358 night

 

John (a different John, not the fellow from the 358 posts) seems to come from another age. Multicolored crumbs pepper his dry lips and beard. His eyes are glassy, sometimes present, sometimes far away. A gentle cloud of paraphernalia seems to drift ever around him- garbage bags on their last legs, the red handles stretched from overuse; backpacks and shoulder packs, hanging off this shoulder, or that one. Here is a man who needs three arms.

The better part of his wardrobe lays heavy on his back. Dark jacket over dark jacket weighing down his drifting figure, halftone layers of brown and gray, with a coating of grime unifying it all. He would sit at Rainier and Bayview in the summer evenings, barely able to talk, but always ready to smile.

You would wonder if he was lucid enough to be aware of your existence, and then he’d look you in the eye, responding graciously to your greeting. Today I’m at the 358 layover, my door open, leaning on the farebox with my book (Dumas), when John comes ambling by. He stops when he sees me.

“Heeeeey,” I exclaim, recognizing him.
“Hey, man! I need a taste o’ ‘caine!”
“Oh yeah?”
“Yeah, I’m just hunting’ for a little bit o’ ‘caine. Hey, congratulations on supervisor!”
“What, me? Naw man, I’m still just a regular old bus driver!”
“Aw what? They told me some young Chinese guy went supe.”
“Huh.”
“I didn’t mean to imply…”
“Oh, no, I like bus…” What was I about to say? Where am I going with this? I like buses? I’m not Chinese? Best to tack outward a little- “I’m glad you said hey! I see you got shoes now, that’s some good stuff!”

This is the first time I’ve seen him walking in something other than scuffed, oversize white socks. The bones in his feet seem fused awkwardly. They are large, and he’s unable to “walk,” in the traditional sense, but he gets by doing the shuffle.

“Yeah, I remember you from that 7 route!”
“Glad you’re still hangin’ around!”
“You moved up in the world, I see,” he announces, looking for the route number. “What’s this?”
“358s!”
“Oh.” Silence.
“I love it. It’s like the 7, long and straight!”
“Yeah, they’s some good ones. I like that one out by the arsenal.”
“Magnolia, yeah! 24, 33…”
“Mostly older folks.”
“Real quiet out there.”
“Yeah. Nice to get away for a second,” he remarks wistfully.
“Oh, the park’s beautiful.”
“Except them drills though.”
“Drills. What kinda drills?”
“The army guys, they run these drills, all kinds a hours…” Discovery Park is built on the historic grounds of Fort Lawton, and still contains adjacent military properties and housing. He continued, “I was out there real early one morning, and they surrounded me with quiet subterfuge!”
“Those army guys really like to play around out there, huh?”

Right when he said the word “subterfuge,” I felt the budding sensation of learning something new. Nobody on the street says subterfuge- except when they do. Who was I, to assume he didn’t know the word? There are facets and details in the lives of others we can’t pretend to fathom.

A blind senior passenger recently told me he was a chauffeur for celebrities back in his day (“Ah was that mista Daisy,” he explained), and although I was skeptical, I had to admit there was a very small chance that yes, it was in fact possible. Subterfuge. In that moment the word took on a new meaning- there are multitudes within me, despite my appearance. I, John, am not a homeless drug addict; I am a person who happens to be homeless and addicted, and there is more that defines me.

To have my belief in depth, regardless of appearance, confirmed, was profoundly electrifying, if such a reaction is possible. It’s the freeing feeling of an open door, and the welcome wave of understanding that no, you don’t know everything about this universe, and there is still space for pleasant surprises. I grinned out at John, unable to explain just why.

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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.