Love is in the Air


Begrimed is such a perfect word for this man, sitting in the front seat, staring at me. I love the English language. With 615,000 entries in the OED, you have the incalculable luxury of always being able to nail down the particular subtlety you’re after. The unlaundered trenchcoat, kinked and torn and growing stiff with organic filth, fits right in on this ancient, dilapidated vehicle. The non-slip flooring is streaked with peeling paint, and the metallic panels and glass are carved about with various slogans and namesakes, their angular letters vying for attention with the natural blemishes of age.

Several of the interior lights are out, and the resulting gloom emphasizes the shadows of our friends the bulky figures. As a youngster on the 174 I remember thinking that freeloaders and sleepers seemed larger, occupying of more space, because of their need to carry all possessions on their person. Jackets over hoodies over sweaters, and bags inside of bags. On this particular late-night 7 we carry a lot of sleepers, because the short turnaround time at Henderson means a full round trip of napping. It’s pointless to fight such endeavors. For those who need it most, beds are among the harder things to find.

The begrimed man at the front is no sleeper, however. He’s wide awake, stubby fingers working as he regards me between thickset, narrowed slits. You know when a face in the shadows is watching you, even if the unkempt mustache conceals the mouth, even if nothing but pinpoints of light mark out the pupils.

He’s growling softly. Slowly his growls become discernible. He growls, “after you get off work I’m gonna take you home and make you mine.”

They say sexual harassment is usually never about sex, but about power. To think of such come-ons as genuine flirtation would be amusing if they didn’t end so awfully for some. You almost want to ask, has that approach ever actually worked?

Somehow my first impulse is to laugh. I do so, saying with friendly confidence, “oh, I don’t know about all that!”
“As soon as you’re off, you’re comin’ with me.” The growl. “I’ll warm you right up.”

I did what a female night operator once told me works for her– accept the implicit compliment and then steer the conversation somewhere else. Lead this dance, don’t follow.

“Yeah, tonight’s my last night before vacation, nine days,” I say.
“Lucky you.”
“Yeah man, I’m thankful. Doesn’t happen often, lemme tell ya.”
“Where you goin’?”
“Mostly I’ll stay here, but I’m takin’ a few short trips out to the East Coast, then down to LA, that’s my hometown.”
“What parta LA?”
“South Central. You know South Gate?”
“Yeah, I’m from Orange County.”
“Oh, cool! What part?”
“Anaheim.” Which, though it’s a big city, has zero street cred compared to South Central. In the ongoing (and completely useless) SoCal geographical status dialogue, there’s a hierarchy here which works in my favor. The thing to do is let him feel respected despite that, bring him in.
“Oh, cool. Friend of mine went to Chapman, the school there.”
“Yeah, it’s a good school,” he grunts.
“So I’ve heard. You know what’s interesting? They have a piece of the Berlin Wall there, and it’s one of only two pieces of the Berlin Wall in the whole United States. In Orange County! Go figure.” He’s not overly engrossed by Berlin Wall remnants, but I don’t care. I need to keep leading! “I don’t know why. It’s like you know the Lenin statue up in Fremont? That’s the only Lenin statue in the whole country. I don’t know what it means!”
The man’s interest in discussing Communist revolutionaries and East German artifacts is approximately zilch. He lapses into silence.

As he gets out he starts saying something about penises, but I heartily steamroll right over the guy with an enthusiastic and concerned “have a good one! Be safe now!”

On my last trip he reappeared.

A distinct difference between taxi drivers and bus drivers is that taxi drivers can choose their fares. Bus drivers can’t. I opened the doors at Mount Baker and a few people boarded, our begrimed friend included. But there was no cause for fear. We only talked about bus matters. There was no mention of trenchcoat removal, no dark muttering about fornication. I asked how his last hour had been, and where he was off to next. There’d been a mix-up with his keys. He need to go his landlord’s to drop off a pair, and there was no bus going out that way for a while. We discussed landlords and bus routing in SoDo. As we approached Chinatown, we considered the remaining distance and figured it might be quicker for him to walk.

This time as he left he said something about beds, but once again I was entirely too busy thanking him to hear: “Be safe walkin’ out there! Take it easy!”
“You too!”

Like nothing awkward had ever happened.

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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.