“Is that mah boy?”
“Jooohn! What’s goin’ on! Been a long time!”

In the days of coronavirus, pleasantries have to be yelled. John had entered through the middle door and now stood right by it, just behind the velcro strap encouraging passengers to keep distance from the operator.

We went on like that for a bit, catching up. But right in the middle of it he hit me with the news:

“Hey I just got outta th’ hospital. I got cancer, man.”
“Cancer, that’s terrible! John!”
“Yeah, I got cancer.” He said it as though he was trying out the phrase, testing out its truth, seeing how it molded to his reality. Do you remember the early days of your tragedies, when there seemed a chance they might not be true?
“I got cancer. They said I drink too much.”

He ducked under the velcro strap, carefully, to come closer. The last time someone did that I got spat on. But you have to remember that’s not everyone. These lives out here have nothing to do with each other. One night someone will scare you, and the next night another man who looks the same, talks the same, dresses the same (and, depending on which corner of 3rd and Pike you’re at, smells the same)– will help you when no one else will. Keep this in the back of your head: If someone saves your life, that person will probably be homeless.

But back to John, the 40-something Latino man and fixture on Rainier whom readers of my book will recognize. From one angle, he was another alcoholic breaking the rules on a Wednesday night. For me, he was a friend with whom I shared a history, from whom my life was richer.
“Yeah man,” he said, “I weigh 140 pounds. I used to be 235.”
“Oh, no. One forty? That’s what I weigh! One forty, 145…”
“Yeah, doctor said I only got two months to live.”
“What? John, this is heavy! Two months?! That cancer’s no joke.”
“Yeah they said two months.”

I was so glad he came up. He came closer because you can’t be sensitive from far away. What do you say to two months left to live? I was taught to think before speaking and usually do, but in this moment my body led the charge. My soul cut in, interrupting with the only words that could work, with a verve I was surprised by.

“Two months? Man, you’ be around longer than that.”

It’s a feeling more than a thought, and that sub-liminal part of me spoke now with enormous confidence, and complete belief in itself. I, who knows cancer kills people, who knows the very concept of “beating cancer” is nothing but cruel advertising, that cancer always comes back, that it tears you up, that trying to do anything about it tears you up too– that me somehow believed itself when it said,

“You got this.”
“I’m gonna beat it.”
“You are gonna beat it.”

I believe hope in the face of certain failure is still beautiful. I do not know why this is.

“I’m gonna beat it. Doctor said two months, ah say no way. Fuck that.”
“Two months, more like two decades!”
“I’m gonna beat that cancer.”
“You been through tougher stuff than this.”
“Tha’s right.”
“I’ma be pickin’ you up ten years from now, just like I was ten years ago.”

As soon as we had made our own glow, it dissipated. Reality set in, and I was thankful he could share its weight with me.

John the tough guy. The boisterous. The fighter. Comic. Man. John stared into the middle distance, stared forward the way only a passenger on a vehicle can. He said, “I’m sad, man. It’s sad.”
“It is sad.”
“I was 235 pounds. Now I’m 140.”
“That’s crazy.”
“They’re givin’ me liquid morphine. They give me a bottle a week.”
“Man, I bet you can’t feel anything.”
“Nothin,’ man. I only got two months left. They kicked me outta my apartment.”
“Man, that’s heavy. I’m sorry, dude. Now’s the time to hang out with good people. See your family, you know? Maybe you’ll beat it, but either way, you wanna have good people around you. You still see Valerie?”

He was lost in thought. “I stay behind that church there. Hey listen Nate, I hate havin’ to ask you like this, but could you spot me any change? Get somethin’ to–“
“Aw man, you know I don’t carry money when I’m workin’.”
“I know, It’s cool. Hey man, it’s always good to see you. I’ma get out right here.” He cracked a grin– “Don’t cut your hair! And stop beatin’ people up!”

There was an echo in his tone, the enthusiasm you put forth with great effort in those final moments, covering up the realization that you might never see your listener again. That was how he spoke now. He’d decided humor was the note to end on.

Good man.

An hour later I would see him, though, with Valerie (read my book for more) at his side. More than once during the ride she’d tell me it’s always good to see me. Finality had crept into our interactions. It encourages sincerity, goodness, truth. She helped John as he moved, slowly, slurringly (“I’m not gon’ lie, Nate, I’m drunk right now!”), down the aisle with a tender gait as never before. I thought of the sillier times: him coming up to the door of my bus one afternoon and stopping in mock fright, proclaiming, “Nathan! Who did that to your hair??”
“I know, I know, I had to get it cut! It was gettin’ outta control!”
“You tell me who did that and I’ll send ‘em straight to Jesus!!”
I laughed. He’d said, “You gotta get those curls back, bro, like mine. We’re like twins. Oh hey, I saw you walking the other day. You know how to walk?!”
“Ha!”

Tonight he was moving slower, but he was still John. They sat in the middle of the bus and struck up conversation with two friendly compatriots and a dog. I couldn’t hear them, but their arms and smiles said it all– gestures of togetherness among strangers, dog stories, travelling stories, communion found in exchanging the breeze. I marvelled at Valerie and John’s stalwart presence in each other’s lives, particularly now as they faced the finish line. A kindness in their camaraderie tonight.

In the last days things will not be perfect. There will be pain, shame, unfulfilled dreams. Your favorite people won’t all be there. But that’s okay. It’s not about that.

It’s about whoever happens to be around.

Have a good time with them. They’ll bring you up. We all have more in common than we don’t. Wave your arms in the air like John is now, telling another story, listening and laughing, making the most of the in-between moments; a post-sunset bus ride on a forgotten weekday, spent in the good company of strangers and friends.

That’s what living is.

More with John here and here.

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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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