I put a very short story up on Medium. I’ve started putting a few things there to have a cleaner platform separate from the daily mishmash I’ve been doing over here. Sorry, I mean the daily meditations I’ve been doing here.
I’m going to put together a collection of essays, with a theme running through them of public spaces in the city, public transit in the city, and a sort of people-watching that often winds up having political and spiritual undercurrents.
This wasn’t part of that, though, it was just a little 600-word story that I found again and put up on Medium. It’s first-person, narrated by a child in Alaska. I’d say it’s about families. It’s also wildly autobiographical. It’s called Clean Sheets.
I’m little-by-little starting to cross-post and creep out of the Internet forest where I’ve been safely hiding for a few years. I’m taking classes, I’m sticking my neck out, I’m starting to pitch ideas again.
I’m turning 40 next year. Have I mentioned that? I’ve been acting like the first person to ever contemplate turning 40. I’ll probably just keep doing that.
I think since the Fourth of July is a travel day, that means I’ll be sidestepping the holiday altogether. It’s such a hot, dusty, crowded holiday sometimes and we’re sliding toward authoritarianism right now, so skipping it seems fine. But it doesn’t work out like that on the Coastal Starlight Amtrak train from Salem to Seattle.
By the time we cross the Columbia River and head up into Western Washington, I’ve abandoned my seat in coach and am stationed in the sightseeing car. On those big trains that come all the way up from L.A., the coach cars feel like dormitories. People are really camping out in there. There’s little babies, and odors, and sleeping bags. More than half of the curtains have been pulled shut. The sightseeing car is full of light and windows, with the seats facing out.
A couple of volunteer park rangers are narrating what we see out the windows. They have a lot of good information about rivers, the industrial stuff we pass, ships taking grain to Hong Kong, steel plants. Osprey nests. Local history. It’s a bit cheesy at times, but I enjoy the narration of the ride, and it’s kind of cute how many people are happy to be talked at by the old duffers in vests.
Different people sit around me and then depart. They half listen, half talk amongst themselves. A young man in head to toe Seahawks gear sits down awkwardly in the seat next to me for a while. I take him to be Middle Eastern. Two young Asian women across the aisle seem to just be getting to know each other. I catch snippets of their conversation. “It can be hard. Do your parents speak English?” “No, do yours?”
I’m half listening, half writing in my journal about my weekend at the coast. A little voice says, “Excuse me, but is anyone sitting here?” It’s a black girl of about 8 years old. She is wearing pink sweat pants and a grey sweatshirt with pink stars on it. She has many long black braids. She’s confident, she’s polite, she’s smiling. For the moment she’s unaccompanied by an adult. I tell her to sit down. She’s peering out the window but also keeps blatantly looking over at me writing. “Whatchu writin about?” she asks. I tell her, “Just my weekend. Stuff that happened.” She looks disappointed, like she doubted I had a very interesting weekend, and if it were her writing it would be something juicier.
A little while later, an older man comes in the car. I don’t take him for her grandpa at first because even though his skin is dark brown like hers, he has one long braid down his back and his facial features and body language remind me of the old Native guys in the town where I grew up. But he is her grandpa and they move a little further down the car to where there were two seats together. He is spare and stone-faced, with a ball-cap on and plain jeans and a t-shirt. He doesn’t react much to the girl and certainly not to anyone else around him, but she merrily fills the picture in. “Yes, this is my grandpa,” I hear her say to someone across the aisle. She’s turned around in her chair, long arms hanging off the back. “We go to the lake, but usually only when it’s good for fishing. We catch a lot of fish. And eat them.”
I remind myself not to stereotype. Just because he seems really Native American, that doesn’t mean he is. He’s just a travel weary guy with an inscrutable face. And the whole inscrutable face thing, that’s stereotyping too.
We pass a tree farm, and one of the volunteers is saying in the microphone, “This is a Christmas tree farm, but where on Earth do you think you could use a 30-foot tall Christmas tree?” The little girl’s hand shoots up. The old white guy points to her and she says, “IN A MANSION.” He says, “Well no, they just cut some of the branches off to make wreaths and the rest of the tree keeps growing.”
She turns back to the window, unfazed. She seems to know her answer was better than his. She seems pleased with herself, and reasonably sure others are pleased with her too. Not in a show-offy way, but just in a nice way.
I hear two people behind me talking. Their travel plans were both thrown off by the train derailment a couple of days earlier. They commiserate, and then start talking about other things. They both live in Seattle. The woman is white, in her late twenties or early thirties. I’d taken a peek at her earlier. I don’t know about the guy. He sat down after I looked last. I don’t want to look over and be obvious.
Then I hear her saying, “You know, that one, that loud-mouthedAfrican woman.” I think, “Who can she be talking about?” and then realize she means Kshama Sawant, an Indian-American councilwoman. The woman is saying that raising the minimum wage to $15 has “ruined Seattle” and caused businesses to close their doors. The man she’s talking to says “Um… that’s all really… debatable.” The woman goes on to say that she herself got a pay bump when the minimum wage was raised, but she says it scornfully, like it was no good to her.
A man on the other side of them overhears the exchange and comes into the conversation. The two men are ignoring the woman now, choosing not in fact to have that debate. They are talking between themselves about volunteering for this or that Democratic state legislator’s campaign. They are both really well versed in the nuances of local politics.
The woman butts back in and says loudly, “Are you Hispanic?” The man sitting next to her says “Uh, no. Not at all.” She says “Ok, well I was just asking a question.” Then she says, “Where are you from, then?” He says, “I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio.” He is keeping his voice more casual than she is, but I can hear a certain tension sliding in. I can’t take it anymore, and glance over. The young man she’s talking to is the one I’d seen before, the possibly Middle Eastern (?) man in Seahawks gear. “Ohhhh” I think, as it all slides into place.
We’re approaching Centralia now. The little girl is still engaged with the scenery, the narration, her braids, her neighbors, herself. Her grandpa is still staring straight ahead thinking unknowable thoughts and betraying no emotion whatsoever.
The guys at the front with microphones are saying, “Centralia was founded by George Washington. No, not that George Washington!” They go on to explain that George Washington was the son of “a white servant girl and an enslaved black man” in Wherever, USA. His mother was afraid he would be sold into slavery, so she begged some people going west to adopt her son and take him with them. The family moved farther and farther west and I think George was a young man by the time they got to Washington. Stories of his entrepreneurial pluck. His ingenuity. How much the town loved him. How he was honored when he died in 1905.
I’m thinking, “Well, this is told like such a happy ending, but it’s a tragedy that this guy’s mother had to give him away because of slavery.” I think of Charles Mudede’s criticism of Nicole Brodeur—writing as if only white people are reading. I figure that’s what we’re all doing all the time. That’s America for you. One long rolling micro aggression, just like this train ride.
The train stops at Centralia, and our car is blocking an intersection. Cars are stopped waiting for the tracks to clear. A white couple in white middle age walk up and stop there, waiting. I look at them and think, “So you live in a town that was founded by a black man. Huh. Looks like Trump country.” I have no idea. I’m just stereotyping. He’s kind of sweaty and ruddy with a beer gut under his t-shirt and mussed up hair and sunglasses. She’s prim in her culottes with her little bob. I have no idea. But they seem very white and they could be Trump voters.
Then they’re smiling and doing big waves and I look over and see that they’re responding to the little black girl in the sweat suit and braids. She’s cheesing for them through the window. She’s waving like she’s royalty and her subjects have flocked to the tracks to watch her roll through her kingdom. I look to see if her grandpa looks amused. He is stone-faced as ever. I think, “maybe he’s like this all the time, or maybe he’s just really sick of white people.” As the train continues to sit there, the couple and the little girl both get distracted, but then as we pull away, there is a last beaming, waving connection—this time initiated by the white man on the sidewalk, who cranes his head and tips forward and makes the girl laugh with his goofy waving.
We’re running along the coastline now, and there are people down on the beach, on the rocks, on boats, on docks with their legs dangling off – mostly white people. The volunteer guys call our attention to a small island out in the bay, Fox Island. They begin another historical story, about how there was an Indian war because the governor of Washington was going to put “four large tribes and one small tribe” on a reservation out on that tiny island. I hear that the old white guys are trying, that they are saying the governor was responsible for the war, they are saying the names of the individual nations. They are saying it’s ridiculous that someone was trying to put all those people on a reservation on such a little island.
I think “HOLD ON” that’s not a reservation, that’s internment.
And then the guy speaking says that the tribes lost that battle but they “kind of won the war” because they got larger, separate reservations.
HOW IS THAT WINNING.
God. White people!
HOW IS THAT WINNING.
South of Tacoma, the crowds get bigger, browner, more citified. From the train it looks like some idealized version of a happy, multiethnic, multicultural society. Hijabis strolling in the sun. Big latino (latinx?) families. Kids running around. Black women with big natural hair and flowy skirts, swishing in the breeze. It’s just everybody. And people look happy. Tweets from that morning’s Black Twitter flash before my eyes. What the Fourth of July means, has meant to black people. How people find a way to carve out their own meaning, find their own sources of joy.
I read Black Twitter, and maybe I’m a bit of a lurker for following so many great black women writers on Twitter and reading their blogs and think pieces. But I figure if I keep listening to them, maybe I’ll be ready just on the off chance that I write something someday that finds its way to one of them. Because I don’t want to write like only white people are reading, or talk like only white people are listening, or experience the U.S. like only a white person can.
I am still assembling my notes and thoughts on the Montana road trip so I am just making this start as a placeholder. News was consumed differently, routines were disrupted, signs of political leanings were watched for, whiteness was pondered, Juneteenth was noted, an attempt at a vacation was made.
June 18, 2017 Seattle, Washington to Wallace, Idaho
Driving out of Seattle. It’s misty. We’re getting a late start. Preachin the Blues is on KEXP and they’re celebrating Juneteenth a day early on the show. They play Sam Cooke, A Change is Gonna Come. I say to Andrew, “We’re going into the heart of whiteness. Red state road trip.”
It’s Father’s Day. We’re thinking about the Philando Castile verdict and his fiance’s little girl. This morning Trump’s lawyer said he was NOT under investigation, even though Trump himself tweeted that he was. No no, the lawyer said, Trump was just referring to a Washington Post article. Andrew switches the radio to a show about whiskey. After awhile, we listen to an episode of the podcast The Dollop. The one about Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first openly black baseball player in the Major Leagues. I say something about Colin Kaepernick. Did he just fail to vote in 2016, or did he make a point of it? Whatever, I wanted Seattle to pick him up.
They’re labeling the crops on the fences. Field corn. Potatoes. Sweet corn. Potatoes. Alfalfa. Sewage Lagoon. We see a pick-up truck painted over with a rippling American flag. We’re 21 miles from Moses Lake, Washington. When I get the internet for a moment, I find out that the police in Seattle shot and killed a 30 year old black woman, Charleena Lyles, in front of her children. When we have the internet for a moment, I read Charles Mudede’s call out of Nicole Brodeur. Saying in her columns, she writes as if only white people will read her columns. Nicole is a friend. I think “Am I doing that too?” Probably, yes. Potatoes. Field Corn. Field Corn. Sweet Corn.
We have dinner at the Radio Brewery in Kellogg, Idaho. “I don’t think everyone in here voted for Trump, do you?” I ask Andrew. He says, “Well, I don’t think that guy in the Sublime t-shirt working in the kitchen is *crazy* about Donald Trump, but I’m pretty sure he hates Hillary.”
At the end of the night, we are at The Metals Bar in Wallace, Idaho. A sign in the window says “We support our miners” and in the back of the bar, a circular sign is lit up, “Strike.” There are several regulars in the bar, and an old guy named Bill starts talking to us in a friendly way. Everyone is white. Bill moves a child’s Father’s Day drawing and some empty Miller Lite cans so the bar is clear and tells us to sit down. He’s sitting kitty korner from us and tells us how his father in law died in the Sunshine Mine disaster of 1972. Two women come in, mother and daughter. They aren’t from Wallace, but the daughter says she wants to move here. She’s got a cute camo hoodie, a camo purse and the butt of her jeans are bedazzled. She and her mom look like really nice people. They look at an old black and white photo of a woman working in the mine. Bill says to them, “There weren’t many women working in the mines. We call them betties.” The older woman nods and says, “My mom worked in a coal mine in West Virginia.” I say in Andrew’s ear, “Everyone here seems so nice. Do you think they all voted for Trump?” Andrew looks at me like I just said maybe the Easter Bunny is real.” He says, “Of course they did.” One of the regulars gets up and puts a song on the juke box. It’s Sam Cooke. It’s A Change is Gonna Come.
June 19, 2017 Wallace, Idaho to Missoula, Montana
“Maybe just acknowledging whiteness as a thing at least means you don’t accept whiteness as the norm, or as the invisible air we breathe. If whiteness is a thing, then it is surrounded by other things, and it is not the only thing.” I am getting too metaphysical early in the morning on vacation. Andrew is always nice about this, and I have to remind myself not to monologue too much, because he’s too generous to send me the correct signals about how tedious I’m becoming.
We’re already tired of driving. When I can see internet, my phone tells me that all my friends back home are wrecked. A 17-year old Muslim girl was found dead in a pond in Virginia. Philando Castile. Charleena Lyles. People are wrecked. I’m supposed to be looking at the evergreen trees and mountain sides, and I’m supposed to be another pair of eyes on the road. In case there are suicidal deer or big-horned sheep or whatever. I put my phone away and rummage for what else is in my bag. I find a slim comic I bought at VANCAF and forgot was in my bag, like that time I accidentally took a yellow onion to the beach. The book is Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore.
The sound of NPR is grounding even when the news is bad. A white man in a van mowed down Muslims leaving a mosque in London. Andrew points out that we haven’t actually seen ANY political bumper stickers, signs, or bill boards. We certainly haven’t seen Trump’s name anywhere. There’s a promo for an interview with Roxane Gay. I say “Someone out here is listening to Roxane Gay.” He said, “Sometimes the NPR station is the only one that comes in.”
We get into Missoula and walk around. In historical downtown Missoula, there are signs of liberalism.
That night in the hotel room, I read that the White House press briefing was off-camera again today. I tell Andrew, “I would have been ON this if I were home.” I have access to Fox News now, so I watch Hannity for awhile. The chyron says “Russian Collusion Hysteria.” I click over to CNN. The Democratic Senators are trying to hold the floor tonight over Obamacare repeal and replace. It’s past 11 pm in Washington, D.C. and they look tired.
June 20, 2017… Missoula through Drummond, Phillipsburg, Anaconda, and Butte to wind up in Helena.
We have breakfast burritos before we leave town. When we walk in, a Talking Heads sign is just ending. “I bet this place is run by white people,” says Andrew. A Greg Brown song starts up — Greg Brown! My favorite! I say, “Shhhhh. I’m flying into the heart of my whiteness.” Today is Jon Ossoff day in the Georgia 6th, so I’m nervous. In Drummond, MT there are anti-meth signs. A mural that looks like it was done by school children shows a toilet and the words, “Meth Makes Your Life Go Down the Drain.” The town is bustling though. Men standing around a giant piece of new farm equipment are smiling and waving at us as we drive through. A few miles out of town there’s a billboard that says “Every Addict Needs His Hook-up.” It’s an advertisement for a fly fishing shop. A sign on a house says, “This Family Supported by Timber Dollars.” On the Bible Broadcast Network, which we like to check in with, a man is disputing that the heat wave in Phoenix has anything to do with climate change. I keep looking at my watch and calculating what time it is in Georgia.
We stop in Anaconda and study the informational placards about the giant smokestack left over from a copper mine. We notice the sign saying there have been 69 highway deaths in Montana year to date. We listen to Baby Geniuses–an episode recorded and posted months ago. It was recorded right before the election, and aired right after the election. The hosts come on and talk for a few moments before the recorded episode, saying they know what happened and how everyone is feeling. “We have to hold onto this feeling,” said one of them. They said if you’re white and can slip into normalcy after the dust settles, just don’t. Remember this feeling of being in the thick of it. Remember wanting to help people.
Butte is beautiful and interesting, but it’s the heat of the day and we’re spooked by all the signs announcing mine deaths. Rolling into town we see a bumper sticker on the back of a street sign: “Anyone but Hillary.” We decide to keep driving to Helena. Jon Ossoff loses the special election in Georgia. I text a lament to my mother and she fires back, “you’re supposed to be resting your brain from this stuff.” In the morning she posts Dan Rather’s calming words on her Facebook timeline.
June 21, 2017… Helena to Great Falls to Missoula.
We still haven’t seen anything mentioning Trump by name. And not much political stuff in general. In Great Falls we see this pick-up truck. “Is it… sarcasm?” I ask. We can’t tell.
Driving on Highway 200 back to Missoula, we see along the highway: “In God We Trust, In Our Country we Trust, In Our Government We Don’t Trust.” We see a sign that says “You want change in government? Let’s try honesty for a change.” We see a Don’t Tread on Me Flag. We still haven’t seen anything about Trump anywhere.
June 22, 2017 … Missoula, Montana all the way back to Seattle, Washington
New dash cam footage is released from Philando Castile’s shooting. Trevor Noah says he is broken. Shaun King says the fight against police brutality is being lost. Senate Republicans release the Better Care Reconciliation Act. It’s pretty bad, but no CBO score until next week. On Facebook, people are saying “I’m not even sure I can do Pride this year.” Leaving downtown Missoula, we see two bumper stickers on a truck. First, “The Precious Metals of Freedom… Gold, Silver, and LEAD.” And then, “NRA: Stand and Fight.” I look at my watch. “Thirty-six minutes till the new Gallup Poll comes out.”
Trump says he does not have any tapes of his conversations with Comey. “Why did he keep us in suspense for 41 days?” someone asks Kellyanne.
Heading into sun-blasted eastern Washington, we’re listening to the Dollop episode about the boxer Jack Johnson. When he beat the white boxer Jim Jeffries in 1910, there were race riots in 25 states and 50 cities. At least 25 people were killed and hundreds injured. Several white men were reported to have COMMITTED SUICIDE over it. And we wonder sometimes if it’s true that white people would really trash this country because a black man was president for eight years.
Joe Lewis, who came along after Jack Johnson, had a list of do’s and don’ts. One of them was, “Don’t eat watermelon in public.”
Colin Kaepernick announces that he won’t participate in the NFL anymore.
Donald Trump tweets that it’s all a “big Dem HOAX.”
We stop in Ellensburg, Washington for dinner and we see the first Trump sign or sticker we’ve seen in 4 days of driving outside our blue coastal county. And someone’s defaced it.
Back in Seattle we see Charleena Lyles’s name on the pavement.
I was out and about and away from Internet most of the day.
Forgot to mention I saw this guy at an intersection yesterday afternoon.
I was in a crowded city bus. People in cars were joyfully giving this guy dollar bills up and down the lane next to us, and everyone on the bus cheered when they saw another person had handed him a dollar. The other side of the sign reads, “Family needs blankets, food, and miracles.”
I spent most of the day on a Greyhound bus heading south from Seattle to Portland and points south from there. The bus was delayed two hours leaving, and the Seattle Greyhound station is small, so there were a lot of us packed into a confined place for a long time. Just as I got there, a man about my age came in with his mother and grandmother–they were Ethiopian. The women were dressed in whites and beiges with white lace up over their hair. The son addressed a white teenage girl who was slouched near her mother, and asked her to look after the two older women and make sure they got on the bus all right. He had to leave and was just dropping them off. The girl and her mother took their responsibility very seriously. Their names were Abby and Bambi, and they swept me into their custody as well.
The thing I noticed at the bus station was that I was surrounded by a higher than usual (for me) density of immigrants and people of color, especially black people, but I was also surrounded by more white people who seemed like they could’ve been Trump voters than I was used to. It made for a potent mix. The Bolt bus that goes straight from Seattle to Portland with no stops, is mostly tech kids and college kids and arty 20- and 30-somethings, with laptops and cappuccinos and knit beanies. Various ethnicities, but a certain type. The Greyhound bus gets a few of those but is mostly like the bone-weary, multi-generational, multi-racial heart of working class America.
I used to joke that everything I knew about prison life, I overheard on a Greyhound. I retired that joke, but pretty much as soon as I sat down, I began to hear about how in prison these guys used to wrap ramen, pepperoni, and string cheese in a tortilla and call it a burrito. The person speaking was a big beefy, ruddy, white guy about my age who was traveling to Kelso, Washington from Montana to see his teenaged son. When he wasn’t talking about that stuff with the guy across the aisle from him, he was talking to the young man and woman behind him, who were barely older than his kid. These two, who might have been 19 or 20, had just met and were hitting it off like gangbusters from the moment she asked if the seat next to him was taken.
They both had the hallmarks of counterculture–face piercings, tattoos, dyed hair, edgy hairstyles. But they were also just coltish young people who talked about Harry Potter and guffawed over-earnestly at each other’s jokes. They talked eagerly about their growing up years, in that ping pong back and forth of people who haven’t learned to be good listeners yet and don’t really care.
The boy was of German extraction, he said. His grandfather came from Germany when he was 9 years old, and then fought for the U.S. in World War II. When he got back, he never wanted to hear German spoken in his home again. So the boy’s family, he said, was split between Nazi-sympathizers and pentecostals. He was in the pentecostal side. Then he said he was raised to not believe in the intermingling of races.
Yes, she replied, her grandparents fled from Germany to Ukraine during the war. She doesn’t say, but there is an implication that they were German Jews. Maybe I’m wrong. They intermarried with Ukrainian Baptists. This girl described being raised by “seriously conservative Christians” and that music and dancing were not allowed. The family emigrated to the U.S. and got mixed up with pentecostals too.
While they were telling each other this, I noticed out my window that we slipped by two beat-up looking pentecostal churches.
The girl had a Ukrainian accent still, like someone who had come over as an older child. She’d been young enough to be perfectly conversant in English at 19, but old enough so that her accent would stay with her. She said “I miss Ukraine but I can’t go back because we have war now.”
The boy brought up Donald Trump. What struck me was that he brought Donald Trump up as though he had just barely figured out who had won the election and what was going on. He said, “He was an actor or something before, right?” She replied, “I don’t know, I just know he was some kind of major rich guy.” He said, “I was reading about him last night, I think it’s really interesting the direction he’s going in.” The girl said, in a neutral tone, “You know there are two sides though–there are people who love him and people who hate him.” The boy was like, “Yeah, yeah…” and kept talking about how Donald Trump had some “interesting ideas about things.” Then the girl said, “I don’t know, I don’t care about politics. If I have to write an essay for school, I write an essay, but I don’t care.” The boy nodded, seeming a little chastened. After a beat he said, “I also like Bernie Sanders.”
Later he said he didn’t like that “a black guy” was cast as Two-Face in the lego batman movie, because it was Tommy Lee Jones before.
Sitting directly in front of the girl (and next to my coeval the ex-con), was an old guy who reeked of urine, had a cardboard sign asking for money, was passed out and fell into the aisle three times. People around him had to keep putting him back in his seat. When my seat mate got out at Olympia, the ex-con came and sat next to me to get away from his pee-soaked seat mate.
At one point the ex-con pointed out the window and said, “there’s my school.” It was a series of low buildings behind a big fence. It was Green Hill in Chehalis, a juvenile prison. He said, “I was there for the flood of 1995 when three people escaped.”
Over the course of our ride he told me how he was a five-time felon and a 22-year meth addict. He said he had a better life now. He’d left his teenage son behind with his grandparents, and his dog behind with a friend. He was going to visit the son and the dog. He said he left his son’s mom when she was doing dope when she was 4 months pregnant. But her whole family had more money than him and could afford lawyers. He couldn’t get custody and they poisoned his son against him. Now they talk again though, thanks to Facebook.
At one point he leans across the aisle to interrupt the younger pair’s conversation about music they like. “Hey you like Rammstein? you know, Rammstein–oh come onnn don’t tell me you never heard of Rammstein!?!?” He looks at me in disbelief, and I smile and say “Different generation, man.” I do know who the German metal band is, but more than anything i know that Eric Harris of the Columbine shooting was into Rammstein and wore a Rammstein t-shirt in his school photo. That factoid doesn’t mean anything, but I’m a little spooked since I feel like the bus is just about as tribal as prison and maybe it’s not a coincidence that we’re the only white people on the bus and for some reason we’re all clumped together. Abby and Bambi are right behind me (having deposited the older Ethiopian women up near the driver). They’ve heard my seat mate say he’s a five-time felon and they keep saying perkily, “You ok up there, Lil?” and popping up to offer me beef jerky and potato chips over the back of the seat.
Downtown this morning, a couple hours before sunrise, before the bulk of white collar commuters are even out of bed, I walked from my bus stop to my building as usual. On a recessed bench along the sidewalk, an old white man cleared his throat with effort. It was under thirty degrees and he had a lot stuck in his throat and lungs. It didn’t seem so much like he was waking up as just giving up on trying to sleep.
He seemed neat, collected, trying to take care of his person and his belongings. There was an old-school green hard shell suitcase sitting upright next to him like a nightstand. A little radio sat on top of it, with a small red light glowing in the dark. A woman newscaster’s voice cut through the man’s hacking. She said the buses were standing idle, the evacuation wasn’t underway, the shelling was beginning again.
Aleppo is the center of the world this week, and we are failing it. That little radio in the dark set up worlds within worlds where we take turns falling to our knees in gratitude for what we have. The old man is cold and alone on a bench but he isn’t being shelled, and he isn’t trying to keep small children alive. I’m scared for our future under an anti-science authoritarian, but I’m not an old man alone on a bench in the cold. The woman’s voice on the radio was the thread, tying us all together across the world, like a bird, a civilized bird, starting to sing before dawn.
It snowed while I was sleeping, and in the morning there was fresh snow on the path, the hedges, the cars, and the branches of the cherry trees that grow halfway under the freeway.
My bus was half an hour late. For the first time in months or years, the people at that bus stop actually talked and laughed with me.
Until today, one of the women seemed to have been making a point of never, ever, not ever making eye contact with me. This morning in the snow, she looked right at me, smiled, and in the course of chit chat, made a joke: “In Seattle, there’s a reporter for every snowflake.” At one point I almost asked her if she’d seen Moana, but then I thought “No, no–too much, too friendly.”
Another guy called King County metro and then shared the information with the rest of us. He laughed and said, “We should have expected this, right?” and then asked if anyone wanted to share an Uber.
When our bus finally trundled up, the driver called out through the open door, “I can’t believe you’re all still here!” That was the friendliest he’d ever been too.
I enjoyed thinking that none of us would speak again tomorrow, but that our silence might be slightly warmer.
I’ve been listening to podcasts at work that are about government, politics, history, and current events. It is all part of the big self-education plan, and I can half-consume a lot of information through my ear buds while I do my work.
But when I need to get away from Trump and the dizzying array of bad news and worse omens, I choose stories that are less sweeping and more specific. I either listen to true crime podcasts, or Mental Illness Happy Hour.
Mental Illness Happy Hour is basically long, informal interviews with people about their life stories. The guests on the podcast have all been through a lot–often abuse, addiction, violent crime–and they still have a lot to work through in their daily lives. But at the time they are giving the interview, they also have a lot of wisdom to share and a lot of power. They’ve all survived and grown to a point where they can own their stories and help listeners by being honest and vulnerable. The show is darkly funny a lot of the time.
This morning I was listening to a MIHH guest talk about how she was followed off of a bus by a stranger, and then raped and beaten within an inch of her life. She survived because the bus driver had thought something might be a little off and had called the police just in case. It made me realize that MIHH is just the flip side of the other kind of podcast I’ve been listening to–true crime stories.
The true crime cases are 90% young women disappearing and meeting terrible ends. It should creep me out but I find it comforting in these grim times, to hear a specific sad tale of how one life was snuffed out. How the universe was extinguished in that case, for that one irreplaceable human being. I enjoy the attention and brain power that the podcast devotes to the details of the mystery, as the narrator circles the empty space where a life once was. There is so much love, just ordinary love, in the voices of family members that are interviewed. It takes my mind off the country, the big picture, myself, the future.
As you listen to the true crime podcasts, there’s often a lot of incidental domestic violence, abuse, and mental illness swirling along the sidelines and in the background of the main story. Today I realized that its only luck separating the MIHH guests who tell their own stories from the true crime subjects whose stories are pieced together by others after they are gone.
Even on the scale of individual lives, far from the sick, theatrical grandiosity in Washington D.C., it plays out like Hamilton: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
3.) Afternoon commute.
After work the snow is already gone, because this is Seattle. It’s still chilly out though, and I start pacing a little on the sidewalk while I’m waiting for my bus. I turn on my heel to walk back the way I’ve come when I hear behind me, “Ma’am! Ma’am!”
I turn around and a black man about my age is bundling up his stuff and preparing to leave a bench. He’s saying, “Come back, you can sit here! I’m leaving!” I feel sad and awkward, because there had always been enough room on that bench for me to sit down if I’d wanted to. He seemed to think I’d taken one look at him and stalked back in the other direction, unwilling to share a bench with him. I say “No, no, I’m just pacing!” But I’m a little ways off from him and I can tell that my voice is getting lost in the sound of idling bus engines. He kind of gives the “roger that” body language you use when you don’t know exactly what someone said but you figure it’s not that crucial.
I go stand halfway up the block from him, and I’m thinking “Oh well, that’s another awkward incident to add to my collection.” He’s still standing near the bench, facing away from me and smoking a cigarette. After a few minutes I think, “Oh what the hell.” I walk all the way up to him and say at close range, “I was just pacing before. That’s why I turned around like that.”
He says, “Oh ok. You have a pretty dimple.” This strikes me as quite generous because in my coke bottle glasses I kind of look like Steve Forbes, dimple or no. Also, this man has TWO deep dimples so it’s like my dimple has just been complimented by a dimples expert. I say, “Thanks, you too!” and scuttle back up the block without engaging further.
I hope to God that in four years, we will be coming out of this nightmare, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m back here because I don’t want to be silent. As I start to speak up again, it may be halting and loose at first. I’ll describe clumsy circles that trace back over things that people have already been saying everywhere else all over the internet. But I have a responsibility now to have a voice and to use it. This is just the tip of the iceberg of my new responsibilities. Like parenthood when it’s new, the responsibility I feel now is frightening, all-encompassing. But the love I feel for our rights, my family, and the people of my city is also heightened.
I’m not wearing a safety pin. So far, I have only seen that in Facebook profile pictures, and not in real life. I hope that if I see bullying and cruelty, I will do the right thing. I have a decent track record with that.
Several years ago, a bus full of white collar white commuters gaped like stupid fish in my direction as I drew four young men away from a woman who looked like she was trying to disappear into herself. She was smaller and younger than I was, and they had her surrounded, were calling her racial and sexual slurs. After I told them to leave her alone, they spent my whole bus ride harassing me, touching me, poking me, jeering at me, draping their arms over me, and flicking (wrapped) condoms at my face and eyes. The white people on the bus just watched. They saw everything while they acted like they couldn’t see anything.
The young men were black, and the woman was Asian. Did the white people think, it wasn’t their (our) business? Are young black men such boogeymen to them that they are afraid of them? They think they are all serious criminals with guns? They can’t just see them as young people who are behaving badly? I was angrier at the older white people than I was at the young men. None of them had my back. They were cowards.
After several stops of trying to tough it out, I went up to the front and told the white male bus driver that there were men in the back harassing women. He said, “What do you want me to do?” I got off the bus at the next stop. The guys got off the bus behind me, laughing. I hurried up the block and hid in the back of a store. I texted a friend. He said, “If that happened in SOUTH Seattle instead of North Seattle, an older black person would have intervened and straightened them out. That is some white bullshit.”
So let’s at least get over our white bullshit, Seattle. And that also means we get out and march with Black Live Matters like we should’ve done all along.
I lived in Seattle for a few years in my 20s, in a crappy studio across the parking lot from the coffee shop where I worked. Outside of work, I just wrote and hung out with friends and said yes whenever someone asked me out. Then I crushed so hard on a pedal steel guitar player that I moved to Brooklyn. After several years I wound up in Seattle again.
Not long after I moved back, a customer from that old coffee shop sat down next to me on the 44 bus. I hadn’t seen him in years, hadn’t kept in touch. He was an odd duck, lived alone with his cat, worked from home. There was always the sense that he gleaned a large chunk of his social nutrition each day from our smiles of greeting, the fact that we knew his name, the casual exchange of basic pleasantries. I respected that he was like a creature that lived near a deep sea vent—the solitude and simplicity of his life wouldn’t be for everyone, but he was well adapted to it. This was back when I viewed myself as young and full of possibility. Others as old, limited, gone round the bend. I was a smug, ponytailed angel of customer service.
When he sat next to me on the bus, he didn’t say hello or make eye contact. I was older and thicker and squarer. I figured he didn’t remember me. He was still staring straight ahead when he said, “Did you ever read that book about coelacanths that I told you about?”
I had no recollection of the fish, the book about the fish, or the conversation about the book. My mind was blank except for the way the syllables in the word itself knocked against each other. That I remembered like a song that gets stuck in your head for a whole summer. I laughed his question off and then it was my stop.
Only later did it come swimming back to me: I did read the book. I must have. Why else would I know so much about coelacanths and their rediscovery?