The View from Nathan’s Bus: The Last Day I Drove the 358, Part I

Image by Nathan Vass.

Image by Nathan Vass.

Editor’s Note: Today, author Nathan Vass returns to driving the notorious 358 line for a time — it also happens to be his favorite route. Over the next two weeks, we will be re-printing a couple of Vass’ entries written about the last time he had driven the route in February of 2013. -ed.

I always pull up early when starting an inbound trip at Aurora Village. There’s something nice about sitting there with the doors open, in prep mode while people get on and situate themselves. I can recall a time on the 5 at Shoreline Community College when it was magical, or at least I thought it was magical, as I hung around at the front while students intermittently wandered on and relaxed after taxing their brains in biochemistry class. It conjured up the sensation of a long trip, not unlike boarding a plane and getting settled in with your book or coffee.

Since then I do it whenever its appropriate, typically on a route that starts at a transit center. Spring is on its way, not quite here yet, and the days are lighter. I’m scribbling on a scrap of paper on my knee, making thoughts concrete. It’s around 8 am, gray with light fog, and here’s a young black man, dressed like he just applied for Exeter, running breathlessly up to my bus. Behind fashionably thick-frame black glasses he asks, “How long before I leave?”

“Seven minutes,” I respond. He asks if it’s okay that he leaves his backpack onboard while he smokes a cigarette. Certainly.

Then, unprompted, he talks about how running in the wind “hurts my eyes, dogg, gets all in my eyes,” with an expression of severe pain. I say “Yeah, me too. It’s like being on a bicycle, where after a while, your ears become sensitive from all that wind blasting in.”

He looks at me with incredible surprise — “YEAH!” — as though we’d uncovered one of life’s great secrets.

“What are you writing?” he asks me.

Now, in truth, what I’m writing is another blog post, ‘Appearances.’ I don’t say that though. The meta-connotations would be too much — like breaking the fourth wall in film.

“Oh, I’m just workin’ out some stuff in my head, you know, figuring out my thoughts.” He explodes with a “Yes, I do that too!” We riff on the benefits of clearing the mind.

“Ah write about mah feelins,” he says loudly and boldly, without embarrassment. Something about his sincerity makes me forget to laugh.

The fascination amongst youth culture with being “cool” — that is, with being aloof, askance, steeped in irony, experience and cynicism — bores me immensely. Coolness is defined by jazz historian Ted Gioia as “putting up a guard.” Honest, open communication takes a backseat to a posturing and a preoccupation with trends and surfaces. It’s the opposite of letting down your guard, which is a prerequisite to any sort of meaningful relationship.

This kid is not being cool. He’s being genuine. He wears his words on his sleeve, not in the least worried if he sounds silly as he says, “If I’m feelin’ angry, I write about it. If I’m feelin’ sad, I sit down and write about it. I get the pencil out and jus’ get it all down on the paper.”

“‘Cause then your thoughts are concrete.”

“Exactly, man.” Excited. “Inside your head it’s all swirling around, and it’s hard to think. But you get the pen out, and it makes everything better. ‘Cause sometimes you can be confused, but when you write about it, you look at it real, and it all makes sense, you’ve taken like this big jumble and unraveled into one long thing, and you can look at it and understand it. You wanna know what you’re feeling, can’t have all that runnin’ around inside your head. You go crazy sometimes. I don’t like that. Tha’s why I write. Doesn’t matter what I’m feelin,’ what’s goin’ on, I write about it. I write about everything. I could be writing about that guy crossin’ the street. I got so many journals stacked up–”

He’s standing awkwardly at the front, not sitting in the chat seat, which is available. I’m held so rapt by his monologue that I don’t suggest that he sit in the chat seat, for fear of losing his conversation. We’re driving by now, passing 185th. A man with big glasses and turquoise shorts asks about downtown, and I suggest the 301.

I ask my standing friend, “What kinda stuff you been writing about? What do you wanna do?”

“I wanna go to Edmonds. But that’s jus’ part of the plan. I’m gonna be a film producer. I’m gonna make my own movies. I know a businessman in Chicago, he gave me his card. I know two businessmen. They’re gonna teach me about notes. That’s like stocks, keepin’ track of the money. I wanna be a film producer with my own company, where I act in the movie, I direct the movie, I produce the movie, I do music for the movie, it a be a one man show but I gotta be trained. First I gotta learn about stocks and mutual funds, then I have enough to open my own restaurant, use that money to do that, then after the restaurant, I have enough money to make a small film, then after that movie blow up, I bankroll another film on top a that film using the profits–”

“Reinvesting.”

“Hell yeah,” he agrees. “Step by step. Can’t get right into film production now, I gotta, it’s gotta be a process.”

I want to rein this in a little. “Tell me about the restaurant. What kind you gonna open?” He’s still standing, right behind me, behind the yellow line, filled with enthusiasm.

“Fried chicken,” he blurts out, after consideration. Then he relents and reconsiders. “No, man. Ribs. I’m gonna open a ribs–barbecue! You know, a real barbecue joint. Everybody gonna come.” A blight on his smiling face as he realizes: “They a lot of vegetarians nowadays though.”

The guy looks almost depressed. I try to encourage him, reminding him that “Tons of people like ribs. Always gonna be people eating ribs,” I say in a consoling voice. “Everybody likes barbecue.”

But he’s not discouraged: “Maybe I can get them to give up vegetarian though. Like, they’ll come in — exactly, everybody like barbecue. They gon’ come in, it gonna be so good, my barbecue gonna be so good they’ll try it and maybe start eating ribs again. Maybe give up veg. I’m gonna go sit down. What’s your name? It’s a pleasure talking.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if this was his ordinary way of talking — flitting from topic to topic with unbridled honesty and bursting naivete; was his an attitude that will hold, or will he look different in twenty years? I like when what little cynicism I have is proven wrong. Let’s hope he matures into a place that works.

****

At 155th, we have an older Caucasian man with a cane moving with dexterity across the street. Jaywalking on Aurora is a life-or-death proposition that I’ve seen end badly. “Don’t hurt yourself out here, man. Be careful. That kinda stuff scares me.”

“Thanks,” he says, noticing and registering my appearance. “Howyoudoingtoday?” Sometimes you can feel someone making a conscious decision to engage.

“I’m great, how ’bout your self?”

“Huimdoowinpittyguh (I’m doing pretty good)–” he says, in a tone of complete surprise, as though he hadn’t realized this until I’d asked him.

“Ahainnevaseenyoubeefa,” he slurs out. He’s intelligible, but only just barely. I’m able to discern that he’s speaking English, and from someone else’s perspective, we must look quite the pair- one man making a series of garbled transmissions, and the other responding excitedly in normal English. We chat about my take on the route, and his childhood in Cherry Heights (Cherry Hill). It’s like speaking a secret language. You can hardly understand him, but — you can. I resist the urge to speak in his voice.

“MahCaseWorker’sFemale.”

“Is that so?”

“Yuh.”

“She lookin’ out for ya?”

“OYeah. Shetellmeputthemsocksonmyfeet.”

“Sounds like she knows what’s up!”

The fog is beginning to burn off, and sunlight wafts onto his face. There is light everywhere. I want to faint at how beautiful it is. Warm, incandescent tones make new shapes on people’s faces, and shadows grow where they were none before. At 135th I look down the open expanse, between the tawdry landscape of K-Mart and Krispy Kreme, and the beauty of the light floors me.

“Look at that light,” I can’t help but say. The fog gives depth to the space, and a stillness filled with possibility. Albertson’s never looked so good. I’m never sure if non-artists are into this kind of thing, but this oldster is. “Yeauissbeeayophu.”

“Aenissgehhenwauhmatoo,” he adds through bleary eyes. “Nawssoko enimo.”

“You said it. I’ll take every degree I can get!”

****

“That’s a good-lookin’ crockpot,” I say to lady carrying a good-looking crockpot at 130th.

Somewhere further down the road, perhaps at 100th, Will.i.am, the rapper, or at least his doppelganger, gets on. “Uh oh, whaaattt? Not the lil’ kid again,” he laughs.

“They can’t get rid a me!”

“Hot diggity dog. You guys best be checkin’ for this boy’s ID,” he announces to the rest of the bus.

The trick is not to assert yourself over non-issues. Flow with the people, not against them, a driver once told me when I was new. Thus: “Oh, you know I got my learners permit!”

“Learner’s permit,” he laughs.

“Yeah, you know they’re desparate to hire people. Recruiting straight outta junior high school.”

“Straight outta junior high school!” Repeating it for effect.

“I should be at home doin’ chores! Gettin’ my homework done!”

He’s cracking up at the seams, laughing. We amiably continue. I see faces in the mirror, quiet but smiling. Somehow it comes out that I’m from LA. Sometimes people can tell by the way I find myself speaking sometimes. It happens without my realizing it. Shades of an earlier life, creeping out.

“You from LA?” he asks.

“I am!”

“What part?”

“South Gate,” I reply.

“That’s the hood, man.”

“It is.”

“Yeah, that’s the hood. South Gate. SG.”

We laugh. Nobody calls it SG. It’s a parody of sorts of “CP,” the designation for the neighboring area, Compton.

“Yeah, there’s a driver friend a mine, Jerome, he also from down there.”

“You know Jerome!” I say, becoming animated. I love Jerome. He has the character and patience to pick the 358 five days a week, and still be happy. I relieve him three days a week, and he’s one of the best.

“Yeah! Jerome’s awesome.”

“Man, South Gate. That’s where Cypress Hill from, aren’t they?

“I believe so.”

“They closed down that Maplewood Police department!”

“So where you from?

“LA too! Course I am, how you think I know about the Maplewood Police?”

“Yeah, that’s true.”

“I was there, and I was up in San Gabriel for a while. The Other SG.”

“‘The Other SG,’ oh, that’s great. I ain’ never it called that before!” We’re both rolling around in the aisles — metaphorically, of course.

****

“What hospital you born in?” he asks.

“I forget the name, it was in downtown LA. It was a Korean name, Korean hospital, probably why I forget the name. My mom’s Korean.”

“Really?” Surprised. “You Korean?”

Slurring Guy says, “You look English!”

“What?” I say, turning around. “I look English?” I haven’t heard that one. I’ve heard Hawaiian, Mexican, Middle Eastern, but- English?!

“Yeahthedarkhairyeah,” he explains. This explanation is news to me. How had I not known that the English are identifiable by their hair color?

“You don’t look Korean,” Will.i.am says.

“Shoot! I gotta work on that!”

****

“In downtown LA, man. ‘Cause I used ta live off a Vermont Ave,”

“Yeah, I used to take the old 204 up and down Vermont–”

“And that’s in Koreatown, a course, and I was wonderin’ if maybe it was over there.”

“Yeah, I used to hang around over there. I’d go over to the art museum at Wilshire and Fairfax…”

You find solidarity talking about mundane things with someone from a common origin. There’s no other reason to get excited about talking bus service on Vermont Avenue, but we sure are.

“Yeah, by the tar pits.”

“Yeah, the tar pits. And the mammoth statues. ‘Miracle Mile.'”

“Yeah, Miracle Mile.”

“Though I ain’t never seen no miracles happen there!”

“Hey, don’t give up the faith! One day one a them woolly mammoths is gonna come alive–”

“And that sabretooth tiger!”

“Yeah, so I speak Korean but I’m not fluent.”

“Koombaya heenghow,” he says in an Asian voice.

“Oh, I see you speak it fluent too!” Faces laughing.

****

“Man, everyone wants to go to work today,” I say, noticing the bus filling up.

“Yeah, it’s Friday, can’t nobody call in sick. You gotta go to work.”

“That’s right. You gotta have some nerve to do that. These are the good people, they didn’t play hooky at all, even though its nice out!”

“Alright man, I wanna see a driver’s license nex’ week,” he says as he leaves. We’re at 45th now.

“I’m a do my best!”

****

At this point a Caucasian man in nondescript west-coast office wear comes up from the back to join me in the chat seat. He says nothing.

“How’s your morning goin’?”

“Quite well.”

“Off to a good start. Talk about a beautiful day.”

“Yeah, usually I bike in, but I had a flat tire.”

“Minor detail!” I ask how far of a ride his commute normally is.

“I come in from around 145th.”

“You bike in from 145th?? Where are you going?”

“I work in South Lake Union.”

“Wow. Wow. That’s a ride. Especially going home. Those hills!” We talk about hills, and then I ask, “what kind of work do you do, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Research.”

“Excellent. Staying productive. In what field?”

“Tuberculosis.”

“A worthy cause. Do you like it?”

“Yeah,” he answers half-heartedly. “Sometimes you run into issues with funding. We’re government funded–”

“Ooohh.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you ever run into issues where the source of funding is determinate on the types of results you’re being asked to produce?”

“That’s exactly it, it’s coming from a source that wants something specific, and we have to tailor to their needs.”

“They might have an agenda.”

“Precisely.”

“And the nature and trajectory of the research gets influenced by that?” This is a major issue in multiple fields of scientific research, and we discuss it further.

What’s invigorating about this is the complete and instantaneous switch in gears from animatedly engaging with Will.i.am on subjects like undead woolly mammoths and riffing on being underage, to animatedly engaging with this learned gentleman about pressing dilemmas in academia. I’m equally fascinated by the undercurrents of both, and it’s a thrill to move so quickly from one to the other.

I have much respect for educated people who meet others on an equal plane, and feel no need to foist their learnedness on them; implicit in this approach is the acknowledgement that no matter how smart one is, one can always discover more, from anyone, as long as one is receptive. As Da Vinci said, “Every man is my teacher, in that I may learn from him.” I aspire for this mental framework.

It’s why I get so much out of not just Researching Tuberculosis Man, but also Slurring Guy and Will.i.am, and even Ah Write About Mah Feelins Guy. It doesn’t matter if he’s naive or younger. He’s had life experiences I have not had. I can get something out of the interaction.

I wish Researching Tuberculosis Man a pleasant day at work, and then Real Change Willy comes over for a high-five at Denny Way. It feels good to straddle both worlds. I can feel the commuters thinking, “Who the heck is this guy driving this bus?”

****

A homeless woman with a walker and warm pink hat gets off from her trip to THS. I ask her if she finished her Harlan Coben book — that’s what she had last time. “Yeah, finally. Took me forever,” she sighs. “I didn’t like it at all.” She has a new novel under her arm now, one of those sci-fi apocalyptic types. I didn’t used to know homeless people read Harlan Coben. Now I do.

At Wall a group of excited high-school age girls get on, headed for the Amtrak. They have their luggage ready for a long trip. It’s clear buses are not their usual mode of transport; the dynamic changes a little when bus newbies are onboard. You and your bus, for them, are representing all of Metro. I enjoy ushering them into a friendly 358 atmosphere.

The crockpot lady from 130th, who is Caucasian, gets out at Columbia, and says thanks in Korean –“Khamsahamnida!”

I get excited — “Chumuneyo!”

“Neh!”

“Ahnyunghekahseyo!”

“Ahnyunghekehseyo!”

Mid-morning light streams into the bus, making everything new. I ask the girls where they’re going. They’re headed for Los Angeles, and it’s going to take 35 hours! I don’t know why I’m so excited, but I am. They’re from Canada. We talk about the ticket prices, and whether they’ve been before. The noises are animated, our voices popping with a verve that comes from who knows where. At the end of the line I sigh with pleasure. It’s been a good trip.


This entry has been re-printed, with the author’s permission, from the author’s blog.