Rainier and Othello is not an inviting place. You know the landscape: one and two story buildings, mostly residential, with buckling and otherwise eroded and collapsing sidewalks. There's the auto parts store, with the owner standing just inside the doorway with his hands on his hips, shaking his head from who knows how many robberies; the Western Union exchange across the way; a Mexican restaurant on the southeast block, seemingly closed more often than open. Iron bars cover the windows of all these establishments and the homes behind them.
Then we have the famous Valero Gas Station (yes, capitalization is necessary), dominating the landscape on the southwest corner. In the same way the Morrison Hotel downtown isn't the Morrison without an ambulance parked out front, so too is the Valero Gas Station not the Valero without a crowd of guys and gals loitering in, on and around. There are men who more or less live here, dealing, fighting, drinking, and shooting their way through life in a manner far riskier than necessary. Tricked-out classic Oldsmobiles and American muscle cars roar into the lot, throaty and gleaming and oversized, trading people or goods with dilapidated Camrys and unwashed, decade-old Lexuses. Occasionally the folks residing will get on the bus, but generally most don't, preferring to finish their beer or light another joint, wait for a delivery, or continue a conversation or argument. The fluorescents of the gas station behind only dimly illuminate them as silhouettes in the darkened bus shelter, looming and receding in size, expansive figures in puffy jackets and sagging jeans, shuffling amongst a patina of litter their own in the making.
There are also regular working-class folk who use this stop to go home, and they leave the zone quickly, keeping their head down and walking in a path determined, away from this mass of unpredictability. There's a regular lady who asks to be let off thirty feet past the bus stop, and that short distance can be the difference between life and something ugly. These are places where a little bit of help can be significant.
Leroy was on the bus one evening, out for a ride, just to talk. A thought occurred to me as we pulled up to the great Valero.
"Hey, you wanna know something kinda crazy?"
"So you see this bus stop right here, how it always looks really, super sketch."
"It looks fuckin' terrible."
"Yeah, every time we come through here,"
"It looks fuckin' awful."
"It reminds me of being in South Central."
"I know, it's like Philly."
"It looks like a disaster."
"And I used to drive up to that stop feelin' kinda apprehensive, a little bit nervous, you know?"
"But, the crazy thing is, and I just realized this recently. So I've been driving number 7 through here since 2009. But check this out. The crazy thing is, man, in all that time, I've never once had a single problem at this intersection."
"Yeah, can you believe that? Look at this place. The whole time, every time I've ever rolled through here, never had a single problem with any of these dudes. It always, everything always just works out. They get on, I say hey. Can you believe that?"
"I know, it's amazing!"
"Wow! Damn. Well, that's cool!"
"So, yeah. Go figure!"
I don't think it's possible to overstate how powerful kindness is. In a phrase or evanescent gesture you send so many messages– esteem, consideration, tolerance, appreciation, and the egalitarian, loving belief that we both have a place here, despite our significant differences... I've heard tell of some of the things that happen at this intersection, and seen their aftermath.
But somehow, this 7 has so far averted the disasters here. I greet them all as if they're friends of mine, and since I've been part of the neighborhood for so long, many of us really are friends, and they jump on happy to see me. The folks treat me as they are treated, and as the days turn to years we accumulate our mutual good works, dignity seeping through the cracks as grains of sand, something besides weeds buckling through that asphalt, our well-wishes and roundhouse waves building to a new kind of normal.
Note: follow-up to this post in partial response to the comments below, here.
3/26/2015 12:41:04 am
Your story reminds me of when I was buying a little house in, whille not the roughest, but still kind of rough part of town--the Polish Village in Toledo, Ohio. It still had some Polish people in it, and there was the big Polish Festival at the end of my street every summer, but mostly it had taken a turn for the worse in the past few decades. I bought a house there when I was in grad school in my mid forties. It was cheaper than renting an apartment, and I had grand plans for graduation which didn't remotely come to pass, but that's a different story!
3/29/2015 03:30:53 pm
3/30/2015 03:41:11 am
I think it really goes to show that the energy you give off? Your intention to look at everyone and really see them as people, instead of taking those stereotypically dressed to be thugs, as thugs is making the difference. You genuinely enjoy being nice to complete strangers. Even in areas where there may be a hint of potential danger, I feel like this lightens up the tension.
3/31/2015 11:38:30 am
3/30/2015 01:42:58 pm
Sometimes it helps to just listen. This is another story from Toledo. At the local community college, I was working with two African American women, and we used to go to the park to walk. I noticed that one of them especially made it a point to say hello to everyone we met. If they wouldn’t respond, and most of them didn’t, she got belligerent. I was more inclined to nod if they nodded, smile if they smiled, but she got really upset if people didn’t respond to her, even if they were involved with a conversation with their walking partner. After several instances of this, I asked her what the big deal was; we were just out for a walk after all. I mean, she was really getting upset! Her answer has stayed with me all these years: In our culture, we respond when someone acknowledges us.
4/1/2015 07:07:24 am
3/31/2015 01:50:14 am
Deb, that is so awesome!
4/1/2015 07:34:22 am
Deb! Bekah! Everyone else!
4/26/2015 10:19:44 am
This is a reply to Mr. Golash: I have ridden Nathan's bus several times before he had a blog, and I have read all of his blogs. He treats all as fellow humans, and you know what? I rode his bus last week, just for kicks, round trip from downtown to the end of the line in Ranier Valley, back to downtown, over to the U-District, and back to downtown. Here is what I observed from the front seat by the door: People getting on, smiling--the whole line of them! You'd think they were going to Disneyland or something! People smiling as they got off. Nathan and passengers greeting each other by name! High fives and fist-bump greetings. The bus had a very congenial feel from one end to the other, in both senses, the length of the bus and of the route. Riding Nathan's bus is truly a wonderful experience; I suggest you try it and see for yourself. I have my own stories from his bus, so I know he's not making this stuff up or treating anyone with any kind of disrespect. Quite the contrary, in fact!
4/30/2015 06:37:56 am
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