Picture 10


“Thank you. I hope it’s a pleasant rest of the evening for you,” I say to someone at Third and Union, on a late-night inbound 13.
“I hope so for you too,” she replies. It’s been a quiet evening.

Then, from the sidewalk, out in the darkness, a face approaches with the familiar accompaniment, shrill and hoarse all at once: “AYYOUGOTHIRDUHJAMES?”
“Hi, Denise! I do!”
There’s only one Denise. She plows onboard like the force of nature she is.

Abnormally thin and ever-moving, she comes from the cartoon tradition of relentless vocal and physical energy. You sense it rushing out untapped, barely controllable, an inertia with everywhere and nowhere to go.

“Aw, pretty good,” I reply in normal tones.
“Oh yeah, Third and James!”
“THANK,” she cries as she tosses in a few coins. Glistening yellow pustules cover the lined umber skin and charcoal bruises of her aging hand. Denise will always offer a token gesture as she storms the farebox. What more could one ask for?

She sits down and stands up. Then she sits down again, just behind me.
“How you doin’ tonight?”
“GOOD,” she wails. “MAH FAV’RITE DRIVER!”
“Aw!” It’s often hard to tell how present she is. Typically every fiber of her wiry frame is focused on her next fix, but you get a glimmer every now and again. She loves candy, but doesn’t have any tonight.

“AHM GOIN’ THIRD JAMES,” she announces to no one in particular. There’s only one other passenger on the bus, a crisp silent man in a blazer from Queen Anne. “I WANNA GO THUHJEMS.” The syntax was shaky to begin with, and it’s beginning to
collapse. She experiments with subtly different alterations on an established theme. I’m listening to the Goldberg Variations here. “AH GUH THUJUMS,” she offers.

At Marion a well-dressed African-American gentleman asks if I stop at Yesler. I do. He folds his umbrella, reaching inside his frock coat for an Orca Card. The glint of his oiled shoes catches in the dim light. The man’s on his phone, attempting to have a conversation: “I might be able to get that to you by Tuesday-“, but it’s to no avail, what with Denise’s variations in the background- or, perhaps more accurately, the foreground.

“I GOTTA GO THIR’ JAMES,” she howls to the high heavens, with wild abandon.
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about,” I say. “We’re definitely goin’ to Third and James!”

Well-Dressed hangs up, giving up on his conversation. He looks at Denise, and then at me. “Dayumn,” he declares after a moment. “Why’s it so loud in here?”
“Just another day in the life!” I laugh.
I respond to her with, “I’m goin there too!”

Denise has dropped some change, a few pennies rolling out of her clenched fists like so many raindrops. One rolls toward Well-Dressed. Denise says, “you want tha’ quarter?”
“That’s a penny.” He kicks it back disdainfully.  “There. Take your penny.”
“Oh whuh oh iss okay,” she replies, rocking back and forth, barely registering him.

I was thinking of commonalities I shared with Denise, or other ways of considering the scene. Moments of urgency I’ve felt. The Goldberg Variations. Well-Dressed seemed to be thinking about how different he was from her. Even a sigh can be elitist: “I want the next stop,” he moaned.

Now, the next stop is called James, but it’s also the stop for Yesler. The zone is on the block bordered by the two streets. Well-Dressed asks, “is the next one Yesler?”
“It is.”
“NO! NO! THE NEX’ ONE THUHJUMS!” Denise’s mouth extends out, flat sideways, almost in tears. She sounds like she’s about to start crying.
Placating: “No worries, both of you guys want the next one, it’s all good. It’s the same one, Yesler and James.”
“Here we are. At Third and James! Bye, Denise! I’ll see you again!”
“AY!” she yells at someone in the shadows, already racing forward, on to the next thing.

Well-Dressed is gone, and the third man gets off as well, the silent witness from Queen Anne. “You have a good night,” he says with untold volumes of emphasis and concern. It was the genuine concern you voice for your friend who’s just been drafted.
“I will,” I say, laughing. He was kind, and I was grateful, but I felt fine. No draft was taking place.

Some people think Denise is the bottom of the barrel. I don’t agree. That would be elitist apathy, which we can always use less of. My heart breaks a little when I hear terms like “Lake City Trash” or “Garbage on Aurora” used to describe people. I happen to like the lady. She is exactly who she is determined to be, no more and no less. My first experience with her was in my early teens. She asked me for change (at Third and James!). After I gave her a handful, she walked away without a word, picking out the pennies and throwing them on the ground. I was offended by that for years, even recently. Now I can see her single-minded drive wasn’t concerned with offending others; just hurting herself.

That was around the time I stopped offering money to people, and the beginning of my time gladly offering help- gestures, food, a smile- and expecting nothing in return. She was doing her best to eliminate everything in her life unrelated to acquiring crack cocaine, in a way perversely similar to my great desire to purge from my life everything unrelated to being truly happy. Without knowing why, I must admit her unrelenting energy and focus brings me amusement. No other passenger knows with such confidence which stop they want! I imagine she would like simply to be acknowledged as a fellow member of the human community. I get the feeling that doesn’t happen very often.

Read more of Nathan’s stories at www.nathanvass.com.

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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.