He's scattered all over the bus stop, moving, talking, laughing with big strides. We're at 73rd and Winona inbound, on the 358, and I'm greeting all the passengers as they board ahead of him. He looks unsure if he's getting on or not- I'm aware of him out of the corner of my eye. Could be trouble, this fellow.
He lurches around in stops and starts. Heavy-duty beige jacket, all at once fashionably 'hood and worn down from overexposure to the elements: a knit beanie, layers, fittingly large pants and basketball shoes, low on their soles. The effect is one of earned authenticity. You can't fake the effects of a difficult life on the streets, the burned-in evidence of passing time. Posers try to look like this guy. It's in his gaze, the weathered surfaces, and the attitude- unsurprised but alert.
He's decided to get on the bus.
On occasion I'll find myself assuming how a conversation would go, were I to start one up with the person next to me. I'll think, this probably won't go anywhere, or, I know exactly what we'll talk about. Then I'll initiate a discussion, and I discover that I'm always wrong. It's a great feeling.
Once on the 70, a young, clean-cut man got on by UW campus. Probably a science or tech student, I guessed, or an intern, or an Amazon employee, since that's where we were going. Inwardly I figured that talking to him wouldn't be quite as compelling as the conversation I'd just had with the woman who was hiding from "government-related black hole internet pixels from deep outer space," or the young boy who wanted to jump over the top of the bus while wearing high-heels. I don't like finding such judgments in my head, so I asked him how his night was.
Yes, he was an Amazon employee who had studied software at UW. But right now he was going to his other job, waiting tables; his great dream is to be a chef. The act- the art- of cooking was his passion, and he waxed poetic about his recipe for coffee cheesecake, and the lasagna he makes that takes six hours to create from scratch. He tries a new meal every week, and enjoys exploring and refining in the kitchen, improvising, juggling his skills as only a prodigious talent can.
I never would've known. How silly of me to assume! It's in part for discoveries like this that I give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
Back to our friend at 73rd and Winona. Here he is now, after all the others have boarded.
"Hallo," I say, unwittingly letting that LA accent spill out just a bit.
He stalls a moment and makes eye contact.
"Oh, hey, it's one uh mah favorite bus drivers. Din't you used t'do the 2 or the 3 and 4?"
The gleaming whites of his eyes shine out against his dark skin.
The tension is gone. I affirm that yes, that was in fact me, and we're off, picking up our own interlocking pieces, building a conversation together.
He's on his way to the hospital. Trouble with my kidneys, he says. "Didn't think I'd have to go into dialysis, but,"
"Sometimes it's worth it,"
"I wanna bury my Mom, I don't want her to bury me, you know what I mean?"
His soft, clear voice brings any preconceptions I may have had to their rightful place- crumbling on the ground. He may not be like this all the time, but this present moment is real, and I'm glad to be a part of it.
We get back on Aurora, slowly picking up speed. He tells me of a suicide prevention walk coming upon the 12th, and marvels that I know the 12th is a Saturday. He asks if the new RapidRide version of this route will run later in the evening. We speak together of the old 7 to the U-District, which we both rode in earlier times. The route was once much longer than it is today, and as such was his go-to place for a good nap.
I announce Galer Street, mentioning the nearby staircase to Queen Anne.
"That's cool you tell 'em that."
"Good to know these little secrets."
"I used to use that when I was sleeping out here." He was once homeless, but doesn't use that word: "I used to be nomadic."
He asks about my heritage, and I tell him; in return I ask of him the same, and I can see he's silently pleased. I didn't just sit there and assume he was African-American. A friend once told me, "don't automatically say 'African-American.' It's better to say black. I'm Haitian, and that's got very little to do with African-American culture."
Our nomadic friend, as it turns out, is half-Syrian. His mother is from Ohio, he was born in Arizona, and there's a little Creole in him, and a touch of French...
"How it should be."
"I'm a Phoenician. 'Cause check this out. You know how ancient Syria used to be called Phoenicia, and plus I was born in Phoenix, Arizona..."
I can tell some of the others around us are surprised by his conflation of streetwise and literate airs, and I'm glad stereotypes are being broken. Naturally the recent Syrian massacre comes up.
"Obviously that's a tragedy," I say, "but what also makes me sad is you end up with this situation where the only thing people know about Syria is the genocide, when in fact there is so much more,"
"Yeah, man. It's like, just like how you don't hear nobody talk about Persians no more,"
"Exactly. When the only thing people know is whether or not they got nuclear weapons,"
"I mean, that has nothing to do with all those other normal people out there,"
"Beautiful ancient culture,"
"Plus all that really good food they make. Have you had that meal, I think it's called..."
We go on and on. Our dialogue is the stage, and the nearby passengers watch; two people who could hardly appear more different, talking up there like a couple of regular fellows, making something new together, spinning a pulsing web of conversation, alternately rapturous and mundane, rotating ever higher like hawks on rising thermals.