From Ordinary People

An Interview with Nathan Vass – Part 2

Missed Part 1 of this interview? Check it out here.

I asked Nathan about the recent failure of King County Proposition 1 to support Metro.

Nathan: It’s a complicated question – there’s a number of different ways to answer it and think about it. [pauses] There was a 2009 audit which goes into quite a bit of detail about where Metro could conserve money. Only a really small percentage of that audit is about operator wages and actual bus routes. Most of it is about the necessity or lack thereof of mid-level manager positions. And how Metro is one of the more top-heavy transit institutions in the country. And it’s a huge document but it’s worthwhile to take some time looking at, and [pauses] I think both sides of the argument have a good point – it is just not the case that Metro has the money in coffers somewhere because they really have done quite a bit of downsizing and legitimate review… The guy at the top, Kevin Desmond, is fantastic, comparatively younger guy from New York, loves transit, genuinely cares about people, and it’s comforting to know that there’s somebody with those perspectives and attitudes at the top…

In as far as the vote not passing, it’s confusing to explain to people exactly what’s going on in terms of the deficit when they’re looking at all these new coaches, and Rapid Ride. Those are from different revenue streams, Rapid Ride is actually a cost-savings for Metro because it’s federally funded. It’s cheaper to implement Rapid Rides than to not do them, if I understand correctly. And the revenue for purchasing new vehicles is a different revenue stream for some reason cannot be reallocated. And so to try to explain these political technicalities to people – it’s too complicated, people don’t think like that when they’re looking at a ballot, and so it’s not too terribly surprising that the thing didn’t pass. However, it’s really encouraging that it did pass in Seattle. I’m extremely excited for Ed Murray’s decision to put that on the ballot just for Seattle, because that’ll be wonderful.

Those four rounds of cuts, the first round of cuts is not very steep at all, I don’t think very many people would notice it, but the last three rounds of cuts are just draconian. And we all know Seattle is now the fastest growing city in the US, it’s not going to be able to maintain that, if bus service is hampered. I was speaking with someone who lives in Snohomish County, and he was telling me how there’s over a thousand swing-shift and grave-shift jobs all over the city that are vacant, because there’s no bus service for people to ride the bus to those jobs. That’s what cutting service does to the economy. It’s a valuable necessity for people who even never use the bus, because if you’re a millionaire and you own five restaurants and none of your staff can ride the bus to work, you know, it’s an issue, it increases the quality of life for everybody.

Of course, it mitigates traffic in ways that are obvious that we don’t need to talk about, but yeah, I’m hoping that, the political process can accommodate the needs of the people and that something good can happen in terms of keeping transit here. It’s just, it’s so important, I’m cautiously optimistic. I believe that enough people understand and care about the need for people to move around, I also like the proposed head tax that Kshama Sawant and another fellow was proposing, not as competition for Mr. Murray’s Seattle-only thing, but as a complementary thing – it was a less regressive thing. Anyways, anyways. I hope something really awesome happens.

And I don’t know if it’s too necessary for me to point this out, but there’s a huge range in what drivers are paid. I don’t think that the wage is excessive, because we’re living in one of the most expensive countries – excuse me, cities, in the country. And the wage needs to be comparable to that. And it’s benefits that we need to take into consideration when we talk about what operators are paid. There are a very small number of drivers who come in seven days a week, and try to get all the overtime they can. And they tend to be very unhappy, and they also tend to make a lot of money. They’re a pretty small percentage of the workforce. Most of the workforce just makes a regular working wage, and I hope people don’t confuse that small percentage of drivers who jump on all the overtime with what 80%, 90% of the drivers are paid. And there’s also a large contingent of part-time drivers who, you know, are making $30,000 a year, and it would be silly to call them overpaid because they’re struggling to pay rent. Anyways, oh my goodness, I’m talking too much about money and politics. [laughs]

For me it’s just I like coming in and driving buses. And I hope that the system can continue to grow – Kevin Desmond is awesome for one reason, because he would actually like to double the amount of transit on the streets. He has a plan for how to do that, of course, the money isn’t there, but if it ever was, it’s something that he would like to implement. He understands that the city is totally on the upswing, and it’s not enough to just cover the deficit and maintain the routes that we do have, but to like, why not just, you know, make the system completely amazing? Rather than pretty amazing…

After a period of basically being on call as a bus driver and never knowing his schedule day-to-day, Nathan now drives the 7 regularly at night.

Nathan: The 7 at night time – I love it, I love it, I love it. It turns into the 49 at night, a nice big long journey… and I like it. It’s so cool to be getting in the bus on Rainier Beach, and knowing that I’m going to continue driving this all the way to the U-District, that’s like, totally awesome to me. [laughs]

And um, in the pick room [at Metro, where drivers request the schedules they want and are then assigned], oh so, on the last couple of hours of the last day of the pick, the atmosphere in there, you know, people are frustrated and depressed and disappointed because they’re not getting what they want, they’re being forced into hours and times of day that they don’t want to drive, or days off, and I went in there really hoping to drive the 7 at night, which is the lowest seniority route in the entire system. Of course it was available. And I jumped on it – and the supervisors who were there were like, we’ve never seen anything like this before! [we laugh] I was so thrilled and I was showing my schedule to everyone and really excited. I just, I feel unreasonably lucky that stuff that I like is stuff that other people don’t like. I hear drivers talking about how it takes years and years, ten years before they finally drive the route they want to drive and I like that the 7 is not one of those types of routes.

And I don’t mean to like be bagging on drivers with bad attitudes… it might not seem like it’s a physically taxing job, but it totally is. If you imagine driving a road trip that’s 8 hours long every single day, it does stuff to your lower right back cause you’re using your brake and car pedal all the time, and if you’re not, like, stretching and exercising your knees and shoulders, and your neck – if your body is in pain, it’s hard to be mentally upbeat and friendly. And I remember riding the bus all the time to work and the driver was really kind of sour, and one day he mentioned to me that he had finally had back surgery and now he felt a thousand times better, and this stabbing pain which was there all the time before was now gone. And it was so much easier to understand – okay, no wonder he was in such a bad mood. Or there’s routes that don’t have bathrooms at the end, and so you might be talking to a driver who hasn’t used the bathroom in six hours, of course he’s going to be in a hurry and pissed off.

And for myself I try to, like, do my best to mitigate those things for my own well being and also the well being of the people equally, where, you know, I just obsess about stretching and exercising. I’m always like, I have to stand up and get the blood flowing again, and restart my metabolism at the end of every trip, you know, just get out of the seat. It’s important to me to do those things and eat healthy and get some sleep. This is one of those jobs where I’ve discovered, you just cannot do it if you haven’t slept – like some jobs you can, like, sleep for four hours and sort of make it through the day. That would be impossible on this, and so  I notice that that when I start taking care of myself, it just, oh my goodness, wow, it transforms – it makes it so much easier to be the better parts of myself and exercise more patience.

There’s this week when I was driving the 12 and I realized that I was getting irritated at stuff that usually never bothers me, and I was like, “what’s going on here?” It’s not like any of this is that much different than, you know, a month ago. And I think it was I didn’t eat breakfast all that week, and that was impacting the way I was looking at things. Usually if I have a bad day on the bus, which is extremely rare, but if that does happen, it’s normally not because of stuff that happened on the bus, but because of stuff going on in my personal life…

Erica: I don’t know how it works at Metro, but I remember when I rode your bus, the times when you were just like, oh, hey, it’s cool if you don’t have the fare, and you gave somebody a transfer, and that was really cool. Does that ever get you in trouble with Metro?

Nathan: That’s a good question. The diplomatic answer is that the rule is that we’re supposed to avoid fare disputes… An assault is very expensive for Metro, there’s quite a bit of legal costs, there’s also medical if the operator is injured, there’s the police report, there’s the time off that the driver receives for being in the hospital, so on and so forth. It’s thousands and thousands of dollars…. It’s even impractical to hire people, like fare enforcement people, to enforce the fare, because those people are going to be paid more money than the amount of fare that they’re going to be able to enforce. It’s a formality, you know, we know not everyone is going to pay the fare, and that’s okay, if most of the people pay the fare, great. The 7 has the highest amount of people who don’t pay, but it also has the highest amount of people who do pay because it’s the most ridden route in the entire system. And so we’re supposed to avoid fare disputes and to me what that means is there’s a number of ways to interpret that… I think it’s more important for me to spread goodwill and you know, spread the old Metro goodwill, as a supervisor once told me, as opposed to extorting small dollar amounts from strangers.

I asked Nathan about the differences in demographics on some Metro routes, like the 48 that goes from the generally very white Loyal Heights area to the Mount Baker Transit Center, in a neighborhood that has a lot more people of color and fewer white folks.

Nathan: The 48 has a fascinating history. It used to go to West Seattle, and when they were first implementing the route, there was this mild controversy where people were like, there’s no point to making the 48… there’s not going to be a need for black people to go to the UW campus, why are you guys putting in this route, no one’s going to use it. And now it’s one of the highest used routes in the whole system, it was a great move on the part of Metro, of course.

There has been this attitude in Metro for a long time, like, a desire to provide a good public service for people who don’t have the means, and that it’s important to stay really connected with those people. For example when the RapidRides first started getting implemented, there was some talk of having the first one be the Bellevue one, but they were like, that sends a terrible message, and it’s the opposite of what we want to do. We’re going to have the first one be the A line, it’s going to be the 174 on Pac Highway, those are going to be the people who get the first awesome RapidRide bus service. And I really like that they think like that. One of their criteria for whether or not to keep a route is if it serves low-income neighborhoods, like that’s a factor for keeping a route, and I’m really thankful for that, that Metro cares that way. The 7 runs every 10 minutes all day, it runs 24 hours, and it’s outstanding bus service. Rainier Valley has the best bus service in all of Seattle, and I’m really thankful for that…

It’s exciting to be downtown when the sort of mixture is happening [between the demographics that ride the 49 and the 7]. Like on the 3/4 [routes], on 3rd Avenue, where the Harborview people are getting off and the Queen Anne people are getting on, and for a few glorious stops, everyone’s on the bus together, coexisting.

[Sometimes] me and some street people are talking in the front, and I can tell that somebody from Magnolia is listening, and it’s exciting to me to ponder what they’re thinking, what does this look like to them. And hopefully they’re getting something out of it… Just recently on my number 2, this guy on Queen Anne who was from Montana was talking to this older first-generation African man who wasn’t having a very good day, but who was happy to be talking to somebody, and I could tell that it was a very meaningful interaction for both of them. It was so awesome. I just feel really alive doing routes like that.

Thanks to Nathan for his time. We had a great conversation. Be sure to read his blog and look at his photography at www.nathanvass.com.

Link: Interview with Ed Ewing of Cascade Bicycle Club

Thanks to my friend Bess for alerting me to this terrific interview with Ed Ewing, Cascade Bicycle Club’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion and co-founder of the Major Taylor Project, which brings the joys of bicycling, bike touring, and bike repair to low-income youth and young people of color in Seattle! And thanks to The Bicycle Story for their good work. There are so many inspiring folks in this town!

P.S. If you know an inspiring person in Seattle who you think would be a good subject for an interview, please let me know in the comments!

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.

All the ordinary people – where do they all come from?

Ordinary People is a blog of interviews and stories about people in Seattle who are doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways. We all have the ability to make positive impacts on the world, and we all come from unique positions that shape how we impact the world.

I aim to eliminate the hero worshipping aspect of so many inspirational interviews and stories, showing that each of us can start from where we are.

I hope to be able to post a new interview at least once a month when this gets rolling. Stay tuned!