“Sheeeeeeyyiitt”: Strategies For Day Or Night

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“Hey guys,” I called out. This was a trio of folks about my age, milling about the Men’s Shelter a bit after ten PM. In a Disney movie, they’d be the villains: sagging shades of tattered grey and black, folds of clothing encrusted in debris, pockmarked skin, uneven, hair laying about in clumped and oily strands.

“Hey,” said the taller one, responding to my welcoming tone in kind. One of the others began putting on the bike. You’re supposed to verbalize or signal that to the driver, and Mr. Tall did so. “He’s putting on the bike,” he said, adding, “obviously,” with a hint of grinning camaraderie.
“Tight.”
“Hey, do you think I could ride with this transfer–”
“Sure yeah. D’you wanna exchange it for a newer one?”

That stems from a habit of mine to offer transfers when people ask for rides. Mary Engelbreit once said, “If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. ” Freeloaders asking for and receiving a free ride and subsequently asking further for a free transfer at the end of the ride used to be a source of irritation for me. To get around this, I began preemptively offering a transfer when they first board, eliminating the second interaction. It’s usually unexpected for them, and always goes over well. How could it not?

“Whoa, thanks,” he said.
“Thanks for being honest, man.” Folks of a certain visual stripe are not used to being treated kindly– let alone equally– by authority figures, and his pleasant surprise registered this. As for myself, I was grateful for his mirroring my attitude. Acknowledgment feels good going both ways. His shorter pal stepped in, having overheard us, and voiced my enthusiasm for mutual kindness in simpler terms:
“Dude, you’re the coolest bus driver I’ve ever seen!”
The first gentleman chimed in with, “I’m always honest. I can’t stand no BS, that’s why.”

The bike-riding portion of the trio was now paying the fare, listening, and said to me, “yeah as long as you’re honest, in my experience most drivers let you hang. Probably almost all bus drivers are hella cool. Just be like, I’m a dollar short.…” He reflected. “‘Cept this one time, I was ten cents short and I said is it okay if I ride, and the lady bus driver was like, that’s between you and Metro Police!”

Now, that’s actually not the worst line in the world, but the true meaning of the line rides entirely on the manner of delivery. You’ve heard it before: fifty percent of communication is through body language; another twenty-five percent is tone of voice; only the remaining twenty-five percent is relayed in actual words. And it was evident our friend had received a tone, if you know what I mean.

“Oh my goodness!” I exclaimed.
“Yeah!”
“Ten cents!”
“It’s like, you’re gonna call the cops over that shit?”
“The cops aren’t even gonna care!”
“Most downtown bus drivers are hella cool though,” he enthused. “You kinda hafta be, driving around out here. At night.”
“Exactly,” I said. “My thing is like, I don’t know if this guy has five brothers.”
“Or five guns!”
“Exactly!”
“I got held up last week at Jack in the Box.”
“What? Right down there?”
“Yeah, these three kids came up to me, five kids actually, three of ’em had guns. They thought I was this guy they were lookin’ for, and they came up to me and my buddy. Then the guy they were actually looking for rolled up in a car, he got out and shot a bullet into the ground, started yellin….”
“Oh my goodness. That’s crazy!”
“Dude,”
“It’s worst when it’s kids. There’s something wrong about that.”
“Yeah. Yeah. They were fifteen, sixteen.”
“Wow.”
“But I mean you know, that type of unprovoked shit usually never happens, when you really think about it. Honestly when you actually think about it, it’s like all you gotta do is one a two things: be nice, or avoid. Be nice, or avoid. That’s basically it. Ninety-nine percent of any situation…”
“Oh I totally agree,” I replied. “And the thing is you usually only need to do the first one.”
“Straight up. The avoid thing, that’s fuckin’ like, point one percent of the time. How long you been bus driving?”
“Nine years.”
“You always drive at night?”
“Always!”
“You always drive the 7?”
“Always!”
He brayed forth an exclamation which managed to contain enthusiasm, pity, admiration, laughter, and no small amount of respect, all in one syllable. He said, “Sheeeeeeyyiitt! Well, you already know!”

He left to join his friends up front, and the three of them expounded on various subjects together. They talked about which places were best for “getting all the benzos you could want,” and which juvenile detention facilities offered the best meals. Kirkland came up poorly in their estimation. They waxed rhapsodic over Shell gas station’s prepaid phone selection. Mr. Tall pulled the bell for Eighth and Jackson.

While all three were outside, waiting for the bike-riding friend to collect his bike, I overheard one speak to another, not intending me to hear: “okay, that was the coolest bus driver I’ve ever seen.”

I imagine they were referring to my welcoming attitude, which they may not receive terribly often. Treat them like the good you know they have in them. I used to be an insufferable brat once. When did I begin turning it around? Who helped plant that seed? Whose example did I look up to, who didn’t preach or judge, but just was? It all has to start somewhere.

​Eighth and Jackson is as good a place as any.

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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.