All of this happened two days ago, on Friday. I'm taking over the bus from another driver (a "road relief") midway through the route, inbound at 5th & Jackson. As I walk over and wait for the bus to come, I recognize Wheely-Popping Wheelchair Dude, who says "Hey, Driver!" I excitedly respond, glad to see him- he's always very alive, very present. He'll pop his wheelchair over a curb even though there's a ramp two feet away. He's the guy with the colorful backpack and backwards hat. An older man of ambiguous heritage and more than one missing tooth smiles at me, saying "Hey Bus Driver, good to see you!" An Arab woman with sparkling eyes flashes a smile as she walks past. I recognize a notorious fare evader/extremely friendly guy standing around with his friends. I greet him loudly and we shake hands; then my 7 pulls up, and Bill, the driver, is glad to see me and ready to go home.
Some drivers take their time getting situated, and that's okay. I don't. I adjust the mirrors- you've gotta set the mirrors- and then I get outta there. Everything else- seat adjustment, logging in to the radio, adjusting the steering wheel, emptying the trash bag, setting up the farebox- that can all wait. We've got places to go!
As I pull forward to get on the right-turn wire on Jackson, I glance in the rear-view mirror at the passengers. I like to look up there and see who's in the house. My attention is drawn there because there's a lanky, excited blue-gray-brown shape hovering in the middle of the bus, waving at me with a toothy, genuine smile. I light up with recognition and yell out, "CALVIN!"
The great Calvin from Michigan lopes up to the front. He was one of the good people at Real Change (Seattle's best newspaper), and always has a dapper outfit and a positive attitude. Two summers ago you could find him at the intersection of 4th & Virginia (NW corner), but he's since moved onward and upward. We start chatting about the sunshine, and he can't stop himself from mentioning his enthusiasm over all the beautiful women that emerge in the summer, and I can't stop myself from agreeing. "The sun comes out and the clothes come off," he intones, and a challenge thus presents itself. We're on a bus filled with people; this conversation needs to stay Grandmother-friendly. The 7 has pretty relaxed standards as to what's considered Grandmother-friendly, but I strive for some sense of decorum. I'm thinking about how to steer this conversation when he says, "I was in LA once, in a fashion store, I overhear these two girls talkin.' One of 'em says, 'how much did those cost?' The other one goes, only $4,000, I got a deal!' The she says, 'no way, lemme see 'em!' And she lifts up her shirt right there in the store in broad daylight!' You believe that?"
I say, "unbelievable," and glance up in the mirror at an older Vietnamese woman. I can see it's not her favorite conversation to listen to. What does one do in a situation like this? Do you antagonize Calvin by telling him to stop talking about breast implants? No. He's a nice guy, after all. You find common ground with them, is what you do. "Put me in a room with anyone for 30 minutes," Barack Obama told Charilie Rose in 2008, and I bet I can find some kind common ground that we can both agree on." I aspire for something similar. Recently in Madrona on an early-morning 2, a loud, expressive gentlemen defied the silence on the bus as he bellowed his dislike for Seattle and all of its "man-loving-man sissies who don't know how to box for money like they teach you in Acapulco." How do you find common ground with such an individual? One feels around for it, gently and confidently. You might ask what I have in common with a swarthy, bigoted fellow who drinks at 6 in the morning. Frankly, I was curious myself. As it turns out, both of us think it's great that in rural Wisconsin, you can raise your own turkeys and buy cheese at a discounted rate.
Back to Calvin on the 7, who now says, "But I'm not into that, man. I like 'em natural."
Me: "Exactly. That's the great thing about Seattle. People be talkin' about all those California girls,"
Calvin: "Oh, forget about it!"
"'Cause it ain't about the exterior-"
"Exactly. I'd rather have an ugly girlfriend,"
"'Cause then you can talk to them,"
"'Cause then you got somebody to talk to, exactly."
"All this focus on the surface-"
"Doesn't mean anything-"
Calvin, more to himself than anyone else- "You know- yeah, man! I'd rather have an ugly girlfriend!"
Calvin gets off at Prefontaine. I'm genuinely excited to see him, and wish him well. Somebody standing outside at the bus stop yells, "best bus driver ever!" Then I start chatting with the Vietnamese woman, who is Tjang- she's very excited to see me ("You are here now!"), because she remembers riding my bus back in 2009. I had recognized her instantly when she got on the bus on Jackson. In '09 her son was in high school, but now he's in college; today she's just getting off of work, and is looking forward to a chance to rest. We start talking about Vietnam, and she tells me of a white friend of hers who moved over there and fell in love with the country. I mention my recent escapades in China, and she asks, "why did you go over there?" I say, "for fun!" She erupts in a burst of laughter I didn't think could come from her small body. We shake hands as she gets off, and she looks forward to our next ride.
Even though the 7 comes every 10 minutes all day, when I go through town at 4pm, I feel like I'm the only bus that's been through there in ages. It's standing room only through Chinatown and Vietnamtown, and doesn't let up until we're deep in the Valley. It's a pleasure to look in the mirror downtown; passengers getting on the back door will sometimes glance up to see who the driver is, and as they recognize me you sense a smile of relief, as in, "oh, it's that dude. I can relax now." I notice a tall, sullen man in a heavy jean jacket with an angry expression who comes up to me around Walden Street, showing me his crumpled transfer. "This thing's expired," he says. I say, "d'you wanna do a trade? Let's do a trade," and I give him a new transfer. What strikes me is that he took the time to admit that he didn't have the right fare. He face brightens- at being acknowledged, silently amused at the novelty of trading transfers.
Colors and noise, rustling clothing, multilingual chatter- the sound of everything happening at once:
On Third Avenue I inadvertently cut off a route 5, in my attempt to get around a car who's illegally driving on 3rd. "I'm sure that 5 is thrilled that I just cut him off," I say to the guy next to me. On a whim I wait for him to pull up beside me at the next red light and I open my window and apologize to him. He's surprised that I said anything, and he understands. I like apologizing for stuff like that. That sensation of filling out the contours of all that's possible.
Southbound at Dearborn, one can often find a man dressed in black rags standing on the corner. At red lights he'll amble amongst the stopped cars, smiling and holding up his cardboard sign. Strong facial features and matted hair. He and I have a special wave: two short fistpounds to one's solar plexus, followed by a Dr. Strangelove-like stretched-arm salute. Once I opened my doors to say hi to him at a red, and he started talking as if we'd been friends for years- "I was in the hospital all night last night!" Anyways, today he's facing the other way as I drive past. I honk gently to get his attention, he turns quickly and sees me, both of us making big faces of mock surprise and shooting our arms into the air. He's out of sight now, but you know he's smiling.
At Letitia a gregarious basketball-player-looking character steps off. He always seems to know everybody. He'll get on the bus, plunk down somewhere in the middle, and a minute later be laughing with a couple passengers. People know each other out here. Once he stepped out of a Lexus sedan right in front of me and ran onto my bus. "From the Lexus to the 7," I quipped. A big grin as he said back, "from the rich house to the po' house!" I say, "hey, best of both worlds!" Today he says, "you're awesome, man. You always be in a good mood." "I try!" "I'm'a put in a good word for you. Ain't nobody gonna give you no trouble out here!"
I help a young mother with her stroller, lifting it down the steps onto the sidewalk with her. A Somalian fellow gets off carrying a CPU under his arm. "Don't drop the computer!" I say, and he laughs, strolling into the evening. A tall Caucasian man, his skin and faded tattoos tanned from years of outdoor work, recognizes me in the mirror. I say "hey man!" as he comes up to leave, and upon my asking about his day, he tells me he's about to have a son. "I got three girls but this'll be the first boy," he says with an excitement that's palpable. Two guys from Turkmenistan express their delight at what a great experience they've had with the bus here, how helpful everyone is. I bring up mid-19th century Central Asian textiles- there's an exhibit at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. They're interested, but they're more interested in making it to the Rangers game. I see a passenger who's already ridden my bus twice today- first, at 05:00 this morning, and again around 5pm, and here we are again, at 6:30! We laugh about it. "I expect to see you again!"
A close-cropped haircut and sharp sunglasses contrast with sagging blue denims and an oversized plain white tee; here is a man who straddles both worlds. His silver necklace dangles next to me as he stands at the front with his friend, about to get off; he's showing me his handful of bills. We leaf through his entire stack, and like our friend in the first post, he's only got massive denominations totally inappropriate for a quick bus ride. I say, "should we put it on the tab? Yeah, let's put it on the tab," and his smile sends a message stronger than any spoken word. He's bursting with happiness, not because he got a free ride, but because of the acknowledgement. I hear him saying to his friend as they walk away, "See, I like this guy! I like this guy!" The lines of race and class and judgment, flitting into nothingness for a short time. Possibilities. Sometimes it feels like a make-believe world, too good to be true. Meanwhile a woman laughs and says to me, "did you just say 'let's put it on the tab??" Laughter, echoing off the walls.
A man with a trash bag of aluminum cans and scrap metal runs for the bus at Charles Street; he'd gotten to the metal recycling place after they've closed for the day, and I steer his frustration away by chatting with him about the various metals they take, and which are easiest to find. "You could make some serious bills movin' them junk cars," he notes. "You see them signs sayin' we buy your junk cars for $200, $300, then you haul that thing out to West Seattle, where you get maybe five, six bills." "Pure profit." "You got that right." "You responsible for haulin' it out there with your own means?" "Yeah, all's you gotta have is a friend with a flatbed, or a hook on the end of their pickup...."
I get to the end of the route, do some exercises, and whip out my copy of Anna Karenina; there's enough time to get a few pages in. I'm standing by the farebox (I try to never sit during breaks- I do enough of that during the route) with the door open, parked right there at Saar's market on Henderson Street. A high-school age girl with an nice-looking braid is strolling by with a preschool-age girl holding her hand; Braid Girl sees me and says, "hey!" I step out onto the sidewalk. I'd seen her on the bus around there once before; I remember complementing her hair. She hesitates and then walks forward, saying, "hey. I jus' wanna say, I know this is not a safe neighborhood, and I wanna say thank you for bein' out here, and being so nice to everybody. It means a lot to people. I love you and thank you." We shake hands. She is Tanisha. I'm trying to remember the last time someone of that age was so emotionally open and truthful with a stranger, as I tell her that I grew up riding the 7, that it's one of my favorite routes, that I genuinely enjoy being out here with all the good people. Those were the words I used, but I hope the fact that I meant them got across. One of those moments where you're driving away afterwards, replaying the incident, living in it just a little longer as the moment hangs in the air. Wondering if you said it right, if you could've said less or more.
It's almost 8pm, time for my last trip into town. Anna Karenina goes back in the backpack, and the shadows become longer. If the 7 during the day is an acquired taste, the 7 at night is even more so. Around this time the gargoyles begin to stir, and the standards of what is Grandmother-friendly go flying right out the window. I chose to get trained on the route at 01:00 in the morning- "I want the worst experience possible," I told the driver. What do you do? The exact same thing you always do. Stay present, and remind yourself, all these people are your friends. Anything else introduces a contradiction of terms.
Rainier and Seward Park Avenue. She steps on with a vibrant smile and a collared shirt that says "Pacific Medical Center." I've never seen her before, and can't place her age either. She might be 35, but she might also be 20. It's the smile that registers, and deep, present brown eyes. I ask her about Pac Med, where she enjoys working, though "it's not gonna be my retirement job, let's just put it that way!" We start talking about what her ultimate field of study is, and the notion of identifying one's passion, of having a lot of energy and not knowing where to direct it. Another lady joins in, describing her love of sculpture and physical therapy. This lady is on her way to Swedish tonight, late 40s perhaps, a frail but lively presence in a breezy summer dress. She's feeling poorly but even on this, an off-day for her, you sense the vitality that's there, a face drawn with lines from years of smiling. She marvels at me, basking in the glow of warmth the three of us have built.
I've been awake since 3:36am, but I'm excited. Maybe it was Tanisha and her comments, or maybe it's Pac-Med girl's (let's call her by her name, Gabrielle) rich, perceptive presence, or maybe it's the coalescing of all the beautiful moments that have happened today, but I feel particularly happy to be here, and it rubs off on everybody.
Gabrielle is visibly blown away by my interaction with the people. "Just watching you with everybody, I am, well, awestruck...I mean, this energy that you have-" I try to hang on to her words through the breeze and zing of the electric wire. What excited her most was that the outpouring of excited goodwill was directed at every (very different) person equally, which lead her to believe that I wasn't merely responding to each person's attitude, but generating the energy from within myself. Who can say if it's true; I certainly hope that was the case. For a time she just sits back and took it all in, with an expression one reserves for watching either natural disasters that defy description, or...this.
A girl, all made up to go out, at Fisher Place, noticing that I had forgotten to change the transfers to all-nighters for this trip- "I need one a those Owls!" "That's right, I forgot! Here's let's get you one of these. It is Friday night after all!" "Yeah man, I wanna go party!" Two hairy guys with open shirts and deep voices- "Guys be safe tonight-" "thanks man, you too;" A slick gent with sunglasses giving me a fistpound as he steps on: "You mus' be the youngest bus driver I ever seen!" I throw my hands in the air and say, "I believe it!" "Tha's a good thing," he smiles back, and we yell out goodbyes as he later exits out the back doors. An older east Asian man recognizes me and offers no English but a huge smile and wave, as he always does; a Middle-Eastern fellow, happy to see me as he says, "I been on your bus before!" Chatting with Gray-skinned Wheelchair Guy at Andover, who chooses to take my bus even though it's lightly less convenient for him; helping an older Muslim woman with her bags of groceries down the steps. "This looks pretty good," I say, handing her a gallon of milk.
At Bayview Street a girl waiting for another bus returns a wave; she smiles wide, exposing braces. I tell the amazed Gabrielle that it's partly thanks to her that any of this is happening. "It goes both ways, this positive energy. People building off of each other. It's because everyone is so receptive out here-" slowing down for that left turn onto Jackson- "that I'm able to have a good time. You put yourself all the way out there, and out here, you get a lot back." I'm reminded of another driver who told me once, "when you get into a neighborhood that's not affluent, and you smile at people, they love it- once they get over the shock of it. Because nobody does that."
Sometimes, that's what a day on the 7 is like.