It all started so innocently. Each person meant well, but each had a stress inside them, a bitterness, that they turned on the others without a second thought.
The first person got on long before the ride would become unpleasant, well before they knew they’d be the locus point around which it would all revolve.
She was tired already, even before starting the shift she was on her way to–graveyard night-owl at a hotel downtown. She was too young to be called old and just barely too aged to still be young; call it youthful middle age, the time when you learn that personality, not looks, will be your defining attribute from here on out. She had on a purple T-shirt and sweatpants, casual, dressing down on her way to work, the way you need to on the 7. She’d gotten on way back at the bottom of the Valley: long commute.
Thirty minutes later the door opens on an entirely unrelated life. Another denizen of the Valley steps in, a face I’ve seen more than a few times over the years. He’s holding a thin bamboo pole about my height.
“Operator of the year!” he exclaims, upon seeing me.
“Aw, I’m not that good!”
He says something about the bamboo. Maybe it’s a fishing rod. He’s got the outfit for it– salt-n-pepper beard, overalls and sturdy boots. He’s middle aged as well, and like the purple-clad commuter also African-American. He walks past her without incident, sitting down by himself in the middle of the bus.
So far, so great. But we’re missing the crucial ingredient.
Here comes Melanie, staggering on for the first time in months. She’s an unfailing sweetheart, whose cheery and generous attitude, incredibly, remains precisely the same no matter how drunk she gets.
“Long time!!” I say. She grins in return.
Melanie’s not the crucial ingredient, though. The crucial ingredient is the man boarding behind her, a companion of hers similarly inebriated nature–but not so similar in temperament.
Roland, as Melanie calls him, is an unhappy drunk. Not mean; just unhappy. My bigger concern is if he has the motor skills to stand and sit. He ignores my hello and stumbles over to Purple Shirt. He staggers slightly too close to her for comfort, and starts slurring.
“Can I sit next to you,” he garbles. Purple Shirt glares up at his disheveled, maladorous form, his face beaten scarlet red from decades of hard drinking. She doesn’t want to be bothered. She says, “no.” Roland starts yelling about it. “Why’re you such a bitch? I just wanna sit!”
Bamboo Fishing Rod, observing from the middle, reacts with righteous indignation. He expects better from Roland, and accosts him with an authoritative southern accent. “Ay! Come on, stop that now. It’s women and children up in here, you cain’t talk like that.”
Roland and Melanie are Native American. The racial dichotomy goes unspoken, but noticed; Bamboo, perhaps feeling an unspoken need to stick up for his compatriots, and Roland, feeling outnumbered, a hint of two against one, lines drawn in the sand and not in his favor. Melanie’s staying out of this. Roland puffs his chest and says simply, “I’m from Alaska.”
“What that got to do with bein’ polite? I would beat your ass but I got God on my side. I don’t do that.”
Mumbling: “I punk your sister.”
“What choo say?” Bamboo’s stepping forward, and fast. “You piss on my sister?”
“What? Yeah, that’s right.”
“You just say one mo’ word and I put the holy spirit on the bookshelf and ask fuh forgiveness later!”
I’m letting it play. I don’t want to escalate things. It’s not a safety issue yet. It’s just hot air. I know Bamboo guy. I can talk to him if I need to. And I know Melanie, so I figure I can get to Roland if it becomes necessary. Soon I’ll ask them to keep it down. Even if they start fighting, this isn’t going to involve me. I feel safe.
Mr. Bamboo, meanwhile, is letting himself get more and more worked up. No turning the other cheek for this fellow. He’s less Prince of Peace and more Moses with the tablets. “I ain’t no violent man,” he growls, in the tone only violent men use. “But you ain’t right in the head right now. You should be kicked off, bruh. This bus driver need to do his job.”
At which point I say into the mic, almost yell into the mic, with confidence: “Guys, I’ve already called the cops. They’re gonna meet us downtown. Meanwhile let’s try to stay one big happy family in here. Let’s keep it together for ten minutes, I’m askin’ you guys please, as a special favor to all these other nice people. Thank you.”
All street fights seem to be about inane trivialities, but they’re actually always about the same thing. On the sidewalk and the roadway, the platform and bus aisle, it isn’t money that makes the world go around.
Which means you need to respect people, especially the ones whom you think deserve it the least. Because they’re not getting it, and they feel that, and it makes them behave poorly.
Roland keeps yelling, and I can’t get him to hear me. The lady in purple is long forgotten; she’s retreated to another seat in the back, as the boys continue puffing their chests.
“Melanie,” I say.
“Melanie, can I ask you a favor?”
“Sure, honey. What is it?” Her sweet, fatigued demeanor is hilariously out of place right now.
“Can you get your friend to stop yelling at people?”
“Roland, hey,” she says. “Come on, let’s siddown.”
“Roland,” I call out, finally able to grab his attention.
“Listen man, we gotta keep it low key in here, okay? I know that other guy’s bothering you but we just got to leave it where it is and forget about all that, alright? We’re just gonna leave it in the past and–nope, nope, nope–we ain’t even gonna look back there, we’re gonna look forward. He just trying to tempt you, we’re moving past all that right now. It ain’t no big thing. We can’t be–Roland, hey! Not like that, bro, we’re gonna, we can’t be cussin’ people out on the bus, that’s not cool. No matter what he’s saying to you, we’re just gonna look forward. Moving past all that. I know it’s not easy. I appreciate you workin’ with me. Thank you, for makin’ the effort.”
Ah, silence. How lovely. We never ended up needing the police after all. If you treat people like they have the capacity to be better, like you have faith in their qualities, rather than coming down hard… you can make magic happen.
Some thoughts for my colleagues (and passengers!):
- If you’re unfailingly kind, and more specifically, respectful, to the people, fights will basically never involve you, but just occur between others. This goes a long way toward helping you feel safe. Don’t antagonize people. Yes, you will see people making stupid decisions. But for your sanity, put your judgments about who’s lazy or undeserving aside. Leave that between them and the Universe.
- Your strongest tool is good customer service. This is why I don’t like shields or barriers: they limit my ability to use my strongest tool. I feel safer without them. It’s amazing what you can do with genuine respect in your eyes and voice. Don’t play God and don’t play cop; try to be a saint instead. It’s not as fun, but there’s less paperwork…
- Do not collect fare. (my words, not Metro’s.) Issue transfers upon request. You barely need to read the rest of these–that’s ninety percent of your problems solved right there.
- Because we’re not bouncers, you can’t really make anyone exit. You can only ask them to. But demanding them to gives them the opportunity to say no. And when they say no, the power structure collapses and you the driver are stuck with having to call for help. Your big tool is working with them, not against them. Kill them with kindness. Look, I understand you guys are having a disagreement. I respect that. But we can’t be doing like that on this bus with all these people. It’s bad manners. You’re better than that, man! My female friends are better at this type of deescalation because of the mountain of bull they have to tolerate in the workplace and elsewhere. Deescalation training, even if self-taught, gives you a lot less headaches in the long run than gettin’ physical.
- Sometimes you can ask the bus to decide. As in, guys, we’re gonna take a vote. Should we call it in and get stuck waiting here 20 minutes so we can move on in peace, or should we put up with this guy so you all can get where you’re going. Sometimes that alone will motivate folks to take matters into their own hands and solve the situation for you. It’s also an offhand way of telling the person they’re on a public stage now, and that if they continue, repercussions will ensue. And hey, if the crowd doesn’t mind whatever it is, well, great! Moving on then!
- You may not need to do anything. A surprising number of these incidents resolve themselves.
- You set the tone by how you greet incoming passengers. This shapes the environment more than you may realize. But beyond that–you don’t need to micromanage the crowd. You can’t. I’ll repeat what a chief once taught me, when I was stressing about an unwieldy regular: The other passengers are adults who can take care of themselves. If they can’t take care of themselves, they will tell you. You don’t need to be their Dad.
- You may not be able to control people, but there is one tool you have access to that gives you tremendous power: you can choose to stop driving the bus. Use this power sparingly, because it has the potential to piss people off! You need the bus on your side for this to work. You get the bus on your side by being consistently friendly. If something happens that’s serious, consider stopping driving. It needs to be something worth calling security over. Guys, we can’t drive the bus if people are fighting because it’s not safe. Or, as you open all the doors: I’ll give you guys a minute to cool off and figure it out. If you’re cool, then we can go. If not, we’ll hang out here.
- If you can let people have the last word, you’ll have a lot less problems. No snarky comebacks; you’re a professional, and you’re getting paid. Let it die with them thinking they got the upper hand.
- After something happens, spend a little bit (but not a lot) of time reflecting on what you would do differently next time. What could you have done to deescalate the situation? What could you have said, or not said, or said differently? Now you’ve got a script for the next time it happens. You’ll be ready.
- Recycle your mind at the start of each trip. It’s a new day. Yes, you won’t be able to stop stewing about something happened in the last half hour, but don’t allow yourself to think about anything negative from more than one trip ago. That’s ancient history. Right now there’s someone getting on, and they have nothing to do with whatever was going on before.
- Stay sharp even on your last trip. It’s never over till it’s over. Why, you may wonder, do so many bus driver stories start with, “it was my last trip in…”? Because there’s a temptation to check out before you’re off the clock. Resist that. Stay your best self one trip at a time, for the whole trip.
- Remember: fights on buses are actually quite rare. Yes, we have more accidents and security incidents now–because we have more new, untested and untrained operators. This should be a surprise to no one, as this job requires a lot of time to acclimate to, and time is what new drivers are no longer given. Recognize that as an operator you have an enormous deterministic impact on the tone of your bus and how people treat you–especially if you do all the above. Don’t let fearmongers make you think otherwise, and don’t let that one awful night out of the year change your general approach, the good energy that worked so well on all the other nights. There will be the rare fluke, and that’s okay. There’s no script that works for every situation.
- If your mood starts to slip, remind yourself to flow with the people, not against them.
- Take a deep breath. Deep breaths make a difference, and they’re always available as a solution.
- If you like, come out for a ride on my nighttime 7. Drivers aren’t getting the deescalation training they need from up above, so let’s help ourselves and learn from each other. Look out for each other. When I pass a bus that looks like it needs help, I call out and ask if they’re okay. They almost always are, but doesn’t it feel good to check in and be checked in on anyway?
See you on the road!
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.