Merriam-Webster defines roar as “to utter or emit a full loud prolonged sound” or “to sing or shout with full force.”

You better believe it.

I recognized his face and got excited. It was time for a volume adjustment–lots of roaring for him, and lots of listening by me. I was on the point of calling out his name when he beat me to the chase, bellowing: “WHY LING! WHY LING!”

So that’s how you say it. I’ve been saying Weyling for years. Was he a soothsayer? Did he know I was about to mispronounce his name for the umpteenth time? Without another word–or roar, I should perhaps say–he marched to the center of the bus. The nighttime silence began to envelope us again, slowly, returning us to the norm of what 11 P.M. is supposed to sound like. Dead of night. The whirr of the electric motor, the intermittent blast of the heater.

From the sparsely populated interior came the deafening pronouncement: “HOW WAS YOUR DAY, BUS DRIVER?”

Mr. Why Ling makes me quiet. Sometimes I like to match the volume of boisterous passengers, but his stentorian decrees are on another level entirely. You can’t hope to match it. Why bother? I feel duty bound to balance him out with meek, reasonable-sounding and completely ordinary sentences, like:

“Oh, pretty good. How ’bout you, are you headed home?”
“A GREAT PLACE TO GO TO,” he screamed, with warlike enthusiasm, as though I’d just suggested something illegal.
“You got that right,” I said. We work well together. With his glass-splitting howls and my innocuous volume working in counterpoint, we just about add up to a normal conversation. Almost.
“I JUST PAID MY RENT FOR FEBRUARY. COME MARCH, I’M GONNA PAY IT AGAIN.”

I didn’t know it was possible to combine equal parts gleefulness, belligerence, and gratitude into one tone of voice, but he managed it with aplomb. I’ve said it before: there’s a quality of the child in Why Ling, an innocence behind the volume, which I quite enjoy.

“GUESS WHAT I DID TODAY?”

Why Ling makes the ordinary elemental. He describes normalcy with the magnified gravel of a new firmament, elevating us to the plane of larger-than-life. When you hear someone saying “I went to the waterfront today” at a level that almost makes you want to cover your ears… well, let’s just say it’s better than the movies.

“Oh, cool,” I exclaimed. “Was it nice?”
“YES.”
“Was it cold?”
“COLD?” He roared slowly, rhetorically. Rhetorical roaring is hard. Try it sometime. “THIS ISN’T COLD. YOU WANT COLD?”
“I suppose-”
“ANCHORAGE, ALASKA,” he boomed, a benevolent general discovering a new planet and naming it for the first time. “THAT’S COLD.”
“I bet it is!”
What a perfect pair we are. My quiet comments, intended for an audience of one, and his pronouncements, designed for an cast of thousands.

“HAVE YOU BEEN THERE?”
“I have not. Have you?”

This could almost be ordinary conversation. But a rubber duck isn’t a rubber duck anymore when it’s six stories tall. His voice wasn’t a voice: it was a three-dimensional living thing, an entity that used its vessel to express itself, rather than the other way around.

“I RECOMMEND GOING THERE IN THE SUMMER MORE THAN THE WINTER!” He laughed maniacally, perhaps imagining the mayhem of subzero temperatures, cackling as though his comment had an obvious and irresistible double entendre. “THE SUMMER OVER THE WINTER!”

“THEY’RE TOUGH UP THERE,” he said, almost reflectively- but not quite. You can’t be reflective when you’re shattering glass.
“I bet they are.”
“IF THEY GET THE COMMON COLD, THEY STILL BUCK UP AND GO TO WORK. THEY STOCK UP ON CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP.”

Chiiicken noooodle soooup. He stretched it out, giving each syllable its proper time in the sun. He made it an art piece no less than Warhol, but with a grit, a truth, an innocence, and a complete lack of pretense Warhol could never hope to touch. It’s nice to be cultured, but there become certain things you can’t see anymore. Why Ling reminded me of the power of simplicity, of basic truths. His admiration for hard work was uncomplicated, rooted in that rare and essential ability to have appreciation for that which is ordinary. Biting the cold and putting good work in, on plain food–that was something to admire.

And with that, he abruptly got up and raced to the back, leaping out the open back door. But I had learned the night’s lesson of sorts, just in time.

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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.