“Alright, Cloverdale is next,” I told them, “by the Mini-Mart. And South Lake High School. Also, this bus continues up the hill, to Prentice. We’re goin’ to Prentice Street tonight.”

“You make it sound good!” a voice behind me exclaimed. “Make me wanna to go up there!”
“I try to advertise it as best I can!”
“Hey, it’s workin’! Iss better than so much of this….” She was referring to the automated announcements.
“Tryin’ t’ send out some of those positive vibes, you know?”
“We need that. Especially, especially on this line.”
“Ah heard that,” chimed in someone else from the peanut gallery.

As the crowd thinned, a young teen in a beanie, sweatshirt and backpack came forward, asking how long have I been driving, do I like the job.
“How does it feel?” he inquired, after I’d told him I’d been at it eight years.
“It feels weird to say it, doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. I just feel like, I come in to work drive a bus, go home do somethin’ else,”
“What’s been your craziest day?”
“Oh man, I don’t even know where to begin.”
“Yeah but–”
“The craziest, I don’t even know. So many things come to mind.” Visions spring to the fore, quickly replacing each other– men attempting to destroy each other, death threats and late-night whispers, a ranting LSB-Dub, hot saliva on the inside pane of your glasses, kids in the back shoving an old man around, the careful pickup of used needles, police disposing of violent drunks by putting them on your bus, human waste from every orifice, words and smells and minds which don’t make sense, glass breaking, a Navy Seal beating up the guy in the wheelchair….

“I don’t even know,” I said aloud.

Those aren’t the crazy things, though. The craziest thing is all of the thousands of times my living room of a bus, filled with its disparate, far-reaching collection of unacquainted lives, each in the middle of its own important drama, has been able to get along together, with no meaningful problems worth writing home about. That’s what stuns me into storied awe, and reminds me of the great possibilities of our human family.

But that answer’s not egregious enough. People want the deplorable, the heinous and insufferable. They want to wake up. ​He asked, “you ever been hit?”
“Me? No, not yet. Fingers crossed!”
“Good, man. I seen this driver get hit downtown, with a bottle.”
“Aawwoohh, that’s terrible!”
“But you know, you ever feel sometimes they bring it on themselves?”
“Exactly, he was being an asshole.” Which doesn’t in any way justify the assault, even if it might go some way toward explaining it.
“See, then I’m not surprised,”
“Some guy didn’t have no fare, he said you better pay, then dude hits him.”

“Man, he could’ve avoided that. For me, I say hey to everyone, how’s it goin’, and it kind of defuses the situation.” He didn’t seem like a youngster whose friends often say defuses, but he got it. People tend to be smarter than conversational circumstances allow them to reveal.
He indicated his understanding by way of paraphrase: “Bring ’em down a notch.”
“Exactly, sort of help folks feel relaxed, easy….” Acknowledged. “Right from the start. I try to set a positive tone, say hi to folks, we have a good time. Puttin’ out that good energy, you know?”
“Iss da mindset. If we keep it positive, keep it open instead of, ‘this is gonna suck,'”
“Exactly. Exactly! If bus driver comes to work says, ‘I’m gonna have a shitty day,’ he’s gonna have a shitty day! But if we start off with an open mind, and just go into it with this good attitude,”
“‘I’m gonna make this work,'”
“Yeah. I’m gonna do my part. And it don’t matter what they do. I’m gonna do my part, try to be good, look for the best in people,”
“You should a motivational, you should be a youth mentor!”
“I would love to do that!”

The automatic voice got a word in edgewise, announcing “Sixty-second and Prentice,” the next stop. “Prentice,” howled the mentally unstable man seated nearby, embarking on a spoken-word poem low on substance but admirably high on rhyme. He was the only passenger besides the boy remaining, stepping out now, but not before leering in close to our boy and continuing with his rhyming monologue. I wish I could remember it. Our young friend leaned back a little, uncomfortable at what was clearly a new type of interaction. I laughed off the awkwardness and wished the man a good evening, joking after he left that he’s always rhyming like that, how he needs to put out an album, except maybe somebody else ought to do the music.

I may have been joking, but he was feeling reflective. He readjusted his backpack, saying, “I always feel weird around homeless people. I could never imagine what it’s like to be homeless.”
“It sucks,” I said. “I got friends who’ve been there.”
“I could understand you start up a business, and it goes bankrupt. Or you lose your job and then your house. But what I don’t get is dudes on the street, day after day asking for some coins so they could get some more alcohol.”
“I know what you mean! I feel like there’s two types of homeless, the ‘Have-Nots’ and the ‘Will-Nots.’ Some folks it’s a genuine misfortune hits them, and now they’re hustlin’ for new jobs, workin’ their way back up,”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “That I get. But I don’t get this whole standin’ ’round street corner all day… it’s like this. You give a Have-Not a thousand dollars and he’ll come back at you with three thousand. You give a Will-Not a thousand dollars and he’ll come back with a pair of Air Jordans and some True Religion jeans!”

That got a belly laugh from me. I couldn’t have said it more succinctly myself. So perceptive, this unassuming young face on the nighttime stretches of Rainier. Did he realize the genius of what he was saying, in his appreciation of responsibility and easy recognition of contrasts many people fail to differentiate? We commiserated a little further, and then it was time for him to grab his bike and head home. “You should be a mentor for youth,” he said again. “you’re cool to talk to.”
“You too!”

He got me thinking. I have more to say on the subject of responsibility and perception as it pertains to homelessness, but that’s a post for another day. On the bus, whether as passenger or driver, there is a lot of time to think….

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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.