An Interview with Nathan Vass – Part 1

Nathan Vass is the friendliest bus driver I have ever seen. I rode his bus on May 1, 2012, it was the 3 or the 4, and was just floored by how friendly he was to everyone, how he put so much thoughtful and positive energy out making announcements and saying hello to literally everyone as we traveled from downtown to the Central District. It was sometime later that I came across his blog and was so thrilled that not only is he working so hard on the bus, he’s also writing about the experiences he has with many different people who make bus driving so rewarding for him, so I get to keep enjoying them even though I’ve only ridden his bus once. The amazing thing about Nathan is the joy he gets from interacting with people and making their bus ride a pleasant one. Here’s a guy who turns his ordinary job, bus driving, into a real experience that’s more than just getting from A to B.

I sat down with Nathan at Cafe Allegro on June 9 and we ended up talking for nearly two hours. Here’s the first set of excerpts from our talk. There will be more to come.

Erica: Do I recall right that you’re from LA, originally? How did you come up to Seattle?

Nathan: Born in South Central LA, and my family moved up here when I was quite young, and I kind of went back and forth, and the mixture of the timelines are weird, but, raised for a lot of it here in Seattle. I really like Seattle. I moved back to LA to finish school, but then I moved back up here after school, because Seattle is amazing and it’s smaller and safer, but it’s still large, and it has a, it’s also very diverse, which is one of my favorite things about the city, but it has a, just a sort of vibrant life to it, it feels like it’s a city that’s going places rather than one in decline. And there’s a freshness to it. In LA, particularly in Hollywood, where I was living, there’s a kind of a desperation in the air, and emphasis on status and superficiality that gets really old after a while. Here you can have meaningful conversations with people, you know, it’s just ten times better. It’s a thousand times better. I could never drive the bus in LA and love it as much as I do here.

Erica: What’s it like riding the bus in LA?

Nathan: OK, that’s a very interesting question, because down there there’s definitely the sort of class stigma against buses, where buses are largely used by the lower and working class, and here, that’s just not the case. In comparison, in Seattle, everyone uses the bus. You probably know, more than half the workforce downtown commutes in by bus, a lot of the rest are carpool and rail and other options, and so it’s a very like, it feels more appropriately like, democratic or egalitarian or like this wonderful leveling plane that the inside of the bus can be, where everyone is on the same sort of level. And that’s one of my favorite things about driving the bus, because although I choose routes that are more lower class and working class because I get along better with the people, it’s hugely satisfying to know everyone uses the bus in Seattle, and that’s exciting to me.

Erica: Can I ask about your class background?

Nathan: In cultural anthropology class, they define the separation between middle class and working class as, middle class is if you lose your job, you can continue to live at your income spending level for a year. Working class is where you cannot do that. And we would definitely be in the latter. It was good to have the experience of growing up with not very much money because yeah, it just, it forces one to, as many people can understand, just have a certain perspective on the need for, the value of help received from other people, of kindness and gratitude, the importance of not putting too much value on possessions, on knowing that things are temporary and you might not be able to – It encourages being thankful and grateful, I guess, and also, forces a certain immediacy on one’s life, for better or worse, that I think is a valuable learning lesson… it’s weird to talk about these things.

Erica: Yeah, I understand. So you feel that that background, because of that background, you get along better with working class folks?

Nathan: Yeah, definitely. Because – I wonder if it makes it much easier for me to empathize with their situations, and – okay, okay, how does one put this in a diplomatic way? [pauses] The people who are the most, in my experience, the people who are the most polite to me on the bus, are the homeless, the lower class and the working class. And um, that’s probably the simplest reason for why I like spending more time with them, and it just seems, to make a huge generalization, it seems easier for them to understand the value of kindness to others, to appreciate being acknowledged or respected, and to be able to do that in like fashion. And so, I hesitate to like – yes, there are rich people who are nice, that’s just – there are also a number that are – have some, a little more, um, [pauses] preoccupied. [laughs]

Erica: Too preoccupied to be nice.

Nathan: Yeah. And uh, it’s fun to drive the 3 and the 4, because it goes from the best real estate in the city out to the worst. On the Queen Anne half of it, the bus is really quiet. The passengers definitely don’t talk to me, but they also don’t talk to each other. It feels a little more isolated and sectioned off, whereas once you get out to the Central Area, on the other half of the route, the people know each other’s names, and they’re asking how each other’s kids are doing, and talking about what happened in church last week. There’s a sense of solidarity, of community, that feels great to be part of. That’s why I love the 3 and the 4.

Erica: I ride what’s now the E, the 358, and I’ve ridden it a lot. I know, that you like driving the routes that people knock, like the 7, the 358, people say that they’re dangerous. How do you respond when people like, are just like, oh my gosh, you like driving this route?

Nathan: One, I’m so thankful that most drivers don’t like driving those routes. Because that allows me to jump in there and grab ‘em and just have the time of my life. I’m just really really thankful that the stuff that I like to do is stuff that most other drivers don’t like to do. There are – there is a small cohort, I guess, that totally like loves this type of crazy awesome wonderful energy, where you put a lot of yourself out there, and you get a lot back. So the first two years of bus driving for me, I was at East Base and Bellevue Base, where, it hadn’t occurred to me that the most satisfying thing about driving the buses is, um, interacting with strangers and this whole sort of perspective that I have now wasn’t there yet when I started. I simply loved riding buses, wanted to try driving them, ever since I was a child I loved riding buses.

So it was the fulfillment of that sort of dream of, I’m gonna drive the bus and have a good time and be nice to people. But the focus wasn’t, I’m gonna do the stuff that I do now, in terms of really caring about other human beings and the whole reason that I’m out here is to try to be positive and send some positive energy out to the folks. But after two years of driving Bellevue Base and East Base, it’s just – it’s really quiet out there, and the roads are really wide, and not very many people ride the bus. And driving the same route every day like you want it to be – I want it to be high energy, like, I want to feel like I need to be there, and that it’s valuable that I’m driving the bus rather anyone else could be driving the bus.…

The real reason I’ve stayed on these routes for so long is because the people are just so satisfying to interact with. It’s not because it’s like, I’m trying to prove something to myself, or trying to be cool by driving dangerous routes, no. It’s because the people are awesome, and to me it’s just a huge privilege to get to be in their presence, let alone offer some, some kindness and positive energy and receive some in turn from them. It’s a huge honor to be getting to spend time with the people who ride those routes. I get a lot out of it, and I hope that I’m able to offer something in return. Yeah, there’s the challenge with working with the people, there’s something about how when a – I was talking with another driver about this, when you’d almost rather have, I would prefer to have like, a street person yelling at me, because we’re still interacting as equals on the same plane, where that’s quite a bit different from the whole like, what some people call the Bellevue thing, where there’s a sort of pejorative condescension of somebody looking down on you because to them you’re furniture and you’re like the help. And that’s a energy that I don’t care to receive all the time, and maybe I’m hypersensitive to that from driving the bus, [inaudible] in a city where all class groups use the bus, but it’s something that’s on my mind a lot, and so it’s great to be on the 7, where there is just absolutely none of that, and you have a bunch of people who, for them, respect and acknowledgement have enormous currency, and when you get off the bus to help somebody with their big suitcase getting on the bus, or going out to help them with the bike, for the person who’s stuck with the bike rack, you sense this sort of approval on the part of the passengers where they’re like, okay, this person actually cares.

Check out Nathan Vass’ website, including his blog. You’ll be glad you did.