"Great!" he says. "And you?"
He's a recurring rider, this gent, popping up with a random regularity at different points along Rainier. I'd say he's fifty, a fresh fifty with a genial wisecrack up his sleeve every time. He always says "bingo." I wouldn't mind that as an identifying characteristic. He's dressed in Dockers, a turtleneck, and blouson; one of the many refined pillars of the African-American community out here.
Tonight, the truth was I felt burdened and distended. I'd misunderstood some deadlines regarding medical paperwork and just learned I had a tight timeline for fulfilling them, with the additional complication of not knowing if I had the necessary documentation or if I'd be able to even acquire such due to time-sensitive components and hazy evidence. So.
I answer his query with a sighing "I'm alright." He knows me enough to know this is utterly out of character. Friends joke with me, saying if I reply to "how are you" with a mere "okay," that means my day's been terrible!
"Yeah, I'm getting over this, uh. I had Dengue fever."*
"You had what?"
"Dengue fever. A mild version of it I think, but still." Am I going to turn into one of those people who talks about all their problems with strangers?
"Oh, I just got back from Mexico, Mexico and Cuba. I got family down there. But I think I got hit by a bunch of mosquitoes."
"What's Dengue fever like?" He hollers. He's sitting halfway down the length of the bus, but the route's just begun; we're alone for now.
"Mostly combination of fever and flu-like symptoms, headache muscle and joint pain, there's a skin rash part of it too, but I didn't get that. I'm way better now. I'm thankful I got to go down there, but now I'm tryna sort out the sick days at work, 'cause I was gone for a while."
"What is there to sort out though? You were sick!"
"True, but it's the whole getting the verification, getting certain paperwork in by a certain time, signatures… you know how it puts the pressure on, you know?"
"So it has me stressin'. I know worrying won't help, but I tend to worry until it's all sorted out. You know?"
"Yeah. I'm a therapist."
I chuckled. Naturally! "Oh, well you know all about this! I din't mean to make you work during your off hours!"
This is all way too much about me. I try turning it around. "How are you?"
"Oh fine! Bingo!"
"What a great response! I wish everyone said bingo!"
People are starting to board now. Personal conversation has had its day in the sun, and now it's time for connecting with the folks at large. After a small crowd wafts in at Henderson, a familiar face pauses outside the doors. His round head is emphasized by his baldness, glistening dark brown; if you've got the head shape to pull off fashionable alopecia, you may as well go for it. He's shorter but well-built, thirty, baggy sagging jeans coordinated with an appropriately oversized dark sweatshirt.
In a theatrical voice he declares, "bus driver by day… photographer by afternoon!"
"You know all about me! You saw the sign!"
"I saw the sign, yeah! You know how I saw it?"
This is what red lights are made for. He doesn't need the bus, but he really wants to tell me this. Still standing on the sidewalk, he continues with, "I heard this lady talkin', 'he's so nice, he's so nice,' and I thought she be talkin' about the driver of the bus that was right there. But no! She was lookin' at the picture uh you, man!"
"What? That's an honor! Thanks for telling me!"
After we leave the curb, I say, "aw, that's so nice," half to myself and half to the man in the chat seat. My favorite bus trips are when things keep rolling such that I'm breathlessly chatting from one person to the next for the entire ride. To him directly I ask, "how's it goin' for you?"
He's another distinguished gent, slightly heavy in the way that announces presence with dignity, where you think this guy must be president of something. Wire-rimmed glasses framed by salt-and-pepper dreadlocks down past the shoulders, a knotted wooden cane, dressed in a calf-length black wool felt coat, spotless. You want this guy to officiate your wedding, or at least bless your adopted child.
"Great," he replies. "So, bus driver by night… or is it the other way around?"
"No, definitely bus driver by night! Too dark to take pictures!"**
"Ha! So, what is it?"
"Oh, they're doin' this ad campaign trying to hire drivers, with the idea of you can be a bus driver and do your other stuff too. Tryin' t'let people know, it doesn't have to be just, you come in drive the bus, then go home drink beer watch television!"
"Yeah! So what kinda photography you like to do?"
"As long as I'm shooting on film, I'm happy." I always say that part, in answer to the oft-asked question. How much further I elaborate depends on the person's curiosity. Tonight I say, "but enough about me talkin' about myself. How about you? I like your walking stick!"
"Oh! Thank you!"
"It has personality!"
As it turns out he's genuinely interested in photography. Now we're discussing his friend Melvin, a fellow enthusiast with his own photography show opening just this weekend.
"You might know him, Melvin. His brother's a bus driver,"
"Really," I say. I know a lot of drivers. But this angle rarely works: there's 2,700 of us.
"Oh! I know a Glen. Mr. G-Money! Kinda shorter,"
"Great big smile?"
"Think he has a coupla kids, right?"
"Oh, he's a great guy!"
Why am I so unreasonably happy we didn't mention his race in describing what he looked like? Something about this elates me on a level I can't describe. Would we be somewhere slightly different as a society, if we only used character traits to describe people?
"He is. Yeah, his brother is my friend Melvin."
"This is excellent! Okay, tell me again where this show is?"
We talk about Belltown, trying to pinpoint which intersection. "First and uh, I think First and, or is it maybe Second and...."
"One of those!"
"Yeah, Battery and...."
"That's prime real estate over there for galleries," I say. A photograph or two can cover a month of my rent. We discuss Melvin's photography. Our friend isn't entirely sure of the process. "Something with lamination," he says. "What about you, you got any shows comin' up?"
"I got nothin' now, but I'm goin' to Paris tomorrow!"
"What?! Wow! For how long?"
"Just over two weeks. I'm happy for the opportunity but I'll be happy to get back on this number 7 in no time! If I make it back with arms and legs, hearing and vision, I'm thankful!"
Little did I know, in that moment. But nevermind. You wouldn't doom the present by telling it of its future, would you?
"Well, enjoy yourself! And." He leaned in, as he stood to get off: "Eat. A lot." That's the voice of someone who's knows what duck confit tastes like.
"I will! Hopefully you'll recognize me when I get back!"
I was raised with the notion that we generate our own happiness from within ourselves, such that we might not be dependent on outside forces, unreliable and negative as they can be, influencing our own well-being. I abide by this concept because I find it self-evident. But that doesn't mean I shouldn't take assistance from those around me. Like the song says, we get by with a little help. It's in exactly the times when we feel like withdrawing that we benefit most from reaching out. It's counterintuitive. As with jealousy, which always works the opposite of the way you want it to, it can help to resist the impulse. Closing down won't make things better.
"If you're feeling stressed," I once told a class of new full-timers, "try to get out of your headspace a little. Ask somebody how their day is. Compliment someone's hat. Announce the stops yourself for a trip or two, instead of the machine (or on every trip, as I do!)." We have more sides to ourselves than whatever's bothering us right now, and flexing those other muscles will only help. I'm so glad these three men minded me toward matters besides sick day balances and doctor signatures.
They didn't know they were helping me stand up again, reminding me there's more. It can be healing to talk about Belltown galleries and advertisements and what people's friends' brothers look like. We receive in return what we put out, but planting the seed of positivity for doing so during a challenging time is a delicate act, and the help of others is much appreciated. Together we brought it back, these three unrelated musketeers and I. Pulled me back to my better self.
*Or possibly Traveller's Dysentery. There were a couple thousand cases of the former in the part of Mexico I visited when I was there, but my symptoms were in between the two maladies.
**The ad now says "bus driver by day, photographer by afternoon," as you can see in the image below. The original brochure read, "bus driver by night, photographer by day," which I much prefer, mainly because it's accurate! But the campaign is for part-time operators, who can't work at night. I was part-time for seven years, which is why I'm featured.