"Why is that idiot stopping in front of us?"
Me: "'Cause there's a bunch of cars stopped in front of him. He doesn't want to run them over."
"Oh. I see. I thought he was trying to be a jerk."
"No, he's just trying to be a gentleman."
Nothing in particular happened. It was a busy, rainy day on the 358. Massed traffic, bodies, rain-spattered windshields and fogged glass. Minutes accumulating, ticking by as we move through the molasses of Friday night gridlock. And yet, there is this lightness in the air, this energy... Where does it come from? It might be the really good apple you just had on your break, or it might be the smile in that passenger's glance, or a few people kick-starting your positive demeanor with their own pleasant attitude. Or some elusive, ephemeral current underneath everything. Who knows.
What it feels like, to be honest, is that it's you. You got this energy from somewhere else, sure, but now it's you. You're feeling at the top of your form, at your best, where you know what to say and how to say it in every moment, whether charged or languid. You feel completely and wholly yourself, comfortable, talking for nearly your entire shift. Somebody, a passenger, comes up to the front, preparing to get off, and you ask them about their day. You ask them why they get off at this stop and then walk up to the next one, and they explain their routine. Later on someone else wanders forward. You ask if it's their Friday, and if they're ready for the weekend. Of course they are. Pretty soon a person will come up and sit just because (s)he wants to talk, and has been watching your interactions with everyone else. The interactions can be small- gestures, loaded pleasantries- or larger conversations.
The conversations can be ordinary (sharing a love for reading real books) or not so much (A friendly guy ominously and repeatedly saying, "I sound like I know a lot about Paul Bachtel and Neal Safrin, don't I?"). On occasion you get the front area of the bus chatting (today the Deseret Industries Lady was once again asking about the the RapidRide stopping at 180th, as she is wont to do; a group of us attempted to placate her, with enjoyable but minimal success). On other occasions you get conversationalists who make you glad that they won't be there all day (a lady, upon learning that I'm part Korean, asking if I'd ever seen a Black Korean person before, or if they existed), but this happens less often than one might imagine.
It's been said that breathing through your mouth produces a different mental state than inhaling through one's nostrils; I can say that talking for four hours while driving engenders a strange and pleasant sensation. Your brain divides into two spheres. One sphere devotes intense concentration to all aspects of driving and safety; the other sphere is considering the human interaction you're having in all of its complexities- moderating it, enjoying it, learning from it- knowing when not to speak as well. Both are demanding intellectual pursuits, and to be doing both at the same time results in a heady sort of exhilaration- if you stop and think about what you're doing it falls apart, but if you can keep it going, staying in the moment, it works.
It foregrounds one of my favorite parts of the job, which is that it requires so much from you- particularly mentally- that it's difficult to think about other things. Maybe on easier routes (238!) your mind can drift, but on "Nathan routes" (if you'll allow me) there's no room for wandering. I enjoy this not because it distracts from life's problems and postpones the solving of them, but rather that by being out here, your time feels productive. You can't spend all day indoors stewing over money problems and what to do about relationships. We learn a great deal by observing those around us, helping and hearing them, and effecting positive change, however incremental, in others.
Additionally, there is something cleansing about existing purely in the ever-fluctuating present. Garth Stein once extolled the virtues of driving as an activity that forces a hyperreal awareness of the present in such a manner that you have no choice to do otherwise. We all speak of the benefit of not dwelling on past or future, but driving 358s or trolleys, like other complex activities (art, sports), requires that mental discipline. "To remember is to disengage from the present," and it can't be done, as lives and jobs are at stake. Maybe I exaggerate. At the very least, the heady joy of driving and talking resembles the wonderful sensation of approaching the limits of what you think yourself capable- planning a complex speech, taking on that five-hour police application test, writing a 300-page thesis paper- and pulling it off with aplomb. After a while you might get great at it, and you might phone it in every once in a while, but those days when you're there, when you choose for whatever reason to really check in- it makes everyone involved excited. I'm into that.