“How was your evening, Mister Ernie?”

What ends up being formative? Do we know, in the moment? Sometimes it can be as fleeting as somebody’s line, a seemingly throwaway word sequence that reveals volumes, rewires how you consider life. Before I began this job I’d ride around with my close friend Brian Bell, who at the time drove delivery for Honda Auto Parts. We’d sit in traffic together, catching up. One day I asked him how he dealt with all this ridiculous traffic. The backups, the slowdowns, people zipping in and out.

“You get used to it,” he said.

It was his tone which struck me. I’ll never forget it. It was so calm, so nonchalant. It revealed he was in a headspace where traffic problems were of such minor concern as to be almost completely inconsequential. What should it matter, after all? You’re a professional. It doesn’t bother you.

Brian may not even remember that brief reply of his, but I’ve carried its implications through the years, and it’s proven formative in how I think about traffic.

You get used to it.

Ernie, above, is a colleague whom I’ve looked up to since day one. In reviewing the earlier years of my blog I’ve discovered I’ve quoted almost exactly the same line of his several times. It too was a formative sentence. He first said it when I rode his bus one evening (here), and I later restate the line in different contexts here and here, with another brief thought of his here. I thought I knew the line’s import, but I didn’t, and would only later fully internalize the concept through a horrific incident that proved to be a terrific learning lesson. It’s too much of a wound right now, though; maybe I’ll write about it when it’s a scar.

In any event, Mister Ernie and I were walking to our cars at the day’s close, and our brief discussion circled toward another facet of that key idea of his which has been so useful for me.

“Great,” he replied, in answer to my question. “So great. There’s some challenges, but…” he paused, but only briefly, finding the words. “When you’re serving, everything is better. Everything is better. ‘Cause you know what? It moves yourself out of the way, and things are unstuck.”
“‘Cause it’s not even about us!”
“No! It’s not!”
“It’s not about–”
Our words tumbling over each other in our enthusiasm. I said, “we’re not good to people so that it comes back at us,”
“Although it often does,”
“It does,”
“It’s about. It’s about giving it out there.”
“And leaving it there.”
“And then doin’ it better the next day. How do you fine-tune–”
Yes, I thought. Yes. Wow. This guy. I couldn’t contain my admiration, and exploded with: “Ernie! You are one of the great, towering, thundering statues of existence in our time!”
He laughed. “You know what, I throw it right back at you, Nathan! I throw it right back at you with impunity.”
“Thank you.”
“With impunity! It’s always an honor just to see you, even if you don’t talk. I just know. I know. I just know.”
“Right back atcha! Ernie!”

He grinned wide, saying it one last time: “With impunity!”

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Article Author

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.