There she is. I’m swaggering onto the 7 at Genessee, like so many youngsters have done on my own bus. Just a humble passenger today. There’s almost always a familiar face on board when I step on the 7. As I fistbump with Gregory, the driver, I notice a hulking edifice seated nearby.

Ah yes, there is someone here I know.

A monolith with alienating vibes is just a few feet removed, with the same squinting eyes set behind round glasses we don’t dare mock as being Harry Potter-like. She expands with territorial heft into her two seats, clad in her trademark XXXL pink t-shirt and fuschia tights. We’re in the presence of a legend. There’s only one Light-Skinned Black Woman (Learn more! Writeup here; video speech here).

The trick is to play it cool. “Hey, M–,” I say, addressing her by name. “How are you?”
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m takin’ the bus!”

I settle in a few seats further back. Close enough to keep an eye on the situation. Don’t sit too far away from a forest fire.

“It’s that bus driver,” I hear just within earshot. “He’s so nice to everyone, knows how to talk to anybody.” I’m in civvies, but they’ve found me out anyway.
“Hello,” I say.
The voice is a passenger I’ve had before, Melanie, and she and her male companion are seated directly behind the great and hulking presence known as LSB-Dub. Melanie and I discuss our respective jobs and their similarities. She’s in social work and appreciates the good moments despite the significant challenges. In our two professions we interact with many of the same people.

Her companion joins in the conversation, and he’s a little frustrated. He’s just been chewed out by you-know-who, and feels compelled to vent. He may think he’s safe, because LSBW is currently berating other passengers. That would be incorrect. LSB-Dub hears everything. In her own way she’s extremely intelligent. I can tell she’s picking his words up, storing them to address later. For now she’s too busy “speaking” (polite euphemism) to someone else.

“It takes all kinds,” I tell the Melanie’s friend. “She is a character.”
“I guess so,” he says. His guess is drawn out to include all the phlegm and chagrin of resentment.

Later on, the Lighthouse for the Blind (or LFTB, as it were, for the purpose of this narrative) crew is boarding, and fills up the front of the bus. They are a collection of kind-hearted souls and seeing-eye dogs, making real the stanchions and seats around them through touch. LSBW quickly realizes that demanding they not bump into her isn’t going to work, and relocates to a seat in the middle of the coach, nearer to me. She stares perniciously at Melanie’s friend for a while, gears churning, and then bellows,

“WHAT! You pity me because I can’t get a man?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Ah do!”
“Well, at least I don’t have to get any ABORTIONS,” she roars balefully, adding as an afterthought: “don’t touch me!”
“You know what–”
“I know what you two are up to. You’re gonna do it ten times and then have to get ten miscarriages!”

I’m happy to be here. I’d been in Columbia City on photo work, and had been debating whether to take the rail or the 7 back into town. It would only be appropriate for me, of all people, to take the 7. Who am I kidding? The 7 is many things, and boring isn’t one of them.

When I got on the bus and immediately noticed her, I felt glad about my choice. Because this way, I can hold hopefully hold her attention and try to keep things at bay so poor Gregory can actually do some driving. It really helps to have another operator there when things are barely holding together. We’re packed, late, and abuzz with an energy teetering at the intersection between awful and calamity. Good. I’m feeling useful.

Though she is strangely quiet for today’s ride, she’ll periodically offer an interlude from the silence, such as: “STOP TOUCHING ME, PROSTITUTE! Are you a prostitute? How many guys have you slept with with today?”
“That’s not very nice to say,” I reply, in a pleasant singsong voice. She answers with silence.
“Yeeeah,” somebody says, I think in response to me speaking up.

It’s turning into a ticking time bomb in here. We’re overloaded. The LFTB have overtaken the front of the coach, LSBW is alternating between silence and wreaking havoc in the middle of the bus, where I am, and in the back, well, who knows what the guys are up to back there. Here’s a few more people with walkers, and a man with a huge box of lettuce, which he plants in the middle of the aisle. There isn’t anywhere else to go. Thank goodness Bredas have three doors instead of just two, or this would’ve imploded a long time ago.

I decide to engage LSB-Dub a little more proactively, in the name of preemptive damage control. Goin’ into battle here, I think to myself. Everyone’s watching. I don’t care what she says to me, but I want to draw her energy toward me instead of onto other people.

She’s ready.

“So how are you doin,” I ask.
“Don’t talk to me. I heard what you said. TWO FACE. ‘It takes all kinds.’ Backstabber.”
“Oh, now there ain’t nothin’ negative about that.”
“I heard you say that, ‘it takes all kinds.'”
“There’s nothing nega–”
“Bein’ all nice to my face and then stabbing me behind my back.”
“Don’t turn that around on me now, there’s nothing negative– nothing negative about that at all, there’s more than one kind a good people.” It’s important to me to resolve this, because I need to stay on what little good terms I’ve established with her in the past, because she doesn’t go away, and she remembers everything.

“You don’t like me ’cause I’m black.”

The worst racism is the innocuous kind, the kind where the offender doesn’t even realize (s)he’s compartmentalizing, where a hierarchical attitude toward ethnic groups is so ingrained it becomes invisible in the mind of the thinker. I’m reminded of the great director D. W. Griffith having to be sat down so colleagues could point out to him which parts of his 1915 KKK-starring film Birth of a Nation were intolerant. One of the reasons I value LSBW is that she’s good at calling this out. Although, that may be by pure accident– she just calls everyone racist!

“Hey, that’s a good thing in my book,” I reply, immediately regretting my words because of how they could be taken prejudicially, in the reverse-racist sense. Is she going to pick up on that?
Not today. “You probably hate me ’cause I’m light-skinned.”
“Oh, I don’t hate you at all.”
Sighing theatrically, she stares ahead, saying, “I’m always going to be a light-skinned.”
“That’s alright with me.”
“You probably hate black people.”
“I actually don’t hate black people, M–. I like everybody.”
“Even Satan?”
“Uh, we’re gonna leave that where it is.”
Gregory smiles. Somebody behind me says, “Word! Right on, brotha.”
“Well, I don’t wanna talk to you,” she continues to me.
Pause. “And you don’t have to STARE AT ME FOR THE ENTIRE RIDE.”
“Actually I was lookin’ out that window, just like you.”

A minute goes by. The neurons are firing. Something gets connected in there and she turns to face me directly, saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude.” Her tone is heartfelt, that of an apologizing mother who belatedly learns the child she was hounding was innocent all along.

“Oh, that’s okay,” I reply. “I’m sorry for sounding negative.”
“I’m sorry. My mom just died.”
“Oh, I’m sorry! When was this?”
“In November. And my sister is going in for a colonoscopy tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow? Oh wow.” She elaborates on the details. On paper it might sound like she’s lying, but she appeared honest. I took her words as truth. Whether or not they were isn’t really the point, though: what was clearly genuine was her desire to smooth out our interaction. “Hope it goes well. Lemme know next time I see ya!”

I see her and I as neutralizing equals. She screams at people; I smile at them. I glide over differences, seeking what I have in common with others, while she blows up over things which don’t even qualify as conflicts. And visually, you can’t deny we’d make a pretty good Laurel and Hardy of sorts. I daydream about somebody photographing us in the manner of this Annie Leibovitz portrait of Rick Rubin and Jay-Z, who I think look so good together precisely because they appear to have come from entirely opposite galaxies, and yet clearly respect each other’s company. That’s true for LSB-Dub and myself, sometimes. Right?

Later on she would return to the sway of her demons. Her last words to me were a more characteristic, “get away from me!” 

But for a moment the clouds parted, and a bit of blue sky shone through.

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.