I write this for my fellow operators; it is they whom I wish to appreciate today, they who deserve the spotlight, more than myself. They continue showing up to work, signing up to spend eight hours daily in quite possibly the most medically compromised public environment imaginable, while the rest of us get to stay at home safe.
1. On Fear and Trembling
I look around at my fellow drivers at the base. Here are the young fathers, the single mothers, the elderly… some of them will get infected, against their best efforts, and they will in turn infect their families. If things continue as is, this will become unavoidable fact.
It isn’t news that life is unfair, but drawing the short stick always comes as a rude surprise. These drivers will continue coming in because they have to, exposing themselves and by extension their loved ones until it is too late. Change tends to happen after things have gone just a bit too far. Who is that operator who will have to suffer, possibly fatally? Are they a friend of mine? Who will
accidentally infect their own parents and carry the resulting frustrated guilt for a lifetime?
Is it me?
Somehow we are able to put aside the possibility of imminent death as we go about living, and thank God/Allah/Mother Nature for that, because otherwise we’d all be frozen out of life’s joys by constant fear. I could choose to sink into paralysis as I reflect on how impossible staying uninfected seems on my bus and especially my route, which at night has seen less of a dip in ridership than elsewhere, what with the profusion of at-risk persons who populate the evening 7.
2. Funky Friends
Last night Mr. Why Ling unwittingly spewed spittle in my face as he enthusiastically roared, “I’M FAMOUS!!!”
I like his absurd comments (and love hearing his unique volume choices in declaring them), and it was the sort of conversation I would’ve otherwise happily had… but not these days. I just wanted to get him down the street. My sleeper friends with their coughing fits, their soiled clothing strewn on the floor, the careless putrefaction and fluids of alcoholic and bodily origin which keep many of my colleagues rather understandably off the route…
Ninety-nine nights out of a hundred, I happen to like these people (this story explains it best). They are part of the fabric of urban life and they’re not going anywhere. I’ve been picking some of them up for a full decade, and I spend more time with them than anyone else and feel totally okay with that.
But. These past nights I’ve found myself wary, heavy with thoughts of trepidation and anxiety. Nothing sickens the soul worse than fear.
What has brought me up?
3. Five Giants
My fellow operators, that’s what. We’re in this together, they say with their smiles and waves. Look at young Ali in his trim and spotless Metro jacket, sporting a tricolor taqiyah and aviator sunglasses, the embodiment of youthful professionalism capably navigating his massive E Line down Third Avenue. This is our time to shine, his presence seemed to say. Our ethos. He has optimism for days and much I can learn from. Across the street was Emily, likewise piloting her durable D Line like a total boss, radiating proficiency and cool-headed competence.
Seconds later Abiyu would pull up alongside me in his 62. He carries a gentle wisdom I find restorative, a quiet man who thinks before he speaks, whose rich and full-bodied smile that, amongst his reflective quietude, reminds me of my father. His three preteen sons can already each speak four languages; young geniuses following in his footsteps, whom I hope recognize their father’s humble pride.
I’d just taken my bus over from Kevin, the fine fellow I chat with here. We share in having both spent, by any standard of sanity, entirely too much time driving the 7. We measure our time logged on it in years, and our quips and asides contain volumes I can share with no one else, as we navigate our graduate-level ponderings of how to think about it all. This job is a question of how to think.
On my way to Kevin’s bus I’d ridden up the street on Tony’s 545. Tony the photographer, a man nearly twice my age but with more ebullient courage and humor in the face of life, who has the peace of someone who knows what his passions are: photography and music.
I asked him what he made of The Whole Virus Thing. He highlighted the degree to which our work is particularly essential now, and when I mentioned how the 7 hasn’t changed much these past weeks, he said, “those are the folks who need us most.” Tony also noted that he’s blessed with a great immune system (true of all operators; if it wasn’t, well, you’d be working somewhere else by now).
4. What You Bring
Sometimes all you need is a wave, or one smile, to turn the whole day around. I’d just gotten five rocket boosters infusing my soul: Ali’s confident bearing, a man who reminds you it is easy to be beautiful; Emily being herself, that best self we aspire toward; Abiyu’s flashing grin, our hands in supplication as we nodded toward each other, the history of our friendship in a gesture; and Kevin and I, proof that goodness and insanity can endure together.
“Somebody spilt some beer at the front,” Kevin said as he gave me the bus. “But it’s all good. “
“It wouldn’t be the 7 without it!”
“Eyy! It wouldn’t be the 7 without you!“
And Tony, for whom it didn’t even occur to complain. Who underlined why we’re needed now, and for which crowd; who saw that as innately worthwhile, without irony or complaint. My trainer Gil told us more than once: This system exists to serve, specifically, the very old people, the students, the poor, the homeless, the disabled people. They are your main customers and you should be grateful to them, because they are why you have a job.
Selfless, giving, calm; let me take these with me. Let me absorb all the best of these women and men I work alongside.
5. In My Pocket
Although it is unlikely I will die from the virus, I am not quite young enough to be unaffected by it. At my age, the likely result is something comparable to a bad flu, along with, of course, infecting those around me. There is debate as to whether the coronavirus is more deadly than the flu (short answer: it’s complicated), which kills hundreds of thousands annually and at which we don’t bat an eye; and there is of course the fact of driving, the most dangerous regular societal activity and which kills millions and injures millions more… which we do without a second thought. Death is always nearby.
Let us remember how to live alongside it, freely.
On occasion I ask myself how I’d drive the bus if it were my last chance ever to do so. I’d throw everything I have into it, of course, and that is what I try to do. Whether these are my last days or just more of the in-between, I would like to live them well, and carefully, with joy and intention, carrying the lessons of the folks above in my pocket. I would like to go into the fray smiling, because when nothing makes sense anymore you have to smile.
This week’s world is a crazy one, and traffic is better now than any time in the last thirty years. It’s downright fabulous. If we have to go out there, let’s relish it. Who we are, what we can offer, and who we have it on ourselves to be.
Thanks for doing what you do.
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.