Here I was now, off for the evening and walking towards my midnight bus home.
A figure stood in the gloom. He called out to his companion, pointing at me, a coach's sporting yell:
"That's the best bus driver, right there!"
"Ha! I'm not that great!" I laugh-yelled in reply.
He further elucidated his claim to his friend, and I began to notice other faces in the dark. These are souls I recognize, I thought, on more than one level. They were relatives in sensation, if not blood; I felt the textures of their lives as my own, the workaday grit and rhythm of service job life. These were the hands that knew the takeout restaurant kitchen sinks, the loading dock garage handles, the construction gloves that grow to know the shape of your fingers.
In spending time in a wide latitude of different status circles, I've noticed a problem the very rich and the very poor share in exactly the same capacity. Both groups have to contend, in nearly every interaction they have, with preconceived notions of who they are based on their income. I know wealthy white landowners who overflow with compassion, self-awareness, and a desire to contribute and understand others with genuine empathy, just as much as I know destitute people of color who are educated, selfless, and concerned with ethics and the advancement of society at large. And yet, these folks tend not to get evaluated as such. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind: "I don't like that man. I must not know him very well!"
Tonight, however, there's nobody around but us service folk. In a way I hope one day works amongst everyone, we all get each other here. I'm in the Fifth and Jackson plaza, and a gaggle of passengers for different south-pointing routes is loitering about.
"Heyy," I say to the middle-aged Chinese man seated on a concrete bench. He's rail thin and doesn't speak English, and tonight waits with one sock-clad foot out of his shoe, maybe resting from a standing job. We fistpound. I can tell the gesture is culturally unusual for him, but he grins at my youthful enthusiasm. Wonder if he has kids.
A voice to my left: "Heyy, are you driving the 7 tonight?"
"No, I was earlier, I just got off! I'll see ya tomorrow!!"
I turned away with a grin and walked right into another man, a chubby friend who sleeps on the Night Owls. We spoke briefly about how I've been away from the bus of late.
"Even if I pick something else for a while I always come back around," I said. "I'll be around. They're not gonna fire me, right? Fingers crossed!"
"Oh they better not, Nathan! You're one of the best bus drivers around!"
He knew my name. How did he know my name? To hear the compliments, this camaraderie in the midnight hour on foot, exposed here at this legendary intersection, engendered a feeling I can hardly describe. The interactions were brief, lasting seconds, but they represented connections I've been building for years. Season after season of smiles and small talk are the seeds of this, now, the sensation of a warm embrace in a place that's supposed to be dangerous. An invisible exhilarating outdoor cocoon. Maybe that's why I don't wear a jacket to work.
I have many homes, and am as anxious to return to a film set as anyone else; but there's something special about this home, the great urban experiment I've been conducting for nigh eleven years now, whereupon the forgotten flotsam and jetsam of America behave at their best and their worst, but as ever offer their love toward me, their respect and acceptance… with no agenda whatsoever. They love, expecting nothing in return.
I can learn from that.