I wrote the following in 2012:
At Letitia a gregarious basketball-player-looking character steps off. He always seems to know everybody. He’ll get on the bus, plunk down somewhere in the middle, and a minute later be laughing with a few passengers. People know each other out here. Once he stepped out of a Lexus sedan right in front of me and ran onto my bus. “From the Lexus to the 7,” I quipped. A big grin as he said back, “from the rich house to the po’ house!”
“He” is Jason, a stalwart presence on Rainier. A well-muscled forty or forty-five, always glasses and a baseball hat, some sort of well-heeled athletic wear, a combination father and master of the streets. He’s always exchanging cars at the Valero gas station, chatting with the car wash guys across the street, shaking hands and patting shoulders, moving up and down the corridor and confidently taking care of business. We won’t ask what that business might be, but I will say that when he once told me “ain’t nobody gonna give you no trouble out here,” well, all things considered, no one has. He’s a face I see regularly enough on the sidewalks it makes sense to honk and wave, and I do. Tonight I drive up to the zone at Othello with my fist in the air, and Jason grins wide, arms in the air, and steps aboard hollering.
“Best Metro driver in all of Metro! On the 7!”
With him is a gregarious middle-aged Asian man I also often see about.They’d been talking. Like Jason, he’s similarly omnipresent, and skilled at staying on good terms with everyone. People may get mad at him, but never too mad. He says, “hey, it’s you! Yeah, he told me! Best driver!”
The interior has suddenly come alive.
These two swagger on in their disparate ways, boisterous, loudly gesticulating. They’re excited. I feel humbled that these titans of the neighborhood accept me so. How can that be, really? I’m just the skinny friendly-looking guy! I’m struck by how long I’ve known Jason the Athletic Godfather, and say so.
“It’s always good to see you. You been knowin’ me since… you been out here the whole time ever since I started drivin’ the 7!”
“Yeah, I remember!”
He’s talking half to me and half to his friend. “I remember this guy, jus’ a little kid,”
“Ten years old!” I exclaim.
“Whole entire time every time, sayin ‘Hi, how are you,’ all this. You ain’t changed a bit! Lil’ greeting for everybody,”
“That’s how I like it! Easier for the people, easier for me,”
“He take the Seven. And he make it easy.” Pause. They ruminated over something else for a minute, after which he took the floor once more: “Listen. When you be happy at somebody, they be happy at the next person, turn it back around onto more and more. That’s important.”
“Naw,” I said, as deflection, which he swatted away like so many flies:
“Thank you! I try! You know, they told me when I started I would burn out after six months.”
“But I’m like, I think there’s another way!” I wish you could hear the elation in our voices, the ebullient fervor. We were a gospel choir, singing to ourselves, the converted soaring on the high tide of our better selves.
“Yup, there’s another way. So true.” He looked around the bus, practically gleeful in his wonder. “He make the Seven. Like this!” Looking at his Asian friend: “You belie’ dat?”
“One big party!”
“One big party up in here!”
One day people will no longer think I’m young, but as long as I’m friendly, people will always think I’m a newbie. In Jason’s enthusiasm, his storied laugh, a chuckle just this side of gravelly, was a tone I find often now, but which I hardly used to hear. His was the tone of complete confidence in my attitude, that I could sustain what I was doing. Now people generally accept my perspective as its own weird benevolent insanity, for which I’m hugely thankful, but such wasn’t always the case. I mention this for the great influx of new operators being hired now. You might imagine your trajectory is doomed to follow in the predictable footsteps of decline, callousness and enervation, and certain people will tell you so. That is incorrect. There’s no need for that path to be realized. You are yourself, and you can stay that way. Wrestle with the challenges in your head, work with them, work them out. If it’s out of your control, don’t stress about it; if it bothers you, change it or change how you see it. I say thrive on the madcap absurdity of this gig, and find your own way to ride the wave’s leading edge. Don’t be a product of your environment; hold steady, and dare I say it, puff out your chest, and make the environment an outsized product of yourself.
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.