This post also available at The Urbanist.
"I got my transfer in here somewhere." We're at 185th inbound. Her face is lined with age and humor, that kind of spirit you don't find enough- equal parts confident and humble. She's over fifty, with blue-gray eyes, wearing a couple older sweatshirts and nursing some bulging paper bags, babying them so they don't tear.
"D'you wanna come in and look for it?"
I remember an operator who came out to ride my 3/4 once. He was intrigued at how excited I was after every shift, and why I had so many commendations. "What are you doing out there?" he asked me one night at the base. After riding a trip on my 4, incognito, he came up and said, "Okay. Two things. First of all, Nathan, you should never become supervisor. You're way too good at being out here. We need people like you out here. Secondly, I've driven this route many times, and I know a lot of these guys. When they get on my bus, they don't pay when they leave. But I watched them get on now, and at first they don't know what you're doing, being so friendly, if you're bullshitting them or being sarcastic, but I notice they sit down and they keep watching you. And they realize after watching you interact with everyone else that you're actually being sincere, you're for real. And they go digging in their pockets for every loose scrap of change they have."
"Wow," I said, thrilled. "Thank you." I didn't know that. It's hard for me to gauge the experience of riding my bus- partly of course because I can never do so, and because I'm so preoccupied with the road, with the front of the bus, and with being myself.
After a time the woman comes forward and says, "this is my transfer, but it's expired. But I have a cold pop. I got a cold 7-Up here, for an upgraded transfer."
"Oh, you don't have to give me that. You should hang on to it. That's nice of you though," I say, trading out her transfer for a fresh one. "I love the idea. Barter! I wish more people did that, I wouldn't have to pack a lunch!"
"That's just what I need. Thank you."
"I'm glad I can help, I know it's just a little thing."
"Oh, everything helps. I'm planning a memorial service for my friend. She died. Well, she OD'd."
"She'd been on heroin for thirty-two years, she tried methadone thirteen times,"
"Wow. Oh, that's heavy. I'm so sorry she's gone!" I'm thinking how amazing it is she lasted that long in the first place. As if reading my mind, the woman says, "Yeah, but honestly I shoulda lost her ten, thirteen, fifteen years ago. I'm glad I got to know her."
She spoke of her friend's time in jail. How she tried vacating her spot at the methadone clinic so Sam, her friend, could take her spot, though this turned out to be of no use because THS is an addiction clinic, not a pain clinic. I wasn't sure if Sam was her deceased friend or another one; either way I could see the large-heartedness in her aging face, those blue eyes still bright and pulsing.
"That's really good of you," I said. "That's a pretty huge gesture, just 'cause the hardship that puts on you,"
"Yeah well you know, sometimes, these folks in the clinics are goin' through some tough-"
"They're great people."
"They have a lot to offer,"
I meant every word, and I hope it registered. On the morning reverse peak runs of the outbound 2- "the methadone express," as some call it- the recovering addicts are often the kindest passengers. They're more expressive than most, which I personally enjoy, even if others find it grating, and they look out for each other in the way that small-town communities do, invested and intertwined with each other's lives. They ask about your living situation, and they get sad when your dog dies.
"I like your outlook."
"Hey, we're all the same. What's your name?"
"I'm Nathan." Handshake. "It's good to meet you."
A month or so later I saw her again. I said, "how was the memorial service?"
Stephanie's jaw dropped. "Wow. It was good. You remembered!"
One of my films concludes with the lead actress delivering a six-minute monologue, which I asked her to memorize in full because I wanted to shoot it in one continuous take. She did so magnificently, and I was thrilled at her ability to retain all the information necessary to perform a monologue of that size. I was beyond impressed when I learned that she had simultaneously memorized another lengthy monologue for auditioning purposes, while also working on other things, and that she was able to dedicate complete focus to all of these works. You can keep adding, she told me. We think that by adding stuff, some other material in our brain has to get thrown out, but you can retain a lot in your memory. I definitely can't remember everyone's face, but I make an effort.
"It was good. It was okay, actually." Stephanie's grief had grown in the intervening weeks. There was energy inside her still though, and she was trying to expend it in healthy ways. Some people feel most whole when they're helping others.
"You know that area, around by the side of the tobacco shop, and up to where the bus stop is?"
"You notice anything different about it?"
"Uh," I said, stalling. That area's usually overrun with filth, but I remembered it looking cleaner than usual today- though I couldn't be sure.
"Did it look cleaner today?" she asked me.
"Actually, yeah, it did!" I said, turning. "it looked kinda nice today."
"That was me," she said with pride. "I cleaned up that whole area. I was thinking, this place just looks-"
"Wait. You cleaned up that entire section?"
"Yeah, I spent seven hours over there yesterday. I just got tired of looking at it. I was like, the whole rest of Shoreline looks great, and then this spot by the clinic always looks like complete shit-"
We started laughing.
-"and what kind of message does that send to everyone, you know?"
"That is fantastic, Stephanie. Seven hours! You know, before you said that, I was thinking, it looked good."
"It's about the community, you know? These aren't bad people."