I feel a sense of comfort when low-income or working class people get on. Maybe it's because I come from a similar background. It might have to do with our often sharing in the outsider status of being non-white. Or perhaps it's simply because these folks are generally nicer to me than their upper-class counterparts. I don't know. In any event, I'm comforted by the sight of this black American man stepping onto an otherwise thoroughly silent 13, populated at this early morning hour by commuters boarding from their homes in upper Queen Anne.
Unlike the rest of the bus, this gentleman's wide awake, sipping demurely from his tall boy at six AM already. Different strokes, I guess. I'm a water man myself. I don't press the issue. There are times on the 7 when you pray for a drunk this friendly. We greet each other loudly and with gusto.
He's telling me what happened just prior to the bus arriving. A woman out for a stroll with her dog had reacted with alarm upon seeing him. "She was like, 'oh, get away from me!'" he recounts. "Done ran across the street and everything."
My mind flashes to Obama's Trayvon Martin speech, wherein the President described what a lifetime of people moving to the other sidewalk or locking their car doors when you approach feels like.
"She was up outta there. Dog was happy to see me though, tail waggin' and everything."
"Dogs don't lie," I say with a smile.
"Dogs don't lie, that's right. Animals are cool wit' me."
"Well, maybe he'll teach his owner a thing or two."
"Le's hope so. She was beautiful, drop dead gorgeous at six o'clock in the mornin'."
"Well now, looks ain't everything, you know,"
"Looks ain't everything, that's fa sho! You need the outside and the inside."
"Gotta have a little somethin' upstairs, right?"
"I said, 'hey, don't need to be scared o' the only black person in Queen Anne!'"
He's saying it in a joking voice. We waver, hovering between gravity and the cure of levity.
"This ain't the 1700s!" I say, declaratively. "S'pposed to be the twenty-first century!"
"I thought this was Seattle! We're not in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. We're not in, Pawtucket–"
"Oh, this ain't Seattle! I don't know what they did with Seattle, but this sho ain't it!"
"Aw, now you're gonna start breakin' my heart. We got one or two good people here!"
"Yeah, but then we got these other folks still stuck on Jim Crow."
"Workin' offa stereotype."
"I'm supposed to have jobs, and smarts, and stuff."
He was joking up until the last line. You can hear the child in his voice, frustrated and confused. How to keep up when the same is expected of you, but odds and circumstance sway so far from favor? Punishing ourselves with blame seems as bad as projecting our problems on everyone else. But here he is now, finding the humor again. Who was it who said the only way through life is with laughter?
He's saying, "I'm tellin' you, don't be gettin' no tan, man! You be in for it! I see you gettin' a little dark around the arms, watch out!"
"You tellin' me I gotta get some sunscreen?"
"Some of that 30 SPV?"
"Yeeeah! Hey, let's have a seat for the lady!" Referring to the senior now getting on.
"Thanks for bein' a gentleman! This is the polite bus." Into the mic I let them know we're switching routes. "Folks, we're gonna continue as a 2; this'll be the 2 route today, goin' out to First Hill and then the Central Area..."
"We'll be goin' out to the ghetto this morning, ladies and gentlemen," our friend says in mock tour-guide tone. I don't know what the rest of the bus is thinking, but we're sure enjoying ourselves, riffing off of each other. "Gonna see how the other half lives on this fine Wednesday," he continues.
"Go somewhere a little more interesting!"
"Little bit of excitement comin' up this morning–"
"Gonna wake these folks up a little!"
"Roll them windows up a little but don't be scared, everyone!" Theatrical sigh. "It's tough, bein' spokesman for the ghetto."
"It's a tough job!"
"Standin' on top o' the Columbia Tower, batman cape on,"
"Wind blowin' through my hair,"
"Well thanks for pullin' this tough gig, walkin' the walk! Keepin' me company!"
We alternate between our energetic nothings and real conversation. I ask him what he's been up to. He's just returned from Phoenix, where he has family, along with a few other cities.
"You got people everywhere!"
"Hey, Abraham Lincoln said it was all right!"
"Oh well hey, if he gave the go-ahead,"
"I checked it out with old Abe."
I fare well to some deboarding passengers. The nurses are leaving us at Virginia Mason. "You guys are hilarious," one says. "You made my morning!"
"Aw thanks! That's why we're here! Have a good one."
"Change the world!" he calls out after her.
"Oh I like that," I say. "Change the world. I'm gonna use that. That's way better than 'have a good one!'"
Later on he'll tell me I made his morning too, repeatedly, and he won't take my "aw, shucks" deflections for an answer. He's leaning in with intention. Our gabbing had accomplished something beyond mere jest. "No, really," he said, searching for the words, thanking me for being myself but also something else, too: there are those who don't always get to live in the equitable, uncritical glow of egalitarian spaces. For fifteen minutes he didn't feel judged, evaluated, or avoided. We'd simply sat and stretched the old talking muscle like, to borrow a phrase from both Michael Mann and W. Somerset Maugham, "a couple of regular fellows." I could see how it had impacted him, and was thankful to have taken part.