No child is born taciturn. What makes some men so? What wrongs have they suffered, what kindness of theirs thwarted, scorned, ridiculed? Fragility is what drives the urge to present a deadened exterior, and no creature is more fragile than the human male. How tantalizing it is to embody invincibility, especially in the spaces which all but demand it: armies, sports, prisons. The street. You do it long enough, and you might even begin to believe your facade. So rough, so tough. You speak no longer in sentences, but assertions. You dominate. It is at this point the last part of your soul’s capacity for love drifts off, and its final slumbering thought is, “well, at least this is easier.”
But is it worth losing your ability to feel? What is living if not feeling? Are not the harder thing, and the right thing, usually the same?
He was a master of the hard front, and I wasn’t about to criticize him for it. You get your heart railroaded enough times and the animal urge to protect yourself makes the decision for you. Shut down time. This man’s face said Closed for Business to any stranger, with one difference: he still looked people in the eye. The principal difference between street smarts and book smarts is the former demands direct engagement with one’s immediate present. A ready awareness. He may have been taciturn, but he responded to me at least half the time, stalking quickly past me after putting his bicycle on the rack.
Me, giving the upward nod: “How’s it goin’?”
Him, gruffly: “‘Sup.”
Me, calling out as he zipped past me to get his bicycle: “Thanks man.”
The deep voice: “Yup.”
The other half the time he’d just stare balefully. At least it read as baleful. I don’t think it was. It was just his way of confronting the world: steady, strong. On his terms. His eye contact was fearless and direct. He wasn’t trying to leave an impression, but for me he did; a noncommittal, gangster quiet. Was that an eyedrop tattoo? I couldn’t be sure. Those with the most interesting pasts keep them hidden.
He was taller than me, slightly, also a mixed-race Asian man. Always with a dark blue hood pulled close round his head. Even if you’re a quiet person, which he was, you have to communicate if you’re a bike rider who uses buses. He found the least affable way to do so, yelling “Bike!!!” as he jumped out the rear door and scurried up to the front (for the love of all things holy, use the front door to exit if you’re a bicyclist).
And then one night, as there inevitably is in life, there is change. An event. Here is a furtive young white man, ratlike in movement, dressed in a grey hoodie and black pants, hiding within his too-large clothes and muttering, alternately hunched over near the front, alternately picking about at the bus’s scrap-laden floor. No bus interior gets dirtier than the nighttime E Line.
I’m at a zone with the ramp out, helping two passengers and their wheelchair. The old man in the chair finally stands up, hobbling forward with three cases of Heineken in his arms, as his lithe companion pushes the heavy electric wheelchair up the ramp. Later on he, I, and a kind stranger will all join forces in pushing it off the bus. For now we’re figuring things out up front and it’s taking a second. All three doors are open. Taciturn Gangster is seated in the back area, just in front of the rear doors like he prefers, with his bicycle mounted up front. He’d gotten on earlier.
Now the furtive ratlike fellow, slinking out the middle doors and up to Taciturn Gangster’s bicycle. Look at him sniffing at it. Caressing the handlebars. He looks around, looks at me looking at him, my attention divided. He starts to fiddle with the securing mount…
I’m on the mic, and loud. “Dude with the bike. Someone’s trying to take your bike. Come on up and get it.”
Taciturn Gangster’s response is instant, almost military in its alacrity. He stands and sees and is instantly at the front outside the bus, covering the ground alongside in something smaller than seconds.
Here is a backhand smack across the face, with words to match.
In life most punches make little sound. What you hear is the rustle of clothing. But the young grey man stands as if unsmacked, impervious. He stares with no expression. Rain begins to fall.
“Why you touchin’ my bike? That’s not yours! Get away from there!”
Others are jumping out to watch, to support. For once everyone around Taciturn Gangster supports him. They silently advocate for him. When did he last experience that sensation? There is no danger now. No question that the bicycle will stay. But the ratlike grey man sees differently, like he’s breathing air from a distant somewhere else. He doesn’t realize he needs to stop. He gazes over at the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, and back again. His face is pink and grey with stubble.
I’m distracted with the wheelchair. I look out again and he’s drifting back to the bicycle once more, like maybe none of these people standing around will notice if he steals it slowly? He looks at me.
I shake my finger at him with a grin, my index finger wagging back and forth: “no-no-no you don’t,” a teacher’s gesture echoing from long-ago preschool, stored in time for just this moment.
Taciturn is beside himself. He’s a logical man, and Grey Man isn’t. I hear spittle in Taciturn’s voice as he tries to understand. “Wha–? What are you DOING?!? That’s not your bike! Tha’s my bike! Don’t touch it! Man, get the fuck away from here–”
Sometimes a push is all you need.
Grey Man somehow doesn’t fall down. He slinks away, first maybe toward the doughnut place, then no, maybe I’ll go across the street or something. He drifts across Aurora Avenue’s seven-lane expanse with gentle composure, never mind the honking cars, never mind the angry man and oppositional cluster of men behind him. A fox who lives to fight another day.
Taciturn returns to his chair, and the others reboard. Time has returned to itself. He was exactly who he needed to be, in that moment. He had the confident forward propulsion of a (wo)man who doesn’t question himself. His able, self-involved strength, melded with his lack of fear in speaking up; the universe presented this problem to the person best-equipped for handling it. Critically, he was also, like me, a person who never wears headphones in public. Had he been so, he wouldn’t have heard my announcement and would have lost a bicycle.
He yells up toward me from his seat after a moment of reflection. He cups his hand like a megaphone to project his voice, the better to ensure I hear him: “Thank you bus driver!”
I’m still with my wheelchair-related companions when his exhortation cuts through the public silence, travelling through them and on up to me. It takes a moment to recognize his words; they are unexpected.
“Anytime, anytime!” I reply, my open hand raised in the air, a stationary wave.
When he eventually deboarded, he scurried up to his bicycle along the outside of the bus as per his usual, from the back doors and past my open front door, at which point I called out: “Have a good night!”
He pauses. He stops. He comes back, leaning around the open door. “Ey. Thanks for doin’ that. Thank you, mang.”
Sometimes people speak to you with their eyes. The voice is an afterthought, a supplement. Look at his eyes, the dead-dog seriousness of his face now benevolent. Now receiving.
“Happy to help,” I said.
“For real though.” He wanted me to know. Wanted me to know he felt it.
“Always,” I replied, my hands in supplicating prayer-gratitude mode, a gesture of respect I’ve picked up from the street and made my own over the years, then my hand on my heart, for truth. He put his fist to his heart also, mirroring me. I watched him grab his bicycle, an effortless economy of motion separate from his reflecting thoughts. He flashed the ‘westside’ fingers at me as he walked off. I had earned my way into his respect.
But more importantly I remembered his eyes, in the open doorway. How they both contrasted and melded with the stillness of his deep and present voice. Something soft was in there. Something early. It felt like a moment of learning: This is something people do for other people sometimes. Sometimes people are good to each other, for no reason. With no expectation at all.
I watched him have that thought. Do you know how special that is? To witness the gentle surprise of it. The world includes this, too. Amongst all this, amongst the selfish solitary broken Now, there are also people who care, and who demonstrate that through action. I wasn’t thinking about myself. I wasn’t proud. I hadn’t done anything. I’d only done my job. I was thinking about him. I felt the moment from his eyes. Appreciated. Respected, cared for. Sometimes people do like this.
I watched him have the newness of that thought.
Perhaps he’d had it before, but you could tell it had been a long while. There are things we believed in childhood, that we no longer believe, that may still be true. That are still true.
Sometimes it’s enough to bring me to tears.
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.