This is a big one, but bear with me: the fight described below conveniently happened to touch on so many of our city’s most pressing issues. Refill your coffee. You love procrastinating…
He stepped aboard the bus and paused, baldly surveying the interior. I admire people who can stare down a crowd without a second thought. Such things don’t come naturally to me.
1. The Scene
I wouldn’t call his presence intimidating; perhaps instead distinct. He was dressed trimly, in dark clothes that fit. Imagine approachable, thoughtful eyes, long dreads running the full length of his back, and that clean, blemish-free skin which makes guessing an age impossible. His confident bearing seeped out of his person in an uninsistent, many-splendored way no young person can realize. From that alone I guessed he had to be over forty.
“Oh, come on,” he said loudly, turning to me to add: “Tell him to put his mask on.”
He was referring to the man in the back corner, also black American but younger, with a very different air: unbathed and unkempt, in a beanie and dirty green rain jacket, aloof, the dismissive pride in his slitted eyes offset by food particles in his beard.
I got on my microphone and said in my usual conflict-averse manner: “Alright, let’s try to put our masks on if we have ’em.”
Mr Dreads paraphrased me more directly, calling out: “Put your mask on!! You!!”
As Mr. Beanie continued staring blankly forward I added on the mic, “I’m talkin’ to my buddy in the back–”
Who grudgingly acquiesced. “Okay, okay.” He gave a condescending grin, his ego unable to give up the last word. Oh, egos.
It was the nonchalant attitude. The poorly calculated smirk. The man in the back found nothing worthwhile in virus protection and made that clear with his body language. He gave no sign of having much experience following directions or considering the needs of others. His shame was his lack of shame, his rock-solid beliefs that, from the outside, smacked of antipathy.
More likely he felt, as a number of street folk I’ve talked to do, that the virus is a hoax and therefore no mask is necessary. This is different from ignorance due to party affiliation; my street people are either apolitical or progressive. It’s not that they don’t care about others. They feel short-shrifted by a society and government that clearly doesn’t care for them, and has made endless false promises in the past. Why would they feel obliged to trust it now? Follow its rules now, after how it’s handled them for so many years? Seattle’s current government behaves towards its underclass as an abusive parent does its children. And if you have any sense at all, you know never to trust your abusive parent. Your body makes that decision for you. It’s a reflex.
That resistance combined with an untrained ego is what I imagined informed Mr. Beanie’s decision to smirk, to put his mask only halfway up, leaving his nose exposed. Did he even know he was issuing a challenge?
“Over your nose! Do you understand what the fuck this is? Three million dead!! My friend is in…” Mr. Dreads’ righteous fury morphed into helpless, inchoate anger. His mouth twisted at the juncture of unformed words, gestures trailing into restless emptiness. It’s a feeling shared by many Americans now: what words could I possibly find to bridge the gap so my views will get through, my views which are so obvious to me and so alien to the person– relative, parent, coworker– right in front of me?
It is the sensation of helpless exhaustion. He collapsed in a chair up front, staring forward.
Mr. Beanie: “Alright, alright!”
Mr. Dreads looked over. “Over your nose!!!”
Mr. Beanie adjusted the mask accordingly, before immediately letting it fall again.
Our friend at the front exhaled. From within his own world, he exploded. The bus may have had ten-plus other (very white) riders, but only two men could speak now, and in this moment only one did. All could hear his words, spat forth in vehement despondency.
“GOD! I wish I could go one day, just one FUCKIN’ day, without bein’ ashamed to be black.”
Don’t be mistaken, reader. This isn’t the standard line about white privilege infecting black thought, as gets written about in well-meaning, well-heeled publications. This is a black man remembering, correctly, that misbehavior by blacks gets branded as “black,” and this results in him having to suffer the judgment of whites for actions he hasn’t committed. It’s a source of frustration, and it isn’t written about in The New Yorker because they’re not going to admit misbehavior by blacks in the first place. They’re worried about perpetuating false stereotypes.
My guys on the street know of a more nuanced reality. In these neighborhoods there is misbehavior. There are criminal attitudes. And for the regular workaday law-abiding black man who’s just trying to make it one day at a time, those behaviors can be very frustrating. Because they reflect poorly on you. Yes, ethics are a privilege of those who are doing well. Yes, options are limited for people of color and that isn’t our fault. But as I’ve been ruefully told: people still have agency. They can still choose to step up. To make an effort, however imperfectly or unfairly appraised, and show the world how beautiful, how competent and electric and resilient they– you– can be.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen Mr. Dreads. He’s a writer I admire, and I conceal his name here to give him his privacy. I recall a moment approaching two decades ago, sitting in the back of a 41. I hadn’t personally met him yet, but there he was. Distinctive. He was seated in the back lounge near me, and gestured to the husky, big-boned (and black American) teen across from him.
“Hey, you want the paper? I’m done with it.”
“Nah, I’m good,” the young man replied.
“You don’t want the paper? Everything’s in here. What do you like?”
“It ain’t that. I just… I caint really read too good.”
“I caint read.”
Mr Dreads stared, dumbfounded. “Man, you’re an embarrassment to your own people. In this day and age, you livin’ life like that? Come on man, knowledge is power! Learn yourself, make something of yourself. It ain’t the white man’s responsibility.”
“Whatever, man. I’m good.”
“No you ain’t,” Mr Dreads snorted. “You don’t know enough to know the difference neither. Don’t tell me you better off when you don’t even know the other side.”
4. Gettin’ Physical
I wondered if that memory was floating up in him now. He muttered in a voice everyone could hear, “a lifetime of shitty role models and this is what you get.” Then, turning to look at Mr. Beanie and needing to tell it once again: “Put your mask on!”
Again with the dead smirk.
“Uuggghh!! Binge playing Grand Theft Auto does NOT make you smarter than the CDC! Over your NOSE, nigger!! What’s wrong with you!?”
“You’re embarrassing black people in front of all these…”
“Who the fuck are you? What are you gonna do?”
“What do you think, dumbass? I’m gonna come back there and beat your ignorant little ass. Just get the fuck off, nigger.”
You got the sense that this was finally something Mr. Beanie could understand: fighting. We mirror each other. He responded predictably.
Standing up now, younger but much more physically imposing than Mr. Dreads: “What’d you call me?”
“You heard me. You don’t know how to put a mask on, care about other people? Get your bitchass off. Tell him to get off, Nathan.”
My diplomatic self must have seemed comical given the heat of the moment, but I know of no other way of being. I said, “Okay my buddy in the back, we need to think about stepping outside, or else maybe workin’ with the folks in here…”
Mr Dreads again offering the clarifying paraphrase: “That’s you! Get the fuck outside, you dumb piece of shit!”
“Oh, you want some?”
Turning to me in an undertone– “Nathan, I don’t want to–” and back to Mr Beanie: “Get the fuck out!”
I opened the doors. In moments like these every operator has the same thought: why did King County Metro think it was a good idea to reprogram all bus doors to close so slowly? Mr. Dreads couldn’t fathom why I was still sitting here as Mr. Beanie ran out the back doors and up to the front ones, hoping to fight.
“Go! Go! Go!”
We made it by a hair.
5. Gettin’ Thoughtful
Afterwards I said, “Thank you, [Name withheld]. Thank you. You know, It takes two. I couldn’t a done that alone. I’ve tried.”
Mr. Dreads spoke of constant fears growing up, always looking over his shoulder for bullies.
“I admire your courage in speaking up. Your strength. ‘Cause I don’t think I have that. I see a guy like him and I don’t even know how to think about it– it seems so complicated, so unsolvable.”
After a long pause, in which I wasn’t sure he had heard me, he said, “It’s not unsolvable. You’d need a time machine, to go back and put a book in their hands and take a rock to every video game that ever existed. He’s in no position to raise children. A lifetime of growin’ up playing Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed and Halo and this is the best you’re gonna get as a result. That guy.”
“You should write that, man, I mean in the paper, like as an editorial or something!”
“I’ve been writing that editorial for 25 years and it’s made me homeless.”
What could I say? Everyone has a different role to play. Mine is to help people feel better for a few minutes.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say, [Name withheld], generations are gonna talk about you, because you were brave enough to speak up, when the rest us didn’t.”
Certain things age well, even when they’re unpopular. Sometimes especially when they’re unpopular. Speaking up in the name of acceptance, empathy, caring for others… you can’t go wrong there in hindsight, no matter what the majority preaches ‘these days.’ Mr. Dreads has confided in me that he wishes he was better known as an author. I try to tell him not to worry. That’s piecemeal. In the final estimation who you were will matter more than what you accomplished. How you treated others, who you stood up for and who you forgave. Whether you made the best of your circumstances.
6. On Legacies
I’ve had conversations with both these men, individually. I find both to be interesting people. One is trying to do things, to get places. The other resists making any such effort at all, perhaps content as he is, perhaps afraid of or convinced of failure. One is like a student in school; the other like a student on permanent summer break, uniquely anomalous from nearly all street people I’ve ever met in that he actively rejects kindness and appears to have no experience with its value. This is particularly odd because no one is better positioned to appreciate kindness than a homeless person.
I like to imagine Mr. Beanie as searching for a way to separate from time, to arrive at a sort of zen stillness unconcerned with joy, sorrow, love, respect, health and all the other things that tell us who we are and prove us to be mortal beings moving on a linear timeline. Maybe he’s acting out the logical conclusion of what so many people now do: avoid and fear conversation, contact and community at all costs. He may be on the street, but he surfs the net on his phone just like everyone else.
The problem with this approach is that there are other people. The problem is we are social animals and we need love and acknowledgement like we need food and water. Most people today will discover this too late. Of everyone on my bus he represents the fullest example of what smartphone and communications technology culture is moving us towards: communities of one, where the whole world’s a stranger to be rejected and dismissed.
These are the people who will be forgotten quickly. The actions of one of these men will linger rather longer, and under a softer glow. Mr. Dreads doesn’t think he’ll be remembered, but he will be, and not because of his books. It’ll be because he spent a lifetime talking to the person next to him, making mistakes, laughing, bringing light and shadow and unselfish joy or even strife or sadness or whatever. Bringing something.
He cared about others, and didn’t hide from the color of life.
What more could you ask for?
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.