A middle-aged man dressed in working class exhausted, baseball cap and fishing rod and dirty tee shirt, sat up front watching me drive. We were headed north on Broadway. After a while he piped up. 

“Does this turn into the 7?”
“Goin’ the other way, yeah. I just came up from Rainier Beach.”
“Aw yeah.” He looked out the window for a spell before saying, “they get a little rough out there.”
“Sometimes. I like it though. It’s good people everywhere.”
“I ain’t been out that way in a while.”
“Yeah it’s changing even down there. Columbia City—”
“Once you get down past Othello though. It get kinda rough. ‘Specially after a certain hour, mang, those folks be kinda tough.”
“Yeah, you kinda gotta know somebody.”
He replied, in a tone of mock proclamation: “If you don’t have no ghetto pass… It’a be yo ass!”
I laughed. “Ha! You got that right!”
“Right about now, 8:45, when them streetlights starts comin’ on, that’s when I go home! Remember how like you’re momma said, when them streetlights come on, iss time to go back inside?”

My world is the world of the streetlights. Someone’s got to be out there for the people who have to be, and if doing so makes me as happy as it does, well, I feel lucky.

He’s right, there are some tough characters. It may not come across as such on the blog every time, because I tend not to describe them that way. But some of these folks are the guys you cross the street for, not because they’re black (or white), but because there’s a look in their eye you’re smart enough to figure out. 

It isn’t supposed to involve you. 

They’re the guys I hear other passengers complain about nervously after they get off, because they managed to avoid a fight.

The fact of those men recognizing and responding to my acknowledgment, my respect, reveals something I find humanizing: They value kindness too. Because there is no They. Don’t you value kindness, enjoy the sensation of being respected? 

To all of you “rough characters,” what I have to say is: thank you. For appreciating compassion. For valuing generosity of spirit (let’s call that what it is—love) to the point that it qualifies me for a “ghetto pass.” 

Because I don’t have anything else.

Related Stories: 

The O.G.
Cowboys of the New Age: Status & Respect in the American Ghetto
“Everybody Need to Quit Acting Hard and S**t”
Nathanbabble: III of III
Respect, Currency of the Street (from my book!)
The Great and Terrible Fifth & Jackson: An Ethnography
High-wire, Lowbrow Explosions 

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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.