Up until now, it's been a quiet day. But now I'm 30 minutes late. When you're a half hour late on the 7, things get fun (I'm paraphrasing). I remember once getting on a 41 that was extremely late. I was the first passenger on, still in my bus driver uniform. "Let's play," the awesomely overweight driver said in an almost maniacal voice. We ended up somehow squeezing a hundred people onto a bus that only has 58 seats.
I don't get a hundred people tonight, but what I do get is the energy, which surfaces with a vengeance, catapulting the mellow haze out the window. The fog has lifted. "There he is!" I yell at a face I recognize in the crowd boarding at Henderson. Friendly guy in a sports jersey carrying some furniture. Behind him getting on- is it a man? Is it a woman? I'll let her decide. She's young, flat chested but wearing a bra underneath her oversized unbuttoned shirt, exposing her trim tummy, braids flailing from her moving head. "Hey," she says, "he said 'there he is!'" Smiling at me, excited that the driver is alive: "You see him! You see me?" "I see you now!" She laughs. We didn't say anything especially clever, or even funny, but you could tell she was high on the idea of this driver who's- wait- who's excited to be here? Guy's probably crazy.
"Can I help out with that stroller?" I say to the two girls in charge of it. It's a big Range Rover of a stroller, and the toddler inside it has no business sitting in one, being at least two years old. But no matter. I'd ride in a stroller like that. The girls say sure, if you want to help, and I say of course, "you got precious cargo right here. Right, little lady?" The baby girl gazes at me with curious eyes.
"Hi," I say to another young lady I've never seen before, in the tone of voice you're supposed to use for long-lost visiting family. "I like your hair!" She's totally confused. It takes her a moment to realize I said something other than ask her to pay the fare. She gets excited.
A middle-aged Caucasian fellow, the only guy around who's older or white, steps on with his young daughter. "I remember you from the 10," he says. "We used to laugh at you, because you were SO FRIENDLY! To everyone!" "I can't help myself!" I say.
"Hey, you my age," a skinny young thug observes. "You should hang, man, we should trade places." He doesn't have the usual sullen attitude required for thugs, but is quite awake. He sits down across the older white gentlemen and adjacent to the two stroller girls. The four of them form a sort of square at the front of the bus. For a while I talk to the white guy about the route 10, then about the 7 and about bus changes. Meanwhile, Awake Thug regals the two stroller girls with stories of his girlfriend, and I can't help but listen. "They was like, wa's wrong witchu? 'Cause she done had normal kids before. But this time the doctor was like, whaaaat?"
I laugh at his ebullient tone, and Stroller Girl Number One looks up at me in the mirror, at first with apprehension, maybe expecting me to put a stop to the fun of their conversation. But upon seeing my laughter her face opens up, relaxes into an appreciation of a shared and open space, warm with acceptance.
Somehow, no one minds the boy's language, which in technical terms couldn't be worse. That's the wonderful thing about a route like this- often there isn't anyone on board who would be offended, and thus no real pressure to maintain a sense of decorum. If this group was surrounded by commuters from the Issaquah Highlands, then we'd have a problem.
Awake Thug elaborates on his narrative, replaying a dialogue he'd had with a medical official ("I be like nigga, why you bringin' all this bullshit, talkin' a bunch a nonsense. Then I be like, 'don't be trippin, mothufucka, I'm messed up;' then, Doctor be like, 'what, how this baby get this way?!' Lookin' at my girl like she crazy").*
It's no longer a mellow night.
The Caucasian man opposite him responds to this last statement with, "probably 'cause you were like this-" and he shakes himself wildly, imitating an addict. It's a joke in amazingly bad taste, and, because of who's telling it, potentially very offensive. But incredibly, it goes over smoothly, with everyone laughing. I felt that the laughter was a response not to a funny comment, but more a result of this very disparate set of people feeling united in a sense of acceptance, different spheres respecting each others' sensibilities. They weren't laughing about somebody's crack babies. They were saying to each other, "how great, that we very different people are having a good time together." It was less about the words themselves as the tones and shades of their voices, which carried hints of many things- excitement, distraction, belonging, nervous confidence relaxing into a cautious togetherness.
It's a good thing that there's hardly anyone else on the bus, because Awake Thug continues with "I trust all your company enough to share some family secrets." In a manner of speaking. Here are his actual words- "I videotaped my girlfriend's first baby getting born, all that coochie juice spillin' out, guts everywhere-" and I can't help but express, "stop, stop now!" Which in spoken words translates into, "Aawww, I jus' had dinner!" They all collapse laughing. The boy yells, "you need to turn t' the lef!" Meaning out my window.
What's being said isn't actually very funny, but the mood is what matters, a laughter of creation, a building camaraderie that crosses age and race. Judgment is pushed to the side, forgotten for a time. You can sense the teenage boy reaching for something he doesn't yet know the shape of, a type of respect that isn't valuable to him now, but perhaps with maturity will be.
At Walker I stop and open doors because somebody had rung the bell. I've just announced all the fun activities you can go to at Walker Street (Center Park! Lighthouse for the Blind! 2100 building! Get on a 4!), and when no one gets up, I say, "anybody want this?" Our boy up front responds in the affirmative, but holds in his seated position for a moment. I peer around at him. He's in the middle of trying to get Stroller Girl Number One's phone number. Instead of rushing him explicitly I say, "gotta get the number!" She blushes, and he gets my message, wrapping up and saying, "Yes I do, brotha," giving me a fistpound on the way out. At 5th Avenue Stroller Girls One and Two get off, and I offer to help take their stroller down the stairs for them. "Since they're payin' me. I may as well do something."
After that it was gone, but just for a moment there, a group of strange people who might never talk to each other again enjoyed each other's company with the verve of a raucous family dinner.
*Linguistic enthusiasts: for an examination of African American Vernacular English, which actually follows a rigorous set of syntactical principles, refer to cognitive scientist Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct. If you're feeling lazy, there's also the Wikipedia article on the subject, which has a nice breakdown on phonology.