The View From Nathan’s Bus: The Light (Lamlam 1)

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Will this work? Let’s see. The conversation contained some rich sublimity deep down, buried within a sea of inconsequential nothings. The ingredients were all familiar, but something ineffable came of mixing it together—what she brought to the space, and what I gave out in return. We made the best of each other come alive, and the air benefited on a plane beyond the verbal. All I have to convey it to you, dear reader, are words, and for that I hope you’ll forgive me. 

But picture yourself on a southbound 36 at Third and Union, back in the days of the chat seat—you remember, the older buses with stairs at the front, wherein the first passenger seat was very close to the driver and the layout practically cried out for small talk.

She’s stepping on now, a face I’ve picked up before, but now there’s time to converse. Trim with sparkling brown eyes and a bouncing, playful demeanor; she has on a habesha kemis laced with floral patterns of purple and red, with a netela of bright aquamarine.

“Hey! Nice to see you!” I say, as she enthusiastically proffers her arm for a handshake. She waits at the front, wanting to talk more, and I gesture toward the chat seat. Thank goodness for the old bus. The masses bustle in. She watches as I greet everyone boarding with enthusiasm. 

Her, leaning forward once we’re moving again, with an expectant smile: “Haven’t seen you in a long time!” She’s one of several today to say, “I remember you from the 3 and 4!” before then asking, “You drive 36 now?”
“Now I drive something different every day. But I still love the 3 and 4!” I exclaim, with my hand on my heart. “Where are you going today?”
“Church.”
“Oh over by the 4, in the neighborhood?” I used to take her to the Ethiopian church in the Judkins area.
“Yes, that’s one of them!”
“I remember!”
“I go to church now, I pray, then I go to work!” She nodded with a self-aware affirmation, cognizant of the humor of lists. I laughed. We were at the stage where every sentence has an exclamation point. “It’s a good plan! Where do you go to work?”
“Sea-Tac.”
“Oh, long way.”
“Yeah, I take train.”
“That’s good. Easy.”
“I live in Lake City—”
“Oh, I live there too!” 

Her eyes brightened. She had so much general enthusiasm for life. But who talked to her? How often do you really think someone outside her very specific culture group approaches her pleasantly, with no motive, for just a chat and hello? Light rail and Lake City became that much more fun to talk about.

“Yeah, I take the 41!” I said. “I go to the Fred Meyer up there, you know the Fred Meyer?”
“Yeah!” she exclaimed.
“I was just at the Fred Meyer.”
“When?” Laughing: “I did not see you!”
I replied, “it’s true, just last night! I went to get vegetables. Making a salad.”
“I like Fred Meyer. I used to live Rainier—”
“Okay—”
“Yeah, much better than Saar’s—”
“Yes!”
“—and Safeway.” We paused briefly as more masses got on. Every bus driver knows it: the 36 is a buzzing hive of activity no matter the hour. We were heading south on Third during the post-lunch lull, still full but pleasant.

I said, “What kind of work do you do at Sea-Tac?”
“Clean cabin?”
“Say again?”
“Clean cabin.” She showed me her shirt. Underneath the elegant dress was, in an amusingly anachronistic surprise, a neon green uniform T-shirt.
“Oh, excellent!” Not knowing what to say, I replied with, “I do photography.” I handed her my card out of some need to further connect, explaining the website, how it has my pictures. Why? I have no idea. This glow wasn’t romantic; it was beyond. It was existential. You meet someone this good at being happy, and you don’t know what to do with yourself.

She said, “Do you put pictures on cups and t-shirts? Because I have a five-year old daughter, I want to get it for her.”
I didn’t know I loved when people ask me if I put pictures on cups. “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t know how to do cups and T-shirts.”
“It’s okay!”
“Do you like working there?”
“Yeah. I learn a lot. About the engine, about the fuselage, about the cabin…” She wasn’t being sarcastic. A fellow genuine spirit, hungry for life.
“That’s great! I was just down there yesterday, coming back from California.”
“Oh what time!” She was asking a question, but an exclamation point better conveys her spirit…
“We landed at 9:05, but it was late, so 9:30.”
“Oh, I was there! I do 4 to 9, 4 to 9:30.”
“That’s amazing!” I’m guessing the eavesdroppers on this cluttered peanut gallery of a bus were chuckling at us. But can we help it if we get excited easily? Are we going to do anything about it just because others might disapprove?

Nope.

“I should have said hi!” I exclaimed, despite the obvious unlikelihood of such a thing happening.
“What airplane?”
“Virgin America.”
“Oh yeah. I do those.”
“Wow,” I reflected, thinking of how dirty planes get. “That must be a lot of work. I try to keep my area clean. Now that I know you work there, I’ll keep it clean even more!” I threw on my left signal with my shoe, as you do on buses, and triggered the switch in the trolley overhead to set us on the left-turn wire toward Jackson.

Out loud I said, “Are you going to the church by the route 4?”
The eagerness of her reply had more to do with the fact that I actually remembered. I hadn’t seen her nor dropped her off there in at least a year. “No, no, it’s a different one!”
“Okay good! I was thinking, it’s too long to walk to the other one!”
“Oh no, I will show you.” 

How much of any conversation is really a search for togetherness? The location of her church was not essential to me, and nor, I imagine, was my ability to do photo print T-shirts for her.

But the feeling

That’s why we talk, and it’s what informed the next several lines, the meaning of which lived several layers higher, floating above the literal words themselves:

“So do you have other children besides your daughter?”
“No. Just one is enough.”
That got a laugh from more than one person. I said, “Good. Me too, I am only child.”
“Ha! Perfect!” 
“She does not want any other brothers sisters. When I hug other children, she cries!”
“Aw! When I was little, my Mom asked me do I want a little sister, I said, ‘Nooo….’”
“Ha! Yes, at first my daughter she wanted little brother, she was lonely. But then she saw me hugging other children, her friends, and she crying and crying!”
“Now she understands!”
“Yes, one is good. Two is too many, too expensive.”
“Yes. Only child is best.” I quipped, “This way she will always get more presents!”

At this point Yolanda, a regular (whom you remember from here and here), stepped on. “That looks beautiful,” I said to her transfer. As she sat down, she asked the bus, “Anybody need a transfer? I’m not gonna use it!”

Incredibly, the peanut gallery remained silent. I said, “How could anyone refuse such an offer? You’re so generous!”
My friend up front said, “You are very nice driver, and handsome!”
I blushed. “You too!”
“I have Orca card, and one day I was going home and I paid the card and it said ‘not enough money,’ and my friend was on the bus and she said it’s okay, I can pay for her, and she paid for me, and the driver got so mad!”

She said mad as if it was an incomprehensible foreign concept, which it should be. “He said, her money doesn’t count, you’re supposed to pay with your own money, without her assistance. But it’s my culture, when somebody needs help, you offer help them.”
“That’s a great way, a great culture.”
“Yes!”
“Yes! It should always be that way. Your friend was very nice, helping like that. I’m sorry that happened! People are very strange sometimes.”
She laughed. 
“Maybe he had something going on in his life, you never know. I wonder sometimes.”
She pointed, standing up. “Right down there, that is the church. There are two of them. I go that one, the big yellow one.” 
“It was nice talking to you. What’s your name?”
“Lamlam.”
“Nathan.”
A second handshake, firm and strong. “So nice to see you!”

After that Yolanda came forward, replacing the vacated chat seat. I asked how she’s doing.
“You’re one of the best, Nate,” she said, with authority. “You’re one of the best. If you can get along with somebody doesn’t even speak ya own language, shakin’ hands at the end, gettin’ her name… that was beautiful. That was beautiful.”
“Yolanda.”
“Nathan. I’m serious. We need more like you.”

​Strangers bring us up. They deepen our experience. I feel spoiled sometimes, working at a job that affords me such luxuries. Many of my friends aren’t so fortunate to be on speaking terms with people outside their class and culture groups. I can share that the effect of exchanging bubbly banalities with such a vast spectrum teaches me how close we all are. The easiest way to overcome prejudice and misunderstanding is to spend time with people. I pity the folks who don’t get to be in my position, the ludicrously fortunate position of getting to work with such a diverse workforce, or serve such an uncurated mass of humanity. I can see things I wish they could, too. I get to see it firsthand:

Most humans in most circumstances, everywhere, have good in them.

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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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