isn't a competition, but a celebration– of writing, of local authors, of bookstores and libraries, and of a book that never fit easily into one category, that wasn't trusted as viable or believed in by big publishers, and which succeeded anyway. It's been a bestseller at Elliott Bay for an entire year (!!!), and we continue to have exciting projects and events pertaining to it coming up.
Basically– the book lives, and that's thanks to you. Stop by this Saturday, 7pm at Seattle Central Library and celebrate. I'll be there for a reception afterwards. Details, directions and more here.
For now, check out the following if you haven't already!
KVRU's Simon Kidde (a friend, and the son of another friend!) sits down with myself and Metro's Robyn Austin to discuss the impending transition of the 7 to Rapid, and what that will entail (and not entail) for the people and myself. This was a ton of fun– big thanks to Simon for his gracious professionalism.
Click to listen here.
As well, don't forget– I'll be at the WA State Book Awards this Saturday night, and you're invited! It's a fun, free event, and books by myself and plenty of other great authors will be for sale. Hope to see you there– details and more here!
This was lifetimes ago. Summer of 2003, one year of high school remaining. I strolled the flatlands of Compton with camera in hand, up early by choice and searching the shadows and light for an angle that would show how I felt. Rush hour had burned off with the marine layer, and I loitered about Compton Station in the midmorning sun, Willowbrook and Compton Boulevard. I used to love riding up and down the Blue Line, Los Angeles's equivalent of the 7, with photography on the brain.
I'd just snapped the double exposure above. The man in frame right was walking toward me, and continued to do so. When he got to speaking distance he cleared his throat.
"Hey how's it going, little man."
I wasn't good at talking to people then. Shyly: "Good."
"You enjoyin' your summer?"
"Yeah it's good."
"Hey, you live alone or with roommates?"
I was staying with my aunt. I said, "with roommates."
"Some of them are boys?"
"That must be nice. Do they ever walk around with their dick and balls hanging out?"
"Like walkin' from the living room to the bedroom, casual shit like that. They ever walk through the room with their dick and balls hanging out?"
"No." Nervous teenage tittering on my part.
"Well but okay hypothetically. If they was people walking around with they dick and balls hanging out, how would that make you feel?"
"I guess I'd feel kinda uncomfortable!"
"Oh. Ah see. Well, it would make me feel comfortable, cause I'm gay, and there ain't nothin' that's ever made me feel so lonely in all my life. You got no idea, lil' bro. You got no idea. You count yourself lucky."
And with that he walked away. He became smaller now, much smaller than the perspective he was walking into, a lonely fellow with a weight on his shoulders, ambling at the pace you take when you've got precious little to look forward to.
I should have said I'm sorry. Or something about how I cared, I heard him, I appreciated and welcomed the skin-thin openness of his fragile heart. Something to let him know he wasn't alone. But I was 17 and I didn't know anything. I wasn't brave enough or self-aware enough or empathetic enough to say a thing like that. I just watched him walk away. I remember reflecting with surprise at his candor, how uncharacteristic it felt in that hypermasculine milieu. How refreshing his sincerity was, both because I wasn't expecting it in that environment and also because young people aren't very good at being sincere, and forthrightness wasn't something I found a lot of in high school.
These are the things you think and feel, the tender reflections we don't know how to share.
I wonder if he knows I still think about him from time to time, wondering if he's alive, if someone's shown him kindness or even love across the spanning years.
I hope so.
Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019, 7 – 9 p.m.
Seattle Central Library, Level 1: Microsoft Auditorium
The title kind of says it all. It's like the Oscars, except, of course, for all the ways it isn't: you don't have to pay, it's not long, and there aren't any commercial breaks.
I'm inviting you (and all your friends! And family!) for two reasons: one, out of the sheer excitement it gives me to share in what we've made together– yes, you, the reader and enthusiast, and myself. I would never have gotten this far without such an incredible and wide-reaching boost of support. Who could've guessed this would be on the local bestseller list of Seattle's largest independent bookstore... for an entire year???
This finalist status speaks as much to your unwavering enthusiasm as to my contributions. I'll be at the ceremony out of gratitude for you.
The other reason for the invitation is because it's an opportunity to revel in the quality of all the other finalists and their books. You might hear about something you like, whether the probing and honest delicacy of fellow Californian Ana Maria Spagna, or the unironic pleasure of Rubin Pfeffer's alliterative acrobatics in his children's picture book Summer Supper.
It's a lofty lineup– Ken Armstrong is a two-time Pulitzer winner, Angela Garbes' new book is an NYT bestseller... and that's just in my category of Non-Fiction. To be rubbing shoulders with these giants (almost all are published by the big houses in New York) is beyond an honor, not because they're established but because they're passionate. I'm still in shock at even being included. We don't have contracts with HarperCollins or Crown or FSG or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt but simply the humble Tome Press, a Seattle-based venture and collaboration with friends that I couldn't be prouder to see listed among the finalists. We're the little engine– or maybe that's the little bus!– that could. Tom, Jacqueline, Paul, Charles, and so many more...
Thank you. And thank you to you the reader, who keep books alive in our digital age decades after their doom was first forecasted. Come out this fine October 12 if you like and celebrate local authors. Here's the list of finalists again– all titles, including my own, will be available for sale. Details on the event here.
See you there!
My initial reaction to the nomination.
More on the book.
Link to buy the book (Elliott Bay Books)!