Northbound 4th and Royal Brougham, after hours. It’s always darker over here, a zone hidden in the open wastelands of industrial warehouses and vacant business parks. 

He saw me from the bus shelter and scrambled into a standing position, torn with indecision about what to do with all his belongings. A collection of bags and buckets scattered about in his periphery. I opened the doors and leaned toward him.

“Hey, my guy! D’you wanna ride?”
“I do, yeah!”
“Cool! Come on in!”
“Uh kay, I just gotta grab all this stuff.”
“Can I help carry anything?”
He looked like a bruised animal, confused you’d ever want to pet it. “No. Thank you though.”
“Right on. Well, I gotta keep it rollin’, so come on in!”
“For sure. Thank you so much. Man,” he said as he got everything, “You’re the first driver…I been standing here four buses passed me by, cause I couldn’t get my stuff ready fast enough. Which I understand, but it’s like—”
“Man, I’m sorry to hear it.”
“Just blazed right on by.”
“That’s not cool.”
“Worst day of my life,” he sighed. “The number of things… You know, you’re the first—you’re the second person today who’s been kind to me.”
“Aw man! Well I’m glad to be number two! We’ll see if we can get it up to ten!”
“Ha! I don’t think that’s…” he paused, realizing pessimism wouldn’t help things. “Well, thank you!”
“Of course, always!”

He plopped down in a seat with the relaxing finality of a hard day’s work done, or at least a tough rite of passage completed. On to another phase. He was a forty-something white man with reddish-brown hair and dressed like his belongings—equipped for the elements but corroded by them, sweatshirt coat and hood with blackish gray carpenters, the kind of nondescript outfit that leaves you looking for their face, the only revealer of who they are. I remember defined features, ready blue eyes and a goatee.
“This is a great ending to such a shitty day! I’m not even gonna get into it.”

I looked at him in the mirror. He was sitting halfway down the first half of the articulated coach, but I didn’t mind yelling. It was the relaxed atmosphere of the night bus, and the uncrowded air felt supportive. “Well, you know how sometimes a bunch of bad things happen all at once, and then a whole bunch of good stuff happens right after?”
He nodded. “Yeah totally.”
“Maybe it’s like that, and the good stuff is about to come around!”
“Right ON, man!”
“All’s well that ends well, right?”

We went on like that for a while. Going through town we began filling up; the northbound 5 gets a crowd no matter the hour. I heard his voice again, talking to a seatmate.

“You talking ‘bout the bus driver? Oh I know. He’s the bomb.”
“Best there is. I just got passed up by four buses didn’t wanna wait for me. What am I supposed to do, you know? Wait for the nice ones to come around!”

They were trying to keep their voices down from my hearing them. I smiled to myself. Here’s another friendly face stepping in at Pine: “Hey, amigo!”
“Hey, Joe!!!”
“Nathan! What’re you doing on this thing?” I never drive the 5. Except right now.
“I know, what am I doing on this?”
“You’re goin’ out to the boonies!”
Chuckling: “It’s not my territory! I don’t belong!”
“Ha! You got no protection!”

Later, Joe says: “All right, Nathan!” He’s yelling by the middle door. Somehow, and uncharacteristically for the normally quiet 5, friendly outspoken banter is allowed tonight. 
“Good to see you, Joe!”
He’s gathering things of his own too; a theme for the ride, apparently. “Sorry I’m taking so long.”
“Oh you’re cool. You got it.”

A Chinese woman deboarding now, with glowing eyes, says to me: “Shyeh shyeh!” 
I can’t summon the reply fast enough and default to English—“Thank you so much!!” Her husband follows behind her, gesturing to me with hands in supplication.

The amount of gratitude we’re throwing around in here.

It plays like a dream that shouldn’t be allowed to be happening but is, like those television shows from childhood where everyone was so nice to each other—except real and big as life, pungent with the unfakeable energy of the urban night. 

The guy who started this whole hive of goodness has been watching me. “What’s your name?”
“My name’s Nathan, what’s your name?”
“A pleasure!”
“You made my day man, and I didn’t think it was possible! All this, during a crowd getting on… Listen, have a great night. Thanks for everything! Got all my stuff…” 

I could still hear him singing my praises outside. I don’t deserve this, I’m thinking, but I’ll take it, and gratefully.

Deeper up on the route an older gent came forward. He’d also watched the proceedings earlier. “How many nights do you work?”
“Five. I’m here every day except Thursday and Friday.” 
“I haven’t seen you. I did just move to this neighborhood, though.”
“You know yeah, I’m usually more of a south Seattle guy myself. This is new territory for me.”
“Well, there’s just one thing,” he said, winking: “Nobody on this bus likes you!”
We fell apart laughing. I smiled for days.

On to the next stop…

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.