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

Image by Nathan Vass.

Image by Nathan Vass.

Editor’s Note: Last week, author Nathan Vass returned to driving the notorious 358 line for a time — it also happens to be his favorite route. To commemorate his return, we began re-printing a couple of Vass’ entries written about the last time he had driven the route in February of 2013; click here to read Part I of this series. -ed.

Ten minutes later I fire up the coach again to begin heading back north. It’s close to 10 am. Peak hour is long over, and it’s now my favorite time of day to drive buses — everyone’s already at work, and lunch hasn’t started yet. Stores are opening, and the commuters are gone; it’s mostly a miscellaneous cast of characters crawling out from the woodwork — the poor, the users, sleepers, dealers, the recovering, the elderly, truants, the tired, and the hungry.

This is why I work this job.

I turn the corner onto Jackson slowly, savoring every second. I’m mildly nervous, having never done the 358 at this time of day, but exhilarated at the chance to perform at my best. When people tell horror stories, it’s always about their last trip of the night, or their last day on the route. You can’t check out early. People can sniff that a mile away. You’ve gotta stay on, right there with everyone, until you pull back into base and turn the motor off.

I pull up to the Home Depot boys at Madison, the day labor folk, and I’m there for them. Eye contact and a smile. A sullen black man regards me with unfocused animosity as he trickles in change, but I win him over when I hand him his transfer saying, “Lemme get you a little somethin.’

The man behind him hears this and smiles, saying, “Ey, gimme a little more, dogg!” Meaning a longer transfer. My transfers are huge, in part because of the long route — you calculate them from the end timepoint.

“Aw, my friend, that’s four hours!”

He laughs and gets along.

The lady at the front has been watching me. “You jus’ gotta great attitu’,” she says with motherly affirmation. “Even the way you handled that little thing right there, that could easily ha’ gone south if you made it that way.” I tell her she’s too kind, but she won’t have it — “I’m not bein’ kind, I’m jus’ callin’ it out like I see it. Bein’ truthful is all, that’s how I go through this worl’. I’m just observing. Like my uncle John says…” We discuss the virtues of patience and perspective. Her Uncle John is a longtime operator at Metro. She then says, looking at me, “You’re what, lemme guess, half-Korean, half-white?”

This is such a complete about face from Will.i.am and Slurring Guy earlier, that I practically stop the bus as I say “How did you know that?” I’m English no longer, dark hair be damned.

****

“Pretty cool penguin hat,” I say to a senior with such a device perched on his head. “Take your time today,” I remind him as he hobbles around. “We got no rush.” Behind him, getting on the bus, is an Eastern European girl with blazing blue eyes. She’s on her way to class at UW, and like Tuberculosis Man above, we find ourselves getting in depth after talking about bus routes and commute schedules. She’s majoring in Business (“ah, serious!”) and headed to Communications this morning. You get into their world, their moment, for a few minutes.

I stayed with her in the conversation, asking about class, as we talked about retaining customers in a business environment when they believe they’ve been slighted on your account. For example, a hypothetical old lady purchases bonds that turn out badly, and believes you, the broker, instructed them to buy said bonds. “The question,” she told me with her blazing blue eyes, “is how would you resolve a conflict with her without losing her business.” First there is the matter of recalling the tapes of the conversation, relaying to the lady that you never actually told her to buy those bonds, but finding a delicate balance — proving her wrong will merely drive her away. “You have to be showing that the lady was incorrectly remembering the conversation, and then make that seem unimportant. You stress the positive elements of retaining her with a second paragraph that buoys her up again…”

She’s going to spend much of her day thinking about dilemmas like that, and that fascinates me. It’s a world so far from my own.

Soon she is gone, to be replaced by another woman who is older. She’s just moved into a new apartment east of Green Lake that she likes, and we talk about different ways of getting rid of mold, and what percentage of bleach and water to use. At 85th is a wheelchair who signals me like those men on the docks of aircraft carriers, marking where the planes should stop; he motions toward an imaginary line in the pavement. I almost make his stop bar, but am off by a few inches. He ribs me good-naturedly. The fog is now completely worn off, and sunlight streams into the morning with a benevolent force that warms everyone’s mood. The wide spaces of Aurora recede into a baby blue sky, and here and there an airplane’s contrails carve out a path of travel, a roomful of lives up there, traveling a world away.

“We must be getting old,” the wheelchair says to the lady up front. “Oh, don’t say that!” I say. I know they’re talking about me. We all laugh, and they continue their conversation, with me intermittently joining in. The two of them know each other. The mood is that of a relaxing Saturday morning, in a living room with no worries; pure, quiet joy on a half-full bus. A benevolent sleeper nods into himself behind me, emitting a pungent odor that keeps us awake. Nine hours later I would see him again at the stop where he’s about to get off, still wandering around in a pleasant daze.

****

Into the microphone: “Alright, let’s make a stop at 165th here. This is our first stop for THS. Guys have a good one, be safe today.”

“I’ve never heard a driver call out THS before,” the wheelchair says.

“Hey, it’s where we’re goin,'” I say. There’s good people everywhere, methadone or no methadone.

At 185th it’s the man with big glasses and turquoise shorts again. I ask him if that 301 worked out. It did. He needs the lift, and starts to say “Sorry–”

“Oh, don’t apologize! That’s why it’s here, man. I like using the lift!”

There’s no reason this guy should be apologizing for wanting the lift. It only takes a minute. I hope other drivers haven’t been giving him a hard time, but all I can do is offer him a comfortable space, here, now. We do what we can in the series of moments called life.

****

My last inbound trip of the day, at 5 pm, is like what all the other trips of the day have been like- busy, loud, involving, and invigorating. It’s my last day at North Base, and I feel blessed to have been assigned double shifts on the 358. Why would I want to do anything else? Every trip has been a dream, and I work through the day in a mild state of wonder — how is everything so perfect? Moment after moment, snowballing on top of each other, an endless collection of slices of life, helping people, answering questions, rockin’ the lift, making my goodbyes to departing regulars.

On a route like this there is so much being asked of you, all at once, and when you can perform at that level and not only stay above water, but excel, even if just barely — here is the exhilaration of a six-minute mile.

****

Jim, a passenger, and myself, talking ferries, commuting, and Korea, where a friend of his lives; Willy, a daily commuter who wishes me well with a generosity that floors me; Kevin, going out of his way to come to the bus and say goodbye. He didn’t even need to ride that day. They and so many others walk into the disappearing twilight, fading into the humming morass of the human collective. The very last trip is one of those Twilight Zone runs with no passengers, and I spend it reflecting goodness I’ve been able to be a part of. The humanity of a person who takes that moment to smile, or nod, or speak as he comes up the steps; these actions may not make us a better person, but they bring out the good we already possess. It’s been a long, huge day stuffed with all the above and more, a collection of “small” interactions that makes me marvel at how I’m so lucky as to experience all of this. It is one of the best days, ever, and these posts do it only a paltry justice.

At the end of the day I look down at at my bundle of transfers. I usually save one and scribble notes on it if it’s been a particularly great day. Today, I have no words. I walk back to the base and try to live in the memory of all of it, savoring the joyous cacophony of the day in my head. The parking lot is quiet. Up above is another plane, its contrails perfectly straight against the rich, deep blue.


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