A net-less basketball hoop. (Photo by Nathan Vass)

Look at the two of them swaggering onboard, one man tall and the other short, their arhythmic head-bobbing, shoulder-swagging, pimp-rolling gait living out as large a square of real estate as a few steps can contain. They roved into the bus’s entryway as if in slow motion, giant mythological beasts too majestic to move quickly. The 21st-century psyche of the male 99-percenter knows he cannot access true power; he is thusly instead concerned only with the appearance of power.* And these two men were excellent actors.

“Ey, Jewish,” the tall one said to me, with an upward nod. “Wassup. Ah remember you from yesterday.” We assume other people are similar to us; perhaps he thought I was Jewish because of his own background, though I wasn’t about to presume, nor certainly to deny a connotation which clearly boosted his admiration of me.
“Yeah, welcome back! What’s going on?”
He sprawled out in the front three side-facing seats, a geometrically impressive feat his shorter partner in crime attempted on the chairs opposite. The speaker, bald and tattooed, was a fellow of textures tonight: shiny bald, rough stubble, gravelly voice, ochre and tan and denim and black. D. H. Lawrence’s famous line about the American soul being hard would’ve made sense here… but only superficially. There is always more.
“Iss good,” he said, responding to my query. “I’m so glad they got you on this route, man. Some of them other drivers is jerks out here.”
“That’s true.”
“Ah just got back from Hawaii.”
“Oh, how was it?”
“It was amazin’. Ah put my daughter there, ah put my son there, ah put muh wife there, 2013…”

He sallied forth with the details, interrupting himself to tell a female passenger: “Yo, that’s a nice backpack. Ah like the pattern. I ain’t trying to get your number or nothin’, just givin’ a compliment!”

He turned back to me, reverting to the earlier topic of bus drivers. “Yeah sometimes they be jerks. Like it was this one time when some guy– this wasn’t in Seattle, but back home– didn’t have the right amount of fare and wanted a transfer. And the driver was houndin’ him, bro. Houndin’. And so finally the dude who wanted the transfer had enough and he punched the driver two times.”
“Oh no!”
“But they wasn’t done, ‘cause then the driver stepped out and followed him and started beating his ass, and then the dude took out his gun and shot the driver five times.”
“Oh nooooo!” I exclaimed. “That’s a tragedy. Letting it escalate over such a tiny little thing!”
“Over a freakin’ transfer!”
“Coulda just been another normal day.”
“Driver didn’t deserve to get injured, but it’s almost like he was practically askin’ for it, raggin’ on the guy like that.”

I was overstating myself of course, but I felt a need to concur with the enthusiasm of this man’s disinclination toward disrespectful behavior. A transfer, I marvelled. Street fights are always about the tiniest of things– or at least that’s how it seems in retrospect. James Gilligan, Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and director of Harvard’s Center for the Study of Violence, states that all acts of violence are “attempts to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation… and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride.”** It all boils down to that, which is why the currency of the street isn’t money, or love, or status, but Respect.

“Yeah, ‘cause he was usin’ humiliation–”  he stretched out the word, teasing it into a larger shape, pulling up on the penultimate syllable, emphasizing its dangerous music and terrible power, almost as though he knew I’d been reading about the subject– “humiliation, and he wasn’t stoppin’. So yeah, he got shot and they made him a hero and everything, but whatever. People shouldn’t be doin’ like that.”
I agreed. “People got to have empathy for each other.” I expected him to assent and leave it at that, but he had an even better story for me.
“Like the other day this dude came up to me and said he was gonna kill me and my dog.”
“But I didn’t do nothing, I just let him walk away. And then later that same day Ah saw the same guy again, and you know what he said to me?”
“What’d he say?”
“He said, ‘I’m sorry.’”
“Thaaaat’s beautiful!”
“Yeah it is!” Grinning in the dark. “It didn’t need to be anything more than that. He was just hot over somethin’ else, and we had a nice conversation.”
“That’s beautiful. That’s so beautiful. Empathy!”
“Empathy. I needed some help from my bro though. When dude said he was gonna kill my dog, I said damn! I’m gonna run up on this fool! But my bro right here, he helped me check myself. Reminded me it ain’t worth it.”
“Sometimes it helps to take a minute!”
“Yup. Makes all the difference. Empathy, bro. And I could see you got that good attitude too, you care about the people. So thank you for rollin’ this route.”
“Thank you, for puttin’ out that good energy too!”
“Yeah man. I’ll be seeing you, I’m always on this bitch.”
“I’ll be around!”

They swaggered off as they had swaggered on, but with a slight difference: their expressions were now vested with something fuller, less ironic, at once lighter and more substantive. There was less acting going on. Coolness is all about projecting an exterior, putting up a guard. You do it in adverserial environments. But here, now, Mr. Balding Textures was in a safe space. He could relax into himself. We could praise the unglamorous things, the sensitive and the kind, and let live what we truly cared about.

They had found something greater than dominance:


*’Power’ is a broad word; I use one of its more petty definitions here, in reference to sociocultural status and financial freedom. Says author and journalist Susan Faludi: “I don’t see how you can be a feminist and not think about men. One of the gross misconceptions about feminism is that it’s only about women. But in order for women to live freely, men have to live freely, too. Feminism has shown us that what we think of as feminine is actually defined by cultural messages and political agendas. The same holds true for men and for what constitutes masculinity. Being a feminist opens your eyes to the ways men, like women, are imprisoned in cultural stereotypes.” Interview with Ms. Faludi about her book on this topic here.

**Yes, all violent acts are attempts to restore pride, to ward off shame and humiliation. But: shame and humiliation occur in all demographic groups, in all countries. Why then, you may be asking, do younger and poorer men living in countries with a high inequality index tend to be the only ones who translate those feelings into violent acts? The answer may be different than what you suspect. Refer to Chapter 10 of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger.

Article Author

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.