1. The Scene
I’ve just taken over my E Line in Pioneer Square from the previous operator and am preparing it to my liking. Setting the mirrors, taping up my bright green smiley face to the shield– If they can’t see my real smile, they’ll at least see this one!
I can hear the two guys talking outside on the Main Street bridge. One is well-spoken and articulate. They’re having a pleasant conversation as they watch the freight trains below. Highlights I can recall: the articulate fellow saying, “I try to bring positivity and joy to people’s days. I can make anyone feel better in three minutes. I’m great for three minutes. After minute 4:20, I’m gone though.” To two women walking by: “have a positive day.” One didn’t respond, the other turned and quietly said, “thank you,” as her friend continued talking. Him to his friend, later: “I tend to prefer doing meth alone.” “Some people think I’m conceited, but I’m just being confident.” He was skulking in appearance, scruffy but with a movie-star face, like if Warren Oates had softer lines.
I called over to them, “Have a good day, gentlemen!” and we talked briefly about bus driving, about how it’s the best job ever if you like people. He said he’d find intimidating the size of the vehicle, but the people would be fine, he’s good around people. “I can tell,” I said. I could hear them singing my praises to each other as I drove away.
2. The Drive
I’d inspected the bus interior before starting the trip. Toward the back on a seat was a pizza box with half a pepperoni pizza, and a huge maroon sleeping bag right next to it stuffed kind of beneath, but not under, a seat. It was very visible. It was so large I initially mistook it for a person. I opted to leave both as found. I hoped the bag’s owner would return to recover it. It was a good sleeping bag. Incredibly, a full trip passed by in which no one touched either the bag or the pizza! On the return trip, a tall ruddy fellow intrepidly ate a slice and promptly fell asleep.
Subsequent trips happened with no pizza bravery (nor perhaps pizza desire), despite, well, everything you might imagine being in place that would compel one to eat pizza on a bus: hunger, boredom, free food, ease of access… go figure.
More bizarre to me was the fact that no one touched the sleeping bag! I asked a sleeping form at a bus stop in Aurora Village if he was awake, with a thought to giving him the sleeping bag plus pizza. He didn’t respond. What a lottery he passed up! I didn’t push it with him nor with other potential sleeping bag winners, because I wanted to leave open the possibility of the bag’s original (or last) owner returning for it. I left the pizza onboard too, as I’d prefer happy pizza-satisfied people on my bus rather than elsewhere.
Six hours later, toward the end of my piece, just before my last trip, I went back to the bag and inspected it. There was still a slice of pizza left. “You guys need to get better at eating pizza,” I said to the empty interior, possibly aloud. The bag was in great shape, meaning: it had no needles in it. I took it with me and stepped out at 4th and Main, walking toward a gaggle of men on the Amtrak railway overpass.
3. The Vigor
“Gentlemen,” I called out confidently, “how’s it going. Do any of you guys know someone who wants a sleeping bag? This is a good one. It’s been on my bus six hours and nobody claimed it…”
The fellow from earlier, the friendlier Warren Oates, came froward. I hadn’t noticed he was still here. “Hey, you’re the guy from earlier!” We greeted each other like friends.
“Wow, this is a good one,” he observed. He asked my name. We shook hands. I haven’t shaken a man’s hand in two years. His handshake was like mine are: one firm shake, nothing more or less. His name was Magic.
“That’s an awesome name,” I said. “Way cooler than mine.”
He rebounded with a compliment I forget.
“I make do! Workin’ with what I got,” I laughed, looking at another fellow nearby, who was chuckling. I greeted him. He was Lavelle.
“This is Lavelle,” Magic said.
“Lavelle?! Man, everyone’s got cooler names than me!”
Others sauntered over, but it was mainly the three of us doing the talking. We lit up the rain-speckled night. We forgot about the wind on the bridge. We forgot people have differences. We talked about Hollywood, where Magic and I have both lived. Lavelle was holding an ab roller. He’d dropped it on the downhill and gracefully picked it up again, nimbly circling to catch it on the downside. “Okay Lavelle, I gotta ask you what that thing with the wheel is. I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s an ab roller,” he explained. That somehow led to Lavelle revealing plastic black garbage bags under his sweater.
“Stayin’ warm? Stayin’ waterproof?” I asked.
“Naw, I’m sweating it off. I’m losing weight.”
Magic said, “how much d’you weigh?”
“Three hundred pounds? What?”
I said, “I don’t believe that! What?”
“Three,” Lavelle nodded, sagely.
“Well, you wear it well. I never woulda guessed.”
“I sat in jail for six months, put on fifty pounds, came out here to this shelter, put on fifty more pounds…”
We were the club of making each other feel better. They’d complimented my name when I’d praised their cool names. I said, “well, this is the time of everyone puttin’ on weight, it bein’ Covid and all. Whether they’re sittin’ at home or sittin’ in the office or sittin’ somewhere else, they’re all puttin’ on the pounds.”
We talked about bus driver weight gain, about bodybuilders who move stiffly because they forget to stretch, the need to be watchful of such things, complimenting him on his ab-rolling, his sweating, his commitment. I couldn’t let it go. I said, “hang on. Lavelle. I weigh one forty-eight. There’s no way you weigh two of me.”
“Okay, I did some roundin’,” he smiled.
“I knew it! I knew it!”
4. The Glow
What else did we talk about? There were so many asides, quips, and laughs, the laughs you laugh with your whole body because the sidewalk is big enough and the sky is high above you. Because Lavelle is on his way, and because Magic is magic. They’re in a job placement program that sounds killer. I was reminded of a recent conversation with Richard, a formerly homeless acquaintance on my E Line. I’d congratulated him on finding a home and a job because “well, that’s so hard to do!”
Richard had replied, agreeably, “it’s actually not. All you have to do is pay attention.* They give you everything you could possibly need in this city. I mean everything….”
Magic and Lavelle were two more such enterprising types. These two had been mistreated by the world and they had the nerve not to take it personally. By luck or will they’d landed in a program that would help them with job placement, mental health, counseling, that would provide food and board even after they got their job for another year, “so even if you’re flippin’ burgers you’re still gonna save some serious coin!”
“I gotta go drive,” I eventually told them. I walked away faring each man well by name, nodding, gesturing thank you, gesturing love. There were so many things I liked about the glowing space we’d together made. We men did not, as men all too often do, waste air performing assertions of dominance. We did not boast or talk about money. We spoke not in answers but questions, asking and learning about life, about each other, talking as adults at their best do. Polite. Open. We mirrored our best selves and rose higher and higher into the sky. I was very nearly giddy as I got in my driver’s seat and started up the coach. They watched me make the turn onto northbound 4th, driving the behemoth away. Their joy poured out through me onto the people during this, my last trip of the night, and I noticed something different.
5. The Light
There has been a poison in the air of late, generally; something in addition to Covid and harder to name, but just as insidious. A fear that drives people apart and makes them forget we’re social animals, that we feel better when we connect. Antisocial behavior is hardest to find in working-class and low-income communities, but it has found even us, on the E line, which I’ve been away from long enough for the crowd to completely forget me. This is a new crowd, and they seem not to know what to do with my behavior. My goodwill has been striking them as foreign, and the best response they can muster for now is ignorance.
But not tonight. There is something in me, infused in me from the earlier street conversation. Love instills confidence. Respect instills momentum. I’m full, rich, overflowing tonight. I’m motivated by what’s within me, the glow from Magic and Lavelle that we together built on the street corner. When that’s inside you it’s so much easier to not care who’s around or what they might think of you.
“Nice work!” yelled an unpredictable man who’d been watching me, at the end of his ride. The others waved in response to my yelled thank-yous, more than they normally do. They could somehow read the genuineness in my actions, feel it, and they responded in kind. How did they know? What was the giveaway, the tell, that my confident joy was unaffected? That above all I wanted to be there, with them, right now? What beauty there was in their now-uncharacteristic responsiveness.
Can the future please involve this?
*If you are mentally stable, have no addictive drug-related behaviors, no criminal history and have your paperwork in order, this is true. You’re on your way! Otherwise? Not so much. Free food, however, is nigh impossible to go without in Seattle– refer to the 22-page PDF below, courtesy of Real Change’s invaluable Emerald City Resource Guide.
For more stories from Nathan’s bus, visit nathanvass.com.
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.