A Space Needle view. (Nathan Vass)

The most lasting advice I received in art school was to “think about how I think.” To question why I respond this or that way, and to remember that the response is always a choice. Now that people talk to each other less on the bus, there’s a lot more time for me to think while driving – and much tougher things to think about. We who step out into the streets of Seattle are faced daily with a proposition: What are we to make of all this? Will it ever change? We live on the precipice of despair. How do we keep from falling in? Read on (and pardon the length – more than 140 characters are needed for this topic! Bookmark it and enjoy!)

1. Of Laughter and Forgetting

I walked into the base after another rewarding evening on the mighty 7/49. Operator (we’ll call him) Jim was there. I like Jim. I don’t need people to be like me in order for me to enjoy their company, but he and I have a fair amount in common anyway.

“How was your night?”
“Mellow,” Jim replied. “Except kids on my last trip through Union southbound, the trip before I see you, that’s when they always wanna get on and smoke that shit. I went back there and told em, hey –”
“You went back there?”
“Yeah, man!”
“What, we’re not supposed to?”
“Well,” I said, “I’m not gonna tell you how to drive, but shoot man, I admire your courage.”
“Sometimes you got to! These clowns –”
“Jim, here’s – okay here’s what I worry about. I think to myself what if he has a weapon. What if that’s his friend across the aisle. What if he has five brothers and you’re gonna see him again in an hour.”
“True. Okay. True.”
“But I understand wanting to do something about this stuff.”
“I can’t stand it! I can take everything else. I don’t mind all the other stuff.” He paused, then spoke again. “You know what gets me about it? Is these youngsters don’t care if there’s kids on the bus, or elderly, they don’t care about anyone else.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Exactly! These new kids, ’cause not one of them is from Seattle, and – ” he was nodding vigorously – “you know how beforehand, the whole concept of the street was, the ultimate currency of the street is respect? These kids don’t get that!”
“Yeah! They don’t understand!”
“The street has always been about respect. It’s the whole point of how everything works out here. And now we have all these new people who –”
“– don’t care.” 
“You know, I watch ’em. At Pike. I wanna see how this shit works. Have you seen those puffs of smoke they get? I seen this lady had a piece of foil this big, with a huuuge –”
“No way! She’s gonna overdose in no time!”
“Yeah! I thought the whole idea they smoke on buses is to get outta the wind and get the biggest hit a smoke they can, but they’re gettin’ it out there too! Just a mountain of fumes. You shoulda seen this lady. Like this.”
“She’s gonna be dead in a week!”

2. The Lament

Yes, we were laughing. I dare you to call us insensitive. We, who in the early days of this drug melee saw the rows of dead bodies every pre-dawn morning, laid out on Third between Pike and Union, getting wrapped in body bags and tarps so they could quickly be removed from view before the day’s commuters arrived. We, who are forced to inhale opiates against our will. Who are faced with impossible decisions. Some of us have failed drug tests as a result of being too close to offenders. 

We, who witness crimes we can’t stop, because no one will intervene, no one can stop this. My first experience with fentanyl was a young mother coming up to apologize for her toddler son, who’d vomited on the bus floor due to the fumes coming from the teens smoking right next to them. 

We, who spent a lifetime making sure we didn’t expose our bodies to this garbage, because we wanted to live long and healthy lives with our loved ones. That care, those decisions – are being taken away from us and every passenger who’s done the same. Secondhand smoke of all kinds has lasting effects. Additionally, today’s opiates are the sort which can cause addictive behaviors from a single use, permanent brain damage from a single exposure. Even if some fears are overblown, you have to admit this isn’t kid stuff. Shouldn’t consent be a necessary component of drug abuse? Especially indoors?

We watch as those with real power to change things remain distant, vocal but unmoving. We read with amazement statements from officials which reveal they don’t know the first thing about what goes on out here, in the deep hours of the night (I’m not talking about Metro officials, where there have finally been some positive personnel changes). No, it is not us who are insensitive. It’s the system. The system is a monster, unstoppable and insatiable. 

The pattern was first revealed to the public in 2017: “vagrants” from small and mid-sized cities in the rural Midwest and South are given one-way Greyhound tickets to major West Coast cities. They get dumped in Seattle, where possessing, using and distributing drugs not only won’t land you in any legal trouble, but the goods can be had for dirt cheap. Where ordinances are not enforced, shoplifting and breaking and entering are not prosecuted crimes, and no arrests will be made that don’t involve physical assault. These are mandates I’ve learned about on the street from those with rueful personal experience. Basically: It’s Disneyland. This is the kind of once-a-century lawbreaker’s heaven you’d think would result in the happiest of delinquents. 

3. However

The fact that street people are so uniformly miserable (which wasn’t true pre-pandemic, but is now) is a testament to their humanity. They are not enjoying this melee. It is not fun for them. 

They are hurting. 

They are, like most of us, abandoned by those who profess to look out for them. They are waiting for someone to ask them what they need. Can you believe it has occurred to no elected official to do so? When will those in power learn that solutions are immeasurably better if those affected are involved in the decision-making process? Though it is true that kindness doesn’t always mean giving people what they want, it is usually worthwhile to collaborate, to co-create.

Of course, Seattle’s problems are well beyond the purview of Metro’s responsibility. Metro is merely the setting, the whipping boy and scapegoat who takes on the frankly heroic role of the unwilling venue, while we – operators, commuters, passengers, residents – wait(ing) patiently for a solution. Something needs to be done about the practice of shipping les miserables in from places that don’t want them, and dumping them in cities unprepared to respond. It is not the way to take care of people.

4. Picture Yourself in Others Shoes

You’ve just been relocated to a new city, Seattle. Bigger than anywhere you’ve been. You have no contacts. You don’t know about the Real Change Directory because, why would you, you don’t know where anything is, and it’s obvious the streets are dangerous. You’re out of your element and you know it. They said it would be Amazon and Starbucks. You don’t need a latte; you need a weapon. And you need to figure a lot of stuff out. Where to get meds, where to get a state ID and how, learning what you can and can’t achieve in Seattle based on your past, finding lists for housing, looking up shelters, food, clothes for living, clothes for interviews, a phone, where’s a shower, a dentist for this toothache that’s killing me, how to get insurance, a job, a job, a house, a job, my education records, a prescription renewal, internet, a library card, an address, more food, painkillers maybe, something for this headache, maybe a drink so I don’t feel the cold…

And then, of course, you learn about the drugs. You learn they have that thing they had back home; not as much of it (Seattle isn’t even in the top 20 cities for fentanyl, if you can believe it – see below), but still dirt cheap. And they can’t arrest you over it?

Here’s a description from a former user:

“Think of it this way….think about the most sick you’ve ever been in your life. Think about the cold sweat and chills running down your spine and the dreaded stomach cramps where you know you need to find a bathroom NOW. Now add on being nauseated. Now add on your whole body being sore and achey as if you worked out for 6 hours without stretching. Now add on your skin feeling like it’s going to explode. Now add on some yawning, eye tearing, HIGHLY bad anxiety, restless legs and the knowledge that this is going to last an entire week… or you could just get some Fentanyl and when you do it, allllll the sickness goes away INSTANTLY. It’s an amazing feeling if you’ve ever experienced it. And not only does it go away, your anxiety goes away and is replaced with good feelings. If you could live like that all the time with no consequences, why wouldn’t you? A lot of addicts think it’s worth the risk. I know I did while I was using. Addicts will literally seek it out not caring about whether it’s deadly or not because they need it to survive their day. They need it to not be sick, to stop the withdrawal and to get the high so they can function.”

Why fix your problems when you can just forget them? Why bother with struggling to live when you can die instead? All deaths are suicides, someone once wrote. I disagree, but these deaths make you wonder. The new generation, this rural Gen Z influx, doesn’t currently have the ability to take care of itself. That much is obvious. Seattle has the ability to take care of them, but isn’t.

If you can’t stop a generation from killing itself, you could at least create a safe space where they can do so while you figure out next steps. For nearly a century the city’s most extreme cases resided in the Jungle. With that enormous and largely autonomous facility closed, what was once hidden plays out in broad daylight. What are we to make of a society that allows such behavior? I hear conspiracy theories everyday. Similar to the dog days of 2003, when everyone had a solution to the Iraq war, now everyone has an opinion on what would fix everything, what’s really going on, and why no one’s taking action.

“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones,” Einstein wrote. What weapons indeed, you ask. How about these: Drugs? The Internet? Manipulation of information? Taking advantage of a country’s most vulnerable people?

This is a picture of the mind racing.

5. The State of Things

“You can get a contact high from fentanyl, you’ll black out,” I was saying to Jim. “I’ve talked with passengers who’ve had that happen to them, just last night this mom from Texas. She didn’t know what hit her. Woke up on the other side of town, had to walk all the way back.”
“It’s sad,” Jim said, in a tone representing both defeat and discovery.
“They’re all new. These kids.”
“Yeah,” he added. “And they don’t hang out with the old guys. Have you ever noticed the guys who drink, and the guys who smoke that shit… never mix?”
“Never! In fact if someone cracks open a beer, I’m honestly relieved because I know for sure, that that guy’s not gonna smoke any fentanyl!” Jim howled in recognition as I continued. “And you know what else? I kinda like having people who smell bad now, because they’ll clear out a coach!”
Jim could barely keep his composure. In between guffaws he said, “You know that, you know that guy who shuffles?”
“I know exactly who you’re talking about!”
“He’s my magic, my little good luck charm!”
“All you have to do is get him on –”
“– and you can ask him to go sit in the back, he doesn’t even get mad, just says okay, and starts going back there, and then – and then –”
“They can’t handle it!”
“They can’t take it!”
“It’s beautiful!”

No, we are not being insensitive. We laugh because laughter is the only tool we have left. When all power has been taken away, there is nothing left to do but make music. Our lives are short, and while civilization crumbles around us – if indeed it is crumbling – I will laugh, smile, share joy, including with those individuals alluded to above, they who are most scorned and feared. 

We can remember that people have different starting points in the game of life, some with less resources than others, and this isn’t their fault. Everyone makes stupid decisions; only some of us have to live out giant chunks of their lives defined by our worst moments. Can you blame them for their hopelessness? Can you blame them for not caring about the rules of a society they feel has rejected them? For flaunting their disregard, the way a child does who feels humiliated, wronged? These are the grapes of wrath. “Kill me please, or else I will,” reads a scrawled plea on a light rail seat.

This is the state of things.

6. How I Live Now

I greet the new boys and girls on the block with the same gusto as ever, and they respond with ignorance or confusion. They’re on edge because they’re on foreign turf, a new city with boundaries and histories they know they’re clueless about. Survival mode. They’re not expecting anything approaching kindness, but I give it to them anyway, without expecting a response… and then it starts to happen. 

It begins.

There is one, then maybe another, not as much as pre-COVID but even still, in these conditions, there are glimmers. You can’t stop humanity, can’t curtail its hunger for connection. “This guy’s cool,” I’ll hear them say. “He actually talks. Actually likes his job, gives a shit about the people.” Eventually they begin to understand you’re not looking down on them. Building relationships with some of the crew at 12th and Jackson has been one of my great post-pandemic joys. 

A young man running out from his hangout spot behind a bus shelter, stepping away from his friends for a moment to pump his first in the air toward me with gratitude, pounding his solar plexus and nodding with a mighty grin, returning my bow and salute. These are the moments I was made for. 

A lovely conversation with two young men that ends with one sheepishly telling me, “I’m sorry if you ever see me, uh you know, passed out on the street or acting out. I’m kinda hooked on that stuff.”
“We all have phases, right?”
He beamed with appreciation. “Exactly.”

Or another, chatting it up with a young man in recovery. He’s on methadone now, and employed, reveling in the de-stressed headspace of clean living. Look at the kindness in his eyes. I know that face. I’ve seen it on others. It is my own face, the child who lives inside the man, still somehow hoping for goodness, sometimes hesitant to believe. Here it is again in a prematurely aged man, likely a veteran of time behind bars, miraculously still in possession of a certain recognizable softness in the eyes. I want to give him a hug.

You realize there are degrees. It isn’t the same level of unstable, or type of usage. Some street people are scared of other street people.

“Sorry ’bout that,” a woman said after her screaming partner stormed off the coach. “I ain’t even with him.”
“Well, I’d rather have you on the bus than him!”
“Ha! Yeah, he’s got his own, uh, problems.”
“Don’t we all. ‘Specially these days.”
“Right. These days is crazy, with them blues…” Blues means fentanyl. “They still overdose every night! Addicts! Dumbasses! I’m a drug addict, but shit…”
“Moderation, right?”
“Right. I don’t smoke that shit. You’d hafta be crazy to go near that stuff.” 
“Totally. Too much… death!”
“Right, all you do is overdose on that bullshit. You take it, then ya die. Simple. People thought heroin was something, pssshhhh, heroin ain’t got nothin’ on this.”

A man behind me, speaking to his ladyfriend as they watch another panoply of incomprehensible behaviors at a bus stop; a fellow outside had desperately yelled for me to wait for him, only to lose interest and start doing handstands. “Man, shit like that is why we get left.” Referring to how often buses pass up zones now. “No wonder!” 

7. New Frontiers

I realize it’s the same game as before, just under harsher circumstances. Street people used to be from Seattle, and they weren’t all on drugs. Now they’re strangers in a strange land, further ostracized by pandemic fears, surrounded by cheap temptation and money they can’t have. But we can still push toward connection. Society’s given up on them, they seem to have given up on themselves, and yet…

Seattle has always been a frontier town. This is a place of beginnings. The recent corporate takeovers have tried their best to conceal it, but no amount of homogenized, artless extravagance can suppress the city’s grit-grime texture, its envelope-pushing origins, the cluttered vibrance and dirty beauty of its enterprising spirit. Cities are living things, with forces of gravity that extend beyond the control of leaders and interests. Frontiers are born in rebellion. They involve strife, violence, unorganized angst that dreams of something greater. These are the ingredients humans have for rebirth. We are failing forward, stumbling together in the night, and it is all pointing in a direction, no more visible to us than to our forebears who lived through worse hardship. Suffering is when we grow, learn, bind ourselves to something higher, and Seattle is currently in labor. 

Am I afraid? Sometimes, yes. Am I saddened and frustrated? Sometimes, yes. I’m saddened when street people assume I hate them, because others do, and act accordingly. I’m frustrated when they default to believing they are unloved, that the world’s against them. They, like the rest of us, see only what they’re looking for, and they accordingly fail to see my smile, fail to hear my words and tone. They were respected and acknowledged for a moment in the night, appreciated by a stranger for their common humanity, and they didn’t have a clue. 

It’s their loss.

I keep on. I do my part. They don’t have to respond. I do this for myself. I do it for the greater good. 

It is a part of me I wish to keep alive.

Sources and further reading:
Importing unhoused people:
The Guardian US, 2018: “Bussed Out: How America Moves Its Homeless.” Online Journalism Awards.

Seattle’s problems less severe than other cities:
American Addiction Centers, 2023: “Highest Drug Use by City.” Primarily midwest cities; breakdowns by drug type.
American Addiction Centers, 2023: “Top 10 US States with Drug Overdose Deaths.” West Virginia sits at #1. Data and context for each state.
Monarch Shores Recovery: “10 Cities with Worst Drug Problems.” With info for each city.
Families Against Fentanyl: “Fentanyl By State: Report.” A data compilation primarily using 2021 CDC data.
CDC: “Drug Overdose Mortality by State.”

On policy:
ChangingTheNarrative, 2023. “The Tired Narratives of Drug Policy.” Clarification of stigmatizing/reductive language regarding addiction and policing issues; however, not Seattle-specific (in practical terms, dealing and possessing are not illegal here.)
ChangeWA, 2020: “A Loophole that Effectively Legalizes Most Crime in Seattle.” Analysis of Seattle City Council action to excuse and dismiss most misdemeanor crimes.
Seattle City Attorney: “Seattle Isn’t Dying.” Alternate opinion to above.
KUOW, 2022: “Why is Seattle dropping 2,000 misdemeanor cases?” Explanation of the backlog and choice.

Drug impacts on the body:
CDC: “Health Problems Caused by Secondhand Smoke.”
Johns Hopkins University, 2023. “Opioid Use Disorder.” On addictive behaviors and impacts.
American Addiction Centers, 2022: “Opiates, Overdose and Permanent Brain Damage.” Brief explanation of hypoxic brain damage.
NIH, 2020: “Fentanyl panic goes viral: The spread of misinformation about overdose risk from casual contact with fentanyl in mainstream and social media.” Analysis of various comments, their impacts, and degree of foundation in fact.
WhiteHouse.gov: “Fentanyl: Safety Recommendations for First Responders” (PDF). Unlike operators, first responders primarily encounter fentanyl in solid form.

The international perspective
DEA, 2020: “Fentanyl Flow to the United States.” Executive Summary, Unclassified Document (PDF).
The Guardian, 2023: “The China-Mexico fentanyl pipeline: increasingly sophisticated and deadly.” Brief overview of business models.

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.