"Don't you ever have bad days?"
This is going to be a long one. Refill that coffee and lean back a little in your chair. It's time to procrastinate.
I think we can agree that the holidays bring out the worst in people. What I didn't know was boy, does Mother's Day ever take the cake. Each year I seem to have a couple of very rough bus-driving days, and this past Mother's Day was one of them. You'd think it was the first of the month, the amount of violence and alcohol flowing on these streets. Summer is on its way to Rainier Valley.
I'm often asked how I handle negative situations. I approach them as I do positive interactions– by treating people like human beings. I resist writing about such incidents for a variety of reasons I stand strongly by: to recount something is often to memorialize it; negative events are overreported, causing to an incorrect view of the state of the world I don't wish to contribute to; positive events usually go uncelebrated; and, for my own sanity, to retell an unpleasant story more firmly entrenches it in my mind, which I wish to avoid. I want to hang onto every little the positive thing, and let the negative moments slip through me like a sieve.
Having said all that, I can see the value in sharing ways of going about such circumstances. Enough people have asked me about it, certainly. In other words, I'll bite!
Things start off with a bang. I haven't been on shift for an hour when a young woman approaches me. Quietly, she explains she feels unsafe because she was recently beaten– twice– by two other passengers. The two attackers in question are on the bus right now, and they haven't noticed her yet. The last two times she was on a bus that also had these two individuals, she, a quiet, mild-mannered Asian student, was attacked. Can I call the police? I'd be happy to.
That's harder than it seems, however. A very hefty drunk fellow, for whom the word swarthy was invented, approaches and loudly berates me for not driving, making my conversation with the coordinator impossible. I politely but firmly ask him to sit while I resolve an issue. The coordinator, on the radio, is confused by my silence and needs descriptions of the attackers so he can forward useful information to the sheriff's office… but the young lady won't give me descriptions of the attackers. That's because they're standing right behind her.
So now you have a coordinator who has know idea why you're not cooperating, a swarthy swarth-meister with no idea why you're "not doing your job," as he yells it, and a woman fearful for her safety because people who have beaten her to a pulp are standing behind her, about to recognize her, asking you what's going on. Meanwhile the young lady is wondering why you, the authority figure, aren't doing more.
There are not too many chess moves out of this one.
I stall for time, with both doors open. I don't yet know who the attackers are; only later will she tell me they were right behind her. All I know is two of the passengers are dangerous, and thus I'm suspicious of everyone– perhaps the worst frame of mind you could ask for! As I continue stalling they exit the bus, and the young lady is finally able to explain who they were. Let's take a moment to dispel some stereotypes and point out that the attackers were not black males in their twenties, as I so often hear on the SPD calls. Quite the opposite. I'll simply say that women can be very cruel to each other.
It's nice that the attackers are gone, but Swarthy remains in the vicinity, and he's still angry. He reappears, showing me his driver's license, braying about how he knows how to do my job better than I do. He has places to go, he says. Appointments. "I wasn't calling the cops on you," I say, congenially. "You're fine. It was someone else." On the mic I thank the riders for their patience while we "handled a security issue; nothing's wrong, everything's right. Thanks for waiting around with me!"
Swarthy may have had appointments, but when we arrive downtown he makes time in his schedule to block the doorway/farebox area and stare balefully at me, his huge, sweaty face inches away from mine. This persists for a while. His eyes are dead and flat, expressionless as a Polykleitos statue. What do you do?
Don't receive that energy. Just keep churning out your own, with confidence. I monologue out to the motionless face. "Thanks, man. How's it goin? 'Ppreciate you workin' with me back there. Hope it's a good rest o' the day. You steppin' out here?"
Finally he leaves, crashing into the wheelwell and bumping into the doors on his way down, stuttering for balance.
All this has led to our being twelve minutes late. The next 49 is right behind us at the zone, and because of this I leave two runners, gesturing to the latter 49. "What an asshole," two riders watching me say to each other. By way of explanation I announce, "folks, if you want more room there's another 49 right behind us. Thanks for your patience…."
"What a woman wants from a man, a black man can provide." So says a fellow seated two rows back, leering in the face of a mother and her elementary-age daughter. They're holding Indian food to go, no doubt taking it home for a feast in celebration of the holiday. The mother looks very, very uncomfortable.
"Psshhhhh," a white man says in response.
"What are you laughin' at?"
"I'm laughin' at you."
They start getting into it. The second man explains his position respectfully, and the first considers whether to take it personally.
I butt in with, "How's it goin', you guys?"
"Good fine," says the self-identified black man.
"We're not botherin' none of the other customers now, are we?"
"Why don't you ask 'em?"
"This gentlemen bothering anyone here?"
Someone says, "yeah!"
"Well then I guess it's time to step out!"
"I'm just goin' two blocks. One stop."
I've heard that one before. "You're goin' two blocks, one stop?"
I decide not to insist. Let's let it play. It's not yet a safety issue, and plus this white guy is doing a terrific job of distracting the black guy from making advances on the Indian mother and child. There's also the small chance that he's actually only going two blocks, one stop.
It ends up being just five blocks, two stops. Not bad. He stalks up, with a drugged-out female companion in tow. She has a black eye and missing teeth, but she still grins as I bid them farewell. What should I say to them? Some kind of stern chastising father routine? Judgmental silent treatment? No, let's rather try to encourage their better angels.
"Hey thanks guys," I say companionably. "Have a good one."
"You got good hair," he says.
"Naw, man, I'm just trying to be like you!"
He chuckles amiably.
I appreciate the white fellow speaking up for himself, and tell him so as he leaves. It isn't only the rude who have freedom of speech, as I like to say.
A man brings up a lost wallet from the back. "Someone is gonna love you," I tell him. "You're a gentleman!"
The coordinator contacts me later on, informing me that the owner of that wallet is on a bus approaching my route, but he'll get there three minutes after I'm scheduled to pass by. "I can't make you do this," the coordinator asks me, "but this guy would really like his wallet back before he goes to work tomorrow…" Is there any way I'd be willing to drag my feet as we approach Broadway and Pine, so he can jump off the other bus and grab his wallet?
Of course, I reply. What a pleasingly old-fashioned and personal solution. This is the 7/49, busiest route in the system, and we're going to become three minutes late anyway. While waiting for what ends up being a successful wallet return– the owner was positively thrilled– I hear a freeloader mumbling, "waitin fo da driva drive this muhfuggah. Somebody gon' drive dis bus tonight, or what?"
After we're on our way, he comes forward, and we begin the Knife's-Edge Dance. The Knife's-Edge Dance is when you're talking to someone who's angry and intoxicated or otherwise under the influence, and who, upon hearing one misstep of a phrase or tone, will make things very ugly. The written version of the following exchange does not convey the level of implied menace this man possessed.
I start things off before he can get a word in edgewise: "Hey, how ya doin', man? You're jacket's lookin' sharp, good stuff."
"Makin' me wanna dress up! I'm feelin' a little underdressed!"
"Aw naw, hey now. You my buddy."
"Good to see you again!" I say. I've never seen this guy before.
"You a good ass dude, nigga," he continues. "Listen, anybody give you trouble, I'ma beat their fuckin' asses, okay?"
"Man, that's real nice a you, but, uh,"
"Tear apart anybody try to give you hard time."
"Well, hopefully we won't hafta go there."
"Oh, I go there. I ain't scared! Sheeeeyit."
"Oh I know, I appreciate you bein' a gentlemen, offerin' to help out the situation."
"You know I got choo. I beat anybody's fuggin ass." Turning to the crowd, he opines, "you guys heard what I said? Don't be playin' no radio, disturbin' the driva. Let him drive!"
"Who you talkin' to?" a voice asks.
"I'm talkin' anyone that's listenin'. I beat their asses. I beat his ass, I beat his–"
"Hey, I appreciate you," I say, "but these folks are all right. We got good people on the bus tonight. We got good folks on this bus."
"Yeah, I'm feelin good about this house. We got a nice crowd."
"Listen to the man speak! He say we got a good crowd, got good people tonight!"
"Yeah, we don't need to bother them."
"Man, how old are you anyway?"
Ah, back on familiar turf. "Oh, you know I'm too young to be out here!"
This works well. I keep riffing as he guffaws in approval, periodically keeping his balance. "I thought maybe somebody needed a ride, I stopped by goodwill get the uniform, found an empty bus somewhere… just don't tell anyone I'm out here!"
"Hey, you're a good man. I gotcher back. Anybody tries to fuck with you, listen. I take 'em down."
"I don't think we need to do that tonight though, dude."
"Yeah, we don't wanna call the big police out here. Don't need to start any kinda drama." Friendly tone.
"I don't care."
"I haven't had to call the cops at all today." That's not true. "We don't want them around, they take too long." That is true.
"I don't care who's around, I'll beat their asses. Cops or no cops."
"Where you steppin' out tonight?"
"I'm feenin' to get off the bus." Shortly thereafter he specifies a point, in between zones. "Lemme get off the bus."
"Steppin out right here?"
I'm only too happy to do so. Some rules were made to be broken.
The night is not over! An unhappy woman boards with cake. In an effort to bring up her mood, I say, "that cake looks pretty good."
"No it doesn't," she replies. She feels it's too plain. I gently argue in the name of simplicity. There's a spot in the world for minimalist cake, isn't there? Next to her are a box of paper towels and a huge, heavy garbage bag I'd helped her bring on board. I'm pretty sure it weighed more than I do.
A older man steps in, saying in a Latino accent, "hey, haven't seen you in long time!"
Now this person I do recognize. "Nice to see you again!"
The woman's garbage bag ruptures, and the Latino gent jumps in to assist. They struggle with the bag for a while. Things roll everywhere.
"These kitchen bags," he says, shaking his head, opening the bag to put a spilled item back inside.
"What the fuck are you doing?"
"I'm helping you."
"What would you have done if that was my purse?"
"I'm trying to, the bag was falling apart,"
"Would you have opened up my,"
"I'm helping you, lady. You're supposed to say thank you."
"No, I'm supposed to do exactly what I'm doing, which is inquire what the hell you're doing!"
Forget the lunar calendar. Mother's Day is the new Full Moon! "I think he's trying to help," I say loudly.
"Yeah, he's just trying to be helpful. I saw what happened."
"I don't care!"
"Okay, what we're gonna do is we're gonna leave it in the past, it's already happened, so we're gonna move right on past it, and forget about it. And just leave it where it is."
As the older man leaves, I quietly tell him, "thank you for being helpful, you're a good man. It's good to see you."
"Oh it's no problem. Good to see you too."
We make gestures to each other, hands and elbows questioning in the air, a couple of rolled eyes, palms together in prayerful thanks, and somehow it all makes sense in the moment.
"You know what," begins the lady, but I'm already announcing the next stop. This gives her time to breathe, and she decides to remain silent.
We cruise past Dick's, and a fight is spilling out onto the street. Blows hitting flesh sound different in real life than in films. The men's screams echo in the evening twilight, as the last shade of yellow disappears from the western horizon.
I nod at a young man staggering on with an open container at Letitia.
"Hey. Can you leave the beer outside?"
He pauses, thinking about it. "Okay. Is it okay if I throw it?"
"Sure, yeah." He lobs it into the night sky. It misses the moon, landing near the fish'n'chips place.
"Thanks man, you're a good dude. I appreciate you." Hand on my heart.
He smiles, walks to the back, pulls another can out of his jacket, and opens it.
The challenge is not to see all this as a trend, but for what it is: a series of isolated incidents. The guy with the beer cans is utterly inconsequential, and would normally barely register on my radar, but the day seemed to be begging for a negative worldview. That's why it was a Rough Day, though no blood was spilt and no lives were lost (I didn't say it was a Bad Day!).
Rough Days do their best to insinuate their ideas under your skin, blackening your thoughts before you can realize it. The trick is to remember that each bus stop, each person, is utterly unconnected from the previous; if something awful happens at Columbia, I need to completely separate it from the nice people now boarding at Seneca. Mr. Beer Cans is not the last straw, but a straw, and straws are small, far too small to lose sleep over.
What does give me pause is that there was one connecting through-line in all these events: me. I recently told a part-to-full time class of drivers a line I've heard, which I like: "if you meet a lot of assholes in one day, it might be you that's the asshole!" I'd like to believe I wasn't giving out negative or judgmental vibes, but perhaps I was. My personal life has lately been severely crunched for time; was I letting my impatience out in ways I didn't realize? Such things make a difference. The amount of festering angry energy on my bus was so concentrated it bordered on parody, and by the end of the day I couldn't help but laugh.
My strategy, when a negative event occurs, is to spend only the remainder of the trip thinking about it. How did my actions cause or affect the event? How will I handle it the next time it happens? Why did it bother me? Because, whatever it was, it will certainly happen again. Once I've processed those factors, I try to set the whole thing aside. I have not mastered this. However, I was recently telling a friend that several unpleasant things had taken place on a recent Saturday, but, to my delight, I couldn't remember what they were! Now that's what I'm aiming for!
Forgetfulness of a certain stripe is coming back in style.