The View from Nathan’s Bus: An Introduction

Image by Nathan Vass.

Image by Nathan Vass.

Welcome to The View from Nathan’s Bus, a new column at the Star written by Nathan Vass, writer, photographer, movie director and a bus driver for King County Metro.

It is this last vocation that first attracted us to Mr. Vass’ writing on his blog; it was his way with words, and the humanist way he portrayed his job and the people involved that kept us returning to read more. Let’s be plain about it, when people talk about King County Metro, especially online, it is not in the most positive way. Get beyond the frustration many feel, and you have outliers like the @RoxThe358 Twitter account, or the recurring bit in the Sandbox Radio podcasts entitled “Real Conversations on the 16/358”; both claim to be celebrating the life that transpires on these infamous routes on the KCM roster, though both can come across as condescending, privileged and entitled in the process, well intentioned though they might be. One is left wanting something more — compassion and empathy, if nothing else.

As you are about to read, this stands in stark contrast with Mr. Vass’ approach. The View will consist of re-printed blog entries from Mr. Vass’ website, done so with the author’s permission. Note that chronology is going to be sacrificed for our purposes, as we are more interested in the picture he paints; for a more accurate depiction of the flow of his musings on his job, we recommend visiting his site. In the weeks ahead you will read his thoughts on his passengers, our city, and various routes including his favorite, the 358 — a revelation we believe you’ll enjoy.

We begin with the driver’s ruminations written on the same day as the recent King County Metro shootings and subsequent death of the gunman. –ed


Over a fare dispute? What a sad and disappointing waste of life. My heart goes out to the victim, the shooter, the passersby, the strife and tension that led to the interaction. The world of hospital beds, heart-pounding pavement, glass shards and echos between tall buildings; the sickening feeling of your actions leading ahead of you, going places you know you shouldn’t follow, saying things and regretting them all at once…it is no place to be.

Sitting in the back of the 41 last week, I listened to two young men next to me. They were discussing mid- and entry-level positions in the prostitution business, and their thoughts on life as would-be procurers. After a time their conversation drifted to larger concerns.

“‘Cause life be movin’ fast. But that ain’t the nature a life itself, we make it that way. People fillin’ up all the time, sayin’ they saving time by doin’ shit faster but you know is’ bullshit. They just as busy as before. More busy even.”

“And people wonder why they not happy,”

“Man. People be talkin’ about yoga, meditation, fucked-up diets–but it’s really just about slowin’ the fuck down. That’s all it is.”

Abstractly speaking, we know how to avoid incidents like what happened today. We all know the rules and stance on fare disputes (avoiding them takes priority over collection). But the insistent weight of the day-to-day makes things harder. When life is cramped with stress, we don’t operate at our best; the goodness we know we have escapes us. Priorities stutter and burst out of shape. I regret moments when I’ve spoken sharply to someone, forgetting what’s really important. I have every faith in the abilities of the driver who got hurt today (and is still with us, thank goodness); stress leads us away from who we are. I hope everyone involved has a chance to recover, heal, consider things, slow down…and breathe. Let those priorities gently drift back to where they belong.

We, the ever-changing, ever constant human animal, are better than this. We don’t need pugilistic activism or rash, fear-based solutions; we simply need to breathe.

****

We’re pulling out of Harborview inbound, approaching the stop bar, about to work our way through the right turn. Someone’s running for my bus. I’d rather not pick them up–four minutes late on a route that runs every seven–and I wonder if someone’s about to ask me to wait for her. I know what I’ll say if someone does ask, but instead I hear–

“Don’t wait for her!”

“You want me to keep goin?” I don’t look back to see who it is, still concentrating on the turn.

“Yeah, this bus come so often. Gotta keep it rollin.’ If you be stoppin’ for everyone, I’ma have to beat you up.”

I turn around. “Is that right?”

It’s a friendly face. He knows me from the 7. We laugh. Gristly African-American fellow with glasses, older. We continue riffing off of each other–

“Yeah, you know I’m jus’ doin my job,” he says. “Tryna enforce the rules real proper-like.”

“You don’t want me to be stoppin and waitin,”

“They tol’ me the rules. Can’t wait all day for runners.”

“Keep the situation moving,”

“Yeah. Don’t wanna beat up nobody I don’t have to…”

“It wouldn’t be nothin’ personal,”

“Aw naw, it’s about the rules. Can’t have you, friendly muhfugguh that you are, pickin up all o’ creation. You know I got to enforce the beatdown.”

“Shoot, I better leave this girl by the side of the road then–”

“If you know wha’s good fo’ yuh! I’m a check up on you next time, you better not be breakin’ no rules!”

“Always good to see you, man!”

“Yeah, you too. ‘Specially when I don’t have to beat you up!”

Ever since then, he’ll bring up the subject, but naturally the other passengers will be in the dark. I enjoy seeing their befuddled faces when he gets on.

“Do I gotta kill yo ass?”

“Always! You know I picked up all kinda runnin’ people!”

“Don’t make me go to work, man! Don’t make me go to work!”

“But I’m glad you stepped on. To remind me what I’m supposed to be doin.’ Keepin’ me in line.”

“Hey, that’s why I’m here,” he says in a meaningful tone.

“For the good of the system–”

“Yup yup.”

“This man’s a valuable asset to the company,” I explain to the others in a mock-serious voice. “He’s helpin’ me remember the importance of a job done right…”

“Aw yeeeah,” he says with enthusiasm, while people look on, terrified. They’re confused by my attitude. Without any context, the interaction hardly makes sense, and we gleefully carry on. He notices someone at an upcoming zone.

“Hang on, bus driver, hold up. I gotta go kick that guy’s ass.”

He walks toward the man outside and they shake hands, striking up conversation. I turn to the Navy man seated at the front, who’d been listening.

“It’s all a matter of semantics!” I say.

“Wow, I guess so! I guess that’s one way to say, ‘There’s my friend, I’m gonna say hi!'”

****

There’s a young African-American family, somewhere back there. It’s the 10, and we’re crowded today.

Two young girls, with their father, mother, and stroller in tow; Mom’s wearing purple, got her hair in braids, tied back in a high ponytail. Dad has a puffy white jacket and close-shaven hair, no sunglasses, with heavy blue jeans and basketball shoes. For lack of a better description, he looks exactly like Big Boi on the cover of Outkast’s double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. He’d been watching me do my thing, as I greeted and chatted up all the passengers.

They, the family in back, all seemed a bit weary from what looked to have been a long day. The daughters looked out the window, or leaned against Mom, drifting in and out of slumber. The crowd was a mixture of everyone- some happy, some tired, some impatient. From the back lounge, Big Boi looked on in silence, taking in my behavior.

At 15th and Pine the family came up to leave. The girls (“Bye! Bye!”) were first out. “Thank you,” said Mom to me in a subdued but truthful voice.

“No, thank you! Take care now!”

Big Boi brought up the rear, carrying the stroller, holding his big jacket in close to keep it from hitting people. When he got to me he said quietly, “Hey. You’re doin’ a great thing.”

“Thank you!”

“Carin’ about the people.”

“Thank you,” I said, wishing I could tell him how much I meant it.

As they began walking away, he added: “Kind heart!”

He said it with the muted enthusiasm of a quiet hope. There was a gentle sadness on his face, the way God’s might look were he to survey his wayward children. The late Roger Ebert once wrote that it wasn’t the tragic events in films that brought him to tears, but rather the moments of humans being enormously good to each other. To see empathy, to see compassion; these are the actions that stop us in our tracks.

****

A lumbering man dressed entirely in nothing but clear plastic, stentoriously repeating three words, over and over again: “JEFFERSON AND BROADWAY! JEFFERSON AND BROADWAY! JEFFER…”

Here’s one guy who knows where he wants to go. With him is a caretaker, very discreet and quiet, as if hoping to balance out the outrĂ© nature of his charge. “JEFFERSON AND BROADWAY,” the fellow repeats, crinkling plastic while he sits down, slurring out the location as best he can.

I get on the mic as we approach the zone: “Coming up next is,”

“–JEFFERSON AND BROADWAY–”

“Like the man said, Jefferson and Broadway, our stop for Swedish main campus…” I wish I could say I timed it perfectly, but it was just slightly off. We’re in the real world, after all.

In the gospel tradition of call-and-response preaching patterns, I buoy up his declarations:

“JEFFERSON AND BROADWAY–”

“Oh yeah–”

“JEFFERSON AND BROADWAY–”

“Uh-huh, you got that right!”

“JEFFERSON AND BROADWAY–”

“Gettin’ it said–”

“There it is,” I say as we reach the highly anticipated location.

“JEFFERSON AND BROADWAY,” he roars, by way of thanks.

Suddenly he loses all motor skills in his arms and legs, and has to be dragged off bodily by his able caretaker, clunking down the steps. I get the impression they’ve done this before. The caretaker looks at me with a rueful smile, shaking his head when I offer to help. “JEFFERSON AND…”

There’s Mo, driving the 3 on the other side, in the Central District. He pulls alongside opposite my 4 and leans out his window. He’s smiling. He says, “This is so much fun!”

“I think so too!”

“Only for us though!”

“Yeah, probably just you and me!”

And some other operators, of course. It’s an acquired taste.