On a long enough timeline, all clothes worn in the elements turn brown. It’s a muted shade of that hue which cloaks these two men now, but that’s not to say they’re lacking in personality.
“Do you go as far as Broadway?” says the first, before stepping in. I couldn’t place his age– twenty-five? Forty-five?– but he had overgrown stubble and curly locks mangy enough to be fashionable. Imagine Aragorn in a Raiders cap. His friend is wobbling on the sidewalk with drunken sea legs, holding a bicycle, doing the dance where you and your partner (or bike, as the case may be) try to keep from falling.
It occurs to me while listening to Friend Number One that asking such questions takes a little courage. Riding a bus network you’re unfamiliar with, especially in a new city, can be intimidating. Trains are easy, what with the lack of deviation and standardized propensity for copious maps and signage. Planes even moreso, because of the focus on (cough– revenue– whoops) customer service.
But buses, with their reroutes, detours, schedule changes, unpredictable running times… then there’s the whole matter of personal interaction, which you know I love, but which I know can be stressful for people. There’s a stereotype of what bus drivers are like which only exacerbates this. I’m thrilled so many people are willing and able to take that leap, to just walk outside and put their faith in the universe. It’s worked out so far, I suppose. I try to reward that intrepid vulnerability with focused and helpful kindness, that it might grow further. Who knows what great doors their knocking will one day open. Never mind that at the time of this story, every single route at this stop did go to Broadway. But we have way bigger concerns than how intelligent the questions are.
“I do. Come on in.” We’re a 49, eastbound at 8th Avenue.
Friend Two puts his bike on the rack.
“You’re an awesome bus driver,” Friend One, the sober half of this crew, tells me. “You’re really awesome. I have to say that though, ’cause I don’t have any fare!”
“Ha! I’m gonna choose to believe you! I’ll take it!” I quip, as I jump outside to help the other guy with the rack. Those new yellow bike rack handles may be tricky, but they work. It’s impossible to get the handle onto the front tire, but you want that. It means it’s also impossible for the bike to fly off.
“You really are awesome, though,” Friend One says as Friend Two and myself reenter the bus. “You know, you’re savin’ this guy’s life by giving him a ride. ‘Cause if he tried to ride home in the state that he’s in…!”
“Bike riding drunk, oh no! What’ll the people say!”
Friend Two, having finished thanking me profusely, feels a memory stir. “You drove the 358, and the 5,” he shouts.
“You’ve got a killer memory!” I yell in reply. “The 5, wow. That was years ago!”
“I know you remember my sorry ass!” Half-laughing, half rueful.
I take another look at his face. Lively brown eyes, storyteller’s eyes, gazing out from hollow sockets; thin, tan frame, wearing clothes two sizes too large, maybe from an earlier lifetime. There’s something immensely charismatic about him, though. Some people, by virtue of their quality, the sheer magnetism of their character, manage to overwhelm even their own appearance. You’ve gotta love these guys. “I know I’ve seen you, but the question is from where?”
“Well, I used to always be at Denny and Aurora….”
I look at him, comprehending. Then I practically scream his name: “SHADOW!”
A hundred scattered memories coming together: “Shadow! Oh, my goodness! At Denny and Aurora!”
It’s the middle of the night, but it may as well be noon. “Third most photographed sign in all of Seattle!” I howl. That’s what he would always say. There was Pike Place Market, the Pink Elephant sign, and then there were Shadow’s cardboard signs with the jokes.
“Haha, yeah, you remember!”
“Shadow! This is huge. ‘Cause I’ve been wondering what happened to you, man! I haven’t seen you in years!”
I can hardly conceal my joy that this man is still alive. When faces on the street disappear, you fear the worst. First they’re gone for a day or a fortnight, and you think nothing of it. But as the months go by you remember there’s something odd about this street corner. Something’s missing. They may have hardly registered when you first passed through, but their absence, over time, gets louder and louder. A void has made itself known. Longtime readers will remember Andy After Death, or my take on the late Gaylen.
But Shadow, both in physical form and in my memory, is far from dead. He’s standing right beside me, saying, “I got an apartment now!”
“What! And a haircut!”
“My real name’s Russ.”
“Russ, my real name’s Nathan.”
“Good to meetcha.”
“Likewise. Oh my goodness, you’re alive!” The cortisol and epinephrine are running high as we choose to keep our dialogue at shouting level for no real reason. I’m feeling great. “Buddy a mine is a filmmaker! Said he was making some kind of something, documentary about you!”
“Yeah, I don’t know him too well, but we were wondering where the heck you went,”
“His name’s Michael.”
“Oh man, he’s gonna blow up when he finds out you’re still alive. We were talking about you not more than a month ago! This is fantastic! An apartment, holy cow!”
“Oh lemme pull the bell,” Friend One says.
“Dude, he knows where we’re goin’,” Shadow says.
“Hey, I do pirate impersonations,” Friend One continues.
In the remaining blocks our conversation went into overdrive, as we, three men from different walks, yelled with glee about everything and nothing, about apartments, pirates, bicycles, bus routes, signs, haircuts, about all the great and terrible things in this turning globe, about life, and death, and life.
“Hope we didn’t take away to much from your music there, screamin’,” I said to the girl with earphones seated at the front, after they’d left. She’d been there for everything.
“Oh, I turned my music off to listen to you guys!”
“Excellent! Yeah, I’m just so overjoyed to see him again, because you see these faces, and then you don’t see them for years, and you wonder if they’ve died, and then sometimes you’ll hear that they did die, but he, but, Shadow’s not dead! He’s completely alive!”
“And doing very well it sounds like!”
“So incredible. What were you listening to?”
“Oh great. You know, I like Demon Days more than the first one that’s more popular. Demon Days is hard to find on vinyl though…”
My trolley bus may have not have a transmission, but bus driving is all about switching gears. I dive into a completely different headspace as she and I continue discussing music. But as a part of me always remains focused on driving, so another part of me remained on Cloud Nine, smiling long after it made sense. I can hear the joyous echoes of his living voice now, and now, and now still.
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.