He waved again, from the sidewalk now, as I drove up to the red light he was now walking toward. Sometimes it’s awkward to cross paths again with someone you’ve moments ago bade farewell. But he was just happy at the additional opportunity to express gratitude. I enthusiastically threw a wave in return. Rainier can be a happy place.
Just before that, I’d heard him first speak as a disembodied voice behind me: “whatchu just said was better than any computer I ever heard.”
“Well, thanks man! Tha’s nice of you to say!”
He’d seen the whole thing, and he was speaking now about the tone of the bus in here, my tone. I tried to play it off, let the compliment fall somewhere else. “Feels better to do it myself. Listenin’ to that computer lady for eight hours kinda drives a person up the wall!”
“Ha! Well lemme tell you, it makes a difference!”
“The personal touch?”
“Yeah, man, you puttin’ it out in tha air. You got a tough job but no matter wha’s goin’ down, that type a love, you make it all right.”
He was a heavier African-American man in his late forties, dressed in a jumpsuit jacket and jeans. As he stepped out, he said what a driver once told me, and what I benefit from being reminded of: “it don’t matter if he push it away, if they don’t give it back. ‘Cause you’re putting it out there.”
“We’re doing our part!”
“That’s all that counts!”
A moment prior: Don’t dwell on the negative, I told myself. Don’t worry about what might have happened, or what could happen when I drive back through there. Those aren’t realities, and the reality, that everything worked out, is undeniable, and I’m going to hang onto that thread and make it stronger by focusing on the associated attitude. It may seem like it just barely turned out this way, but we could also choose to see it as always being meant to turn out this way. Hold on to yourself, said Nick Cave.
I pulled the mic down and announced in a genial voice, like everything was just dandy, if not in the recent past then now: “Folks, this is a route 7 tonight, welcome aboard. We’re takin’ a number 7 here, goin’ out to Prentice Street tonight, this bus goes all the way to Prentice.”
Immediately preceding that I was talking to the Russian guy up front. Just dive right back into the conversation from where we left off, I thought. Don’t make a snarky comment, or complain about what just happened, or even sigh or comment woefully on the state of the world, of society… no, I told myself, my mind should be moving right along to the next thing. Don’t even let it register on your radar.
“So you were saying, four dollars a box, $4.25?”
“Yeah, that was the best price. Often it was two per box.”
He was telling me about his days a commercial driver, transporting fruit. I asked him about details, moving both of us forward. He had or has a CDL, but a bad divorce left him penniless, and with the USSR dissolved he has no country to return to. He carried himself in a polite and respectable way, with a cordiality setting himself apart.
Most homeless people I encounter are polite, but he had that specific air of self-respect I’ve found sometimes in European countries, where you put some stock into your presentation regardless, because that’s all the information strangers have when they first see you. Soft-spoken, educated guy fallen on hard times, still with shinable shoes and collar folded back.
He’d ridden maybe fifteen times before, but we only started going beyond pleasantries tonight. He said, “do you pay attention to the streetcar? In one direction, it has no connection on top.”
He’s the first passenger who’s pointed that out, and is absolutely correct. The First Hill streetcar runs on wire in one direction, and is battery operated on the other. I explain the mechanics, adding, “You’ve got a sharp eye! Di– are you an engineer, or electrical….”
“Yes, I was an electrician in Moscow for many years.”
“I could tell, you’re a smart guy.”
He swelled a little on the outside, and a lot internally.
Five minutes before, the crowd was piling in at 5th and Jackson. This trip gets the NightWatch crowd, and they’re efficient with their backpacks and sleeping bags and other gear. NightWatch is a shelter distribution center, but not a shelter in itself; you go there within a certain time window for a meal, and a ticket directing you to a shelter elsewhere in town. In order to do so, you have to have obtained an entry ticket from another facility earlier in the day.
All this requires a certain amount of preparatory savvy, and the guys going there have to be on the ball in a way not all street denizens are. They’re planning ahead, saving their strength or talking about the day labor spots opening in the morning. NightWatch is not unlike Real Change, which as a homeless resource draws a specific attitude type, because of the herculean amount of self-motivation and dedicated effort it requires to sell and subsist off of.
But my bus is a welcome haven for anyone, not just the diligent. This man boarding now is of a different stripe. Dressed in untied basketball shoes and a ramshackle grey fleece, battered by rain and mildew, sagging in his jeans and vacant expression, he walks directly into two young Latino men in the bus doorway, shoving them aside with his torso as they were getting their fare ready. His unfocused eyes stare into the middle distance, dead, flat, robotic.
Robots are scarier than angry men. Anger we can at least understand. “Gimme,” he says deeply, in a clipped Somalian accent, to no one in particular.
He slurs up the steps and pauses at the start of the aisle, blocking everyone. It’s hard to tell how old he is. Twenty? Forty? Does it matter? The brain doesn’t biochemically mature until a person’s mid-twenties. Hard drug use before this age inhibits the development of the neurochemicals needed for the proper formation of multiple brain components, but most crucially for the prefrontal cortex. It’s quite literally a case of arrested development. If an individual stops using by around age 24, there’s still time for mirror neurons to develop. But kicking a habit is one of the hardest things to accomplish in life, and not everyone can do it that quickly. Addiction is a treatable condition; curtailed brain development isn’t. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t continue developing after the mid-twenties, and if its growth was prematurely stopped in the years prior, well. There is no undo button in life.
The prefrontal cortex is the locus for what psychologists call “executive function”: the ability to differentiate conflicting thoughts (good/bad, better/best), extrapolate future consequences of current activities, identify goals, predict outcomes, learn rules at a concrete level, and control behavior to anticipate and avoid socially unacceptable outcomes. The supramarginal gyrus (say that five times fast), also called Brodmann area 40, is strictly speaking located in the parietal lobe but is more generally situated at the junction between the parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes. Area 40 identifies actions and gestures of other people.
I mentioned mirror neurons above. Mirror neurons fire when a person acts and also when a person sees an action being performed by another person. In other words, you feel better when the person in front of you smiles, or you care when someone else is sick even though you aren’t. The right half of the supramarginal gyrus identifies our emotional state and that of others as distinguishable. It allows us to consider and imagine another’s emotional state. Empathy, basically. It overcomes and autocorrects the brain’s innate egocentricism (a Darwinian survival mechanism most pronounced in children or in adults without a developed supramarginal gyrus).
Now, imagine not having any of that. This is why children are used as soldiers in certain parts of the world. It’s a lot easier for them to kill people. It’s also why robots are scarier, and why this man, with the faroff gaze and cloudy film in his eyes, is unsettling. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” Allen Ginsberg wrote in 1955, and could as well have been referring to all the future Raphaels and Marie Curies who, having finally kicked their habit, live out their lives with the emotional maturity of teenagers.
Our man on the bus is nevertheless who he is, gyrus or no gyrus. He walked up those steps as if they were a ramp, and now he’s walking into people as if they were thin air. In doing so he brusquely shoves a built, dark-skinned American man into a stanchion, not really noticing. The shovee takes a stance, staring and offended (I would later learn he was doubly stressed that night because his credit and phone accounts had just been compromised), but our man’s brain is oblivious, distant, cold. I hope he’s happy in there.
He steps on an elder woman’s calves, not noticing her pain or loss of balance as he looks blankly at the back of the bus.
I ask him how he’s doing.
“Hegh,” he says through missing teeth and rotting gums, leaning his face closer to mine. Other sounds fall away as I focus completely on him. His tongue is swollen, and thus the words come out poorly, but he’s asking for a transfer. He asks for another right afterwards.
“I got two for you tonight, my friend.”
“Kai ha’ one more? Jus’ one mo’.”
“Nope, we’re gonna give you two. You’ve got the hookup now, I gave you two.”
He invites his friends outside into the bus, with, “Geh ovah here, fool! Hegh! Fuck.”
Even they look at him askance. They watch him as he looks not at them, but past them. I ask him whether he’s staying or leaving, and after much indecision he floats down the stairs, out of the bus, toward his comrades. Folks inside breathe a sigh of relief.
I close the doors and turn immediately to the Russian guy in the front seat. He’d been saying something about trucks and fruit box prices.
“So you were saying, four dollars a box, $4.25?”
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.