They have a familiar ease with each other, these two, getting on now at the Courthouse. I've seen this couple before. He's upper fifties, still with a few teeth left, tanned skin Native, with a fishing hat and bundles in both hands. She's upper forties, blue-eyed with a ready smile, clad in a formless black sweatshirt and pants. In one hand is a backpack/suitcase of sorts; in the other she carries a swelling industrial-sized black garbage bag.
"We're lookin' for 125th," he says as they take a seat by the front of my 358.
"I'm goin' there myself." Often I'm struck by how completely at ease I feel being myself around such souls.
"Well, that works out."
After a pause, while they talk amongst each other, I hear the man say, "hey. This bus driver's my friend. He's gonna kick you out if you don't watch it. Hey, bus driver? Can you kick her out?"
There is no malice or real feeling in his voice. It's obvious he's joking.
"Naw, we don't wanna do a thing like that!"
"But I thought you were my friend!"
"I'm too nice, is what my problem is. I'm just too nice!"
"Oh, you can kick her out! Look, driver, she's harassing me!"
She laughs. No harassment is taking place; he looks at her with affection before repeating his plea.
I respond with, "but it's the holidays, I can't kick anyone out during the holidays!"
"Oh, sure you can!"
"But would it be part of the giving spirit?"
Later on, as we pass through the Linden deviation, I hear him ask her, "where are we? Are we-?"
"This is 72nd," I say.
She says to him, "we're not even at 7-11 yet, sweetheart."
"I love you more than anything," he responds, looking at her. He says it again, and the woman smiles bashfully in response, looking at him with warm eyes. In his tone I hear truth, time, memory... they spread a light around them, a confidence of self both vivacious and gentle, in no way hindered by their sordid, ramshackle appearance. I'm reminded of Patience Escalier by Van Gogh, or Millet's Fiadeira.
I can hear her talking about me: "...drive all night."
"Oh no, not him," says the man. "He's got a date. He's goin' on a date later tonight."
Now, on this evening that happened to be true, but I hadn't said word one about it. I was flabbergasted. "How did you know that?"
"Oh, I know!" He says. Naturally everyone's listening now.
"That is amazing! I don't know how you did that. You know all about me!"
"Hey, I know these things. It's all out there, on the computers,"
"Figured out all my secret history?"
"Oh, yeah. Well, kids your age these days, everything on Facebook-"
"No way, maaaann!" The sentence is a gesture of supplication on my part, an attempt to let him know that in fact not all of us youngsters are so glued to the bright screens.
"No way. In fact, my date doesn't even have a Facebook account."
"She doesn't?!" It's his turn to be flabbergasted.
"Yeah, she doesn't go there. There's still some of us,"
"Well, you better watch out then, don't know what she's hiding on that secret Facebook account."
"Oh, dear! Is that how it is."
"Hey listen, can we open a window and throw my friend out?"
"Can we throw her out the window?" Of course he's joking, in his gravelly slur.
"Well you know, generally that type of thing is frowned upon."
"No, it's not. Lemme tell ya one time. I threw her backpack in the river, and the cops came over and asked me why. I said it was between the backpack or her, and I threw the backpack. Cops asked why, and I said go talk to her about it. When they came back they said, 'why didn't you throw her in?'"
"Nooo! They didn't say that!"
"That's what they said! They said that, said, 'why didn't you throw her in instead?'"
His ladyfriend is rolling her eyes under all this, saying, "are we there yet?"
"Hey, even the cops said it," he repeats to me.
"Well, the thing is, throwing people in rivers is usually bad manners." I love conversations like this.
"Well, I still threw the backpack."
"We'll ignore that. That's the lesser of two evils."
"How much time till, where are we?"
"This one's 90th, so we have,"
The woman finishes my sentence, saying, "we have just about thirty blocks, thirty-five blocks, yeah."
"But he's going to start doing increments of five." Referring to the stop pattern.
"You know everything about this route!" I say to him. "I should let you drive! I'll just come back and sit with you guys, take a break."
This is a sentence I say often in jest, and most every time passengers understand it as such. But our friend tonight is different. He's actually taking me seriously. In a tone of complete incredulity and excitement he hollers, "REALLY?"
"Well, I love my job too much, or else I'd totally let you."
"Oh, we'd be ALL over the road. I GUARANTEE we'd be all over the road. Oh, YEAH."
As long as I get to some backseat driving, I think to myself. "Let's do that next time."
Eventually we arrive at 125th, and I ask if they're sure they really want to leave. "I mean, we got some good stuff comin' up ahead, some real fun stuff lined up for ya..."
In a whisper he says, "oh, I'm 'bout to have some real fun!" Somehow I get the sense that he's talking about those strip motels on the left, and not Mekong Village or Leows Home Improvement.
"Oh, dear! Well, don't let me interfere!"
"It was good chattin' with ya!"
"Merry Christmas," I say to him. I make eye contact with the lady and wish her a good holiday as well. I want her to know that she is appreciated, and that there will be no forcible kicking of bodies out of windows or doors tonight. She returns my beaming smile with one of her own, no less joyous, lighting up the night.
Happy New Year, my wonderful readers. Thanks for your unwavering enthusiasm and support. Look for me on the road! Say hi!
I'm on another one of my natural highs, filled with energy the passengers and I have made together. "Hi!" I say to those incoming, riding the wave of these different smiling faces, registering their excitement at seeing me. "Hi" is something of a taboo word in customer service, because of its overfamiliarity and supposed lack of professionalism; because of this it possesses a directness of impact its counterparts lack. The enthusiastic responses of the passengers are an indication to me that my presentness is felt.
"We're gonna roll out," I announce. I'm too excited to say "please hang on."
A husky female voice behind me echoes the sentiment, calling out: "Rollin'!"
"Oh yeah. We got places to be!"
"You got that right."
"Mus' be pay day!" says another woman nearby, watching me greet the customers with almost unreasonable glee.
"No, I just can't help myself!"
"That's good." I sense a little serious reflection underneath her jokesy exterior.
Her friend, the one with places to go, suddenly has an idea: "let's get downtown in fifteen minutes!"
There are a couple of ways to react to passengers who try to unreasonably rush you. One is to get worked up about it. Another is to drive faster. I opt for neither, choosing instead to respond as tall grass responds to a breeze. Why flow against the passengers, when you can flow with them?
"I can't make no promises, but I can do what I can!" It's a non-statement if there ever was one, but the acknowledgement in it calms her temporarily.
"Tha's coo', as long as you're tryin.'"
We're inbound, and make the right turn on Winona to do the Linden Avenue deviation. It's the only portion of the 358 that's not on Aurora, and is about to be deleted to further expedite the route. Into the mic: "here we are, goin' through the Green Lake neighborhood. This next one is 73rd, at Linden...okay, how about 68th Street..." At this time of day people rarely get on at these stops. "Comin' up around the bend is 64th, by Green Lake..."
Lady With Places to Go: "Where the freeway??"
"You don't wanna keep hangin' out in Green Lake?"
"Naw, get us outta here!"
Together she and I utter phrases of mock terror: "Please! Please!"
She's a heavyset middle-aged woman with fancy hair, long fake nails, and personality to burn. Far from being annoyed, I'm actually starting to enjoy this.
Back on the main drag. "Here's 46th, where you can get on a 44 to Ballard, or the U District. Transfer to a 44 downstairs. Have a good day," I tell people over the speakers.
She has further suggestions for me: "keep it movin'!" We gots to fly 'cross dis bridge!"
"Aw, you know I got my foot on the floor!" Somehow this gets a laugh from everyone. Maybe it's because we're doing an ungodly three miles an hour, pulling away from the zone.
"Don't make no stops t' downtown!"
"I'ma just let you take over!"
"Yeah, lemme go 'cross the street, grab a bite," I continue. "You can hit me on the way back!"
"Next one is Lynn. Lynn has an underpass that'll take you to Dexter.... Here's Crocket, by the Aloha Inn."
She pipes up: "they took this stop out!"
"Oh, it's still there," I laugh in response.
"You guys are a bad influence!" I say with a huge grin. I don't know if she was joking, but I'm going to pretend she was. "S'pposed to be raisin' me right!"
I announce Wall. "After this we'll go to Bell Street."
She corrects me with, "after this take us to Pioneer Square!"
"Since you say so, I'm a do it. I wasn't gonna go to Pioneer Square, but since you suggest it so nicely..."
She laughs. She's humoring my mood, but she really is in a hurry. At Bell she comes up and speaks in quiet, confidential tones. Her boisterous facade falls away.
"Listen. I really have to use the bathroom. I wondering if I could ask if you'd be willing to let me out at Third and James, across from the courthouse."
That's not one of the 358's stops. Stopping at the wrong zones in the CBD during the PM rush would interfere with far too much service. Third is overloaded with transit, and the balance is delicate.
"I understand you're in a hurry," I say, looking in her eyes with a correspondingly quiet voice, "but I've actually gotten in trouble for doin' just that. So I got to play it cool."
"I appreciate you understanding." I can see she's telling the truth. I add, "maybe if we hit a red light, we could work something out, but if it's a green, I got to keep rollin.'"
"Okay. Okay. Thank you."
I'm grateful that behind her bluster, she's willing to respectfully accede to my needs. As we near Cherry Street, my last stop on Third, we begin discussing strategy.
"Aw, I don't think it's gonna be a red," she says.
"Go slow through this one!" her friend yells.
"Wait, you want me to go slow?" What a change of tune! Then I understand. She's playing chess, watching the light cycles, one step ahead of the game.
"We got this! Oh, piece of cake," I say as we sandbag it to nearside James, letting that yellow light turn red. I've had urine on the bus before, and it's low on my list of favorites; we find a safe compromise that's far enough within the rules to work for everyone.
I exhale after it's all over. There's a thousand different directions the mood could've taken. I'm grateful for every particular that allowed it all to work. The mood lives in the loaded mysteries of the ever-evolving moment- her day before she found my bus, my disposition before she entered, her willingness to play along with me, the light and traffic cycles, the smiles on other passengers' faces, the energy and acknowledgement made possible by all, in so many minute and burgeoning ways.
Glad she chose my bus.
A continuation of the ride detailed in the previous post~
The chat seat is instantly replaced by a fellow in his thirties, dressed in muted colors, dark shaved head, fashionably crisp black denim and a silver chain necklace. We start off with the weather as our entry point- "finally got them clouds out the way-" before moving on to discussing the 4. I love it when I can get this route, except when I can't.
"This gotta be pretty low seniority though, right?"
"Oh yeah," we laugh. "Nobody wanna touch this!" Just myself and several other intrepid souls.
"How about the express routes?"
"You know, they're really easy," I say as we negotiate the traffic circle at Norman, "but they can also get kinda repetitive. You got the same group every single day, sometimes it'll literally be exactly the same sixty people, good people, but they all been working, they're quiet, they got their earphones in,"
He's nodding. The crowd is starting to thin out. We're no longer the center of attention; we're in the corner of someone's house party, conversing in low tones.
"Out here," I continue, gesturing at the Judkins neighborhood surrounding us, "people talk to each other, they know each other's names, it's a different universe..."
I haven't brought up the status, race, or income differences between the two types of demographics we're talking about. I've been tiptoeing around it, but he feels comfortable enough to mention it, adding, "there's the attitude thing."
"Exactly, the Bellevue thing."
"They'll be lookin' down on me like I'm the help! Like I was furniture! And I'll be like, in my head, 'man, you don't need to do that!'"
The laughter this elicits from him is a sound closer to rueful understanding than any appreciation of rich humor. He's been there. We tentatively explore the issue together, big black man and skinny Asian kid, opening up more and more as we go along;
"You know, some of it might be, I bet a lot a these guys ain't never worked no public service jobs, so they just ain't never had the experience of talkin to strangers. They may just not know what it's like, not be comfortable,"
"But man, that high-up thing, sometimes it's just like, wow,"
"And it don't matter what color they are neither."
"I got three kids, athletes, growed up in Issaquah, and man, you can tell the pressure they be up against, the pressure to be concerned about status, conforming to societal norms,"
"Shoot. I love it when kids talk to strangers. We don't really raise 'em to do that, but it's great to see them get comfortable with their surroundings, willing to interact with people that's not their friends or parents...to see them try to get ahead in a good way, you know?"
"I do know!"
"'Cause the pressure to not do that can be pretty strong."
"My fifteen-year old is just like that. He be talkin' to everyone, whoever standing next to him, he'll strike up a conversation."
"Sounds beautiful." Stewardship. I'm excited for the future that lives in that boy's head. Global community starts with nodding at the person walking by.
"Hey man, it was a pleasure talkin' to you."
Later on, I, along with two young teen girls, are honored with a conversation of a slightly different substance:
I'm en route to Base, picking up stragglers on Rainier. I enjoy doing this because it makes things easier for the in-service routes, along with of course saving the passengers time. The two girls were way out of their depth, abandoned by their ride and anxious to get out of the ghettofabulous Valley and back to safety in West Seattle.
Enter a man in his forties, dressed in stained blue coveralls, crumbs around his mouth, sticking to the bristles in his swarthy, weather-beaten skin. They lean away from him as he swaggers onto the bus, and look bewildered when I greet him as a friend.
"How you been?"
"Is' been okay," he says, directing his attention to the girls with great focus. Out comes the following monologue:
"I been busy paintin.' I love boats. I love cats, too. I painted my boat the other day, got it out in the sunshine, put a new coat a primer all over, all set to go. I set it out for several hours, gave it time to cure. You know what my cat did? I tell you what my cat did. She done walked all over that brand new primer, leavin' paw prints every which where. We talkin' all over. Walkin' around like it wasn't no big thing, without a care in the world. I love her to death, though. Ain't no rats or scorpions up in my houseboat. All them other houseboats be infested, bugs crawlin' everywhere, you know haa' it is. You know what I call my cat, what name I got my cat? I tell you. I call her Fathead. I call her Fathead, 'cause she bring me all the rats and mice. She take care a everything, when you got a cat, they keep the place clean, don't matter no paw prints all up in the primer. End a the day that don't matter. You can sleep easy at night, don't gotta worry about no bed bugs and shit. Check this out. She bring me these little mice, right before she kills 'em, little clumps of fur writhing around, and then BAM! She END those mothers. You two girls have a nice evening now."
A quick note of thanks to all who post comments; thank you for your interest. I read and respond to every comment made on this site.
It's been a while since we've had a longer post. Here's part one~
One conversation begins and it snowballs. People want to talk. They see I'm a chatterbox, and they come on up as soon as the current chattee vacates the chat seat. An older lady I haven't seen in a while occupies the floor currently. We talk about travelling to Portland, how she doesn't give her son any money anymore, how he makes a lot more than she does, and how, well, he's more than just a little spoiled. Got to look out for yourself, I tell her.
The passengers seated around us look on, a genial collective presence listening in on their way home. Eyes behind sunglasses smiling, faces intrigued, silent but attentive in this new space.
A few fans get on- regulars who've intermittently been on the 4 over the years. Today the Egyptian queen is here- slender and tall, strong in cheekbones and character. After a moment a one-eyed godfather plops down in the chat seat.
"How's your day goin'?"
"Ooouuuhhh," he says.
"Oh, man. That bad, huh?"
"Yeah, I just got a phone call."
He really is a godfather. His goddaughter has gotten herself into some serious trouble, expensive trouble, and he's pondering the necessary course of action. We get into serious mode.
"Sometimes you gotta hit bottom 'fore you can start goin back up."
"Exactly, we got to consider, what's really the best course of action in the long term..."
Later, the kid comes up again. This boy was here the other day, young dark-skinned fellow, not yet a teenager; he stood right behind me for a while before getting off, silent. His observant eyes watch me as I drift through the Central District talking to people. You know he wants to talk, but doesn't just yet, simply sharing the space, silently taking part in the air of what's going on at the front of the bus. Right before stepping out, he had said, "you enjoy your job more than any other driver I ever seen." It's the sort of sentence where you can tell it was premeditated. Sometimes things are easier to say as you're leaving.
Today he's here again, stalking up tentatively, with quiet attentive eyes. I say how's it goin,' looking at him. In a loud, deep, and distinctly caucasian gregarious voice he responds- oh wait, that's not him, it's the man behind him, with the thick-frame glasses: "Goin great, how 'bout yourself?"
I respond to White Glasses, but I make sure Observing Eyes feels included, asking after his day as well. Glasses, in his 20s, is a hipster sort of fellow but with a more open presence, and he can't seem to stop himself from blurting it out:
"I dont know if people tell you this, but you've gotta be the most positive bus driver I've ever seen. Seriously!" He gives me his dead serious look, letting me in on the gravity of the sentiment.
Behind him an unseen female concurs, saying, "yeah, this guy's amazing."
"Oh, no," I say. "I try!"
"Dude, you have it awesome, that you can be like this, all day,"
Oh, goodness. I don't know how to handle compliments. "I just really enjoy being out here. I try," I stammer out.
"It seem like you don't have to, man!"
Unseen Female: "Yeah, you are just incredible..."
"Oh, you guys!"
The bus laughs.
"You're killin' me here!"
"It's like the mutual appreciation group, huh?"
"Makin' me blush! Listen, thank you all for bringin all this positive energy in here, it goes both ways," I exclaim, trying to turn it around on them. I mean that. Margolis once rode my 70 and noted how much I lit up when the construction guys got on at Harrison; such present souls rejuvenate me.
The boy comes forward on his way out, somewhat sidelined in conversation by Glasses. I make sure I say something to him: "hey, man. Have' good night tonight." Moments like that can really mean something when you're younger; at least they did for me.
The next chat seat-er is an older and very slim European woman. She's on her way to a meeting at her children's school.
"I hope it's not some serious disciplinary thing,"
"Oh God no, it's a PTA meeting!"
"Excellent! That means donuts!"
"Yes, exactly." As she steps out at The Promenade she says, "I hope you know you're wonderful." It was the tone not of a compliment but of a reminder, as in- yes, be modest, but don't hide from the good parts of yourself.
This ride to be continued~
He seems quiet, perhaps even surly, but I feel compelled by curiosity to will myself out of silence. "How's it goin'?"
"Okay." He seems prematurely middle-aged, most likely from hard labor; there's a layer of dust on his hands and clothes, casting his being in a uniform sandy color. Stubble and wireframe glasses catch the evening light.
"Time to go home?"
"I wish. Comin' from. Just finished work, hadta come out here."
We're at 198th, nearly 200 blocks north of the city. "That's a drag, comin' all this way up from town."
"Yeah, I do roofing."
"Now I'm goin' to my girlfriend's house."
He sounds depressed about it. Even the working class have champaigne problems. Must be human nature. I say, "Oh, that's not so bad!"
"Yeah, she wanted me to come out."
"Well, a ladyfriend is a good thing to have."
He acknowledges me with present silence, and adds, "her brother just died last week."
"He was drinking, I mean he was a drunk. He fell in the bathtub and cracked his face open."
"Shoot," I said, processing. "Oh." Worlds can exist in that one syllable. Images and memories fly through my head as I say, "Oh, I'm so sorry."
"When was this?"
"Two days ago. So she asked me to come up here, her mom's up here..."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"Well, something was gonna happen, eventually. The way he carried on."
"Yeah, tha' type a lifestyle,"
"Always something, hurting himself, hurting the people around him, drivin' all us crazy... I don't go there anymore. I'm sober now. Seven years. Drove my car straight into a ditch, that was it for me."
"That's a good little warning sign."
Finally, there it is- a rich, wide, real smile on his sandy face. Malcolm Gladwell wrote that fake smiles and real smiles use nearly all the same muscles, but we can intuit the subtle difference so easily. Here he is now, the twenty-first century working man, raised up by one of his fellows, still grinning as he walks away. I sit in traffic and watch him stride quickly into the distance ahead. There's an undeniable bounce in his step, entirely at odds with the dilapidated landscape around him. He's walking into the American sunset, buoyant, learning it all into a new perspective. Never too late to begin again.
Photo by Victoria Holt.
UPDATE: I will unfortunately not be able to attend this week's opening. I will be at the remaining third Thursdays between now and March, as indicated below.
Did you miss the opening of my current show? No worries! It runs til April 1st, and there's a closing show on March 20th, which I encourage you to come to. If you can't make that date, once again- have no fear! There's monthly opening's every third Thursday night, from 6-9. I'll be at all of those, EXCEPT this week.
This Thursday's opening is billed as the "Kate Alkarni Holiday Gift Sale," as much of the work is discounted; there will be over 200 paintings priced between $40-100. Additionally, my smaller pieces will be marked down by 10%.
She's young, twenties, looking just this side of homeless. Those plastic bags weigh heavily, stretching taut in her grasp, threatening to slip out any moment now. Why don't we all have three hands?
"Looks like you got your hands full!"
"You been shoppin'?"
"No. I don't really go shopping."
"Yeah, me neither."
"Hey, I was able to get on Supplemental Security Income (SSI)." She says the full phrase instead of the acronym, thinking I may not know.
"Oh, I'm glad! Did it take a long time? I hear that can take a lot of,"
"Yeah. Took forever."
"I'm glad you stayed on it."
"Yeah, my family kept pushing me. When I finally got food stamps my Grandma shook my hand."
I looked at her smiling face. I didn't miss a beat as I said, "that's so great," but her last sentence stilled something inside me. Her bald voice was plaintive and honest, unaware of the smallness of the event she had just described- because, of course, for her it wasn't small. Some of us don't have the luxury of being acknowledged by our loved ones whenever we so choose. It was one of those statements which unwittingly reveals volumes, and I'm glad she felt comfortable enough- in my living room full of strangers- to share it.
I imagine if she came across this post she might feel embarrassed. Don't be, my friend. I hope you can instead feel proud- of possessing a character whose virtue isn't distracted by the supercilious judgments of others. People don't talk about character anymore; they talk about personality. I feel differently. Integrity, constitution, perception: for me these considerations trump temperament and lifestyle preferences any day.
I share her open honesty in same spirit in which she did with me- truthful in a public space, bold enough to be vulnerable, and unafraid to sound like anything other than what she was- excited about something real, and pure.
(The above image was taken at the old Women's Shelter, which once occupied what is now the American Hotel on King Street.)
On the 358:
"You're always happy," a passenger says, standing at the front. It's dark and rainy out, in the upper reaches of Aurora.
"I can't help myself!"
"That makes happy people happier, but sometimes it makes miserable people more miserable."
"I know. I don't wanna do that. What's the solution?"
"Sympathy, to have sympathy, to care."
"I agree," I say. "Honesty."
"Yeah, no bullshit sympathy."
"I don't wanna pity them, I wanna understand them."
"You care about 'em. That makes it work. Don't listen to me though, I'm crazy."
"Oh, I think I'm the one who's crazy. I love this stuff, all this." Gesturing.
"I had four outta five psychiatrists tell me I was crazy."
"You and me both, man!"
The man behind him has a comment he'd like to add: "ISS DA SANE ONES YOU GOTS TA WATCH OUT FO'!"
I'm too nonplussed to respond at the time, but after I stop laughing I consider how much merit there is in his statement. We're at the tail end of the long trip out, over the full length of the corridor, and on board we've had all manner of miscreants, ne'er-do-wells, JDs and beggar-philosophers. The only person to snap rudely at me was a well-to-do County employee, upset in her misinterpretation of the schedule (her coworker behind her attempted to educate her, to no avail).
Recently I was struck by how rarely people are annoyed by my ebullient attitude. Why don't they get aggravated? Day after day, listening to the predictably buoyant announcements, enthusiastic greetings, that face in the mirror up there, sometimes unable to hide a smile...
It's easy to take issue with the happiness of others when it's couched in ignorance. In those instances it isn't really their happiness which irks us- it's their naivete, their entitlement, narrow-mindedness- whatever the other element is. Based on my own experience, I'm confident my attitude doesn't stem from such origins. But how do my passengers know that? They don't know my life story, after all.
I think it has something to do with the fact that I'm driving a public bus. And not just any bus, but these routes, in those neighborhoods... my fellow drivers and myself are doing a job with so much exposure to life that a Pollyanna outlook is all but impossible. I have tremendous respect for the other operators whose stellar perspectives far eclipse my own; the janitorial people I talk to, those in medical, construction, postal, and the like, or homelessness; to see smiles on these weathered and overworked faces moves me to my core. If someone doing heavy work is obviously, truthfully happy, (s)he possess a resilience that's real by virtue of the fact that you can see it. It's self-evident, and it inspires me.*
Or, to put it in more breviloquent terms, I'll quote one of my passengers:
"Hey, the bus driver's having a good day. That means it's a good fuckin' day."
*This is a continuation of earlier thoughts. If you haven't already, check out an earlier post from last year for discussion on different forms of positivity and how to define realistic optimism.
Is there a Real Change vendor you walk past in the course of your daily routine? If so, I encourage you to buy a copy of this week's issue, available today- there's an article on me in it! Written by the incomparable Tricia Sullivan, Real Change Vendor and Board Member.
"Here, smell my hands," she says, a middle-aged Native woman on the 358 shoving her hands inches from my nose. Her unwashed hair has a natural charm to it, but I daresay the malodorous reeking funk of her hands does not. "Smells just like coconut, huh?"
"Smells fantastic," I respond. That's what we call a little white lie.
It's in the deep early morning of Black Friday, on the 358. Freezing outside. We're on a Reduced Weekday schedule, and as such I'm the first trip north from downtown at 5:51am. Nobody's out here, except about thirty methadone people, on their way to 165th. Some of them have been waiting for way too long, unaware of the reduced schedule. I'm impressed by their patience upon my greeting them. A few service workers keep us company. About forty friends in all, cruising up Aurora; the blue interior lighting is dim, the windows are dark, but it's warm and cozy in here. Conversation is lively in the front half, and I listen and learn as we leisurely roll along, trying not to run early. One man in a bundle of jackets opens a window.
I hear, "Hey, somebody close that window!"
"You know how cold it is out there?"
"Yeah, close that shit. If you open that again, we're gonna tear you apart."
"Fact of life, asshole, on a morning like this. Just take off your jacket."
"Who opened a fuckin' window?"
"How we doin' back there?" I ask.
"Take off your fuckin' jacket if you're warm," a woman says to the window-opener. "The rest of us are freezing."
Me again: "how's it goin,' guys?"
"This fool's beggin' for it!"
"You want me to turn off the heat?" I ask him. "If somebody wants me to turn off the heat for a while, I'm happy to do it,"
"Could you please," replies the Jacket Bundle.
Two or three seconds pass, and it's as if nothing's happened:
"Hey, how's your sister doing?"
"Aw, she's okay."
"I got hit with a baseball bat thirty-two times, right here." The woman pulls back her hair above her left ear.
"Oh, I'm sorry," I say, turning around to look. The faint blue light renders everything like an indistinct dream; idly I wonder how many watts these bulbs are. We must be in a recession. On the side of her face is what looks like a receding black hole, with dark varicose veins spidering out.
"Yeah, this guy just kept getting angrier and angrier, wouldn't stop hitting me, finally I had to..."
"Sounds like a coward, he does, is what that sounds like," says the man across from her.
"Yeah, wow. I'm sorry."
"You point him out to me next time he come around."
"I'm glad you're still here!"
I add, "I mean, I'm glad you still have the motor skills, and speech. That's a modern miracle."
The energies gather round her in support, and we listen and console her, tilting the perception to make the positives glint a little brighter. It's an impromptu support group now, searching for the sides of a diamond that can still shine. She settles into herself, bolstered by our encouragement. It's getting colder in here, but it feels just as warm. I wave to the back door as the Latino day laborers step out at Home Depot.
Together we've changed the air completely. "Hey, good to see you again," one man says as they all leave at 165th, the THS stop. Even Jacket Bundle responds to my good graces. I bid them all farewell. If I hadn't gotten out of bed this morning (at 3:56am, no less!), who knows how the conversation might've turned. At the least, I know I wouldn't have had the chance to witness the warmth they made for each other.
Later on, a young G asked me, "you always drive the 358?"
"Don't let it break you!"
Routes and people like this don't break me. They keep me going.