“Congratulations,” a friend once told me, after I’d finally gotten a New York literary agent. “Let yourself feel it today, and breathe. You deserve this.”

The thing is, I don’t know how to do that.

Humility is one of the great human virtues, and maybe the final pit stop on the spectrum of goodness, of right action. I tend to think of kindness as the absolute end-all, but isn’t humility what’s needed first? The recognition that there are others, that we can learn, serve, listen… it is this frame of mind that allows us to feel joy, to live in a sense of wonder. You can’t be excited if you think you know everything. Can’t be pleased if you think the world owes you something. Humility. At the very least, it’s key. I’m no expert, but I work at it.

And because I work at it, doing my best to normalize it, I have a tendency to shut out compliments and accolades. I’m hugely grateful for every one, but I know that if I were ever to actually start believing all this stuff… well, you know what I mean. I have to turn them around in order to stay sane. 

This praise from a passenger is actually just evidence of his own appreciation of kind personality. That award is really a tribute to all of us drivers, filmmakers, or artists–not just me. Or it’s a celebration of those who’ve taught me. Things like that. I’ve even noticed when reconstructing conversations for blog posts, what I have the most difficulty remembering are the moments when someone’s giving me compliments! You understand where I’m coming from here. You have to brush this stuff aside or you’ll become intolerable.

One effect of all this is that I’m not an entitled brat. But another effect is that when I receive truly meaningful, well-intentioned appreciation, I have the hardest time hearing it.

The Wall of Fame is an internal award handed out at the State level. The public doesn’t know about it, but it’s a big deal in transit. Of the 3,000 operators at Metro, I was the single driver who received the honor. No individual operator here has won it before, in the 45 years since Metro’s inception.

There isn’t a bone in my body that allows me to think, for one second, that I earned this accolade on merit. 

We know the implication that I’m better than all those tens of thousands of operators is categorically absurd. But that isn’t what the award means. Something hit me as I sat with my chiefs in the enormous conference room at the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick, where the ceremony was taking place (how big was this room? There were a bunch of buses parked in the back corner. That’s how big!). These experienced professionals, my bosses, treating me now as a peer, had somehow deemed, along with a multitude of other transit top brass at King County, that I was an appropriate representative of certain attitudes and skill levels seen throughout the operations workforce. That these attitudes were worth highlighting. 

The Secretary of Transportation shook my hand, and excepting his own WSDOT staff, I was the only award winner that night he took a photo with. He briefly interrupted the proceedings to do so. Could it be? I stood under the high ceilings feeling weightless, daring myself to trust their judgment, allow myself to feel it, even if for a blink– letting the size of this hit me. Maybe, just maybe in the smallest way, perhaps. 

Perhaps I was a half-decent embodiment of all the best operators who came before me, who work alongside me, the chiefs and teachers and parents and friends and passengers who’ve mentored me from day one of this strange adventure. It was a sensation of immensity I could hardly grasp– that maybe they were here tonight to support me, rather than the usual versa vice.

What could be more humbling? I stood alone in the hotel room afterward, feeling small in a precious way. Had I really, actually brought something to the table? Not for me to say. There are such remarkable people in my life. I feel mainly like I’ve been a person gathering–observing their styles and absorbing them like a sponge, combining them into my own flavor. They may not know they’re teaching me, but they are.

Brian’s prodigious but gentle wisdom, his utter lack of a need to assert himself over others. Paul’s generosity of spirit, entirely genuine and without motive. Abiyu’s quiet dignity; he and I talking quietly in a corner at the base about children, perspective, life. These guys have no idea how much they inspire me. My chiefs laughing at our table, they who negotiate the bureaucracy and hang on, easily, to their best selves, caring and vivacious and light. My friends and lovers of past and present, each a hive of radiant goodness, their very own, glowing.

The way I’ve never heard my parents complain about anything. The way they’ve made certain modes of engagement like arguing, whining and bragging completely foreign to me.

They, who help me think the world is a good place.

Let’s forget for a moment that it was me who got this. There were plenty of other ground-level employees celebrated that night–drivers from agencies besides Metro, trailblazers in planning, data, HR; our very own tunnel maintenance team, guys I wave at regularly, getting their due; and John Rochford, a true pioneer in Paratransit services and more than deserving of his recognition.

Global western culture today is dense and loud, polemic. It has the space to swallow everything, and what doesn’t get chewed up immediately seems mainly to be that which is most outrageous or extreme. It resists thought. Only in such a bite-sized and overloaded culture would we have the sociopolitical issues we now face, where things as basic as skill and truth get pushed aside.

But these transit workers were not being noticed for being outrageous or sexy or extreme or loud. They were just a few women and men doing important and unglamorous work really, really well.

Now that is worth celebrating.

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.