I suspect my early formative days, spent as they were in the predominantly black and otherwise ethnic neighborhoods in South Central LA, have left within me with a certain positive bias, a subtle sense of long-ago comfort toward certain culture groups. It’s not really a sensation based on specific experiences; just a feeling, the everliving hints of your earliest self.

Should we really be surprised that my favorite Seattle neighborhood to work in, Rainier Valley, just happens to comprise almost exactly the same proportional  demographics as South Central LA? Some things don’t change. Our yearnings reveal the children we once were. Writes the German poet Novalis, more than two centuries ago: “I am always going home. Always to my father’s house.” 

Recently I was driving in West Seattle. I’m doing the 5 and 21 this shakeup for boring contract-related reasons pertaining to reblocked shifts and forced overtime on the 7 that I wish to avoid. I miss the 7/49. I’ll get back there soon enough. I always get back. 

For now I’m a visitor enjoying my tour of duty elsewhere, genuinely enjoying it, getting to know the entirely different, far less garrulous, more subdued, but still genial crowds in Greenwood and West Seattle. I’m a stranger out there though, and I can feel it. In the land of office workers, bankers and mid-level managers, my brand of loquacious kindness is an anomaly. These guys don’t need friends. They just want to go home. I’ve gotten spoiled, spending so much time in neighborhoods that don’t have the Seattle Freeze…

There I was in any event, southbound at 35th and Morgan. A young man waited at the stop. Early twenties maybe, or late teens even, the way kids can surprise you with their growth spurt. He wore a knit beanie and sweats upon sweats, the athletic type, everything a noncommital dark blue, sagging low with no logos.

Yes, he was black American. No one else in sight was a person of color, unless you counted my hapa-happy heritage. Something about him relaxed me. Formative Nathan, the child from LA touching some lost memory, textures I used to dream in. I thought about how like him, I too prefer to wear clothing with no logos. 

I opened the doors and nodded the upward nod. 

“Hey,” I said.

That’s all I did. I didn’t even do anything… Or did I? He was tense before, numbed on edge, but now, upon looking at me, hearing me, he instantly relaxed. Instantly, reader. His head wagging in a sideways grin now, shoulders going down, the crook in his step practically a dance. Instantly. He nodded in return and swung his arms in an X over each other, rapping silently to the beat of his happiness. He wasn’t a stranger anymore.

How did he know, though? He has no idea of my background, where I’m from, anything. My appearance indicates none of that. I’m just some skinny Asian-looking guy with nerdy glasses. How could he possibly know I felt comfortable, respected him, that I welcomed him as an equal? Could he perceive that he was accomplishing the very same comfort for me that I appeared to be giving him? Is the human brain sharp enough to delineate the worlds contained in a flash of bearing, everything about our storied lives that made me feel at ease? 

I was a stranger in a strange land. We both were, and we made each other feel less so.

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.