I have this tendency to turn up my nose at flu shots. We all think we’re unstoppable when we’re younger, and while I long ago lost my claim to invincibility, vestiges of it remain, little crumbs of brash confidence that don’t make sense. For me, that includes not getting flu shots. I have no memory of ever receiving one. I like to tell people that being a bus driver beefs up your immune system like nobody’s business. I drove the 3/4, the main route serving the West Coast’s #1 Trauma Center, for two years–and I didn’t get sick. Flu shots? Who needs ’em? If I’ve made it this far, well….
Isn’t it precisely when you’re at your most confident, that the chips come tumbling down? I’m lying in bed, coughing like it’s 1918. For me the flu is generally unpleasant, but not agonizing, not endless; this is different. After days in row of muscle-atrophied anguish you can start to understand how people used to die from this thing by the millions. I’ve never felt so weak.
However. I needed to go to work, in person, to call out sick. Naturally you can do that remotely, but: we’re talking about a Saturday-Sunday following a holiday week that was also a pay week, aaand immediately preceding a vacation week of my own. How bad would that look? Could my flu be more poorly timed? I wanted them to know this was for real.
The only problem was I was way, way, way too ill to be going outside. Do you know the feeling, where even lying still is intolerable, where each position in your sweaty, unlaundered sheets brings you no closer to comfort? Every pointless toss and turn, your nose burned by overfamiliarity with Kleenex, the constricting throat, the sheer brute torment of something as simple as swallowing… no, going outside and commuting to work was ridiculous. Out of the question.
But I had to do it.
Trust is difficult to earn, and harder to keep. This question of integrity mattered to me, I explained to my confidante, who’d been caring for me. She listened, confounded, as I explained further: there’s also the matter of picking up my car from the mechanic. His shop is small, and I don’t want to inconvenience the guy. It’s just on the other side of town.
Had I really outgrown the invincibility fallacy?
Maybe not so much. Perhaps it’s an unreasonable consideration for others’ needs. I didn’t want to make Tony T the Mechanic’s life any harder than it needed to be. I wanted those Metro dispatchers and planners to know I wasn’t burdening them for flippant reasons. Or perhaps it’s more straightforward: I wasn’t lying or being lazy, and resented the thought of being perceived as doing so.
My companion had my best interests at heart, which made justifying all this somewhat difficult, but we set out in any event. She could see how important it–specifically the Metro dispatcher issue–was to me. The car pick-up thing definitely didn’t make any sense, but I think she figured we could discuss that later.
We hobbled forward. I’m usually the one who walks too quickly, but I was unable to move more than inches at a time. Eighty year-olds walk faster than this.
I held on to my companion’s guiding figure with both arms, clinging to stay upright. On the bus I stared forward, vacantly, unable to focus, a silent voice inside remarking on how mechanical I must’ve looked, how brain-dead.
My mind called back a moment in junior high school, when, having ran around the entire length of Washington, D.C’s Mall, from the obelisk to Lincoln and back, I collapsed on the ground, my lungs heaving with effort. A local walked past with her young son. She was a thirty-something African-American dressed in her Sunday best, and the boy was wearing a sweater and khakis. They had it together. They stopped to watch me writhe.
“Now that’s why you don’t take drugs,” she finally said.
What did I look like now, to the dispatcher and nearby operators at the base? They stopped talking, let me tell you. They immediately asked after my welfare. Some of them even recognized me.
Only the dispatcher didn’t show surprise; maybe he’s seen this sort of thing before. Me, famous for running excitedly through the base, now hobbling ten steps to a foot, touching the walls for balance, holding a plastic bag for vomit in one hand, dressed in absurd amounts of layers for once, despite this rainy day not being a cold one: jeans over sweats, coat over sweatshirt over tee over tee, with a scarf, ludicrously roomy women’s coat jacket draped over my slight frame, with a massive hood entirely covering my face, and to top it all off- the ridiculous addition of polished dress shoes (hey, I didn’t know I was going to get sick)!
Afterwards, Tony T’s shop awaited. Once again, my gracious companion suggested the reasonable course of action. Once again, I politely insisted. This fresh air actually felt kind of nice. The train ride was quiet, and the third-mile residential stroll through old South Seattle did my mental state, if not my body, good. We got the car out of there and parked it nearby.
I noticed something on the bus ride back. Here was a 124, fresh with the methadone morning release group. They chatted amiably about the price of cable, driving versus busing to West Seattle, the job market. I leaned my hooded head against the rain-spattered window pane. Nostrils clogged, my mouth hung open, and in between inhales I breathed a memory to my friend:
“There’s a methadone rehab clinic. Right over here. I used to drive the 522. And the first stop was. Picking up these guys. It was my first. Experience with street people.”
“More or less. And I remember noticing. They were the nicest people. On the whole bus.”
“And so it began,” she laughed.
To the extent I was able, I looked around at the surfeit of texture and weathered grit. They weren’t as sick as I felt now, but you could tell they knew the grizzle on the short end of the stick. It is so much harder to be kind in a state like this, I now realized. I’ve never had to take a bus while half dead. There are probably people who feel like this all the time. How many ailing people have I transported, who took the Herculean effort to be decent?
I look just like these tired, disenfranchised souls, I thought. Honestly, I looked worse. I’m still holding the vomit bag, for Pete’s sake. I was a disaster. We were sitting in the back, but I knew I had to go up front as I exited, to thank the driver. I wanted her to feel that same gratitude I’ve received a thousand times over from folks much more down and out than I, whose efforts I so cherish and respect. My body began planning for the aptitude it would need to walk all the way up there. I saved up an extra breath to say it all in one go:
“Thank you have a really nice day.”
She may not even have heard me. I could barely speak above a whisper, and she bulldozed over me with a boisterous “thank you!–” but maybe she didn’t need to hear me. I was really more of an actor, after all, doing my best to pay it forward. She seemed like the sort who was already in tune with such of life’s nuances, and I was glad.
“We did it,” I said to my caregiver, thanking her profusely. I was still clutching her frame for dear life. “I can’t believe we actually did it.” It won’t sound like much of an achievement to anyone else:
I called in sick and picked up my car on the way home. Great.
But to us it was a massive, by-the-skin-of-our-teeth-successful accomplishment. How did we pull this thing off? Why did I think it was even a good idea? We gave it everything we had, for the possibly foolhardy notions of principle. It was important to me.
Just remember the next time you see someone moving at a dying snail’s pace, the corollary may well be you, sprinting as fast as you can.
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.