PS– yes, all my images are for sale. Inquire! But more importantly, enjoy!
He's at it again– giving this city the Nathan treatment, for better or worse: blurry multiple exposures! Colors! Famous monuments and buildings photographed so they basically become totally unrecognizable... I'm very happy to share with you two brand-new galleries of film images, and a few thoughts of mine on the city where the buses are boats... enjoy!
PS– yes, all my images are for sale. Inquire! But more importantly, enjoy!
He was a strapping young man in his forties, built, the kind you don't want to mess with. Those construction boots looked steel-toed, and his muscles gave heft and shape to his weathered letterman. Evenly spaced cornrows stretching his dark scalp tight. Although he wasn't giving me the dead eyes, you know he had the look down, practiced to a withering tee. I asked him how he was doing. He reached into a back pocket.
"Hol' up. I got it somewhere. I'ma find it right quick."
"It's all cool."
"Naw, I got it."
He was sitting behind me now, across from another man I recognize as one of the regular fixtures at the Rainier/MLK interchange. That man, a dealer clad in a dilapidated down jacket and black beanie, watched our friend across the aisle.
"Man, where I put that thing," the first fellow muttered, searching for his fare. "I had it. Ah know I had it."
"He don't care, dude."
"This bus driver don't care," said Mr. Beanie, trying to de-stress his neighbor.
"Naw, man. It ain't about that. I bet he hear a thousand excuses a day. I want him to know I'm for real."
The other man responded with chagrined silence. Most of us are in a position to both survive and be principled, simultaneously. But….
We wander about in our lives, and our priorities lean and grow, circumstances and decisions exerting a subtle pressure. Did we always make the decisions we make now? Have we compromised ourselves, somewhere along this gradual journey? The day-to-day has a way of hiding things. Have we exchanged integrity for convenience unbeknownst to ourselves, or will the child within still recognize itself in the mirror?
Whatever the first man, Mr. Cornrows, has going on in his life, principles still figure largely in his value system, and I imagine he's all the better for it.
I didn't know him. But I wanted to talk to him. Most homeless folks are white men between thirty and sixty, and he was just such a fellow, sitting on the upper end of that age spectrum. I was stuck for something to say. Time to resort to the old standby:
"Been in Seattle long?"
"Um. Uh. I lived here long time ago."
"I came back," he said. "Did a lot of time."
"Well, I'm glad you're–"
"This is, this is probably the best place to be homeless in the state."
That's definitely true. I agreed. "There are good resources here, yeah,"
"I was in Spokane they didn't have aaany–"
"They try to put you away for bein' homeless,"
He was taller and thin, with wire-frame glasses from another decade and one of those burnt yellow suede construction trucker jackets, thick for breaking chill wind, the kind you maybe used to see more often in years past.
"Oh gosh," I said. "I'm glad you're here. Hopefully you know, six months from now you'll get on the bus and tell me, 'I have a, I found a place,"
"Hopefully sooner than–"
"Hopefully sooner than that, yeah. That's one a my favorite things about this job actually, when I, when I uh. Just today actually, earlier today this guy came up to me and said that exact thing he's like, 'I finally found an apartment.' I love hearing that, you know. It does happen. I wish there was... there's so many great resources here but I wish they were easier to know about."
Wouldn't this be a good idea? Perhaps a card to hand out which amalgamated all the major resource entities, what they provided, hours, addresses and the like? I feel like I've heard of other cities which do this. Such an item would be immeasurably more useful than seventy-five cents or half a cheeseburger.
"They seem sort of scattered and unconnected," I continued.
"There's great organizations,"
"But they're gonna give you everything but housing. 'Cause this is prime fuckin' real estate."
"Yeah it is, yeah. I'm wondering if twenty years from now we're all gonna have to move to Tacoma or something. I hope not, but yeah."
"Well on top of it, a lot of people are homeless by choice."*
"Yeah and I have to like,"
Not quite what I was going to say. "Well, I have to like, give everyone the exact same treatment because I don't know if it's by choice or not by choice, and if it's not by choice I wanna help 'em out as much as possible, but I can't question which it is, I just have to help 'em. 'Cause I don't know which it is."
"Yeah. 'Cause some folks just wanna get high and,"
"Yeah. And it makes it hard for folks, like yourself, who're actually trying to do something."
"Well you know, I got a drug problem myself, but I'm fighting it."
"You're a good guy. That's worth the fight, man."
That may read as tacky from the comfort of our desk or phone, but it felt fresh and right in the moment. Because nobody says you're a good guy, you're a nice guy, not out here on the street at this time of night. It means something in that realm, a spark of genuine care, and I could tell he appreciated it.
Sparks like that can be the tipping point from a bad night into a good one.
*A thorny and gargantuan can of worms I'll address in an upcoming post.
I stood by the farebox, toggling the switches as the wheelchair ramp slowly came to life. It took an extra second. To the folks seated nearby I said, "this' probably the first time that lift has ever been used. Bus is so new."
"Pretty fancy bus, huh?" That's Solomon, a face I've known on the 7 so long it'd be an insult to call him a mere acquaintance. We've shared countless accumulated hours together, bantering on his way home from his hotel catering jobs.
"Yeah, these things are incredible," I replied. There was time to talk as the wheelchair-bound passenger, at whom I nodded, situated herself. "They're so expensive."
"Each one is one million."
"A million?" Raised eyebrows.
"Yeah, the pure electric, the battery, and it's all good, you know, metal parts and everything, like if somebody rear-ended us, you know how these buses are, we might not even feel anything."
"Yeah, they're good. No wonder they raise the fares!"
"Ha! This thing better work! For one million! Y'could buy a mansion with this!"
"Yeah, lemme take this to the pawnshop! See what we can get!"
"Buy a nice waterfront–"
"Well, not all of it," said the lady, agreeably, as I strapped her in. This was the back-and-forth of a community that has no qualms about speaking to each other, to itself. "'Cause my old place at 30th and Yesler goes for nine hundred now."
"Well yeah," Solomon ceded, "I was thinking of ten, fifteen years ago."
I quipped back with, "we'll just have to grab two of these buses then!"
"That'll cover it!"
They continued building together, strengthening the web we call community, stewardship. Others joined in after a time, making the front of the bus the new back of the bus. I dropped out of the conversation, preferring to listen, smiling to myself as I took the curves on Rainier.
People will always talk with each other. I used to worry that the low-floor layout of the new buses would limit interaction, customer service, and conversation in general. I would fret that the speed of contemporary life and alienating components of technology would eliminate actual human contact. But my days on the route now are hardly different than five years ago, when less people had earbuds and smartphones, when drivers announced their own stops, passengers exited through the front, and the chat seat was right by the driver.
The removal of all of these things hasn't been able to stem the tide of human desire, the fervent, aching need to reach out, to be acknowledged and loved. Bjorn Magnussen said all human actions are manifestations against death. Pithy changes in bus layouts and societal patterns can't touch that. We, the cave-dweller and the modern man entire, wish deeply to assert our existence to others, our being, to let someone else and by extension ourselves know through love, hate, or otherwise, that there was a time once, long ago.
A time when we were here.
Some actors just radiate intelligence. You feel it in their eyes, their bearing, their enunciation. Think of Max von Sydow or Juliette Binoche. Natalie Portman, Henry Fonda. In the way we would never buy Chaplin or Gregory Peck as villains, I have real trouble believing these people playing dull-witted dolts. Wouldn't you? I'd argue the reason is because it's pretty hard, I would say nigh-impossible, to hide certain types of intelligence. You can't conceal sensitivity. Of course many people know much more than they let on, and there are myriad types of wisdom, but there's a certain strain that goes unclothed, which you feel in one's gaze, and the timbre of their voice. This fellow, standing beside me now at the front of the bus, was like that.
He was perhaps mid-forties, African-American, in outdoor work shoes and sturdy pants, carpenters if I recall correctly, with the hood of his hooded sweatshirt up and covering his bald pate. "You're as constant as the sun," he'd said with a smile when I showed up, grinning out from behind wire-frame spectacles. "I do my best," I'd replied, amiably.
"Alright, another day," I said, as we approached the last stop in Rainier Beach, his, a nightly routine.
"I suppose," he answered. The humor of the line struck me in a pleasantly silly way, and I giggled. Then I said, "okay, last night you said something very wise. What was it, I forget."
Another line with latent humor. We chuckled at ourselves, but I really did want to know what he'd said. I'd forgotten to notate it, and had spent the last twenty minutes wondering what it was. "The day before you mentioned circadian rhythms," I continued, "which I took note of, and then last nigh– gosh, you said something last night that was awesome."
He paused before saying, "oh! About good and bad!"
The storytelling voice. "There is no good and bad. Thinking makes it so."
"Thank you! That's brilliant! There is no good and bad, thinking makes it so. I'm gonna write that down."
"Yeah, Shakespeare said that."
"Smart guy," I said.
"Well, who knows where he got it from,"
"When you think about it though, it's true!"
"It is! It is! So much of it is our perspective…."
We stood outside at the Rainier Beach terminal and chatted a bit more, citing examples, talking about rain and complaining and crops and farmers. The excitement of the notion, that we were in control of much more than we might realize, energized us. Our steps shown a little brighter now, out here in our corner of the city, two men exchanging thoughts in an empty parking lot on the wrong side of town– or maybe the right side. I yelled the line back at him as I jogged across the street to the comfort station.
Our smiles echoed in the rising night.
She was standing there at Dearborn, and I sighed. She was Rose, and the question was whether or not to let her on. Elderly, infirm, and heavyset, with a stuffed stroller, as quick to snarl as I am to smile, with stringy silver hair and corresponding eyes, tiny ones, which nevertheless had enough bile in them to rage against all about her, all the time. I don't think this is what Dylan Thomas was talking about.
A line of people boarded before she did, and I sat there wondering what to do. She'd been on my bus recently and behaved such that it would be appropriate to refuse her service, but true to my form (as I explain here), I'd forgotten the details. Her tendency is to harass anyone in her way. Ah yes, memories were coming back, against my will: among other abrasives she'd yelled at an elegant Somali woman in the aisle in a manner completely confounding to the lady, who seemed as bewildered as she was hurt, as if thinking: when did people of this age group behave without manners?
The thing is, I just don't like refusing service. I've never even kicked off LSBW, for Pete's sake. I believe these folks, highly disagreeable though they can be, deserve to ride as much as I do.
"Rose, hello," I said, with no great amount of enthusiasm. "How you feelin'?"
"Good," she replied, shifting her weight.
"Okay. In that case, come on in!"
I began the process of deploying the ramp. On the very oldest and very newest coaches, that takes forever, but on this mid-2000s model it came out quickly. Rose ambled forward at her pace and no one else's. Should I begrudge her the right to be unhurried? It's difficult when fifty people in the vicinity feel differently. I like to be the one person who is patient, who does give them a small oasis of acceptance, here in the desert of the harried and overtaxed.
Rose's attitude doesn't exactly make this easy.
"Goddamnit," she explained, pushing her stroller forward at no considerable speed. It was a puny affair and long past its due, lightweight white dirtied by time, buckling under the weight of several huge bags no stroller designer ever thought of. The wheels had rusted to a stop and no longer turned in the direction of travel, and some didn't roll either. She grunted with effort, cursing, each small impediment a worthy cause for fury: the lip of the ramp where it meets the cement; the geography of the bus's floor layout, requiring her to turn the stroller; limited visibility; the bags slipping; and more than all of this, the weight of the years, the accumulation of strife, seeds of misery now grown, long percolating as only she knew.
I'd already gestured to the brothers behind her, saying, "you can use the back door if you want to!" They were thrilled. Forget fare; this got them nearly five whole minutes– an eternity on the road– of comfort.
"My wheel is stuck, the wheel on the stroller," she bemoaned.
"I know," I said. "That's okay, come on in. I'll make some room for ya." I walked over to the front seating area and flipped up every seat that was empty, saying to those uncertain whether they should move, "we'll let her decide where to sit."
As she arrived in the seating area– which I know is only a few feet from the door, but you really have to imagine slow motion here, like a cargo frieghter docking at port– she snarled, "put that seat down! I want that down!"
"What do you want, Rose? Tell me what you want."
"I want that down."
I flipped the seat down. "Alright," I said, mostly to myself.
Back in my own seat, I gave her a moment to get settled before saying, "alright, I'm just gonna roll out slowly–"
"STOP THE BUS YOU FUCKING BITCH NOW!"
"You're all right, Rose, we're stopping."
"Bus driver won't stop the goddamn bus, goddamnit–"
"You don't need to yell, Rose,"
"If you yell at me, I won't pick you up again."
She continued muttering. I was thinking about how her raspy tone was practically identical to Honey Bunny's voice in the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, where right after Tim Roth tells everyone, "everybody be cool, this is a robbery," Honey Bunny climbs atop the table and in the very opposite of cool-headedness shrieks, with hair flailing and to excellent comic effect, "any of you fucking pricks move, and I'll execute every motherfucking last one of ya!"
Wouldn't Rose and Honey Bunny make a terrific dynamic duo?
I'd watch that movie. There was time to reflect as we carried on our way. Rose mellowed into a hesitant silence, and I let my musings wander. My first thought was, well, I'm definitely not letting her on in the future. No need for all this drama. I'm not kind so that people will be kind to me, but when kindness is returned with such vitriol, one's enthusiasm wanes. I thought about a 41 driver I used to see regularly, older guy, generally rude to the folks, sometimes cringe-inducing. It went that way for years, until one day he was friendly. What? What gives, I wondered, and asked him how he was doing. He shared that finally, after decades of excruciating back pain, he'd at last had a surgery that took the agony away. I felt embarrassed for ever having judged him, and thankful for the context.
What travails had Rose endured? What collusion of life events had led to this unfantastic present, this day-to-day existence you knew was not her high point? To ponder the disappointments those small grey eyes had been privy to. I would never know the details, but being kind certainly wouldn't make things worse. It also occurred to me that she wasn't going anywhere. She's a longtime fixture on Rainier. What was I going to do, pass her up every other week and force some other poor operator to put up with her? No. Too selfish, too cowardly. I needed a different solution.
She always gets off at Mount Baker. When we arrived I didn't deploy the lift just yet. "One second," I gestured to the people waiting outside. I walked back to where she was, and took my right hand out of my pocket. I was ready.
"Okay." I stood directly in front of her and spoke clearly, firmly. Everyone was watching. People wondering, what's going on here?
"Okay, Rose. You need to get a new stroller. This is twenty dollars so you can go get one. If you don't have a new stroller the next time I see you, I am not gonna pick you up. You have to get a new stroller. Okay?"
I think her day started over right then. Sunset and sunrise, in the moment between my "okay" and her reply. She looked at me, nonplussed*, dazed into confused silence. Rose, taking it in. Her world was getting larger.
"Okay," she said.
She said it quietly, accepting the bills I almost never carry but happened to have that day. Once again, I asked the brothers (and sisters!) outside to use the back door, and Rose gathered herself and began the procedure for liftoff. When she passed me, sitting in my driver's seat, she stopped and patted the hair on my head. Her way of saying thanks. "I know you're not supposed to touch the driver,"
"Well. I guess that's okay for today."
When she was outside, just off the ramp, she turned back slowly and asked, "what was your given name?"
"Nathan, like Nathan's Hotdogs. Yeah."
"I'll see you again, Rose!"
I drove in silence for a minute. We sat at the light at Martin Luther King Way. Mia was sitting up front, a regular rider. She'd seen everything. We were silent for a moment longer, and then we laughed. We cackled together, at the joy of it, the comic absurdity of it all, laughing out my frustration, Rose's anger, her pace, at the ridiculousness of my tone giving her money, practically demanding, angrynice, feeling good that we'd done something. "You know?" we told each other, grinning wide.
I said, "hopefully we just made life easier for her... and fifty other bus drivers!"
"And who knows how many passengers!"
We chuckled some more. In my mind though, I kept returning to the sight of her on the sidewalk at the very end, clutching two $10's and one very dilapidated stroller and looking out at the world around, looking calmed, bewildered. Rested. The things she thought were rules had changed a bit.
It was a new world.
*Nonplussed means surprised and confused, usually to the degree of not knowing how to respond. Lack of knowledge over what this word means has led to its developing a slang usage in the US exactly the opposite of its original definition; you may hear people use it to mean unsurprised or unperturbed (search the definition on Google for a laugh, as you'll be presented with two perfectly opposed meanings). I use the word here for its original definition.
Above images courtesy the New York Times and City of Seattle.
"What I love about bus drivers is that we never talked about driving."
–Stokley Towles, as interviewed by Seattle Weekly
If you have any interest in this blog at all, you're going to love these two shows– both of which are about to close. Although Stokley Towles and Kehinde Wiley may be offering quite different work, they both articulate attitudes and outlooks which represent fundamental pillars upon which my blog is built. One man shares stories of life and work (in this case, the work of bus driving) with a loving attention to humor and detail; the other offers images which recontextualize African-American culture (specifically contemporary male youth culture) as a celebratory, non-confrontational, and much needed addition to the great lineage of Western art.
Towles understands the intrinsic appeal of unusual work environments and is able to tap into the human-interest element of something as specific as bus driving. I saw a performance of his once on wastewater treatment, and he made the subject riveting and hilarious. He takes a journalistic and anthropological focus to what he calls municipal systems– the networks which form the infrastructure of day-to-day civic life, and which often remain invisible to us, who rely on those structures constantly. He makes the world of bus driving relatable, funny, thought-provoking, and ultimately life-affirming. Buy tickets here for Towles' remaining performances, which actually take place on a (stationary) Metro bus and are based on his own heavy research (some of which was conducted with yours truly!). My blog is the experience of only one operator; his lecture is an amalgamation of dozens.
He recognizes the universality of human experience and taps into what we're really all looking for– some form of connection, acknowledgment, affirmation of existence. The closing lines are a thing of beauty. As a performer, he manages to be precise and lively concurrently, without apparent detriment to either, organically flowing and yet meticulously rehearsed down to the motion: no placeholding "um"s or "uh"s here. The spoken word is an art, and Towles is a master. Here's an interview with the man about this project and his experiences researching it. The Stranger review here.
I should also add that his is the first artistic treatment of bus driving I've encountered given by a non-bus driver that I can call completely accurate.
Above photo courtesy Capitol Hill Seattle Blog.
Here on my blog, I often find myself particularly drawn to sharing stories of young black men behaving kindly or politely– right back to the very first interaction which started it all. Longtime readers will be nodding their heads. These actions are often pretty banal (the most recent one being literally nothing more than five men saying hello while paying fare), and on my bus, they happen all the time. For every story I share here, there are five more like it.
Why do I share them so?
I imagine for the same reason that Kehinde Wiley paints his paintings: to address a void. There is a reductive one-dimensionality to how young black men are portrayed– in history, by newsmedia, by film and television directors, and sometimes by themselves: life, to art, and back to life. It's absurd to imagine that all these men are hard, emotionless thugs all the time, and yet that's what we're asked to believe by a variety of sources. I wish to offer counterexamples of this, that a more dimensional picture might be realized.
The "banal" interactions I share here are interesting to me because they're not so much banal as underrepresented, and though they may be ordinary in the day-to-day swirl of contemporary life, there are not many opportunities to read or watch such moments. (here are two more: one involving chicken, the other the Dalai Lama). I hope this blog can function as a small corrective, a concrete reminder of the fully dimensional beauty of character present in folks of all stripes.
To quote the Seattle Art Museum materials: "[Wiley's] work posits street culture, black masculinity, and the aesthetics of hip hop as constructs that obscure the complexity and subjectivity of human identity [emphasis mine]."
Wiley himself writes, "the history of painting by and large has pictured very few black and brown people, and in particular very few black men. My interest is in countering that absence."
Above: Colonel Platoff on His Charger. Left, by James Ward. Right, by Kehinde Wiley.
In his work Wiley both identifies a problem and presents a solution in the same breath, and does so not with anger, though that would be justified, but with humor, confidence, and a vast appreciation of art history. Portraiture was once the sole purview of royalty and aristocracy, and Wiley recasts paintings of King Philip II and Napoleon with gentlemen he's found on the street, reenacting paintings they've chosen with Wiley in poses of their choosing. It's comparable to the scandal Gustave Courbet caused in 1849 with his ridiculously, awe-inspiringly massive A Burial At Ornans, depicting not splendour but a peasant funeral, except here the issue is race rather than class.
To see Wiley offer his own take on Memling's Portrait of a Man With a Coin of Emperer Nero is a particular delight for me, having just seen the original at the very first Hans Memling* retrospective in Rome. Also interesting for me is the ideological takeaway of some reinterpretations of propaganda posters from the Chairman Mao era: we're accustomed to falsely negative stereotypes of black men being used to maintain a repressive status quo; Mao's propaganda relied on falsely positive stereotypes to do the same, in an even more brutal environment.
In all, Wiley's portraits are a valuable contribution, being refreshingly steeped in the context less of history than of art. He avoids sexualizing black bodies by leaving everyone clothed, and brings out the feminine with his intricate floral patterns and subversive choices of expression and pose (seriously, how often do you really see portraits of men lying down?). He has a clear passion for Western art history, and has something valuable to contribute; the attitude and intricacy with which he does is not just important, or admirable, but downright enjoyable.
Can I also say that both these guys have the best names ever?
Stokley Towles tickets & info here; ends May 7. UPDATE: All shows are now sold out for the rest of the run!
Kehinde Wiley tickets & info here; closes May 8.
*Memling was doing something vaguely similar himself, with those repetitive but oddly compelling portraits of the up-and-coming merchant class, who because of their lower status had never been painted before.
His name is the same name he gives me every time: Nefarious Peripheral, No Tunnel Vision. When he first saw me, years ago, he made fun of me for my age and what he called my "Harry Potter glasses." I think he thought I was younger than him. By the end of the ride, he'd experienced a change of heart and christened me "da coolest." One day I'll tell you how I talked him out of thrashing another passenger to a pulp, but then as a result had to listen to him talk about aliens for forty-five minutes, to stay on his good side.
Normally a Rainier Avenue denizen, tonight he boarded in the U District, under the influence of alcohol and who knows what else, settling in for my last trip into town. He hardly cared that I wasn't going to the Valley on this trip. "I'm just so tired," he breathed, in his gangster affectation, but with a tone I found touchingly wistful. A character at the end of a long play.
At the end of the line now, in Chinatown, I went to the back to wake his sleeping form. Speak in a normal voice, and clap loudly– two hard ones, hands firm and slightly cupped, close to their ears. No need for raised voices– sounds too confrontational for a disoriented, just-now-waking mind. How would you feel, after all? Ask if they can hear you okay. Just the loud claps, maybe bang on the chair if necessary (we're not allowed to touch them), and then back quickly away if they indeed do open their eyes; that way you're not crowding over them. People are often violent upon being woken, and you want to give them space to regroup. Mr. Peripheral, as it were, rubbed his eyes groggily and crawled through his drunken stupor back to wakefulness.
"I'm sorry, bro," he mumbled, gathering saliva with his lips. "I been goin' through some shit lately. Where we at? Is there a number 7 out there?"
"Yeah yeah, I think it's there behind the elevators, on the other side. I can't see for sure though."
"Hol' up, I'm gettin' out. Wait, where we at?"
He stumbled about as stanchions and chairs bumped into him. Late twenties, twenty-seven if I recall from a previous conversation, educated but highly unstable, quick to anger but also quick to be pleased, usually high and wearing a terrific smile along with his shoulder-length dreads, clean dreads, knit cap and multiple jackets. His sagging jeans artfully covered– well, his knees, while his boxers did the real heavy lifting in terms of maintaining decorum. He absent-mindedly bumped into another stanchion as he reached one hand into his underwear, addressing incommodious scrotal arrangements. He nearly fell as he stepped from the lip of the back doorway to the pavement outside. "Did you see that," he slurred, pointing at the ground, one shoulder knocking into the exterior of a bus window.
"Alright, have a good one," I called after him as he slunk away.
"Anytime!" I called his name out, just for fun. I like saying it. "Nefarious Peripheral!"
"No Tunnel Vision!" he called out, practically by reflex.
Then he turned, slowly. Somewhere, deep in his haze of drink and drugs and fatigue and troubles, in between drunken stupors and the rearranging of his balls, trying not to bump into things, behind his half-closed lids and faltering step, somewhere back there even still, there was a small part of his brain, some tiny little subsection, that was dedicated to knowing me. He leaned back on one leg, and it came to him. "Hey," he said, that rich smile of his spreading out, slow motion. "You're the photographer!"
He pronounced it with emphasis on the first syllable. PHOT-o-grapher.
"Thanks, man! Have a good one!"
We both grinned mightily to ourselves as we walked our separate ways.
"How's life," he asked. I appreciated the phrasing, which felt more genuine than other versions of the same query. It set a specific tone: world-weary but still intrigued in one's fellow man, despite differences. He was about my age, thirties, perhaps Eastern European, an educated air but a few days unshaven. Nondescript casual clothing tonight, tired, dressed down on a weekend evening.
"Life is good, yeah," I said, twice, reflecting. "A nice night, you know?"
He'd approached me a moment before with a bus question, and was leaving us in two stops. He stood up front for that short distance and had asked the question above in the manner people often do, except his voice was of the sort incapable of flippant nothings; here was a man who meant the things he said. We started at either end of the conversation, his interest growing in spite of himself.
"Saturday night," I was explaining. "Lots of friendly people, busy, which is nice because time goes by fast…."
"How long have you been doing this?"
"Um, nine years."
"Yeah, I know it sounds crazy."
"How old are you, like twenty-two, you been doing this since you were–"
"Ten years old, exactly!" His laugh was rich and gristly, more awake than he was. "No, I just turned thirty," I added.
"What d'you drink, I need to–"
"I don't know! Water! Fruits and vege– I don't know, I just, I feel lucky."
"Yeah, it's fun job, yeah. I started it when I was going to school here and yeah, it's been good." A pause, and then– enough about me– "how 'bout you, how is life?"
"Good, I guess."
"I don't know," he replied. "I'm figuring it out." Again, world-weary, but a voice that hasn't yet given up on life. We were leaving small talk behind.
"That's a good answer."
The conversation moved at its own unforced pace. We sat out the red light, near the end of the route, unhurried, two minds expanding on a half-empty bus.
"Were you working today, or school…?"
"No, finished school at 9pm, I went for a couple of drinks at friend's house. I have Ph.D. at the U. Electrical engineering."
"Dude, life is good! That sounds excellent!"
"It's, it's okay,"
"Working, seeing your friends, Ph.D. program, that's outstanding!"
"Not bad," he deadpanned. We laughed.
"The basics! Engineering, you said?"
"What kind of engineering?"
"Electrical. I change the lamps when they break!"
"Oh, awesome!" Most people stop there, at the assertion of accomplishment, but I'm can't help my curiosity on what lies beneath: "d'you like it?"
"No. Not really."
"It's okay, I don't love it, but I like it, but it's okay. We'll see."
"Okay, yeah. Maybe it can lead to something else." I was trying to be hopeful, but could hear the stagnation in his words. We were way beyond pleasantries by this point. Neither of us verbalized what we both knew– that if you don't like the schooling for it, you won't like the job it results in. And jobs last lifetimes.
He reminded me of my Iranian friends, who so naturally dive into deep life discussion. This proclivity is obviously not limited to one people, but there are those among us whose conversations are not limited to intra-societal concerns, who very easily engage in questions of larger life, questioning how we live and why, why we act and think as we do. With real reflection he said,
"Maybe I can be… a bus driver, I think I would actually prefer that."
"Well you know, okay, so I got my degree here also, in photography,"
"Yeah, and it's, I do not regret it, it's a great experience, but–"
"This makes more money."
"It does, but also, I really like people. I get a lot of joy and energy out of being around people."
"And, this is much more satisfying to me than working in a lab, or working for wedding photography, you know? And so, I need to be happy!"
"Yeah, really important." Briefly, into the microphone: "okay guys, 45th and the Ave, University Way; next stop after this, is 45th and 11th." And right back in: "yeah, just, this makes me feel alive,"
"How long, how, what is your shift?"
"This is uh, swing shift, so, 5pm to 1am."
"Oh so you're just,"
"Yeah, back to downtown and,"
"One more thing, yeah."
"This the 49, right?"
"I've taken this bus, drunk, many times,"
"Oh, good! That's why I'm here! Happy to help!"
Charles Schulz once said that talking is what kids do. Conversation is when two adults come together and build a third thing, the result of their shared ideas, and when the two people part after that act of creation they each walk away slightly different than they were before.
We shook hands at the close of it, introducing each other by name. "Have a good rest of the weekend," I said. Something about him was happier now. A spring in his shoulders.
"You too, have a good rest of your shift, and your life!"
"Ha! You too!"
Don't tell me these guys aren't packing.
We're pulling in to the zone at Rainier and Othello northbound, where folks are still roaming about in the wee hours, like ants in the urban dusk. You may have heard of the intersection; I describe it here. Teenagers can be loud or willfully obnoxious, trying to stake their claim of identity in the bewildering world around them, trying so hard to appear like they don't care… but they're still children at heart, and the more they try to hide it, the less they're able to.
The men gathered about now are of an altogether different stripe. Older, harder, tougher round the caustic edges, masters of the face that feels nothing. Leroy once asked what the difference is between Rainier Valley and South Central Los Angeles. American ghettos share many superficial similarities, especially those two, but South Central* stands alone for several reasons you might find interesting.
For one, it's absolutely massive. The Jungle stretches a distance comparable to that between Downtown Seattle and Federal Way, and the Blue Line (the 7 of LA!), which bisects it, takes an hour from end to end.
Secondly, it's always warm there. We know crime spikes during the summers here, as folks stay out later than usual and roving packs of teens wander about unsupervised. In no Seattle neighborhood besides Rainier Beach do I hear the approaching summer spoken of with dread. Christopher Koch, in his 1978 novel The Year of Living Dangerously, wrote that people are crueler to each other in tropical climes, and summer nights on Rainier are a smaller version of that.
The thing about LA, though, is that it's always warm. It's always summertime. There is no wintry seasonal lull where sleepers appear and all other street folk mysteriously evaporate. South Central is never playing anything less than the fullest version of itself.
Thirdly and most crucially is the fact that South Central is the only American ghetto with a continuous high-profile media presence. Everyone's heard of it. Compton has a name recognition value comparable to Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Place names like Watts, Crenshaw, Slauson, Inglewood… these words have histories upon them, lives and memories writ large.
South Central's vast tracts have spawned an entire musical genre, and the place boils over with racial tension, an exaggerated microcosm for the nation as a whole. Disenfranchised souls in neglected corners the world over mythologize the place, responding to the voice it gives their frustration.
Those of us who've spent extensive time in South Central know this reputation is both deserved but also manufactured. The first thing you'll notice, should you ride the Blue Line down to Compton or take the 111 to my hometown neighborhood of South Gate, is that 1) there are plenty of people over thirty-five, meaning we're not in war-torn Timor-Leste, and 2) not everyone is listening to rap music. They're listening to Earth Wind & Fire and Donny Hathaway. Or Beyonce. When a home at the intersection of Florence and Crenshaw still costs $500,000, you know you're not in Scampia or the favelas of Rio… but even so, you must leave before dark.
The fact stands: as far as 'hoods, South Central LA is it in the public consciousness, the top of the pyramid and the towering apex gangsters everywhere secretly aspire to.** They look up to it, standing aside in awe, in mingled fear and respect. South Central is the only 'hood that isn't trying to be like another 'hood, if you know what I mean. It doesn't take notes from other places. We in the Western world concern ourselves mightily with status, and in the business of status and 'hoods, the yardstick of measurement ends with South Central. The image of the place is what we're discussing here, the mental reality, and it is appropriate that South Central is in LA, that most image-obsessed of American metropoli.
All of which is to say, these five men at Othello personified what South Central represents for the world: the high end of the street cred bar. They, far away in another psychology, coiled and distant. They, humorless and towering as Easter Island statues, swaggering about the territory, theirs. Teens wish they could look this hard, squeeze themselves out of being what they consider as forever second-rate. Musical personalities pretend to have histories this flat, this pitiless. Sergio Leone would have loved their stony faces, these cowboys of the new age. "Realer than real-deal Holyfield," for better or worse, as Snoop Dogg once wrote.
But though they may do a bang-up job impersonating those Easter Island busts, you and I know they are as human as anyone else. How to bridge the gap?
Pretend to be confident.
That's what I told myself as a new 7 driver back in 2009. People can smell green from a mile off, and I did my best to affect total comfort and capability in my job. That I'd ridden the 7 many times certainly helped, coming from LA helped, but driving a trolley is overwhelming, and green is green. Over time the funniest thing happens: all that pretending turns into real confidence. Personally, I think this qualifies as magic. I don't know how it works, but it does.
Pretend to be confident. Not confrontational, you understand, just confident. Nothing will catch a certain type off guard like being fearless and friendly all at once.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey, how you doin'," one of the men replied. In their pursuit of fulfilling a type, they were all dressed similarly, dark colors, blues and blacks, oversized, skullcaps and unzipped hoodies, sweatshirts worn in layers, sagging low with deep pockets.
"Good doin' good. Thank you," I answered, as the first man paid his fare. The others were still outside the bus, largely motionless. "Hey guys, come on in."
A woman's voice in the middle distance, shrieking.
"How's it goin'," I continued. I've been driving the 7 at night, five nights a week, for the last two years straight. Most people on Rainier Avenue have at least seen me by now. This fellow hadn't. He replied with stolid silence, no eye contact, not quite sure what to do with me. An authority figure who levels with you?
I ignored his silence and kept right on talking. "Happy Sunday, 'ppreciate it." To the third man: "Hello."
"Dis th' right transfer?" Man Three asked, peeking out from a blue sweatshirt I could use as a sleeping bag. His transfer was a different color than today's preferred choice, orange.
"Here, lemme give you the right one. There you go." He nodded a thanks and continued walking past. To the fourth gent: "hey, how's it goin'."
"Alright. And you?"
"Doin' good, thanks for askin'."
"Hey, how you feelin'?"
Man Five: "Uggnh." It was neutral in tone.
"Right on. Here's some a this," I said, tearing off a transfer as he put in two bills. "'Ppreciate it, thank you.
I closed the doors and intoned into the mic, "Alright, here we go!"
At this point the second fellow, the only one who hadn't greeted me, returned, showing me a crumpled scrap of orange transfer.
"Thanks man, that's cool," I said, appreciating his gesture, especially given that I'd already let him aboard. It could only have been a gesture of respect at this point, and I wanted to offer something in return. "D''you wanna trade it out?"
"Yeah, let's trade it out. Fresh off the press right there, Night Owl for ya."
"God Bless," he said loudly as he walked to the back to join his friends.
"You too, man!"
"You didn't have to do that!"
"Thank you. My pleasure!"
I think we won another one over, I thought to myself.
What I love about this entire communication is that strictly in terms of words exchanged, we don't see thugs, wannabes, Leone cowboys, or non-emoting statues. We see five people, six including myself, performing a basic societal interaction with civility and kindness. Nothing about their behavior was oppositional. Bob Dowd, my trainer in part-time driving class, told us something I'll never forget: treat everyone with respect, especially the people who seem like they deserve it the least. Because those people may not be getting much in the way of respect from anyone, and your attitude may resonate.
They are not so coiled, nor so distant. They, rather, the people of the cluttered and chaotic now, you and me included, doing our best in uncertain times.
*Please don't ask me to call it "South LA," as City Hall implored everyone to do in 2003, in an attempt to de-stigmatize the place. As a former resident I just can't abide! They didn't change the name of Watts after the riots, now did they? Or rename Wendy's after the chili soup finger lawsuit? Also, ignore the Wikipedia article, which humorously tries to define the borders of SC as excluding Compton, Inglewood, Lynwood, Hawthorne, and Willowbrook. Um, no; we're discussing the beast itself, which in common parlance means everything south of the 10 on down to the Long Beach city limits.
**The irony here is that I'm from the place, and look and dress nothing like the expected type. To come upon a bunch of teens in Kirkland who for all intents and purposes are trying to emulate someone from South Central, and to stroll past them unbeknownst in my fitted t-shirt, dress shoes, and belted, hip-high jeans is a source of amusement!
Note: the image is the interior of the 210, northbound on Crenshaw Boulevard, one weekend afternoon circa 2006.