As you may know, I’ve been taking a break from the 7/49 for art-time-school reasons detailed here, instead driving suburban routes in North King County. This whole North Base adventure (I haven’t picked up there since they deleted the 358) has been nothing if not charming. The operative word is pleasant. Five years ago I might’ve said boring, but there’s no reason to put a pejorative label on transporting low maintenance, gainfully employed north-end residents.

The generally subdued air has its own pleasures. After four straight years of driving the 7/49 exclusively at night, I’ve been downright shocked at the sheer numbers of people up here who are healthily equipped to take care of themselves. They do things like follow rules, pay fare, and even wake up at terminals… in droves!! Such responsibility! I’d look around in confusion, almost disappointed. Where was I? What town was this??

Truthfully, it’s been a thrill to be reminded how well so much of the population is doing. I’m not just referring to affluent white folks, but the steadily growing immigrant presence in North King County, many of whom are faces I once served on the 7, but who have been pushed out due to the gentrification happening in Rainer Valley. (I can recall an even earlier time when those I knew on the 7 were people I once served on the 3/4, back before the Central District bumped everyone further south.) Never mind the completely different type of bus service;* it’s a beautiful place to live.

I’m reminded of growing up in pre-Microsoft Redmond, backroads of immigrant families, that time when living in the suburbs had no status significance. Boomers will recall that buying a house and raising a couple of kids in somewhere like Leschi or Bellevue or Ballard didn’t used to mean anything. The ostracizing spectre of class and the scarcity of resources causing it hadn’t infiltrated this dynamic yet. They were just affordable neighborhoods. You didn’t need two working spouses or an inheritance to do it. People moved here from California because it was–can you imagine?–cheaper! Why not raise your kid on a safe, tree-lined street, with a yard and dog and families as neighbors? We know all that has changed now, but there are sections of North and South King County where the ‘burbs retain that unpretentious flavour, where a yard is just a yard and things quiet down at night. Don’t pretend you don’t love that.

I’ve had a great time in this different world. It’s quieter. It’s easy. It’s allowed me the mental freedom to focus on school and art. I was convinced I’d stay up here for one more shakeup, the Summer season, before heading back to my beloved downtown trolleys. That was my plan, right up until the night before the Pick.

Then it happened.

I thought I’d look over a few runcards (bus shift schedules) before going to bed. Picking for the next season is a big deal for bus drivers. It borders on a job change, and can affect so much of your life: different days off, times of day worked, amounts of overtime, new colleagues, bosses, routes, passengers, work sites, commute times. You think carefully about it. I knew I’d probably stay at North, but thought I’d peruse a few runcards. You know. Just to be sure.

I clicked on the internal link for Atlantic Base, scrolling down to nights on the 7. I looked at the street names. I thought of the turns. The faces. The through-route to the 49. Jackson. Henderson. Broadway. Rainier Avenue, and the wire singing out behind you, sparking in the late evening, the sheer majesty of those things, sixty feet articulated, feeling every bump in the road, an emblem of a time and a place and the stop-start flow of life in flux, truly lived. A state of mind.

A shiver of joy ran down my spine.

Mine was the choice between comfort, convenience and ease, as opposed to feeling valuable, helpful, useful. Loved. Both are great, don’t get me wrong. There’s a time for each. But this wasn’t something I needed to waste time actually thinking about.

Do you know what it means to feel loved, like this?

To be adored by those close to you makes you feel loved for being who you are. Nothing beats that. However: the joy that comes from an equalizing interaction with a stranger makes you feel like you belong to the entire human race. You’re part of something massive and it’s just like you, it is you, and it contains goodness. You, we. Same thing.

You cannot get that sensation anywhere else, in any other way except through positive interactions with, specifically, strangers. That’s why we remember those beautiful moments on street corners we’ve all had. And that’s what the potential of inner-city bus driving is, all day.

“You go out to one of those satellite bases, thinking you’ll come back, and you just end up staying out there,” I’ve heard so many drivers say. “The work is just too good. It’s so easy.” The words echoed in my mind, up until I started looking at these runcards. I recalled the Atlantic window man yelling playfully at me, when he discovered last shakeup that I was going to North, as he laughed away when I said I would return: “you’re never coming back! They neeeeeever come back!”

I thought of the genuinely disappointed look a dear friend gave me three months ago, someone who’d looked up to me and my writing and my enthusiasm for the people, who’d gotten through a difficult time in her work life by reading my blog. I’ve gone through a lot in the past year, and while I know it’s possible to grow, to break habits and form new ones, there’s a core in us that’s deep down, and it seems constant. I keep getting told it’ll dry up. I respond with this quote from Richard Linklater’s excellent Before trilogy:

“I read this study  where they followed people who won the lottery, and people  who had become paraplegic, right. You’d think that… you know, one extreme is gonna make you… euphoric, and the other suicidal. But the study shows that  after about six months, as soon as people got used to their new situation, they were more or less the same.”
“The same?”
“Well, yeah… Like if they were basically  an optimistic, jovial person, they’re now an optimistic,  jovial person, in a wheelchair. If they’re a petty miserable asshole, ok, they’re a petty miserable asshole with a new Cadillac, a house and a boat.”

We are who we are who we are, in other words. They say you never forget the ending of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; I came upon it in middle school, and was moved by the stark kindness shown to strangers in the book’s final moments. But what burned a deeper imprint for me has always been Tom Joad’s last words to Ma, where he explains why he needs to be where the action is, where everything’s going wrong. Maybe “a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one,” he says, echoing filmmaker Terrence Malick’s notion of humanity as a collective, and the fundamentally right sensation of contributing to that collective, those other parts of ourself.

Maybe that’s what I’ll always be trying to aspire towards.


Looking for more 7 stories? Nearly all of my stories posted here at The Urbanist are from the 7/49 unless otherwise indicated, as that’s the route I’ve been primarily doing since this site’s inception. My personal blog, on which all of my stories here are cross-posted, also contains material on my film and photography career, as well as earlier stories from the 3/4, 7, and other downtown trolleys (Spring-Fall 2012 & 2013), and the 358 (Winter 2012 & 2013).

*More on this in an upcoming post.

Article Author
Nathan Vass
 | Website

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.