I’m honored and thrilled to now be part of The Urbanist, a site dedicated to examining urban policy and expand our thinking on public transportation and numerous related subjects. For those of you reading me for the first time, check out my blog of art and bus driving stories at nathanvass.com.
Some time ago I posted a massive post detailing what a day on the 7 is like. As the 358 winds down to a permanent close, it’s time for some similarly massive thoughts on Seattle’s most notorious route.
I was at Central Base once when I overheard two other operators talking about me. “He likes the 3 and the 4?” “Well, he’s crazy. He always picks the 3 and 4. And last winter, he picked the 358. For fun!” Why did I choose to pick what some call “The Disease Wagon” again? Why was I so adamant about snagging “Jerry Springer” one last time before its deletion, to the point that I took an hour and a half cut in pay simply to get my grubby hands on it? The obvious answer is because I love the route… but why? By way of more clearly describing what the route is, I offer a few excerpts from the route’s Yelp page. The fact that it even has a Yelp page (not to mention songs based on it, and celebrations and condemnations in numerous publications) gives you a notion of the route’s continued cultural presence. I can’t help but share some excerpted alternative opinions:
“The Smell…. Why shouldn’t it smell that way? What’s more natural than the scent of mildew, urine, and armpits? The odor of the 358 is like the aroma of open pasture contained in a mobile urban capsule – really well-used open pasture. The sooner you realize that the better…. This bus is known for its liberal use of free speech, generally at unorthodox decibel levels and peppered with colorful language.” -Wandering M
“This bus will be driven by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on that fateful day when fire rains down and the seas rise up to swallow this ungrateful earth. As we can never be certain when that day will come, I recommend boarding backward (so as not to cast eyes upon demons) and prominently displaying a crucifix…. This will at least keep the other crazy fuckers at bay.” -Victoria T
“It wasn’t until after witnessing a third number two incident on the 358 that I actually moved residences just so I could take a different bus downtown to work every day.” -Cami G
“[A]lways entertaining, sometimes frightening, and with the most hardass-but-full-of-grace-and-humor drivers. If I’m on this line, I generally need to be. Also turns into a dive bar when persons bring their tallboys of fortified whatever into the back and chug en masse until they slump over on the other disaffected passengers.” -Chris W.
“I’ve yet to ride this route without there being some sort of smelly person/alcoholic/nut job or combo of the 3 riding it there with me. A smattering of the type people you might meet: A man who smells strongly of tequila and a hamster cage…A middle aged gentleman sobbing loudly and uncontrollably next to you…A woman screaming about how both judges and bus drivers are poisoning our children and how they are the same a**holes who shut off her phone and let OJ Simpson walk…A young man trying to convince his GF the woman she just heard in the background is NOT someone he is sleeping with… A Mickey Rourke look-a-like who is so drunk he can’t be understood when screaming at the people entering/exiting the bus…” -Kate S
“I don’t care what anyone else says, the 358 is the best dang experience Seattle has to offer. Want a rotating restaurant with a view? Skip the Space Needle – just hop aboard, grab a free half-eaten burger, and watch the city go by. No need to go as far as Pike Place Market for the smell of fish – if you’re lucky, you may even get one thrown at you. And if you’re searching for the Fremont Troll, you can get your picture taken on the bus with plenty-a-prototype. If you could fit Seattle in a box and put it on wheels, the 358 would be it.” -Wandering M
“I vote for the 358. You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy,” writes Hernandez, commenting on a 2009 poll in the Stranger for “crappiest metro route.”
We even have a 358 haiku, offered by Jonathan S.:
“What the hell’s that smell?! Good Lord – Long drive and packed full. Honestly – who reeks?!”
In counter to these memories, I offer an ode published in Seattle Weekly, when it was named best bus route in 2013:
“Oh, route 358, you poor, maligned thing. You course through the troubled water that is Aurora Avenue, serving Fremont frat boys and hard-up motel dwellers alike, packing ’em in and getting ’em home or downtown or anywhere but here. Between 7 and 8 a.m., nine of your green-and-yellow carriages will bear south, each one fuller than the next as you take them 12 and a half miles from Shoreline to the courthouse, Bitterlake to Belltown. And what do you get for it all? Entire Reddit threads, Tumblr accounts, and Twitter feeds about how “sketchy” you are, how “sex acts are common,” and how one guy saw a lady get kicked off for huffing paint while in transit. Listen not, 358. Let coddled Route 26, that conveyor of Wallingfordites and Green Lakers, keep the grime from beneath its manicured fingernails. Yours is to toil for the working man, and you do it mightily.”
A 8 x 10 blow-up of the above is hung on the wall at North Base. Some drivers are planning a party at North to celebrate the route’s demise and welcome a new era wherein they’ll never have to deal with the route again. In the same breath, a number of operators are planning to ride the last 358 trip, to glory in the last hurrah of a cultural institution that will breath its last breath in the waning hours of this coming Valentine’s Day. You can guess which group I’m in!
Nowhere else will you encounter such a group of souls as those I have the pleasure of spending time with on this route. Yes, they swagger on with all manner of questionable and dangerous items peeking out from under their jackets. They hobble around with stuffed garbage bags and needles. Beer cans and condom wrappers share space on the floor, along with strange powders, leaves and pills that defy my understanding. Once, on the same bus, I found a collection of the following: bras, surgical masks, gummy worms, and board games! Somebody was planning quite the weekend in Vegas!
You don’t just see increased police activity here; Aurora Avenue is where police cars drive past each other in opposite directions because they’re going to separate incidents. The people are cloaked in smells I’ve never experienced and can’t begin to describe. I helped a woman with directions, and as she assaulted me with her astounding breath I was more bewildered than displeased, as in: how did this train wreck of a fragrance come into being? How many ingredients and lab experiments would it take to replicate it?
Before I started this job, I had a tendency to romanticize the poor. I read Tolstoy and liked Millet and Henry Tanner. Van Gogh wrote of the truth he saw in peasants’ eyes, and how he found it nowhere else. Being familiar with these works, and coming from the working-class background that I do, I had certain inklings about the poor I believed to be true. After driving buses for several months, and being in daily, close contact with the lower class, I began to realize there were more sides to the story, that some people behave terribly, and as many make crippling life decisions as are simply wronged by bad fortune. I wondered whether I had been superficially romanticizing, when in fact what was actually going on out here was really just a bunch of…no.
I had an epiphany. My epiphany, which hit me after driving the bus a few years more, was that my original inkling was in fact true. These are among the best people I know. When those damaged, craggy, beautiful faces get off my bus and say “God bless you,” let me tell you, they mean it. People in Bellevue never say stuff like that. They don’t treat me like this. My earlier realizations hadn’t been overturned so much as reoriented, grounded and firmed up by the unblinking gaze of reality.
Respect, gratitude, thankfulness, appreciation, empathy- these have incalculable currency out here on the street. I see disabled women getting up to make room for other disabled women. A “hello” from me goes further on Aurora and Rainier than it does elsewhere. It’s a simple sound, but with the right tone it’s enough to communicate the warm comfort of a judgment-free space. Often you can see what a welcome surprise it is- gestures of kindness are all the more impactful for having occurred in the supposed darker corners of life.
“Thank you,” a teen boy said in what was my last interaction of the night. He’d beseeched me for a free ride, and I’d given him one. I didn’t ask why. Does it matter if his circumstances are his fault? He turned to me before stepping into the freezing cold. “It means a lot,” he said, in a moment of uncool but beautiful honesty. I knew now by experience what Van Gogh was writing about.
“Anyone who drives the 358 part-time doesn’t know about the 358,”a veteran report operator grumbled at me not too long ago. It was all he could do but tell me I had no right to be happy. Maybe he was tired of seeing my smiling face around the base.
Comments like this amuse me. Anyone who thinks nothing happens on the 358 in the afternoons… well, let’s just say that person really just needs to come out for a ride on my bus. Locals will tell you Aurora’s drug transport and prostitution activities take place mostly during the daytime, when things are more easily accomplished using discount hourly motel rates and frequent bus service. More importantly, though, that grumptastic vet simply doesn’t know where I’m coming from. He probably doesn’t ride the 358 and a host of other routes at all hours on all days, and he certainly doesn’t know that I do.*
Beyond that, he knows nothing of my background. I was speaking with another operator years ago about why it was she and I both liked driving “the rough routes” so much, and the only commonality we could find among ourselves was that we were both from South Central LA. There are things I’ve experienced- without the authority and recourse to safety that being a bus driver provides- whose sandblasting negativity have absolutely no place on this publication. For me, they function only as healthy reminders that when something as marginal as a man defecating in his pants happens on my bus, I can recognize that it’s not a problem. It’s an issue. When boys are fighting in the back, it’s an issue, but we get through it. I ask them to continue their fight outside, and they do so.
“Hey, Nathan, I have a question for ya,” driver Ted asked me once. We were both doing 358s at the time.
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Well, I always see you driving that 358 smiling, all the time, every single time you’re smilin.’ How d’you do it? We’re driving at the same time, we’ve got all the same people, and they’re cussing me out, they’re peeing in the back, I’m gettin’ the works. How do you do it, man?”
It’s amazing what a difference tone makes. When you ask somebody how their day is, they generally keep their pants zipped. Ninety-nine percent of my day is in my control. In my recent post regarding Carlos, I write that his new construction job and resulting station in life has no catch. Is that really true? We could probably find one if we really wanted to. Maybe he has to take three buses to work instead of two, or he gets paid monthly instead of biweekly. The fact is, I think Carlos is happy because he doesn’t think like that. If the catch is negligible, why bother contemplating it? I could choose to think my route is plagued with problems, or I could just embrace it all and get on with the business of being myself.
Standing there at the base listening to the aforementioned grumpster tell me I knew nothing about the 358, I thought about calling him out and gleefully tearing apart his argument. I knew exactly how to do so… but I discovered I couldn’t. I lack the necessary apathy. The fact is, I sort of like the poor guy. He may be the polar opposite of me in temperament, but he doesn’t deserve a telling off. How would it help? One man’s passion (love) is another man’s passion (suffering), and nothing will change that.
In conclusion, my love for the 358 can best be described by these two pieces- Ode to the 358, and Ode to Aurora. There is an undeniable elation I feel when I see a mob of street people at an approaching stop. It’s a mystery to me. Any interpretation I come up with now would merely a supposition, and would fall short of a full explanation. I can only say I feel it in spades, and that, strangely, this feeling doesn’t ever fade.
*A suggestion for my newer bus driver friends: if you don’t already, ride the bus. A lot. The best bus drivers are those who also ride the bus. There’s no better way to learn about your job. In the same way reading all the time makes you a better writer, and acting makes you a better director of actors, riding the bus makes you much more aware of the type of experience you’re giving to the passengers, and quickly shows you what works and what doesn’t. You might find yourself surprised.
Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.