"Wow, I've never been so close to a bus driver before! Or seen one so friendly! This bus is so crowded!"
This youngster is bubbly with energy, like I am. I love when field trips get on my bus. A group of thirty-plus eight and nine year-olds is piling on through the back door at Virginia, on our way to Seattle Center. They're filling up from the rear, and are now oozing up to the front. Closest to me is the aforementioned youngster, leaning in with enthusiasm, a young African-American boy with close-cropped hair and reading glasses. Everyone's wearing the same blue print T-shirt and some manner of shorts.
"I've never seen a bus this full!" he exclaims.
"Yeah, it's kind of exciting!"
We ask each other how our days are. We're both doing really great. I'm driving the 1, and they're going to the new park at the Center. What could be better? I ask how he likes his school.
"Seven out of ten?"
"More like six out of ten."
"Oh, no! I hope you've got good people around you there, good friends."
He asks about bus driving, and I expound briefly on my love for it. Because I'm on the second of three shifts on this particular day, I find myself talking both to him and myself about the value of keeping things positive, keeping the stress down– "keepin' it light," as one driver told me. That stuff doesn't register with him. What does register is tech talk. He drinks up the dials, speedometers and tachometers and more, talk of the wire and deadspots, which he intuitively understands. I'm explaining why intersecting lanes of wire need to be dead in one direction, sometimes a hard concept to convey, but he just gets it. "Otherwise the electricity would go everywhere," he says.
I talk with a lot of people about kindness, humanity, film, why I take pictures. All that is great. Those are meaningful conversations, but they're founded on generalities. It's not every day I get to bounce back and forth with someone about dynamic versus regenerative braking, or the changing concepts of perfection in pre-Gothic and Gothic art. These things just don't come up that often. Recently a fellow film photographer rode my 70 and we instantly dived into a discussion of film stock and paper that was probably– okay, definitely– unintelligible to everyone around us, but as for ourselves, well, we were wallowing around in high hog heaven. We all have minutiae we carry around, but which doesn't often get to crawl out of its hiding places. Static and accelerated fatigue testing. Nicomachean ethics. Fake nails in gel versus acrylic. How best to reinforce the top lift and counter. What resides in the hallways of the mind sitting next to you?
We're having a great time, in other words, this pre-teen boy and I, throwing three-syllable words around. He asks, "so tell me, what do all the dials mean?"
Before I can continue our joyous technical discourse a man sitting in the chat seat interrupts. He was on my morning shift, hours ago.
"Can we like, get going here?" he snorts.
"Oh, we are," I say. "Just gotta keep it safe."
"Well. I've got a schedule to keep!"
"You and me both!"
As he lapses into disappointed silence, I make sure to answer the boy's question. I want this kid to feel comfortable talking to strangers, to have a good experience doing so, not be cowed into conforming to a wash of tiresome pessimism.
"So that's the speedometer of course, and even though it says eighty trolleys can only actually go forty, and over there is the voltmeter, which has to stay in that green area…."
When they all leave, after he's lined up on the sidewalk with his classmates and their anxious chaperones, he waves at me and waves again, eyes bright and full of promise, the energy you have before you get hurt.
Now it's time to be present with the grumpy guy.
"Okay," I say, "let's get you where you're goin'!"
"I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't mean to sound like a, you know."
"Oh, it's all right. You probably wanna get where you're going, I can understand that."
"Yeah, but you know. He sounded like a good kid. Real bright."
"Real bright yeah, he was sharp. Don't see that all the time. Or I don't. How's your day been so far? I remember I saw you this morning on the 2."
We're both working split shifts today, as it turns out. I'm doing an unusual three-shift marathon, for reasons too boring to elucidate here (read: bought too much film!), and he's on his long break now, with just enough time to go home for lunch before racing back for his second shift. We talk about long days and lunch breaks, ways of getting by. He shares about a recent injury– a gash in his foot too large to sew up. The only way for him to address the wound was to tape it up. The whole affair makes walking difficult.
"I can imagine!"
"Yeah, the first few steps are the worst, but after that it gets easier."
A sentence which holds true for many things in life. "Oh good," I say aloud. "Now I hope it's a temporary thing, this, not a permanent thing,"
"Oh god no yeah, it's temporary."
He left me feeling better. He had a severely curved spine, and a somewhat disfigured face, possibly Bell's palsy, but I think I detected a smile.
Soon after, a third person came forward. Elderly Caucasian female, smartly dressed.
"Whats your name?"
"Nathan. And yours?"
"Patti. I just want to say thank you for being so good at your job, and handling all the crazy people the way you do. You're so good at it."
"Oh, thank you! For saying that. You don't always get the feedback, you know?"
We were just about at her stop. I could tell she wanted to tarry, stick around a little in this strange friendly environment. I did too and would have, were I not driving the 1. What's more beautiful than that sensation, when society dictates this should be a short interaction because of class or time or status, but they don't really want to leave, because of how good they feel around you? Are there higher compliments, stronger statements of equality? The girl at the cash register, the man making your gyros. You want to break the rules and just keep talking, learn something about their life and yours, and get to that space where we're not afraid anymore, where conforming to silence is so last month....