And now, a round on the 358, down and back~
Aurora &180th: A friendly elderly woman with thick, bug-eyed glasses climbs on board.
"How are you?"
"Fine," she says with confidence, sounding more like a reflex than anything else. She sits in the chat seat and watches me for a few moments. Finally she says, "I have a question about the bus."
"Does this route make a stop by the funny farm?"
She'd asked it in a serious voice. I look at her face, which is serious as well. Is she pulling my leg? Sometimes it's best to err on the side of caution-
"I don't know where the funny farm is. Do you know what street it's on?"
"Well, I don't know the address," she says thoughtfully. "I just figured it must go there, since there's so many crazy people on this bus."
(Including the driver, I think to myself.)
"Oh, those are my buddies!"
She's not sure how to take that. But they are.
Northgate Way: A woman- I think she's a woman- I recognize from my days on the 10. Glasses and an oversized outdoor jacket. She did something to one of her tendons, but she'll still be able to make it to practice. She plays basketball. Quit her job at the airport- "too much hard labor at minimum wage, and no opportunity for upward advancement." She does entry-level work at a hotel now. It's good to catch up.
100th: There's a middle-aged fellow who gets on here regularly. Today he has a white coat with a hood. He hardly speaks English, and there's nothing for us to talk about, but both of us are always thrilled to see each other. "Heeeyyyy," I say gleefully. "Heeeyyyy," he responds with a huge smile. Feels good, pulling back onto the road, my smile not fading away just yet.
85th: A man behind me makes a phone call, loudly: "Hey. Yeah. Hey. I'm on the bus now, at Aurora and 85th."
"Me too," I say. The front of the bus laughs.
Winona and 73rd: Well-dressed, odorless people ride the 358 too. They get on in the Green lake portion of the route. One such lady looks at me with warm amusement. "You don't look old enough to be driving this."
"Maybe I'm not..."
Denny Way: A tall, scruffy older man with a ponytail- definitely didn't get on in Green Lake- pauses as he goes down the front steps to deboard. He'd been muttering to himself for the duration of the trip. Turning his head back toward me dramatically, he says in a conspiratorial voice:
I laugh off the compliment, saying "Oh, I don't know about all tha-"
"No. No. You're advanced, dude. You are advanced."
"Well now. Thank you."
"I'm tellin' ya."
"Advanced." It's almost a whisper. He gives me a significant glance and then walks away.
Virginia Street: "Nice to see a driver who actually gives a crap."
Yesler Way: Another man on his phone, speaking accented English at high volume. A grizzled face nearby says, "Can't hear you!"
As the man continues his phone conversation at deafening volume, not registering Grizzle, Grizzle continues riffing- "could you talk a little louder? I can't hear you so good..." "Excuse me, a little louder, please, speak up a little, can't hear you-"
The man ends his call and puts it together. He sheepishly apologizes. Grizzle ribs him good-naturedly. We all laugh. Sometimes you feel a situation teetering on the brink of a knifepoint. It's a pleasant relief to come down on the right side.
5th & Main: A young family gets off in benevolent silence. The father, a man with cornrows and a sports jersey, wears a thoughtful face. There is a sense of beginnings. The mother gathers the stroller in the dim blue light, and their toddler gazes wide-eyed with deep brown eyes, following their lead. You can tell they're grateful for being in this cocoon of acceptance. Father says to me quietly, "you have a safe shif'!"
5th & Jackson: "Hey!"
"Hey!" she responds. She's on the phone, but I know her from the 7, and we recognize each other instantly. I think she's East African, but can't be sure. She ends her call, and we begin a basic conversation about work and school. The words hardly matter, though. Sometimes it's surprising how little substantive value spoken language carries; neither of us speaks the other's first tongue, but it's hardly a barrier. The shared excitement at coming across another familiar, friendly soul is palpable. She works as an usher and takes night classes at Seattle Central. We smile in the darkness. Leisurely approaching the traffic at Pike, light from the sodium streetlamps casting moving shadows on the bus floor. You live for moments like that.
Pine: "I have a question. Do you to Bell Street?" A young dark-skinned man with an unusually clear delivery. He's enunciating everything. American.
"I'd be happy to go to Bell Street."
"Amen, brother!" He wobbles slightly as we roll out. Sitting down on the wheelchair seats, he yells, "I love this city! You all are wonderful people!"
I try to keep unstable people talking to me. I'd much rather they engaged me then the others. "You visiting from somewhere else?" I ask.
"Hell yeah, I'm visiting! And I'm here to PARTY!"
"There you go."
"Hey mister bus driver."
"You like beatboxing? You know what beatboxing is, where you make the sounds with your mouth?"
"Course I know beatboxing, yeah-"
"Well then, check this out!"
No creative use of my keyboard here will allow me to communicate even a fraction of what came out of this man's mouth. Ostensibly, yes, it was beatboxing, and it was excellent beatboxing at that- in the sense that it was impossible to believe these sounds were in fact being manufactured by a man's vocal cords- but it carried a veneer of loony abandon that can't be replicated. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, sure, but I definitely couldn't believe what I was looking at. His mouth contorted in ways I didn't know were possible. Couldn't possibly be human. You had to be there, I suppose.
I'm wondering how to get him to tone down his beatboxing fervor when he does so on his own, loudly interrupting himself: "I'm happy to be here, Seattle!"
"Where you comin' from?"
"Orlando, Florida, baby."
"A long ways from home!"
"You better believe it! And lemme tell you somethin'!"
"I don't be comin' all that way NOT to have a BIG PARTY!"
"Yeah? You didn't wanna have some small party?"
"Hell no, brotha. I came over here from Orlando, Florida, to GET CRAZY. People don't travel-" He paused, restructuring his thoughts- "if I'm comin' all the way from Orlando, Florida-"
"Yeah, Cross-country. If I'm comin' clear cross the Yoo-nited states-" he sounded like a political commentator now, using the tone of voice Al Sharpton does when he's making a point he thinks is obvious- "then I wanna do some serious partyin'!"
"Makes sense to me," I say.
"Don't nobody need no small get-together," he continues, appropriating African-American English syntax in a way that's clearly not his normal mode of speaking.
"You wanna make it worth your while!"
"Yeah, I'm gonna get down with all my homies the Seattle-ITES!" he boomed, looking around inside the bus. As luck would have it, this trip was almost entirely commuters, none of whom showed any interest in the ultimate party. Our friend was not to be dismayed, though, enthusiastically wishing me well, his receding cacophony blending into the noise of another Belltown night.
152nd: An older African-American man and I exchange fistpounds; it's the second time I've seen him today. Rhythmic pleasantries roll off our tongues.
A sullen Caucasian teenager in the front looks on. Something about our enthusiasm confuses the boy immensely. "I thought it was cool to be pissed off," you can imagine him saying.
Aurora Village Transit Center: "How old are you?"
"Twelve," I say in a dejected voice.
135th: Never seen this fellow before. Could be a teacher, could be a machine operator. "Here, have a bookmark," he says. "Let me know what you think of it next time." He's a like-minded soul in some way; it's an excerpt from the Dhammapada. "Deepen your silence," the last lines read. "Be watchful. Enjoy your empty mind." My kind of bookmark. I haven't seen you again, kind sir, but if you read this- thank you.
130th: A woman in her 20s bounds onto the bus, overweight in an interestingly lopsided, chunky way. She brightens when she sees me, and in her smile I notice a number of teeth are missing.
"I got my surgery done!" she exclaims, beaming.
"Excellent!" Have I seen her before?
"Yeah, they pulled four teeth out! I was awake the whole time!"
I must not remember her, but she certainly remembers me. One of the joys of this gig is getting to talk with people I might never have otherwise met. She stays at the front and we talk about surgeries, landlords, her boyfriend, ways that she covers rent, and more. "My landlord is seventy-six years old, so I clean the rooms for her sometimes. Today I wiped up a whole bucket of blood in one room. Sheets were red, needles everywhere..." she relates the details in a slightly bored voice. No, I wouldn't have met her if I had taken that Barnes and Noble cashier job.
She tells me she's going for a culinary arts degree. At South Seattle? No, she says. At the Art Institute. She's going all out. You can tell she's been told it's out of her league. That she doesn't have what it takes. Her strategy is not to overcompensate with groundless bravado, and nor does she carry the attitude of acknowledged defeat; no, hers is an embodiment of quiet resilience. She will simply continue, on the path of who she is, step by increasing step.
As she explains in a friendly voice how she'd worked out the funding, I begin to notice something beyond her admittedly slovenly physical appearance. The missing teeth, asymmetrical features, saliva stains around her mouth, the double chin to rival Henry VIII- none of those are it. These superficialities cease to register. You notice something else, very faint but present. It's the glint in her eyes. In that pinpoint of light is the unspoken confidence of self. Humanity. It's the world reflecting back at you. Didn't the great minds have that spark when they were young too?
Next stop, 125th Street.
*A note of apology goes out to the "303 WeatherWhiner" mentioned here and here. She has come around quite nicely. Good people come in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds.