Picture 2

 

“Good peoples, bro,” a boy said, coming up at the end of his ride, offering a regular handshake. I’ve just let his brother ride for free.
“‘Ppreciate it, foo,” said another man, who had seen me being friendly with everyone.
Then: “You’re the coolest driver ever,” an elderly drunk said, wriggling to life at Third and James. “We need more cool young people. Got enough o’ these old farts.”

Later on he jumped off the lift while it was in motion. I raised my eyebrows, shrugging–too late to do anything about it–and said, “that’s one way to do it!”
The African-American man outside in sweatpants smiled as he watched. “Always a pleasure riding witchoo,” he said later on. I waved at the wheelchairs on Yesler Way. There’s always a few who bask in the sunshine outside what must be an assisted living complex; it’s our version of the neighborhood folks on their porches, watching the 3:00 train go by.

When I include stories of folks complimenting me on the bus, it’s not because I wish to share that people like me. That’s not important. What’s important is that they are appreciating and taking part in the act of kindness. I think our sanity and livelihood depend on spreading this sort of goodwill, person by person. What else is there, really?

Elders speak to me of 1968 as a time when the world stopped making sense. There used to be order, they’ll tell me, referring to the sensibility of the fifties, the clear moral delineations of the wars of yore, the economic comfort pragmatically enjoyed by those who had struggled through the Depression and the Great War. Now there was an assassinated president, an assassinated civil rights leader, a war being fought for no reason, and now they’re killing Bobby Kennedy… a fundamental trust was broken. The rules were being outmoded by invisible forces, with nothing replacing them. There was the deep, soul-crushing frustration in the idea of America as a failed enterprise. The thought that it had not worked and never will, and our concept of a just universe was slowly being beaten down.

There is a similar weight in the air now. It is a humid, deep-clawing sadness which threatens us toward our worst impulses, and pushes us to consider only the worst of what we’re shown.

I would like to suggest that succumbing to this perspective will get us nowhere.

The act of being fundamentally and simply good to each other has, incredibly, never lost its appeal. I find that amazing. It’s part of why I’m moved to write about them. Such moments may not have much traction in the newsmedia or on television, but nevermind all that. I’m talking about the real world.

When you’re a young black man, and you hold the door open for an old white lady, you’re not just holding the door.
When you’re a CEO and you ask how the cashier’s weekend was, you’re not just making small talk.
When you greet the thug with an eyedrop tattoo as if he’s just another friend of yours, you aren’t simply saying hi. You’re doing something else.

You’re helping them learn.

People develop stereotypes when they have limited information. Primary, real-world experience supercedes secondary hearsay and assumption, and when you behave like the good person you have it in yourself to be, you’re helping others reframe their understanding of what they think when they see someone like you. It requires very little effort on your part. You’re just being a nice person. And yet with that minimal effort, you’re accomplishing more in their headspace than if you shoved them against the wall and lectured them for three hours.

A friend of mine who happens to be a black male teenager recently told me how much he enjoys this approach. He wants people to know that black culture is so much bigger than hip-hop culture. He’s considerate and well-spoken to his customers at work, as he always is, and when they come back later to share how much they enjoy his attitude, that they’ve never met another young man like him, that they’re clearly surprised, he’s not offended. He’s happy. He’s helping them expand their minds, he says. He’s accomplished something.

I would ask that we follow in this young man’s lead, that we might gently transform the world into a place where Mr. Garner, Mr. Rice and others could have grown and thrived. Don’t try to change the world. Change the person next to you. You do that by being yourself. That’s how you change the world.

Be that young person who says thank you. Be the older person who by breaking a silence reveals their non-judgment. Think before you cross to the empty side of the street– is it really wise, or am I doing this because of all those crime shows I’ve watched? Are you a police officer, or other authority figure? You have a golden opportunity. Be that cop who’s fair and human. Interact with a lot of people. You’re helping change their minds, bit by bit. Pull over a few Lexuses and Range Rovers. People notice things like that. Two (white) sherriffs recently woke a passed-out (black) man on my bus. They politely asked him where he wanted him to go, and pointed him in the right direction, actually walking with him for part of the way. One of them asked how he was feeling.

“Wow, they’re really nice,” I said to the supervisor on scene, who was also watching.
“Yeah!”
“Man, I love seeing that!”

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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.