It all started somewhere northbound on Tenth Avenue East, as we drifted past Saint Mark’s Cathedral. There’s never any traffic here, but there was tonight. Whirling lights flashing up ahead, passersby on the sidewalk with cradled arms, hands on hips. We, in the bus, had just driven all the way up from Rainier Valley, and were in the home stretch, through residential north Capitol HIll on our way to the U District terminal.

This is normally the easy part.

Police cruisers in the distance inched forward. What with the long line of cars and three other 49’s in front of me, I couldn’t make out what was happening. It took forever for me to realize it was a protest. Of course. But what were they doing out here in the ‘burbs? People protest on Broadway, or downtown, not Tenth avenue. There’s nothing out here but houses, and all the lights were turned out. These poor protesters were their own audience.

Eventually, after six of us 49’s– a staggering hour and a half’s worth of bus service stacked up in the same place– got locked in a standstill amongst an endless line of cars, the protesters’ plan began to emerge. By now we had spilled out of our parked vehicles and were standing in the street chatting. We were in the quiet realm, a good half-mile away from the action, living in the charged calm that lies on the peripheries of an event. Passengers fell asleep or else abandoned ship, choosing to walk. We began learning this was a Black Lives Matter protest on its way to the Mayor’s home– hence the reason for masses of people blocking roadways in unconcerned sleepy residential neighborhoods.

I’ve written before on the disconnect between protestors and the groups of people those protesters are supporting. The dichotomy is never more apparent than during Black Lives Matter protests. To explain:

For the lion’s share of this protest’s routing, it blocked and completely destroyed service on only one bus route– the single most essential conduit to the black neighborhoods in south Seattle, the 7/49.

The irony of this couldn’t be overstated. We laughed, unable to take the protest seriously despite its excellent and honorable intentions. They could’ve easily avoided this by protesting during the day, when the routes aren’t linked. It’s called a little bit of research, guys, we quipped to each other, giggling. Ruining bus service for black people in transit-dependent neighborhoods is proooooobably not what they were hoping to accomplish…. but buku brownie points for having their hearts in the right place!

After about 90 to 120 minutes of delays, depending on which of those six buses we’re talking about, we all finally made it to the U District. The coordinator was slammed with a high-level accident in Ballard, and couldn’t get back to us to direct us on how to return to schedule. Running all six buses in a row back to Rainier Beach would be pointless.

We decided to improvise. I like to think we did a bang-up job of using our initiative and spreading the service out. A couple of us worked on the 49 part of the route for the time being, while another drove the full ordinary routing of the 49/7 through downtown; myself and one other operator expressed ourselves to the south end to serve Rainier Valley as quickly as possible. He would fly all the way down to the bottom of the Valley and be the first northbound trip; I would be the first bus in nearly two hours to do a southbound trip from Vietnamtown to Rainier Beach.

I recall thinking, whoever gets out there first on Rainier Avenue is going to get annihilated. Aside from a mass overload, what passenger on this green earth is going to be happy, waiting 90-120 minutes for a bus that normally comes every fifteen? Whoever that poor soul of a driver is who gets out there first…

Only later did I realize: I am going to be that operator. I didn’t plan it that way; it just happened. I happened to get to Twelfth and Jackson before anyone else did, and saw the angry mob. Grab this bull by the horns, I told myself, and dive in. Anything else would be too easy. You were made for stuff like this.

These folks were furious.

They didn’t have the tech access to know why the bus was late, or what had been going on. They’d just been seething, for an hour plus. As a bus rider who’s experienced egregious service disruptions, I could sympathize. You have to understand: the 7 is some of the best and most heavily used bus service in the county. It runs every ten minutes during the day and every fifteen at night til midnight, with twenty-four hour service after that. A gap this long in service that busy is a seismic event.

Speak loudly, confidently, kindly: thank you for waiting, thanks for your patience, I appreciate your patience tonight; while also explaining as succinctly as possible: big protest tonight, blocked all of us for a hour and uh half, biiiig protest up on the Hill, black lives matter protest…

That got their attention.

What could they do? What can you do, when the cause of the delay has been a fervent and much-needed call to action for your rights as a citizen? You couldn’t be angry about it. That wouldn’t make any sense. You could complain, but your complaints would fall away like so much chaff in the breeze. The wind would die down a little all over again, at each new stop. Sails slackened.

“OH MAH GOD,” Devin said when he saw me finally at Walker Street. Devin’s terrific. He works security at Walgreens. He and I like to talk about our workout routines. We’re about the same age and body type. As the bus pulled up, we both threw our hands in the air upon recognizing each other. I always drive with the dome light on, but especially tonight– I wanted them to know it was me as early as possible. They know me out here. Anything to deflate those sails tonight.

“OH MAH GOD,” he said again. “THEY SENT THE RIGHT BUS DRIVER OUT FO’ THIS RUN. ‘Cause I was ’bout to cuss the shit outta this muhfuggah so bad…”
“Devin, thanks, man!”
“Oh, my God,”
“I’m glad it was you standin’ right here!”
“This th’ ONLY driver they coulda sent,” he told the bus. He just had to get his pent-up energy out. I love how it tumbled out as something positive. “Aw, shit! I been waitin’ so long, I was so ready to cuss out WHOEVER it was. But ah couldn’t! ‘Cause it was him! This the best bus driver in all Seattle right here! I cain’t cuss him out!”
“Devin, man,” I said. “Love you, dude.”
“Ah love you too, man!”
“Iss good to see you. It’s been crazy tonight. They marched from downtown all the way to the Mayor’s house….”

With this and other similar interactions, we turned the night around. Grab the bull by the horns, and make it happen. It was exhilarating. Over the microphone, I continued to periodically explain and thank, explain and thank. I refused to accept to fare. How could I charge these overtaxed souls in such a circumstance? A young man raised his eyebrows in grateful surprise. “Good lookin’ out,” he said. The acknowledgment on both sides of that small exchange, making waves in each person’s heart.

In eavesdropping on the conversations around me I was reminded, potently, of the weight of the issue. Dwayne, an educated man who knows Shakespeare, working swing shift at a hardware store. Yolanda has a law degree but works four entry-level service jobs. It’s near midnight, and she’ll miss valuable sleep– she gets up at five a.m. tomorrow. Someone saying they shop for groceries every month using the same $54 amount they’ve been allotted for years. A boy revealing to his friend there’s not enough water in the house for him to shower that night.
His friend said, “just wear your other drawers, bro! I know you got three drawers!”
The first boy laughed shyly, and the second tried to make him comfortable, revealing that his family uses toilet water to wash their socks and underwear.

Black lives do matter. Last Tuesday they mattered in North Seattle, and took place in South Seattle.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a non-profit that depends on donations from readers like you.

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.