“Alright everyone, this is a 7, we’re gonna take the 7 tonight all the way to Rainier Beach, all the way down Rainier. This bus goes as far south as Henderson, number 7 to Henderson, welcome aboard.”

Kids pile on at Genessee. “Iss my guy,” one of them says. This group is livelier in spirit than the usual teenage crowd; these boys don’t have the self-imposed somber. What’s most curious to me about kids loving my schtick is that in those moments they’re completely on board with something relatively square– I’m not a figure that stands in rebellion to the Big Man, or who oozes hipness or exclusionary cool. I’m just the friendly bus driver, driving around the ghetto being absurdly nice and forgiving. I don’t understand it, but I’m grateful. I know these kids won’t give me any trouble. They’re loud back there, laughing amongst themselves, but then again, so am I.

I reflect on this as I call out the next stop: “let’s go to Alaska Street next, Alaska, by the Library, Post Office Services for the Blind; we got the community center on the left, and cultural center, that’s on the right side.”

At Graham Street a man works his way up to the front. Shortish, bald, oversized black hoodie. I can’t quite see his face yet in the dark.
“How’s it goin’!”
“I just had to come up here and tell you, you are the, you’re the coolest bus driver!”
“Thank you!”
“It reminds me the first time when I first came to Seattle, all the drivers was like you.”

I yell thanks to the kids in the back stepping out now. “Have a good one!”

“Hang on,” I say, responding to his thought. “They all used to be like this?”
“Yeah, twenty-five years ago, I first came here. They’d greet everyone, say hey, call out everything. I thought it was part o’ th’ job description. I’m not gettin’ off yet.” We pull away from the zone.
“Oh that sounds beautiful! Take me back!”
“Dude, no.” Not the past, says his voice. The present. “You are just motha-fuckin’ killin’ it, man! Ah be sittin’ back there smiiiilin–” he makes the word elastic, his enthusiasm turning the word to a sound as yet unspoken ever before. I wish I could show you his face, a collection of years beaming as only children know how. “I dunno if you coul’ see, but I be sittin’ there hearin’ you say, ‘comin up on the left,’ sheeyit. I be smilin’ thinkin’ this guy is cool as a mothafucka!”

Imagine his downward pump of a fist of excitement, as in, touchdown! I can’t help laughing– in embarrassment, in joy, reveling in the anachronistic conflation of his profane purity. Sometimes I wonder how much we could pick up with only the cadence and tone of people’s voices. I bet we’d get a lot. It hardly matters what language he’s speaking; I know exactly what he means. The baldness of his honest praise humbles me. That he’s so exhilarated by simple goodness. It’s not his complimenting me that’s exciting. It’s the fact that we’re in the truthful bubble, where we don’t have to be hip.

“Man, thank you! I can’t tell you how much that moves me, man!”
“Back there the kids was like he’s the fuckin’ coolest, an’ I’m like hell yeah he is!”
“No way. That makes my night! The kids?”
“I’s like, I got to tell him.”
“That makes my night!”
“Mine too, man, this bus ride turned it into a good day.”
“And you know, thank you for steppin’ all the way up here to say this! To get the feedback, it’s kinda rare,”
“It would notta been a good night if I didn’t come up here and tell you.”
“I grew up riding the bus a lot, I still ride the bus a lot, and so I try to be, the driver that I would want the driver to be if I was riding,”
“Yeah yeah. Well you DOIN’ it man, you are just fuckin’ doin’ it like a motherfucker! I can’t believe! I jus’ felt so good sittin’ back there!”
“There’s this Martin Luther King quote,* where he’s like,”
“He’s sayin’, if it falls to you to be a street cleaner, or toilet cleaner something, let you be the best,”
“Most amazing toilet bowl cleaner there is, do it like, like it’s a masterpiece painting,”
“Hail yeah,”
“Be the best you can be kinda thing, don’t matter what it is.”
“Das exactly what choo doin’, dude, and you should be proud. My name is Tiger.”
“My name is Nathan. It’s good to meet you.”
“I’ma be around. I do stand-up comedy around here,”
“Oh, tight!”
“And iss like you doin’, iss all about touchin’ people with the positive. I gotta say, this one uh the most amazing things I’ve witnessed,”
“Dude no. It’s a honor to hear you say that!”
“Keep doin’ it man. ‘Cause for all us folks out here, it means the world. That’s some shit from the heart.”
“Thank you. Thank you!”
“I see you again!”
“Oh yeah! I’m a be right here!”

Later on that evening, another gent has similar thoughts. Roger is an operator, riding my bus home. I see him get up to leave, preparing to leave through the middle doors, but he too feels compelled to walk up to me.

“You’re such a PRO, Nathan. You are just a pro at this. You’ve got this voice thing down.”
“What? Thank you–”
“It’s like a radio voice, just exactly that silky, warm, like it’s in anticipation of something. You know what you sound like is those golf announcers. ‘And he goes for the putt.’ ”
“No way!”
“All the women back there are smiling.”
“I been watchin’ ’em. You got em charmed.”
“Naaawwooo way. I don’t believe you! Roger thank you for saying– it’s an honor to hear you say this, man. Thank you. ‘Cause I have no idea what it sounds like! I never get to ride my own bus!”
“You’ve got it down, Nathan. Keep doin’ it.”

I know the feeling of joy fulfilling my being, overflowing such that I can’t help but lay it on anything or anyone around me. It’s a treat to see the same bubbling up in others. I’m thankful for every minute.

*I’ve grotesquely mangled the quote. Give me some rope- I was splitting the lanes at Myrtle to take the curve! Here is Dr. King’s dramatically more eloquent wording:

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Article Author
Nathan Vass
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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.