He was hovering near the front. You remember AJ from an earlier post, the stone-faced youngster in “Everybody Need to Quit Acting Hard and S**t.” I spoke.

“Said’joo graduated, right?”
“Notchyet. Almost.”
“Almost. June of this year?”
“Yeeeeah.”
“Awesome,” I said.
“I can’t wait myself.”

His line was voiced as a declarative, minimizing any emotive tone. This, as you know, is the Way of the Samurai…and of the straight hustlin’ teenager. What does the macho mask of thick skin ultimately represent? The fragile ghost inside, of course, vulnerable as any human. From past incidents, AJ knew I respected him, but he was wavering between the Habit (of the Samurai) and the risk one takes in opening up. I wanted to steer him toward that safer place, the space where people are soft and kind. I put myself in his shoes and got excited. What a glorious time graduation really is.

“Dude,” I enthused. “That was the most exciting time for me, because it was like, finally. I got control over my own schedule!”
He tried not to be excited, but gave up halfway through the syllable: “Yeeeeah!”
“If I become busy, it’s my fault, it’s stuff I wanna do, instead of their stuff, you know?”
“Yeah. I know whatchu mean. Das what’s up.”
“Oh, I was so ready!”
“I can’t wait myself!”

It was like a take two, hearing him say it again. As though you’d asked your actor for a more enthusiastic line reading. No need for take three. The truth of his excitement had a name now, birthed in the smile of his voice.

He continued. “God, I don’t even have to think about it, wakin’ up early in the morning, decidin’ when I wanna go to college.”
I wanted to encourage higher education, do my part–but let it be his idea, not mine. Just suggest how it might feel: “Yeah, ’cause even if you do go to college it’s a different game because you’re choosing to go, and it feels different, you don’t have to go. All of a sudden, it feels all right. It changes the whole game.”

“Yeah. Can’t wait, man.” AJ’s cadence is slower, his head tilted slightly back, a hazy half-grin enunciating each word. “I’m gon’ be gettin’ on the bus first thing, tellin’ you how I graduated.”
“Dude, I’m so ready. That’s gonna be so beautiful. Thinkin’ ’bout stickin’ around Seattle, or maybe goin’ somewhere else?”
“Yeah, I’m gonna go to Houston.”
“Oh right on, followin’ the sunshine! You got family down there?”
“Eeeah.”
“Cool. Houston, that’s like the cool part of Texas. Houston and Austin.”
“Yeeeeah! Dallas, I went to Dallas, it was crazy.”
“Yeah? I never been there.”
“People, they’re not nice down there.”
“That’s not cool. I’m scared to go to Texas, man!”

He laughed, a single gruff chuckle with a smile that lingered. There was a recognition of sorts there. The bus driver was talking about being scared, but he was still confident. Oh. It’s in the little moments, the milliseconds of recognition, that we begin the process of steering our perceptions….

About now a man waved at us from a zone. There’s a newer soul who sits about the northbound zone at Othello these days–not one of the fellows across the street nursing a sluggish beer, you understand, but a different type, sprightly and amiable. You look at this thirty-something guy in regular-sized jeans and a faded baseball cap, always with an ebullient hello, and you think, what business does he have out here? Who is this guy? He changes the nature of the street corner. I always tap the horn and wave. Tonight I opened the doors, unsure if he wanted a ride, and we exchanged pleasantries. I like to put my hands together in prayer and bow towards him, and he excitedly returns the gesture.

AJ leaned out the door and greeted him as well. They exchanged words in Somalian which seemed similar in content; pleasantries on a Monday night, silhouettes under the amber streetlight.

Afterwards, AJ said, “every time I see him over there, he’s always happy.”
Now it was my turn to gleefully say, “yeeeah! I’m impressed, man. Anybody that could be happy in modern life, you know, that’s impressive, dude. ‘Cause it’s not easy.”
“Yeah, it’s not really easy. It’s hard.”
“Yeah.”
In his slow and definite voice: “It’s kind uh cool to see other people happy, you know?”
“Yeah, it brings people–”
“Everybody loves doing–”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Everybody’s goin’ through it, fightin’ their own little battles, their own big battles.”
“Alright, I’ma get off here.”
“Enjoy the last few months of school!”
“Yup!”

If a conversation can represent the trajectory of a life lived, I hope this one does. There’s a switch that happens in the twilight days of adolescence, where you realize confidence matters more than bravado, individuality more than assimilation. All those things we thought it was that mattered. It was never about what pants you wore. It was how confident you were wearing whatever pants you had. How comfortable you were in your own skin. Why fit in when you were born to stand out?

By the end of our short talk, there were intimations of new possibilities, a few more beams laid on the foundation of another method, expressing emotions, expressing positivity, love, fear. The Way of the Samurai was in decline. He was one step further on the lifelong journey of selfhood, the careful carving out of his own outline, his own way. The Way of the AJ.

 

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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.