"Hey, wait a sec. Hang on a sec," he says from the front, moving out the front doors.
He's the runner from this story.
Wiry and mousy, with very pale skin. Imagine a less handsome version of French character actor Dominique Pinon; or rather, don't. His glasses and balding pate give him the look of an off-duty high school professor. We're at 100th, and there's a woman outside. He steps out for a moment.
"Hi hi," he says to her. "Will you go home with me?"
She's taller and heavier than he is, in a business casual outfit. This is Motel Row, but she's definitely no streetwalker. Streetwalkers don't wear mohair sweaters and print blouses with slacks. Maybe I should've told him.
With no hint of fear, and trying to conceal laughter, she says, "no."
"You're not gonna go home with me?"
He scrambles back on the bus like a teenager returning from the girl's lunch table, turned down by his crush.
"Didn't work out?"
"She wouldn't go him with me."
"Well shoot, man."
"I can't go home alone."
Sometimes you just don't ask. I'd been laughing at him internally over the absurdity- the complete absurdity- of the situation, but I stopped when I heard the bracing honesty in his voice. He is lonely.
"I can sympathize with that," I said quietly, unsure of whether he heard me. More than one great writer has designated loneliness as the premier element of the human experience, the motivating factor behind most actions and the sensation which paradoxically unites us all, in that we all feel it, surfacing and resurfacing. We do what we can to find belonging. Who among us hasn't searched blindly, in all the wrong places, for connection- with others, with God, with ourselves?
Union Street. Parthid's in the house: a lively, well-dressed Indian man.
"You used to drive the 358, right?"
"Yes! You remember me!"
"I hope I left a good impression!"
He's here on a three year work Visa. Research, mostly neuroscience.
"That sounds great," I say, mentally trying to situate myself in that world for a moment. "Pretty good funding for that?"
"Yes, but there's been a lot of cutbacks in research, since the economy."
"Some of them you can't really cut though. I mean, you can cut things like, you know. Marine science. Nobody really needs..."
"But mental health, brain research..."
"Kind of important!"
We both burst out laughing. Something about the fact that we're sitting at a light at Third and James, surrounded by the Frye, the Morrison, and Triangle Park, makes it all the funnier. Goya-esque figures lurk all around us.
"Yeah, we sort of need to continue studying that!"
"That's good," I say. "The need will always be there."
"Which is good. Reliable."
We move on to discussing Visas and green cards; I mention a friend of mine, who was recently only too thrilled to finally get her green card, after a long fight and many delays. "So what do you think you'll want to do in three years?"
"I like it here. I love it, actually. The people are friendly, the weather's nice. The country's really big. And it's great for research. There is still a lot of money set aside here for research, and so many Universities working on different things; you have access to a lot of different lab equipment,"
"Even though I bet your home country has a lot of technology,"
"True. the technology is there, but so much of the research is being done here, results and hardware don't have to be shipped across the ocean, you know. Don't have to wait three weeks for results, and so on. Anyways, it was nice talking with you!"
"I'm so glad you got on my bus!"
"I like it when the driver is chatty!"
"Oh, I'm so glad!"
"It really makes a difference. To get on the bus like this after a long day of work..."
I really am glad. I'm thrilled but not surprised when the poor appreciate my humanity toward them; I'm sure those more well off are no less cognizant of a job well done, but I'm gladdened when they too express the value they see in direct human interaction. It doesn't happen as often. The personal touch. Those slightly older can recall the days when customer service was nothing but; our self-worth and sense of belonging can reach heights unfound in self-checkout machines and canned announcements.
Parthid and I shake hands at Main Street. I may not see him again, but going our separate ways I imagine he and I both have a different conception of community on this day than if we had remained silent and uninvolved. It was worth it to talk. The pleasantries and sweet nothings do count toward something tangible; you feel differently when you're surrounded by friends.
...And a big THANK YOU to everyone who came to the opening reception! All caps don't do you justice. Such enthusiasm and energy keep me going. You're all wonderful!
Images from the show are here,
along with information about the show itself, which is by no means over- I'll post about when I'll be there (likely every third Thursday night) between now and the Closing Show on March 20th!
Later on that night: Mike, early fifties with glasses, African American. Haven't seen him before.
I greet him as a friend, at Harrison Street inbound. "How's it goin'?"
I remember a newcomer once commenting on how amazed she was watching me drive- she couldn't believe how many people I knew. I don't recall remember the particulars, but I wonder if she simply thought I knew them, and that my tone and delivery was of the type she thought was normally reserved for friends.
"Aw, I'm okay," he responds.
"Stayin' warm, I hope!"
"Yeah, this cold is too much for me. I'm from Louisiana."
"I'm from LA,"
"Yeah, I'm not built for it. This stuff is unnatural! But I'm glad its not as cold as so many other places."
He seems a quieter fellow, but I can't help but chat. Where does my desire to connect come from? I'm riding the high of this last evening, and the elation is flowing over the brim. I'm a child who's just finished a drawing, and just have to show it to somebody. Doesn't matter who it is. I have to let it out, this joy, share it with whoever's around me. We cruise underneath the trees at John, that section on Fairview that has no streetlights. The traffic signals of Denny Way reach out from up ahead.
"It's my last day on the route, so I'm trying to live it up."
He may be in quiet mode tonight, but he's intrigued by my buoyant spirit. "What's your next route?"
I'm laughing. "I like it though. I think I'm a little crazy up here." Pointing at my ear. He grins. "Time goes by so fast. I start the shift, look at my watch, all of a sudden I'm done."
"Yeah, it gets that way for sure. You got a good attitude though, bro. Lookin' out for the people. I ride that 124,"
"'Nuff said, right?"
"My parents and I rode that all the time when I was little, the 174." I pause for a moment, lost in thought, recalling those lost days. The old MAN artics, with their brown seats and faux wood paneling. Holes torn in the gray fabric of the articulated section; the novelty of a bus that turned in the middle. I recall a parade of different sensibilities all around us, a generally festive air. There's great value in acclimating children to being around others. In riding the public bus they become accustomed to the variety of human life, and the equality inherent in sharing the same space. I remember being amongst everyone, looking out the window at the place that sold gargoyles and garden statues. Is it still there, I wonder, as we turn right on Stewart.
"Hey, how's that 124 now that it's offa Fourth ave, and goes through Georgetown?"
"Iss a little more mellow."
"Yeah, I was gonna say. You're not hitting all those liquor stores on Fourth."
"But you still got those guys on Marginal."
"Gets kinda funky?"
"Oh yeah!" There's his laugh coming out.
"There's good people everywhere though."
"So true," he says with a great and happy sigh, as if quietly thrilled there are those who can see this. "So true. Oh yeah."
He bids me farewell at Pine. A hollow voice calls out, followed by a hooded face coming up in the darkness: "Eey, bro! When you comin back to tha' three five eight?"
"I'ma be there next week, finally got it back! You'll have to come out, man, we'll go fo'a ride!"
He grins wide in approval. "Yeeeeeah," he says.
People often ask when I'm coming back to the 7. That's the route people remember me on the most. After that is the 358. Usually I say something like I hope so, or the next chance I get; I'm so glad I could tell him actually that I really would be on it soon.
The next three posts are all from the same afternoon- the last round trip on my last day on the 70.
"You are just so happy," says a woman who's just come up from sitting in the back.
"You can tell?"
"Yes! I love how you singled out Recovery Cafe in your announcements."
"Oh, its a great place. Gotta get the word out." There's a small part of me that announces locations like that on the 70 so the street folk don't feel out of place on such a commuter-heavy route.
"I work there," she says.
"You're doing a great thing."
Here's Backwards Hat Guy, getting on downtown. He's intriguing; one of those people who's very quiet, but whom you sense as being very alive. For two months he got on without saying a word, with his dark slick shades and earbuds. Slightly shorter, thirties, and built. He'd sit in the front, curious; watching the proceedings, watching me.
I couldn't help but be curious about the man. One day I break the silence, asking him what he's listening to.
"Wow. Not what I was expecting."
"I was on it the other night."
He pulls down his shades for a moment. One blue eye has puffy black skin surrounding it, and a deep cut on the cheekbone. He'd been jumped by four men at the Century Square entrance to Westlake, and had fended them off on his own, with little difficulty. His secret: mixed martial arts, which he'd practiced for years. It had paid off handsomely in those heightened seconds.
"Wow," I said. "That is amazing. When somebody says four guys, I'm thinkin' no contest. Makin' me wanna go sign up for lessons!"
He spoke matter-of-factly, taking no pride in the matter, mentioning only that he had taken it up eons ago, as a child. I'm reminded of "The Great Todd," a night operator whose mellow, calm attitude completely hides the fact that he's an expert in Brazilian Jujitsu, and that he would have no trouble completely destroying anyone on his bus in seconds flat...but no, no need for such action. Todd simply presents himself as another courteous, quiet face. He's a gentleman.
Backwards Hat Guy and I would continue chatting intermittently in the weeks following that conversation. When quieter people speak, I hang onto every word; an oft-closed window is opening, and I feel privileged at the chance to peek through. Even if it's very far from his own style, he appreciates my strategy of being "loudly polite" with everyone. Both of us come from much tougher environments, and we thus share an affinity in the mellow realm of the 70, feeling out of place together. We talk about how late the 70 runs.
"One day, one of the first times I was waiting for you, and I was getting all pissed, bus was like twenty minutes late, twenty-five, and I was gonna cuss you out when you got here... but then you showed up and was so friendly with everyone, 'good afternoon,' 'how are you,' that I couldn't say nothin'!"
On today, the last day, as if by magic, the 70 route ran on time for the whole afternoon. This rarity had taken place only one other time in the entire four-month shake-up. As I pull up to Columbia, Backwards Hat is not here on this last day... but at the last minute, yes, there he is. An apparition, appearing instantly from around the corner.
"Hey!!" I'm excited. The last day of any route takes on shades not present in the other days; the passing seconds carry more value. You know you'll soon be leaving this crowd, and you savor the drifting time all the more. Where does it go? I become aware of the present as I wish I always was: outside the past, up against the pulsing now, doing my best to be, to live in this breathing second which I know will never take place again, this moment, already slipping irrevocably away... let me feel whole, during this lucky chance of getting to be here.
"Hey," he responds. "I saw you there at the bus stop and said, 'holy shit!'"
"I know! We're actually on time, for th' first time in my life!"
"You deserve a raise," a man says from further back.
We find ourselves discussing a recent story whereupon a man, very hard up for cash, finally had a check for $1600, cashed it, and set it down on a table at a hardware store to count it. He turned away from it for a moment, and when he returned the money was gone.
"Well, shoot. Can't turn away, man. I feel bad for the guy, but, uh,"
"I don't know, if I had $1600 I'd definitely wouldnt let it outta my sight."
"Exactly," I say. "Put that in the bank."
"'Cause that money's gonna go."
Backwards Hat lets loose a rare smile: "if my girlfriend found $1600 she'd come home with a buncha jewelry and handbags!"
"Those handbags cost money!"
"Oh, yeah. Coach?"
"Blow three hundred on on a those. I'm all about JANsport!"
We collapse. "Or those ten cent plastic grocery bags!"
"Yeah, man. Gets the job done!"
Intersections and lives pass us by, lines and lights winding down. It's evening.
"I still can't believe we're on time. Guys, what am I doing wrong here?"
He laughs and says after a pause, "well, when it was a diesel, it was always on time,"
"Yeah, cause you could get around stuff."
"But I remember back when I first started doing the route in 2008, it was a trolley, but it also ran on time. My question is, how do we get back to those glory days?"
"Dude. One time I was waiting for you after work, one a those days when all the 70s were super late, and you weren't coming for like thirty minutes, so I just started walking home-"
"And I got all the way from Columbia to Eighth and Stewart when I saw you going toward downtown!"
"What?! Wow. Wow! I'm glad you walked. Shoot. D'you often see me on the other side?"
"Yeah, this 70 is hilarious. It's something else."
"Are you excited for the 358?"
"Oh my goodness yes. I can't wait. I'm gonna miss this though," I add, feeling the need to be diplomatic.
"No you're not!" he laughs, seeing right through me. "This' the most boring route I've ever seen!"
"Haha! You read my mind!"
He got off where he always does. It was the most conversation we'd ever had in one sitting. He must've felt the fading time of the last day as I did. I waved big as I drove away, and he waved back as usual, smaller and smaller in my periphery, a shape in the mirror now. Maybe we'd see each other again, and maybe we wouldn't, but we were of a common condition, both alive on this same Earth, beings who had made contact and who would continue, shaped in some small way by our interaction.
I will miss the 70 after all.
There's a strain of conversation I hear often. It's a two part dialogue I have mixed feelings about. A passenger will come up and tell me he likes my attitude or tell me I'm a terrific driver. Great. Of course that's an honor, and warms my heart. Then, he'll proceed to tell me how bad "other bus drivers" are.
It's the second part of this line of thought that is perhaps not my favorite- mainly when the passenger in question characterizes all other bus drivers as a group. Has there ever been a circumstance when categorizing people as "the other" was constructive?
The fact is, I'm not the only operator out there doing a good job. There are drivers whose talents, experiences and observation far exceed my own. I learn from these titans, and feel honored to be among their company. There are also fellows whose apathy makes them a catastrophic embarrassment to the force, and I learn from watching them as well. I recognize it's this latter minority passengers are referring to when they say "other drivers," but I'm thankful when they use some sort of qualifying language to indicate this, rather than the blanket generalization.
"Some drivers suck ass," a customer recently informed me. She'd qualified it with "some," and as such I actually found it more enlightened than another's unqualified "other drivers are lame."
I ride the bus all the time, and it's easy to remember the disappointing drivers, but there are quite a number of above-average operators here. Out-of-towners often comment on this, as it's a contrast to (many) other cities. There's also a sizable count of drivers perhaps not as gregarious as myself, but who are no less competent.
If you're driver is a good one, wish him or her a nice day on your way out. (S)he may not relate to you the value of hearing that statement, but I speak from experience when I say it means a lot.
In the same way that I say thanks to a lot of unresponsive passengers, your thanks may have a bigger impact than you'll ever be aware. It can only help, after all!
I'm on the second 70, pulling up at Third and Pike behind my leader. A number of waiting passengers opt for my bus instead of the 70 in front.
"Hey, everybody. I'm the backup bus!"
"No, you're the first choice!"
"Glad you chose me!"
They seem like the transit-savvy type; the second coach is usually emptier and more mellow. Many passengers don't look to see if there's a following bus, and thus miss out on a more relaxed ride. Other times people will choose my bus simply because I'm driving it. Perhaps they remember me, or maybe it's a circumstance where I'm the less angry of the two options!
One afternoon while I was pulling away from the same zone at Pike, I noticed a wheelchair roll up at the last minute- after the last minute, really, as I was already in motion, well clear of the zone, and she wasn't quite at the zone yet. It wasn't meant to be. I recognized the woman and know she saw me; unbrushed salt and pepper hair, with crisp blue eyes and an expressive face.
In my periphery I registered her disappointment and continued on, thinking, such is life. The 70 runs every ten minutes in the PM peak.
That was at 4:45.
Imagine my surprise when, over two hours later, I pulled into Third and Pike again, after completing an entire loop on the route, and beheld her sitting in the very same spot.
The time was 6:52, and she was beaming. I couldn't believe it.
"Weren't you here two hours ago? Don't tell me you been waitin' here the entire time!"
"Hey man, none of 'em was the right driver!"
"Nooooo way! No way! You waited for me?!"
"Of course I waited for you! You're my buddy!"
"You know there's all kinds of 70s goin' through this time a day..."
"Oh, I know, I saw 'em! But like I said, none of 'em was the right one. I kept tellin' 'em, nope, not the right driver!"
"Aw, they're good guys."
"Yeah, I know. But I wanted to see you!"
"Mary, I am honored. What can I say! I'm honored beyond belief! Two hours! Okay, now you know there's no way I can possibly make this ride worth your time!"
"I got no singing voice, there's no live entertainment...."
I was just glad my piece of work was such that I even drove through there for a second round. She had learned from other drivers it took about two hours for me to circle back around, and opted to wait. In the past we had talked about her hip replacement and associated rehabilitation. She was now well on her way to recovery. I was thrilled to hear it. To be able to turn your back on a wheelchair...part of her therapy involved long, slow walks around town, with the help of her cane. We talked about where she liked to go. It would prove successful; less than two months later I would see her on foot, walking around as if wheelchairs had never so much as crossed her mind.
It's all happening at Kate Alkarni Gallery in Georgetown, this Thursday from 6pm-9. Stop by for a chat, some art, a bit of live music and some tasties!
Details and directions here.
Driving there is easy, and there's plenty of parking; however, for added fun, take the bus down, and then tell me how the ride is! (One day they'll let me drive a bus to my own show!)
You'll have to forgive several extra days of silence on the blog, as I'll be out in LA this week. Meanwhile, however:
No fear. People can smell that. Just project friendly confidence. Greet him as you would your buddy, just come over for a bite of barbeque.
Upward nod of the head, companionable: "Hey, man."
He's thirties, slightly older than me, in worn Adidas running pants and a dark jacket; a scrappy vision in deep black, save for the whites of his bloodshot eyes. There's a glint, a cornered bulge in the left side of his jacket, above the waistline; you know what that is.
Him, swaggering in place, grabbing the door handrail to keep from falling backwards: "Ey, bro!" he says in a first-generation accent. "Wha's goin' on?"
He recognizes me, suddenly excited, and I register the familiarity of this human face. I extend my hand with enthusiasm, giving him the classic handshake, firm and at an angle. Often I do the fistpound, and occasionally one of the many street handshakes; but most regularly I find myself settling for the firm classic. Why mess with an original?
There is something genuinely appealing to me about this man's smile, and as such my enthusiasm manifests itself with my elbow extended away from my body. He likes it. He apologizes for not shaking my hand correctly, but of course "it's all good." I'm exhilarated by his kindhearted side.
"I doan' see you on dis route befo'!"
"Yeah, man! I remember you from that number 7 bus! How you been?"
Our 358 lumbers away from the zone, powering up the crest in the road. The electric assist drops out as the diesel kicks in with a fluid push. We're on our way.
"I been great. I come from Tukwila, getting all my paperwork straight, work permits, everything ready to go."
"All cleared away!"
"I can do anything, man, oil derrick, boats, floor and motor, construction,"
"Nice. Ready for anything."
He leans in, a friend standing at the front, explaining the particulars. I'm all ears.
"Plus I'm an immigrant, so I send the money to my family back home. Africa."
"That's good of you, man. You're a gentleman, takin' care a your people."
"Oh yeah, man, you got to do it."
"I think tha's beautiful."
We carried on like co-conspirators up there, each warming to the sounds of the other's voice. He was no intimidating figure now. Why treat him as the "other," when he was no different? I saw and heard him as I hear myself, clawing through the vagaries of life, searching for sounds of comfort. Two people talking in the dark, united in the ongoing quest to make life familiar.
"Awright, I get out here."
"Good to see you!"
The difficulty of the labor he wants to embark upon sits on my mind. "Stay strong," I say.
"Always!" he responded, with a newfound energy in his voice. It wasn't there in those first moments when he stepped on.
Left-turn signal, as I pulled back into traffic. I smiled to myself. If I accomplished nothing else the entire day, nothing besides contributing in some small way to the creation of that energetic timbre I just heard, well, that was reason enough for me to come to work.
We'll call him Grizzly Alan. Let's just say he balances out the status quo (and to be frank, the level of energy) on the 70. He's one of my favorite passengers on that route. No smartphone or business casual here- he strides confidently on board, sweaty and shirtless in high summer, with a matted goatee, cooler, backpack and dog in tow. Tipping the scales away from haute commuter-land and bringing it all back home. Us folks on the 70 skew younger, and Alan seems about my generation. He's quite educated despite his appearance; he's the fellow referred to at the end of this post,
wherein he, a law student and myself passed the time in all manner of intellectual discussion. Alan lives underneath I-5.
"Hope you have a safe rest of the night," I tell him as he gathers his things.
"Thanks. I hope you don't get shot at!"
"Me too!" I laughed. "It'd be kind of a bummer!"
He grinned and then spoke seriously. "You won't," he said. "It's all about the attitude."
"I think so too. I really believe that."
"Yeah. We have a lot more control over situations than we're aware."
He said it with such confidence. I for one could not agree more. What's stronger than bulletproof glass? Good customer service. Anticipating others' needs. Empathy.