Third and Prefontaine Place, northbound. Nobody’s first idea of a safe place to wait for a bus at night. You know the terrain, the way the little things all add up: uneven sidewalks, an out-of-commission reader board, the magnificently poor lighting, almost as if on some city planner’s evilly gleeful purpose; the tents and cries from over there, tensions boiling across the street, and you, clutching whatever you clutch in your pocket, trying to be gracious in your thoughts as figures lurk about, shifting in the dark urban floor, letting you know they’re alive.
I roll up slowly in my 7, now signed out as a 49 to the U District. I open the doors to a zone with two people, neither of whom wants my bus: a young white woman, early twenties, in a demure white puffy jacket and nondescript ponytail and jeans. She looks at me through the open bus doors.
The other person is called Chosen. Chosen is a black American man two generations too old to be sagging his pants, but he does it anyway; every tatter of clothing on his body sags, and the phrase “dressed in rags” is here, finally, not an exaggeration. If you depicted him in a painting as he is, exposed skin and frayed dead fabric, viewers would accuse you of caricature, saying no man over forty really stumbles about in this bad of shape… with a face like that.
Because his face is perfect.
The unkempt beard cannot conceal the beauty of his features. Look now at those high cheekbones, the perfect cheeks below them, hollow, like I wished mine were when I was little; his proportionate eyebrows and sockets and the big emotive eyes within them. Expressive eyes. Thin, skin and gaunt bones, with a perfectly proportioned and evocative face: he should be in the movies. You want this guy to play a black Jesus. I think he’d be perfect. He may have a drinking problem, sure, but so did Richard Burton…
I will always have a soft spot for Chosen because I once saw a group of girls pepper-spray him on my bus for no other reason that they thought it was funny.
“You know you want to, nigga,” they laughed at each other, with the same voice you’d use for ordering fast food or trying on jeans. They violated him because he was helpless and homeless, and it amused them to destroy something beautiful, like a child stepping on a butterfly. It was the second ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. The stinging tears streamed down those beautiful cheeks of his, the Jesus cheeks, and I sat with him as he sat blinded, after everyone else had ran off, and tried to guide him toward the doors.
Tonight Chosen is in far better circumstances: same tattered garb as usual, but no apathetic gangster gaggle of girls to worry about. Between the two of us, hopefully I’m the only one who even remembers the incident. He is slinking about on the sidewalk, mildly disoriented as per character, closer to me than the girl in the white jacket. I recognize him and call out a nonchalant hello. Just another acquaintance at the office:
“Oh hey, Chosen!”
“How ya feelin’?”
“Aw pretty good.”
“Right on, man. Have a good one!”
“Aight,” he said genially, slinking onward, receding into the night shadows.
The high point of my entire night was the girl’s smile.
She had watched the interaction, and her and I locked eyes now. I grinned in return, cheekily. Her smile was the smile of relief, where you don’t realize you’re letting down your tensed shoulders.
Everything’s fine. Sometimes everything’s just fine. She almost laughed: the inherent silliness of our banal pleasantries and good-natured tones juxtaposed with Chosen’s terrible appearance, and the pleasure of her discovering what this bus stop can be. That guy wasn’t a threat. He was just Some Guy, with a name, and a friendly bus driver who knew him and who was clearly enjoying being out here, at this hour, on this block.
We both smiled wide, teeth gleaming, and I think we both kept smiling our separate ways for a while after.
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.