The View From Nathan’s Bus: Why So Serious??

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Sure, why not, I thought. There’s no one else out here.

I stopped in the middle of the block to let two runners into my empty bus. It was the end of the evening, my last trip on another late night heading down Broadway.

“I appreeeeeciate that,” said the first man.
The second looked up. “Thanks bro—oh, hold up! Yo, this guy is famous.”
“Aw yeah!”
“He’s the friendliest, most incredible—”

At this point I had to interject: “Nawww!”
“Bro, I’m for real! Shit, no wonder he stopped for us, that’s why. ‘Cause he’s the hella cool famous guy. Check it, this guy, man. He don’t never lose his cool, always good to people, relaaaxed.” 
His friend said, “I bet he got people fightin’ for him.”
“He be like, come on in. You got two dollars or two pennies, don’t make no difference, he still gon’ be nice to you. Listen to me, my dude. You’re doin’ God’s work.”
“Thank you!” I said.
“For real. Cause it’a be some bus drivers you try to pay yo fare, I seen this one guy he had a dollar forty and he ask the driver for a transfer, he done already put money in the thing and the driver say no! What that guy supposed to do? He don’t have no money left!”
“He shoulda just walked right past him,” the other fellow remarked.
“Drivers pulling that type a shit it ain’t no wonder people walk right past!”

I sympathized, but I had to clarify a point: “I appreciate it when people ask me though, ‘cause they know they could just walk right past and I’m not gonna do anything, but they ask anyway. Which I love, cause it’s outta respect. They don’t have to pay, and they know they don’t have to say anything. But I love it when they say hey.”
“You know that’s true,” he reflected. “Yeah it’s cool when they actually say something. Not like them dudes that be steppin’ on like they own the motherfucker. Walking all up in here like the bus belongs to they ass! Some uh these guys makes me laugh, bro. Hey, like this like this.”

He stood and began pantomiming what Tom Wolfe calls the pimp roll, the expressionless swagger we would chuckle at more often if it wasn’t always carried out with such desperate earnestness.

I was laughing. We all were. It was great to see someone sending up the self-serious obsessiveness of certain street attitudes. A relief. Particularly because these two men, dressed as they were, speaking in the vernacular that they were, of the race and socioeconomic class they were—came cloaked in expectation whether they liked it or not. They were the sort you expected to be doing the swaggering, not calling it out.

But the world is more complex than any stereotype could ever dream of.

I said, “You know exactly how it is!”
“These niggas be rollin’ on with this fuckin’ stone-faced killer bullshit like the world owes them a mothafuckin’ ride! Like the rest of us is working for they punk ass! I pay my shit every month. I put my shit in the mail. But these dudes, oooh no. They be swaggerin’ on in without a word like they built this fuckin’ city! Shit is hilarious, dogg! Yeah, you right, those fools could at least say hey.”
“Some kind a connection, human to human!” 
“Yeah, it’s disrespectful. It makes me mad, but it makes me laugh. You got to laugh. And then they be like, ‘I’m old, I’ma need you to get the fuck up outta them front seats! Yeeeah. I’m a need a seat right here, nigga, what choo gon’ do?’ Steppin’ at me like this. Walking in like this, and then like, ‘you need to get the fuck up.'”

Reader, how can I explain how completely hilarious this was? I’ve never laughed so hard at one in the morning. He was mock-behaving the role as he described it, acting it out in the most exaggerated manner possible. The narrow, hypermasculine template of existence embodied by certain young black men is notable—like all modes of hypermasculinity—in taking itself almost absurdly gravely, and each of us was so intimately familiar with such solemnity as to make his parody of it absolutely hysterical. His version of a self-serious teenager swaggered so hard it bumped into the stanchions, and his guttural verbalizations (“Sup.”) were an outsized riot. He cocked his head back so far while trying to maintain a forward gaze he was practically looking at the ceiling.

“‘You need to get the fuck up so I can sit my important ass down,'” he was saying, by way of illustration. In his own voice he added, “And I get up. ‘Cause it’s what you do as a reasonable person. You get up. People get up. Shit like that ain’t worth bothering with. It’s stupid bullshit but it’s funny as fuck too. You gotta laugh. Anyways. We appreciate you drivin’ the bus how you do.”
“Young man making money,” his friend said. “Keep it up!”
“I never get to see this cat anymore. This nigga here,” the first said, shaking his head toward me in admiration.

I had finally calmed down from laughing. “You guys were the highlight! It was a beautiful day in the neighborhood, but you guys were the highlight! Thanks for stoppin’ in!”
“Always!”

‘Cause it’s what you do as a reasonable person. I appreciated hearing that. Sometimes certain attitudes drive you up the wall. They’re designed to. Don’t give in, because like he said, it ain’t worth bothering with.

If the interaction is in passing, consider giving them what they’re doing a terrible job of asking you for: Respect. That’s the only reason people pull such ridiculous behavior. They’re not getting respected, or acknowledged, or loved, or all three. And so they try to demand it. They don’t know what you already know, and what will get them into trouble later: merely acting like a king won’t get you treated like one.

But giving them what they have no idea how to ask for might soften them a little, keep them from needing to shove their bravado in your face so much. Respond like reeds blowing in the wind, bending instead of breaking.

Maybe they’ll learn they can bend too.

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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.