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Some time ago I posted a massive post detailing what a day on the 7 is like. As the 358 winds down to a permanent close, it's time for some similarly massive thoughts on Seattle's most notorious route.
I was at Central Base once when I overheard two other operators talking about me.
"This guy only drives the 3 and the 4. And guess what, last shakeup- he drove the 358. For fun!"
"Yeah. He's insane. He went all the way to North Base to pick the 358... On purpose!"
Why did I choose to pick what some call "The Disease Wagon" again? Why was I so adamant about snagging "Jerry Springer" one last time before its deletion, to the point that I took a hour and a half cut in pay simply to get my grubby hands on it? The obvious answer is because I love the route... but why?
By way of more clearly describing what the route is, I offer a few excerpts from the route's Yelp page. The fact that it even has a Yelp page (not to mention songs based on it, and celebrations and condemnations in numerous publications) gives you a notion of the route's continued cultural presence. I can't help but share some excerpted alternative opinions:
We even have a 358 haiku, offered by Jonathan S.:
Honestly - who reeks?!"
In counter to these memories, I offer an ode published in Seattle Weekly, when it was named best bus route in 2013:
A 8 x 10 blow-up of the above is hung on the wall at North Base. Some drivers are planning a party at North to celebrate the route's demise and welcome a new era wherein they'll never have to deal with the route again. In the same breath, a number of operators are planning to ride the last 358 trip, to glory in the last hurrah of a cultural institution that will breath its last breath in the waning hours of this coming Valentine's Day. You can guess which group I'm in!
Nowhere else will you encounter such a group of souls as those I have the pleasure of spending time with on this route. Yes, they swagger on with all manner of questionable and dangerous items peeking out from under their jackets. They hobble around with stuffed garbage bags and needles. Beer cans and condom wrappers share space on the floor, along with strange powders, leaves and pills that defy my understanding. Once, on the same bus, I found a collection of the following: bras, surgical masks, gummy worms, and board games! Materials for quite the weekend in Vegas!
You don't just see increased police activity here; Aurora Avenue is where police cars drive past each other in opposite directions because they're going to separate incidents. The people are cloaked in smells I've never experienced and can't begin to describe. I helped a woman with directions, and as she assaulted me with her astounding breath I was more bewildered than displeased, as in: how did this train wreck of a fragrance come into being? How many ingredients and lab experiments would it take to replicate it?
Before I started this job, I had a tendency to romanticize the poor. I read Tolstoy and liked Millet and Henry Tanner. Van Gogh wrote of the truth he saw in peasants' eyes, and how he found it nowhere else. Being familiar with these works, and coming from the working-class background that I do, I had certain inklings about the poor I believed to be true. After driving bus for several months, and being in daily, close contact with the lower class, I began to realize there were more sides to the story, that some people behave terribly, and as many make crippling life decisions as are simply wronged by bad fortune. I wondered whether I had been superficially romanticizing, when in fact what was actually going on out here was really just a bunch of...no.
I had an epiphany. My epiphany, which hit me after driving the bus a few years more, was that my original inkling was in fact true. These are among the best people I know. When those damaged, craggy, beautiful faces get off my bus and say "God bless you," let me tell you, they mean it. People in Bellevue never say stuff like that. They don't treat me like this. My earlier realizations hadn't been overturned so much as reoriented, grounded and firmed up by the unblinking gaze of reality.
Respect, gratitude, thankfulness, appreciation, empathy- these have incalculable currency out here on the street. I see disabled women getting up to make room for other disabled women. A "hello" from me goes further on Aurora and Rainier than it does elsewhere. It's a simple sound, but with the right tone it's enough to communicate the warm comfort of a judgment-free space. Often you can see what a welcome surprise it is- gestures of kindness are all the more impactful for having occurred in the supposed darker corners of life.
"Thank you," a teen boy said in what was my last interaction of the night. He'd beseeched me for a free ride, and I'd given him one. I didn't ask why. Does it matter if his circumstances are his fault? He turned to me before stepping into the freezing cold. "It means a lot," he said, in a moment of uncool but beautiful honesty. I knew now by experience what Van Gogh was writing about.
"Anyone who drives the 358 part-time doesn't know about the 358," a veteran report operator grumbled at me not too long ago. It was all he could do but tell me I had no right to be happy. Maybe he was tired of seeing my smiling face around the base.
Comments like this amuse me. Anyone who thinks nothing happens on the 358 in the afternoons... well, let's just say that person really just needs to come out for a ride on my bus. Locals will tell you Aurora's drug transport and prostitution activities take place mostly during the daytime, when things are more easily accomplished using discount hourly motel rates and frequent bus service. More importantly, though, that grumptastic vet simply doesn't know where I'm coming from. He probably doesn't ride the 358 and a host of other routes at all hours on all days, and he certainly doesn't know that I do.*
Beyond that, he knows nothing of my background. I was speaking with another operator years ago about why it was she and I both liked driving "the rough routes" so much, and the only commonality we could find among ourselves was that we were both from South Central LA. There are things I've experienced- without the authority and recourse to safety that being a bus driver provides- whose sandblasting negativity have absolutely no place on this blog. For me, they function only as healthy reminders that when something as marginal as a man defecating in his pants happens on my bus, I can recognize that it's not a problem. It's an issue. When boys are fighting in the back, it's an issue, but we get through it. I ask them to continue their fight outside, and they do so.
"Hey, Nathan, I have a question for ya," driver Ted asked me once. We were both doing 358s at the time.
"Sure, what's up?"
"Well, I always see you driving that 358 smiling, all the time, every single time you're smilin.' How d'you do it? We're driving at the same time, we've got all the same people, and they're cussing me out, they're peeing in the back, I'm gettin' the works. How do you do it, man?"
It's amazing what a difference tone makes. When you ask somebody how their day is, they generally keep their pants zipped. Ninety-nine percent of my day is in my control. In my recent post regarding Carlos, I write that his new construction job and resulting station in life has no catch. Is that really true? We could probably find one if we really wanted to. Maybe he has to take three buses to work instead of two, or he gets paid monthly instead of biweekly. The fact is, I think Carlos is happy because he doesn't think like that. If the catch is negligible, why bother contemplating it? I could choose to think my route is plagued with problems, or I could just embrace it all and get on with the business of being myself.
Standing there at the base listening to the aforementioned grumpster tell me I knew nothing about the 358, I thought about calling him out and gleefully tearing apart his argument. I knew exactly how to do so... but I discovered I couldn't. I lack the necessary apathy. The fact is, I sort of like the poor guy. He may be the polar opposite of me in temperament, but he doesn't deserve a telling off. How would it help? One man's passion (love) is another man's passion (suffering), and nothing will change that.
In conclusion, my love for the 358 can best be described by these two pieces- Ode to the 358, and Ode to Aurora. There is an undeniable elation I feel when I see a mob of street people at an approaching stop. It's a mystery to me. Any interpretation I come up with now would merely a supposition, and would fall short of a full explanation. I can only say I feel it in spades, and that, strangely, this feeling doesn't ever fade.
*A suggestion for my newer bus driver friends: if you don't already, ride the bus. A lot. The best bus drivers are those who also ride the bus. There's no better way to learn about your job. In the same way reading all the time makes you a better writer, and acting makes you a better director of actors, riding the bus makes you much more aware of the type of experience you're giving to the passengers, and quickly shows you what works and what doesn't. You might find yourself surprised.