Trigger warning: Language! It’s a late night on the 7, after all…

“Bitchass niggers,” he opined, with fervor. “What I look like? Scared uh me, huh? You got a phone? Phone, you got a phone?”

He was asking everyone, and nobody was going for it. Everyone had an excuse. They were about to get off. Their charger was out. He wasn’t happy about it. “Step on it, Nate,” one of my regulars whispered. 

“Can’t believe it. Ah got an emergency and nobody wanna lemme use their phone. I look like Freddy Krueger up in here?”

He was long-faced, tall and healthy, hair tied back above a Helly Hanson jacket. No, he didn’t look like Freddy Krueger. I called out to him, to distract him from the others.

“You want me to call somebody?”
“What?”
“You want me to call somebody? If you need a phone, I could call somebody?”
“Could I use it?”
“No, I mean the cops! You said it’s an emergency, I could call the cops!”
“It is an emergency, I don’t need to call the cops!”
“I could call supervisor, or the cops, that’s the best I can offer.”
“Try to call my girl so she could pick me up and make it to [unintelligible].”

There was a desolation in his tone which spoke louder than his words. He felt worthless and ignored. That was the true source of his anger, not the business about a phone. He looked around, incredulous. “Black man tryna ask for a simple phone.” This wasn’t a black-white race issue; we were south of Orcas. Everybody onboard at this point is either African or African-American. “Bunch of brothers up in here don’t even give a shit, act like I’m Freddy Krueger or some shit, like I got a fuckin’ Halloween mask on. Fuckin’ Ghostface. Yeah, you too, I don’t give a fuck! Ackin’ up like I’m a rapist or somethin’?”

Sure, his current attitude wasn’t doing him any favors, but we have the right to cry out in a room where no one listens. His dilemma involving his girlfriend may not have been an emergency, but the sociocultural dynamic he was currently being subjected to… that was absolutely a crisis, and an endemic one. His frustration was warranted. I felt for him. Initially I’d considered him merely a harassment to other passengers, but his exasperation reminded me of the words of another man, worth quoting in full: 

“There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.”

That’s Barack Obama talking. Our boy on the route tonight was reliving the very same. Eventually he stalked up to me. I’d greeted him and given him a free transfer upon request as he entered, a small modicum of kindness which was more than anyone else had offered; I think at this point there just wasn’t anyone else to talk to. 

I said, “I’m sorry they’re not workin’ with you, man.”
“Naw, I’m just upset these muhfugguhs act like ah’m some ape when ah ask to use they phone. Fo’ a split second. Piece uh shit muhfugguhs tell me my phone got turned off, my phone dead, my phone back home, bitchass mothafuckas say all that like I’m scary. Black man. To a black tall handsome young brother.”
“You’re an all right dude, I’m sorry they’re givin’ you that energy.”
“I know’m just scary, you know me, bro. Black folk with a gun. Seven eight black folks on this bus won’t… They gon’ tell me they ups and downs. ‘Bout why they won’t let me use they phone. That’s bullshit right there.” He surveyed the crowd. “Got nowhere to go. Homies. Bums. I’m sorry, man.”
“Oh, it’s cool, man, it’s all good.” 
“Man, I’m so mad right now. If one of these mothafuckas got a phone right now they should let me use they phone. ‘Specially they actual black. My people, niggas givin me stories and shit. Talkin’ ’bout they phone this, they phone dead, they phone that. Must have a crack rock or something, or fuckin’, a meth pipe or somethin’, some black people….”
“I’m sorry man, I know you’re an all right dude, I’ve seen you around.”
“Yeah.”
“You’re okay.”
“Muhfuggahs… I’m sorry. I’m jus’ havin’ a bad day, bro.”
“No, I hear that, I hear that. It’s good to vent it out, you know? Good to vent it out.”
“Blockin’ me out and shit, for no reason. Lookin’ at me like aw, just because I’m a– fuck! Now I gotta walk right– naw, I can’t ask you that, to let me off right here, cause tha’s not your job and you’re too cool of a bus driver for me to–”

I made the decision somewhere in the middle of the left turn, as we pulled into the last stop in Rainer Beach. Now, I’m not suggesting you do what I did next: I’ve got an unfair advantage. I’m a proud owner of the basically worthless (and legitimately awful) Samsung ZTE Zinger, a cell phone with a resale value of approximately $25; normally I carry Samsung’s fabulous 2006 T309 flip phone instead, worth even less. I can appreciate resistance to lending expensive items to strangers, but in my case it’s not particularly relevant.

“You’re an all right dude, man. I do have a cell phone if you would like to use it.”
“Aw, oh, oh, oh, oh. Man, are you serious?”
“I’m serious man, all I gotta do is pull over. Just couldn’t do it while we was drivin’ the route.” 
“Man, you probably the coolest bus driver ah ever met. In all my twenty-seven years on this urf. You cool. I’m just disappointed in these people right here.” 
“Folks are supposed to look out for each other!”
“That’s right! Thank you!”

The Obama speech linked above is my second favorite YouTube video of all time. It marked his first real direct address on race, and his sober, measured consideration of the words I find mesmerizing. 

For a quick historical grounding and context on basically every aspect of interaction in this scene, refer to a much earlier post and the inspiration for writing this one: Don’t Be Scared of My Friends, Part I.

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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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. This world is a perceptively kinder place because of people like Nathan Vass. Metro has a lot of amazing drivers that really care about the people they serve.

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