The faces are there, and smiling. I'm having trouble doing anything but grinning from ear to ear.
"So you back on the 4?" A brother asks.
"Yup! Back in the game!"
"'The game' is right for this route!"
I'm back on the 3/4, and it's been a long time coming. I did it for nearly two years straight, and then lost hold of it; I gave it up voluntarily for a 7 I wanted, and it was taken over by an excellent operator just under me in seniority. That was fine. But later on, every shakeup I would try to pick it, and it would be snatched out from under me. This doesn't make sense. Drivers are not supposed to like the 3/4. Unless you're completely nutty, like I am, and love lifts, overloads, hills, deadspots on hills, bad schedules, tight turns and narrow roads...please. My friends. Just let me get in there and do my thing. I need that stuff in my life. I don't like being in 3/4 withdrawal.
Anyways, I finally got my baby back, after probably the best non-trolley shakeup ever (on the 358), and boy, it's good to be here. Drivers at Atlantic are a little closer knit, since we have to look out for each other, and it feels good to be part of that family again; walking into the base is a welcome series of excited hellos as I see my wonderful colleagues after a long time away in the far North.
On the street, I have trouble containing myself. The first day was a mellow President's Day; it isn't until the following day that the onslaught is really there. An old Korean lady recognizes me at Union. She used to ride nearly everyday, and apparently still does; for some reason I've never talked to her. Today we discover our common heritage and language. I ask if she's finishing work, but she's actually just been eating, at her son's restaurant at the Market. "I have to eat," she says. She has a point.
"It's a number 4 for ya," I yell out to Jenny and her dog. She has a huge, genuine smile. I've never seen her wait for the 4 before.
"Oh good, a driver I know!" she says, upon hearing my voice.
"Now, normally I see you on the 7-"
"I moved!" Jenny's excited about it. It's an easier commute. "Don't have to take that 7 no more," she enthuses. We've hardly talked before, and you can tell she wants to speak further, but isn't sure what to say. She's just happy to be here, in a comfortable space.
Behind her is Dee, headed home to the Central District. Dee's an older woman with an inspiring, vibrant presence that defies her age. She stopped using the 4 after I left it a year ago; for some reason unknown to either of us she took it by chance today, and is amazed to see me again.
"You're back," she exclaims, with an air of surprise at the impossibility of it all.
"I decided to come back to work!"
"Where you been?"
"I been hangin' around, where you been this whole time?"
"I've been takin' that 27."
"Oh, you went over to the other side!"
"That's 'cause you weren't around!"
She's sitting halfway back into the bus. We have no business shouting like this, but we do it anyway. The others are smiling.
"You don't wanna mess with that now!" I say, about the 27. I mean, why ride the 27 when you could take the 4 and go past Harborview?
"Yeah, it aint' got nothin' on this!"
"Plus the 27's got that funky reroute."
"Yeah, Dee, you don't need that in your life!"
Jenny laughs richly from her seat a short ways back. I ask her about her new place. Jenny can't see, but she hears everything, and the three of us continue catching up, as the rest of the bus looks on smiling, laughing, and occasionally joining in. Riders who don't know me look nonplussed but excited; something is happening here, and they're new to it, learning what it is.
It's at Harborview that the bus erupts. Familiar faces abound, and I'm practically assaulted with good vibes. Even though it's been close to a year, they somehow remember me. "Shantae!!!" I yell, as Shantae says my name in surprise. Next to her is Favorite. I don't know Favorite's name, but she always calls me Favorite, and I gladly return the favor. She's an older black lady with a rich sense of humor, and in the past would always thank me "for my guided tour" of the Central District. "Are we gonna get to see Elvis Presley's house?" She'd ask, and we'd riff off each other in the afternoon sunlight.
Shantae asks if her sister can ride for free. Of course she can. "Just for today," I add in a mock serious voice, though my reputation precedes me- does anyone in earshot actually think I would turn someone down for a ride? Shantae smiles wide. It's good to be here. I feel like I don't deserve all of this.
Favorite and Dee move to sit by each other. It's clear they haven't seen each other since I was last around. I listen to Dee asking after Favorite's grandkids. Out here in the Central District, I'm reminded, people know each other. In the Judkins section, I wave at a Latino family's house that I haven't gotten to wave at in a year. The grandmother inside the window can't believe it.
"You still gonna make that stop at Alder?" Dee asks me. Back when I drove the route, there was a stop there, and after they took it away, I would occasionally keep using it- I learned from Metro that the stop was eliminated for political reasons pertaining to Garfield High School, and is in no way unsafe. It was always one of the silliest stop eliminations on the route.
"Oh, you know it!" I say. "We got you covered!"
"And how about Lane?" asks Favorite in her wonderfully gentle voice.
"Lane?" Lane Street was never a stop in the past.
"Yeah, you wanna make a stop down by Lane?"
"Ahm, lemme think about that," I say to an eruption of laughter. They know what that means.
"But what if I say like my granddaughters do and go, 'pleeeeeease?'"
"Oh, well now I feel terrible!" I say, laughing.
Jenny pipes up: "or like my grandkids do- 'pleasepleaseplease?'"
"Oh, that hurts!"
"You know," Favorite continues, "you could even just turn right on Lane and go three or four houses down,"
"Yeah, just if you really wanted to."
They're not giving me a hard time. They're happy to get off at the real bus stops. We're just having fun. I look at them in the mirror and think, these are the icons of decency. I see them on towering billboards. It's the altruism and persevering ardor in this trio of older women and people like them that I look up to. They deserve to be known- but maybe that would ruin the beauty of it.
"Man, Nathan, there hasn't been this kinda talkin' or laughin' on this bus since you been gone," Favorite says.
"Oh, I don't believe that!"
At my layover, I see Jimmy walking out of the Center Park Projects. I open the doors and leap out my bus, yelling: "as I live and breathe!"
He's one of the building managers there. I've tried to convince him to take my bus many times- it goes where he's going- but he favors walking to the light rail instead. Getting stuck in traffic on top of First Hill is apparently low on his list of favorite ways of getting home, and I try to make him see the error of his ways. "I know how badly you wanna sit at that red light with me at 9th and James," I remind him. I've spent up to 20 minutes stopped there in the past. I was able to get him to ride my bus all the way once, which bodes well: if you've get 'em once, you can get 'em again.