There's a figure crossing the street in front of me. We're stopped at Aurora and 155th southbound- I've just announced it as "the Safeway stop." To some, that might sound like I'm advertising a store. This would be incorrect. Out here, Safeway isn't a store. It's a cultural landmark on the order of the Jefferson Memorial or the Washington Momument. Places like Lowes and Grocery Outlet aren't stores that sell things. They hardly have interiors. They're Mount Rainier. They're the North Pole. You mark your geography by these towering monoliths, and negotiate your way through the city accordingly. Saars. Home Depot. It's how you get to the point where the word "McDonalds" actually means Third and Pine.
Anyways, we're sitting here at the North Pole stop, and I'm zoned out with a half-smile on my face, my thoughts drifting fast in the 90-second light cycle. This dark figure brings me back, out there in front of the bus, waving his hand high toward me. Man on a bicycle, mid-thirties, and he's no dealer- it's not one of those child-size one-speeds. Ambling across the intersection. In his tow is a young girl in a pink jacket, struggling forward on a bike of her own. The father isn't dressed to look like most people's first idea of a caring, gentle human being, what with his massive gray hoodie (hood up today), tough-guy goatee, and pants that never heard of a belt line.
But I know this fellow. Like a lot of folks in the young/youngish African-American set, it's just his getup. He's a well-rounded badass. He's only masquerading as the unidimensional, proverbial "one tough mother." His eyes, far from flat, carry a depth and humility built out of the passing years. Empathy. Being a father brings out a certain side of you, making real what were only possibilities before. He's the fellow I once wrote about as follows- "there's a satisfaction in getting a regular rider on a new route, where you sense that they're in on your whole schtick, they know how you roll and they like it. I see him in the mirror, looking toward me with mild amusement as I do my thing."
He gets around, and I mostly know him from the 7 and other south-side work, so to see each other out here in the far northern hinterlands is a welcome surprise. Aurora is great, but it's not quite my turf in the way Rainier is (I grew up riding the 7), so seeing a familiar face is always nice. My face lights up with a look of half-mock, half-real surprise, and I return the wave with elated gusto.
There is a world-weary kindness in him that washes into excitement when he sees me, and, I realize, in myself as well. It's his day, each one better than the last, and I'm nourished by the sight of it all, the richness of possibility I see in him, in his daughter, the new directions they'll pave that I can only guess at. You seem him and you think, he'll smile again before his time draws to a close. He gestures at his daughter, pointing me out to her: "it's that bus driver!"
She's too busy trying to stay balanced on her bike to pay attention. We'll forgive her that. "Happy New Year," I yell out my open window. "You too, Happy New Year!"
There's been research which suggests that the sense of community in a neighborhood can be stronger if that neighborhood has a higher-than average crime rate. Why?
In such places, people have to rely on each other. They can't hide from everyone all the time. Walking down Lake City Way at midnight last night, this was certainly the case; people nodded and smiled at each other, at me, as they walked by. I didn't know these people. Same thing in the alleys off East Cherry, those clumps of sidewalk obscured from light by glowering trees. I'd be walking past as the Barbeque place was shutting down, and the guy coming the opposite way would ask how my night was going. It's a sort of safety check: okay, here's someone who's not a threat.
The most obvious place to observe such dynamics is on routes. Where a route happens to travel through determines how 90% of the people on board will behave. On the 7, everyone knows everyone. On the 358, it's similar. People talk. They're a little more accommodating and otherwise world-ready than the insular commuter folk I sometimes bemoan- like that 303 passenger I mentioned earlier (not to keep harping on the poor lady). I remark about this to a passenger, Donna, on a 358.
"Oh. You had one of the 303 WeatherWhiners. Is what it sounds like."
They have a name for it!
"You bet we do," she says. "If they get to be fed from a silver spoon their whole life, we get to laugh about it a little."
"That sounds fair enough."
She nods decisively.
It's cold today- a lot of black ice- and we have no heat in the front half of the bus. The heat in the back half works- perfect for sleepers and freeloaders. "You're welcome to move to the back, or- you're welcome to freeze up here with me..." My driver heater works, but I leave it off- that just wouldn't be fair, to rub that in all their faces. "I'm doin' the best I can," I tell them- "I'm trying to round up as many people as I can here-"
"Body heat!" someone chants.
"Exactly, body heat! like Emperor Penguins!"
Doing a double shift is nice, because you see some of the same faces going to work, and then going home again ten, twelve hours later. No matter how long their day has been, it's implicit that your day is as long or longer, and there's a certain respect there. A friend in red and gray, a built black man in his thirties- "I saw you this morning!'
"That was such a long time ago," I say, having trouble remembering if that was indeed today. "We made it!"
"Time to relax."
The responding affirmation in his voice carries the hours, the weeks and months of hard stress.
"You gon' be here tomorrow?" he asks.
"You and me both!"
"Same time same place!"
There is meaning, dancing underneath the surface talk. The exchange ends coasting on the wave of something shared, a communal welcoming of hard work; it's been a long day, and tomorrow will be long too, but we're not complaining. These are the facts of life, and we can smile about it. Parallel lines.
Red light. Flat shadows blending under the sodium lamps downtown. It's early, and dark. He's standing at the front, waiting to deboard, looking at me in the dim blue hue of the flourescents. He'd asked something practical, about transfers, and after a silence decides to speak: "How you doin' this mornin'?"
"Excellent! It's a beautiful morning so far."
"Iss right. You close to gettin' off?"
"Actually, I'll be out here till 7pm-"
"But it's all good. The thing to do- is to stay in a good mood, for the entire time. That's the challenge."
"I know tha's right." He nods, his dark eyes crinkling into a smile.
"The whole day."
"I'm gonna do it, my friend!" We start laughing. "I'm gonna do it!"
"You got dis!"
We laugh the laugh of shared souls. We talk about how it's not easy, that will power is involved, lots of it, but of course it is worth it, and yes, such things are possible. I keep smiling after he's long gone, spirits warmed up as he walks into the sheltering darkness.
Bear With Me
"Pretty cool-lookin' vacuum cleaner, man," I tell this Belltown Buddy. He's dressed in rags, and is hauling around a primeval beast of a cleaner, a vacuum that has seen better days- an earlier time when it hadn't been battered by the elements.
"You gonna clean the bus for us? 'Cause you can, if you want. We'll just plug it into the, uh, plug it into the steering wheel here..."
Later on, as another passenger gets off, she marvels at how I like the 358. Even with all the crazies, she asks? I tell her, they're my buddies!
Driver Nancy ("Queen of the 358"- she picks it and only it, and has an attitude to top most humans I've met in my life) once told me something similar, explaining that "oh, I love the people. They're fun. You're not going to have more fun on any other route. And plus," she said, leaning in confidentially, "these people are all my neighbors. I have to be nice to them." She enunciates her words with that smoky, gravelly voice of hers in a way that makes me smile. The attitude has origins in considering strangers in a way not too dissimilar from how one thinks of friends and family.
Once I was at North Base, standing around the table in the bullpen area, holding a plate with a slice of pie. There were no forks. Nancy saw me. "Do you need a fork?"
"I need something, I guess."
"I don't have a fork, but I'm almost done with this spoon. Here, let me wash it." She gives it to me. "And when you're done with it, just put it in my locker."
"Which locker is it?"
"It's in the first aisle. The one that says 358 on it."
Nancy is not young and naive. She's been around for decades, and this trusting, level approach towards humanity works for her. With her, you can't pull the usual line- which everyone uses on me- "wait till you've driven xx, or been alive xx years," et cetera. No. The flaw in that thinking is that it ignores that everyone's different, and processes experiences differently. Sometimes I'm not sure what I believe. But-
When I started they told me, "you'll be burned out after six months." Six months later, when that hadn't happened, it was, "wait a couple years." "Wait three years." "Wait till you've driven the 7." "Wait till you do the 3 and the 4, all day." "And the 358, don't get me started..." I've done all of those things. I just got my five-year plaque, and for the past three years, nearly all my picked work, by choice, has only been the 3/4, 7, or 358. I've seen people do things I've never even thought of! And yet. And yet...
Real Change Willy is waving his papers in that special way he does, but today, for the first time I've ever seen, he flubs and drops the papers. I lean out the window and yell, "Willy! You're better than that!" He shrugs and says, "doesn't happen too often." He walks over the bus for the red light and we chat about how his school is going. If you haven't had a chance to talk to the guy, I recommend doing so. Talk about a good attitude. Three years clean and sober, cleaning up a rough life. He's by far the most visible and well-known Real Change seller, and is attending Bellevue College, taking classes far more difficult than the ones I coasted through at UW- and he has a smile for everyone. Resilient. There is much I can learn from the guy. If he can stay in a good mood out there all day, well, I have no excuse!
It's 5:16 in the morning, and I'm in heaven. I have found an oasis. This 358 trip, which I've been doing all week, is unique. As people get on at Aurora Village, I realize that not only are they all stunningly, widely awake, but they all know each other's names, stories and lives. There are some commuter routes that resemble this- you've got the same set of ten, thirty, sixty people, who all take the same bus every morning of every day, year after year. They get to know each other. They smile at each other and ask after each other's well-being. It's a small-town village within the big city. I don't run into this very much because I try to avoid commuter routes. I like routes that have a different crowd each day- like the 358. And most of those commuter runs are very quiet and serve a limited range of people.
This particular 358, however, is different. It's the 358. These are commuters, and they all know each other, but not in the staid and perfunctory way that they do on the 250 or the 76; no, here they take on the zany spirit of the route.
They're happy in a heightened way, because of course it's this early, and here we all are hanging out together on Aurora Avenue, and it's kind of absurd, but we can laugh and smile about everything, as we have for the X years we've been here every morning. In other words, they're a group after my own heart. I pull in early to Aurora Village Transit Center, and then hop out of the driver's seat and go back and sit with them in the regular seats, and new passengers look at us somewhat confusedly as we joke around at full volume and bray with laughter at 5am. The atmosphere continues as we head down the street, building as more friends get on-
"Is that Bruce?" asks Nancy. "It's Bruce! Let's say hi to Bruce really loud! Hooray, Bruce is here!" He is welcomed on board as a conquering hero.
A man leans in at 130th to say hi to everyone, and then apologize that he can't ride today because he forgot his wallet for work. "Awww," they all say in unison. "Ned forgot his wallet!" explains a lady to friends further back who didn't hear. "Awww, Ned!"
Fred gets off the bus. Nancy says, "Look, Fred's getting off! Everyone, let's wave at Fred!" They make exaggerated smiling waves in unison at Fred as he walks into the night.
"Here we go," I say as I often do, warning people that the bus is moving. "Yaayyy! Here we gooo!" They say in response. The lights inside the bus are all on- both rows of overhead fluorescent lights, plus my dome light- and we're a bright bulb of uncontrollable happiness in the dark and twisted night of Aurora. A streetwalker passes by outside, peering in at this strange celebration.
"Now, you enjoy this ride," a motherly passenger says in a mock-stern voice to the person next to her. "Or else!"
"Is Jim coming today? I think that's Jim. That's his dark shadow against the dark wall up there."
"That sounds ominous," I say.
"Yeah. You know you've been riding the bus a long time when you can recognize people by their shadows in the middle of the night."
Some new passengers who aren't regularly in on all this get on, and they're welcomed in as if old friends. Different conversations grow and mingle. A middle-aged woman and her elderly mother are all smiles, reacting with baffled joy as they look around them, clearly enjoying the only place that's this loud at this time. My regular announcements are in just the right key for such an environment- "How about a stop at 130th," I say, announcing 130th. "I think that's a terrible idea," someone says. I burst out laughing. "We're getting close to 125th." "Noooo, don't dooo it!"
A woman my mother's age gets on and says in a fake serious voice that absolutely kills me: "I'm glad you were able to get up early two days in a row."
"I might even show up tomorrow!"
"Hey, I remember you from the 13!" Says a man with a bicycle to me. He stays somewhere toward the front. We yell at each other about cod fishing in Alaska.
I first had this group a month or so ago, for one day only. After that I discover that they begged their regular driver to get me back on the route. They love her, but they loved me as well, and are overjoyed when I show up for this entire week- their regular driver took a vacation- and many of them board already knowing my name. "It's Nathan!!!" "Nathan, we're SOO happy that you came to hang out with us!"
"I'll be here till Friday!"
"I know. We campaigned hard for that. We're not letting you go just yet!"
It's a dream, is what it is. They are the great walking contradiction of so many things- of the idea that going to work is sullen, that getting up that early is no fun, that taking the 358 is a drag, that commuters need to be silent... they handily defy the stereotype of the commuter as entitled or apathetic. They smile the smiles they have worn for years. Age makes a happy person beautiful. You see the lines around their eyes, the twinkle of their soul winking out at you, physical evidence of a life lived vivaciously, proof that their brand of mirth has a deep-seated quality to it, a staying power that's lasted across the turning years.
Strange Vibrations / Not So Serious
Strange vibrations are drifting in the air. The mood of the populace is on edge, and you feel a being struggling to define itself, pushing against the embryonic sac of complacency. Here is a full moon whose effects seem to have lasted a week, two weeks, with the moon itself having long since moved on. And yet there is a restlessness down here, where we humans live.
I hail Fred on the 7, and he tells me he's been called a bitch five times today. Since when did anyone call Fred a bitch? He's Fred, for Pete's sake. Guy's awesome. He's brave enough to give out his full first, middle and last name to people. I can't even do that. A Caucasian man on the street drapes upon me a blanket of racist remarks, which I shrug off; a well-to-do, educated commuter on the 303, first passenger on in the morning, her face and gestures a perplexing mask of anger; she's intensely repulsed by my good attitude, and asks me to stop. I'd driven the route the morning before and she "just couldn't stand it." Elsewhere, a dear friend of mine, in mourning because his dear friend died; I see people laughing at a disabled boy, setting off a verbal tic in him that he's unable to stop, and you can sense the pain he's experiencing, helpless to defend himself; a cop and a black man at Northgate, having the "because I'm black" argument. Everyone stands around, watching them, though they've all heard the conversation before. As for myself, typically the only people who are rude to me are (occasionally) the mentally unstable and the wealthy upper class; but today, we even have a bona fide street type asking me to cut down on the niceties. At least he asks kindly.
I'm not complaining. In my book these are non-events, excepting of course the dead friend. The commonality the other incidents share is that they're all concerned with people's perception of others, and as we know, giving credence to such opinions- allowing them to affect our happiness and self-worth- is a debilitating, endless black hole.
But- why are they all happening this week, right now? Am I simply hyper-attuned to them, creating a trend where there isn't one? I tend to place minimal importance on trends for this reason, and for the fact that most trends are transient..I just finished reading a massive book about people's preoccupations with perception of and by others, so maybe it's no surprise that I'm noticing all this. Typically the streets are always the same, and I tend to believe the themes we pull out of them reflect ourselves much more than any actual trend taking place. If I have a bad day on the road, it's almost always because I have something going on in my private life, and my mechanisms and strategies for dealing with the road are down; it isn't because of any actual incident on the part of someone else.
Or maybe there really is a stirring of sorts taking place. I can't help but think so. There is the incident in Connecticut on the national consciousness. There is the newly intense cold here; there's the stress and madness of the holidays, the push-pull between a desire for good times and the reality of what holidays are for many people, conflated with the national mood. Who knows.
What do we do? We identify these periods for what they are, and we work to right ourselves. The human animal is vulnerable this week, perhaps. It is beset by woe, and it, the great collective, has manufactured a response in a great many infinitesimal ways.
By knowing the human beast is off-kilter, for whatever reason, we can accept such behavior with greater tolerance. Our friends are simply going through a phase, as it were. It isn't one's own fault.
We may not understand the reasons for these bouts of lashings and sharp edges, but we can understand them for what they are- a mere buck on the seismograph, ultimately indicating nothing. Certainly not a trend.
Let's top off all this serious talk with just what it needs-
I'm walking back to my 358. I've been hanging out at 5th and Jackson, reading my book, walking around and eating my apple. I shake hands with a 7 passenger who thought I didn't remember him from a year ago, and was flabbergasted when I recited his website. Strolling back to my bus, and- whaa? Who- what is that?
It's a man, it's a man in a dirty green jacket, but what is he doing? He's climbing around on the front of my bus, clambering on the bike rack, and arching his body towards the glass, because he's attempting to enter the the bus by pushing slowly through the windshield.
I don't think it's going to work!
I'm unable to control myself from laughing. "How's it goin,'" I say smilingly. "Oh, pretty good," he responds, clearly not looking it; apparently he'd just been on my bus on its previous trip, and had left his wallet. I reach for the door release. Every teenager in King County knows how to open a parked bus, but this man's no teenager, and the poor guy steps down from his awkward perch on the bicycle tiedowns. "Come on in, let's take a look-see. I think the door works better for getting inside."
I love discussing such wild absurdities in regular, level tones of voice. We find his wallet. He's saved from trying to defy physics. He's good to go.
PS- What is that photograph? It's a still I took for a 48-Hour film shoot a few years ago. More stills here.
I wrote about her in the past, here. She'd just been released from the hospital after a suicide attempt, and her computer had been stolen, and she'd just lost her husband of thirty years. It wasn't her best day, but we had a good conversation, and I ended the trip wondering if I'd see her again.
That was many moons ago, but certain faces etch themselves into the memory. They live in the shadow of your afterthoughts, surfacing in the solitary intervals. You look through the distance and wonder. It seemed no great surprise to see her again this morning, huddling underneath a shelter with her walker. Today she was about half the weight she was when I'd seen her last, but her face was still instantly recognizable. She knew who I was at once. We were outside Central Base, and another driver, D--, was keeping her company. D-- is awesome, and had just finished up her shift on the 358, in which our friend, on D--'s bus, had fallen asleep; now D-- was waiting with her for a returning bus, to make sure she got back to where she needed to go.
Our friend, whose name I don't know (henceforth called Barbara Jo Ann), was lamenting the fact that she'd fell asleep for two full 358 trips. I can't believe it, she moaned.
You musta needed that rest, I say. And you, D--, you must be smooooth on those brakes.
"My friend once woke up and he was locked inside the bus on the yard in the middle of the night," says Barbara Jo Ann, laughing.
I express surprise, and D-- tells how she's had that happen on her own bus three times in her career.
Me: What did you do?
"Shoot, I just gave 'em a ride home in my car."
"Tha's kinda crazy," says Barbara Jo Ann. "Actually, that sounds kinda dangerous..."
"Oh, I don't really care," says D--, a squat, unassuming woman in her sixties. "If it's my time to go, it's my time to go, and there's nothing I can do about it. So, you know. Whatever!"
Cracking a smile at us both, a genuine one, the bells on her santa hat tingling softly.
I say it again- wow!- and marveled at her freedom. The implication is more than simply not being afraid of the unknown, but of also having squared everything away, as it were. One must possess a certain awareness of self and satisfaction with one's life and actions to find such a headspace.
Whenever I'm standing around outside Atlantic/Central Base, I always get caught up in conversations with other drivers. Here comes Kirk. Here's Mike and Whats'-His-Name, with the hair and stubble. We all pile onto the 41, us drivers and Barbara Jo Ann, and I chat happily with Kirk for a bit, but who I really want to talk to today is Barbara. Who knows when I'll see her again.
Whats-His-Name, a grizzled old timer, is somewhat nonplussed as I move over to sit next to Barbara Jo and catch up. We make an odd pair, older black woman in a bandanna and hoodie, clutching her collapsed walker and wiping tears from her moist eyes, and me, with my crisp uniform, dirty driving hands, and bright demeanor.
We find a way to see the sunny side of the fact that all her clothes were stolen this morning, and that she missed her appointment up at THS. Mainly, I'm just thrilled that she's alive. Based on how she looked those months ago, I didn't have high hopes. And yet here she is, in dramatically better shape, somehow hanging on, exuding just enough strength to keep going, wandering forth on this path through life, this path we presume to know something about.
Someone once asked Michael Caine if he believed in God. He answered that anyone in his position would, because the odds of his life turning out the way it did are, in his words, "kind of minimal." With the success- in many senses of the word- that he's experienced, of course he does, he said. But what's really impressive is when someone is able to comprehend a just universe- whether that means theistic or godless- when they've been dragged through the ringer.
When Barbara is sitting next to me, and telling me that she "be keeping up the attitude just because it make sense," staying mentally strong through unimaginable hardship, seeing each new day as an opportunity to surpass the previous one, significantly or incrementally...
Let us not pigeonhole this great way by calling it faith or religion or lifestyle or attitude.
How does the human soul possess the ability to continue, in light of what it is subjected to? How is it that we, the great collective human organism, find ways to grow ever onward, searching and not finding, but somehow compelled to keep believing in ourselves, believing in the world, grudgingly, haltingly, or ebulliently? How can we have the nerve- the gall- to get up again after being beaten down? The answers we come up with for this subtle and far-reaching mystery are simplistic, only partly true, or reductive. There is simply the fact that we do. And this is good.
It's very dark now, and watery puddles zip by in the night, reflecting what they can. Northbound on Aurora, heading home, and here's a biker outside marvelling aloud to a pedestrian- "three in a row!"
They're watching us pass by, us three- actually, four- 358s, leapfrogging our way up Aurora. I'm one of the guys in the back, alternating between second and third coach in line as we all drop off passengers. The 358 runs every 6 minutes during peak-period, peak-direction rush hour, and such bunch-ups are inevitable. Incredibly, people still run for the bus, operating on a logic that is beyond me, even though the next bus is either visible or around the corner.
This typically causes the bus in the lead to overflow, and the one at the head of this line is doubtless packed, but inside my bus, the atmosphere is different. It isn't a busy commute for these guys. It's the morning after Christmas. Four, maybe five passengers in here, and we're sprawled out, plenty of room for everyone. It's peaceful. On the 358! What is this strange twilight zone? I don't feel any urge to drive fast tonight- just a gut feeling. I take it an expedient but leisurely pace, perhaps in keeping with the post-holiday atmosphere inside the bus. It's too relaxing in here to be stressing and speeding.
Northbound at 120th, where it's pitch black- and pitch wet- a white four-door sedan in the left lane, just ahead of me, swerves in but too late- or too soon... what is that out there?
There's a shape jaywalking across the dark street, a dainty shape with women's boots and wavy hair, and a small puffy jacket- and how is it now, that the shape is spinning up into the dark air, the white sedan slamming on its brakes just a second too late, the white bumper smashing into her knees and catapulting her into a somersault, her big purse bag upside down too, slow motion as everything spills out- lighters, makeup, coins, pencils falling everywhere, revolving, her hair dangling straight down, beneath her head- she's perfectly upside down for an instant, a reverse of how she stood a moment before- keeps on turning- and then SPLAT as she lands on her back, 270 degrees later.
The car contacted her at a slight angle. It swerved right at the last moment, into my lane, and because of the angle in which it hit her, gave her room to rotate fully before hitting the ground. This in itself is a minor miracle. A head-on frontal hit would have forced her under the car or separated her lower legs from the rest of her body as she contacted the car's hood. The fact that I'm lollygagging up Aurora with a passenger load that would fit in my Chevy Tracker, in no rush whatsoever, is also a minor miracle. Otherwise I'd have hit both the car and the woman. Additionally, that segment of the roadway was, until today, a part of Aurora where I liked to get some speed, because it's a longer distance between zones there (10 blocks rather than the usual 5).
All of that happens inside of one second. I stop the bus with no danger of hitting the body or car, and tell my passengers I'll be right back. I saunter out to the fallen woman. Is she okay? Can I call someone? I want to help. Can I please help? Can she move- yes, she can move. She's already getting up. No, I can't help. Miraculously, she's in perfect shape. "I'm fine I'm fine I'm fine," she tells me. "Thank you." She's shaken, but she's fine fine fine, and she doesn't need any help, and she especially doesn't need me to call anyone for help. She grabs a couple of things, tosses her hair just so, and walks into the dark night. She isn't even limping.
The driver in the car stops having a heart attack, and speeds off like there's no tomorrow. A few of my passengers glance around, confused, and return to their books (yes, one of them was reading a real paperback book!). I get the bus moving again, and a minute later there's no indication anything even took place. Just a second too late or a few degrees different, and lives would've crumbled and shifted irreparably; but it's a secret now, and a fortuitous one. The only evidence is the litter of an abandoned handbag, mascara pencils and lighters scattered across the lanes, memories being flattened out by smoothly flowing Aurora traffic.
Jerome likes it when I relieve him. My afternoon shift begins with me standing around on the barren plains of Aurora Avenue, outside a drugstore next to a public storage facility and tire repair center. Aurora has a texture all to its own, a milieu unfound anywhere else in the city. The wide, 7-lane expanse, bordered by diners, used car lots, fleabag motels, detox centers, lumber stores, rehab facilities...ah, yes. I breathe the air in deeply, savoring the many-splendored scent of Club Cuckoo-Land, awaiting my 'living room'- let's make that 'bus'- that will soon arrive.
Eventually the unmistakable shape of the 358 appears over the distant horizon. It rises out of the hazy distance, gently reminding us that the world is round, and soon it is here, and Jerome, the driver, can't help but smile. It's his nature, but it's also at the spectacle of seeing me in an absurdly good mood. This is the place I most want to be right now. "Jeroooomme," I say in a low rumble, as he opens the doors.
During my first days at North Base, he would look at me with something approaching wonder: as in, who the heck is this guy, and why is he so happy? Is there something I, Jerome, need to be briefed about him? Jerome would pull up, and I, Nathan, would swagger up to the bus, backpack in one hand and seat cushion and base car keys in the other, unable to stop smiling at the "awesome pile" I was about to take over.
North Base has the least overall mileage of any base, so it gets all the old buses, and the shortage of working vehicles- and maintenance workers to fix them- is so dire that some operators can't pull out buses from the base on time anymore: there aren't any working buses on the lot. They have to wait around- 5 minutes, 90 minutes- until some driver on the road finishes his shift, returns the base, and, on the hope that that bus works, the new driver can then turn it right around and take it back on the road again. About 30 broken hybrids are sitting at North, untouched since the beginning of shakeup, unable to be repaired because of a severe lack of resources. But I'm digressing. The point is, North still has the old 2300-series artics (pictured above), and I love them. They're the Breda of diesels, and they make me happy. I specifically picked a 358 shift that uses one. Why would I want the accoutrements of a newer vehicle- low-floor, air conditioning, a ramp instead of a lift, electric assist for the engine, automated announcements, automated signage...please, no! That would be too easy!
The 2300 has a history to it. It's been around the block. It has more seats than any other Metro bus, and it has the great chat seat, enabling easy customer-driver interaction, and it has front and back doors that are the same size, which pleases me, though I have no idea why. The 2300 is not as comfortable, it has no AC, its lift is slow, but- it's been around the block, and it is awesome. I grew up riding it, and its predecessor, the 2000 series, on the 174. I suppose I am susceptible to the nostalgia bug. Plus it can make sharper turns than a hybrid coach, and it doesn't have the great and terrible "elbow thing" that the hybrids have (drivers will know what I'm talking about- I'm referring to that pesky modesty shield crap that hits your elbow all the time. I'm turning it into a bigger deal than it is, but don't tell me you don't hate that thing).
Anyways, here's Jerome, with the Awesome Pile, and he's got leftover snacks for me- a pear, plus a couple of Slim Jim pepperoni sticks. What a guy. I wish him a good afternoon, and we hit the ground running. "Put a fuckin' muzzle on it, asshole," says one passenger to another, in a discussion involving each other's dogs, who are also on board. "You need to learn how to control your shit." There was a time when I would be stricken by such an encounter, but today I am amused, without knowing why.
"Gentlemen," I say in a stern voice, as if speaking to two lovable but misbehaving nephews- but it's of minimal use.
The two dog owners are at odds with their cherished dog-rearing beliefs, and are unable to reach a common ground. "Lemme out right here, before I have to kill this motherfucker," the first dog owner loudly suggests, bringing a close to the dog-rearing discussion. I'm grateful. He's making excellent use of his fight-avoidance skills. What a guy. After he leaves, a frothing mouth of anger on the sidewalk, his choice fingers and red-faced yells receding into the distance, the other dog owner and myself begin laughing. I realize what's funny- the idea that a conversation about muzzling vs. not muzzling dogs could arouse such ludicrously outsized anger in anyone. But, even though they disagreed on "how to control your shit," the angry man was kind enough to refrain from "killing this [non-muzzle-believing] motherfucker." Talk about manners! My nephews are behaving well today.
"This'll be the one that finally wipes that happy grin off your face," a driver- definitely not Jerome- once told me upon learning that I'd picked the 358. We were standing outside the Central Base parking garage. You can't help but feel anxious when people stay stuff like that- they've been there, after all, and you haven't. But the thing is, they haven't been me. And man, these 358 passengers are only slightly less crazy than I am.
I eat the pear on my break at 5th and Jackson. I look at the remaining pepperoni stick and decide it would be better enjoyed by someone else. I've just finished my book (Tom Wolfe's latest), and am considering staying inside my bus for the remaining 10 minutes- no. I'll troll about on Jackson Street for a few. It's a feeling in my gut. "When you gettin' back on Rainier [Avenue]," a street guy asks me. We chat for a moment. Eventually Cyrus shows up, driving the 36- great guy with a great attitude- we drove the 7 together last summer- and I give him the pepperoni. It's a fine moment, though nothing earth shattering, but then- who's that, getting off his bus? It's Gabrielle, that Gabrielle, from the 7, the one with the sublime understanding of positivity. Haven't seen her for months. She's found a new living situation that she likes, and her confident, gentle happiness is radiant. Palpable. Like Julia, the woman on the plane in the prior post, hers is a presence of being that doesn't insist on itself. They're not trying to shove anything in your face, or make you change your ways- no, not at all. They are simply being themselves. This is a what, a relief, an inspiration, a sublimating uplift- a reminder.
The Great Freeze
There are, at any given time, a couple of ongoing citywide conversations taking place in the city of Seattle. One revolves around transit. Everyone has a bus story, about the crazy person who sat next to them, and people share with each other their ideas about routes, drivers, vehicles, and neighborhoods. I enjoy listening to and being part of this conversation.
Additionally, everyone has a solution for fixing all the transit problems in King County. I'm guilty of this myself. One is reminded of the national conversation during our days under Bush II, when everyone you spoke with knew exactly how to solve the Iraq war. It's human nature.
The other great conversation in Seattle is the ongoing discussion of The Freeze. You're familiar with the Seattle Freeze- the idea that people in Seattle are uniformly standoffish or afraid of talking to strangers.
Here's how the Freeze conversation usually starts. Two people who are strangers to each other meet inadvertently. They're at a bus stop. They're at a gallery opening. A friend's birthday party. They do not know each other, and were not trying to meet each other, but, incredibly, unbelievably, they did, violating all notions of The Freeze. How on earth did this happen? In a city possessed by the Great Freeze? At some point in the conversation, they realize this, and together marvel that they even began talking, since the Freeze would seemingly dictate that such things simply do not happen. But wait- it did. How amazing!
The interesting thing about this hypothetical conversation is that it happens all over the city, all the time. The Freeze, though discussed and believed in daily, can be elusive. It is violated with abandon. You can avoid talking to people very easily in Seattle, but you can't help observing that the Freeze is not a hard-and-fast rule.
There are a couple interesting points I want to make note of, though I am not entirely sure to what conclusion they lead:
-Most people who have the above conversation, in my experience, were not born and raised in Seattle. In the true spirit of America and the idea of America, Seattle is overrun with people, like myself, who originally came from other places. Specifically, it seems overrun with people from California (also like myself). Hope you guys don't mind. We just really love the place.
-The Freeze does exist, but it exists in any city where there are also people. To what extent does it exist? Is it like the rain here, existent but overly dramatized? Or is it really as pervasive as everyone says it is? Moreover, why does the Freeze exist in Seattle? The popular theory is that it gets cold here, and people get used to being indoors- "indoors" meaning carousing with only yourself or people you already know. You become uncomfortable with strangers because you're inside all the time trying to stay warm. After all, it's bloody freezing out there. That theory sounds like it makes sense, until you remember that New York and Seattle have roughly the same latitude, and nobody thinks New York is crippled by a Freeze.
-Nobody- and I mean nobody- actually likes the Freeze. Without question, any discussion of the Freeze is by definition a negative evaluation of the Freeze. There isn't a single person out there who thinks the Freeze is just fantastic, and anytime it's brought up, most of all in the hypothetical discussion outlined above, we all take a moment to note how appalling the concept of the Freeze is. As in, if only this darn city didn't have a stupid Freeze. Which of course begs the question- if everyone thinks the Freeze is so terrible, who are these nebulous souls who keep it up?
-In the discussion over whether or not Seattle is friendly, let us not confuse being friendly with being talkative. Being friendly involves actually thinking about what you're saying. And no, I promise I'm not trying to make snide comments about the East Coast. It only sounds that way!
-If you strike up a conversation, the other person is usually receptive.
-If Seattle has a freeze, there are other places that handily qualify as Pleistocene glaciers from the last great Ice Age. "This would never happen in Brussels," a girl from Brussels told me when I asked her about the book she was reading. She explained how people keep to themselves to a fault, ostensibly out of politeness. Seoul is the same. Try starting a conversation with someone on the subway in Los Angeles. Or better yet, walk the length of the car, just to see if anyone is talking to each other.
-Certain sections of Seattle are less frozen than others. Any discussion about cities will involve generalizations.
Yesterday I found myself on a plane flying into Seattle. The lady next to me, Julia, was coming home, like myself. She's been teaching elementary school for a long time and loves it; she was as warm and kind a presence as I've come across. In the space of ten minutes a person can impress upon you a living warmth that doesn't insist upon itself, but invigorates you all the same- the good works that you have inside of you stir into awareness. What does it mean, to be kind? Radiating off of you, your gentle and complete essence. You don't need walls to hide behind. The night air is still crisp, but the cold doesn't bite anymore.
Also like myself, she once lived in LA, but has chosen Seattle as her home. I asked her what she liked about the place. She voiced two big reasons of my own- "For one, the people are friendly. And there's nature. You can go outside." How's that for a different view from the Freeze reasoning outlined above?
"Seattle is how LA used to be," she mused. It's a great migration of sorts. We remember a way, a time when things were still growing, and we keep searching for that, finding and claiming it eventually, here in this great city.
People do talk to each other in Seattle. More often than not, they enjoy being talked to, and like all humans, they enjoy being listened to. The only thing is, you have to be the one who starts up the conversation.