Two older men of the same race, proximate in age, sitting near me at the front. Things were getting heated. The first fellow, dressed in denim with a touch of red, had clean, long, greying dreadlocks. I see him with a longboard sometimes, always a sparkle in those eyes; this guy might be sixty, but the vitality in his voice, that smart turn of his step, mark him as the embodiment of Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous comment: “youth is not an age thing. It’s a quality.”

He’s still got it, in other words.

The fellow seated across from him is different. Also a black American man of about sixty, but clad in a food-stained white sweatshirt and blue coat, with faded sweatpants and sneakers looking worse for the wear; crumbs and dried saliva haunt his mustache and beard, and a trail of garbage–peanut shells, a bottle opener, torn napkins–flanks him on the seats surrounding. He’s complaining about his circumstances, and Mr. Clean Dreads is trying to help.

You gotta get it, man. Whatchu think, folks is gonna babysit they grandpas?”
“Iss taking too long, man, too hard for a nigga.”
“What’re you trying to do? What’s your occupation?”
“I’m on SSI, I can’t be workin’,”
Dreads leaned forward. “You on what now?”
“That don’t mean you can’t work. Coul’ work under the table.”
“Man, come on, nigga, they trying to take everything and give nothin’ back! They–”

Dreads has a military background, and that sharpness came out now, the tone you’d use toward a misbehaving child: “Hey. Don’t say that word nigga, right? Just, whatever. Don’t say it. Don’t give ’em no ammunition. ‘Cause they hear you say they might slip outta their mouth.”
Sweatpants, slurring the words in reply: “don’t care what nobody think.”
“Look at me. Don’t say it. Now. As you were sayin’?”

Sweats rambled about a lawyer and a job, an anecdote of how the world had done him wrong. Our friend in denim and red responded, about to share how he could easily say the same, and yet… he wasn’t disagreeing with the facts of the story. It’s about the attitude you take. The control you choose to put into action. Sweats wasn’t hearing it though, and waxed harsh on the limiting nature of institutions.

“They crooked,” Sweatpants said. “They evil. They–”
“You know what? I coulda checked with the government too, right? I’s in the army for twenty-two years, and I messed up my back.” His tone said, I’ve been treated unfairly, too. But Sweats wasn’t hearing it.
“You can’t go to no army, they ain’t gonna–”
‘Scuse me, alright? You can’t tell me what the army did, man–”
“Listen to me, I’m tryin’ to tell you–”
Dreads, exasperated: “okay, okay, you know everything.”
“Yup. I tried to go in but that system got me down, man, that system got me down–
“How old are you?”
“I’m one year younger than you, alright? Look at us. I can’t complain, I wish you all the wealth. Just be positive, alright? Don’t say… the more you think about that fella, he ain’t gonna… you shouldn’t even–twenty years ago? That’s on nobody’s mind, and it shouldn’t be on yours. Don’t let… that’s your conscience fuckin’ with you.”
“That system got me down–”
“You keep yourself up, bro.”
“Every time I go to th’ hospital,”
“Man, look at yourself. Look at yourself. You won’t ever listen.”
“They tryin’ to fuck my mind up, I can’t think. You don’t understand.”
“What’ I need to understand? I’m tryin’ to tell you how to–you know what your problem is? You cain’t even focus–”
“Focus, no. Focus on what? Focus on what? Believe me!”
“I believe you.”
“I speak the truth. You bein’ political.”

Dreads could see this was getting nowhere. He said, “naw, I’m not political, I’m crazy.”
“I’m crazy too.”
“Alright.” Resigned. “I act outta my shoe size sometimes.”

I smiled at the wisdom in the homespun articulation. Mr. Dreads may not have been getting through to Mr. Sweatpants, but I was learning from his words. Sure, life’s unfair; but we get up again. If there’s something we can do, we do it. Most wise of all though, in my view, was how Mr. Dreads didn’t insist on having the last word, or on changing Sweats’ perspective. He leaned back now, letting out a long sigh. Neutral. If you can let other people have the last word, life becomes a lot easier.

Maybe that’s why Dreads is so youthful.

This post is a thematic cousin to two previous ruminations on similar subjects:
Pulling Our Weight, Part I
Pulling Our Weight, Part II: Addressing the Homeless Laziness Question

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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.