I recognize his face and gait, but what happened to the mangy hair? He’s still scruffy, but his haircut looks like that of just a regular joe. In my head I called him Grizzly Alan, and I haven’t seen him in more than a year. A smart fellow, about my age, clearly educated, and probably homeless. Today he’s walking slowly past the bus stop on 45th, gaze lowered in thought.
“Hey, maaan,” I call out. I pronounce “man” with emphasis, stretching out the vowel, giving it the weight of a proper name. Letting him know I recognize him.
Jogged out of thought, he sees me and replies, “Oh, hey!”
“Haven’t seen you in a while!”
“Yeah, you remember me.”
“Of course. Good to see you’re still hangin’ around.” Referring to his haircut: “I see you lost some hair!”
“Yeah, it works better at job interviews.”
“How’s that been goin’?”
“Aauuh,” he says.
“It’s a process, right?”
“I feel like it’s a numbers thing. Apply for ten, hear back from one of ’em, you know?”
“Yeah,” he says, pronouncing it as in, “that’s true.”
“Hey well. It’s good to see you again.”
With urgency I added, “Stay strong!”
The faces come and go as the months turn into years. I’ll be riding the ferry, taking in the horizon line, when the thought will surface: whatever happened to Juan and his new baby? Or Angel, with the bathrobe and bruises? Do you remember that face on Pine, outside the mall, the first-generation African man who for years never asked for money, but instead stood yelling angrily about how Seattle Police are communist, and about how the Frye apartments evicted him? Did you ever see him on his “lunch break,” where he would go and sit quietly inside Nordstrom, in complete opposition to the angry facade he projected on the sidewalk? I wonder about these faces, whole and real people, whom I now no longer see. Do they know I’m thinking of them?
Recently I was at the base, preparing to walk out to my bus. Several drivers were discussing a well-known passenger, Gaylen. An angry man surrounding a child inside, he could be an insufferable handful of epic proportions. The last time I saw him was a couple years ago.
“Gaylen? Oh, he’s dead.”
“What?” I said.
“Yeah, he’s gone.”
“Man, I say good riddance,” said a third driver. “That duu’ got on my bus so many times, and I just wanted ta kick those crutches out from under him each time. What a’ asshole.”
“Aw, he’s my buddy!” I said.
“He was, no, no. I couldn’t stand that dude!”
“We’ll just have to find some other assholes!” quipped a fourth, who’d been listening. They laughed.
I gazed across the room at Vicki, a driver and former social worker with a heart of gold. She knew where I was coming from. We looked at each other ruefully. It wouldn’t be any use trying to change their minds. I know they certainly couldn’t change mine.
My mind flashed back to an ancient moment from years ago. Venus, another driver, walked up to me, excited. “Nathan, there’s this passenger who I actually really like, even though everyone hates him. His name is Gaylen, and he–”
“Has two crutches, yes I know! Venus, you’re amazing!”
I’d heard horror stories about the guy but hadn’t met him at the time of the conversation. Listening to Venus was an inspiration. She seemed thrilled in the sense of having come upon a secret; her vision didn’t stop short at a reactionary appraisal, but kept going. She could see through the initial to a more complete picture, and in so doing had found something familiar in a man so outwardly different from her. Aren’t we all the same, searching for happiness each in our own imperfect ways?
Mister Gaylen, I hope now you feel less pain, less occasion for hate, and perhaps the glimmer of a joy which eluded you in this life.
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.