We were fresh into town from the long drive up from Rainier Valley, approaching Pike Street, our last stop on Third. A large and hulking figure came up to stand near me, silently. We watched the road together. He had on a do-rag and skullcap, with leather construction boots and an outdoor jacket. Partly for my own comfort, I felt a need to break the ice and offered him a transfer.

“Hey. D’you need this just in case?”
“Yeah. Ah ‘ppreciate it, sir.”
“Oh for sure.”
“What time is it?”
“Eleven-thirty.”
“Okay.”
“Is that a good time?”
“Yeah. Just gotta make it home before Mom leave for work, ‘bout eleven forty-five.”
“Okay she’s workin’ some serious hours!”
“Yeah, she gets it done, man…” he shifted his weight, grabbing a stanchion. He was realizing I was someone he could really talk to. I’ll never know how or what I do to have this effect on people, but I’m endlessly grateful when it happens. He continued: 

“Check this out, man. She was raised in foster homes, moved from home to home, dropped outta grade school, didn’t go to no high school… But after all that, she decided to get a doctorate in psychology. And she did.”
“Whoa!!”
“Yup. So that’s my inspiration.”
“Whoa,” I marveled. The things our mothers have done, often quietly, often hidden from view, for themselves or others. You change the world by being your best self. Did she know she would encourage her son so, and ripple out onto me and so many others? “That’s the most inspiring thing I’ve heard in like a month!”
“Ha! Thanks. Yeah, she the one.”
“And to think about all the obstacles she musta had in her way, how they say it’s harder to go to college as an adult, everything–”
“And she did this with five kids at home, all strung out on drugs.”
“Oh my gosh!”
“They sent me home from the penitentiary.”
“Okay she’s strong. This woman… Just raising one kid is a straight up full time job by itself, but five! Plus challenges? And getting this degree, from square one?”
“They sent me home from the penitentiary to be with her.”
“You’re awesome and she’s awesome.”
He looked at me, pausing and newly still. He said, “Man, I love you for that.”
“Right back atcha, man. Love and respect.” Firm handshake.
“My name’s Michael.”
“I’m Nathan.” 

Speak to me not, O Muse, of the heroes we find in history books. Tell instead of the quiet giants who inspire this man and myself, a couple of streetwise youngsters in the urban night, who teach us to believe, be better than we thought we ever could be.

The upward nod from his burly form as he stepped out, and more: he waved one last time, after he’d already left the bus. I saw it at the last second. I watched Michael waiting to cross the street, facing the other way but looking back at me to wave again. 

A woman was standing next to him on the corner, waiting to cross as well. He struck up a conversation with her, full of the verve we’d made, passing on with a smile the appreciative respect and love that came so naturally to him, an echo of his mother’s best qualities.

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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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