“Haaswundrinahcoul’ haatransfergosheltuh,” said the young boy in front of me. Which meant, “Hi, I was wondering if I could have a transfer to go the shelter?” He slurred it out in the same tonality as yesterday, eyes averted. A pudgy young thing in his late teens. Everywhere but within the US, a homeless overweight person would be an oxymoron; homelessness inside and outside this country are very different experiences.*

“Hey, I remember you from yesterday! Here you are. As long as you don’t ask me that everyday!”

He sheepishly bowed his head and scurried out of sight. I doubt very much he was homeless, what with his unmatted hair, clean skin, and new shoes– after a while you learn to thin-slice a person’s economic condition pretty quickly– but as I’ve said before, I need to give him the benefit of the doubt. What do I know? Maybe it’d only been a few days for him.

A few stops later, a tall man in clean clothes says, “I just got out of King County Jail.” We’re at Broadway and Roy, at the north end of trendy Capitol Hill, by Rom Mai Thai, Poppy, and the Deluxe, and definitely nowhere near any sort of prison facility. He’s between thirty and forty, an olive-skinned African-American mix, bald, with dark eyes and brows, like an Italian movie star. He speaks quietly, head tilted, hands outstretched in street sincerity.

I sigh inwardly. But that part of me is still there, the sympathetic unjudging good part of me which I hope I never lose. Out loud I say, “this is for you,” handing him a transfer.

Thank you,” he says, with an truthfulness in his eye contact and timbre that’s hard to fake. He pauses, the way you pause to thank someone who’s saved your life.

He walks to the rear, tall and lanky and alone. I watch him in the mirror, way back there, going through his tiny bag of belongings. He unrolls a pair of jeans, stands, and changes his pants.

I’m beginning to believe.

He’s trying to be modest, but there’s nowhere else to do it. We’re on an afternoon 49, populated with hipsters and students. You get to a state of living where shame is something you can no longer hide, and you just have to get on with the difficult business of inching forward. Who cares what these other people think. Can’t afford the luxury of being able to do something about it. He stays generally out of their eyelines, putting on fresh clothes in an air of solitary preparation, keeping to himself.

At Campus Parkway a bunch of students gather their headphones and paraphernalia, preparing to exit. A girl readjusts her Coach purse, twisting her lipstick applier for an extra pucker. Meanwhile, he’s walking back up to me. I smile at him through the mirror, seeing he wants to speak.

“Hey.” Louder than a whisper, softer than conversation. “Thank you for helping me.”

Instantly I know he’s telling the truth. His tone of voice says it all. The fact that he walked all the way back up here says it all. In moments like this you want to reach out to your fellow man, grab him by the hand or hug him tight, just to let him know the world cares. There is a space for you that only you can fill, my friend.

“Oh, it’s the least I could do. Congratulations, man, on getting out. Welcome back to the real world!”
He sighs heavily into a smile, letting go the burden weighing down his frame. “Thanks!”
“I’m so glad you got out. That’s a big deal.”
“I’s in there sixty-nine days, man.”
Don’t ask about his crime, I think to myself. Not the point. “Too long! Well, not as long as some other guys, but anytime in there is too long,”
“I learned some valuable life lessons in there.”
“Right on.”
“And now it’s time to….”
I know the sentiment he’s about to express, and I preempt him by passing on words an ex-felon once earnestly told me: “this is phase two! It’s a new phase, but it’s still you!”
He looked at me. “Yeah, man!”

In those two words was a zeal I’ve never heard. I could see how the phrase resonated. In his voice was, well, love. Love for himself, for all the possibilities of goodness he possesses, that sensation of ebullient hugeness which fills you, where for a moment you see the belief your parents, your siblings and lovers, your ancestors had in you. You want to make real the greatness they saw, and you remember how beautiful the world has always been. A door is open, and for now somehow, all things are new. He felt the goodness in him being acknowledged.

“Congratulations, man. It’s a big deal. I admire that a lot.” Referring to his spark. Let him ride that flash of insight forever. No wonder he didn’t look like your typical inmate at the outset. He was humble, not overcompensating with bravado, and nor was he broken or damaged of spirit. Phase Two.

Thank you, my human cohorts, for proving wrong my assumptions, and righting my path of thinking.

*The last part of that sentence stems from my experiences abroad, which offered a perspective of such abject horrors as to remind me that, by contrast, homeless populations within urban US cities live like kings. It isn’t even a comparison. I realize how insensitive that might initially sound, but truly, we have no idea how good we have it here.

Regarding obesity and the homeless– yes, 1 in 3 homeless are obese, like the rest of America. Of course, weight does not equal wealth; healthy food is generally more expensive, and fast food is often strategically more readily available in impoverished areas, where produce is often of lower quality. Crime, traffic, and unsafe playground equipment reduce opportunities for exercise, and lower-class populations statistically experience greater stress levels, sleep deprivation and more. Further facts and reading here and here.

**The title comes from a high school graduation memory, which I remember with greater clarity than anything else about the event. Upon receiving the plaque on stage, a student I didn’t know, overcome with joy, turned to the crowd, and, not knowing how else to express himself, yelled, “I love everybody!” I imagine the largeness of heart our former inmate experienced was something similar.

Read more of Nathan’s bus stories at www.nathanvass.com.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a non-profit that depends on donations from readers like you.

Previous articleTukwila Makes Targeted Transit and Pedestrian Improvements Near Southcenter
Next articleThanks Giving (I Like Peanuts!)
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.