Snow Day, Work Day, Bus Day

December 9, 2016

1.) Morning commute.

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.

2.) Workday. 

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.

Seattle freeze mostly preserved for another day.

Northbound 16: Friday

Friday afternoon. Crowded bus, and the first person who gets on who can’t find a seat is a very tall, very rangy old man with baggy clothes that hang well on his broad shoulders even though they are the muddied, rumpled, tattered layers of a homeless person who is having a hard time keeping up with hygiene. He smells that way too. His hair is thick and white, and in its dirtiness has shaped itself into a wind-blown pompadour that is rakishly pleasing in the way it looks blasted up and away from his skull. He comes in talking to himself and instead of proceeding all the way to the back, he stops in the aisle about ten feet back and stands there facing the front, one hip jutted, one hand on each rail. He’s just a few feet back from me. The people who get on the bus on the next several stops crowd near the front instead of asking him to move back farther, or trying to move past him.

He’s saying “What’s the matter, Kevin? Are you afraid? What’s the matter, Kevin-faggot, you little squealer, San Quentin isn’t good enough for you, Kevin. Are you afraid of fainting, Kevin? I’ll bash your head in with a baseball bat, Kevin. Ahhh, come on down, Kevin-faggot, come on down.” He has a warm, sandy voice that contrasts with what he’s saying, and he draws out all his words except “Kevin” and “Kevin-faggot” which are quick, staccato, bitten off. The effect is mesmerizing. He sounds like a schoolyard sadist who is really, really good at what he does. Also like a crime boss.

The guy standing in front of him answers a cell phone call and is saying loudly, “Yeah, yeah! Everything’s great! Really looking forward to seeing you guys!” So for a bit I can’t hear what the Dickens character behind him is saying, but I catch a few intriguing words and phrases besides the ubiquitous “Kevin.” These include “Molly Ringwald’s best friend”, “Joe Pesci”, and “the Everett Herald.”

A popular stop comes and a bunch of people press off, including the man on the cell phone. A woman sitting behind me gets up, and tries to politely but assertively squeeze past the people standing to get off the bus. She’s more polite than assertive and there is a long moment when she is standing facing the front and there is no one between her and the man talking to Kevin, who is just a few feet back. I feel nervous for her, anxious that the people in the aisle let her by. I don’t think anything is going to happen to her, I just feel the social claustrophobia of the situation. She glances back at him, then forward, and he takes a step forward just as she manages to sidle past someone and get away.

The tall man is maneuvers to two newly empty seats across the aisle from me. He slants diagonally across both seats, one long leg folded over the other and a foot dangling elegantly out into the aisle. He drapes one long arm across the back of the seat, and the other rests lightly on his knee. He looks like he should be wearing an ascot and smoking a fine cigar, maybe expounding on W.B. Yeats. I lean forward and take a quick look at his face. It is ruddy and weathered with crazy teeth. He looks like he could not be a real person in real life, he is far too much of a caricature. He is a fine-featured actor having a lark in his old age, playing a stereotypical homeless guy. I am separated from him by a stoic young man who is studiously looking straight ahead. The old man across the aisle hasn’t stopped disparaging Kevin and I try to swivel my ears to catch his little phrases. “Heeyyyyy,” he’s saying, and then “Kev-Kev! How many times are you going to lie under oath, Kevin-faggot? I’ll strangle you, Kevin.”

A woman sitting in front of him hands her bag to the stranger sitting next to her and awkwardly moves up past the people standing, to get to the driver as the bus is flying up Aurora. Her voice carries back as she says “This man is being VERBALLY ABUSIVE TO ME! He does NOT belong on this bus!!” The driver hears the shrill urgency in her voice but can’t understand what she’s saying. He brakes and pulls over before we get to the bridge. He says, “What now?” She repeats, “He is verbally ABUSING me!! He shouldn’t be on here!”

A man standing near the front in a black leather jacket, male-pattern baldness, says to both the woman and the driver, “Now, in my opinion, that man is really just talking to himself and not to you.” It’s true. If anyone is being abused, it’s Kevin. The woman is disgusted by the lack of sympathy and struggles back to her seat. She’s in her late 50s, dressed in business clothes. The man behind her keeps talking to Kevin.

Several minutes later she goes up to the front again. The bus has emptied out some, so it’s easier for her to get to the front. She says “He’s saying FAGGOT an awful lot – so I guess that’s just ok now? Saying FAGGOT?”

The man stops talking to Kevin for a few beats and then calls forward in a pleasant voice, “What’s the matter, miss? You don’t know the way to the University of Washington?” The man standing up front in the black leather jacket says nicely, “It’s ok; he’s just talking to himself.” And then the talker says a little defensively, “A lot of people talk to themselves! You know what you can do, man in the leather jacket? You can grow some hair on the top of your head.” This guy is a lot gentler with people in real life than he is with Kevin. He’s leaned out into the aisle to say all this, and for the first time the driver can see him in the mirror. The driver laughs. “OH,” he says, “is that who we’ve been talking about?”

Both the offended woman and the offending man got off at the next stop and went their separate ways on the sidewalk. There’s an exhalation, a murmur—partly because of him, and partly because of her. More because of the general situation. The driver says to the man in the leather jacket, but also to anyone who can hear, “That’s the first time he’s been like that. Usually he just sits quietly, very well-behaved.”

At the next stop, the young man gets up. Before he gets off the bus he turns and says to the driver, “I thought you handled that very well. What’s your name?” The driver says “Uh… Paul?” and the young man, who has turned red, thanks him and nearly falls down the steps of the bus as he gets off.

After he’s gone, the driver says “I didn’t really think I handled it. I didn’t do much of anything.” I say, “Well, you didn’t over-react.” My voice doesn’t come out loudly enough so the driver says to the leather-jacket guy, “What did she say?” Leather jacket says “You didn’t over-react.” The driver smiles at me in the mirror. He is cute, I see now, and I wish I had done more grooming before leaving the house. He says “Riding the bus just means that you’re crammed in with all sorts of people acting all sorts of ways. I have to focus on driving safely. I can’t govern people.”

A guy behind me looks up from his book and says, as if laying the matter to rest, “The guy was just fine. Crazy, yes, but just fine.”

Northbound 16: Thursday

I was just reading Scarlet Witch #4 and thinking how I would definitely disavow that comic immediately if anyone on the bus asked me about it. “Oh this thing? This is terrible.” Situation didn’t come up, though.

At a stop in Wallingford, three older Ethiopian women came on, draped in white  cloth and carrying bundles and roller bags. They filled up the other three seats in my row, the first row of forward-facing seats, and their bags took up the aisle. Then the bus driver—a tall, flat-faced, cornfed white woman with a low ponytail—stood up and said to the six people in the front area, “I’m gonna need all these seats! We have two wheelchairs coming onboard!” The three people on the left were a random assortment of youngish commuters. The three people on the right were a very small, elderly, frail-looking Asian couple with bundles and roller-bags and a tiny girl in red-rimmed glasses carrying a prehistoric diorama larger than herself. All of these people were then standing with all their things, regarding the total roadblock that was the three older Ethiopian women with their many bundles and bags.

What happened next was very slow and mild, with the passengers behind my row, and the three commuters ahead of me just working things out. People got up and shuffled around seats and bags until it just worked out best for everyone. The Spanish-speaking man in a Mariners cap behind me conveyed non-verbally to one of the Ethiopian women that he would just hold her bag on his lap for the rest of the ride, and she was fine with that. A high school kid got up so that the little girl in red glasses could sit next to her grandpa. Someone else stood in the back for several stops, holding onto her diorama.

When everything was finally clear for the wheelchair passengers, the driver smiled at me and said “Busy day!”

Then the people in wheelchairs got on, and both seemed irritated from waiting on the sidewalk in the cold for things to get shuffled around. They didn’t seem to love having such an audience, and they also didn’t seem to want people thinking they were together, like each thought the other was embarrassing to be seen with. But their moods highlighted the calm goodwill of the passengers already on the bus. We have a lot more work to do, and I don’t want to make it sound like everything is rosy for people who depend on public transport. But on that bus on that day, everyone was going to get where they needed to go. No one resented the very young, the very old, the disabled, the culturally different, or the non-native. No one was upset that the bus was starting to run late. And no one was getting left behind.