You remember the old Breda trolley bus. Dinosaur is an apt descriptor not just because they were old, but because they were gigantic. Majestic. Capable, unpredictable, steeped with the echoes and scuffed scratches of history, repositories of a thousand stories drifting up the boulevard.
A UW grad student was riding a loop on tonight’s bus because he was writing an ethnography of the 7/49. Because if you were going to do an ethnography of a single route, well, what other route is there, besides perhaps the E Line/358? This is the crowning flagship of Seattle, diverse and multifaceted as no other line. He’d ridden other drivers’ 7’s too, and looked around on mine, marvelling.
First of all, he told me, yours is louder. People are talking to each other. And they’re in good moods. And, they’re sitting next to each other. Most of this trip was kids, late-night teenagers, and they were mostly bunched in the back sitting together, in total violation of the regular rule of sitting by yourself throughout the bus until every last empty seat pair is taken.
Around the point of passing Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, we realized some of the girls were smoking. I got on the mic again, this time not to call a stop out but to tell them: “okay this is for my buddies in the back. We gotta put that light out. I’m just askin’ you please, as a special favor, outta respect we can’t be smokin’ on the bus tonight. Thank you for working with me. I love you all…”
“We love you too!”
They laughed and complied, and we yelled a couple more thank you’s and love you’s.
“Wow,” said my friend. “People saying I love you? As a way to get them to stop smoking?? Only you could pull that one off…”
I chuckled. I remembered another driver telling me the best way to do this job is be yourself, and maximize whatever that is. I don’t look big and strong. I look friendly and harmless. Yes, I work out, but no matter how much I always still look twelve. Such is my lot. So I take those things and run with them. What I can do is be the young-looking nice guy who’s their friend. There are other ways that are just as viable, but this is what I can offer. Tonight, it works.
Afterwards, he and I go back to chatting. I mention how I was recently in Italy, where smoking is more prevalent, but where they also have longer lifespans than us Americans.
It turns out he knew that as well, and more. I listened, fascinated. I remember the content more than his precise words, so I’m paraphrasing here, which I know is massively uncharacteristic for me (apologies, Adam!). This post is a little different from the rest, but the material, I believe, is critical enough to warrant it:
“It’s an interesting question. Why do some societies, some countries, have longer lifespans than others? What activities do longer-living societies perform that have a causal or at least a correlational effect on long-term health? One way is to look at societies within a country. Which culture group in the US do you think lives the longest?”
I said the first thing I thought of: “rich white people with easy access to good food and medical care.”
“You would think so. I thought so. But it’s actually the Latino community. And it isn’t because their food is healthier. It isn’t. It’s not because they have great access to medical facilities. We know that’s not true in this country. And it’s not because where they live is generally safer or has less crime. Or like the jobs they have to work are easier on the body. These are very often, generally speaking, working class lives, often in less than ideal circumstances, that are not exactly what we would call comfortable. So. Why of all Americans, does the Latino community live the longest?”
I’m loving this. People nearby were starting to pay attention. A lot.
“Because they have the strongest sense of community. Inside the Latino community, within the Latino community, there’s more equality than any other American community. The greater the equality is within a country’s population, the longer the average lifespan. And the higher the inequality, the shorter the lifespan. And we all know which country has one of the highest levels of, quite possibly right now, the most inequality of anywhere.”
“The United States.”
“Exactly. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rich white guy who shops at Whole Foods and has great benefits. I thought that too, that the people at the top of a social hierarchy probably live the longest. But when you’re the rich white guy and you walk outside and see a guy on the street with no legs, you’re reminded, constantly in our society, you’re reminded that you could become like that really pretty easily. You live with the thought that there is no safety net. What if you get fired from your job? Or require an expensive medical procedure? Nobody here is exempt from the fact that you could plunge into a very different and unsatisfying life state very fast.
“The people who are already there suffer because of what they’re going through, and that affects their quality of life in obvious ways we can understand. But everyone else also suffers because they know they’re living at the edge of a cliff, all the time, and there are reminders of it everywhere. It’s not really a physical thing, or I should say not only a physical thing but a psychological thing. A black woman in New York City is ten times more likely to die giving birth than a white woman. No genetic basis for it. It’s the psychological toll of being a black woman in New York City. It all adds up, the mental struggle, the psychological weight of living in an imbalanced society and feeling that inequality all the time.
“Whereas, in the Latino community, there’s a strong sense of family. People take care of each other. If you lose your job, you know somebody will take you in and help you. Have you noticed how most homeless people, whether black or white, are usually American? How often do you see homeless or disabled Latino men in the street?”
I had to admit it. “Rarely. Basically never.”
“Community. That community has a safety net. Surrogate family figures, friends, cousins, strangers. People who look out for you. You sleep differently at night when you know you have a safety net. And the thing is, this research has had a hard time becoming popular because you can’t monetize it. It’s not one of these easy solutions, like, you need to eat more tomatoes.”
“Or, all you have to do is buy olive oil.”
“Totally. Like how the environmental movement didn’t take off until they figured out how to turn it into an excuse for people to buy stuff.”
“Exactly. This is different. It’s intangible. And it’s way, way more valuable. Which is why what you’re doing out here on these buses is so cool.”
“Hey. One person at a time, right?”
“One person at a time!”
Community. Equality. Creating more of it might just save our lives.
Further reading: The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett. Book preview here. Don’t have time for a book? Maybe a Malcolm Gladwell book will do! The opening chapter to his Outliers explores the same material using different data.
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.