Nathan Converses With His Colleagues: III


Once again (as with Part I, here, and Part II, here–each a different operator), I was sprawled out on the late night bus headed home, exhausted but content, chatting it up with my friend the driver.

“How was your day?”
I sighed happily. I love when people ask me this question with genuine interest. “You know,” I replied, “I think I’m going to try something new.”
“What’s ‘at?”
“I think I’m going to, instead of going through the whole thing of waking up sleepers at the end of every terminal, I think I’m going to try do that, but if I can’t, just let ’em hang out. I’ll check up on ’em, try to wake ’em up, sure, but sometimes it’s just too much trouble. Especially if there’s no other bus to put ’em on. I just feel like I don’t need to get ’em all up outta there, and them pick ’em all up again in fifteen minutes. I try to wake up everybody. But I don’t want to stress about it if I can’t.”

He thought about it for a moment. “Well, its’ good to establish some ground rules.”
“I had an arrangement with this guy once when I was doing the 124,” he continued. “He asked if he could sleep on the bus and I said yes, and he would get on and go find somewhere to crash, not where everyone wanted to sit, and he would sleep the whole night through. And we did that for about nine months.”
“Oh. Okay. Long time.”
“And after ten months, he came back and said, ‘thank you.’ and I said, ‘for what?’ and he said, ‘well, because you let me sleep, I was able to hold down a job that whole time, and now I finally have an apartment.'”
“Wow. That is awesome.”
“‘Cause sleep is so important. You have to be able to sleep, get good sleep, if you’re gonna keep a job! And these guys out here, they can’t really,”
“You can’t sleep out here,”
“They can’t really sleep out here. It’s too dangerous.”
“It’s a friggin’ zoo,”
“They have to keep one eye open, or move around,” he said. “Some of these guys… now if they’re drinking, or whatever, no, no, no. I can’t help. It’s not that I won’t help. I can’t. If they can’t help them, I can’t help them. But if you can develop a relationship. When he came back to say thank you, it hit me how much a difference it makes that he got to sleep. And it’s because he got sleep that any of this was possible. Yeah, and he told me he played music, so he’d go down to Pike Place on his days off and try to make a little extra money playing.”
“Wow, he stayed busy! All things considered.”
“Well, you can’t be too busy when you’re homeless.”
“Yeah, true.”

I take great comfort in stories like this. I need to be reminded of the successes. It takes will power to not get bogged down by certain behavioral patterns I see on the street. I have to tell myself not to analyze things too much sometimes–I don’t have the context to do so, and it’s an easy trap to assume the worst in people we don’t know.

That car cutting in front of you–have you noticed how easy it is to assassinate his character… until you pull up and recognize him as a friend of yours? Watch how quickly your brain then backtracks, coming up with explanations for why he’s in a hurry. It’s kind of amazing. They’re all just humans, sometimes motivated, sometimes lazy, sometimes tired, imperfectly working toward about the same goals we all have, using whatever limited means they possess. Be unreasonably kind, and trust the universe to sort it out later.

As for folks not helping themselves, or behaving poorly, I couldn’t help but think on how I have difficulty functioning if I miss a single meal, or sleep badly for a night. Boo-hoo. What about entire days without eating, and weeks or months of interrupted, inadequate rest? Add to that the complication of searching for jobs and housing–try getting one without already having the other–and the hurdles of things like birth certificates and social security cards. That stuff is complicated and annoying for us, who have easy access to resources! Should I really expect these guys to be civil, or remain pillars of unswayable conscience when faced with easy access to the distractions of drugs and alcohol? I seek not to excuse, but to explain.

“So many drivers, it’s just, get the bums off, get the bums off. But if you see someone who’s trying to do something,”
“Man, thanks for sharing that story,” I said. “That helps me.”
He smirked. “So when you’re homeless, just let me know, and I’ll be happy to let you sleep on the bus!”
“Ha, it’s a deal! You’re very kind! That’s great!”

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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.