She was standing there at Dearborn, and I sighed. She was Rose, and the question was whether or not to let her on. Elderly, infirm, and heavyset, with a stuffed stroller, as quick to snarl as I am to smile, with stringy silver hair and corresponding eyes, tiny ones, which nevertheless had enough bile in them to rage against all about her, all the time. I don’t think this is what Dylan Thomas was talking about.

A line of people boarded before she did, and I sat there wondering what to do. She’d been on my bus recently and behaved such that it would be appropriate to refuse her service, but true to my form (as I explain here), I’d forgotten the details. Her tendency is to harass anyone in her way. Ah yes, memories were coming back, against my will: among other abrasives she’d yelled at an elegant Somali woman in the aisle in a manner completely confounding to the lady, who seemed as bewildered as she was hurt, as if thinking: when did people of this age group behave without manners?

The thing is, I just don’t like refusing service. I’ve never even kicked off LSBW, for Pete’s sake. I believe these folks, highly disagreeable though they can be, deserve to ride as much as I do.

“Rose, hello,” I said, with no great amount of enthusiasm. “How you feelin’?”
“Good,” she replied, shifting her weight.
“Okay. In that case, come on in!”

I began the process of deploying the ramp. On the very oldest and very newest coaches, that takes forever, but on this mid-2000s model it came out quickly. Rose ambled forward at her pace and no one else’s. Should I begrudge her the right to be unhurried? It’s difficult when fifty people in the vicinity feel differently. I like to be the one person who is patient, who does give them a small oasis of acceptance, here in the desert of the harried and overtaxed.

Rose’s attitude doesn’t exactly make this easy.

“Goddamnit,” she explained, pushing her stroller forward at no considerable speed. It was a puny affair and long past its due, lightweight white dirtied by time, buckling under the weight of several huge bags no stroller designer ever thought of. The wheels had rusted to a stop and no longer turned in the direction of travel, and some didn’t roll either. She grunted with effort, cursing, each small impediment a worthy cause for fury: the lip of the ramp where it meets the cement; the geography of the bus’s floor layout, requiring her to turn the stroller; limited visibility; the bags slipping; and more than all of this, the weight of the years, the accumulation of strife, seeds of misery now grown, long percolating as only she knew.

I’d already gestured to the brothers behind her, saying, “you can use the back door if you want to!” They were thrilled. Forget fare; this got them nearly five whole minutes– an eternity on the road– of comfort.

“My wheel is stuck, the wheel on the stroller,” she bemoaned.
“I know,” I said. “That’s okay, come on in. I’ll make some room for ya.” I walked over to the front seating area and flipped up every seat that was empty, saying to those uncertain whether they should move, “we’ll let her decide where to sit.”
As she arrived in the seating area– which I know is only a few feet from the door, but you really have to imagine slow motion here, like a cargo frieghter docking at port– she snarled, “put that seat down! I want that down!”
“What do you want, Rose? Tell me what you want.”
“I want that down.”
“This one?”
I flipped the seat down. “Alright,” I said, mostly to myself.

Back in my own seat, I gave her a moment to get settled before saying, “alright, I’m just gonna roll out slowly–”
“You’re all right, Rose, we’re stopping.”
“Bus driver won’t stop the goddamn bus, goddamnit–”
“You don’t need to yell, Rose,”
“If you yell at me, I won’t pick you up again.”

She continued muttering. I was thinking about how her raspy tone was practically identical to Honey Bunny’s voice in the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, where right after Tim Roth tells everyone, “everybody be cool, this is a robbery,” Honey Bunny climbs atop the table and in the very opposite of cool-headedness shrieks, with hair flailing and to excellent comic effect, “any of you fucking pricks move, and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of ya!”

Wouldn’t Rose and Honey Bunny make a terrific dynamic duo?

I’d watch that movie. There was time to reflect as we carried on our way. Rose mellowed into a hesitant silence, and I let my musings wander. My first thought was, well, I’m definitely not letting her on in the future. No need for all this drama. I’m not kind so that people will be kind to me, but when kindness is returned with such vitriol, one’s enthusiasm wanes. I thought about a 41 driver I used to see regularly, older guy, generally rude to the folks, sometimes cringe-inducing. It went that way for years, until one day he was friendly. What? What gives, I wondered, and asked him how he was doing. He shared that finally, after decades of excruciating back pain, he’d at last had a surgery that took the agony away. I felt embarrassed for ever having judged him, and thankful for the context.

What travails had Rose endured? What collusion of life events had led to this unfantastic present, this day-to-day existence you knew was not her high point? To ponder the disappointments those small grey eyes had been privy to. I would never know the details, but being kind certainly wouldn’t make things worse. It also occurred to me that she wasn’t going anywhere. She’s a longtime fixture on Rainier. What was I going to do, pass her up every other week and force some other poor operator to put up with her? No. Too selfish, too cowardly. I needed a different solution.

She always gets off at Mount Baker. When we arrived I didn’t deploy the lift just yet. “One second,” I gestured to the people waiting outside. I walked back to where she was, and took my right hand out of my pocket. I was ready.

“Okay.” I stood directly in front of her and spoke clearly, firmly. Everyone was watching. People wondering, what’s going on here?

“Okay, Rose. You need to get a new stroller. This is twenty dollars so you can go get one. If you don’t have a new stroller the next time I see you, I am not gonna let you on the bus. You have to get a new stroller. Okay?”

I think her day started over right then. Sunset and sunrise, in the moment between my “okay” and her reply. She looked at me, nonplussed*, dazed into confused silence. Rose, taking it in. Her world was getting larger.

“Okay,” she said.

She said it quietly, accepting the bills I almost never carry but happened to have that day. Once again, I asked the brothers (and sisters!) outside to use the back door, and Rose gathered herself and began the procedure for liftoff. When she passed me, sitting in my driver’s seat, she stopped and patted the hair on my head. Her way of saying thanks. “I know you’re not supposed to touch the driver,”
“Well. I guess that’s okay for today.”
When she was outside, just off the ramp, she turned back slowly and asked, “what was your given name?”
“Nathan, like Nathan’s Hotdogs. Yeah.”
“I’ll see you again, Rose!”

I drove in silence for a minute. We sat at the light at Martin Luther King Way. Mia was sitting up front, a regular rider. She’d seen everything. We were silent for a moment longer, and then we laughed. We cackled together, at the joy of it, the comic absurdity of it all, laughing out my frustration, Rose’s anger, her pace, at the ridiculousness of my tone giving her money, practically demanding, angrynice, feeling good that we’d done something. “You know?” we told each other, grinning wide.

I said, “hopefully we just made life easier for her… and fifty other bus drivers!”
“And who knows how many passengers!”

We chuckled some more. In my mind though, I kept returning to the sight of her on the sidewalk at the very end, clutching two $10’s and one very dilapidated stroller and looking out at the world around, looking calmed, bewildered. Rested. The things she thought were rules had changed a bit.

It was a new world.

*Nonplussed means surprised and confused, usually to the degree of not knowing how to respond. Lack of knowledge over what this word means has led to its developing a slang usage in the US exactly the opposite of its original definition; you may hear people use it to mean unsurprised or unperturbed (search the definition on Google for a laugh, as you’ll be presented with two perfectly opposed meanings). I use the word here for its original definition.

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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.