He was talking about his dog. After rush hour and after sunset, there is time for dog conversations.

“I don’t let people pet them though,” he said. He was a younger man like myself, at the in-between moment of your thirties– neither young anymore nor old. You’re merely there, hopefully aware the prime of your life is drifting by with each passing second. These are the days of laughter before forgetting, when we still remembered the lessons of careless youth, but could temper them with the insight of the years. The problems in your life may be harder than before; but you’re now better equipped to handle them.

He reached a hand down to his pet’s affectionate lapping tongue. “Just today I was walking them right over there by Safeway and this white girl wanted to pet them and I said no and she called me a nigger.”
“Oh no,” I moaned. I wanted him to know I cared. “In this day and… man, stuff like that breaks my heart. People using that word.”
“It took me back… She called me a nigger!”
“That word’s just got too much awfulness behind it.” 

I was reminded of a conversation I recently had with a middle-aged homeless woman I enjoy chatting with. She’d just been called the same, and we agreed the word has more hurt than people know. We were standing outside my bus at the U District terminal as she said, “kids throwing it around like it don’t have no effect.”
“Totally. I mean I get the idea, what they’re trying to do, that by overusing the word people might divest it of its hateful power. I get the idea. But. It hasn’t worked!”
She nodded emphatically. “It hasn’t!”
“It’s just as horrible and awful as it ever was!”

I tried to sum all that up in a line to the dog-owning passenger beside me now: “That just hits me where it hurts, somebody throwin’ that kind a energy at somebody else.”
“And she was wit’ a black dude too!”
“I know!”
“That don’t make any kind a sense!”
“And she said it loud. Other dudes heard everything, and they were like, these two white dudes even were like damn, that’s fucked up.”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “‘Cause it is.”
“I stay up in Fremont,” he said. “But this was just–this was down here in the ‘hood!”
“Ohmygoodness that was here?” It was almost funny. “Who did she think she was? Where did she think she was?”
“All I said was don’t pet the dog.”
“I’m so sorry that happened.”
He looked up. “Dude, you don’t gotta apologize!”

In Korean there are two words for apology: one implying guilt, and another for what I was trying to express now–a general observation that you sympathize with a wrong being a wrong. English doesn’t offer the distinction; you have to qualify it. I said, “I know, I just feel bad that it happened!”

He watched the streetlights go by. We drifted toward a red as he leaned back. “It’s that Trump, man. People be sayin’ this shit more now. At the rallies out there, they’re beating up black people!”
“He enables these type of attitudes that should’ve died out years ago. They gotta get somebody else in there next term. Anybody.”
“Not just anyone, anything.”
“It doesn’t matter who it is. I just hope people vote!”

He wasn’t riled. His voice was a musing one. “The thing is, he’s not really racist. He just don’t care about anyone but hisself. He just in there ‘cause he angry that a black man was president. White people think he care about them, but he don’t.”

They were words that had been living on his mind, and he finally had an outlet for them. You could feel the gentle rushing flow of energy, the strange mixture of enthusiastically talking about something negative. The pleasure of understanding through reflection.

“That’s true,” I said. “He’s just taking advantage of ignorant white people who think–”
“Yeah, like rednecks! They believe whatever he say, they think he’s gonna do something for them. If he actually was, givin’ them money or something, sure. But at the end of the day they’re still gonna be rednecks.”

There wasn’t much I could add to that. We drove forward for a spell, passing through Columbia City, as I considered the varying perspectives and reactions people make based on the information they have. How life looks when you don’t have to interact with a lot of people outside your culture and class group. The easiest way to develop prejudices is to have no contact with the demographics in question, and rely solely on the questionable information of others. How lucky I am here, in a neighborhood this culturally dense and rich. This street has more of the globe’s cultures than entire states in our Union. My mind wandered back to his anecdote.

“Was she older?”
“Naw, she was young. Twenty-something, twenty-five.”
“Man. I keep hoping those type uh attitudes will die out with the new generations. But then stuff like this happens. What’s confusing is she’s mouthin’ off in the hood…”
“Yeah. If this was up in Fremont… If I’da done something like, really horrible, then I could understand it more.”

I admired and appreciated his perspective even as I felt compelled to undermine it. “That’s generous of you, bro, but even if it was in Fremont and even if you had done some kinda unspeakable thing it still wouldn’t be okay. And she was with a black guy?”
“Let me guess,” I said. “He didn’t say anything.”
“Yup, he’s just lookin’ at the ground.”
“Musta been ashamed, didn’t know what to say.”
“She must be real good in bed. You know she’s good.”
“It’s just– it’s unforgivable. If your girlfriend goes around hating on folks and saying the N-word to people, are you gonna stay with them? No. You’re not gonna stay with them. You’re gonna leave ‘em! Who is this guy?”
“Don’t make any kind a sense!”
“You know, she was lucky. That it was you and that you’re a guy who thinks ahead, who’s…” I just came out and said it. “That you’re a nice guy, basically.”
“I didn’t do anything ‘cause it ain’t worth it. If I sic these dogs on her, it’s gonna be my fault and they ain’t gonna give me no inch.”

I tried to reassure him. “You don’t gotta do anything though. ‘Cause someday she’s gonna say something to somebody who’s not gonna tolerate her behavior and they’re not gonna be smart like you. They’re not gonna put up with it. If she keeps up like this, she’s in for it. It’s like I tell myself on the bus, if somebody comes at me, I tell myself I don’t have to do anything, ’cause somebody else will take care of this guy for me down the line. ‘Cause I’m trying to keep this job!”
“That’s how the world works. What goes around comes around.”
“What goes around comes around.”

These are the days of settling awareness. Ten years ago I don’t think either of us would’ve had the presence of mind to so easily see beyond our emotions–especially for that to be a default response when negativity’s being thrown your way. That’s when you really need to think a few chess moves ahead, and that’s also exactly when it can be hardest to do so. Emotions are hot, loud, messy things, and they make us human; they give us color. 

​But wisdom is never loud. “All epiphanies are whispers,” Ernie Lawton told me. Sometimes the quiet path is the higher one. Sometimes not acting is an act, not responding is a response: an essential gesture of discipline and example, a reminder to yourself and others of more important things.

Sometimes you just have to keep walking on by with your dogs, head held high. 

You can always talk it out with the bus driver later.

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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.

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Carson Baker

Thank you Nathan!