Every bus driver has experienced this.

There are many reasons people disregard the needs of others. Some are cultural, and some personal, ingrained by role models or lack thereof. Certain folks don’t consider others because they are young, and the last part of the brain to develop is also the portion concerned with empathy. It’s a survival mechanism; as a child you need to prioritize yourself to survive.

Other folks are older but just don’t have the brain development. Hard drug use is quite literally brain damage, and if you start using before the age of 25 (the age the brain fully matures), your brain will stop growing.* If you manage to kick your habit before 25, your brain is able to complete development, even if the process is delayed; but if you keep using past 25, your brain will never complete its maturation. For the rest of your life, you’ll be wandering around in an adult body but stuck with the emotional capability of a teenager, and you’ll wonder why existence seems so much easier for other people. Oh, Life. It can be so forgiving… except when it isn’t.

Still other people are self-absorbed for less dramatic reasons. They didn’t have parenting that encouraged caring or empathy. Maybe they were spoiled. Or they have cultural standards that look dismissive from the outside—differing concepts of personal space or noise, for example. Perhaps they are experiencing crises situations which require focus on themselves; the survival mechanism again.

These are the things a bus driver thinks when a passenger is about to get off the back door, but doesn’t, because they’re talking to their friends and thereby holding up the entire bus. Or when they’re scrambling, slowly, to gather their paraphernalia to disembark but are so sluggish you’re convinced—convinced—they’re taking up everyone’s time out of spite.

These judgments are too easy. I tend to find myself thinking instead about brain science. With the endless amount of reasons brains can be underdeveloped or unstable, I find this rather more likely than malicious spite or ignorance. Considering the rampant drug use and untreated mental illness here in Seattle, it’s more plausible to me that these folks really are operating at the limit of their abilities, which I state not as judgment but as a paraphrase for what I myself try for: the best you can do.

For me, recognizing that people differ in ability isn’t pejorative but humanizing. No need to hold folks to your standards, or any high standards. They have abilities in other areas, and as J.M. Barrie once wrote, they’re all fighting their own battles. We have no idea. So be kinder than necessary.

Which is what I attempted with this gent, a stocky fellow holding up the bus now, one foot edging out the back doorway at Prefontaine as he continued chatting with the gaggle of guys seated within. Shaved head, massive headphones with one speaker propped awry, the better to hear his friends; a forty-something brutalist figure with an itch to burn, the sort of restless fury to burn you expect in a younger man.

If you just close the door on them, they get angry. If you yell at them, they get angry; and as my colleague Abdi once wisely told me, “If you act tough, they will act tough. And they’ve got nothing to lose.” You do. Which is why getting pissed off never works.

Sometimes you can just sit there, remaining silent, and the passengers will enthusiastically do the work for you, New York-style. But tonight I felt like trying the J.M. Barrie approach.

“I’m a start closing that back door now,” I said.
“Alright big guy, I don’t wanna shut the door on ya…”
Still nothing. We’d been there long enough for another passenger– guy in a red jumpsuit– to get off and then wander back and slink on again through the same rear doors.
Me, friendly: “Once again, I’m thinkin’ about closing those back doors…”

At which point Mr. Brutalist stepped out, but also during which one of his buddies growled, “Bus driver, you’re starting to piss me off!!”

Which is when Mr. Red Jumpsuit leaned toward the speaker and yelled, “HEY THIS BUS DRIVER COOL!! HE LIKE MY GIRLFRIEND!!!”

I don’t know what the sentence meant, but I knew it was intended as praise, and I could see that it worked. Either I was similar to this man’s girlfriend, or I liked her, whoever she was, and that esteemed me highly enough in his eyes for him to defend my character. What it meant was that everything was fine, and Respect, the all-singing, all-dancing high currency of the street, had restored whatever ripples had been brewing.

What it meant was contained in my grin of gratitude, and the facial expression of one of the boys in the back: a dead ringer for A$AP Rocky except darker-skinned and friendlier, who looked at me from his position on the back bench, his arm around a girlfriend of his own. 

He returned my grin with a bigger one, a smiling laugh that was on my side, accepting the humor of the situation, accepting my attitude, accepting the notion of accepting, a casual recognition of the delicate balance of things, the art of it all… How we live now, and have to exist in modern life: 

Keeping things on an even keel.

​*More on the brain: here’s what I wrote in a 2015 post about similar concerns. Selected sources below.

“The brain doesn’t biochemically mature until a person’s mid-twenties. Hard drug use before this age inhibits the development of the neurochemicals needed for the proper formation of multiple brain components, but most crucially for the prefrontal cortex. It’s quite literally a case of arrested development. If an individual stops using by around age 24, there’s still time for mirror neurons to develop. But kicking a habit is one of the hardest things to accomplish in life, and not everyone can do it that quickly. Addiction is a treatable condition; curtailed brain development isn’t. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t continue developing after the mid-twenties, and if its growth was prematurely stopped in the years prior, well. There is no undo button in life.

The prefrontal cortex is the locus for what psychologists call “executive function”: the ability to differentiate conflicting thoughts (good/bad, better/best), extrapolate future consequences of current activities, identify goals, predict outcomes, learn rules at a concrete level, and control behavior to anticipate and avoid socially unacceptable outcomes.The supramarginal gyrus (say that five times fast), also called Brodmann area 40, is strictly speaking located in the parietal lobe but is more generally situated at the junction between the parietal, temporal, and frontal lobes. Area 40 identifies actions and gestures of other people.

I mentioned mirror neurons above. Mirror neurons fire when a person acts and also when a person sees an action being performed by another person. In other words, you feel better when the person in front of you smiles, or you care when someone else is sick even though you aren’t. The right half of the supramarginal gyrus identifies our emotional state and that of others as distinguishable. It allows us to consider and imagine another’s emotional state. Empathy, basically. It overcomes and autocorrects the brain’s innate egocentricism (a Darwinian survival mechanism most pronounced in children or in adults without a developed supramarginal gyrus).

Now, imagine not having any of that. This is why children are used as soldiers in certain parts of the world. It’s a lot easier for them to kill people. It’s also why robots are scarier, and why this man, with the faroff gaze and cloudy film in his eyes, is unsettling. ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,’ Allen Ginsberg wrote in 1955, and could as well have been referring to all the possible future Raphaels and Marie Curies who, having finally kicked their habit, live out their lives with the emotional maturity of teenagers.”

Light reading on brain and drug science here and here. Or, if you like, heavy reading herehere, and here.

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.