The Strangest Conversations…


You remember the man. My first meeting with him involved me carrying his collapsed body off the bus. We further bonded when he had trouble finding my eyes. 

“Mister Nathan!”
He’s back. I love that he remembers my name. I love how he slurs out the formal appellation ‘mister,’ in the perfect conflation of respectful address and garbled colloquialism. We’re about the same height, and may even be the same age. A clipped Somalian accent, short of breath; no one else talks like him. It’s downright endearing. He staggers forward on watery sea legs today, though we’re on the dry land of Fifth & Jackson. I’m on the curb waiting for my bus and a friend is waiting with me when he shuffles forward. I reply to his call. “Abdilahi, hey!”

He corrects me. “Abdi-LAhi!”
“AbdiLAhi, how are you?”
“Mister Nathan, how are you?”
“I’m good, my friend, how are you?”
“Mister Nathan, I lost one of my eyes!”
“I’m so sorry!”
“Yes, I lost one of my eyes!”
“Abdilahi, I’m very sorry! This is very serious!”
“Yes it is very serious!” He shows me his face, removing his aviator shades. The left side is swollen, stitches, caked blood, the eye still in its socket but barely visible, a clouded slit clearly blind. It still moves though. It appears to be looking at me.

“What happened?”
“I fell down some stairs.”
I’ve heard that one before. But I’m more concerned about next steps. “Did you go to the hospital? To the doctor?”
“Yes.” He said something confusing about medication; I think he didn’t want to take it.
“Abdilahi, this is very serious. It’s important to listen to the doctor on this one. You want to have both eyes. I mean I’m glad you still have the other eye left over, but you really wanna have two eyes.” I resist the impulse to start talking about dimensional and binocular vision, judging distance on curves and so on… instead I just say, “it’s important to go to the doctor. Did you go to the doctor?”
“Yes, I went to the hospital. Is it going to be okay?”
“Yes, it’s going to be okay.”

I could tell he put a lot of faith in my words. I felt out of my league. Where’s Mother Teresa when you need her? He says again, “I just want to know, Mister Nathan, is it going to be okay?”
Give him the comfort he wants. Rise to the occasion. I’ve been sainted once before… “Yes, but you have to do what the doctor says. I know sometimes we don’t want to go to the doctor, but this time its important, your eyes are important, they are fragile.”
“Is it going to be okay?”
“Yes, its going to be okay.” I spoke out of genuine concern. He’s extremely hard on his body. “Be careful these days, go slow, get sleep, eat, it’s very important to take care of yourself.”
The endearing accent: “Nathan my whole face is very swollen.”
“Yes, I can see that. It’s not good right now, but it’s going to get better. This is the bad time. It’s gonna get better.”
“Thank you, Mister Nathan. That is what I wanted to know! How are you?” Pointing to my friend, adding: “who is she?”
“This is my friend. Maria!”
“Maria. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“You are…”
Maria says, “I’m his cousin!”

Just run with it. “Yeah,” I said. I don’t know why she said that. We’re not cousins. We’re friends. Family connections are easier to explain on the street than friendships though, especially between sexes. If you’re not family, everyone thinks you’re married, or you need to go get married.
“Nathan, what is your, where is your family from?”
“Korea. But she is from the other side of my family.”
“Yeah,” nods Maria.
“What is the other side? Europe?”
“They are from Hungary, yes,” I reply, truthfully. “Far back.”
“Hungary. Europe! You know Josef Stalin?”
He pronounced it with a Y. Like the Norwegian Jan, or the Spanish Jessica. “Yosef Stalin, you know Yosef Stalin?”
“Um, yeah. A little.”
“He is from Europe too.”
“I guess he is. Italy.” Reader, I was thinking of Mussolini. I know. Give me some rope here! Sometimes I mix up my autocratic totalitarian dictators….

Abdilahi looked at Maria. There is a tightrope tensing; conversations on the street can take turns you never dreamed of, in a flash. He says to her, “you look like. You look like, Hillary Clinton!”
“Um,” said Maria. Not all fifty-year olds like being physically compared to sixty-eight-year olds.
“Must be the hair,” I quipped.
“Yeah, must be the hair,” said Maria.
“Hillary Clinton,” said Abdilahi. “It is nice to meet you.” The clouded slit of an eye, expressionless, peering out.
“Yes, nice to meet you.”
Abdilahi’s a sweetheart, but he doesn’t leave quickly.
“Maria, it is nice to meet you. If you don’t mind.” He says the last phrase, finishing off the pleasantry, but it comes out ominously. A one-eyed man bleeding from his other eye socket holding a bottle of Evian water filled with liquor can add to that. Maria is confused, and he repeats himself.
“If you don’t mind.”
“Uh,” she says.
Me: “he’s just saying it’s nice to meet you if you don’t mind.”
“If you don’t mind,” he says again. You know when you’re speaking a second language, and you can’t explain it any other way but to say the exact same thing all over?
“Oh yeah. I don’t mind at all, it’s very nice to meet you too!”
“Thank you. I’m sorry to interrupt you guys. Mister Nathan, thank you. It is good to see you, my brother.”
“Good to see you too!”
“Thank you for telling me. It’s going to be okay?”
“Yes. Everything is going to be okay.”
“Thank you, Mister Nathan.”
“Be careful!”
“I will, Mister Nathan.”

Aw. He’s a big teddy bear. Clinton comparisons and Stalin nonsequiturs notwithstanding, he deserves binocular vision as much as anyone. I hope my words offered some measure of comfort and grace. I hope they helped, but I don’t think he needed them desperately. There’s something about how he conducts himself, even in the lowest of times, that I appreciate. The guy’s newly missing an eye, and he’s making sure to say the right pleasantries in meeting my friend. A little bit of dignity, or a lot; you can always carry it with you, though you may lose all else.

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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.