Look at these authors. It's like the book award nomination all over again– what am I doing here? How did I manage to get in with this vaunted crowd?
Who knows. I sure don't. It's called the Holiday Bookfest, and it happens every year in the wonderful Phinney/Greenwood neighbourhood. They're a swell bunch, Phinney Books and related local companies, and they always get a killer lineup of authors.
This year, which marks the event's tenth anniversary, they've kindly included me, but come by for the others too– who wouldn't want to come listen to Garth Stein, Elizabeth George, Kevin O'Brien and all these other lauded bestsellers talking it up during a short, fun, free stretch of a Saturday afternoon?
Squeeze us authors into your day's other plans. It's conveniently timed from 3pm to 5; I'll be there until 4:43, as I've got plans of my own: driving a cute lil' metro bus into the wee hours (no time off for good behavior...). Stop in and ask me a bunch if bus questions. I love that stuff.
I'll be reading onstage at 3:30.
If you can't make this, don't fret– I've got a big one coming up on December 6, at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. That's gonna be huge, and if you only have time for one of these, go to that one. But, if you're in the Greenwood neighbourhood a couple Saturdays from now...
Nov 23rd, 3-5pm. I go on at 3:30. Details and directions here.
We've all been there. You're standing over here, and they're over there, not too far from you. It's a public space. They're screaming. You aren't. Maybe it's awkward, because there are only a few people around, or because for whatever similar reason you don't blend in. Or maybe it's crowded. They're usually not addressing you, and eye contact feels dicey. Perhaps they're getting arrested, or they're railing against the world as though no one can hear them, giving thundering voice to an anger you too have felt, though probably for different reasons.
Whatever the circumstances, the person yelling is almost always of a different class group, race, level of mental health or medication than you, the listener. It just seems to turn out that way. You have to reach a little (or a lot) to get around to grasping where this person's coming from, and sometimes it's impossible.
For myself, I have on more than one occasion been the witness to various black American men expressing their rage at feeling helpless. Most of the time it's a scene involving arrest, with handcuffs and batons and other such stark symbols of agency stifled. Other times it's between two folks fighting or a few, talking big, puffed-out with veins bulging, young people pretending they've never known fear, with no idea how better to express themselves or solve their travails.
When confronted with these scenes I find myself thinking about legacies. How for much of our nation's history, blacks were not allowed to buy homes, because that's a way of accumulating wealth and passing it on to your children.* How blacks were not allowed to learn to read, have access to the same schools, banks, or transportation, or all the other insidious ways an entire people has been handicapped in plain sight. These carefully manufactured designs toward suppression are the causes, and they're often hidden (as best as possible), but the final effect is crystallized in the rude and tragic poetry of one man's inarticulate roar.
"I'm supposed to have smarts, and stuff," a fellow told me years ago on the 13. I still think about that line. We were joking around about a whole host of topics, but he was dead serious for that brief sentence, and I remember the pause that hung in the air following his words. He knew there is supposed to be more, should be more that he can touch, and the reasons why have been kept from him... but he could sense it nonetheless. We have the capacity to imagine a better world, even if we have never seen it.
In a word, what I'm trying to say here is that angry yelling black guys tend to put me in a state of somber reflection. Go figure. I'm not sure what this says about me, and right now I'm not sure I care; my focus is on the fact that I've seen people deprived of agency and driven to incoherent displays of aggressiveness rather more than should be ideal.
Which is why I was taken aback when I comprehended the words this guy was yelling.
I was on my break at Rainier and Henderson, shoveling down kale salad with chopsticks and bent over Tolstoy's War and Peace (so good!). Across the street was football practice, the high school stadium's high-beam halogens and cries of victory and defeat illuminating the night. Parents and others stood about the fringes on either side of the fence. Somebody was calling out to another, a friend by the sound of it, and they must have been far apart in distance because this guy, who didn't exactly look like he was living easy, was hollering. Except his hollering was not the kind that makes me sad.
"I'M FORTY-EIGHT YEARS OLD AND WE AIN'T GOT THAT MUCH TIME LEFT ON THIS URF! LE'S BE CIVIL TO EACH OTHER AND ENJOOOOOY THA AIR WE BREATHE! THA'S WHY I DON'T SMOKE, THAT'S WHY I DON'T DRINK. YOU SNAP YO' FINGERS IT COULD ALL BE OVER LIKE THAT! LE'S BE GOOOD TO ONE ANOTHER, BRUH! PEACE AND LOVE, 2019!!!"
I wish I had caught the rest. It was beautiful, friend. Magical. He doesn't know how he inspired me so. Change can start one person at a time, one step at a time, simply in the act of being our best selves. When the chips are stacked against us there are still decisions to be made, choices, for which we nonetheless bear responsibility. Of course, it's not in my purview to critique the rage I describe above. Every response to being black in America is a valid response.
But this guy.
"She took life as it came, and made the best of it," reads a line I've forgotten the source of, but which I treasure. On this night, he was the example to follow. In the face of everything, all of it, it is a mistake to turn away from the generative and rejuvenating possibility of Joy. There is always joy. You might feel I'm not qualified to say so, and you would would be entitled to that perspective. But tonight I didn't say so.
*It's difficult to overstate the vastness of ramifications this has had. I'm referring both to the "whites only" housing rules pre-1968, as well as the subsequent rampant lack of enforcement of LBJ's otherwise well-intentioned Fair Housing Act. By now we all know the impact of withheld education; but housing discrimination fans out to all aspects life just as pervasively, reinforcing segregation on the commercial, industrial, and personal levels, affecting access to everything from schools to hospitals to nutritious food, zoning lines for voting, the ability to save, invest or inherit land, as well as the fallout ghettos have in their proximity to crime, disease, statistical tendency toward single parenting, limitations on public spending, a decreased tax base and so much more. In their now-legendary 1988 study, sociologists Nancy Danton and Douglas Massey argue, extremely persuasively, that the fundamental cause of poverty among African-Americans is residential segregation. Interested? Yes, there's a book about it.
What has it felt like, returning to the 7?
I stepped away from the chaos to focus on art and school. Those twin pursuits continue, but I'm back to where I most feel the immediate pulsing beat of life. It may not be a surprise that much of these first days back feel like welcoming parades, but that hardly detracts from the gratitude these happy people engender in me. How did they remember me, ask about me, register not merely my presence now but my absence then, as they went about their preoccupations? I'm just the bus driver. But here they are now, returning my well-being with a cavalcade of fistbumps, grins, upward nods. It's a reunion, and as ever, I couldn't be happier to be accepted by (okay, most of) the community. It isn't that they know me; it's that they share in the value of a positive outlook. What are they not getting when I'm away?
"You make it personal," said one when I asked. Or another from just last night, a man my age who took off his massive earphones as he came forward:
"How's it goin'?"
"Ah jus' wanna say thank you for doin' like you do. Not all the other bus drivers is like you."
I tried to deflect the compliment, as I always do. "Dude, thank you! For sayin' hey, and bein' cool!"
But he continued on as if he hadn't heard me, overwhelmed by the import of what he wanted to express: "Not all of them is nice like you. And it hurts, man. It hurts."
It was the tone of his hurts. He made the moment still, way past serious, and he reminded me how much a cruel gesture can ripple out into a person's psyche. I was reminded of the days when Paul Margolis, Paul Cook, Big Tony and myself all drove the night 7 together. We had such a blast. The folks were in good hands then. Great hands. I hope the same is still true now.
As for my own personal joy in doing the route, I can think of one moment that encapsulates it all. I've made it into the parking garage after a full night, jogging in, warming up my car now. You have no idea how exhausting bus driving is. Imagine taking an eight-hour road trip everyday.
The music in my car came alive– a CD of Vivaldi string concertos. I forget specifically which Vivaldi it was (possibly La Stravaganza for you aficionados), but you know his style– rich with melody, usually at an energetic tempo, and lots of violins. You've heard it even if you think haven't. I swear the villain in every Bond movie has a soirée where Spring from The Four Seasons is playing. Anyways.
Just then another operator drove past me in the parking garage, also playing music from his car– a rap artist I couldn't recognize, but Dre-like in its high-treble piano and deep, tight bass-line, melody flowing from the lower thumping frequencies. My body began smiling before my brain even knew why:
Both of our songs had the exact same beats per minute.
For a moment the whole world came together– centuries, oceans, races, concepts. Piano and bass beatbox sang in rhythm with a tight violin section, Vivaldi's intricate melodies supplemented by a snare and bass kick right where you'd put a beat. The similarities, not the differences, of human expression became highlighted; what we have in common, the night coming alive with a wordless reminder of the unity of the human experience. Some call it harmony; solidarity; brotherhood. All good words. But I call it what it is for me:
I walk out to the parking garage, or to the bus stop home as the case may be, feeling the sensations of the day as tactile, lived-in memories resolving in the act of heading homeward; a collective cacophony fading out into the night. It was the present moment, so recently, a thousand times over.
A baseball player hears the bat-crack echo of the game in the empty stillness following. I, too, hear the intensity of multitudinous present action receding, shaking itself off my form, as it must. Most nights I breathe a sigh of satisfied exhaustion, coming down off the high, searching for a gentle landing. A few evenings out of the year are spectacularly difficult, but those are not the norm.
The norm is me looking up at the vast indigo dome, thankful for whatever has taught me to be, well, so thankful. Years of habit-forming tendencies have me savoring the good moments, and they are always myriad:
My shoulders ache. I'm sweaty in my uniform, sticky with dirt on my trolley-driving hands, and my face in the base's bathroom mirror is sleepier than I feel; but I am here, and I feel deeply and truly good.
“How you doin’!” I exclaimed, immediately realizing that given this man’s appearance I sounded way too enthusiastic. I couldn’t help myself: I was clam-happy and dead serious interested. Haa ya doin!?? I hoped desperately that he was picking up on the genuineness of my inquiry. No sarcasm here, even if it probably– okay, definitely– sounded like it. Fortunately he was a mind-reader, this down-and-out, barrel-chested, bone-tired sleeper I hadn’t met before.
“Magnificent, I suppose,” he sighed in reply.
I tried to firm up my non-sarcasm by adding, “hangin' in there, I hope.”
“Trying to. I have a transfer. Would you like to see it?”
“No. But hey, do you want a fresh one, for ease of use?” Again, trying to emphasize that I really did care. These guys must get so much of the opposite.
“Yeah,” he said, nonplussed, then grateful. "Thank you. What's your name?” he asked in an amiable, fully enunciated rumble. An educated man.
“My name's Nathan.”
“What's your name?”
“Nice to meet you.”
“You know, they were best friends,” he said. “Nathan and David.”
“They were, back in the olden days! And here we are again, reborn!”
“Ha! Good to see you.”
He sat down and I carried on as I usually do, calling out the stops as though the automatic announcer had never been invented. It’s about the human touch. He must have felt it too, because he bellowed out, “Merry Christmas, Nathan.”
“You too, David.”
I called out the stops some more. This was during my 5 & 21 days. Eightieth, seventy-eighth, seventy-sixth, seventy-fourth…*
“How old are you, Nathan?”
“I’m 33, but I tell everyone I'm 17.”
“Ha! Well. Your public service is outstanding.”
“I try! Workin' with what I got! Thank you for your positive energy, man.”
“It's conscientious awareness.” Conscientious. It was the sort of word you read more often than say, and which makes you smile when you hear it aloud.
“Well, thank you,” I replied. “We need more o’ that.”
“Find yourself, feel yourself, love yourself. The edification of the soul.”
“You got that right! Man, David! Say it again!”
You know me, reader. You know that just then I was smiling in the dark, hanging onto his phrase, trying to hang on– don’t forget this one, Nathan. Why? Because the blog? For another book? Well sure, a little. But mostly because Life.
Because I always feel like I’m a student in this crazy racket, studying for an exam that will either never come, or that’s happening right here in the ever-present now. Learning how to be, scrambling about for clues as much in a philosophy text as in the castoff words of a street companion. Every (wo)man is my master, in that I may learn from him. I started writing things down out here because they were too beautiful, the thoughts people would share, the gestures and looks. Kernels of wisdom too precious to forget. They were, and are, the delicate and winsome grace of existence considered, something sublime just within reach.
These are the lines that make us.
*If you can get the stop spacing for the 5 on Greenwood to go to every 5 blocks instead of every 2, I’ll buy you a steak dinner. Metro’s tried to do it repeatedly, but there’s nothing doing. Apparently the folks out there must want shoddy service; stopping every 2 blocks over a 100-block distance (not an exaggeration) slows down the bus like you wouldn’t believe… not to mention decimates your right knee as an operator. I’d still be picking up shifts on that route otherwise.
After receiving an enormous amount of responses in a variety of places regarding the subject matter of a certain recent post, I wanted to add a few items I feel are worth concretizing in a follow-up entry.
1). The best outcome of all of this would be everyone's voice being heard and taken seriously. I've enjoyed hearing feedback from those who agree and those who disagree, and most of all from those who recognize the problem is thorny and complex, and that any viable solution would be best if it was actually a collection of solutions, all of which respected the variety of voices and interests involved.
2). I've said this elsewhere, but it bears repeating: my biggest role models are other compassionate bus drivers. I'm thinking particularly of certain of my female night operator colleagues who own their deescalation tactics with humble pride and ease of skill, and from whom I continue to learn from. I don't think it's a wild presumption to guess the reason my female friends tend to be better at this type of deescalation might have something to do with the avalanche of bull they have to tolerate in workplaces and elsewhere. Deescalation training, even if self-taught, gives you a lot less headaches in the long run than gettin' physical.
3). A tip, as my colleague and friend Abdi once reminded me: "You cannot act tough. If you act tough, they will act tough. And they've got nothing to lose. They don't care about going to jail, they have already been there many times. What could possibly go wrong for them? They don't have anything." You who are on the job, on the other hand, have a lot to lose. Gotta be clever– or as I like to call it, respectful. Loving. Endlessly patient.
4). What we're really talking about here is the mental health problem in Seattle. The Homelesness Crisis is really the Mental Health Crisis. If I'm being reductive in saying so, I'll hazard the supposition that the statement is more true than untrue. Third and James, Third and Pine, Second and Washington... these places are not scary because they have homeless people in them. They're scary because of the amount of mental instability.
And the Mental Health Crisis isn't Metro's problem. It's the city's.
Solving the question of safety on buses is an issue that risks a narrowness of perspective that'll result only in band-aid solutions. It isn't safety on buses that's at the root of things here. It's safety in the city at large. In public spaces. The southeast corner of Third and Pine and southwest corner of Third and Pike are what the City of Seattle allows to continue every day. The condition of Seattle's citizens there and elsewhere must be considered, on some level, as condoned by the city. Appropriate enough to allow to continue.
It's a decision noticed on the world stage, as the positioning of the Market and Westlake dictate that nearly all our tourists walk through there. This is how this city treats its population. Luxury housing, cranes, and... this. Now that's a problem to look at, and any entity pressuring Metro to do something about it, rather than the city or another cash-flush operation in a position of power (cough Amazon cough) ought to be ashamed of their misdirection.
Homelessness isn't a bus driver's problem to solve, but the city doesn't have the resources to fix it right now, and thus we operators end up shouldering that unanswered load by carting around sleepers every night. Seattle's not housing these guys, so we'll do it in the meantime. That's what I remind myself. It's what has to work for now. But Metro shouldn't be looked to as the entity to blame on these issues. I'm not qualified to offer solutions, but ramping up into a barricaded police state isn't the answer, and nor is bumping everyone down to the next block.
Thanks for reading!
Thank you, lovelies, for coming out to these things. It moves me in ways I hope I intimate in my overly excited hugs and handshakes. To be a finalist in this year’s book awards still carries the aura of impossibility.
Sitting there giggling during the group photo; feeling loved by the small ocean of friends who surrounded me in the bleachers; reflecting on how I’m nominated in the same category as friggin’ Charles R Johnson… no, I didn’t win the top award, but, well, neither did he, and you don’t hear him complaining about it. Personally, I’m still trying to figure out how I actually got nominated in the first place!
I couldn't be more honoured to stand in the company of such a vastly talented group of finalists and winners, and no matter how many accolades come my way I’ve got a sneaky feeling I'm always going to feel like an ugly duckling crashing the party. Can we help who we are? I’m pretty sure I’ll always feel most at home taking the S-curves on Rainier at Brandon, or sitting in the back of the 358 talking to somebody about where to buy the best flowers. But before heading back out into that world, you bet I had a blast with you all who were there, eating those fancy cupcakes and clicking our dress shoes.
Meanwhile, we've got a few exciting items lined up if you weren't able to make this event. There's more besides these in the works (like that film screening! Give me time!), but in terms of what's been nailed down thus far:
A middle-aged man dressed in working class exhausted, baseball cap and fishing rod and dirty tee shirt, sat up front watching me drive. We were headed north on Broadway. After a while he piped up.
"Does this turn into the 7?"
"Goin' the other way, yeah. I just came up from Rainier Beach."
"Aw yeah." He looked out the window for a spell before saying, "they get a little rough out there."
"Sometimes. I like it though. It's good people everywhere."
"I ain't been out that way in a while."
"Yeah it's changing even down there. Columbia City–"
"Once you get down past Othello though. It get kinda rough. 'Specially after a certain hour, mang, those folks be kinda tough."
"Yeah, you kinda gotta know somebody."
He replied, in a tone of mock proclamation: "If you don't have no ghetto pass... It'a be yo ass!"
I laughed. "Ha! You got that right!"
"Right about now, 8:45, when them streetlights starts comin' on, that's when I go home! Remember how like you're momma said, when them streetlights come on, iss time to go back inside?"
My world is the world of the streetlights. Someone's got to be out there for the people who have to be, and if doing so makes me as happy as it does, well, I feel lucky.
He's right, there are some tough characters. It may not come across as such on the blog every time, because I tend not to describe them that way. But some of these folks are the guys you cross the street for, not because they're black (or white), but because there's a look in their eye you're smart enough to figure out.
It isn't supposed to involve you.
They're the guys I hear other passengers complain about nervously after they get off, because they managed to avoid a fight.
The fact of those men recognizing and responding to my acknowledgment, my respect, reveals something I find humanizing: They value kindness too. Because there is no They. Don't you value kindness, enjoy the sensation of being respected?
To all of you "rough characters," what I have to say is: thank you. For appreciating compassion. For valuing generosity of spirit (let's call that what it is– love) to the point that it qualifies me for a "ghetto pass."
Because I don't have anything else.
Cowboys of the New Age: Status & Respect in the American Ghetto
"Everybody Need to Quit Acting Hard and S**t"
Nathanbabble: III of III
Respect, Currency of the Street (from my book!)
The Great and Terrible Fifth & Jackson: An Ethnography
High-wire, Lowbrow Explosions
Let's be honest. I'm not actually expecting this thing to win. I'm not in some small local debut author category. I'm in the Non-Fiction category, going up against Pulitzer Prize winners and NYT bestsellers. For a scrappy underdog book like this one, the nomination is the win. I'm just excited to be considered in the same breath as my fabulous fellow nominees.
This isn't a competition, but a celebration– of writing, of local authors, of bookstores and libraries, and of a book that never fit easily into one category, that wasn't trusted as viable or believed in by big publishers, and which succeeded anyway. It's been a bestseller at Elliott Bay for an entire year (!!!), and we continue to have exciting projects and events pertaining to it coming up.
Basically– the book lives, and that's thanks to you. Stop by this Saturday, 7pm at Seattle Central Library and celebrate. I'll be there for a reception afterwards. Details, directions and more here.
For now, check out the following if you haven't already!