I've mentioned Nathan (no, not me) before. He shows up on Thursday evenings. He's developmentally disabled in some way, of average height but with a large head and bulky upper body. Behind thick glasses is one lazy eye, and his asymmetrical legs and feet seem smaller than the rest of his frame. Nathan is perhaps slightly older than myself- an old boy of thirty, with sad eyes and jowls.
When first starting out on the 358 I wrote that I hadn't yet ascertained what a normal shift on the 358 is like. That, as I have since learned, is because there is no such thing. Some days you're swamped, carrying a hundred people on a vehicle with only 58 seats, while other days have a leisurely ten people onboard. Sometimes you're 20 minutes late and only halfway through the route, and other nights you finish out 15 minutes early. And of course, the crowd is utterly unpredictable. The air can be sticky with the humming incompatibility of contrasting souls, alive with a vibrant mixture of colors and noise, or it can be a tranquil night out on the town. Even Aurora is quiet sometimes.
One of the rare serene evenings found Nathan and I cruising up Aurora at a relaxing 30 miles per hour. Nothing's happening, and it's a mellow dream of a ride. Nathan always sits in the chat seat. There are perhaps five other people on the bus, spread from front to back.
"I'm gonna put in a good word for ya." He says with conviction, looking at me.
"Yeah, I'm gonna talk to Paul."
"Is that right?"
"Paul Bachtel, that is." He's said these lines before. It's hard to tell if he really does know Paul Bachtel, the union president. "You're a good bus driver, and you deserve it," he continues in a slow monotone, against my smiling protestations. "Gonna get Paul on the phone, have a conversation with him. Maybe get Neal on the phone too."
"Yeah, you're gonna talk to Neal?"
"Neal Safrin, yeah, the VP."
"Well shoot, Nathan, that's real generous of you. What can I say."
Nathan's wearing a dirty sweatshirt and dark pants. Some days he smells worse than others. Does he even really know these guys?
"I sound like I know your boss, huh?" he asks, in a voice that begs to be looked up to. He wants to sound like he's "in with the big guys," as it were.
"What's that?" Rounding the curves at Linden Avenue.
"I said it sure sounds like I know your boss, doesn't it?" He looks at me with his one steady eye, his face apparently yearning to hear a "yes!"
At the time I said, "well, actually he's not my boss. He's just the union president."
"I sure sound like I know the union president," he returns. "Don't I? Don't I sound like that?"
"It sure does sound like that." This is a question he asks all the time, and I don't mind humoring him. Who knows. Maybe he really does know the union guys. I can't tell yet. "Hey, you've convinced me," I'll say.
"Guess where I was," he says after a pause. I look at his friendly pink face. In his eyes you sense a younger person than the body he's hiding in. "I was at Brian's wedding."
"Well, that sounds great."
"Brian Levitt's wedding, I mean," he says slowly, as if revealing a trade secret. Brian Levitt (I've changed the name) is another Metro driver.
"Brian Levitt, shoot, that's wonderful!"
"Yeah, he just got married."
Now, I'm thinking, is Nathan really telling the truth here? Was he actually at Brian Levitt's wedding? Who knows? Maybe he really was. Some drivers establish good friendships with riders. I decide to ask further.
"Where was it?"
"In the north end."
"Now, Brian's an older guy. Is this his first time getting married?"
"He was married before."
"I think so, yeah."
"So this is his second marriage."
"I guess it must be. Sounds like I'm really good friends with the guy, doesn't it? Invited to a bus driver's wedding. That's a pretty big deal, huh? Sounds like he knows me, huh, Nathan?"
The man's fibbing to the high heavens, I tell myself. My sympathy for him diminishes. Brian Levitt drives a lot of north end work, and Nathan probably knows him about as well as he knows me. The conversation drifts of to other things, like the children's daycare he volunteers for and how much he loves the Shoreline Police Department. A few nights later, he's there again. We snake through the madness of downtown, and after we cross 46th and things die down a little, he pipes up.
"Guess who I saw today? Brian."
"Yeah, Brian Levitt. He saw me at Aurora Village, and he signaled me to come over to have a private conversation."
"A private conversation, oh dear. What'd joo guys talk about?"
"Well, I can't really talk about it," he says with a grin.
"'Cause it was private, wasnt it?"
"Good! That was a test!"
"Yeah, he wanted me to go over and talk to him. Talk to Brian."
"There you go."
"Sounds like I'm in with the big guys, doesnt it?" he says with a proud smile.
"It really does sound like that," I say, in no way convinced. I let him off the hook, though; anything else would be unnecessary.
"I should apply for Metro," he says on another occasion.
"Yeah you should. In fact, you should be drivin' this thing right now in fact, that way I could run across the street and get a bit to eat. Whaddaya say, you do a round trip and I'll go over here to the Chinese place-"
"Well, I can't. I can't drive 'cause I can't have a license."
He looks down at the floor as he says this. There's a dejection in his voice that's real, more truthful than anything he's told me in the past three months. I sense it and try to right the situation.
"Shoot, Nathan, you'd be a pro at customer service. You should get in there. Helping people. You know the system, after all." In truth, he really does. I doubt he'd have any problem doing that job.
Later on, he's at it again. "Hey, Nathan. Guess what? For Christmas, my folks are gonna give me a ride home, so I dont have to ride the bus home." He looks at me waiting for a response, before adding, "sounds like they really care about me, doesn't it?"
"It does sound like they care about you. That's wonderful, them lookin' out for ya." We discuss the specifics of what bus he now wouldn't have to take home on Christmas night. I tell him about the bus I'll be taking on Christmas- as a bus driver, I try to drive as little as possible outside my work, and thus use the bus system quite heavily. There's a yearning palpable in his voice as he changes the subject, saying-
"To be invited to his wedding, Brian's wedding, that's an honor. Sounds like he really cares about me, doesn't it? You get that, right?" Looking straight at me.
"Yeah, he thought of you, and wanted you to be at his special day."
"And when I was in the Aurora accident on the 359, man..."
He's talking about the 1998 incident on the 358 (then called the 359, an identical route) where a gunman shot and killed the driver, Mark McLaughlin, resulting in a crash off the Aurora Bridge onto an apartment building that either killed or injured everyone on board. He's claiming he was on it. Lots of people do, though. Anyone who actually was involved doesn't hesitate to tell their story. I know the relief driver who ended his shift on that very trip; Mark had just taken over and started his shift when it happened. As for myself, I'm guilty of doing that as well, in that I tell people how I almost rode that fateful trip; this really was the case. Fate ended up intervening.
As for Nathan, I'm hesitant to believe his words. I could easily look it up, find out if he was one of the passengers, but I decide not to for some reason. I don't want to know that he's lying. He wants something from people, and I don't want to deprive him of that. And, who the heck knows- maybe he really was on that bus on that day.
"I'm so glad you were okay, Nathan."
"Me too. I was in the hospital, and Brian Levitt came to check up on me..."
I suddenly found myself wanting to cry.
Of course he's not telling the truth. Of course he's lying. But the ache in his lonely voice, the desperate yearning for recognition, respect, acknowledgement as an equal, the desire to be thought of as special...that's the truth in what he's telling me. That's the content in his words. We all have that want. There's a nakedness in the emotion behind his words, and it moves me. I don't dispute him or needle at his words. I let him talk it out.
"Think I'll go out for dinner tonight. That sounds nice, doesn't it."
"It does sound nice," I say in a quiet voice.
"I'm gonna go out tonight, have a nice bottle of wine."
"Where you gonna go?"
"Not sure yet. Somewhere nice, though. Fancy, with nice tablecloth, good service..."
We coast through the darkness as the street numbers get higher and higher. The 358 pursues a straight line, pushing ever onward, deeper and deeper out on the wide, cluttered expanses of Aurora Avenue. The bus starts to empty out. Nathan and I share a comfortable silence as the drama of the route dies down. We're approaching 155th.
"You know, I think I'll get off here tonight."
I look around. There aren't any fancy restaurants anywhere at this stop. There's Safeway, Sears, World Market, and a couple of decent gas stations.
"Gonna stop in at Safeway?"
"Yeah," he says softly. "Gonna pick up something to eat."
He doesn't try to hide it anymore. The facade is lifted for a moment.
"You have a good night, Nathan."
"I'll see ya," he says, walking unevenly across the parking lot toward the deli entrance. His off-balance gait is unmistakable in the darkness.