“How’s everything today?” It’s the Sherriff, asking after my welfare at Third and Pike. I’m on the 70.
Referring to safety concerns, I respond, “Everything is fantastic!”
“Well, it’s the 70. Nothing ever happens on this thing.”
My regular route for the past two months has been the 70. You’ll notice there hasn’t been a single story about it during that time. In truth, it’s not a very Nathan-like route. Where are the walkers and wheelchairs? Lately my friends have had to patiently listen to me tell them about how quiet, and by extension how uninvigorating, the 70 is. Thank you, friends, for listening to me repeat myself. Certainly there are some wonderful — wonderful — people on it (you know who you are!), but there’s also a gargantuan number of strangely docile hordes who overload the bus with a standoffishness that confuses me.
I once spoke with another driver who shared my practice of greeting every single person who boarded his bus. Like me, he noticed that some folks responded while others didn’t; he attributed the dividing line to age. In his view, younger people tended to avoid interacting. They often had headphones or other paraphernalia taking them out of the present. That may be, but I’ve typically attributed such attitudinal differences not to age, but to class status.
In my experience, the upper classes disproportionately avoid responding to my “hello’s” and “how are you’s.” I won’t speculate why, or argue as to which of these two correlations is more accurate, but I will say that on the 70 it’s a moot point; the crowd is both upper/upper middle class and young. I’m sure they’re terrific people. But boy, did they ever look uncomfortable when I first got on the route saying things like “hi” and “come on in;” there were those who refused to make eye contact, or looked up in fear when I spoke. They are civil. They’re demure, polite, and avoid trouble. They place great importance on paying the fare, expediency, following the rules, and not being noticed.
Things like this make me sleepy.
I imagine they’re only carrying over the general environment of their workplace, under whose spell they’ve been all day. You’ve been in your cubicle for the past nine hours, where these behaviors are necessary for survival; naturally there’ll be some spillover while you decompress on your trip home. They seem to avoid human contact however possible, unless it’s mediated by technology.
In the spirit of being active and not reactive, I don’t approximate their behavior so much as simply continue my own; I greet them with the same enthusiasm as I do everyone else.
I think they’re starting to open up.
At first it was just the street people. You’ve got the low-income and transitional housing units on Harrison, the drug and alcohol rehab facilities on Denny, as well as Urban Rest Stop and the Solid Ground shuttle stop at 9th. There’s also the food bank on 50th, open late on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So I’m not entirely alone out here.
Shay is covered in multicolored flair, with great dreads and attitude to spare. I didn’t know her yet. Here she is now, stepping on with a friendly swagger, exchanging a smile at something new. She watches me work, sitting in the back lounge on her way to the food bank. I announce the stops as I always do, in a conversational tone, calling out intersections and transfer points as if they are lively points of interest. Finally she yells, “I like you, bus driver!”, by way of evaluation, with a boldness that sails over all the youthful worker bees.
Then there is the young streetwise couple with the dog. Their clothes are faded and their belongings weathered; but where will I find more verve? They — she, especially — always greets me with an unreserved zeal that calls back to life that corresponding part of me. She lies down in the back on her boyfriend’s lap, not taking up too many seats, but still making herself at home. Carefree. Didn’t you do things like that when you were young?
“Awesome,” she said loudly once, after I’d announced something, because she thought so. Through the standing crowd of people I smiled at her in the mirror; jostling bodies, corners and noise, that beam of an expression slicing through it all, only needing eye contact for a second to be real. Physical appearance isn’t really what makes a person attractive; it’s self-confidence. Theirs buzzes with life.
One day a woman from the Roosevelt Clinic gets on, staff, and she’s excited by my friendliness — though it isn’t only mine, but hers too. She doesn’t use the term Freeze, opting instead for the less severe designation of “Seattle Chill;” we discuss how you can usually warm it up by being proactive. I talk about my love for the people. I tell her about my days at University, and how my friends would say, “Nathan, why are you getting this big degree when we all know you just wanna drive buses?”
She laughs. Her syntax relaxes after we talk a while. We get comfortable.
Like the Microsoftian hordes, the Amazonian hordes started out as unresponsive, as described above. Masses of them wait at Harrison, flooding the bus every day. Unlike those folks on the 545, however, the Amazonian crowd has warmed considerably. It’s no 3/4, sure, but so many of them smile now, or nod, or make some sort of human interaction. Change in the mainstream happens slowly, but a shift is taking place. They see the way I live and breathe amongst the street people. I’ve noticed that if I’m chatting with someone up front, the rest of the bus feels it’s okay to talk. The studied boredom gives way to an excited hum of chatter. On Fridays, the crowd is visibly happier.
I hear coworkers commiserating together, making joyful noise out of their work complaints; a man excited about his trip to Minnesota, talking of flat land and heat. There’s a young Starbucks employee, brown hair tied back, reading her Pat Conroy book with a smile. A woman gets on my bus three times in the same day, by accident, and spontaneously gives me a hug on the third trip; no reason. Just feels like it makes sense, here in the space we’ve built. Two Amazonians sitting up front, as we discuss the details of their jobs. Smiles eager, that feeling of life ascending inside you, surging up to your throat. The air is rising.
Here’s a lady from the low-income housing, bringing me cherries and cookies. I can hardly believe it. A librarian friend and myself at the front, laughing all the way back to silence and starting again, filling the air with jubilant chaos. Packed bus now, and we have to yell at each other to be heard…and this is on the 70?!? A woman with a bicycle, rich in secrets and character, is on her way to tend bar; her laugh lines crease into pleasant delight as our cacophony surrounds. I look in the mirror at them all, standing, sitting, laughing, talking.
It wasn’t like this on the first Friday.
Alongside all this, there are still those who seem terrified of acknowledging other humans. Like I told the Sheriff, it’s the 70.
But that’s okay.
I wrote earlier that I’m sure these are terrific people; despite their reticence, I mean that. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article broaching the latest reveal in psychology, wherein Professor William Fleeson said, “If you’re introverted and act extroverted, you will be happier.” I adamantly disagree. Contrary to contemporary cultural suggestion, being introverted is a virtue.*
We tend to look down on passivity, but let’s not forget its origin, from the Latin passivus, meaning “to feel.” Passivity does not equate death or numbness, but can be just as alive as action. When in a passive state, such as that of an audience, we can observe, and consider, and ultimately open up to our surroundings in ways impossible if we’re too busy running our mouths (as I often do). There is value to receiving, rather than always generating; to be present. There’s more than one way.
Additionally, these guys may be commuters, but they aren’t the complainers on the 77. They don’t whine when the bus is late; they grasp the notion, more prevalent in this century than past centuries, that such flaws stem not from individuals, but systems. A young UW law student once got on to my 70 after waiting forty minutes; I couldn’t believe he wasn’t angry. Intuitively, he understood what any number of commuters twice his age don’t stop to reflect on; it isn’t the bus driver that makes the bus late, but the constraints placed upon him. He asked me about scheduling, structures in route planning and execution, and shifts in travel patterns. In short, he was cognizant of the bigger picture. The shirtless, destitute young man next him joined in intelligently. The three of us had a great conversation, speaking of coach assignments, budget allocation, autocratic socialism, transit infrastructure in other countries…. I am often drawn to the past, to earlier ways of thinking and doing; I believe in open communication, as you all know. I’m thrilled my 70 gets loud sometimes.
But not all the quieter folks are preoccupied with distracting themselves out of the present with electronics. By virtue of simply being themselves, they have insights of immense value to offer. I’m thrilled I’ve been able to impart some of my perspective into their lives, and I’m thankful to be in the presence of theirs.
*For more, refer to the Susan Cain book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Additionally, the notes on passivity derive from the poetry of Elizabeth Cooperman.
This entry has been re-printed, with the author’s permission, from the author’s blog.