Note on the above image: I have to note that this isn’t a stock image–I actually took that photo, back in the mid-90s. I was 12 or 13 at the time, with no idea I’d one day be driving those strange buses with the poles on top….
What is the Knife’s Edge Dance, you ask? I will tell you. First described here, it’s the dance you play as a bus driver when you know one wrong word, one wrong tone, will cause the whole thing to collapse. All bus drivers have had to play this game. It’s no one’s favorite way to pass the time, even for someone like myself, who loves talking. The risks are just way too high, and you really can’t screw it up. I’m not an expert, but I can offer two tips: learn when to let them win (always), and learn when to be silent (extremely rarely, but there are those times). Also: you’ll do way better at this if you ate and slept well recently.
“Fucking 7,” this younger man said, after I said I don’t go to Bell Street. He’d lobbed his body into the bus at northbound Seneca, saying he just needed to go to Bell. A twenty-something white man with nothing to lose, hair stringy and matted, dressed in every shade between brown and orange.
“What’s that,” I said, too sternly. I hadn’t eaten. Wrong tone, I immediately realized. Where’s my A game? Can’t sleepwalk through this one. I leaned toward a more genial tone. “Come on up,” I said, trying to get his angry self away from the other passengers. “Where you trying to go? I go to Pike.”
“I also got a terminal at Virginia, you wanna go to Virginia?” I don’t usually mention that, but now seemed a pretty good time to throw that bone out there. There’s a time for everything.
“What,” he replied, looking up vacantly. “Yeah.”
“Best I can offer, you know.”
“That’s my destination.”
We’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper bus traffic in the dead heat of afternoon rush. The hour from 4:30pm to 5:30 is the most heavily traveled of all the twenty-four hours, and we’re in the middle of it. If there was a blockage ahead, I’d never know; all I can see is the back of the two enormous buses right in front of me, one in each lane. I try to assuage him. We could be here twenty minutes. I need to stay friends with him for however long this takes.
“We might not get there fast, but we’ll get there.”
“I gotta be there in… five minutes.” He speaks erratically, standing and sitting again, a live wire ready to flame.
“Uh oh, that might not happen with this bus, dude, we got some traffic tonight. I mean if it was up to me, I’d just run ’em all over.”
“I know you’ll get me there on time,” he rumbles. “We got, we got three minutes.”
Three minutes from Seneca to Virginia? That’s so impossible it’s downright adorable just thinking about it. I try to set him up for noble failure: “I gotta say, we might not make it. But we might, who knows! Just don’t get mad at me if we roll in a lil’ after, you know?”
“Oh I know you’re good.”
“You got a horn, I know it works.”
His voice, pushing toward irritation: “You got a nice big horn right there.”
“Yeah, he probably wouldn’t hear it though, he probably got the air conditioning on.” Referring to the bus in front of us, and the notoriously loud climate control on the new buses.
“Oh yeah! Ha! Hum.” As I throw a hand up toward a fellow operator, he chortles, “waving at bus drivers, I LIKE how you guys do that.”
“Yeah you know, keeping it positive! Never know what they might be going through, bringin’ up someone’s day even just a couple minutes.” Pause. “What takes you up to Virginia? If I may ask. Just hangin’, or…”
“I’m looking for my friend.”
“That’s nice uh you, hope your friend appreciates that. We gotta look out for each other sometimes, help each other out.”
His voice, husky and dark: “Don’t ever question me again.”
Let them win. If you can let people get away with having the last word, your life will be so much easier. I learned the hard way once, and remembered a previous incident I was determined not to repeat. I said now what I should have once said before:
His mind was now free to go elsewhere. “When is this traffic gonna MOVE?”
“We’ll get there. It all depends on when he gets there! I don’t think I can run him over though.”
“You can do it!!!”
I smiled, and a few minutes passed in silence. He studied the clock on the Orca reader, counting down the minutes. Then he looked at me. He stared unapologetically, stepping closer. A drawn out glare, piercing and slow. Finally he spoke. He said it in a low voice.
“Are you intelligent?”
From his tone, his bearing, and those piercing eyes, which I avoided for longer than a glance, you knew there was definitely a wrong answer to this question. I forced a chuckle. “Ha, I’m not that good!”
He kept glaring. Remember your training: pretend to be confident, and it will turn to real confidence. I said it again.
“Yeah no, I’m not quite that good. I got a little something, but I’m not up there.” Pause. Keep going. I still had his full attention. He looked ready to pounce. I glanced at him again, with a smile. “I don’t have all the answers. Anybody tries to tell you they have all the answers, ahhh….” I made the wishy-washy hand motion, as in, take it with a grain of salt. He nodded with a grin, dirty yellowed teeth, making the same gesture with his hand. He understood. We’ve all got something in common.
“But you look intelligent,” he growled.
“No, that’s just the glasses!”
“That’s all it is!” Like Samson’s hair! We’re pulling reasonably close to Virginia Street now, on the same block, still sitting behinds mounds of traffic. It’s a veritable bus doggie-pile out here. What a perfect opportunity to coax him off the bus early. Aren’t some rules made to be broken?
“Well here, it’s a red light, and that’s Virginia right there, do you wanna jump out here while it’s red?”
“No, I wanna go to Virginia. That’s my destination.”
“Right on.” Stay friendly, I told myself, and calm. Engage him. I ramble, searching around for a topic. “You ever go there,” I asked, pointing at the storefront. “Bed Bath and Beyond?”
“Bed Bath and Beyond?”
“Yeah, right there? It’s all right. I used to have the biggest crush on this girl that worked there.”
“Yeah, at the register. She’s gone now though. One day she was there, one day she was wasn’t.”
“Where she go?”
“I think she went to Chicago.”
“Lemme off right here.”
By now we were in the middle of turning the corner, so close, mere seconds away from an acceptable stop on Virginia Street. I replied with, “for sure, lemme finish this turn real quick, I can’t let you off in the middle.”
“Yeah you can. Yeah you can!”
“Lemme off right now!”
If you can, let them win. People like winning. This would be easy to explain to a supervisor anyways. Safety is paramount, moreso than stopping during a turn and potentially waking the dormant beast inside this man.
“Okay,” I said. I opened the doors.
And that’s the story of why there was no police called to Third and Virginia, or Third and Seneca, no additional traffic blockages, no security incident, no frightened passengers, no further delayed service, no injuries to myself or others. Just a weird blip of a moment where a bus downtown, for some reason, stopped in the middle of a turn and let someone out.
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.