This was lifetimes ago. Summer of 2003, one year of high school remaining. I strolled the flatlands of Compton with camera in hand, up early by choice and searching the shadows and light for an angle that would show how I felt. Rush hour had burned off with the marine layer, and I loitered about Compton Station in the midmorning sun, Willowbrook and Compton Boulevard. I used to love riding up and down the Blue Line, Los Angeles’s equivalent of the 7, with photography on the brain.

I’d just snapped the double exposure above. The man in frame right was walking toward me, and continued to do so. When he got to speaking distance he cleared his throat.

“Hey how’s it going, little man.”
I wasn’t good at talking to people then. Shyly: “Good.”
“You enjoyin’ your summer?”
“Yeah it’s good.”
“Hey, you live alone or with roommates?”
I was staying with my aunt. I said, “with roommates.”
“Some of them are boys?”
“That must be nice. Do they ever walk around with their dick and balls hanging out?”
“Like walkin’ from the living room to the bedroom, casual shit like that. They ever walk through the room with their dick and balls hanging out?”
“No.” Nervous teenage tittering on my part.
“Well but okay hypothetically. If they was people walking around with they dick and balls hanging out, how would that make you feel?”
“I guess I’d feel kinda uncomfortable!”
“Oh. Ah see. Well, it would make me feel comfortable, cause I’m gay, and there ain’t nothin’ that’s ever made me feel so lonely in all my life. You got no idea, lil’ bro. You got no idea. You count yourself lucky.”

And with that he walked away. He became smaller now, much smaller than the perspective he was walking into, a lonely fellow with a weight on his shoulders, ambling at the pace you take when you’ve got precious little to look forward to.

I should have said I’m sorry. Or something about how I cared, I heard him, I appreciated and welcomed the skin-thin openness of his fragile heart. Something to let him know he wasn’t alone. But I was 17 and I didn’t know anything. I wasn’t brave enough or self-aware enough or empathetic enough to say a thing like that. I just watched him walk away. I remember reflecting with surprise at his candor, how uncharacteristic it felt in that hypermasculine milieu. How refreshing his sincerity was, both because I wasn’t expecting it in that environment and also because young people aren’t very good at being sincere, and forthrightness wasn’t something I found a lot of in high school. 

These are the things you think and feel, the tender reflections we don’t know how to share.

I wonder if he knows I still think about him from time to time, wondering if he’s alive, if someone’s shown him kindness or even love across the spanning years.

I hope so.

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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.