Was there a soul leftover at the end of this, another nighttime trip on the E Line? I looked in my rear-view mirror. Yes, there was. There are canned announcements you can play to ask people to leave, or follow directions, but I never use them. Just tell the people yourself. You can achieve wonders with your tone: what words you use, and how.
But this guy wasn’t budging.The odd thing about it was that he looked awake. I spoke into the microphone again. “Alright my buddy, it’s our last stop here. Thank you so much.”
No reaction. He simply looked up at me, but not with the evil eye; his was the neutral eye, altogether more beguiling. After a long enough span of time, nothing is more terrifying than a blank expression. I sauntered back, swigging from my glass Perrier bottle. I carry it not as a weapon but as a noisemaker, and have found it essential for waking people up. I was about to speak again when he preempted me.
“How you doing, my brother!”
My friend! I exclaimed inwardly. He was no stranger but a familiar face from the 7, smelling much better than he once did. “Hey, maaan,” I said excitedly.
He reached up for a fistpound, stretching in his seat. Don’t you wake up slowly too?
“It’s good to see you,” I continued. “Long time!”
He was middle-aged rugged, with a few gold teeth, but not in the gangster sense of things; he was too friendly, too present to those around him. Look at his inquisitive, wide-alive eyes and the defined jaw, like an African Brad Pitt with five o’clock (make that nine-o’clock) stubble. Perhaps at a loss for how to express his gratitude, he suddenly said with amiable force, “I’ll clean the bus for you!”
I knew I couldn’t stop him. Reader, if you can believe it, this has happened more than once. A passenger will be so appreciative of my treatment of the people, my enthusiasm for them, that they’ll manifest an energy of thankfulness they hardly know what to do with. In looking around at the ubiquitously filthy E Line interior, they’ll declare something along the lines of, “you deserve better than this. Here, gimme one second, I’ll take care of it for you!” For myself I don’t at all mind the squalid innards of my chosen routes, but I’ve discovered you can’t stop such a gesture. It would be like refusing a meal from those countries where the sharing of food is an almost holy act. I laughed with gratitude and said, “aw, you don’t have to do that!”
He replied loudly, “I heard your voice,” pointing to the microphone speakers, as though that quite naturally explained his janitorial enthusiasm now. “I knew it was you!”
I was moved, because last year’s stint on the E Line was such an impersonal experience for me. They all scurry on and off through the back doors, and you have no opportunity to establish community, to create a safe space (more here on why Rainier RapidRide isn’t the best idea). It’s why I’ve since returned to the 7, despite my love for the Aurora Avenue corridor going all the way back to my 358 days.
“You’re the best driver,” he was saying. “Better than all these motherf*ckers. Even the Africans!” He meant it companionably, as in: even more than my own people!
“Nooo. Thank you.”
“You are the best one!”
What can I say to such things? Of course I’m not the best one. But again, you can’t refuse a meal. “That’s an honor. I’m honored, man. Thank you.” Then I added by some way of explanation, “I try to respect everyone.”
“We can tell!” He practically brayed the line, so deep was his elation. “You think people don’t recognize you, way up there.” Wagging his finger, with a singsong grin you couldn’t resist: “Weee recognize you!”
His name was Biniyam. He and I stepped off together just as the security crew at Aurora Village came walking over, asking if they could help me. I love having those guys at various terminals now, but tonight I didn’t need them.
“Actually, that turned out to just be an old buddy saying hey!”
They were as pleasantly surprised as I was. A week or two later in the same place, I saw another E Line parked with all its doors open. I could see the driver was having trouble getting someone off the bus, and walked over.
“Hey, do you need help waking somebody up…” I said as I entered, and, turning, recognized Biniyam. He began beaming, and changed his tune completely. But of course: he was no longer being yelled at, but smiled at. Sometimes it’s all about the soft approach (more tips on sleepers here). We pounded fists yet again as he said: “if you ask me to get up, I get up!”
We walked out together again, waving at the relieved and entirely nonplussed operator. Biniyam exclaimed to me, “I love you man! You love the people!”
I resisted the praise, as I always do, and focused instead on congratulating his resilient spirit. If these guys out here are able to be happy, to find respite in life’s momentary joys, I have no excuse.
Not long after I would be helping David (whom I meet for the first time here) get settled in his wheelchair at northbound 85th. As we cruised up Aurora, he suddenly blared out in his customarily stentorian voice, “Yo, Nathan.”
“You know what makes the world go round?”
“It ain’t love, bro.”
I had a reply of my own, but kept silent because I wanted hear his answer. I grinned when he voiced the very same word that was on my mind.
He roared the term like the monolith it was. The word was a landing. He hovered in between the end of the first syllable and the start of the second, the “–SP–,” carefully holding the size of it, gifting the forceful second syllable the power of an airplane’s wheels on touchdown. ReSPect. He enunciated the final consonants like they were critical to the term, a denouement of sorts, a jet wing’s trailing edge flaps deflecting downward, the comforting proof that you have made it home. He said the word, and the word was good. In life at large I continue to suspect that love is the answer, but in the world of The Street, in David’s world and mine, he was right.
It was respect that made the moment between Biniyam and I, sauntering up and out of the bus, exchanging a fistpound, his gold smile glittering under high black and grey clouds as he stalked off into another north end night. We carry such moments with us, or at least I do. They buoy me up when I’m alone. They remind me amidst all the hardship going on, of the good things I cannot forget are also true.
Thank you, World.
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.