She’s become a good friend of mine. Wavy black hair down to here; a youthful spirit with attitude to burn, at once streetsmart and as well-read and detail-oriented as they come. 

What were we talking about? We were being silly. The Seahawks game was letting out, and south downtown was turning into a used car lot. We really weren’t going anywhere. Our mostly empty bus didn’t mind; my companion stood up front with me, a wheelchair-bound passenger along with several others scattered behind us. Plenty of time and space to chatter away. 

She and I were talking about railroad crossings, me jokingly going through every step of the process. “Here we are safely coming to a stop between fifteen and fifty feet away from the tracks while feeling great about it. Here we are putting on our emergency four-way flashers to indicate to cars behind us that we’re interested in stopping at these tracks. Now we’re looking around and listening to see if there’s all kinds of trains going by. I’m noticing an alarming lack of trains crossing in front of us.”
“Oh my God.”
“So I’m going to carefully,”
“Mm hmm,”
“Proceed forward over the tracks while continuing to look and listen for trains to the left of me and also, actually, trains to the right of me…”

I was being sarcastic and serious at the same time. No bus driver actually likes stopping at railroad tracks. But we all do it. Because if you don’t, it’s a three-day suspension without pay plus discipline, and if you do it again, you’re looking at termination. So we find a way to get through it and have a nice time. Holgate has endless sets of railroad tracks, and it was time to stop at another cluster. “Here we are having a fantastic time stopping between fifteen and fifty feet in front of yet another set of what appear to be some railroad tracks…”

There were jokes made about the ungodly hordes exiting the stadium, and how the traffic cop on duty seemed to be letting all 50,000 people cross first. We survive somehow. A friend who knows your sense of humor is as good a salve as any for stuck traffic and the swarming blue-green throng. We made it to downtown without incident.

The fellow in the wheelchair got off at Jackson. He’d been there the whole time, overhearing our banter, momentarily taking part when I’d explained a reroute. Older fellow not yet old, dark-skinned American, with the bedraggled markers of being down and out: a missing tooth or two, spot of debris here, crumbly textures and faded color there. Signifiers one has no choice in displaying. I wondered if he was a vet.

“Thanks for stoppin’ in, man,” I said, as he wheeled his way forward to exit, awkwardly, pushing with powerful shoulders. My friend of the wavy hair had stepped outside to let him pass, and he and I had a moment alone.

“Hey,” he said. “I was listening a little to you two talkin’, I din’t mean to eavesdrop.”
“Oh that’s fine.”
“I just wanted to say that you are generous and kind. And every time I’m on your bus it makes my day.” Pause. “But listening to you two tonight, made my month.”

Somewhere in that last sentence his voice cracked, and cracked again. Tears, unbidden, from a man my father’s age; what few things are more beautiful, more gently pure in their uncontrived truth? The way the face stops caring what it looks like when sorrow takes over, the mouth expanding in a painful flat line, eyes going away. 

I cry less when faced with great cruelty or anger than when people are enormously good to each other. When I’m reminded of the intense loneliness that being human requires. He was cut from the same cloth, he and I, and his tears spoke a language I know well. Acts of goodness always to some degree involve the act of giving, and the giving of intangibles– kindness, respect, love– is the tool we humans have for staving off the crushing loneliness of a mortal life.

“What’s your name,” I asked.
“Corey,” he replied, shaking my proferred hand. The way he said it, you’d spell with an E; don’t know why I thought that. Maybe it was the echo of his faint down-home southern accent, a lifetime of histories and secrets nestled in a half-extended syllable.
“Corey, my guy, I’m happy to meet you. You can ride my bus any time, any day. I’m on this route every night.”

I accept you for who you are, and we’ll keep doing that thing we do, taking life as it comes and making the best of it, never mind how many railroad tracks we have to stop at, or worse. With the reminder that lives in a smile, we’ll get by.

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Article Author

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.