“I been on your bus once before. You were hella cool for some reason,” he mused, fingering in a few more coins at the farebox. The confusion in his second sentence made me laugh. He frowned, trying to figure it out: what on earth had made this driver so “hella cool” last time, after all?

“Aw thanks man,” I said. “I try to keep it light, keep it positive.” I was sticking to boilerplate lines because I couldn’t tell if he was stable. Keep it on an even keel. His dress sense was harmless enough, following the dictates of low-income stomping grounds all across America: basically, wear what the cool kids had on twenty years ago. The nineties urban youth look, oversized clothing with a touch of jailhouse sag, chain necklace and untied skaters that only stay on if you swagger.

On certain streets, you dress so you’re taken seriously by those with no sense of fashion upkeep whatsoever. They won’t warm to an Andre 3000 straw boater, Kanye West’s tight jeans, or A$ap Rocky’s tailored white suit and black turtleneck just because People magazine does. When there are guys standing on both sides of an alley entrance, it doesn’t matter what color you are: you don’t want to look like you’re waiting to hear back from Exeter College. The better to go with your older brother’s unwashed jeans and something with a Sonics logo on it.

Which is what our friend had down to a tee, and that’s fine by me. But there was something besides, an erraticism in his movements, a sudden jolt in his step, not to mention his hidden eyes; sunglasses after midnight aren’t exactly the reassurance of sound mind I’m looking for. Nevertheless, he responded to my comment above with an amicable “das wassup.”

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it’s better to engage. One time out of a hundred, it’s better to say nothing at all, and as a bus driver you’ve got about a fourth of a second to make that call. I made the call, and the call I made was, ignore the sunglasses. This guy’s okay.

I said, “helps everyone, you know? Not gonna hurt to put some love out there.”
“True dat,” he replied. “There’s a lot of happiness out here.”
“Some of these guys got one arm, one leg… if they can be happy, I got no excuse!”
“Preach! I feel tha same. Ah try to pay attention to all the happiness, think of the things that keep me goin’. In this crazy worl’, we got to stay happy. We got to.”
“Yeah,” I said, sighing, thinking on all my own stresses, those of others, the politics, the tightening purses, the property tax and rent rates… have you noticed how real estate has surpassed weather as Seattle’s dominant city-wide conversation? “Thank you,” I breathed, adding after noticing his puzzled look: “for the reminder!”
“I need that sometimes!”
“Aw, come on,” he exclaimed. “You don’t look like you got evil in you!”
“I hope not!”
“Ha! Like, ‘I’m not a killer, but don’t push me?’ ”
“We all got a dark side, right?”
“Yup yup you know it! Jus’ keepin’ a leash on it, like me! You have a good night!”

He was more than okay. He was you and me. He was unwittingly echoing Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, who maintains any person is capable of the worst evil, given the circumstances. Our passenger was another man doing his best to focus on his better angels and cast aside the others. I’m glad I chatted with him. What awful suspicions I might have if I never chatted with the guys out here, and made all my assumptions from the descriptions in the police calls we’re forwarded. The suspect is always a “twenty-year old black male wearing all black…”, and I chuckle to myself every time. That describes forty percent of my ridership. They don’t all rob banks. I’ve got twenty black twenty-somethings wearing black here, and none of them are out of breath or dragging duffel bags. They’re too busy riding my bus!*

An operator once asked me, “how do you deal with these guys?” He was referring to homeless people at large. I pondered for a moment before saying, “you know actually, what really ends up helping me is just talking to them. Go back there on your break, and hear their story. It gives me context.”

Which is why so many of my stories on this site are accounts, specifically, of African-American men being civil, friendly, funny, responsible, vulnerable and kind.** In my daily exposure to diversity these moments are not exceptional; they’re pretty ordinary. Actually, they’re downright unremarkable, in that they happen so much more often on my bus than I’m able to put on the site, and I hold back here simply for fear of the stories becoming woefully repetitive.

But in the face of centuries of–not just mistreatment but more particularly misrepresentation–these ordinary moments still feel fresh, and I can tell my responses to the participants remain resonant. These glimmers of good treatment going both ways are still not celebrated enough. There is an opportunity to try, ever so slightly, to tip the grossly misaligned scales of perception back towards balance. For every time a call goes out saying “twenty-year old black male,” I want there to be five other places people can turn to that showcase disadvantaged young men of color being nice, or maybe just boring, or even plain rude… but not criminals. I’m not the person best suited for this work, but I’m not sure that matters. It’d be a crime not to take up the opportunity, given how utterly critical it is. I have to do it. I want to do it. And it’s so easy.

Thanks for reading and sharing. Now more than ever, the goodwill in these stories is something that needs to be highlighted.


*On a more serious note, now’s as good a time as any to link to these two stories if you haven’t read them already:
Don’t Be Scared of My Friends, Part I
Don’t Be Scared of My Friends, Part II

**A few greatest hits, if you’re in the mood; longtime readers will know these stories from the “On the Street” sidebar to the right:
More Than One Way Through Life: a dealer and a student clash over ideals.
Future, Present, Past: a new friend and I riff together on an all-white 2, first for laughs and then seriously.
Saddest Music in the World: a vet having a hard day, who probably deserved better.
Hip to be Joyful: a street comedian passes on some words from the kids in back.

…and a few of the deeper cuts:
Appreciation: one of only a few blog stories to be purchased as its own art piece. Two boys express gratitude.
It Used to Sound Like This: Devin the Man for President.
Something Getting Through: the boys wave through the windows.
Highwire, Lowbrow explosions: I’ll never win the Nobel Prize, but this shower of foul-mouthed, good-natured praise more than makes up for it.
All You Need Is: A street fellow gives me the reminder I need.
From a Healthier Slant: two boys wax profane on deterministic universes.
The Mighty Midnight Bus Barbecue: how the boys talk after the white folks have gone.
I Like Peanuts: gift exchange, and more.

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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.