Do I show up in his dreams, as he has in mine?

In my life he began as a recurring face in my periphery, one of those men who lay about the Fifth and Jackson plaza. The guy with the shorts. An hour, a month, a week: they’re there, sidestepping life’s challenges with another beer from the corner store across the way. How many methods are there for preventing the present from becoming the future, and at what point do these different attempts collapse under the weight of time? They live in the shadow of unconquered hurdles, looming problems supplemented by too many other issues to solve right now. Meanwhile, I’ve got enough here for a PBR….

Allow me to paint you a picture.

There’s the northwest corner, including a recessed westerly alcove to the left of the FedEx. That’s the bathroom. Closer to the corner proper, at the site of the now-disused Waterfront Streetcar terminal, is Hangout 1. It’s shady and concentrated, a small staircase of sorts under cover of the weather, suitable for furtive transactions and exchanges. Amharic is the dominant language here. Wouldn’t you find your own people in a new country, even if they weren’t the sort you’d introduce to Mom?

Directly east is Fifth and Jackson’s northeast corner, Hangout Zero. In the Seattle tradition of safe and unsafe areas rubbing right up against each other and, incredibly, adhering to division lines as seemingly insignificant as a roadway, Hangout Zero is completely innocuous. It’s not a hangout. There’s nowhere to sit and it’s too open. You could spend all day standing at the corner of Hangout Zero and expect not to be hassled.

The southeast corner is the nearest, but not the most desirable, opportunity for liquor refueling. Hangout 2’s Union Market mini-mart has suitably expansive open hours, sometimes gets shot up (or worse), but generally performs its function as a supply haven for drinking tendencies of the Bukowskiesque stripe. English is the language of choice on this corner, which doesn’t have chairs or benches but is workable for those in walkers and wheelchairs, and besides offers a few utility boxes and garbage and recycling cans to lean on or perhaps explore. Treasure hunting, I believe, is a natural human impulse.

Further up, an entire two blocks out (a commitment, when you could just comfortably pass the time right here at Hangouts 1 or 2), is the mini-mart my recurring friend mentioned above prefers. He has an adventurer’s spirit about him, and is too refined for Hangout 2’s decidedly mediocre alcohol offerings. You’ve got to travel to get the good stuff.

And then there’s Hangout 3.

The southwest corner is the Grand Poobah of this whole affair, and the reason all the satellite hangouts surrounding it exist in the first place. Designed in the 1980s in anticipation of the 1990 opening of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel, atop which it sits, it vastly predates urban planning concepts aimed at discouraging sitting, loitering, sleeping, enjoying the sun, enjoying your neighbors- call it what you want. All that happens here. This open, welcoming (and okay, often nerve-wracking) brick plaza is supposed to be lived in, and it is. Sitting areas and shade abound. The bus zone on this block and transit tunnel below keep the proceedings flowing.

The adjacent Union Station (an immaculately restored former train station lobby, in a building now used for Sound Transit offices) extends the plaza the full length of the block. The buzzing hive that is Fourth and Jackson is one of Metro’s key intersections, and the massive amount of service passing through gives a sense of the city’s pulse. It’s almost impossible for sixty seconds to go by without a bus in sight. You can feel when a game or event is brewing.

Although it can’t be true, I feel like I hang out at Hangout 3 as much as the friends I detail below. Personally, I love the space, and I’ve loved it since childhood. I’d stand there, at the decidedly safer and mysteriously drama-free far west railing facing Fourth, and watch the buses go by in awe.

Now I’m there every day, walking through it on my way to work, walking back to it from the base to wait for my bus, driving through it four or five times a night on the route of all routes, and using it as a passenger on my days off for the excellent transfer point that it is.

And every time I’m there, no matter the hour, they are too. They carouse the nights and days away in various states of inebriation, on an endless summer vacation with gradually diminishing returns.

There’s Ali of the Cane (a la Madonna of the Goldfinch), who jokes with me about why I’ve forgotten to bring him his very own Metro bus; there’s my Laotian friend who teaches me key phrases and likes Coca-Cola, who may one day return to his family; there’s another Ali, slightly less drunk but just as friendly, with sisters in Houston; his dream is to see them again. There’s Tall Guy 1, who goes out of his way to greet me, and who is currently in a wheelchair and cast but plans to be out of them in six weeks; and Tall Guy 2, a more stolid presence, often not in a state to recognize my face, but kind when he is. Others are there intermittently, or are newer faces- Sabu, Einstein, Texas, and more. English tends to be the preferred language here, not because the crowd is generally American (as with Hangout 2), but because the international nature of the conglomerate requires a universal communication choice.

The open layout from an earlier design time actually helps. Violence at Third and Pike/Pine too often involves bystanders, due to the cramped nature of the proceedings. Getting rid of the benches there hasn’t gotten rid of anybody so much as simply prompted them to stand, blocking doorways to businesses and tunnel entrances, creating far too much street denizen-passersby friction.

Fifth and Jackson, conversely, is loitering done right: excepting the iffy nature of Hangouts 1 and especially 2, the plaza at Hangout 3 is a thing of beauty (we’ll ignore Hangout Zero, which, absurdly, might be one of safest corners in the neighborhood). The plaza benches and landscaping invite and contain my Bukowski friends such that, if you prefer to avoid carousing, there’s space and pathways to easily do so. Fights happen regularly enough here, and though both intersections have robust police presences, the spacial geography at Fifth and Jackson is such that violence almost never involves pedestrians or bystanders. It’s kept “in-house,” as it were. How nice.

The face I most associate with Hangout 3 is the fellow with the shorts. Shorts is one of the Somali set, often with Ali of the Cane and Tall Guy 2. He moves like people did in those old hand-cranked projections of silent films– sometimes slow motion, sometimes slightly fast, erratic. More often he’s on the slower side, treading air like Charlie Chaplin in 1 A.M. Short curly hair, forties. In my first interactions with him, which were on my bus, I was apprehensive. He was unpredictable. He could be loud. I’d avoid eye contact in the plaza.

Over time it occurred to me I need to be on good terms with these guys, because I see them daily and will for the foreseeable future. For me, they’re like neighbors. Hangout 1 is still a little too confusing (and mysteriously empty this past week), but in passing through Hangout 3 I’ll nod and wave, and the folks enthusiastically do the same.

Once Shorts boarded at Third and James, clad in a knee-length pair of dirty white shorts held up by an elastic band. Just before stepping on, he indifferently tugged at the elastic, pulling out and readjusting an enormous, eighteen-inch serrated blade. He reinserted it near his underwear and loped in.
I asked, “you’re not gonna use that thing in here, are ya?”
His smile is so genuine. I love seeing it. “Oh no, my brotha,” he replied. “No problems!”

True to his word, he didn’t harm a soul. These folks are rarely on the bus for very long; they have smaller orbits, and there’s no law against riding the bus while carrying the world’s biggest bread knife.

Not long ago I saw him, uncharacteristically, clear over on Capitol Hill, outside the Egyptian Theatre. He waited until I’d boarded all the passengers waiting there before exclaiming to me, “Summertime!”
“Heeey! Whats goin on’, man?”
“I’m chillin’ here today, over there, too much drama.”
“Yeah. Better over here, less drama.”
“Yup!”
“Less drama! Alright man, I’ll see you again.”
“Yup! Thank you so much!”

His yup had a childlike quality, and so did his bright grin. Those components in combination with the shorts made him appear younger than he is. I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear a preference for less drama from Mr. Bread Knife Machete, but was happy to share that in common for the moment.

Most recently I saw him again at the corner of Broadway and Pine. He must be taking to the area. He was rocking back and forth on his feet a little, asking a put-together passerby for spare change. To a stranger his propulsive voice and leering demeanor can be frightening, and this Amazon-young-professional-looking fellow looked not a little terrified.

I was across the street in my bus, but I needed to wave. I forced open my window and tapped the horn, waving my arm out wildly, hoping Shorts would see me. He was disoriented but only for a second, and absolutely lit up upon recognizing me. “Heeeey,” he yelled. I returned the howl with enthusiasm.

I waved for two reasons.

I wanted Mr. Young Professional to realize this crazy-looking immigrant street guy actually has friends– and friends in other parts of society at that. He can’t be that scary. He’s legitimate in somebody’s eyes, and there are people who go out of their way to say hi to him.

I also wanted Mr. Shorts to feel something besides shunning and ostracism in that moment. Let him know not to put too much stock into Mr. Amazon’s cold shoulder. He may not like you right now, Shorts, but there are people with jobs and without who love you, who get excited when they see you.

This, these are the important things we can do in this life. It’s what we’re trying for when we’re kind. To make our fellow human feel valued, acknowledged, important, in that brief blink of an eye during which we’re here.

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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.