For the sake of illustration, this is a monologue I wrote years ago. It was included as part of a piece in my 2013 solo show at Blindfold Gallery. Two men are working late hours cleaning a lab, and one of them pontificates as follows.

​”I call it the Man Game. The Man Game is when you and another man meet for the first time. You’re a dude. You and your girl go to someone’s house, a friend of your girlfriend’s. This friend of hers is a woman, and that woman has a boyfriend. Great. The two of you get introduced. For a split second he’s nice, on the outside, saying nice to meet you. Then the Man Game begins. He asks you what you’re into. You better be into something awesome. He’ll make it seem like it’s not. He needs to prove he’s cooler than you. He’ll off-handedly mention that he works at a glass-blowing place. Or that he has his own studio loft. Or that he owns two limousines or whatever the hell thing he can think of that’s cooler than what you said. He probably actually does these things, too. They always end up doing man stuff. They play football. He’ll phrase it in such a way that it makes him the alpha top dawg male he-man on campus, which is exactly what he’s going for. It’s the man game. He’s trying to out-man you. You, don’t flinch. How you win the man game is by not caring what he says, but not showing it either. Fake sympathy or awe, but also make clear that you don’t really give a shit. Say, that’s kinda cool. It’ll break him in half. He can’t show it though, because if he does it comes off as petulant and he instantly loses the man game for being too emotional and insecure. Of course, that’s exactly what he is, insecure, since he’s playing the motherfucking Man Game in the first place. Make him more insecure by being secure in yourself. Be confident, but don’t feel like you need prove it. Don’t shove your confidence in their face– that’s stupid, it’s what they’re doing. Just be quietly confident. Like they can’t touch you. Your disarming lack of a need to try to stomp all over them will do something, as will the fact that you know they’re playing the Man Game, and you play it back to them in a more confident and subtle way. Ask them for details. Do they like what they do. This does the unfortunate thing of humanizing them and causing them to talk about real emotions, which they hate. Or let them think you’re a boy, someone without accomplishments, for just a little bit, while you ask them about their bullshit, and then tie their shit into some great shit that you’ve done. Oh yeah, that reminds me of this, how I’m the first guy to ever land on the moon, or some shit. Watch them shut the fuck up.”

“So they got you on the 7,” said this hulking figure, grinning through a mild haze of diminished motor skills masquerading as coolness. Many people on the 7 have seen me before, but I was new to this man, a fellow in his thirties dressing like he was still sitting in the back row of a high school classroom: black jacket and pants large enough for me to use as sleeping bags, with a flat-billed cap and untied skaters.
“That’s my route!” I replied.
His grin, turning to a smirk, looking down as he stood above me. Who’s this skinny white boy, said his gaze, and how far out of his depth is he, out here at Orcas during the late night. He put in his starting bid for the Man Game.

“You got a taste of some of the ‘hood brothas yet?”
“Well,” I said, smiling, pausing, going for the truthful response: “I’m from South Central LA.”
“What parta LA?”
“South Central, South Gate.”
“Me too!”
“Oh cool! What part?”

I withheld laughter. That’s like saying, ‘I’m from Rainier Beach!’ ‘What part?’ ‘Duvall!'”
“All over,” he continued. “We lived in Watts,”
Which is in fact in the ‘hood. “Oh yeah, by the Towers,”
“Um, uh,” he said. “Yeah.”
“We were little bit east in South Gate, just up and over from Compton airport.”

It’s possible he knew what the Pasadena comment sounded like, and he thus continued mumbling for a while, doing his best to present himself as So Ruff, So Tuff. I listened and replied. I forget the details, but they weren’t terribly memorable. He asked my heritage, and I mentioned the Korean element.

“Yeah, you know, I’m black,” he replied.

You almost wanted to hug the guy, he was trying so hard. No actual African or African-American would have tolerated such a line. There’s a difference between a lifetime wrestling with the worst parts of this country’s legacy and, um, getting a killer tan on Hermosa Beach…. Only to me could he get away with it, but it got me thinking how insecure he must have felt. Most forms of overt masculinity are so deeply tied to insecurity it’s almost easier to think of them as the same thing. Somehow he and I got to talking about schooling.

“Learning is good though,” he said, after I’d enthused how happy I am to be over and done with college. His comment was mildly unexpected, because enthusiasm for learning requires admittance that one is not supremely knowledgeable, which requires at least some security, or confidence, in oneself. More shades of him were coming to the fore.
“It is, I wanna stay sharp, stay open,” I was saying.
“‘Cause if you ain’t learnin’, ain’t smart, I don’ wanna talk to you.”
“I can always learn something from the folks around me, doesn’t matter who it is,” I said, steering by way of agreement.

He watched me interact with the passengers, many of whom know me. There are advantages to doing the same route for years. You become a part of the neighborhood. “You cool,” he said after a while. “But you gotta stop messin’ with those females.”

He wasn’t speaking about the passengers, all of whom at this hour were male. I was having lady troubles at the time, but hadn’t said word one about it.
I looked at him. “How did you KNOW that?”
“I see you, good lookin’, wit’ the hair and shit. I coul’ tell you get around. Hey. You know what you remind me of?”
“Who? Don’t say Doogie Howser!”
“Naw, man, I wasn’t gonna say that shit.”
“Okay, who.”
“A Jehovah’s Witness.”
“A Jehovah’s Witness?”
“Yeah. You know any Jehovah’s Witnesses?”

I had no clue where this is going. “Um, one uh my best buddies used to be one, but other than–”
“I’m a Jehovah’s Witness,” he said.
“Oh right on. Yeah, one of my friends, he’s good people. He grew up as one.”
“They’re the only true people.”
“No other people deserves to be in heaven, they’re the only true followers of the Lord.”
“Oh, right on.”
“So what’s your type?”
“My what?”
“What’s your type? Uh female?”

Oh, Lord have mercy. We’re not about to have this conversation. I answer with the shortest possible reply that’s still true: “thin.” He nevertheless managed to find this incredulous and fascinating.
“Thin? You say thin?”
“Thin, yeah.”
“You like ’em thin?” He said it as if I must be certifiably insane, which given the societal bent on the subject was refreshing. He would’ve gotten along with odalisque painters of the 1800s.

“Yeah, thin, man, that’s my thing.” No elaboration, no specifics, we’re not going down this road… but this is tricky now. Changing back to the former subject wouldn’t really work either, since religion on the bus is not a good idea. Time for the old standby. “You been in Seattle a long time?”
“Yeah.” Slowly, he tries to count the years. Then: “Hey. I’ma catch the 2, go to Madrona. Do you talk to your mom a lot?”
“Yeah, she’s cool. She’s great, they’re great. Yeah, I stay in touch. I think that’s important.”
“Yeah, moms are cool.” Again, not what I was expecting. “‘Sept sometimes they be tellin’ you how to do stuff, gettin’ up in your bizness.”
“Well sometimes it’s a tough love kinda thing, their way a showin’ they believe in you.”
“Hey. I think I’ma go to Capitol Hill, get somethin’ to eat. Go to Dick’s. Iss crazy of all the routes, they put you on the 7.”
“I pick it by choice!”
“Yeah, it really does it for me. Reminds a little of LA, to be honest.”
“You know the bible?”
“Book of Revelation, man, Mark of the Beast. The Mark of the Beast!”
“Uh huh.”
“You know the Book of Revelation, the stuff they say in there? That shit’s gonna happen in our lifetimes.”

All civilizations throughout all of human history have all believed they were living during the End Times. Not the right time to say that one aloud though….

I said, “oh yeah?”
“While we’re alive.”
“Right on.”
“The Mark of the Beast.”
“So this is the stop for Dick’s.”
“And QFC.”
“Well, you turn?” Do I really have to leave?
“Naw man, I’m goin’ straight. Where you tryna go?” Yes, it’s that time.
“Oh, I’ll get out here then.” If you insist.

I mentally shook my head as he slunk away. Walking contradiction didn’t come close to covering it. More like the all-singing, all-dancing conflicting conflating opposing primordial ooze of the world! From his disparate moods and ideas was enough soup to make the fully formed opinions of five people who could never stand each other.

But are we so different? Am I? I look at photos of myself as a child and yearn for simplicity. In the same breath I read Nichomachean Ethics and work on James Joyce. I watch harsh, brutal films about the worst parts of the human psyche, then bounce off the walls smiling at everybody outside. I’m righteously repulsed by advertising yet brainwashed by it just the same; I talk seriously about meditation in the same breath as I have a great time at certain very head-banging concerts… and incredibly, I can reconcile all of this such that I actually think I’m reasonable! Well adjusted! Can you believe it? In what strange world would that be?

Like him, it all makes sense within my mind. He was a slinking reminder to go easy on others. We’re all still figuring it out, studying the shades of who we are, exercising the different and valid sides of ourselves, some of which don’t need to reconciled so neatly. We all have our sharp and beveled edges. The Earth turns, and the night is fully and utterly night, and yet half a turn later it is incontrovertibly and completely day. You wouldn’t want it to forgo one of those for the mere sake of consistency, now would you?

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Article Author

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.