The View From Nathan’s Bus: The Gift and the Question – a Day on the 7 After Time Away

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Felt this way before.

These are sensations I have before today appreciated. But distance away can clarify things, bring into sharp relief what you’ve forgotten was never ordinary.

I’ve been away from the 7 for over a year now for a collection of boring reasons, mostly pandemic and schedule-related (where did the breaks go?). Today I took a rare overtime shift to cover an expense, and when you take on overtime you don’t get much say in the route; you take what’s available, which was a C Line. But when you’ve got a C Line and you’re Nathan, you do what you have to do, which is get to the base early and ask all the operators in sight if they’re by chance about to do a 7, and could we please trade? Pretty please?

I’m pretty sure I made Amrit’s day by trading my C for his 7. He didn’t know when he woke up this morning that he’d get off an hour earlier doing a route he infinitely prefers! Amrit looked at me with pleasant surprise bordering on confusion, as in, is this guy for real? You actually want this?

Did I ever. I had to stop myself from skipping as I walked up to the relief point and took over the big monster, piloting a trolley bus for the first time in a year-plus, taking the turn off Jackson slowwww, the way you do when you’re relishing every moving second of the new day.

After driving diesels in various far-flung and (currently) underpopulated corners of the county, I can say that driving trolleys in town is an altogether different job. I’m frankly surprised they carry the same rate of pay. There is so much more density to process and handle within each moment, from the coach to the wire to the cars to the pedestrians to your riders. There is the anticipation of problems, the need to read people faster and with greater stakes at hand. Time rubs against you lightly; you’re living closer to the leading edge, where everything’s happening at once and the best parts of yourself aren’t just a help, but necessary to the success of this moment.

Of course there were the familiar faces. Melody is now in a wheelchair and the better for it, no longer wincing in pain at every step, able to smile more easily — though she always did, even when things were hard. She updates me on another regular, Charlene, who’s broken her arm but is surviving. I’m touched she wanted me to know; she knew I would care.

There’s a man seated next to Melody who might be her friend, might not be- it’s not so clear-cut, in a community where strangers talk to each other. The distinction loses importance.
“That was nice a you,” he grunted after I waited for a running passenger running the long run from Goodwill up to the King Street bus stop. He and I both know the stop was once much closer, and the knowledge of that shared history makes me more forgiving with runners there. You act differently when you know a place.

I notice more people using the front door to exit, which I like and encourage; more community, more chances to say thank you and interact. Bean-counters may not see the value in such things, but we out here do; a bus has the potential to be far more than a travelling bottom line. Yes, society today discourages real-world connection… but that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped hungering for it. We have always been the social animal, and we will not outgrow our wiring in a lifetime.

Here’s former regular Mia, bringing me fancy water from her trip to the store. Here’s a young man smiling with eyes of recognition over his mask, giving me a fistpound through the shield glass, the way we used to with our bare hands. Do you remember how much we once touched each other?

I honk and wave at the folks sitting in “the circle,” a half-ovular piece of landscaping on Henderson that forms the entry point to “the path,” a walkway leading to the backside of Safeway that you’re told to avoid at night. I recognized the three people sitting there getting day-drunk in the afternoon sun, and they lit up with joyous surprise at my double-tap and wave. Has any other bus honked hello at them since I did, pre-pandemic? I did so repeatedly as the day wore on, with the accumulating newer neighborhood faces seated there acclimating to this idea, a happy bus driver who says hi to us.

Makes no sense, but we’ll take it.

The neighborhood continues to change. Many was the new apartment building I’d never seen before, complete with the American tendency toward utter architectural ignorance of history and place — but I looked for what, or whom, had the resilience to still be standing a year later. Look at that stalwart figure panhandling on the corner at Seward Park Avenue, antsy and alert, with an expression carved by time right out of Evans or Robert Frank, ignored by the smartphone-surfing white resident walking past. I have to wave. I have to give him true, real eye contact and respect, the kind he isn’t getting from the new neighbors.

Another neighbor is sweeping the sidewalk at inbound Henderson. When did you last see someone volunteering to sweep up not their driveway or walk-up, but the public bus stop? Stewardship never became the buzzword many predicted it would, but in places like this, where the words neighborhood and community are still interchangeable, it lives on. Through my open doors I call out, “hey, thank you for cleanin’ up the neighborhood! I appreciate it!” He responds with a friendly nod.

At a short break I connect with Karen, another operator, talking together about the breaks. As an aside she says, except the recovery time “there’s nothing wrong with this route–” and I smile inwardly, inspired. How many good things does that say about her outlook, priorities, her good character? No one says that about the 7.

In comes Jennifer, who responds to my attempt to place her by explaining we went to high school together (“Ms. Ledesma’s math class!”). As she prepares to exit I wave her up, saying, “I don’t usually drive at this time so it’s unlikely I’ll see you again. How’s life??”
She projects confidence, the relaxed peace with oneself neither of us had twenty years ago. I tell her about my day, bubbling over. “Routes like this bring me a lot of joy.”
“You’re rare,” she laughed.
I’m just learning from my favorite colleagues, I think to myself, remembering Karen. We inspire each other with the best parts of our imperfect selves.

Not everything on the 7 makes sense. Here’s a collection of jackets and rags draped around a figure, a mixture of neon athletic wear and fluid-soaked undergarments stumbling into the street at northbound Genesee. What’s he doing, I wonder as I amble closer with my bus.

He’s pouring out liquid detergent from the bottle into lanes 1 and 2 of Rainier Avenue, waving it around in arcing splash-patterns only he understood. Is he cleaning the streets like our earlier street-sweeper was, if with a more gonzo touch?

No. He’s making himself a water bottle. He returns to the sidewalk drinking fountain with his now-empty detergent bottle and begins the process of rinsing it out, or trying to, all the while gyrating with wild rhythmic enthusiasm to the hot beat coming from the battered ’90s minivan in front of me. He sees me through my glass doors and calls out cheerily in a language I can’t understand, say-singing to me as his body bounces up and down, his detergent bottle occasionally filling up amidst all his chaotic excitement. It’s as complete a portrait I can imagine of the happy, zany absurdity of bus-driving life I so relish and appreciate.

However, the 7 and everything I love about it was most fully summed up by a different incident, earlier in the day. Melody’s personable maybe-friend, mentioned above, was still on the bus and seated up front. Toward the back, two boisterous friends, a man and woman, perhaps coworkers or college classmates, were laughing it up together.

Were they laughing at me? As an operator you often suspect that, but as a frequent passenger I know it’s usually not so. As ever in life, it’s usually not about you!

But I’m more of a presence on the bus than many an operator. I call out the stops, greet everyone, yell out thank you as folks jump out. And I think I was new to the duo in the back, and thought I heard them discussing bus drivers. Who cares if they laugh at you, I reminded myself. You don’t do this so people will like you. You do it because it makes you feel good. If they like you that’s extra.

The two friends got off at Laetitia. So did another man, a solitary forty-something fellow with dark sunglasses, shaved head and a polo, following them out the back door. They walked forward, toward the red light I was now waiting for. Mr. Sunglasses walked behind the back of the bus and dodged across Rainier’s four lanes, now also walking forward toward the intersection but on the other side of the street. My bus driver brain clicked: something missing here. The picture’s not quite right.

That’s it: the bicycle. He’d gotten on with a bike. I honked and honked again, softer at first and then really laying on it, lay-tapping in irregular rhythms to get his attention, my window open and waving out, never mind that everyone’s staring now. You’ve just gotta do it.

But he doesn’t hear me. I decide to yell.
“EEYYYY!”
What is it about the human voice that works so well?

He looks up and over, responding to my wave but unsure why.
Me, pointing to the rack, at the top of my lungs: “Do you want your bicycle???
Oh, sshhhhhhiiitt!!!” he yells. The word has never before played as a roar of equal parts recognition and gratitude, but that’s what he made it now, springing into action and athletically dodging back across Rainier, arriving in front of my bus in seconds flat, me lowering the front of the bus to expedite.

“DAYUMN,” he breathes, shaking his head and looking at me. My doors and window are open and I can hear him as he adds loudly, “you really are one of the best.”
Melody’s friend in the front seat has witnessed it all and echoes the sentiment. The two laughing companions are now standing outside by the front of the bus, having seen everything too. Whatever they were saying before is erased as they look at me anew. The woman leans toward my front doors to say with conviction, “You are amazing. Seriously.” Her friend: “you’re a hella cool bus driver, for real.” The sincerity in his eyes reached right through me, eager with the need to tell me this sort of caring happening in the real world meant something to him.

I thanked them with hands in supplication and a half-bow that was only partly in jest, grateful for their appreciation and respect — which was more exciting to me than anything I’d just done. The light turned green and a white Chevy Prizm to my left began to move forward too. There was a young girl in the backseat of who’d watched the whole thing and understood, and she smile-waved at me till she was out of sight.

The moment would echo throughout the later afternoon, as people conveyed their gratitude with gestures of their own. An Ethiopian woman getting off through the middle doors at Henderson, nodding thanks to me with her hand on her heart, as I sometimes do. The Chinese grandmothers at 12th Avenue, eyes wide with delighted recognition. How is it they remembered me, tiny blip in their lives that I must be?? Or another woman walking past my open door at the terminal, who’d been on earlier, with deep surprise in her grateful eyes. I can still see that look.

This outpouring of love toward me is of course gratifying, a humbling gift I’m thankful for, but it also has me worried: how are these folks being treated generally, such that what I’m doing — which I don’t think is all that much — is cause for such vocal thanks? What have these folks become accustomed to? How is it they value my sweet nothings (as it were) so much more than other neighborhoods do?

Only they can answer. For myself I can merely say I’m thrilled they’re able to somehow perceive my joy at being out here, my appreciation for their respect and my desire to serve. The exchange feels so equal, so unique compared to my experiences in more affluent neighborhoods. Nothing described above takes place in those areas, or occasionally at best; whereas all the above is from a single day. These moments of communities coming together, of strangers reaching out with love and togetherness, are to me life-giving, intoxicating, a rejuvenation that makes me forget the passage of time.

That’s not to say I don’t appreciate the peaceful quietude of my current northern routes. I’m happy to pick up an entire generation whose idea of communicating is playing with their phones.

But boy, do they not know what they’re missing.

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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.