She looked apprehensive.

I probably did too. The clock had just struck midnight, and angry voices boomed in our periphery. She was out there, waiting for the bus in a white and yellow summer dress, breezy, perhaps wishing there was someone around, anybody, besides this angry yelling man approaching. I was inside my darkened bus, waking up disoriented from a short nap. The shift was almost done, and it had been a breeze… but it’s never over ’til it’s over.

Bus drivers sometimes ride my bus to get a feel for the night 7, different ways of handling it. Certain passenger friends call a ride on my 7 “Bus Therapy,” while some drivers have dubbed it “The Nathan Vass Refresher Course.” I doubt it qualifies for that lofty moniker (I prefer calling it my “office hours”), but I did have an evening where three operators, unbeknownst to each other, all came out to ride the last half of my shift. I was telling them it’s never over until it’s completely over, ’til you’ve parked the bus on the lane inside the yard. You could be a hundred feet away from home base, and it could all still fall apart.

As it happened, we were about a hundred feet away from home base, these drivers and I, wrapping up the shift, when… wouldn’t you know it, a woman came running out of the bushes with blood on her hands and waist, waving her arms and asking us for assistance with her boyfriend, who had been stabbing her.

It’s never over ’til it’s over.

We called for help and she got the assistance she needed. I try not to offer relationship advice to random strangers, but it seemed ridiculous not to say:
“Um. You might think about dumping this guy.”
“Oh God yes,” she said.

It was with these thoughts I stood and stretched out of my nap. Some real angry voices out there. I sighed. It didn’t matter how carefree the day had been. In its last minutes you still might have to step up, summon your better angels and steer the moment as best you can.

I opened the door and turned on the interior lights. Summer Dress and I made nervous eye contact, neither one of us quite sure what was transpiring. She was still standing out there, I was standing by the farebox, as a belligerent voice came closer….

“Hi,” I said to her with kind eyes. Any friendly stranger is a friend, not a stranger, in an intense situation.
“Hey,” she replied. Cute blue eyes, short, with headphones she knew not to be listening to right now.

“DON’T NOBODY TALK TO ME THAT WAY,” said a tall man in dark clothes and a beanie, a bass-inflected gravel rasp to his throaty din. It sounded vaguely familiar: where’ve I heard that voice before? Ah, yes. I put it together right before I saw his face. Marcus loomed in out of the shadows, walking down from the bus behind me.

Boy, does it ever pay off to know a man’s name.

You never know when you’ll see someone again, or how. The genial history he and I have paid off in spades now. The present instantly defused, and the girl’s eyes lit up with surprise, comfort, and relaxation as I said in a friendly tone just a tad quieter than normal:

“Hey, Marcus.” Pause. “You don’t sound too happy.”
He exhaled. Calming down. “Naw, man. This guy trying to tell me to ‘take my shit and get off the bus.'”
“You can always hang out on my bus…”
“Ah know. But this guy’s just…”
“I’m sorry to hear it, dude. You know you can always hang in here.”

The young lady was searching her purse for change. She looked up at him, saying, “oh, you go ahead.”

I think Marcus realized then that he was scaring people. He looked at her now, over the rims of his wire-frame glasses, not lasciviously but how a father looks at girls his daughter’s age; with caring. I love watching people think. He deflated further back to his normal self and said, “oh, no. I always let ladies go first.”

He smiled and she returned the same, feeling the tension slack loose.

I said, “so he was givin’ you some attitude?”
Marcus didn’t even need to vent. “I’m okay,” he said wearily. “It’s just too hot for all that!”
“Yeah, we gotta keep it low-key!”

Tone of voice. Choice of words. I’ve asked hundreds of people, including Marcus himself, to step off the bus at various ends of the line. I’ve never told them to though, and I’ve definitely never used the words he quoted the other (brand new) driver as saying. If I told all those people to “take their shit and get off my bus,” I don’t think I would even be alive. Instead I have the respect of friends in more corners of society than I ever could have imagined, corners I never knew existed. Seeing the young lady realize she could relax, that everything was okay, that for some reason this driver knew this guy by name and they could talk things down… I didn’t know that would be the highlight of my night.

It’s never over ’til it’s over.

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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.