"I don't have a transfer...," says this sullen brother, trailing off into awkward silence. A lanky dark-skinned fellow about my age, maybe a few years younger and a few inches taller, dressed in an orange waterproof jacket which would work well as a dress on me. Rainier and Forest.
"Well, let's see," I say, noticing the oblong package he's eating from. "Are those peanuts?"
"Can I have some?"
Wordlessly he pours a generous handful into my open hand. "That's cool," I say. "Thank you! This is my dinner!" There is a barely perceptible smile as he begins walking to the back. "Thank you!" I exclaim again. Want to make sure he heard me say that. Partway down the aisle he stops and returns, giving me the rest of the peanuts package. Other people are getting on now, and amidst the hubbub I yell, "Thank you!!" There's a sideways nod of acknowledgement as he retreats to the rear. We continue on toward downtown.
"The next stop is Bayview, that's by Leows, and WorkSource," I say into the mic. Periodically I'll tell them to have a good night. Very important, after all!
At 4th and Pike a huge mob is waiting. I'm delighted. Here they come. The brain has to be at full attention to be present with each face, over and over, changing in seconds, each new person a human being with histories and stories of their own, having nothing to do with those who passed before or after. It's a rush. Here's my dear friend Tracy, out of nowhere, with her brother tagging along– "nice to meet you!" It is a sea wash of faces, beautiful people I've seen somewhere before, shapely fingers or tubby ones, swiping passes and tossing change. Figures with bags and gristle and style, echoes of emotions and headspaces I've lived in myself. I check the back door in the mirror. The orange jacket guy is going out, but no, he's holding for a second, indecision, looking at the stream coming in the front, and now he's coming up to me. Tracy's up front, and the mob is nigh unstoppable, but I'm happy to force it all to a halt if he wants to leave through the front doors. A lot of local chaos at the front.
"Did you wanna step out here?" I say to the man.
"I'll wait for them to get on." Shaking his head. He must have a question.
That can be quite a wait, as it is tonight. The tumultuous wave of humanity continues gushing in for several more minutes, a cacophony of coats and purses and textures, leathery skin and eyeliner, young bunnies in love and ticking time bombs, the tired and the hungry, the last straws and those gentle, neutral faces you can never guess about. I'm reminded of the notion that each of these people, far from being extraneous supporting characters in my blurry periphery, are in fact at the center of their own universe, with loves and losses and families and problems and dreams of their own. The sheer size of such a truth only barely exists inside my comprehension. The earth may be small, but humanity makes it enormous.
Finally they're all in. Mr. Orange steps forward. What did he want?
Just to shake my hand.
He extends his arm over someone else's head. "Ey, thank you," he says with enthusiasm, smiling wide like I'd never expect.
"Dude, thank you for feeding me!"
"No, thank you! For everything!"
"Thank you!" We're laughing now. I think he's just happy to be here, in an accepting and loving space. He says, "you have a blessed night, man!"
Later on in the U-District, a very pale– and very old– we're talking straight out of the bible here– homeless man pipes up from somewhere behind me. "Are you going to Ballard?"
"No. We're just a 49." I say something about the 44, and how it does go to Ballard.
"Do you have any food?"
"I do not have any food."
As he's gathering his things, medium gray and white hair swinging, loading up his elbow crooks and fingers with various bags, it occurs to me. Of course.
"Oh, wait, hey! I do! Check it out! D'you like peanuts?"
"Yes!" he exclaims.
That's two people in one night, giving away the same package of peanuts and feeling great about it. I wonder if he passed it on as well!
The Nightwatch crew has just arrived. They have their tickets and directions, and are fanning out to the various shelters they've been assigned for the evening. "Next stop is Eighth Avenue," I tell them and everyone else. "By the library."
"I didn't know there was a library here!" one of them says.
"Yeah, it's just to the left. Real small, but it has a bathroom, a bunch a books,"
"It has a bathroom!" he laughs.
"You know, the essentials!"
They continue talking amongst themselves, and I listen, smiling to myself. Their conversation didn't have high-minded literacy of the exchange below, but more than made up for it with its easy humor.
"That one's real small."
"Oh, it's tiny."
"Just a room, basically. And it's dead quiet in there. You can't even fart. If you fart, you gotta turn around and run out, 'cause everyone'll know it was you."
"It's a small library, it's not a real library."
"They got like three computers,"
"Capitol Hill has a real library, right?"
"You can't watch porn. It's just too damn quiet. Hell, you can't even talk. You can't watch porn, and you can't talk."
"Hey, did you ever run a background check on yourself? Did you know you can run a background check on yourself?"
"It's crazy, the stuff you learn. I just ran a background check on myself. I wasn't aware I've been arrested twice."
"That's 'cause you were drunk!"
"I don't drink."
"That's all the more proof that you do drink, 'cause you can't remember!"
"Apparently. Didn't know I've been arrested three times."
"I thought it was two times! You really are drunk!"
"Get outta here!"
"How you doin' tonight?"
"Typically!" he says. "And yourself?"
"Oh, I'm well!"
"That's excellent!" he smiles. "And syntactically correct!"
"I do my best!"
That was the first guy. With him is a second man, his friend. Both have books. I ask the first fellow what he's reading, and it's a hefty sci-fi tome of at least a thousand pages, about the export of steel across different galaxies. "Seminal stuff," as he describes it, from the great 1960s-70s period of sci-fi. "Asimov, Frank Herbert, all those guys."
"Just a little light reading!" I say.
He laughs with pleasure.
"And how about you, what do you have there?"
The second man turns up from his own book. "Oh, this is, it's about Intercultural Communications."
"Yeah, it's all about the complexities of communicating between cultures, and how the studies we do can impact those communications and how we apply those results can fundamentally affect decisions people make."
"Oh wow. So it's talking about the impact of the studies themselves?"
"More how those studies are conducted."
"Yeah, how the different methods chosen can influence the results and what people do with those results."
Once again, just some light reading. I ask him a few more questions about it. I'm fascinated and want to look it up myself. "What's it called, the book again?"
"It's, uh. Experiencing Intercultural Communications, an Introduction. By Judith,"
I'm scribbling down the title. "Experiencing...."
"Yeah, Experiencing Intercultural Communications. By Judith Martin and Thomas Nakayama."
"By Judith Martin."
"And Thomas Nakayama. Yeah, it's really good."
"Nakayama, first name Thomas?"
"What made you choose this book? I mean, that's a pretty specific focus,"
"I just thought it sounded interesting. And what's really cool is, at the end of each chapter, they have like sixty or seventy citations to other books on similar subjects to what was covered in the chapter."
"Oh, that's a gold mine!"
"Yeah, so if you're interested in this or that, you can go read further, and get all in detail. Which has been super helpful."
These two were not students attending accredited universities. They were not educated businessmen. They were street people, quite possibly homeless, no different in look from so many of the huddled figures we pass on the sidewalks downtown. What was it my elementary school teacher told us when she broke down the word "assume?"
Two teens board at Henderson. This happened immediately after the story below. They walk to the back, then immediately turn around and walk back up, looking for seats as far away from the back lounge as possible. That's odd. It'd be pretty hard to explain this to Rosa Parks, but today's youngsters of color often do their best to avoid the front of the bus.
"We gonna sit up front," one of the boys says. They're scrunched in the two seats closest to me. "It's some nasty shit on the floor back there!"
It's a mixture of urine and malt liquor- a mixture I suggest avoiding at home! Out loud, in the interest of decorum, I say, "yeah, I don't know what that is!"
"Shit was sticky."
"Always an adventure out here!"
They laugh in solidarity. "You don't gotta clean that shit up, though, right?"
"No, I'm gonna leave it for the cleaning lady!" She'll know what to do.
The second boy chimes in with, "I know you don't gotta clean it, cause you ain't pissed off! They couldn't pay me extra to touch that shit! I'd be like, fuck that five bucks!"
They're rolling into each other, like a connected single being, arching out the same sentence in two voices. "They couldn't pay me,"
"Fuck that five bucks!"
"Couldn't pay me five to go and look at it!"
"Yeah, couldn't pay me five!"
"I'm glad it don't smell too funky," I say. "I mean, it cooouuuuuld be root beer, but...."
Boy one, choking out a laugh: "'Could be root beer,' he says!"
"How's the night been for you guys?"
They respond in a hesitant key.
"Uh oh," I say.
"Yeah. Strange, pretty strange. One of the strangest nights we've ever had."
"Okay. Okay. I hope strange not in a bad way,"
"Aw, strange in all kind a ways, good, bad,"
"You got everything, the good the bad the ugly?" Don't know if they've seen the great Sergio Leone film, but I may as well recommend the title by way of subterfuge.
"Yup, the good the bad and the ugly!"
"It's getting gooder though."
"Yeah, and they was some good. The girls were good. I'd say that was the best part."
"There you go."
"'There you go,' he says. And we smoked some good weed."
"And it's getting gooder now, yeah,"
The other one continues: "and the yeah. Good always wins at the end of it. The good always outweighs the evil."
"Iss getting gooder," nods Boy Two. "This bus ride right here is all better!"
I'm interested in Boy One's thought. I continue his sentence to see if he'll elaborate. "At the end of the day,"
"Yeah. At the end of the day, there's always more good. Jus' like in the movies, you know,"
"Shit always ends up workin out," his friend explains.
Boy One says, "And I'm glad they put it in the movies like that. 'Cause it's, it's, it's,"
"Like a reminder?" I say.
"Yeah, a reminder."
"Always a light at the end of the tunnel," I say.
"Yeah, ain't no tunnel goes on forever."
"Like they say, the night is always darkest before the dawn." There I go, quoting another film.
"The night is always darkest before the dawn, you know?"
I'm so glad they both think that way. Does it even matter if it's true or not? Of course there's no way to definitively know one way or another. But if you find a perspective from which to view the universe that allows you to see and emphasize the good, to notice and contribute to the idea of a just universe, well, wouldn't that be a good thing? For the sake of one's sanity, for the sake of belief in good works? Why not work toward the decency and excellence that exist all around us, that we might appreciate it more often, and take part in it more regularly? Thank you, young boys, for your perspective. There's wisdom lurking beneath the surface.
Kate Alkarni Gallery in Georgetown is shutting down. In fact, the entire Seattle Design Center is shutting down. It was bought out. It won't be the last time you hear of Kate Alkarni Gallery, however, as she has exciting new plans for reemergence, coming back in a big way hopefully in the Spring.
Meanwhile, though, Thursday will be the last and final chance to see a show at KAG in Georgetown. I have 150 pieces at this show, and it's one of my absolute favorite shows I've ever had. If you haven't had a chance to, I urge you to take advantage of this last opportunity to see it. I'll be there from 5pm to 6:30. The show itself will continue til 9pm, but due to a prior commitment I'll have to leave at 6:30. Details and directions here.
There's still a face there, at the end of the line in Rainier Beach. She's in the back, on top of the rear wheel. A favorite seat of mine. Who likes to sit facing sideways, anyway?
"Hey," I say, ambling generally towards her, checking the now-empty bus for lost and found. She can't be more then thirty, abnormally thin, with large front teeth.
"We made it to the end." I don't like to explicitly ask them to leave without first trying the softer approach. You can get a lot done indirectly.
"Thank you." She continues to sit and shiver awkwardly, and then sheepishly pulls up her pants from down around her knees. I turn away to give her some privacy, looking around for lost and found items. The urine mixes with the enormous quantity of malt liquor on the floor, loosening up the stickiness.
All the doors are open, but we start talking. She and I walk up the aisle slowly. Her story slurs out in fits and spurts, the words blending into strange new rhythms I work to understand. Something about the DOC. Rambunctious types coming and going at Othello, where she got on. Her aunt was sick, at the bus stop, and she stayed with her as long as she could, attending to her in the local chaos.
"That's good of you, lookin' out for her."
"They was all yellin'. I'm tryna make money." Now she's slowing down, speaking softly, through a disfigured mouth. "What time is it?"
"Eleven thirty, just before eleven thirty,"
"See, everybody get paid in thirty minutes,"
"That's right, first of the month,"
"Yeah. So don't nobody care about nothin.' I been holdin it for two hours. You saw how long I was out there."
"Yeah, I think I saw you I was goin' the other way."
"They all sayin', they always talkin' 'she my homegirl, she my homegirl,'"
"Talkin' about your aunt,"
"They always like 'we love her,' callin' her homegirl, but as soon as she down, they ain't gonna do nothin. And she's my aunt. What am I gonna do? Nobody else, they don't care. Even though they be like, 'she my homegirl.'"
"Just a buncha words."
"Well, I'm glad you was there." The old LA accent slipping out unbeknownst. "You're doin' a good thing."
Earlier I had considered saying something about peeing. But is anything more unnecessary than the no peeing lecture? Every(sober)body knows that. It's all about the circumstances, and tonight her problems vastly supercede my own. As a bus driver I can certainly relate to the whole bathroom thing (see the post below!).
I stood there in the bus doors, stopped in my tracks, watching her walk away. Just another person like myself, same generation, separated only by a few choices and opportunities. There was something about the image of her pulling her pants up which deeply humbled me. Her, scrunching herself into a corner, trying to be invisible. I turned back inside. Be careful before calling something pathetic, I cautioned myself. That which is called pathetic is often beautiful, a vulnerable beauty hopelessly lost upon jaded eyes.
I rushed in, looking for the cheap stuff. My shift (or "piece") was about to start, and I needed food. This was unusual. I usually bring lunch. There was the banh mi, the soy sauce noodles, here was the layout of sushi and bento... what was cheap? I resolved upon going full time to never open my paychecks, and continue living as if on a part-time budget. A way of staying happy.
There they were. Tofu spring rolls, "$3.99 only." Cheap. Protein. Vegetables. Perfect. I paid and ran out the door to the great and towering 7/49.
There are short routes, and there are long ones. I prefer longer ones because you're not repeating yourself so many times. Leave those ten-minute Mercer Island loops to whoever likes that stuff. The 7/49 is gigantic, serves as broad a spectrum of humanity as there exists in the city, with ons and offs the whole way. Many people use the through-route, riding for a while.*
You can guess the drawback of driving long routes, however. If nature calls, it may be another hour or more before you can use a restroom. In theory, you could pull over and find one, but are you really going to? What if there's a line at the gas station? Will the restaurant let you use it? Will this place even have– and meanwhile there's a crowd waiting on the bus, and more waiting down the street....
This was precisely the predicament I found myself in, several hours after eating the world's least digestible tofu spring rolls. It's different than being at the end of the line, wherein I believe religiously in taking the time for restrooms and exercise. More pressure. At Broadway and Roy I decided to hold it all the way to Rainier and Henderson, about 70 minutes away. I could do this. John Coltrane kicked his heroin habit through sheer force of will. This oughta be cake.
No one on the bus knew why, but my normal driving style, not slow but definitely not fast, suddenly became extremely urgent. Gone was the Nathan Approach of attempting to drive exactly the same whether on time or late, expeditious but not rushing– nope, none of that now. Too sensible. It was time to burn some rubber. "Let's get outta here, " I said into the PA as left a zone. We were hauling.
As it happens, driving like this doesn't really affect what time you get there. People think it does. Have you ever noticed when you drive home at 70 mph instead of 55, all those cars you spent so much energy passing just end up right behind you on the exit ramp? The effect is amplified on a bus, what with all the starts and stops. Rushing on a bus is generally pretty useless, not to mention rougher on the joints, and incredibly dangerous– wait, all that is too logical! I'm trying to use the bathroom here! Rational thought can wait. We flew through town like a jealous tornado, disappointing runners left and right, tearing wildly across the arterials and giving the left lane a reason to exist. My hello's and thank you's acquired a clipped roboticism that gave Kate (the automated voice) a run for her money.
After making it out to Rainier in what felt like record time but was probably only a minute or three faster, I raced over to the comfort station and used it, and used it, and used it. Oh, how lovely. How enchanting. What a beautiful world it is.
I spent the remainder of my break wandering around Saar's Market. A Muslim woman was seated on the floor, looking over the choices of pots and pans. A regular passenger greeted me in the bread aisle. The checker gave me a free paper bag, saying, "I may need a ride one day!"
On the return trip into town, I discovered I was still in urgent mode. Why? I don't know. There's something addicting about it. Once you lock in, it's a little hard to jump back into relaxation. I pressed harder than necessary on the gas, and could feel my heart racing as we took a yellow light. If you drive the bus like I normally do, you'll know this type of stress doesn't really figure in your day. I was discovering how much it changed me.
A girl got on at Genessee asking for free transfers. "Next time," I said to her and her man. "Next time?!" they muttered, accepting but nonplussed. They know me as the accommodating happy Nathan driver. Everyone down there does. "This guy's cool," I'll hear them say as they board. This girl hadn't paid, but she had acknowledged me– what more could you ask for? I need to slow down, I thought, flooring it to the next zone.
At 8th and Pike, a middle-aged man with glasses stepped aboard. "I just got off Sound Transit," he said, "and I don't have an Orca card and I'm trying to go to Wallingford. Could I ride?"
"Yeah, that sounds fine."
"Could I have a transfer?"
"Tell you what, why don't you ride my bus for free, and then pay the next bus."
"Yeah but could I have a transfer?"
I raised my hands to my head in exasperation but stopped mid-motion, my hands frozen in front of me before reaching my face. I paused for a moment. Everything was still, and I could feel the crowd– other folks getting on, him, guys sitting behind us– watching. Most of all I felt myself, watching my own behavior.
My first two years driving bus were spent at Bellevue Base and East Base. When I went straight from that to driving not just a downtown route but a trolley, every driver at Bellevue had advice for me. Much of it was very helpful (Angle into zones! Use 4-ways when doing the unexpected! Know your headways!). I remember veteran Terry nodding sagely, thinking it all over, on one of our last days relieving each other on the 245. He trained me on my very first day driving live service. We went back a bit.
"There will be days," he said finally, "when your patience will be pushed to the limit." He enunciated the phrase with a weight made real by memory and hardship. To the limit. That's all he said. He didn't offer a solution.
"Hmm," I said. I had no idea he was talking about.
In films we see protagonists reacting to high stress situations with alertness and brilliant precision, when they're at their best. You don't see them when they're not at their best. When people are chasing Matt Damon, it's never when he's underslept or has a headache or diarrhea. Life, however, is different.
I broke the electric pause by saying, "I'm having a rough night and I shouldn't be taking it out on you. I'm sorry."
"You're the shit," he said, accepting the transfer I offered, then quickly getting out of my way, perhaps thinking I might regress.
"I hope you have a better night," a man who'd been watching said as he stepped out.
Let yourself receive it, I thought. "Thank you! Thanks for saying that!"
Driving up East Pine I reflected. How had this loss of perspective happened? Wasn't I strong enough to get out of this addictive headspace, which had been entirely of my own making? It'd been a terrific night, all things considered. It hadn't been a rough night at all. Bring me back to myself, I silently asked of the passengers and the world around me. I need your help.
In moments like this I throw myself out there even further than normal. The reasoning being, if I put more of myself out there, I'll get more back. It always works. Eventually someone responds, and it helps me climb the ladder back to being myself. I'd like to get to the point of doing this independently, but sometimes you need a little push.
Into the PA, approaching John and Olive Streets: "Comin' up is Johhhhhn Street, John or Olive, depending on which way you roll... John, where you can get a 43, or an 8."
"John, where you can get a john," said the man with glasses, coming forward.
"There you go!"
"Hey, out in the U District, is the 44 still running every fifteen minutes?"
"Yeah! Well, the 44 is every fifteen till midnight,"
"But the 43 is only every half right now."
"Oh okay. So I can probably hop out here, score some drugs and then be on my way!"
I laughed. It sounded absurd, and yet somehow in tune with the zany, hopping madness of the neighborhood around us. "Just another Sunday night!" I said.
"Well, I hope it's a great evening!"
"Thanks! Y'ave a good night!"
Right after he left a girl with dreads and a pitbull got on, perhaps one of the heroin set that lounges outside Dick's. The dreads were tinged with red, and her face was lively and present.
"How are you tonight," she asked, preempting what I usually say to the passengers.
"My night is great! And yours?"
She winked at me discreetly and smiled, affirming that yes, it had indeed been a great night. She was so right.
Later I'd see him again, two nights later. He suffers from severe insomnia. In fact, he hadn't slept in the time between now and since we last spoke. We extolled the virtues of various parks. We like Cal Anderson, we decided, because of its community park vibe. When it's nice out, everyone in the neighborhood seems to come out. It always reminds me of Seurat's 1884 Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte, come to life. He agreed. "Gas Works is great too," he said. "Like Cal but without the drugs."
*Service planners, please keep the through-route. There's no question I'm asked more often than, "do you turn into the 7?," and nothing more pleasing than to be able to say yes and see them smile in relief. Transferring, especially at night, is not fun.
"I'ma be real wit choo, man. You deserve to be driver uh duh year. Every time I see you you be friendly. You be gettin' out and helpin' somebody. And not jus' this year, but every single time, you be tellin' em where we at, lettin' people know. Really though. Dude. If it was a vote, I'd be votin' for you."
He came all the way from the very back to say that, this kid. He'd stalked up here from the nether regions of the bus, pulling his headphones down around his neck, this adolescent boy dressed in classic thuggy teen gear, visually indistinguishable from the thoughtless, glum and confrontational youth persona we're all familiar with, the fellow you're supposed to be wary of on your walk home.
But here he was, one of the very same, sharing such unabashedly unhip praise. I don't know specifically what inspired him. I'd just hopped out of the bus to help a Latino boy learn how to use the bike rack. Of course I blush at his kind words, but I'm blown away less by what he said than the fact that he felt the need to say it, to walk all the way up here and go to the trouble of expressing his adamant approval for those most utterly uncool of attributes– decency, graciousness. Altruism.
Who says virtues are lost on the youth?
Once again, regarding my current show, which is one of my all-time favorites and one of the better shows I've ever been in, is closing! Last chance to see 150 small works! I'll be there from 5pm to 6:30 only. Stop on by if you can!
And much more importantly, THANK YOU, you lovely Seattle voters, for voting yes on buses! Without knowing it, this boy thanks you. The great human collective thanks you, the churning organism that keeps this city alive, the fastest-growing city in the nation. No major city doesn't also have an excellent transit infrastructure, and no city with a great rail network doesn't also have killer bus service. Seattle doesn't just need to preserve its system, but to expand, and this measure allows for that. Incredibly, we'll finally be looking at service changes that aren't just a bunch of reductions. People working in the off hours or unusual commutes will be able to keep their jobs, allowing the city to keep thriving. I'll be able to continue the blog, to keep riding the bus everywhere, and I won't be laid off! Honestly, how can I thank you enough?
The new service hours will largely go into maintaining the current network and beefing up existing service with added runs and frequency. But look also for a possible split of the C and D with new service on those routes to South Lake Union and SODO, as well as extending the daytime 70/71-series express pattern into the evenings and Sundays. Details here. For myself, I'd love to see some more wire! And the 280 restored! One can hope!
"Please, don't bust a cap in my ass," he said with a sigh, stepping on.
"I'm not going to bust a cap in you. In fact, I'm gonna give you a transfer!"
"Man, Thank you! I appreciate choo!"
I would too, if someone, instead of shooting me, elected to give me a a nice blue piece of paper. Definitely what we'd call the preferred alternative. I've never had someone thank me for refraining to bust a cap in their ass!
IMPORTANT: The last chance to see my current show, which contains 150 pieces of new work by me, is on Thursday, November 20. This Closing Show is from 6pm to 9, and it's free as always.
UPDATE: I will not be there for the entire show. Due to a prior commitment, I will be present only from 5pm (before the show starts, but the gallery will be open) until 6:30. Of course I'd prefer it if you came then! Hope you can make it!