Three Open Doors

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Photo by Ned Ahrens.
Photo by Ned Ahrens.

You may have seen the ad I’m in about working for Metro. I’m linking it only because I thought you might find it of interest. I haven’t seen it. You know how you just can’t bring yourself to listen to your own voice in voicemails? It’s a little like that. I’d rather tell you about three wonderful interactions I recently had on the 7:

A middle-aged black man in rags and dark shades is rushing across Pine, toward the island stop, pushing a manual wheelchair filled with buckets and painted boards. “Hey, hey, hey!” he yells.

“I gotchoo, Darryl!” I yell in reply. The ‘sexy hood bunnies’ (to use a friend’s perfect phrase) sitting in the shadows chuckle in appreciation, realizing I know the man. I whip out the wheelchair lift before he’s even at the doors. On routes with a lot of lift usage, your hands flip the necessary switches in seconds, reflexes borne out of habit.

When people speak at high volume, I like to match them. Darryl and I enjoy yelling at each other late at night, our throaty roars ranging over a variety of topics. Despite his rangy appearance, he’s an educated man and an artist. Lately we’ve been discussing astronomy. He gets on after a week-long absence, settling in behind me, standing by his loaded wheelchair, and expounds on something he said a week ago. I’m impressed by his memory.

“So like we were saying about the Great Red Spot, you know, on Jupiter,” he bays, “for a hypothetical journey out there, something to remember is that it’s the worst point of entry, but the best point of exit!”

“Worst point of entry, how come?” I shriek in reply.

And we’re off. We discuss the need, on a manned mission, of a spacesuit that has its own force field, as this would be the only effective way to resist the drastic pressure and temperature shifts in the atmosphere, particularly during entry and exit. We go over the materials which would be necessary for such a suit and estimate its total cost, before moving on to potential threats one might encounter on an all-gas planet. I love diving instantly into such acute detail, when a moment before I wasn’t even thinking about Jupiter, or the Great Red Spot, or spacesuit force fields.

He’s excited to hold forth on the devastating weaponry one would be compelled to take on a Mars mission, but I mention that the crew would likely meet its demise through something more banal than aliens, like unstable oxygen levels.

“Yeah,” Darryl says, sounding almost disappointed.

After he leaves, all talk of astronomy ceases, and it’s time to dive into a completely different life. Each new bus stop is like a door opening, utterly unrelated to the worlds preceding it. Here’s that woman now, who I haven’t seen in months or maybe years, instantly aglow upon seeing me. She’s around thirty, dressed in a traditional habesha kemis, with a netela loosely wrapped round her head, that gauze-like white fabric which somehow seems so appropriate tonight, a literal manifestation of the radiant elation in her face.

We shake hands, both hands tight, looking into each other’s eyes–not romantically, you understand, but as different lives who can’t quite connect because of circumstance, but who nevertheless feel whole, for this brief minute. What else is there, after all, besides those fleeting but oh-so-real moments?

When she’s with her friends she emits a buoyant youthfulness. I can’t understand Amharic, but it’s not hard to tell when someone’s joking, bringing out the light in those around her, a soul unafraid to dance. Last time we spoke she worked a job cleaning airplanes at Sea-Tac, but I learn she couldn’t continue; something to with an allergy to the sanitation materials. Now she works in Queen Anne. Such subject matter, utterly ripe for a depressing slog of a conversation, is relayed by her with a casual effervescence which warms my heart. I shake my head in wonder. It is possible to be thrilled about allergies and lost jobs at Sea-Tac! I count myself fortunate she feels comfortable enough to share with me so openly. We bask in each other’s glow. I hope I see her again soon.

The world wipes to yet another scene, inbound at Mount Baker:

“Watch this. Watch this. Watch this. Stand right there. Check this out, how he know me.”

The speaker is a man I recognize, one of those faces who wanders Rainier in the wee hours–a strong-featured gaze, eyes and lips of an expressive, confident size. Dressed in black sweats and built like a former lineman. He’s talking to his friend, and older fellow I don’t know. They’re outside, last in the line of people boarding, and when it’s their turn he looks at me and says, “HAAAYYYY!” It’s our customary greeting.

“HAAAYYYY,” I respond energetically. “Wha’s happening?!”

“I neeeeedjoo!” I need you. “I needjoo tonight, man!”

He practically howls it, grinning richly. I’m happy to supply him with a transfer. I say what I sometimes say to repeat transfer requesters: “One day, my friend, I may ask you for help!”

“Hey, you’re mah man. Thank you.” He extends his hand, and we shake. “I got choo,” he says. “I gotchu. I always remember you helpin’ me.”

He’s still shaking my hand, and he says “I gotchu” five or so more times. With each “I gotchu” I notice more clearly a transition taking place. He was in high laughing spirits at first, speaking out of habit, but I can now see my line is hitting him. He says his phrase seriously now, slowing down, registering the weight of what it is to help another, to give and receive in equal measure. Solidarity.

Is that water in his eyes?

There must be a word combining the actions “to witness” and “to take part in.” Many of the options–participate, attend, behold, engage–lean too heavily toward one action or the other. Princeton alumni, give me something that’s four syllables and hits the nail dead on! The sort of bus driving I like to do often results in moments like the three above, which I feel impossibly lucky to both observe and simultaneously have a hand in creating. We build the good moments of our lives together, you and I, and I’m thankful for every minute.

Read more at www.nathanvass.com.

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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.