Fighters And Lovers, In And Out of Time


Small talk up front, like any other night. At Eighth and Jackson I said, “yeah, I’m gonna roll this ’til one o’ clock or so. I think I’m a little less than halfway through.” I grabbed the mic to tell them. “Alright this is a number 7 tonight, goin’ to Rainier Beach–”

“Whoooo!” An appreciative holler from the back.
“Oh yeah! Number 7 right here, this particular bus only goes as far as Henderson….”

Did I call the fight into being, by naming the route? Is that how it works? The movement was as scrambled as the noise, and sudden. It was dim, tinted glass windows reflecting the swelling melee inside, cool fluorescents glistening off jackets and limbs as they stuttered forward, like a camera on slow shutter. Dark shades of fabric against green seats.

I was not afraid. In my experience, when you are unfailingly kind to each passenger, the energy of a fight will always only ever involve other people, not you. Plus, the rest of the bus will be on your side. Nothing is more powerful than how you treat others.

I didn’t even have to say anything. A bystanding passenger yells: “hey, no fightin’ on the bus! No fightin’ on the bus, quit startin’ that!”
Another customer calls out, “hold on hold on hold on.” These are two African-American gents attempting to redress the situation, one of whom I’d been chatting with a moment ago. What’s going on? A young Caucasian man with an unsettling face, something unhinged here, speaking in low tones to John, the curly haired Latino and regular rider with whom I have an extended conversation here. I notice Valerie, John’s wife (also Latino), seated nearby. John’s angry, hoarse as he expresses his thoughts to the creepy quiet fellow.

I can’t remember if I was on the mic or just shouting. “Alright we gotta stay friendly. We gotta keep it friendly. Gentlemen, my man, let’s sit down, keep it simple.”
Bystanding Redresser A calls out again, “no fightin’ on the bus!”
You have to say things several times when people are fighting to arrive at the effect one normally achieves when saying something just once. They’re distracted, after all.

I’m on the microphone now. Speak loudly, clearly. “I’m gonna pull over right here, guys keep it cool, we’re gonna stay friendly.”
Bystanding Redresser B echoes my sentiments, but more bluntly: “go siddown!”
John’s standing on the seats, shouting. He’s closer to me. Creepy Guy is slinking toward the back, unwilling to get punched but willing to make verbal jabs.

I try to contribute something amiable to all this. “Nothin’s wrong, everything’s right, we’re gonna keep it low key tonight, keep it light–”
John to Creepy Guy: “You started it!”
Valerie: “John! John!”
Redresser B: “Check it, dogg, for real–”
Valerie: “You wanna go to jail don’t wanna go to jail. Don’t wanna go to jail over this.”

Forget the mic. I’m yelling over all of them. He’s a friend of mine, I’m thinking. What’s he doing? “STAY COOL JOHN, STAY COOL, IT AIN’T NOTHIN’.”
“But she started–”
“CALM DOWN, THANK YOU. It’s all good, it’s all good.” New passengers are still coming into the bus. Can you believe it? In one breath I say to the newcomers, “hey, how ya doin’?” followed by a bark at the interior: “STAY COOL, GENTLEMEN.”
Creepy Guy, baiting from the rear: “Fuck you want? Fuck is that–”
John cries, “WHATEVER.” Hear the energy on the downbeat of his “WHA–.” A caged animal, righteous anger ready to fight.
Redresser A: “Get that man off. He need to go.”

The dynamic is interesting. All but one of the principals are over forty and momentarily putting aside their racial differences. Redresser A, B, and Valerie are united in trying to calm down John. Those four are of a piece in the way Creepy Guy, a pale and pimply twenty-something, isn’t. He’s still back there, palming his PBR, staring balefully. Alcohol brings out the worst in people.

I’m saying, “we’re just gonna let it go, it’s okay. It’s okay.”
A voice says, “she started it.”
John steps off the seat and into the aisle, starts to calm down. “Sorry ’bout that, Nate.”
“It’s okay John, no worries no worries. Just gonna forget about it. Be the bigger man.” He sits. Creepy Guy has exited the open back door, which I immediately close before he can reenter. We’re on the old bus tonight, thank goodness; the doors on the new buses are programmed so they can’t close that quickly. A “safety” feature.

John winds out, a long breath escaping. I say to him and everyone else, “Thank you! ‘Ppreciate it, guys.”

And just like that, Redresser A asks me: “Ey, you ever had wasabi?”
Talk about letting bygones be bygones! I do my best to follow his lead without losing a beat. “Wasabi tastes goooood!”
“It’s strong though, I can’t have too much of it. Clear out your nose in a second!”
“I know das right. Nothin’ like it.”

Someone else joins in, and they have their wasabi conversation. Who made it, is it a root, what are the principal ingredients. I look up in the mirror at John and Valerie.

I felt something similar, looking at them now, to what I felt when I first saw Michelangelo’s Pietà in Rome. I stumbled upon it by accident in my travels there. I wanted to see it, but imagined it wouldn’t fit on my already dense list of things to take in. It’s on the right side of the main entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica. I happened to glance over and recognized it instantly. I smiled, the gentle smile of a surprise felt in solitude, and I stood there a long while, the better to let the emotions of the piece reach me. I’m one of those people who stands forever in front of art pieces.

For me, the Pietà is a portrait of a mother’s love and sorrow for her adult son. Michelangelo’s statue specifically renders Mary as more youthful than most Pietàs, and this emphasizes the love being depicted as a woman’s love for a man, platonic, familial, everlasting.

Valerie cradled John’s head as Mary does in Michelangelo’s vision. In both cases, I saw love suffusing great strife: two humans in each other’s arms now, two wayward souls I’ve seen for years, the perennial couple of Rainier Avenue, getting back together as often as they break up. They crash through life, but they stick around each other, for better or worse. Something keeps them in each other’s good graces, and they are by now a single entity more than two separate individuals, and my favorite moments of theirs are when I see the tenderness I see now. He deflated, returning to his better self. She held him tightly and delicately at the same time, running fingers through his curly locks. Passing underneath the freeway, orange sodium lights wafting in on their life-battered faces. Is the love between them, that keeps their better angels afloat, any less true, any less real than that between a homeless man and his grieving mother, 2,000 years ago?

“Oh baby,” she whispered. “Can’t do like tonight.” Quiet voices, working toward a common ground.
“That guy was talkin’ to you wrong.”
“I know.”
“Nobody talks my wife like that.”
“I know, but it’s just words, honey.”
“My wife though, talkin’ ’bout my wife, you,”
“It ain’t nothin’ to me. You got to promise me. He ain’t right in the head, you know. Gotta keep your head right. I don’t care if they bitch at me. Man, bus driver, he’s no disrespectin’ man.”
“Oh, it’s all good,” I said.
“My husband,” she said.
“He’s a good guy,” I replied.
She looked out the window, his head still in her arms. Finally she spoke, mostly to herself.

“I’ll love him ’til my heart give out.”

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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.