They looked like a lively bunch– a gregarious crew of five in their twenties, two girls with a stroller and a trio of boisterous boys in tow. They insisted the ladies get on first.
"How's it goin'!? Gentlemen, goodmorning!" I hollered, in the dim first minutes of the new day. I wish I could recall their dress and appearance more clearly. Visually, the type was familiar: massive t-shirts, dresses more like, sports and music logos emblazoned here and there, long chain necklaces pendulating to and fro, echoing the deep sag of their pimp-rolling jeans, dirty denim in the early morning hour. The trouble with people who fit in is you don't remember them very well; but they were more than their appearance. No one's really a cog in the machine when it comes to personality.
"You got precious cargo there," I said as I knelt the bus for their stroller. "Beautiful lookin' baby." The young mother smiled in thanks. They slinkied in, conquering the front of the bus rather than the back, in a new twist– up here is where the party's at tonight.
My enthusiasm became theirs, and versa vice. They were free to be their unruly and uproarious selves on the largely empty vehicle. "Wassup, bro? I tell all the bitches aboutchoo," one of the boys avidly blared. "I's like 'man, this guy he drives the bus, bro, gotta check him out!'"
I had somehow been teleported to a backyard barbecue, and I was excited. It was impossible to discern whose voice was whose. I gave up trying. Rather, the linguist, anthropologist, and lover of people within me came alive as I mostly listened, catching the slip and slide of overlapping conversation, hearing the camaraderie bubbling beneath the words.
"Yo," one asked me. "Do you turn into the 7?"
"Sadly no, I apologize. I gotta go home lie down."
They carried on. What do the gentlemen of this set chat about? What does small talk look like, on the other side of the tracks?
One of the crew, clad in a grey sweatshirt, rubbed his chin as he considered the infant. "Yo. Hey, I love kids. I used ta babysit. How old is he? A he or she?"
"'Bout… four months. He's a lil' pimp!"
"What a cutie pie, man," the first said gruffly. "I feel grateful when I get to babysit 'cause I used to be a foster kid. I was taken care of a by a single mom, I had no real parents."
"Bro. The kids are the future, bro."
"Oh man! Babies make our world for generations to come, man! That's our next generation, bro!" That's Grey Sweatshirt talking. He was ecstatic, realizing the import of the lines as he spoke them. He got so excited he stood up.
I piped in: "that boy's gonna be our next governor!"
"Makin' it happen, you know?" I exclaimed. "You never know!"
The mom smiled deeply at my comment. To be judged, especially by those outside her race, not as an unwed young mother but admired, recognized as the architect of something sacred. She and her ladyfriend received the compliment in silence; I think they were tired. The three boys, on the other hand… they processed the good spirits in their own way, weaving together a tapestry of raucous, throaty roars, blurting out assertions they couldn't be more thrilled to realize really were accurate. I was less concerned with which man was saying what than the overall effect*:
"Whatever you train 'im to be, dogg!"
"God BLESS him, bro!"
"Whatever you train 'em to be."
"Hey. Kids are our nex' God blessing, bro."
"My dad coulda saved me,"
"Ah will bless kids every DAY. Bein' a foster kid–"
"Dass the real deal right there."
Grey Sweatshirt tried to pet the baby, who, absurdly, was managing to snooze through all this. Dad: "naw, don't touch him, bro."
"My bad, I apologize."
"Naw, you good..."
The third fellow, wearing a chain necklace: "let him sleep, cause he a beast." Beeeast.
Grey Sweatshirt: "he's beautiful, he's a lil' beautiful kid."
Dad: "thank you a lot, I appreciate that, bro."
"I'm sorry about–"
"Naw bro, you good, dude."
"I'm like, he sleep."
"I respect that I respect it. I have a lotta respect for kids. I gone done some babysittin' in mah long life. I'm twenty-seven and ah babysat a lot."
"I used to be a foster kid."
"Yo, where we gettin' off at?"
"No, I respect you for what you said though."
"Naw, we good, bro, we good. You didn't know."
At this point, Daniel, the struggling identical street twin mentioned here, barreled onto the bus, asking for and receiving the full package: a transfer, smile, and fistbump, before careening back into the night. The young father saw this.
"Hey, you a good dude man, God bless you."
"Thanks man, "I replied. "I try to give a little somethin' back, you know?"
Chain Necklace: "You a great bus driver you know. I been knowin' you for like twelve months!"
Grey Sweatshirt's thoughts began to veer from the baby. He cried out, "honestly, you're the best bus driver in this city, and they not too many of them!"
"Thank you so much, man that's huge! I'm not that good!"
He boomed in answer, perhaps in recollection of a past experience, "bus drivers be a fuckin' dick!"
Dad wasn't nearly as agitated, saying to Sweatshirt, "Ay ay, baby right here."
Mr. Chain Necklace was feeling similarly carefree. His mind was on other matters. "I wasn't gonna say it," he said to me with a sly grin. "I wasn't gonna say it, but this guy looks like a… super King County player!"
What is a Super King County Player, I wondered. And what would it look like? I was tempted to inquire, but Sweatshirt was heading off to a darker place. "King County need to pay bus drivers some fuckin' respect," he growled. I tried to find something that felt inclusive of all of them. "I appreciate you guys," I said.
Necklace: "naw, you cool, but some uh yo colleagues are mad."
"I try to balance out for those folks, you know?"
Dad: "dass cool though. Do you! Do you, and getcho blessings!"
The tapestry was dividing. Grey Sweatshirt opined with nigh-religious fervor, by now on another plane entirely: "I wish bus drivers had some respect for the people!"
Chain Necklace, undeterred by such zeal, fingered his necklace as he pondered aloud, to no one in particular: "you know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna take this bus driver to the club and find him all the feeemales–"
Dad: "Amen, bro!"
I've never had two more completely different strains of thought thrown at me simultaneously. Each continued as we came to the last stop–
Sweatshirt: "Why they treat us with no respect? Drivers gotta treat people wit' respect!"
Undeterred Necklace: "–and all they boyfriends gon' say whaaaat? And we got this skinny athletic good-lookin' young muthafucka…"
Sweatshirt: "I swear to God they got some stubborn fucked up individual bus drivers. They don't give a fuck about pedestrians–"
Necklace: "Hey bro, I 'unno why I wanna find you a girl so bad, bro,"
Sweatshirt: "They think cause they're gettin' paid to drive the bus, they think they're more powerful than people who ride th' bus!"
Necklace: "Lemme gi' you a handshake, man. I'ma find you some beautiful women, dogg."
The Dad, in helping his stroller to the curb, had tried to get a "hey, come on, man" in edgewise, in an effort to calm Mr. Grey Sweatshirt. Even keels seemed important to Dad, and I felt similarly, but I couldn't help but be in complete agreement with Sweatshirt's final line. It's something I tell new full-time bus driver classes: you are not better than the people you pick up. Out loud I said, "Exactly. We're all just the same, you know? We're all just the same."
"Exactly, we're human beings!"
"Thanks for the love, all you guys," I exclaimed. "You were the highlight. You guys were the highlight!"
The divergent paths of their tapestry were rejoining. This was the final stop and there was still much milling around. I noticed for the first time that Chain Necklace was carrying a frame of sorts. I said, "you got some art there?"
"Yup, I got art–"
"Tight. I do photography."
His eyes lighting up: "what? Bro!"
There are many reasons I write this blog. I'm concerned with positive interactions in realms known for negative ones, especially in a news culture that focuses on the negative. I'm enthused by the opportunity to speak frankly and from experience on race and class culture as I see it transpire in the street. There's the linguaphile in me. I like offering vignettes that customer service and public service employees might find of interest, and sharing the on-the-ground experience of the city for transit, urban planning, housing, and local government administrators.
But sometimes the most enjoyable aspect is just the chance to paint an honest window for those of my readers who don't spend large quantities of time in dangerous urban areas at night. It's an armchair view of a world that doesn't have armchairs, or as a friend once put characterized my writing, "highbrow treatment of what is normally considered lowbrow material." Except this material is true. How do these neighbors of ours share in the human experience? What do they say on their home turf, when the cameras and visitors are out of sight?
Chain Necklace enthusiastically withdrew a large pencil drawing, a portrait of a man's face in stark shades of black and white. We all joined in now, weaving together once again, a collective of voices continuing the night's collective tapestry:
"Dude, whoa! That's Bruce Lee, right?"
"Damn! Holy shit, you're a fuckin' artist!"
"That belongs in a museum, that's beautiful!"
"That's a money maker right there,"
"That's got drama to it…."
I stood there, smiling at the sight. Five young people at the corner of Fifth and Jackson, crowding excitedly around an art piece, offering their own version of a critique, buoying each other in spirit and brotherhood. It was an honor to take part, and a pleasure to share the energy and truth of it with you.
*I got down maybe half of their exchanges. It was coming on so fast and thick. Conversations involving more than one other person are rare on this blog, for the simple reason that it's that much harder to reconstruct the dialogue afterwards. This is about the limit of what I can recall.