Oh my goodness, I thought. It’s him, it really is him. How many years ago was that? This I wrote in 2012:

“I’m gonna be a father soon,” a Caucasian man tells me at Rainier and Brandon. He’s young, tough, with sun-scarred skin, a lot of sharp edges and tattoos. But his voice is as gentle as can be. “Congratulations,” I said at the time. Over a year later I saw him on the 358, clear on the other side of the county, and I recognized him instantly. With him was his girl and a baby basket. “Heeyyyy, dude!” I say. He lights up.
“Is this the new baby?”
“Yeah!” he says, still the same odd amalgam of genial roughneck. He lifts up a blanket to show me the baby, who is cute, pudgy, and sleeping. He doesn’t say too much else, but his happiness is palpable. You feel him growing into himself.

That was then. Today, I didn’t see him at first. “Hi,” I said to the incoming passengers at 5th and Jackson outbound. How are you, how’s it goin’, all the rest. After everyone had filed past, he was there, standing outside. Typically it’s me who initiates greetings; this time it was him who called out to me. “Hey, how’s it goin’?”

“Good–” then, recognition– “heeyy, how are you, dude?” I said, bounding off the bus. The timing was perfect; we were waiting for a coach change. I was the new coach, and we couldn’t leave until the broken coach showed up to give us its passengers. How fabulous. I didn’t even give him time to respond, I was so animated. “Dude I was remembering when you’re telling me you’re about to have a baby you know, and here we are. Hello, friend!” I said, to the child in question. “That’s pretty awesome, man!”
“Yeah, he’s big now.” A quiet man by default, but excited now, grinning at my enthusiasm, the place he holds in my memory. “He’s three and a half!”
“Tha’s crazy!”
“It is, it goes fast.”
“That’s really beautiful! Is stuff goin’ pretty good?”
“I’m actually a single parent now.”
“That’s a, that’s a, that’s a big thing. Big deal. I respect that.”
“Have him probably… ninety, ninety-five percent of the time.”
“That’s awesome though. I mean, it’s hard, but it’s awesome.”
“It’s really hard,” he said.
“Well, she gets to be with someone cool,”
“–He!” The boy’s long hair rendered him androgynous.
“He! I’m sorry. What’s his name?”
“T–.”
“T–, nice. Well shoot, I’m glad you said hey! You know I think yesterday I saw you at the bus stop–”
“Yeah! At Twelfth and Jack–”
“Yeah Twelfth and Jackson!”
“I was like that’s the guy, I even told the guy that was there with me, that’s one of the nicest bus drivers ever–”
“Dude! Thank you so much, man!”
“You always polite to everyone gets on your bus no matter what, and I remember my wife, my wife was tellin’ me, you always sit sideways in the seat–”

At this point some other men came up to greet me, and I got distracted. I wanted to hear the rest of his thoughts, his wife’s thoughts, hear more about young Mr. T–, but time was getting cluttered. I had to go. I thanked him for what he was saying, what his wife had been saying, congratulated him again, how his son’ll be a grown man before we know it (“don’t rush it!”).

He said something kind, something I couldn’t hear underneath the clamor of the guys hanging around. I thanked him again and loped back to my bus. “Alright, I’m gonna take these folks home.”

Most of my regrets involve not acting enough, not saying enough, rather than saying too much. Zoë was on my bus a month or two ago. I don’t see her as often now, because she’s been making a more concerted effort to stay off the street at night. That’s good, obviously, but it adds more precious currency to each of our dwindling intersections. I never know when I’ll next see her. We’d discussed her overcoming hard drug addiction, and I’d said how I think that’s the toughest thing any human can accomplish, along with perhaps childbirth. She’d laughed in agreement. As she was stepping off the bus I could tell she wanted a hug.

Do you know that face, where their eyes are a question mark, and you’re too slow to notice until the moment has already faded?

I didn’t act fast enough, and she was gone. I don’t hug too many folks on the bus, but she’s one of the exceptions. I adore her. Hugs are kind of special, and I don’t think she gets them every day. Why didn’t I just go for it? Can you believe I still kick myself over that tiny incident, which she likely doesn’t even remember? Makes you wonder what kindnesses others are wishing they’d bestowed upon you.

Gordon was the young father’s name. I was in my bus now, sitting out the red light and watching him recede into the pooling crowds. A similar regret poured over me. I wish I had been more present with him. Why did I get distracted by those other guys, and lose him right as he was telling me such nice things? What was he saying, his wife talking about me sitting sideways? I wish I’d told him all the good things I so respect and admire about single parenthood. I kicked myself for my lack of eloquence: “it’s hard but it’s awesome??” Did I actually say that?

Some of my most resonant relationships have been with single mothers (or as I prefer to call them, “heads of the household”), and I have tremendous, aching feeling for that station in life. It is no walk in the park. As I once wrote about one of those very same ladies, no one will know of their great efforts, their lost time and sacrifice.

There will be no eulogies, no processions for them or for this young man, these faces for whom struggle was the dominating mode of existence. They will return to the earth with barely a ripple, but for me, these are the heroes of our age. These are the faces which live on the billboards of my soul, these giants at whom I gaze in relative awe, who inspire and humble me. With life they contended, grappled, floundered, and finally made peace, with nary a proportionate complaint.

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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.