I think the thing to do here is just present the conversation entirely, as it happened. I know the shorter posts are more digestible in our bite-sized culture, but I’m compelled to share the longer interactions with you as well. In the way I preserve profanity in the stories, I must also preserve the truthful nature of certain conversations by not editing them down. There is more to learn from truth. This one seared into me, and I remember each line more easily than normal, the structure of how we got from one point to the next. At first glance he was just a man on the street asking for a ride, another face in the passing crowd. But we all have our stories.

He boarded at Broadway and Pine inbound, speaking quietly as he requested a courtesy ride, so as not to arouse the judgment of others. Dressed nice tonight, this gent, soft-spoken, older African American fellow with a black turtleneck and dark pants; maybe those are slacks, but it’s hard to tell in the dim light.

“Sure,” I say. “Where you goin’?”
“In town. Well, Fremont.”

I hand him a transfer.

“Thank you.”
“No worries, man, I’m happy to help.”
“Actually I have an ORCA pass, but I left it at my S.O’s. She was intoxicated,”
“Soap opera drama, time to get outta there!”
“Ha, yeah, exactly,”
“Well. Happens to the best of us.”

He was sitting down in the front seat for this, which on this low-floor coach is a good six feet away from me. Now he steps forward, standing closer, feeling a connection. “Yeah, you know, it just gets to a point sometimes. I left my wallet, my cards, but luckily I still got my keys.”

“Good. Gotta have those.”
“Once she starts drinkin’, it’s just, that’s the end of it, the end of the night. There’s no talkin’ sense.” Exasperated but calm. “The moods, the, once she starts, she don’t stop.”
“And you shouldn’t have to put up with that.”
“I shouldn’t.” He’s not angry, but he is profoundly frustrated, and he maintains his reasonable tone. “Not at all.”
“‘Cause you gotta take care a yourself. That type of drama, it’ll wear you out, man, put gray hairs on your head. You know.”
“I do. And I been clean and sober for years now, I can’t let myself slip back into that.”
“Oh my goodness, no way!”
“No way.”
“It’s so frustrating when you’re doin’ everything you can, tryna help the situation, goin’ way outta your way, but it’s the whole thing of, you can bring the horse to the well,”
“Exactly.” He nods ruefully.
“But you can’t make ’em drink.”
“You can only do so much. They got to help themselves, in the end,”
“That’s rough,” I said. “And it’s particularly so when you care about the person.”
“‘Cause you feel helpless! It ain’t nothin’ you can do, even though you love them… I walked here all the way from 18th and Madison, ’cause I just had it.”
“Eighteenth and… whoa.”
“Yeah. I’d rather spend two hours trying to go home then put up with that kinda energy. And she’s of age! I’m sixty-two, she’s sixty-one,”
“Old enough to know better!”
“Yeah. Everyone around her can see it, this problem of hers, except her. We been together twenty years,”
“Whoaaa,” I say, twenty-eight at the time, with hardly a clue how to process a relationship of that size.

“But I think I’m done, man.” He says it again. “I think I’m done.”

We’re not on a bus. This isn’t the 49. This is a living room. This is the back corner of a coffee house, and we’re leaning forward, elbows on knees with the cups and plates pushed aside. Serious talk, the kind where revelations come to light only because you’re speaking on them, making discoveries together with your closest confidants. In what previous life did I know this man before? Or are we all just so much more alike than we realize?

“‘Cause at the end of the day, you got to take care of yourself,” I’m telling him. “You got to.” We’re speaking with more emphasis now, as the stakes become apparent.
“We only get one go around in this life. I’m startin’ to realize, man, I only got a little bit o’ time left, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna give it up for, give up my own happiness for her, when she don’t even care.”
“Oh man, your life is way too precious. Your time, you walkin’ all the way from over there,”
“Oh yeah. There’s times when I’ve waited an hour, two hours, for that last bus home, ’cause I get to thinkin’, I’d rather be at the bus stop. I got to protect myself, my sanity. ‘Cause she’ll call me sayin’ I’m not gonna drink, I’m not gonna do this, and I go over there, ride the bus all the way across town–”
“Which is an investment of your time–” time is a big deal to me, if you hadn’t noticed–
“Because you trust her!”
“And if there’s no trust, communication, what else is–”
“Nothin’.” The word hits like a pounding gavel.
“Tha’s the foundation.”
“I moved out not too long ago. We were livin’ together for years, but it was this alcohol made me have to get outta there. When she pulls out one of those cans, and I hear the pssst– the pssst–” he gestures, opening an imaginary can– “and she starts Goin’ That Way, that’s what I call it;”
“Goin’ That Way,”
“Uh huh, I can’t let myself get, I just can’t be around that. The way she gets. Else I’ll start drinkin’ again. I know my time is limited. I’m sixty-two years ol’, and twenty years or no twenty years,”
“You know what,” I interjected. Sometimes you realize it’s the right time, the right person with whom to share one of your closely held truths, one of the pillars by which you conceive of life. I paused before continuing.

“It’s not a failure because it ends,” I said. “People think relationships are failures unless they go until death, but that just ain’t true. It’s not a failure. Both a you’s grown and learned from each other, I hope she has, and you’ve done just the best you can it sounds like. Sometimes you just got to protect yourself, hold on to who you are. Somebody told me,* if we throw away our whole life tryin’ to please somebody else, man, that would just be the biggest waste of this great gift of life we been given–”

“Yeah. Yeah.” He nodded emphatically. “I agree. I agree. I’m tryin’ to put my life back together. I’m gettin’ braces,”
“Oh cool,”
“I was in the Navy, I’m gettin’ braces to fix my smile–” I wish I had told him his smile’s just fine as it is– “they’re gonna fix my smile, I
learned to cook, I recently got me an apartment in Fremont with a view of South Lake Union, and I’m workin’ on gettin’ a permit to drive, I’m gonna buy me a small car.”
“See, all that is beautiful. You got your life to live. You’re doin’ stuff that’s meaningful to you, and that’s a beautiful thing, takin’ care of yourself. That’s being alive. To give up the rest o’ your days, pullin’ your hair out over this person who don’t even realize how much you care about her,”
“No way.”
“No way.” Third and Pine.
“Hey, good talkin’ to you.”
“You too.”
“Stay strong!”
He took the phrase for its full meaning. “Yeah,” he said after a pause. “I will!”

Some months later I saw him again, walking past the bus. He didn’t notice me. His gait was heavy. His shoulders hung low. But he wasn’t looking down.

* The quote in full: “Many people grow up so addicted to approval that they have little initiative in adult life. You can be so dependent on authority figures that you are unable to know your own will. You end up in a career that others choose for you, you get married to someone whom others choose for you, you live in a house that others choose for you, and you say prayers which others choose for you. Living for the sake of appearance is the ultimate loss. You had only one life to live, and you gave it away to please others. You did not use this opportunity to discover what makes you special and different. You did not appreciate that your uniqueness is God’s gift to the world.”

-Sultan Abdulhameed, 2010

Article Author

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.