“I heard you’re off the 7.”

Somehow the secret’s gotten out. I wasn’t going to say anything here, because I have over a year’s worth of 7/49 stories stockpiled and nobody reading the blog would’ve noticed I was driving anything else… but Metro’s worse than your grandmother’s bridge club. Rumors are always flying, and heaven help you if you actually do something radical. You’ll never hear the end of it.

They’re already joking about it at the base. A friend was ribbing me today: “it even happened to Nathan! He’s ‘just gonna take a short break at North Base.’ How many times have you heard that before? They never come back! They neeever come back!”

It would be so easy to say I got tired of the people. Of course he did, we’d say, nodding. How convenient. We could relax, comforted by the idea that there’s nothing left to learn and therefore nothing to pay attention to, that irony is king and that positivity, on a long enough timeline, gets bulldozed.

On the street, certain things have to be simplified. There’s a briefness to the interactions. All relations between men and women, for example, are suddenly either marriages or sibling relationships. Most of my friends are women, and when any of them come out for a bus ride with me, they have to tolerate other passengers telling us how badly we need to get married. Stuff like that.

Similarly, when people ask why I’m spending Spring driving empty shuttles through north-end neighborhoods you’ve heard of but never been to, there’s no time to answer. But being that this is neither a street corner nor a Twitter feed, we actually have a second to get into this properly.

I started driving buses in 2007. I did two years in the Bellevue ‘burbs before coming downtown, where I fell in love with trolleys, Metro’s busiest and most complicated work, and especially the 7, the busiest, most notorious, and most involving of the trolley lines.

The primary compelling reason for my sticking with urban routes over the Eastside or North End was the presence of a more equal exchange of energy between myself and the passengers. On the 7, more than any other route, whatever I put out is what I’m going to get thrown back in my face, times ten.

There is so much light out there.

Sure, people are more profane, more ignorant, more unstable and more dangerous. They’re also more polite, more respectful, more grateful, and a lot more loving. It’s just more, on either end. The spectrum is vast. While no demographic has a sole claim on bad attitudes, I notice a disproportionate amount of goodwill when driving through working-class and low-income neighborhoods, and I find spending eight hours in such an environment more rewarding and frankly, more interesting.

I’ve left the 7 and returned to it from 2009 onwards, but my current stint is the one most people think of: four full years of five nights a week on the 7/49. I’m aware of no other operator who’s done that. I’ve established the level of community that comes with that much time spent engaging together, and I try to share it as best I can for you on this blog.

There is a set of faces numbering in the thousands whose existence I cherish, whom I see nightly. I see them more often than my friends. I’ve watched them graduate high school, get divorced, change their diets, buy homes, recover from accidents. I’ve seen them get pregnant, get addicted, get clean, die, live, lose, laugh, and live again. Mostly, I’ve listened. There is so much more, immeasurably more that I can learn from them, than they possibly could from me. The working souls who cross generations and oceans to speak our common language, that of a smile. The street brethren whose respect I feel lucky and honored to have earned. The high energy hive of the city’s vortex, itself a breathing thing, and you’re the central nerve running through it… The high of being at the center of a center of the universe.

How could I possibly get tired of that?

A cluttered mind invites unhealthy thinking, and I’ve had too much going on lately. The film, the book, the blog… I need time to think. You’ve heard the phrase familiarity breeds contempt; it also breeds ungratefulness, and I try very much to sustain a sense of gratitude for the ordinary. I’m at North Base for a shakeup because the rest of my life is too busy, and the shorter commute gives me an extra two hours per day. It’s not because I’m fed up with the urban core, but because I don’t want to lose sight of what I love so much about it.

More specifically, I need time to think because I’m in post-production on my film! The 7/49 and routes like it are high-maintenance affairs demanding enormous focus and patience. Production on my movie was a herculean affair involving almost 100 people, and I want to make sure their efforts shine in the best possible final product. I was working full time at night, going to school in the evening, and heading up preproduction and production during mornings and afternoons.

That was a bit much.

I need the mental headspace to think about Carl Theodore Dreyer’s camera movements in Le passion de Jeanne d’arc and how they sustain rhythm, or how Kurosawa maximizes compositional space when shooting in the Academy ratio, or how I can learn from Roger Deakins’ tendency toward rim lighting and avoiding dirties in close-ups. I can’t do that when I’m trying to figure out how to get a half-conscious Abdilahi off the floor of my bus, or make sure Ibrahim doesn’t scare people with his questions and near-overdoses.

If you see me doing low-key routes so simple they don’t make sense, it’s because I’m trying to wrestle complicated beasts in my other lives, and need bus-land to be straightforward for a moment.

A friend once advised me on the value of separating decisions that move towards something positive, rather than away from something negative. If I choose to do a shakeup in the ‘burbs, it’s be because I like it, not because I don’t like downtown. I have to say I’m enjoying myself out here in the sleepy boondocks. It’s not as great as The Madness, but it’s nothing if not pleasant.

There’s a voice calling me though, quietly, from somewhere further south….

Article Author
Nathan Vass
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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.