On the 7:
He looks gruff, plugged in to his headphones, light mustache and beard cut to angle downwards, as if to set his features in a permanent grimace. I’ve spoken with him before, however, and he’s just another fellow, put-together and forward moving, scrambling to make a life for himself, as we all do. Around forty, black American, his clothes clean and sharp, cutting a figure of disciplined energy. He wasn’t always in such good stead. Not long ago he was studying hard for college entrance exams, a radical change in life for him; in his gruff way he’d keep me updated, and it was a pleasure to see his smile on the day after he passed them.
Today he steps forward before getting out, earphones pulled out for real-life engagement. He’s wearing a jacket of new and treated leather with fitted dark jeans and boots, an ordinary outfit, sure, but with an attention to presentation. The details are crisp, and everything is in its right place.
This evening it’s rainy, and the slick roll of pavement obscures his words at the outset of our conversation.
“I lost forty-five [unintelligible]. It was thirty-three, thirty-eight, forty-three.”
Forty-five what, I wonder. Pounds? Minutes? Is he angry about this loss, or happy about it? I can’t tell. The gruff goatee doesn’t really help. I take a chance and say, “that sounds great!”
“Yeah, forty-five pounds in [unintelligible] months!”
“All my pants. I used to have these designer pants,” he continues. “A whole rack of them, you know, fancy. All them good designer jeans I had, but I couldn’t wear them no mo,’ ’cause they were all too big! Had to get rid of them. All a sudden they were huge. I looked like a crack dealer!”
Both of us laughing out.
“You know how crack dealers where those big,”
“Yeah, tha’s why I had to get these glasses, so people stop lookin’ at me funny!”
“Oh, that’s great!”
There I was, thinking he wore glasses to improve his vision. Clearly I was out of the loop! It’s all about that non-crack dealer image, apparently. I found the idea at once comical, sad, and endearing. Comical, because of its absurdity; sad, because for Pete’s sake, the memo should be out that not all black men are crack dealers; and endearing, because he found a creative solution to a potentially troubling ideological issue, laughing it all off with aplomb and feeling comfortable enough to share it with me. Something to consider the next time you see someone wearing spectacles- or stuck walking around in unnaturally large expensive pants!
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.