I wanted to check in and remind you all that progress on the upcoming show is going quite well, and that I hope to see you all there. As mentioned earlier, it's a mixture of photography, illustration, writing, and film, a few other small surprises, all topped off by a talk I'll give on the bus universe you and I have come to know so well via this blog. Details on the show here.
I would absolutely love to see you there. If you come to one show of mine, this is the one.
After it opens, on June 13, I look forward to continuing this blog at full steam!
Well, folks, there you have it. The hiatus begins. I had actually written two more stories I had intended to post before ushering in the great sabbatical- I can't seem to stop myself- but I've decided to withhold them for the show, where I'll display them along with other heretofore unseen stories.
As stated earlier, the purpose of this hiatus has nothing to do with lack of interest or story material, and everything to do with making my upcoming show as exciting and worthwhile as possible. I have every intention of getting "back in the game" (to quote the passenger below) after the show opens. This (solo) show will be a tongue-in-cheek "retrospective" featuring quite a sizable body of work in multiple mediums and areas of interest; I strongly encourage you to come to the opening. There will be much to enjoy, discuss, eat, view, and laugh about.
Details are forthcoming, but for now, pencil in the date- which, by amazing chance, marks the anniversary of this blog:
Thursday, June 13, 6pm-9pm, at the Blindfold Gallery (1718 E. Olive Way)!
I'll continue to update the site with comment responses and new batches of photos. As always, I do respond to every single comment made on the site- feel free to air your thoughts at length anywhere and everywhere.
See you soon!
The following day, on the 4 again, it's still a reunion party: I'm full, I'm late, and I'm cycling the lift who knows how many times. It can make a difference when you throw in little gestures of respect. As I load two wheelchairs downtown, and some street guys move out of my way, I say, "you guys are gentlemen. Thanks." I tell the fellow in the wheelchair what I'm doing- "don't mind me, I'm just gonna reach in here," to strap in this seat belt- and the approach makes it all easier. Awkward silences and assumptions begone. Another wheelchair comes by later, and he's one of my favorites. It's the African gent with the trinkets and toy animals all over his vehicle. We can always understand each other's words just well enough. I exclaim, "you have a different hat! But you still have your fishes!"
A sullen teenage couple sits at the very front, watching me interact with all the incoming people, and I take pleasure performing at my best in front of them. Especially the guy. It's me sending an implicit message to him: from one young person to another, you don't have to be a pissed-off badass to be respected. You can just be. In fact, you can be the opposite of a pissed-off badass, and open up to all these strangers and treat them kindly and be happy- and still be respected, often by the same guys you're trying to win over by looking pissed off.
"Alright now. There it is," I say to two thugged-out B-boys hulking beside me, preparing to deboard. We're pulling up to their stop.
"Good-lookin,'" says the first.
"Ey, thanks, man," says the second.
"You have a good night!"
The pissed-off guy looked confused, and left the bus in sullen bewilderment.
At 20th outbound a girl stepping off comes up and says, "I just wanna say, you are like the best bus driver ever." Someone seated affirms it, and this unlocks what has been a somewhat quiet ride. Voices start popping up, and there's a back-and-forth between myself and those around at the front. I try to brush off the compliments, and we're chuckling. I've already completely pulled out of the 20th zone, back on the road, when the 3 behind me honks, as if to transfer passengers.
My mood has me predisposed to feel generous, and I pull over under totally egregious circumstances, blocking everything, not even sure what's going on here; I'm thinking to myself, "would that 3 really be honking to transfer people after I'd already long left the zone? He has to know there's just a snowball's chance that I would even stop..." I ask some folks on the sidewalk if any passengers are running up to my bus- it's dark by now- and yes, someone is, here she comes-
"Heeeyyyy!" I say, recognizing the woman boarding as she recognizes me and grins, out of breath. She another bastion of the community, along with Dee and Favorite. An older woman, light-skinned, with big brown eyes and a sharp outfit and hat- as per usual for her. She's most easily identified by her bright, warm smile.
The bus laughs at my elated response, and as she settles down we, the bus, continue our conversation.
"He's so cute!" Somebody says, referring to me. I roll my eyes.
"Oh, I don't know about all that!"
"Yeah you are," she repeats. I'm a little glad I can't see who it is.
"I'm gonna let you guys decide that!" I say as they laugh. To change the subject I ask the warm-smiling older woman how she's been.
"I've been great, and how are you? You're back! Are you back?"
"I am back! I've been trying to get this route a couple times now, but it wasn't happening. I was on the 7 for a while- which I like, and then I did the 358, which I also like, but now I finally made it back here and this is beautiful..."
"That's probably what he says to everybody!" she says to the captive audience.
"No, no, no," I say, beaming. "I keep comin' back to this route over and over, that's how you know! That's how you know it's true!"
She admits there's a certain logic there.
"Why?" a woman behind me inquires. I pull up to the red light at 23rd and Jefferson.
"This is just the most fun route. There's a sense of, community, out here that other places just don't have," I say, turning around and catch the eye of an older brother with designer glasses. He smiles and nods, understanding completely. "Like this, all this conversation we're having," I continue, "people talking to each other, knowin' each other's names, you're just not gonna find that anywhere else." I look at Warm Smiling Lady: "See, I am telling the truth!"
"Food smells good," I say to a wheelchair caregiver and his bag of takeout.
"Egyptian," he says proudly.
"Where's the restaurant?"
"Lake City." He says the name, which sounds monosyllabic, but I don't catch it.*
I still do my own announcements, as many of you know; at one point the automated voice tries to start talking right before I interrupt it to do it myself. Sometimes I wonder what passengers think about this- I don't usually interrupt the robot if she's already started talking.
"See, he turns off the automatic thing," the older brother's ladyfriend says to him.
"Yeah, I like to do them myself," I say.
"It keeps me awake!"
"I know tha's right!"
"Yeah, it keeps me sharp, helps me remember what I'm doin.' Plus, man, listening to that robot lady talk for eight hours..."
They die laughing.
"She be all talkin' about 'orca card vending machines-"
"And it's like, we already know that stuff!"
A middle-class Caucasian passenger- the only one- has been smiling along the whole time, occasionally commenting, feeling right at home amongst all of this. She's in her fifties, dressed smartly, and it feels like we're in a special room, or a holiday of sorts, where race doesn't exist and there is simply the universal human culture we all build from, dressed and realized in different ways. I see her and the light-skinned Warm Smile Lady discussing something. "You've been an absolute delight," she says to me as she steps out.
Back at Harborview, a man wanders over from the Emergency Room and boards. "How are you today?" I ask.
"Hey, you and me both!"
"Yeah man, that makes two of us!"
"In order to be a bus driver, you gotta be..."
"Completely nuts. Like I am! I love this place!"
Oh, it's great to be back. It begins. See you all soon!
*Can any of you help out here? I'm at a loss to recall any Egyptian restaurants in Lake City. There's the Import Market at 12528, but I don't they cook meals. Any ideas on what he might have been referring to?
The faces are there, and smiling. I'm having trouble doing anything but grinning from ear to ear.
"So you back on the 4?" A brother asks.
"Yup! Back in the game!"
"'The game' is right for this route!"
I'm back on the 3/4, and it's been a long time coming. I did it for nearly two years straight, and then lost hold of it; I gave it up voluntarily for a 7 I wanted, and it was taken over by an excellent operator just under me in seniority. That was fine. But later on, every shakeup I would try to pick it, and it would be snatched out from under me. This doesn't make sense. Drivers are not supposed to like the 3/4. Unless you're completely nutty, like I am, and love lifts, overloads, hills, deadspots on hills, bad schedules, tight turns and narrow roads...please. My friends. Just let me get in there and do my thing. I need that stuff in my life. I don't like being in 3/4 withdrawal.
Anyways, I finally got my baby back, after probably the best non-trolley shakeup ever (on the 358), and boy, it's good to be here. Drivers at Atlantic are a little closer knit, since we have to look out for each other, and it feels good to be part of that family again; walking into the base is a welcome series of excited hellos as I see my wonderful colleagues after a long time away in the far North.
On the street, I have trouble containing myself. The first day was a mellow President's Day; it isn't until the following day that the onslaught is really there. An old Korean lady recognizes me at Union. She used to ride nearly everyday, and apparently still does; for some reason I've never talked to her. Today we discover our common heritage and language. I ask if she's finishing work, but she's actually just been eating, at her son's restaurant at the Market. "I have to eat," she says. She has a point.
"It's a number 4 for ya," I yell out to Jenny and her dog. She has a huge, genuine smile. I've never seen her wait for the 4 before.
"Oh good, a driver I know!" she says, upon hearing my voice.
"Now, normally I see you on the 7-"
"I moved!" Jenny's excited about it. It's an easier commute. "Don't have to take that 7 no more," she enthuses. We've hardly talked before, and you can tell she wants to speak further, but isn't sure what to say. She's just happy to be here, in a comfortable space.
Behind her is Dee, headed home to the Central District. Dee's an older woman with an inspiring, vibrant presence that defies her age. She stopped using the 4 after I left it a year ago; for some reason unknown to either of us she took it by chance today, and is amazed to see me again.
"You're back," she exclaims, with an air of surprise at the impossibility of it all.
"I decided to come back to work!"
"Where you been?"
"I been hangin' around, where you been this whole time?"
"I've been takin' that 27."
"Oh, you went over to the other side!"
"That's 'cause you weren't around!"
She's sitting halfway back into the bus. We have no business shouting like this, but we do it anyway. The others are smiling.
"You don't wanna mess with that now!" I say, about the 27. I mean, why ride the 27 when you could take the 4 and go past Harborview?
"Yeah, it aint' got nothin' on this!"
"Plus the 27's got that funky reroute."
"Yeah, Dee, you don't need that in your life!"
Jenny laughs richly from her seat a short ways back. I ask her about her new place. Jenny can't see, but she hears everything, and the three of us continue catching up, as the rest of the bus looks on smiling, laughing, and occasionally joining in. Riders who don't know me look nonplussed but excited; something is happening here, and they're new to it, learning what it is.
It's at Harborview that the bus erupts. Familiar faces abound, and I'm practically assaulted with good vibes. Even though it's been close to a year, they somehow remember me. "Shantae!!!" I yell, as Shantae says my name in surprise. Next to her is Favorite. I don't know Favorite's name, but she always calls me Favorite, and I gladly return the favor. She's an older black lady with a rich sense of humor, and in the past would always thank me "for my guided tour" of the Central District. "Are we gonna get to see Elvis Presley's house?" She'd ask, and we'd riff off each other in the afternoon sunlight.
Shantae asks if her sister can ride for free. Of course she can. "Just for today," I add in a mock serious voice, though my reputation precedes me- does anyone in earshot actually think I would turn someone down for a ride? Shantae smiles wide. It's good to be here. I feel like I don't deserve all of this.
Favorite and Dee move to sit by each other. It's clear they haven't seen each other since I was last around. I listen to Dee asking after Favorite's grandkids. Out here in the Central District, I'm reminded, people know each other. In the Judkins section, I wave at a Latino family's house that I haven't gotten to wave at in a year. The grandmother inside the window can't believe it.
"You still gonna make that stop at Alder?" Dee asks me. Back when I drove the route, there was a stop there, and after they took it away, I would occasionally keep using it- I learned from Metro that the stop was eliminated for political reasons pertaining to Garfield High School, and is in no way unsafe. It was always one of the silliest stop eliminations on the route.
"Oh, you know it!" I say. "We got you covered!"
"And how about Lane?" asks Favorite in her wonderfully gentle voice.
"Lane?" Lane Street was never a stop in the past.
"Yeah, you wanna make a stop down by Lane?"
"Ahm, lemme think about that," I say to an eruption of laughter. They know what that means.
"But what if I say like my granddaughters do and go, 'pleeeeeease?'"
"Oh, well now I feel terrible!" I say, laughing.
Jenny pipes up: "or like my grandkids do- 'pleasepleaseplease?'"
"Oh, that hurts!"
"You know," Favorite continues, "you could even just turn right on Lane and go three or four houses down,"
"Yeah, just if you really wanted to."
They're not giving me a hard time. They're happy to get off at the real bus stops. We're just having fun. I look at them in the mirror and think, these are the icons of decency. I see them on towering billboards. It's the altruism and persevering ardor in this trio of older women and people like them that I look up to. They deserve to be known- but maybe that would ruin the beauty of it.
"Man, Nathan, there hasn't been this kinda talkin' or laughin' on this bus since you been gone," Favorite says.
"Oh, I don't believe that!"
At my layover, I see Jimmy walking out of the Center Park Projects. I open the doors and leap out my bus, yelling: "as I live and breathe!"
He's one of the building managers there. I've tried to convince him to take my bus many times- it goes where he's going- but he favors walking to the light rail instead. Getting stuck in traffic on top of First Hill is apparently low on his list of favorite ways of getting home, and I try to make him see the error of his ways. "I know how badly you wanna sit at that red light with me at 9th and James," I remind him. I've spent up to 20 minutes stopped there in the past. I was able to get him to ride my bus all the way once, which bodes well: if you've get 'em once, you can get 'em again.
Ten minutes later I fire up the coach again to begin heading back north. It's close to 10am. Peak hour is long over, and it's now my favorite time of day to drive buses- everyone's already at work, and lunch hasn't started yet. Stores are opening, and the commuters are gone; it's mostly a miscellaneous cast of characters crawling out from the woodwork- the poor, the users, sleepers, dealers, the recovering, the elderly, truants, the tired, and the hungry.
This is why I work this job.
I turn the corner onto Jackson slowly, savoring every second. I'm mildly nervous, having never done the 358 at this time of day, but exhilarated at the chance to perform at my best. When people tell horror stories, it's always about their last trip of the night, or their last day on the route. You can't check out early. People can sniff that a mile away. You've gotta stay on, right there with everyone, until you pull back into base and turn the motor off.
I pull up to the Home Depot boys at Madison, the day labor folk, and I'm there for them. Eye contact and a smile. A sullen black man regards me with unfocused animosity as he trickles in change, but I win him over when I hand him his transfer saying, "lemme get you a little somethin.'
The man behind him hears this and smiles, saying, "ey, gimme a little more, dogg!" Meaning a longer transfer. My transfers are huge, in part because of the long route- you calculate them from the end timepoint.
"Aw, my friend, that's four hours!"
He laughs and gets along.
The lady at the front has been watching me. "You jus gotta great attitu,'" she says with motherly affirmation. "Even the way you handled that little thing right there, that could easily ha' gone south if you made it that way." I tell her she's too kind, but she won't have it- "I'm not bein' kind, I'm jus' callin' it out like I see it. Bein' truthful is all, that's how I go through this worl'. I'm just observing. Like my uncle John says..." We discuss the virtues of patience and perspective. Her Uncle John is a longtime operator at Metro. She then says, looking at me, "you're what, lemme guess, half Korean half white?"
This is such a complete about face from Will.i.am and Slur, earlier, that I practically stop the bus as I say "how did you know that?" I'm English no longer, dark hair be damned.
"Pretty cool penguin hat," I say to a senior with such a device perched on his head. "Take your time today," I remind him as he hobbles around. "We got no rush." Behind him, getting on the bus, is an Eastern European girl with blazing blue eyes. She's on her way to class at UW, and like Tuberculosis Man above, we find ourselves getting in depth after talking about bus routes and commute schedules. She's majoring in Business ("ah, serious!") and headed to Communications this morning. You get into their world, their moment, for a few minutes.
I stayed with her in the conversation, asking about class, as we talked about retaining customers in a business environment when they believe they've been slighted on your account. For example, a hypothetical old lady purchases bonds that turn out badly, and believes you, the broker, instructed them to buy said bonds. "The question," she told me with her blazing blue eyes, "is how would you resolve a conflict with her without losing her business." First there is the matter of recalling the tapes of the conversation, relaying to the lady that you never actually told her to buy those bonds, but finding a delicate balance- proving her wrong will merely drive her away. "You have to be showing that the lady was incorrectly remembering the conversation, and then make that seem unimportant. You stress the positive elements of retaining her with a second paragraph that buoys her up again..."
She's going to spend much of her day thinking about dilemmas like that, and that fascinates me. It's a world so far from my own.
Soon she is gone, to be replaced by another woman who is older. She's just moved into a new apartment east of Green Lake that she likes, and we talk about different ways of getting rid of mold, and what percentage of bleach and water to use. At 85th is a wheelchair who signals me like those men on the docks of aircraft carriers, marking where the planes should stop; he motions toward an imaginary line in the pavement. I almost make his stop bar, but am off by a few inches. He ribs me good-naturedly. The fog is now completely worn off, and sunlight streams into the morning with a benevolent force that warms everyone's mood. The wide spaces of Aurora recede into a baby blue sky, and here and there an airplane's contrails carve out a path of travel, a roomful of lives up there, traveling a world away.
"We must be getting old," the wheelchair says to the lady up front. "Oh, don't say that!" I say. I know they're talking about me. We all laugh, and they continue their conversation, with me intermittently joining in. The two of them know each other. The mood is that of a relaxing Saturday morning, in a living room with no worries; pure, quiet joy on a half-full bus. A benevolent sleeper nods into himself behind me, emitting a pungent odor that keeps us awake. Nine hours later I would see him again at the stop where he's about to get off, still wandering around in a pleasant daze.
Into the microphone: "Alright, let's make a stop at 165th here. This is our first stop for THS. Guys have a good one, be safe today."
"I've never heard a driver call out THS before," the wheelchair says.
"Hey, it's where we're goin,'" I say. There's good people everywhere, methadone or no methadone.
At 185th it's the man with big glasses and turquoise shorts again. I ask him if that 301 worked out. It did. He needs the lift, and starts to say "sorry,"
"Oh, don't apologize! That's why it's here, man. I like using the lift!"
There's no reason this guy should be apologizing for wanting the lift. It only takes a minute. I hope other drivers haven't been giving him a hard time, but all I can do is offer him a comfortable space, here, now. We do what we can in the series of moments called life.
My last inbound trip of the day, at 5pm, is like what all the other trips of the day have been like- busy, loud, involving, and invigorating. It's my last day at North Base, and I feel blessed to have been assigned double shifts on the 358. Why would I want to do anything else? Every trip has been a dream, and I work through the day in a mild state of wonder- how is everything so perfect? Moment after moment, snowballing on top of each other, an endless collection of slices of life, helping people, answering questions, rockin' the lift, making my goodbyes to departing regulars.
On a route like this there is so much being asked of you, all at once, and when you can perform at that level and not only stay above water, but excel, even if just barely- here is the exhilaration of a six-minute mile.
Jim, a passenger, and myself, talking ferries, commuting, and Korea, where a friend of his lives; Willy, a daily commuter who wishes me well with a generosity that floors me; Kevin, going out of his way to come to the bus and say goodbye. He didn't even need to ride that day. They and so many others walk into the disappearing twilight, fading into the humming morass of the human collective. The very last trip is one of those Twilight-Zone runs with no passengers, and I spend it reflecting goodness I've been able to be a part of. The humanity of a person who takes that moment to smile, or nod, or speak as he comes up the steps; these actions may not make us a better person, but they bring out the good we already possess. It's been a long, huge day stuffed with all the above and more, a collection of "small" interactions that makes me marvel at how I'm so lucky as to experience all of this. It is one of the best days, ever, and this post does it only a paltry justice.
At the end of the day I look down at at my bundle of transfers. I usually save one and scribble notes on it if it's been a particularly great day. Today, I have no words. I walk back to the base and try to live in the memory of all of it, savoring the joyous cacophony of the day in my head. The parking lot is quiet. Up above is another plane, its contrails perfectly straight against the rich, deep blue.
I always pull up early when starting an inbound trip at Aurora Village. There's something nice about sitting there with the doors open, in prep mode while people get on and situate themselves. I can recall a time on the 5 at Shoreline Community College when it was magical, or at least I thought it was magical, as I hung around at the front while students intermittently wandered on and relaxed after taxing their brains in biochemistry class. It conjoured up the sensation of a long trip, not unlike boarding a plane and getting settled in with your book or coffee.
Since then I do it whenever its appropriate, typically on a route that starts at a transit center. Spring is on its way, not quite here yet, and the days are lighter. I'm scribbling on a scrap of paper on my knee, making thoughts concrete. It's around 8am, gray with light fog, and here's a young black man, dressed like he just applied for Exeter, running breathlessly up to my bus. Behind fashionably thick-frame black glasses he asks, "how long before I leave?"
"Seven minutes," I respond. He asks if it's okay that he leaves his backpack onboard while he smokes a cigarette. Certainly.
Then, unprompted, he talks about how running in the wind "hurts my eyes, dogg, gets all in my eyes," with an expression of severe pain. I say "yeah, me too. It's like being on a bicycle, where after a while, your ears become sensitive from all that wind blasting in."
He looks at me with incredible surprise- "YEAH!"- as though we'd uncovered one of life's great secrets.
"What are you writing," he asks me.
Now, in truth, what I'm writing is the blog post below, 'Appearances.' I dont say that though. The meta-connotations would be too much- like breaking the fourth wall in film.
"Oh, I'm just workin out some stuff in my head, you know, figuring out my thoughts."
He explodes with a "Yes, I do that too!" We riff on the benefits of clearing the mind.
"Ah write about mah feelins," he says loudly and boldly, without embarrassment. Something about his sincerity makes me forget to laugh.
The fascination amongst youth culture with being "cool-" that is, with being aloof, askance, steeped in irony, experience and cyncism- bores me immensely. Coolness is defined by jazz historian Ted Gioia as "putting up a guard." Honest, open communication takes a backseat to a posturing and a preoccupation with trends and surfaces.* It's the opposite of letting down your guard, which is a prerequisite to any sort of meaningful relationship.
This kid is not being cool. He's being genuine. He wears his words on his sleeve, not in the least worried if he sounds silly as he says, "if I'm feelin' angry, I write about it. If I'm feelin' sad, I sit down and write about it. I get the pencil out and jus' get it all down on the paper."
'Cause then your thoughts are concrete,"
"Exactly, man." Excited. "Inside your head it's all swirling around, and it's hard to think. But you get the pen out, and it makes everything better. 'Cause sometimes you can be confused, but when you write about it, you look at it real, and it all makes sense, you've taken like this big jumble and unraveled into one long thing, and you can look at it and understand it. You wanna know what you're feeling, can't have all that runnin' around inside your head. You go crazy sometimes. I don't like that. Tha's why I write. Doesn't matter what I'm feelin,' what's goin' on, I write about it. I write about everything. I could be writing about that guy crossin' the street. I got so many journals stacked up-"
He's standing awkwardly at the front, not sitting in the chat seat, which is available. I'm held so rapt by his monologue that I don't suggest that he sit in the chat seat, for fear of losing his conversation. We're driving by now, passing 185th. A man with big glasses and turquoise shorts asks about downtown, and I suggest the 301.
I ask my standing friend, "What kinda stuff you been writing about? What do you wanna do?"
"I wanna go to Edmonds. But that's jus' part of the plan. I'm gonna be a film producer. I'm gonna make my own movies. I know a businessman in Chicago, he gave me his card. I know two businessmen. They're gonna teach me about notes. That's like stocks, keepin' track of the money. I wanna be a film producer with my own company, where I act in the movie, I direct the movie, I produce the movie, I do music for the movie, it a be a one man show but I gotta be trained. First I gotta learn about stocks and mutual funds, then I have enough to open my own restaurant, use that money to do that, then after the restaurant, I have enough money to make a small film, then after that movie blow up, I bankroll another film on top a that film using the profits-"
"Hell yeah," he agrees. "Step by step. Can't get right into film production now, I gotta, it's gotta be a process."
I want to reign this in a little. "Tell me about the restaurant. What kind you gonna open?"
He's still standing, right behind me, behind the yellow line, filled with enthusiasm.
"Fried chicken," he blurts out, after consideration. Then he relents and reconsiders. "No, man. Ribs. I'm gonna open a ribs- barbecue! You know, a real barbecue joint. Everybody gonna come." A blight on his smiling face as he realizes: "they a lot of vegetarians nowadays though." The guy looks almost depressed. I try to encourage him, reminding him that "tons of people like ribs. Always gonna be people eating ribs," I say in a consoling voice. "Everybody likes barbecue."
But he's not discouraged: "Maybe I can get them to give up vegetarian though. Like, they'll come in- exactly, everybody like barbecue. They gon' come in, it gonna be so good, my barbecue gonna be so good they'll try it and maybe start eating ribs again. Maybe give up veg. I'm gonna go sit down. What's your name its a plesaure talking."
I couldn't help but wonder if this was his ordinary way of talking- flitting from topic to topic with unbridled honesty and bursting naivete; was his an attitude that will hold, or will he look different in twenty years? I like when what little cynicism I have is proven wrong. Let's hope he matures into a place that works.
At 155th, we have an older Caucasian man with a cane moving with dexterity across the street. Jaywalking on Aurora is a life-or-death proposition that I've seen end badly. "Don't hurt yourself out here, man. Be careful. That kinda stuff scares me."
"Thanks," he says, noticing and registering my appearance. "Howyoudoingtoday?" Sometimes you can feel someone making a conscious decision to engage.
"I'm great, how 'bout your self?"
"Huimdoowinpittyguh (I'm doing pretty good)-" he says, in a tone of complete surprise, as though he hadn't realized this until I'd asked him.
"Ahainnevaseenyoubeefa," he slurs out. He's intelligible, but only just barely. I'm able to discern that he's speaking English, and from someone else's perspective, we must look quite the pair- one man making a series of garbled transmissions, and the other responding excitedly in normal English. We chat about my take on the route, and his childhood in Cherry Heights (Cherry Hill). It's like speaking a secret language. You can hardly understand him, but- you can. I resist the urge to speak in his voice.
"Is that so?"
"She lookin' out for ya?"
"Sounds like she knows what's up!"
The fog is beginnning to burn off, and sunlight wafts onto his face. There is light everywhere. I want to faint at how beautiful it is. Warm, incandescent tones make new shapes on people's faces, and shadows grow where they were none before. At 135th I look down the open expanse, between the tawdry landscape of K-Mart and Krispy Kreme, and the beauty of the light floors me.
"Look at that light," I can't help but say. The fog gives depth to the space, and a stillness filled with possibility. Albertson's never looked so good. I'm never sure if non-artists are into this kind of thing, but this oldster is. "Yeauissbeeayophu."
"Aenissgehhenwauhmatoo," he adds through bleary eyes. "Nawssoko enimo."
"You said it. I'll take every degree I can get!"
"That's a good-lookin' crockpot," I say to lady carrying a good-looking crockpot at 130th.
Somewhere further down the road, perhaps at 100th, Will.i.am, the rapper, or at least his doppelganger, gets on. "Uh oh, whaaattt? Not the lil' kid again," he laughs.
"They can't get rid a me!"
"Hot diggity dog. You guys best be checkin' for this boy's ID," he announces to the rest of the bus.
The trick is not to assert yourself over non-issues. Flow with the people, not against them, a driver once told me when I was new. Thus:
"Oh, you know I got my learners permit!"
"Learner's permit," he laughs.
"Yeah, you know they're desparate to hire people. Recruiting straight outta junior high school."
"Straight outta junior high school!" Repeating it for effect.
"I should be at home doin' chores! Gettin' my homework done!"
He's cracking up at the seams, laughing. We amiably continue. I see faces in the mirror, quiet but smiling. Somehow it comes out that I'm from LA. Sometimes people can tell by the way I find myself speaking sometimes. It happens without my realizing it. Shades of an earlier life, creeping out.
"You from LA?" he asks.
"South gate," I reply.
"That's the hood, man."
"Yeah, that's the hood. South Gate. SG."
We laugh. Nobody calls it SG. It's a parody of sorts of "CP," the designation for the neighboring area, Compton.
"Yeah, there's a driver friend a mine, Jerome, he also from down there."
"You know Jerome!" I say, becoming animated. I love Jerome. He has the character and patience to pick the 358 five days a week, and still be happy. I relieve him three days a week, and he's one of the best.
"Yeah! Jerome's awesome."
"Man, South Gate. Thats where Cypress Hill from, arent they?
"I believe so."
"They closed down that Maplewood Police department!"
"So where you from?
"LA too! course I am, how you think I know about the Maplewood Police?"
"Yeah, that's true."
"I was there, and I was up in San Gabriel for a while. The Other SG."
"'The Other SG,' oh, that's great. I ain' never it called that before!" We're both rolling around in the aisles- metaphorically, of course.
"What hospital you born in?" he asks.
"I forget the name, it was in downtown LA. It was a Korean name, Korean hospital, probably why I forget the name. My mom's Korean."
"Really?" Surprised. "You Korean?"
Slurring guy says, "you look English!"
"What?" I say, turning around. "I look English?" I haven't heard that one. I've heard Hawaiian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, but- English?!
"Yeahthedarkhairyeah," he explains. This explanation is news to me. How had I not known that the English are identifiable by their hair color?
"You dont look Korean," Will.i.am says.
"Shoot! I gotta work on that!"
"In downtown LA, man. 'Cause I used ta live off a Vermont Ave,"
"Yeah, I used to take the old 204 up and down Vermont-"
"And thats in Koreatown, a course, and I was wonderin' if maybe it was over there."
"Yeah, I used to hang around over there. I'd go over to the art museum at Wilshire and Fairfax..." You find solidarity talking about mundane things with someone from a common origin. There's no other reason to get excited about talking bus service on Vermont Avenue, but we sure are.
"Yeah, by the tar pits."
"Yeah, the tar pits. And the mammoth statues. 'Miracle Mile.'"
"Yeah, Miracle Mile."
"Though I ain't never seen no miracles happen there!"
"Hey, don't give up the faith! One day one a them woolly mammoths is gonna come alive-"
"And that sabre tooth tiger!"
"Yeah, so I speak Korean but I'm not fluent."
"Koombaya heenghow," he says in an Asian voice.
"Oh, I see you speak it fluent too!"
"Man, everyone wants to go to work today," I say, noticing the bus filling up.
"Yeah, its Friday, can't nobody call in sick. You gotta go to work."
"Thats right. You gotta have some nerve to do that. These are the good people, they didn't play hooky at all, even though its nice out!"
"Alright man, I wanna see a driver's license nex' week," he says as he leaves. We're at 45th now.
"I'm a do my best!"
At this point a Caucasian man in nondescript west-coast office wear comes up from the back to join me in the chat seat. He says nothing.
"How's your morning goin'?"
"Off to a good start."
"Talk about a beautiful day."
"Yeah, usually I bike in, but I had a flat tire."
I ask how far of a ride his commute normally is.
"I come in from around 145th."
"You bike in from 145th?? Where are you going?"
"I work in South Lake Union."
"Wow. Wow. That's a ride. Especially going home. Those hills!"
We talk about hills, and then I ask, "what kind of work do you do, if you don't mind my asking?"
"Excellent. Staying productive. In what field?"
"A worthy cause. Do you like it?"
"Yeah," he answers half-heartedly. "Sometimes you run into issues with funding. We're government funded-"
"Do you ever run into issues where the source of funding is determinate on the types of results you're being asked to produce?"
"That's exactly it, it's coming from a source that wants something specific, and we have to tailor to their needs,"
"They might have an agenda,"
"And the nature and trajectory of the research gets influenced by that?"
This is a major issue in multiple fields of scientific research, and we discuss it further. What's invigorating about this is the complete and instantaneous switch in gears from animatedly engaging with Will.i.am on subjects like undead woolly mammoths and riffing on being underage, to animatedly engaging with this learned gentleman about pressing dilemmas in academia. I'm equally fascinated by the undercurrents of both, and it's a thrill to move so quickly from one to the other.
I have much respect for educated people who meet others on an equal plane, and feel no need to foist their learnedness on them; implicit in this approach is the acknowledgement that no matter how smart one is, one can always discover more, from anyone, as long as one is receptive. As Da Vinci said, "Every man is my teacher, in that I may learn from him." I aspire for this mental framework. It's why I get so much out of not just Researching Tuberculosis Man, but also Slur and Will.i.am, and even Ah Write About Mah Feelins Guy. It doesn't matter if he's naive or younger. He's had life experiences I have not had. I can get something out of the interaction.
I wish Researching Tuberculosis Man a pleasant day at work, and then Real Change Willy comes over for a high-five at Denny Way. It feels good to straddle both worlds. I can feel the commuters thinking, who the heck is this guy driving this bus?
A homeless woman with a walker and warm pink hat (more on her here and here) gets off from her trip to THS. I ask her if she finished her Harlan Coben book- that's what she had last time. "Yeah, finally. Took me forever," she sighs. "I didn't like it at all." She has a new novel under her arm now, one of those sci-fi apocalyptic types. I didn't used to know homeless people read Harlan Coben. Now I do.
At Wall a group of excited high-school age girls get on, headed for the Amtrak. They have their luggage ready for a long trip. It's clear buses are not their usual mode of transport; the dynamic changes a little when bus newbies are onboard. You and your bus, for them, are representing all of Metro. I enjoy ushering them into a friendly 358 atmoshphere.
The crockpot lady from 130th, who is Caucasian, gets out at Columbia, and says thanks in Korean- "khamsahamnida!"
I get excited- "Chumuneyo!"
Mid-morning light streams into the bus, making everything new. I ask the girls where they're going. They're headed for Los Angeles, and it's going to take 35 hours! I don't know why I'm so excited, but I am. They're from Canada. We talk about the ticket prices, and whether they've been before. The noises are animated, our voices popping with a verve that comes from who knows where. At the end of the line I sigh with pleasure. It's been a good trip.
My dear friends, I find myself in a position where I need to take a short hiatus from the blog. I'm preparing for a solo art show in June, and my commitment to have this show be the best show possible has resulted in its demanding all of my available time.
You may have noticed the declining frequency of posts here over the last two weeks, for which I apologize; I put a lot of thought, and by extension, time, into these posts, and were I to continue them while in the midst of organizing my show the quality of both entities would suffer.
Having said that, if you enjoy my blog, I strongly recommend the show, which will be not just photography, but also all the other forms of art I partake in, including bus-related writings and other material. The Nathan Vass Retrospective, as it were. It'll be at the Blindfold Gallery on Capitol HIll and is slated for an opening reception on the evening of June 13th. Of course, I'll keep you updated as more details become firm.
I have every intention of staying busy and continuing to share the stories that I love telling so much. They just keep flooding in, and there is a massive backlog as well. I encourage you to subscribe to the blog if you haven't already, so you don't miss out on new stories when they eventually start piling in again.
It gives me great joy to know that there are so many of you who enjoy them as well. In that spirit, I will leave you with four more posts before hightailing it. Two are about my last day on the 358, and the other two detail my first days back on the wire, on the 3/4. Don't hesitate to come find me on the bus! Think of excuses to go to the Central District!
I likely won't have any film-related posts here until this holiday season, so I offer the following if you're interested: a detailed writeup on my take on the nominations for this year. I hope you enjoy. Check back soon for a massive post (or possibly posts) about my last day on the 358!
Oscar Predictions #1, by Nathan Vass