Sometimes you see success stories. A year ago a quiet, mild-mannered Latino man would ride my last trip on the 7. Goatee and jailhouse tats, always polite. He'd put his bike on, and we'd talk in the dark out there, winter evenings on Rainier Avenue. It was dark at the front of the bus, and cold, but it didn't feel that way, no; this was your porch on a Sunday evening, and you were getting to know your new neighbor.
He would tell me about his background as a tattoo artist. The sodium lamps passed by overhead as we took the curves, momentarily lighting up our faces. He talked of stencils and apprenticeships, portfolios, lining and coloring.... Well-spoken. I never tire of hearing people discuss their passion; you see their potential becoming whole, their eyes glazing over as they remember the ideal they have it in themselves to be.
He was Armando, and he homeless at the time. I would see him intermittently as the months passed on; always on the move, popping up in different locations with that battered blue bike of his. Never really more than a moment for a quick hello; he always seemed to be in the middle of something.
It is no mean feat to rise out of homelessness. When you have the least energy, and are the most poorly equipped to continue- that's when you have to summon forth new reserves. You've got to manufacture that energy yourself, out of thin air. No one will do it for you. To lesser and greater degrees, we've all been backed into an at least vaguely analogous corner; it's the corner where you just can't go any further- but you have to keep going. Sometimes your life doesn't depend on it, and sometimes it does.
Recently I saw an Armando lookalike while riding the bus home. Close to a year had passed- more than a year, now. Was that him? Standing at the front of a crowded 41, black t-shirt and backpack, hair tied into a ponytail; I had to know. I got out of my seat and worked my way through the crowd.
"Hey, man," I said.
Yes, it was him. Armando's face lit of a fuse of delight upon recognizing me. He'd finally pierced through the great bottomless corner- driving a forklift now, at one of the warehouses in SoDo, for not just minimum wage, but a living wage. He'd put in the long hours at places like Labor Systems, Labor Works, WorkSource, Millionair Club, Parker, Western Avenue, ULMS... it was his unflagging drive which had earned the notice of a shift boss, who'd recognized him as a cut above the rest.
Armando. Now he was telling me what kind of car he wanted to save up for. A far cry from the lonely nights on Rainier. I wanted to hear all the details, but of course he, giving respect, asked how I'd been as well; I told him which bus he could find me on, and we shook hands into the night.
"Where you goin' now?"
"Home," he said.