The world was ending, or so we thought. The malaise people forgot previously existed was once again upon us, a new and bodied thing, stifling our ability to believe. There was the late summer smoke and all the disillusionment it brought, the toxic glory of sunsets with double meanings, a volume in the air, weights both literal and figurative: our hopes seemed a poor fit for the world we now lived in, a crumbling wasteland of institutional ignorance, abandonment, and general uncaring from all sides.
Have you felt this way lately?
Have you felt it around you, the presence of an attitude trying to get in? We the city looked around, regarding ourselves, our brethren in their drug-fueled outbursts and stupors, a confused and growing suspicion gnawing at us – that our institutions are somehow making money off of homelessness, for there could be no other reason they allow it to perpetuate. What could be more depressing? We felt now what our forbears felt in 1968, 1934, and so many other moments throughout history.
It was the day of the final Mariners game of the 2022 season. It will remain historical only in the sense that everyone who was there will wish to purge it from memory as quickly as possible. The crowds I saw for the event, a pivotal one for fans in being the first (and last) Mariners playoff game in two decades, were assembling at 11h00, for the 13h07 start time. I spoke to people who’d traveled from across the country to be here. They were excited. They wanted something to believe in. I drove my route through the city, expecting the crowds to emerge a few hours later. They didn’t.
They wouldn’t surface until 20h00, as silent and demoralized as I’ve ever seen a congregation numbering in the tens of thousands, hoarse and spent after an 18-inning game featuring only one run after 6.5 hours – a run which decisively ended the Mariners’ decades-building hopes for playoff glory. The masses boarded my bus without speaking, eyes averted as they sheepishly told me the game’s outcome. There was no positive spin for this event within the world of sports, and the general chagrin seemed a synecdoche confirming the awfulness of everything else.
Their dismay felt of a piece with the smoke, the climate, the crime, the city, the country, the politics, the drugs, the everything. A man murmured a refrain I’ve heard for the last quarter-century: “everything the Bible says in Revelations… is coming true. Right now.” He muttered darkly to himself and anyone who would listen, utterly convinced of his words as they applied to mid-October 2022.
A few hours later the fans were all home and the roads reverted back to just the street denizens and myself. I was still carrying the sorrow of the day, their sorrow and that of the times. We do this without thinking. Happiness, as age progresses, seems less a default than a choice. You have to work at it.
Here he came now, a shadow hobbling up the sidewalk side of the bus, hustling as much as his aging, fading body would allow. I almost didn’t wait for him. But I did. The conversation began as so many conversations on Third Avenue do.
“D’you go to Virginia?”
“I sure do. Yeah, come on in!” I looked at him, adding, “glad you made it.” I meant the words now, but wouldn’t have five seconds prior; I’d been somewhat anxious to get to my layover, and dozens of buses on Third go to Virginia Street. Did I really need to wait for him, when there were already more coaches appearing on my mirrors? But I was warming up to the man. Some people, particularly older folks, have personalities which overwhelm the decrepitude of time. They have a spark which reminds you to slow down, calls your goodness to waking life and reminds you the present is right here, not at the layover.
“Me too,” he said. I didn’t recognize him, but he did me. He looked at me after tapping his card, saying, “I ain’t seen you in a while.”
“Thanks for remembering me!”
“Of course I remember you!”
“I usually do that 7, but I’m taking a lil’ break. Lil’ bit of variety. Variety’s the spice of life, right?”
A pause. I spoke. Why not speak? If the hairs on the back of your head are not standing up, I say go for it. “So how’s the year been for you?”
“So far, so great, man,” he replied. “I’m pretty much blessed.”
“Man, that’s so good to hear,” I marveled, quietly blown away by the utter contrast to earlier. His words and their gentle tone couldn’t have been farther from the day’s previous chaos. I continued drifting up Third, hoping he’d elaborate. He did.
“I got an apartment, my own place, two bedrooms, up in Shoreline…”
I’d assumed he was homeless. “Oh, you got it made! Two bedrooms?”
“I waited my time, lemme tell ya.”
“I hear those waiting lists are no joke!”
“Ha! You got that right! And I been (unintelligible) fifteen years now,” he said as a passenger stepped on dragging a soiled blanket, one of Seattle’s many young newcomers with the telltale lighter, straw and foil crumpled in his swollen and ash-stained hands. Remarkably, he tapped an ORCA card. I thanked the youngster while asking our older seated friend what he’d just said.
“Hold up, you said fifteen years what now?”
“Oh.” Slightly sheepish: “Since I been offa crack.”
“Oh, man. Congratulations! You got will power, bro, cause there’s temptation out here.”
“There is, there so is!”
At this point the young user asked to leave, though we hadn’t moved. Not a conversation he wanted to hear. I closed the doors and we carried on.
“That’s an even bigger deal than housing. Fifteen years?!”
“I had this car accident fifteen years ago. It was a wakeup call. Went off this embankment in Georgetown. I actually fell asleep at the wheel.”
“Oh man, that’s one of those life events where everything is either before or after that moment. A wakeup call.”
“A wakeup call for sure.”
“Fifteen years,” I repeated. That’s how long I’ve been bus driving. “Man, I’m so impressed. ‘Cause I talk to a lotta guys out here you know, they’re trying to get where you’re at, but they relapse, man, six months, a year, six weeks…”
Spoken clearly, the years of grit and struggle effortlessly echoing behind the syllables: “You have to want it.”
“Well, you seem like you musta figured out a system that works pretty okay!”
“I don’t know if you seen the way I walk. But I got some rods in my spine.”
“Yeah, I noticed you got a lil’ something goin on–”
“–And they’re always there as a reminder, that I gotta make sure I find something else to do with my time, or else that’s where I’m headed. I’ll take your next one. My name’s Marshay.”
“Marshay, it’s an honor to shake your hand. My name’s Nathan.”
“It’s an honor to shake yours, Nathan. I’ll see you again!”
It wasn’t the end of the world. All societies in all time periods have all believed they were living during the end times. We don’t get to choose the age we live in; but we can choose how we think, feel, believe. Live. Marshay was thankful for the roof over his head. He had reframed his debilitating car crash as something to be grateful for, something that gave him purpose and direction. He had even the wisdom – the courage – to be thankful for the rods in his spine and the limp in his walk. This is where we find our solace. Never mind the ball game. The other distractions, as real and cutting as they are. All the rest can be true, too. You can reinvigorate your perspective. Reframe the ordinary.
This is how we remind ourselves of the daily miracles.
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.