You remember John, of John and Valerie fame, from my book—the chapter called “Fighters and lovers, In and Out of Time.” You can also catch us gabbing the afternoon away here. I usually see him as part of a group—a gaggle of friends, or with Valerie. Getting him alone is best though. Some people reveal themselves only in one-on-one conversations.

“I’m out, man. I was over on 5th Avenue, hangin’ with the boys over there.” It took me a second to realize John was referring to the County Jail. “I’m out.”
“I’m glad you’re out, man! I’m glad you’re out. Nobody should be stuck in there too long.”
“It was terrible, man. But I stood my ground and took it to trial, ’cause I didn’t do it.”

One second ago this was small talk. Now I was serious, made aware of the gravity of what he’d just gone through, what an impact it would now have on his life moving forward.

“John, I’m really glad you did that. Instead of that plea bargain stuff they always try to get everybody to do.”
“Oh heellll no, no way plea bargaining. Can’t believe they try to pull that shit on people, man, innocent people. Put a record on ’em.”
I threw up my hand. “It’s inhumane! I’m so glad you put your foot down and went all the way through with it.”
“Yeah.”
“‘Cause sometimes you gotta take that risk. And it’s a big risk, you know?”
“Well I had to, man, ‘cause I didn’t do nothin’! I was there. I was there when it happened, but that doesn’t mean you did it!”
“Exactly, doesn’t mean I did it.”
“They still arrested me, try to get me to plead guilty.”
“That’s scary. ‘Cause then your life’s over, man, they try to make it all attractive, we’ll let you off with this, instead of jail time, but then you get out you can’t get no job! And the whole time you know you never did it to begin with! Even though court says you said you did!”

He shook his head. “That’s how they get you. I just had to take it to trial ‘cause I know I didn’t do nothin’. They try to get me to lie, I’m not gonna lie. I know what happened.”
“Man, it’s like they want people to have felonies!”
“It’s fucked up. It is. That ruins people,” he said, staring into the middle distance. A face wrought with recent memories he was glad were no longer present.
“They try to scare you with jail time. But you just gotta go for it man, that’s how you get it done! I’m so glad you went for it. ‘Cause it’s a risk! But you don’t want that on your record.”
“Well, if you insist on a trial you gotta be in for a couple of months.”
“Which is terrible.”
“Oh it was horrible. Man, I don’t wanna say how long I was in there.”
“But now you’re out, and it’s clean.”
“I am, man, I am—”
“And that’s great.”
“Man, it’s always good to see you. We been knowin’ each other a long time.”
“It has been a long time!”
“I ‘member first time I saw you on the bus to Federal Way, you had that beautiful lady with you. What had the brown hair and the eyelashes. I said to myself, he’s got a beautiful woman with him. He got it goin’ on.”
That was ancient history for me. I laughed. “Man, you’ve got a good memory. John, wow! That was ages ago!”
“See, we been knowin’ each other! Young man!”
“It’s good to know you too!”
“Family!”

He exclaimed his appellations for me with a gusto both manly and endearing. I chuckled, sighing with relief and gratitude for his insight. What a stroke of fortune he had the head to think a few chess moves into the future. Pleading guilty reduces your options like nothing else. I’m so glad he made the moves he did, was able to make the moves he did, and that it turned out such that we had the luxury of complaining about injustice as free men, feeling safe and less lonely, living in the simple freedoms:

Chit-chatting down the balmy hours of another Seattle Sunday.

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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.