Details and directions here.
Just a reminder that YOU, dear reader, are invited to my latest show in Georgetown! Did you miss the opening last month? Did you miss the other Georgetown show earlier this year, or the Blindfold show? No biggie! That's what this show is for! Come on down, and we'll chat up a storm! See you Thursday!
Details and directions here.
I pull up to the Third and Pine island stop, outside McDonalds. We're in the vortex, the nerve center. Every major city has an intersection like this, but few are as colorfully and ferociously egalitarian. Class and status groups rub shoulders an onion-skin hairsbreadth from each other, a melting pot bubbling high, just this side of boiling over.... You feel as if the intersection is so stuffed with humanity it can hardly contain all it carries on its stage. The scattered crowds jaywalk with aplomb, and somehow this is oddly appropriate: isn't this after all the human organism unrestrained, unfettered, a swimming morass of stories and lives, and how could all that be held back by something as artless as a colored light?
You have the commuters, dressed for the office, the market, or outdoor labor, adding a sense of purpose to the undulating horde. Tourists alongside amble and sashay, stargazing in their fanny packs and visors, short-sleeved eddies in a stream of locals. Canvassers fight to get a word in edgewise, using friendliness or guilt; thumpers and witnesses vie for attention, preaching their brand of judgment. Figures on the ground all the while, with scraps and guarded eyes, they were like you once.
The police presence highlights the more explicitly nefarious chicanery, but happening simultaneously are more discreet shenanigans– look for the high-class call girls, once an hour or every two hours, passing through the crowd to that elegant side doorway you've never noticed before, each time with a new client.
Right over here, where we are, is the infamous southeast corner. It's a 24-hour institution, the fellows who hang around. Some aren't even interested in drugs, but ah yes, some so definitely are. Supplies and demand wax and wane continuously all day, with various illegal goods and services becoming available at different times. The hoodlums, dealers, dopers, users, laggers, burnouts, hopheads, pushers, Sampsons, cookers, daddies, fences, hangers-on; aspiring deliquents with their heads in the clouds, people doing things in the shadowy recesses I've never even thought of. Faces in the dark like Francis Bacon. You're reminded of the diabolical corners of a Bosch or a Gustave Dore.
Some call Third and Pine the Blade; others the Hive; or simply McDonalds, giving that innocuous company name completely new meaning. I call it the Center of the Universe. That there aren't serious crimes happening constantly here is a testament to all the people. The Scientologists are more likely to interrupt your day than the hardened– and usually fairly distracted– folks at the corner.
Then there are the homeless and low-income, not to be confused with the buyers and sellers. If those were the will-nots, these are the have-nots, and though they might be indistinguishable visually, or may once have very well been the same, their aims couldn't be more opposed. The grammar of these lives is different. Let us not prejudge these folks trying to get a leg up in life, rushing for buses to appointments and interviews, meeting their case managers, their minds trafficking in the whirlwind blur of waiting lists, shelters, social service calls, deadlines and dwindling dollar amounts, work release programs.... Their hustle is the harder one, with higher stakes.
Tonight a boisterous group of African-American men is in the island stop shelter, huddled around playing dice, their culture's answer to a cluster of old Chinese surrounding a game of Mahjong. I tap the horn and one steps out of the road and back on to the sidewalk, consumed in the game. Another steps onboard, still enthralled, yelling through the windows, "That ain't money! Those are coins! Are you serious?"
I'm pulling slowly forward, preparing for the famous left turn on Third. This has to be done at a snail's pace. I love it. The bus in slow motion as people dash out, wander out, saunter– the speed and alternating paces of a dream.
You're enormous but precise, slower than walking speed, a blue whale in a school of fish as the crowd swims past. Everybody's watching. There are surprisingly few deaths each year at this, the jaywalking capital of the world. Because you expect it. Behind me now people are shouting on the McDonalds corner. I ignore it, thinking I'm no Looky-Loo, but wait, it's building to a crescendo, people shrieking, clumps of groups glancing at each other. Are they yelling at me?
Then, louder than ever, I hear, "WASSUP! AY! AY!"
I turn my head all the way back. We're in the middle of the intersection, inching forward, starting to turn the wheel.
That's not a brawl breaking out. It's Sho Luv, hollering a warm hello at me, overwhelmed with goodwill. Absolutely beaming. Next to him are a couple other brothas, one watching me and smiling.
From the bus window I extend my arm, bellowing, "HEYYY! HOW'S IT GOING? MISTER SHO LUV!"
I think he said, "Sho Luv in da house!" Those gold teeth flashing brighter than ever, reflecting off the sodum vapor lamps, blowing up the orange night.
"Iss a pleasure!" I howl.
"Das mah boyee!" I hear him hollering into the night, as I drive away.
What stayed with me most about the interaction was not Sho Luv himself, but that young man next to him, his friend or whoever it was, the kid who was watching. He was unsure what was going on, curious as to my response, and then thrilled at my excitement. I saw the man just long enough to see the smile forming on his face. What a beautiful light. Two different worlds met in that greeting, and instead of a collision, he saw a warm glow. His world got a little bigger in that moment.
Two girls are getting on at southbound Dearborn, early college maybe, coming aboard in handfuls, pulling their luggage behind and beside them. Together they form an impression of primary colors, a rush of straps and travel and quickly brushed hair, shoes built for walking. The one is asking for Mount Baker Station, no doubt interested in Sea-Tac.
As they walk down the aisle I ask, "are you about to go on a big adventure, or coming back from one?"
"We just came from a big adventure, Seattle was our adventure!"
"Oh how fantastic!"
They decide to sit up front, continuing the conversation. "Hope you guys had a good time here," I ask.
"Thanks for bringing the sunshine!"
"And now we're taking it away!"
"It's okay, I'm willing to deal!"
The clouds had just returned. The two of them are effervescent, with wide smiles and sparkling eyes, that natural excitement which comes easily to the youthful of any age.
"How long have you been driving a bus?" the second girl asks. They speak together as one, alternately answering or listening; clearly friends for years.
"Seven years," I reply.
"Oh. that's a long time."
"I loooove it."
"Getting to talk to people all the time, to provide this elemental need of transport, to help peop- you know how when somebody needs help, and you're able to help them, and they feel great, and you get this altruistic high of well-being?"
"I know exactly!"
"Oh it feels so great, spreading that good energy. Getting to hang out with all these folks I would never ordinarily get to hang out with.... So I see you're flying out on a Saturday!"
"Which I think is great. It's cheaper for sure,"
"Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday seem to be the best. I go to LA a lot, and it's all about Tuesday through Saturday. Doesn't cost ANYthing,"
"Why do you go to LA?"
"I have some good friends down there. It's my hometown. Where are you going back to?"
"Columbus, Ohio," says the one.
"And I'm going to North Carolina," says the other.
"Just a hop skip and a jump away!"
"Yeah, shouting distance, you know!"
"North Carolina, excellent. By Durham?"
"Close." She explains a town I haven't heard of in the vicinity. "About twenty miles away."
"I've never gone out there."
"You should come!"
"And Columbus, Ohio, where I have also never been."
"You should come!" says the other girl, in laughing repetition.
"So many new places to add to my already long list of places to travel! Now, how is it that you two know each other if you're from completely different places?"
The answer involves particulars of going to school together, one formerly living in Ohio, and so on. They explain the banalities with a bubbly energy we all seem to be building together. You know that sensation, talking to someone new at the party about hardly anything at all, but you're both so excited.
"I have a question!" I suddenly say.
"Were people in Seattle friendly?"
"Oh good. The answer to that question seems to vary dramatically depending on where people are coming from I think."
"Oh yeah, people were great. well, not everybody, of course. but yeah. You're friendly!"
"Aw!" Brief pause. "Did you have a favorite thing you saw or did here?"
"Just up the street here, on Rainier, we went to Humble Pie. It was the best! We went there four times in two weeks!"
"Oh my goodness, I've been there zero times in fifteen years! Clearly you guys have the jump on me!"
"You've gotta go! What's your favorite thing in Seattle?"
Thinking on my feet, fishing for an answer– "Oh my oh my hmm, that would take too long to answer, there's just so much! My mind is going crazy just trying to think of an answer!" Pause. They wait for me to come up with something.
"Right here, right now, driving the bus," I say finally. What else is there, after all, besides the present?
"Yeah, seriously! This is my favorite route."
"It's the only one we took."
"Well, if you were gonna take just one route, this one would be it! It's the most popular one, and it goes through Columbia City, which is the most diverse zip code in the United States."
"Yeah, that's why it's my favorite." That and a host of other reasons, but I'll spare them the details....
"So here's Mount Baker, on the right, and over there well, you can see the stairs,"
"What's your name?"
"Nathan. And yours?"
"Azalia," says the other.
"Have a really great rest of your shift!"
A Latino man stands and comes up to the front. Baseball hat and black work clothes, a jacket flung over his shoulder. I'm not sure how much English he speaks, but I decide to engage him as well; being silent after all that chatter with the girls would be its own statement, and too easily misinterpreted negatively.
"How's your night going?"
"Good! How about you?"
"Great. Good people,"
"Yeah, I saw you talking to those nice girls!"
"I like talking to people."
"I work at a resaurant too,"
"Oh, you understand! It's the same!"
"Yeah, it's the same. It makes the day exciting."
"To hear their stories, listen to all these different lives, be part of it...."
The solidarity I felt in the short interaction with him was just as satisfying as the chat with the ladies. They were enjoying being privy to something new to them, but Latino and I were sharing in something we both already know we love. Joy, expressed and explored in different ways. I drove away through the dark overhanging trees at Walden, thinking, it really is true. For this moment, right now, being lucky enough to be driving this 7 down Rainier Avenue really is my favorite thing in Seattle. Yes, you can call me crazy!
As I woke a scruffy older sleeper at the U District terminal, he grumbled out something I think he intended to be derogatory. Something about "you know what you and your coworker, buhuuuh uuh," a remnant from that zone between dreams and wakefulness. I couldn't understand his slurred speech though, and wished him well as he stood up. I got a few stretches in as he gathered himself into the present and stumbled away. Several minutes later when I started the bus back up again, he reappeared, and I said happily, "back for more! Awesome, dude!"
He smiled, seeing no more need for the antagonism from his dreams.
Another passenger got on some time later, also an older male. He looked like Elton John with a sunburn and twenty extra pounds, and he staggered into the chat seat and began regaling me with a story from earlier. "So I found a wallet the other day. In the street. A wallet."
"That's pretty cool," I said.
You can tell when someone's been drinking, and then you can tell when they've been drinking all day. This was the latter.
"I opened it up the wallet, and there was a cocaine straw," he yelled.
"There you go."
"So I thought, cool! And then there was a twenty. Right there, inside the wallet. So I had a cocaine straw and a twenty, right there off the street."
He paused for dramatic effect before continuing. Other people were listening now. I feel like I'm on a stage of sorts in situations like this. The sleeper from earlier was now awake, sitting nearby. More refined types and Capitol HIll hipsters fill out the rest of the bus. Was I going to tell him to stop talking? Nope. Mister Elton the Cocaine Strawman is my buddy too.
He continued holding forth: "And the wallet had a you know, a secret pocket. And guess what was in it?"
"What was in the secret pocket?"
"Well now, that sounds excellent!"
"Yeah it was," he blurted in agreement. "And it was rainy and dark outside, and the wallet was black, the wallet, the ground was black, you understand?"
"It was all black!"
The juxtaposition of the serious concentration necessary for watching the lanes, anticipating the moves of other cars, and checking the wire– all that in combination with a dialogue like this, is something I find highly amusing. Just the balance I need. Call it brain tickling. I'm maintaining three feet of clearance for the parked cars while being mindful of passing cars on the left– oh and yes, there was a cocaine straw and the wallet was black.
"It's amazing I FOUND it. But but but. There was no cocaine though." He sounded disappointed.
"No cocaine, just a whole bunch a cash?"
"Uh-huh," he said dejectedly. The sleeper barked out a sardonic laugh. I give voice to his thoughts, saying, "I don't know, man, that still sounds like a jackpot to me!"
"Yeah, really," grumbled Sleeper Man.
"I'll take ninety dollars," I continue as two teenage girls get on. They're done up Just So, as it's Saturday night. One's having trouble finding money, and the other pays for her. "Such a good friend!" I say. She bats her lashes, and they sit down near Elton the wallet finder, who stares at them goggle-eyed.
Finally he says, "you guys look reeeeally pretty!"
Pause containing deafening awkward silence. "Are you guys teeeenagers?"
They nod patiently.
"You look like you're about SEVENTEEN, is that right?"
Pretty soon it will be time to steer the conversation in a healthier direction. While I'm thinking about how to do this diplomatically, Sleeper Man butts in on my behalf and that of the girls, saying to Elton: "well, you look like you're about SEVENTY, so why don't you shut up?"
Everyone within earshot collapses in laughter.
Elton the Wallet Finder's a good sport. "No, I'm sixty, I'm sixty! Okay, I'll leave you girls alone." Thank goodness for friendly drunks.
Sleeper Man gets off at Union. His first words to me may have been negative, but his last are positive. Out of nowhere he says, "hey! Did you know UPS and FedEx are merging?"
"What? No way!"
"Yeah, I heard it on the news!"
"This is madness!"
I felt like he wanted to balance out whatever negative energy he was belching out when I woke him up. It wasn't because he thought I might be interested in company acquisitions. The attitude from earlier wasn't big enough to warrant an apology, but he seemed to feel a need to reach across the empty spaces. The UPS news seemed offered out of a desire to what, find that wonderful meeting point, questing for equilibrium, the need to lay claim to that shared territory which proves we all have something in common.
Have you missed my last few shows? No worries! This is your chance! I'll be at my current exhibition the evening of August 21st, for Georgetown's Third Thursday art walk. Stop by Kate Alkarni Gallery for a chat and check out work by a variety of great artists!
Bring your friends! Come alone! It's a friendly party. Details here.
I think they were the first people on the bus, at Rainier and Rose, by the cluster of East African markets. Two black American high-school age boys bounded on. Summer nights on Rainier have a lot of activity– it's no surprise to see kids out past midnight. Some are out to prove themselves through trouble, others have a family situation they feel better being away from, and others are simply out with friends having fun. Didn't you stay out late when you were young?
While one of the boys asks me for a ride, I eyeball his drink. Is that sixteen-ouncer alcohol, I'm wondering. Out loud I say, "is that is that is that...." Then I see the label. "Oh, kiwi strawberry!" We laugh. "You guys are fine! Come on in!"
I see her brighten the bus stop as I pull up. Third and Union southbound, some time before midnight. Hers is a smile which renders her ageless; you see the girl she used to be, echoes of a happier time. She's thirty-five and thin, ready to go home now, her rich black hair tied in a workaday ponytail, unbrushed for now.
I've seen her a few times previous. Why does she smile so when she sees it's me driving? Perhaps she feels safer on my 7, or maybe she just enjoys the warm vibes. I greet everyone with enthusiasm. I get excited when we're full up and late on the 7 at night. There are times when I feel myself bubbling over, thrilled beyond measure to be here, can't hide it, thrilled to be in the vortex, Metro's busiest route, the throbbing heart of this great city, maybe even– dare I say it? Changing the atmosphere just by being myself, reaching out to all these lives as though they were friends– because of course, they are. This euphoric bliss happens delicately, seemingly without my trying, and I feel lucky to touch it when it's here.
Tonight I gab with various folks. Just passing the time. Here's a Jack-in-the-Box employee and I, discussing the value of being a people person at our respective jobs. Tonight he's looking for a payphone, and we wonder where any are. Another man extols the virtues of his bicycle's disc brakes after I ask. Disc brakes on a bike seem luxurious to me. They're great going down McClellan hill, apparently.
Eventually she steps up to the front. At first I think she's getting off at an earlier stop tonight, but no, she just wants to talk. She's happy to try, despite the trouble of speaking the new language. I feel honored that she feels comfortable enough to do so. Would you do the same in her place? It's no easy feat, making small talk in a language and country that isn't your own, but sometimes the feeling of connection is worth it.
"Are you just getting off work?" Yes, she is. An Indian accent. "You work late," I marvel, noting the clock. 11:41. "Do you like it?"
She waxes and wanes in response, smiling, agreeing with my hand gesture of "more or less."
"A job is a job," she says finally.
"It's true, a job is a job. A good thing to have."
She explains that back home, people did laundry for her. Servants took care of stuff like that. Now, not only does she do her own laundry, she does everyone else's, for work. Completely different world. She cried at first, disillusioned, feeling lied to by the great Dream, disappointed and alone on a crushingly fundamental level. She and her sister moved halfway around the globe and here she is now, mopping floors, working part time here and there, long and late hours, menial labor seven thousand miles from home. Working the dry-cleaning machine, struggling to keep her tears to herself.
She's been here three years and has lived that entire time on Rainier Avenue. What a notion of America she must have, so specific to her experience. How little those around her know of her past. Take a second look at the gas-station attendants, the gardeners and cooks around you. Some of them used to be dignitaries, scientists, and more before they came over. A good bus driver friend of mine was once Assistant Vice President at the University of Tehran. His passengers get on without a clue.
I think it was Ernst Gombrich who said, an accent is a badge of honor. It means that person, or their family, possessed the unthinkable courage to completely restart their lives from scratch, with no safety net, in a place they don't know and often are not welcome in. That is fortitude.
Is she a stronger person now, though, than she was before, moving beyond all those years of soft living? I think so. The expanded perspective, the seeds for empathy, the learned skill of appreciation.... Out loud I say, "well, it makes your character stronger. You know?"
She gets it. "Yes, it's true."
"And you are always so happy, smiling. Every time." She beams anew in the darkness. "As long as you can be happy, people can be happy, that is very impressive to me. Anyone really, who can be happy in this life,"
She affirms the sentiment, and I continue, "I love driving the bus! Helping all the people, talking to people...."
Now she's laughing, in surprise, delight, in newfound freedom. You can make the most out of anything.
"Where you are from?" she asks. It's normally a question I don't care for, but I know what she means.
She's happy at the response, excited at the commonality of displacement. She asks for a night stop, thirty feet closer to her apartment, and thirty feet away from the drugged-out thugged-out ghettotastic reunion that's forever taking place in the bus shelter, over there by the gas station, the omnipresent hustle bubbling on just this side of violence. Those thirty feet make all the difference. Thanking me, she dashes off into the shadows. She had her keys ready.
I'm riding the bus home tonight, racking my brain for particulars. He had a helmet, I'm thinking. It's just after 1am, and I'm sitting forward on the last bus to my house. Today was the Torchlight Parade, and a detail from the night of madness is nagging at me. Finally I decide to go up and talk to the driver– to distract myself, to get another opinion, anything. Nice guy, this fellow. Younger, late thirties, with a family; he just got back from traveling to Yellowstone. I see him every Saturday night.
"How was your day today?"
"Oh, hey. It was surprisingly easy," he responds, despite the intensity of the crowds. He describes some technicalities of timing and direction that led to his shift being an unexpected cakewalk. I chat briefly about the general quality of my own day– incredibly hectic but incredibly enjoyable– before getting down to brass tacks.
"Hey, so something happened on my last trip that I'm confused about."
"Okay, yeah." He leans in, curious.
"So I was doing the 7, southbound, and halfway through the route a guy gets on with a bike. A Latino-looking guy, maybe Hispanic."
"When I get to the end, he forgets his bike, because nobody's on the bus, and the bike is still there. So on my way back into town, I look for him, thinking he'll be out there waiting to get his bike back."
"But there's another 7 right behind me, and we start skip-stopping. Nobody gets on my bus asking about the bike, so I start to think he must be on the 7 behind me. Musta been on one of the stops I skipped. But my 7 only goes to Fifth and Jackson. The 7 behind me goes all the way through downtown and out to the U District."
"Uh huh okay,"
"So I'm thinking about this bike, and this guy, and at Fifth and Jackson I tell everyone, this is our last stop but there's another 7 coming five minutes behind me, and he'll go all the way through downtown. I tell them this, and I tell them, I'm actually going to wait for this next 7 with you guys because I want to talk to the driver about something. And I mention, I want to talk to him something about this bicycle, find out who's bike this is. And as soon as I say that, a guy on my bus says, that's my bike!"
"And I say, what? And he says, yeah, that's my bike, right there, and I'm like, I really think this bike belongs to someone else. This skinny Hispanic guy from earlier, I remember him. But this guy, this heavyset black guy who looks completely different, he's saying this is my bike!"
"Yeah. And he's saying, I would swear on my sister's grave, and he starts telling me all this stuff about the bike that turns out to be true, it has no front brakes, the back brakes are bad–"
"-And the thing is, he's wearing a helmet! He even has a bike lock in his pocket. He takes it out and shows it to me. And I'm thinking, am I crazy? Am I completely crazy? He's going to the next 7, and I tell him, I think the guy who owns this bike, that guy is going to be on that 7, but he's like, doesn't matter, this is my bike, I can't believe you thought this belonged to some Spanish guy."
"Did you tell him the bike had been on your bus for an earlier trip already?"
"Yeah, he said he fell asleep, and he was glad to get the bike back, but he didn't say anything about it when he got on! I don't get it. I was a hundred percent sure it was the Latino guy until he started talking. I looked at him for a long time and finally I said okay, 'cause what can I do, and we shook hands. I mean, he had a helmet, so he must be, why else would anyone wear a helmet, and he totally walked over to the 7 bus stop for the next 7 to downtown."
"And the other guy was probably gonna be on it!"
"Definitely, if that was his bicycle!"
"I would have loved to been on that bus!"
"Exactly, either they would be fighting or... I wish I could get on that thing right now just to find out. I've been sitting here the past fifteen minutes, trying to figure it out in my head. I think I'm going crazy. All I know is I'm never telling anyone there's a missing bike ever again!"
"Well, a something similar involving a bike happened to me recently."
"Okay," I said.
"I was driving the 71, by Virginia, also very late at night, and there's only a few people on the bus. There's a bike on the bus. A guy gets off and I'm positive it's the guy who put the bike on. But he starts walking the other way, outside toward the back of the bus. I honk the horn a little but he keeps going. And I see him cross the street behind the bus. So I lean out the window and yell, dude! You forgot your bike! You know? And he can't really hear me so he starts walking closer, and I tell him again, your bike, don't forget your bike. And he says oh, that's not my bike. And he leaves. Then I turn to the inside of the bus and say to everyone, who is the owner of this bike? Does this bike belong to any of you guys? And they all said no! It was none of theirs either! Nobody took the bike!"
Welcome to the Twilight Zone, was all we could come up with. That or we're both nuts. As he spoke a shooting star streaked across the clear night sky. Now that had to be real– both of us saw it! We marveled at its brilliance. Oh, the things that happen in the middle of the night!
We won't tell anyone I took it for a test drive.
As I pulled my 358 into the layover at Second and Main, I noticed someone had forgotten their bicycle on the rack. It was definitely on the junker side of things, a red jalopy of a bicycle with peeling tape and a chain rusting into orange. I looked at it for a moment and thought, well, what of it, as I stepped outside and removed the bike from the bus. I had fifteen minutes of break time before the next trip. Hoping the owner had a sense of humor, I decided to spend my break taking it out on a "test drive," as it were, enjoying the sights and sounds of Pioneer Square while I could.
Of course I'd return the bicycle to the bus and leave it on there for the rest of the day before sending it to Lost and Found, but for now the poor red puppy looked so lonely. I barely fit on the thing, but that's okay. I tooled through Occidental Park, nodding at a few familiar homeless faces. I drifted over to the viaduct and wandered underneath its steadfast bulk, enjoying the shadows it provided, trying to conceive how the waterfront would look without it.
Somehow I found myself inside Metro Customer Service, still with the bicycle. I can't imagine why I felt compelled to go in there at that moment. Maybe I needed some timetables. As I walked up the steps to the doorway to exit, carrying the bike over my shoulder, two young black American boys, teenagers, simultaneously approached the door from the outside.
Yes, they were dressed in the stereotype that's been offered up to them for the last twenty-five years or so– sagging, low-riding jeans and spotless athletic wear, oversized basketball shoes with horizontal laces, reflective shades on one, the other with a flat-billed hat tilted at a rakish angle.
It's an unfortunate fact that media representations disproportionately link this image with that of the irredeemable urban black "thug" figure, a depiction so tiresomely pervasive we run the risk of forgetting that black culture is so much more just than hip-hop culture. There is nothing inherently oppositional about large sports jerseys and low-slung pants.
The two boys hold the door open for me. I step through, saying, "thanks guys."
I smiled deeply as I walked away.
Note: that's my good friend Eric in the photo. We worked at Capitol Records in Hollywood together.
I recognize his face and gait, but what happened to the mangy hair? He's still scruffy, but his haircut looks like that of just a regular joe. In my head I called him Grizzly Alan, and I haven't seen him in more than a year. A smart fellow, about my age, clearly educated, and probably homeless. Today he's walking slowly past the bus stop on 45th, gaze lowered in thought.
"Hey, maaan," I call out. I pronounce "man" with emphasis, stretching out the vowel, giving it the weight of a proper name. Letting him know I recognize him.
Jogged out of thought, he sees me and replies, "Oh, hey!"
"Haven't seen you in a while!"
"Yeah, you remember me."
"Of course. Good to see you're still hangin' around." Referring to his haircut: "I see you lost some hair!"
"Yeah, it works better at job interviews."
"How's that been goin'?"
"Aauuh," he says.
"It's a process, right?"
"I feel like it's a numbers thing. Apply for ten, hear back from one of 'em, you know?"
"Yeah," he says, pronouncing it as in, "that's true."
"Hey well. It's good to see you again."
With urgency I added, "Stay strong!"
The faces come and go as the months turn into years. I'll be riding the ferry, taking in the horizon line, when the thought will surface: whatever happened to Juan and his new baby? Or Angel, with the bathrobe and bruises? Do you remember that face on Pine, outside the mall, the first-generation African man who for years never asked for money, but instead stood yelling angrily about how Seattle Police are communist, and about how the Frye apartments evicted him? Did you ever see him on his "lunch break," where he would go and sit quietly inside Nordstrom, in complete opposition to the angry facade he projected on the sidewalk? I wonder about these faces, whole and real people, whom I now no longer see. Do they know I'm thinking of them?
Recently I was at the base, preparing to walk out to my bus. Several drivers were discussing a well-known passenger, Gaylen. An angry man surrounding a child inside, he could be an insufferable handful of epic proportions. The last time I saw him was a couple years ago.
"Gaylen? Oh, he's dead."
"What?" I said.
"Yeah, he's gone."
"Man, I say good riddance," said a third driver. "That duu' got on my bus so many times, and I just wanted ta kick those crutches out from under him each time. What a' asshole."
"Aw, he's my buddy!" I said.
"He was, no, no. I couldn't stand that dude!"
"We'll just have to find some other assholes!" quipped a fourth, who'd been listening. They laughed. Part of me wanted to cry.
I gazed across the room at Vicki, a driver and former social worker with a heart of gold. She knew where I was coming from. We looked at each other ruefully. It wouldn't be any use trying to change their minds. I know they certainly couldn't change mine.
My mind flashed back to an ancient moment from years ago. Venus, another driver, walked up to me, excited. "Nathan, there's this passenger who I actually really like, even though everyone hates him. His name is Gaylen, and he–"
"Has two crutches, yes I know! Venus, you're amazing!"
I'd heard horror stories about the guy but hadn't met him at the time of the conversation. Listening to Venus was an inspiration. She seemed thrilled in the sense of having come upon a secret; her vision didn't stop short at a reactionary appraisal, but kept going. She could see through the initial to a more complete picture, and in so doing had found something familiar in a man so outwardly different from her. Aren't we all the same, searching for happiness each in our own imperfect ways?
Mister Gaylen, I hope now you feel less pain, less occasion for hate, and perhaps the glimmer of a joy which eluded you in this life.