Really trim, this young out-of-towner. Svelte would be the word. She tossed her hair to one side and listened as I answered her question.
“Yeah, so it’s divided into three parts,” I was saying. “There’s Chinatown, Japantown, and Vietnamtown, and Chinatown has the stuff that stays open the longest.”
“So the part I’m going to would be…”
“Chinatown, yeah. And if you’d rather do sushi, that’s just a little further east and north…”
“Nah, no sushi, I’m starving!”
“Quantity is an issue! I know how you feel!” We started talking portion sizes. I pointed out various spots I thought might be suitable.
She said, “is it safe to walk around in Chinatown?”
“Um. Uh. It’s okay.”
“Oh. It’s just okay.”
“Just pretend to be really confident, you know? And people will sense that.”
“Fake it until–”
“Exactly. In a weird way that works.”
“Okay,” she replied. “I won’t have a problem walking in Chinatown. My race, my age!”
“Yeah, you should be fine. And you know, most… a lotta the guys are friendlier than they look.”
That’s no Pollyanna talk, reader. I feel lucky in being able to speak from experience.
A new ladyfriend and I were once about our business on the town, getting ready to step off the back of a 5, when– wait, I asked her. There’s someone I want to introduce you to. Okay, she said, blinking a little when she saw who we were approaching.
I nuzzled with my hand a massive brooding heap near the back doors. The hulking form stirred from light slumber. Swarthy and weathered, dreadlocks and matted layers stuck together, streetspeckled dingy. I waved a hand, friendly.
“Hello Mister Avery! Wha’s happening?”
“Aw Mister Nathan, heeyy, now!”
“Listen, it’s somebody I want you to meet!”
You remember Avery. He may be the most deferential, respectful man on the street right now–if indeed he’s still on the street. This was years ago. “Aw good morning, young lady,” he said to my companion. “It’s a real pleasure. This is the man right here, you got a good dude.”
As she and I stepped out I noticed another man–there’s Charlie, waving his sign at Third and Pine, with his usual coterie scattered about him, discussing politics and religion–and over here, another fellow who calls himself Muhammad Ali. He still had his front teeth then. I introduced her to them all by name. She was nonplussed.* What just happened? Who is this guy? These aren’t the types of people she was used to meeting. They weren’t hipsters with beards and plastic-frame glasses, or uptown professionals. The relationship didn’t last, but I hope that morning lives on in her mind as a pleasant recollection, a memory of class boundaries bulldozed aside with decency.
A similar incident happened with another young lady some time later. She later told me, “okay first of all there’s like five things about that interaction that have never happened to me before. Lots of people come up to me. But the craziest thing is, I’ve never had some guy on the street tell me how lucky I am to know the dude I’m with. Guys don’t say that. They say to the guy, ‘you got a lucky girl. This’ a special girl here, she’s really beautiful,’ whatever. They don’t congratulate me for ignoring them for the competition! Jesus! You must really be doing something out here!”
Reader, I blush. It isn’t me those fine men are so enthused about, but the act of being respected. It’s my enthusiasm for them, my acknowledgment, my ignorance of stereotypes. Oh, it’s that one kid bus driver again, who doesn’t make me feel like a scary-looking black man, who throws fresh air my way. It’s kindness these guys are so excited about, not me. They know hardly anything of me, after all, except my attitude.
As a bus driver, you’re in a lucky position. You’re an authority figure with undeniable street cred that can’t be ignored. Uniquely, you’re also a neutral party. That’s what separates the role from most other interactions between authority figures and the underserved: you’re not enforcing anything. You’re serving. You’re just there, in the city’s worst neighborhoods at night, having a remarkably affable–or pleasantly ho-hum, depending on your approach–evening.
I’m not saying the folks are always on their best behavior. I realize certain situations are eased with my unfair advantage in being male–and a mixed-race male to boot (“Everyone’s half-you,” a passenger once quipped). Having posters of my face everywhere doesn’t exactly hurt either… but moments of respect and appreciation were occurring way before the ad campaign. They occur when people think I’m white. They happen to my bus driver friends who are female. Sometimes, the folks choose to mirror what we offer, because of their own good qualities.
“A lotta the guys are friendlier than they look.” Of course I wish that were always true. But the point is that it’s often true, and we would do well to elevate our general opinion of certain groups accordingly. There is real kindness out here, and I’ve seen it, breathed it, and still breathe because of it.
*Nonplussed means surprised and confused, usually to the degree of not knowing how to respond. The word’s been developing a slang usage in the US exactly the opposite of its original definition; some people think it means unsurprised or unperturbed (Google the definition for a laugh, as you’ll be presented with two perfectly opposed meanings). I use the word here in its original definition.
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.