Nathan Vass will be joining The Urbanist Book Club on Tuesday, April 4 at 6pm. Sign up is available here. And you can pick up his book, The Lines That Make Us, which we will be discussing.
I can still see fairly well without my glasses, but I can’t make out faces at a distance. I stepped onto the light rail after a full evening of driving, surveying the interior; in the late night hours you have to do that. I didn’t think I needed glasses anymore tonight, living in the antisocial city of Seattle as I do… but wait, I was forgetting that my Seattle isn’t antisocial. It’s vivacious and welcoming. I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear enthusiastic voices.
“Hey, is that your buddy?” someone asked someone else.
“Heyyyy!” said the other, standing to face me.
I could recognize him now. What was his name? It’d been a while. “Is it… Matt?”
“Man, you’re good! What’s up, you just gettin’ offa work?”
“Yup, just got done doin’ some E line. How ‘bout you?”
He was the same person who’d scramble onto my 7 and spend the entire ride carefully putting on lipstick and eyeliner. That takes courage, especially in the excessively heteronormative space the 7 can sometimes be. But Matt is Matt, fully, scruffy and effeminate no matter who’s around, and there’s something impressive about his committed enthusiasm and confidence of self. I never saw any of the neighborhood brothers bother him. Tonight he shared about his day with characteristic fast-talking speed, the words tumbling over each other as he mentioned an Issaquah-Sammamish bike ride, “then went south to see a friend now my buddy and I we’re on our way home.”
I nodded at the other man, a considerably shier fellow slightly younger than me.
“Issaquah, that seems like a nice place to ride bike,” I said.
“Yeah, but…” Matt paused. “It’s their world, you know? All those rich folks out there.”
“I know what you mean. Didn’t used to be like that.” I spent much of my childhood on the Eastside, and could relate. The image of the old Bellevue Square flashed in my mind– a welcoming space of brick and green trim and natural light, the kind of middle-class suburban haunt you went to during adolescence. Now it’s an impenetrable fortress of glass and gleaming marble, no longer Orange Julius and World Wrapps but Ben Bridge and Burberry. Those of us who remember the old Eastside can still find our special corners, the hidden parks and open lots, hints of a time before the suburbs became so class-specific. Matt would’ve liked the old mall.
“They’re doin’ it even out there now though,” he was saying. “The pills.”
I was incredulous. “On the Eastside?!”
“Yeah and then on the train earlier we saw like fifty pieces of foil all over. It’s bad, dude,” he said, breathlessly. “I was talkin’ to this cop outside my house, I live on the bottom floor and I have a window and right outside the window in the alley there’s guys there doin’ the, you know, and I was like ‘if they’re in the alley can I ask them to leave.’ He said it’s better just to tell him. Don’t want ‘em to…”
I understood. “Right you don’t wanna antagonize them, and then they know you live there. Are there bars on the window?”
“Naw, but it’s, the panes are too small for a person to squeeze–”
“Okay good good–”
“Yeah they’d have to be really desperate!”
“That’s the thing now,” I said. “You used to be able to talk to anybody. But if they’re, if all they’re thinking about is getting a fix, you can’t talk to them, can’t reason with them.”
“Right. Their brain has no room for anything else.”
I looked over, noticing a commotion by the nearest train doors at Westlake. A familiar Dostoyevskyan figure was trying to get on. In June 2013 I described him as “an underweight man in the massive black jacket, with rotting teeth and dirty fingers,“ a description still accurate tonight. I say points for consistency! He thrust his cane forcefully into the train doors to get them to reopen.
“This guy’s cool,” Matt said to me, reassuringly.
“Yeah, I know him. One of the twins!” After the fellow had made it onboard, to the chagrin of everyone around, I called out happily to him. “Heyy! David or Daniel?”
They’re identical twins, but David’s always had it a little more together. He uses a cane now. I can barely understand him, but we’re fluent in the language of smiles, having grinned at each other for over a decade. Matt and his partner left us at Capitol Hill and I went over to David, grabbing the seat pair in front of his. I tend to run into more of my friends in the last train car, but it’s also often the dirtiest. I gestured at the floor around us, which was swamped in a viscous pink and brown liquid I had to laugh at as stepped around.
“What happened here?”
“It wasn’t me, I just got here!”
“Ha! I know.”
“I no see you on 7 for long time.”
“I’m doing the E Line now, every night! I’m gonna get back to that 7 though. I miss it.”
He said something unintelligible, I think pertaining to how the streets have changed. Something about 12th and Jackson, the telltale Target shopping bags and blue pills changing hands. That’s the subject of conversation nowadays among us street denizens; I mostly know old-timers, and fentanyl is by and large a young person’s game. The new crowd on the street may be obsessed with it, but the time has come for that generational divide which always comes, where the older set can’t believe the new drugs the kids are into. “I thought I was gettin’ high,” a mid-aged man told me one night, incredulous at the amazing foolishness of his youthful compatriots. It wasn’t always the case that street people were repelled by other street people. A voice across the aisle spoke up in agreement to David’s musings and my last comment.
“That E Line is da worst fuckin’ bus route of all da buses in this whole city. Every single one they fighting, they putting needles in theyselves, they something goin’ on in da back. I no take that route unless I absolutely have to.”
Like Matt and David, he was in his forties, and as uniquely himself as they. Whereas Matt marched to his own drumbeat no matter who was around, and David was an ebullient propulsive force with an enthusiasm not even canes, train doors or a decade of street living could diminish, this new fellow had the discerning eyes of a thinker. You got the impression he did a lot more observing than speaking; a lonesome face that hadn’t always frowned, with a lot on his mind and not enough people to share it with. His accent and deep olive skin hailed from warmer climes, and the scissor-cut of his salt-and-pepper beard told you, along with the angular lines of his prematurely aging face, that this was a state he’d grown accustomed to surviving, and that there had been other, different states before.
David left us at the next station, and I continued listening to this third fellow. I couldn’t argue with him. I’ve had a different experience of the E myself, but only slightly. I think I get away with a lot of good graces by respecting people. That helps you 90 times out of a 100, but there are still those remaining ten times where, as anyone alive long enough will tell you, the world explodes on you no matter who you are. He changed out his sock for a fresh one and expounded.
“Dey beat each udder up, dey shoot themselves up and drop their needle, drop their foil, and there are decent people around!”
“Exactly!” I said. “Old-timers, kids, sitting right next to them!”
“And nobody do nothing. At McDonalds Third and Pike they do this with their hands on the wall, [unintelligible] red meat, dealing, shooting, and cops on the other side don’t do nutting! Dey know what’s goin’ on. You try to tell them what’s goin’ on and they, they just–”
“‘Oh, we can’t do anything–'”
“Exactly! They blame it on someone else. Always it’s someone else. No responsibility. So: who is it who is responsible for what is going on the streets?”
“I don’t even know, man. I can’t, as a driver I cannot call for help, because they won’t come!”
“I know,” he said ruefully (more on that can of worms here). “No one does any-ting, for real.” His accent and greying beard combined to suggest wisdom, some Central American prophet deep in the mountains. He also had a habit of avoiding eye contact, as though he had access to some vague and distant dimension I could only imagine. “Dey can’t arrest me ’cause I only speak da truth. People just walk past, or dey sit there, broad day-light–” he spaced out the syllables of the phrase– “like nothing is wrong, looking at their phone. I’m like are they crazy? Do they see what is happening right next to them? Do they see anyting, any reality good or bad?”
“They only see their phone! Or their earbuds, like this. Totally closed off.”
“They used to talk!” Our voices rose in fervor and enthusiasm. He was looking at me now.
“For real!” he exclaimed. “I would walk through Pike Place at the park by the water up above and say to the families, the people walking around, ‘look! It’s a beautiful day! Look at the sunshine!’ And they don’t say nutting. Dey pretend I’m not even there. Now, I don’t say anyting because they all think I’m crazy. Like da world has turned into some new planet where nobody talks to nobody anymore. Sometimes I think to myself am I da one who’s crazy, cause I feel like I be the only one.”
I was grinning. We both were, alive to each other’s solitude, finally able to share. He was a waterfall held back, and now the floodgates were opening. Do you know the freedom of finding one of your own, at long last?
I said, “no man, it’s not you. They used to talk to people! Now, it’s totally different.”
“They’re better at talking to computers than they are at talking to people.”
“And I don’t think they’re happier! You look at them, how they look at their phones… they don’t look happy! They look depressed!”
“They are depressed!” he exclaimed. “You can tell! It’s easy to tell!”
“I’m like have they forgotten, it feels good to talk? It feels good to look around? Okay there’ll be a sunset, everything very beautiful the sky the clouds you know–“
“–and they’re all looking down like this!”
“They don’t even notice!!”
We were screaming. We were by far the loudest people on the bus. Two men in the back of the last car, straddle-sitting over what was probably a pile of melted ice cream, roar-laughing in joyful communion… and no one gave any sign of noticing.
“Ever since this coronavirus everyone has become so scared,” he said. “They block out the world, they block out people. They do phones, they do drugs, whatever.”
I heard the sentence and heard it again, doing a mental double-take. He’d put it together in a way I hadn’t. I’d never thought to associate the two before. But of course. “It’s all addiction,” I said by way of paraphrase, sitting in new understanding. “It’s all the same.” I could hear an echo, a line from one my favorite films: “no one cares about reality anymore.”
He said, “they all turn away.”
We went on like that because we had to. We needed to burst out laughing, to name the absurdity of new urban living, because no one else would. And yet in that absurdity, I found myself recoiling from the sensation of deriding these others. It is not for me to judge the age we find ourselves in. What’s wrong with retreating, hiding, being safe, being wary and careful?
In my own way I do those things too. I lack the resilience to scroll through news of our globe’s atrocities. I also turn away, but in the opposite direction: I take refuge in the present. In the prismatic glow of sunset light reflected between our skyscrapers. In the precision dexterity of piloting a trolley bus through a switch. The small realities, the ones we can reach out and feel. In the flash-hot silence of a recognized soul, the glimmering echo of a stranger’s eyes. Can you feel it? It was there, in between Matt’s glitter-punk eyeliner. It was there, in David’s ease with me, his comfort in being around someone who respects him.
I saw it too in this man’s eyes, a personality caught between condemnation and laughter, encouraged now by our togetherness. We were rebelling mightily against the pandemic-reborn ethos of “every (wo)man for himself,” because it was our nature to do so. Yes, that makes me outcast from the norm, a better fit socially with these misfit old-timers than everyone else on this train. But being the best version of yourself usually involves going against the crowd, and often– necessarily– means being lonely.
But who cares? That was always true. Who cares, when it also means the connections you do make will resonate that much more? When you’re at peace with your own company, the one person who won’t let you down? Because I was who I was, I was talking to him, and versa vice. I could hardly want it any other way.
“Thank you,” he said. “It makes me feel good I’m not the only one. I am happy we had this conversation ‘cause I was worried! Like I am the only person in the world who feels this way and there is something terrible wrong with me!”
“Naw man, it’s two of us at least! What’s your name?”
“I was just going to ask you. I’m Tommy from Jamaica.”
“Tommy from Jamaica, I’m Nathan. I’ll see you around.”
“Nice to meet you.”
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.