His name is Vern. Why does this Norman surname, which means “alder,” seem so appropriate? For me the title calls to mind verdant, as in burgeoning green growth, and verve, as in Vern’s beautiful toothless grin every time he steps on. He’s the friendly neighborhood stalwart, the fifty-something black American face with the scruffy (and I do mean scruffy) beard and a kind word for everyone.

I love this guy.

I particularly enjoy how unkempt his appearance is. His good humor offsets it perfectly, upending expectations and lighting up the other passengers with newfound knowledge of what’s possible. He makes you look differently at every soul with holes in their coat, tattered sagging jeans, uneven fingernails, and shoes worn down past the heels.

“Hey, Vern!”
Someone behind me muttered, “Aw you know Vern?? Das wassup!!”
“How you been doin?” I asked.
“Aw, I’m…” He trailed off, unable to give a pat answer. He was pushing a walker, which I’d never seen before. He’d been a cane man or less up until now. I tried to cheer him up. “Good to see you’re still hanging in there.”
“Yeah. They got me in this walker though.”
“I hope it helps a little.”
“Yeah, it do.”
“It’s always good to see you man, still going strong. You always have a smile. Any man that could smile in this modern life—that’s beautiful, dude! I respect that so much!”
“Thanks man! Ah could still smile ’cause a friends like you!”
“Aw thanks, man!!”

Ideas are best countered with other ideas, and emotions best conquered with other emotions. He seemed a touch demoralized, reduced by the vagaries of old age. We know it’s coming, but somehow we never believe it’ll really reach us… until it does. One day you and I will struggle to stand from sitting, or need help in the bathroom. We will be lucky to live to such an age, and will hopefully then be better equipped than now at putting pride aside.

I endeavored to restore his mood tonight as he has so countlessly done mine over the years. I like to think we got somewhere together, turning our feelings around in the space of a few words, gifting each other with a new slant; a reminder of our mutual respect and appreciation. 

Love. It is the name underneath all good things.

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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.