Sustenance (in White Center)


They were out there, figuring it out. A scruffy white van and a broke-down ’90s-era red Ford Explorer stood on the roadside facing each other, doors open and hoods up, jumper cables linking the two in an automotive kiss. Sure, they were sitting in the bus layover, but was I really going to tell them to move? 

They were concentrating. Two Latino men in their thirties, wearing clothes you don’t mind getting dirty, puffy dark blue jacket with a tear here and there, the other a denim coat and jeans with paint spatter. Tennis shoes with the heels worn down, maybe a baseball hat: the universal outfit of a vast cross-section, invisible to some, a nation spent in kitchens and construction lots and shipping yards and painted houses, sharing all in the lived-in texture of analogue work.

I pulled up behind them, parking for my break, and retreated into the dark interior of my bus. I’ll leave them alone. I was exhausted, and today, one worse: I was ill. Why did I come to work today? Why do I do this? I know why. Because my being absent makes the dispatcher’s job harder, and I abhor being an inconvenience. 

In nearly twelve years on the job, tonight was the first and only shift during which I did not announce any of the stops. Could not. I was unable to utter anything beyond a hoarse squeak. This was publicly demoralizing in ways I didn’t anticipate; here were people who recognized me, wondering where did all the good cheer go? 

No, I haven’t finally become jaded, I promise. I’m just dying here is all. I felt so unlike myself, and tried to let them know there was no defeat in my silence, no judgment either. I beamed out smiles and nods, radiant but voiceless; waved through the mirror at people exiting the back door, or threw out the thumbs-up sign, marveling at how that symbol transcends so many cultures and ethnicities.

I thought about how maybe taking care of myself is important. I’d woken up feeling terrible but confident I wasn’t contagious, being on what I assumed was the downslope of this thing. I was so sure the illness would go away by the time my evening shift started. I know other people abuse sick leave, and detest the thought of being grouped with that ilk. I drove safely as usual, but when my natural reflex of saying “thank you” came about– nothing. Just a dying frog cough. 

For the first and probably only time in the history, I was thankful for all those people who wear headphones and never talk. Thank you, hordes who are deaf by choice, for knowing I would be sick and voiceless today, and graciously behaving in such a way that I can cope and almost appear healthy. How nice. Good thing I was driving the 5…

My break tonight was only ten precious minutes, and I needed every second. I stood and reeled, closing my eyes. Stretching, but only nominally tonight. Weakly. What an unusual feeling it is for me, to look forward to the end of a shift. Coming to work at this rate I’ll never recover…

There was movement outside. They were unplugging the cables. It wasn’t working. We’re on Roxbury, the edge of White Center, with an auto center (closed), a Safeway and a gas station nearby. The two men were getting behind the Explorer now, and a third companion of theirs, a woman in her twenties, also Latina, took the wheel as they pushed the car in a U-turn and tried to get across the street to face in the opposite direction, headed somewhere else. 

Look at these three. The two men straining, thrusting and exerting over the arduous task of pushing a car forward during a hard turn over uneven pavement. Her, steering carefully, concentrating, long black hair tied up in a ponytail, the sleeves on her grey sweatshirt pulled slightly back. 

Never mind my brief ten minute chance to rest. I jumped out there, calling out, “do you need help? Can I help?”
“Um. Sure!” one of the guys replied, right as another passerby volunteered himself as well, a white fellow in his neatly-dressed thirties. Together we all got behind that Ford and threw our weight into it.

I was sick. Frail. Pushing the car was more of a strain tonight than I anticipated. Not sure how much I was really helping… But are you really surprised when I say this made me feel more energized than any catnap? 

I thrusted forth alongside the others, shoving the street into my hips, looking down at the pavement below. I thought about the conversation I’d once had, and the books I subsequently read on the subject, about how the Latino population lives the longest because it has the strongest sense of community. I couldn’t even tell if these three knew each other. But regardless, they worked with what they had and capably, committed to helping each other out. 

And it made them beautiful. 

Maybe it made all of us beautiful, the five of us now, getting this thing up to a decent speed finally, leaning into it, strong-arming it up a driveway entrance and through a gas station, this jalopy moving ridiculously now, almost as fast as if it actually worked, aiming for the Safeway parking lot. Some of us chuckling amidst our efforts; her braking, because we were too effective.

As we passed through the gas station a young man leaned out of his chrome-glinting low-rider: “Ey, you guys need help?”

We were okay now, but I marveled all the same at how this felt. Strangers offering assistance, coming together, being together. No wonder. No wonder they live longer. Me lucky enough to feel a glimmer of it tonight, basking in the sensation of a life lived with help from others, a safety net. I thought about my aunt relocating to Mexico because she liked the culture, the people. I thought about working-class neighborhoods, the statistics that show how unsafe areas have stronger senses of community, because people have to rely on each other to be safe. The problems may be more fraught, but maybe you’re better equipped to deal with them. I felt the enveloping joy of togetherness, enthusiastically shaking hands afterwards with the other passerby who’d helped, without knowing why. We all walked away from each other smiling.

That was why I came to work today. To be rejuvenated, cured, in a different way. 

Reminded that things like this still happen. 

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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.