“FUCK YOU,” he says as he boards, with such unhinged force I can only find it comical. Fifty-year old East African man in a sweatshirt and slacks, holding a wooden chair in one hand. I don’t know why I think this is so funny. I think it’s because he looks fairly refined, one of those serious middle-aged types. Phawk You. Maybe I should be afraid sometimes. But honestly, where would that get me?
“How you doin’?”
Upon hearing me and seeing my tone he instantly shapes up a little. “I’m good, how are you?”
Confucius said pleasantries don’t make us better people, but they do keep alive in us the goodness we already possess.
“Excellent, thank you!”
“Tha’s good.” He smiles, appreciating my acknowledgement of his personhood and complete ignorance of his earlier attitude.
He and his friend sit down near the front. The second man is younger but taller, dressed in a huge lightweight blue and burgundy rain jacket. He expands like a sea star, spreading out, covering as much surface area with his body as possible. The two form a compelling visual image. I want to paint these guys. Don’t think I’ll ask them now, though.
“I don’ care where you from,” says the fifty-year old, apparently continuing a thought with his friend. They’re are sitting behind me. “I keep my mouf shut. I keep quiet. I don’ care, shit.” Sheeyit. “Why I’m gonna care?” He continues. “I don’ say no thing, I don’t care.” He expounds a bit further on his promise of keeping quiet before doing so.
Two young Cobain-lookalikes board, one with a guitar in hand. “Oh, hey, it’s you again!” says the one to me, excited. To the second man I say, “ah, an artist! You can play whatever you want, I won’t stop you!” I’m sure I’ll regret saying those words one day, but sometimes you get some really good acoustic work wafting up from the back.
We’re filling up. It’s a night run on the 49, pulling into Convention Center. Here’s a few more getting on. A young European couple, twenties, hesitant in their step. Must be visiting from out of the country. She asks, “do you go to Broadway?”
“I do! Where do you want to go?”
“We want to go to, is it, Broadway and Allison? by Fuhr, uh,”
“Oh. Allison, by Fuhrman, and Harvard?”
“Yes, I will take you there!”
“Okay! Thank you so much!”
Sparkly eyes, now full of youthful vigor. They’re quite the attractive couple– not tall enough to be supermodels, and too friendly to be on magazine covers. Just perfect, in other words. What they also seem is very much out of their element. The dominating presence on the bus now is a three-way argument between the two East African men and a third black man of ambiguous heritage, wearing a Seahawks jersey, the current neutral Seattle uniform of choice. The two accost him regarding his birthplace, abandoning their self-imposed promise of being quiet on such matters. To their credit, they speak in low tones, but that just makes everything seem all the more menacing.
“You not from Ethiopia. I know.” The tall guy. “I’m from Ethiopia! I’m gonna know. I know. You Somali?”
“I’m from Ethiopia,” says the Seahawks man quietly.
“You’re not from Ethiopia. How you gonna fool me? Live my whole life…. Eritrea? Eritrea. Eritrea maybe. You from Eritrea? I can understand that. Tell me you’re from,”
“I’m from Ethiopia.”
“You’re not from there. Why you say you’re from Ethiopia?”
“That’s where I from,” he says, maintaining his quiet tone. Impressively cool. He leans his bulk forward.
“I don’ know why you keep saying that.” The tall man’s face is tilted back on the headrest, coolly looking down his nose at the other. Legs splayed out, jacket big and wide. Sotto voce: “I know. I know your face.”
“You know my face? I know my face!”
“You from Ethiopia? What part Ethiopia you from? What tribe?”I see the European couple shifting uneasily in the side seats above the middle wheels. I know what this all looks like. The impressively intimidating argument dominating the first half of the coach, bubbling chatter elsewhere, the Cobain lookalikes talking loudly in the back, a group of college girls going on about transcribing and transcriptions, various street guys peppering the room… and all of them in their own comfortable worlds, exclusive, uninviting to outsiders, not realizing they’re forming a young couple’s first impression of Seattle. A friend recently described to me her first impressions of the reality of American life as “uglier and scarier than anything [she] had imagined,” and looking at the couple back there I get the sense they feel similarly. When you read a bunch of guidebooks warning about the dangers of travel in strange new cities, and then find yourself in this environment at this time of night, yes, the mind does wander….
For me the scene is different. I know the Cobain kids and the street guys. They’re fine. And East African immigrants in their forties and fifties don’t get in physical fights. They just don’t. I let their argument play out, fascinated. The Seahawks man really is from Ethiopia. He speaks some language samples and specifies a few words and locations. All is well.
At Roanoke the European girl comes forward, followed by her boy. We’re two stops away.
“Hi,” I say to her. “I think I can take you closer. Almost there!”
“I did not forget about you!”
She smiles the warm smile of relief, the enveloping feel of safety coming back. Acceptance.