Let’s talk about it.
What of the great unwashed? “They,” who have broken your windows, stolen from you, robbed you of health and sleep, forced you out of the neighborhood? The fundamental question here becomes less what to do than how to think.
People don’t do the things they’re now doing because they’re diabolical monsters, but for rather more banal reasons better explained by things like brain chemistry and childhood trauma. What happens when these folks don’t receive care? When they reach for easily available band-aid solutions (needles, pills, straws, foil) instead of turning to longer-term systems that strike at the root of the problem (education, medication, therapy, housing)? We could blame the individuals if there were only a few isolated cases. There are not. The problem is not individual.
1. What's Goin' On
Yes, people are smoking fentanyl and doing other things on buses in profusion. Yes, there are new policies which allow unsafe behaviors and reduce quality of service. Whatever you’ve heard, this is an unusual case where the reality is more extreme. The incidents happen so frequently that for us drivers, documenting them seems pointless (though Security Incident Reports on drug use inside buses have risen from 44 in 2019 to 73 in 2020, to 398 in 2021). The new and constant refrain among operators is, Never call. No help will come. Or if it does, its hands will be tied. Non-using passengers know this too, which is why they don’t get mad at me when all I do is politely ask whoever it is to stop having a party.
No one knows better, though, that no interference is coming than the tempted downtrodden themselves. They comprehend per a new pattern of non-enforcement that smoking cigarettes, crack cocaine, inhaling fentanyl, displaying weapons and shooting heroin are all allowed on Metro buses.
Deal with it.
I have witnessed each of the above and more with regularity, and mention them here without exaggeration or hyperbole. They are simply the new facts of existence of living in Seattle, of sharing enclosed spaces with others, just as smoking once was in our nation’s airplanes, bars and offices. Seattle is trying a well-intentioned new approach, and I won’t tell you what to think about it. I will say, however, that your belief in this method’s efficacy may be linked to how much face time you’ve actually spent at the intersections and streets named here, and which buses you ride and at what times. The tone among my transit-dependent riders has changed; now they tell me they’re saving up to buy a car, confessing that they now carry weapons because others do too, or are looking for a different job because the commutes have become too scary.
Washington State no longer arrests for drug possession, and although I can perceive the intent behind that move, I’m not sure solutions yet exist for a number of its unexpected outcomes. As a security officer told me recently: “as soon as we get on, they stop. As soon as we leave, they start again. There’s nothing we can do!” With the new policy of non-removal on buses being known, Metro is the ideal new venue. And the public is now becoming aware of how badly some people are hurting, and the methods they're resorting to.
I haven’t had this much secondhand smoke stuffed down my throat since my childhood visits to Grandma’s house. But unlike her house, some of our buses don't have windows that open.
2. What's Been Goin' On
Let’s remember that opiate abuse has been in existence for longer than six months. It was always possible to light a cigarette on a bus before last summer; it just didn't happen. My friends working in transitional housing and other social services are not surprised by these newly public behaviors. The difference is there used to be places where they could happen out of sight. Many of those locations are now closed, and the boundaries of the remaining spaces have to accommodate what used to take place behind closed doors. To the parks, libraries and buses we go...
Perhaps it would calm us to remember that street folks are processing trauma as best they can, in a society that doesn't provide much of a social safety net. They are resentful toward a system of institutions that has rejected and ignored their plight, which pays lip service to "the homelessness crisis" while appearing to glibly pocket your well-meaning taxpayer dollars. Can you blame them for being depressed, tired, at their worst? Are you not also angry? Disappointed?
You, who are infinitely better off than they?
This is the bad time.
My friends on Jackson and Third Avenue reach for the solutions that are available to them. If you are mentally stable, have no addiction challenges or criminal history, and have your paperwork in order, homelessness is merely a stumbling block. With the resources this city has you’d be on your way, no big deal. But heaven help you if you have any of the above four obstacles. Drugs tempt because they seem to fix things– like untreated mental health or unresolved trauma– for now.
Famous last words.
The slope is slippery, but anywhere along it the truth remains. Let’s repeat it: these people are doing their best to process trauma using means easily accessible to them, without a social safety net.
3. The View for Operators
I listen to my operator colleagues bemoan the passengers, sharing their horror stories with me. I listen without trying to change their mind; I have my horror stories too. But I make every attempt to avoid yielding to despair. I do not brag at the base about leaving passengers behind. I do not boast that I don't even open the doors for people, or abandon the schedule and leave all the riders for other bus drivers, as some of my colleagues selfishly do. They are trying to survive, I think, and survival is inherently self-absorbed. It makes you disregard the problems of others.
There has been no new training and precious little acknowledgement from management on the problems we now face, nor an official explanation of why formerly useful resources work differently now. A brief example:
The lack of interdepartmental and interagency communication is so far gone that operators are quite literally unaware of certain resources set aside specifically for them. These days on Aurora Avenue in particular, you’ll often have a KC Sheriff trailing your bus as you drive, just in case anything happens inside your coach. This is a resuscitation of a service I was trained on in 2008. Back then it then was called a ‘trailing escort.’ If something happened on your 358, you stopped your bus and put on your reverse lights, which alerted the officers behind you that something was up. Not only do today’s operators not get that brief training, they do not even know they are being helped. I’ve had five different drivers tell me variations of: “I keep getting tailgated by cops on my route, and I have no idea why!”
The operators around me are mostly new, due to recent workforce turnover, and the team ethos of my former colleagues is absent at the precise time when it's needed most. We have forgotten how to help each other, stick up for each other, recognize we are part of a larger community.
I wonder if my coworkers realize they have something in common with the afflicted users, the unstable and hungry denizens they so fear and struggle with. They, we, us– all feel abandoned. Those street folks are not them– they feel as we do but moreso, we drivers who feel our superiors have left us. We working people at jobs of all kinds who are now asked to do more, risk more, pay more, "figure it out yourself," for less. Does that sound familiar? The folks on Third Avenue, the broken heart of Seattle (as my colleague Yen poetically calls it), feel that abandonment too, but on a deeper and more biting scale.
Humans were never meant to be isolated from each other. The toll this pandemic is taking is as much mental as physical, and no one is unscathed. We are all infected. A light used to burn within us, and it is in danger of going out.
You are better than that.
4. The Problem Is
Pessimism simplifies what you see. It tempts you to believe it. It’s the easy route. So is finding a villain. Your fear will tell you that the solution is to arrest everybody. That’s as much of a band-aid solution as fentanyl is. While addressing matters in the short-term, let’s remember to ask: What are people experiencing such that they search for these coping mechanisms in the first place? What basic needs could be addressed, that aren’t? When mental health, housing, and medication access are available, other problems tend to diminish on their own. You stop needing the coping mechanisms. Fentanyl seems like it’s the problem. It isn’t. Vandalism, vagrancy, burglary, assault– aren’t the problem.
It would be so nice if they were. That would be so easy.
Last week I listened to another driver as I scarfed down lunch at the base. He’s one of the great ones, and I learn from his charitable views. He was sharing a moment on his bus which stopped his heart. A young man with a cart of belongings was talking to him on his 60. “No one cares," the kid had told him. "I want to move forward. I’m ready. But no one will help. No one cares about us. They leave us out here like this, every night.” My operator friend could do nothing but sympathize, and watch as the boy deboarded and walked off into the black evening, empty-hearted and catastrophically alone.
Most of us are sad. All of us are lonely. When morale is low, you the driver take it out on the passengers. When morale is low, you the youngster light up another one.
The problem that needs to be addressed is the sensation that people believe they are on their own.
5. Where I'm Coming From
I do not write these words from a place of distaste for the people. I like the people. I love the people; you know that. The sweetest man on my trip last night was a young fellow of the trademark ash-stained hands, with foil, torch and straw in hand. He was having a hard time putting his bike on the rack while also holding onto his paraphernalia. I stepped out to join him, helping him lift his bike and securing the handle.
“Hey, how’s it goin’. I can help.”
“Aw thanks dude! I really appreciate that.”
“For sure, no worries. Hey man I just gotta ask, could you put the foil away for the bus ride?”
“Oh yeah man, yeah no problem. Of course.”
And he did. There are good people everywhere. I am especially grateful to the brazen passengers who take matters into their own hands to help the crowd at large; more than once I’ve been saved by such courageous souls. Unlike me, my superiors, police, security or any other authority figure in King County, they have the unique ability to remove, by force, a passenger doing the above-mentioned activites. It’s an unfortunate truth that that is sometimes necessary.
Nor do I write from a place of anger with Metro management. I’m on friendly terms with many of those folks, on up to County Executive, and I’m not qualified to evaluate their performance from my bus-driving armchair. There are politicians here I like and respect, including some who have reached out to me personally and who bend over backwards fighting the good fight. There are police(wo)men I personally know and appreciate. As ever, the problem is not individual. John Steinbeck spelled it out for us 83 years ago, and it’s still true today: it’s the System. These officials, like me, like my using passenger friends, like my dispirited colleagues, are ordinary (and understaffed!) people under extraordinary circumstances. I’ll admit I do wish our top management came around to the bases more often like the last two administrations did, because nothing brings people together like, well, coming together in person. But hey, maybe there’s a pandemic happening.
I write rather from a place of disappointment. Fentanyl and the other misbehaviors I mention above are primarily a draw for young people– my generation and the new one under it (I’m not getting a lot of beef from the old-timers). I am excited about the prospects of young people. Sure, they’re obsessed with technology and not very good at talking to others, but they have their qualities, don't they? They were so good at caring about many promising things– equality of all stripes, the environment, innovation. The nice thing about Fentanyl is that its high makes one docile. The problem is that it’s unbelievably good at killing people. And I’d prefer not to see my own generation wipe itself out before the pandemic is over.
Go easy on yourself. On others. It isn’t only you who is suffering. You will make it through the night.
I’ll be out there, waving at ya.
6. Low-Cost Suggestions for the Short Term
For those in positions of power who read this blog:
For everyone else: