Boring Old People

It was the first run of the day, a yellow 2 out of lower Lynwood, right off the freeway, starting at 4am. The first stop was a nice couple, probably early 70’s, we’ll call them Henry and Mabel. The other was a single, “Lauren”, several blocks away, maybe a bit past 60. Being locals, they could, and did, discuss the state of potholes, bingo at the senior center…it was so boring, I started driving faster, just so it could end sooner.

But then the conversation took a turn when they discussed hosting students. Lauren said, “I used to do that, but I stopped after I was raped at knife point by a student.” She talked about that for a bit. I couldn’t help it, I slowed down to hear better.

Mabel sympathized: she had once had a job as a bus driver at a mental hospital, and while driving was assaulted by Jimmy, a huge, freckled, gangly, mostly gentle, but occasionally violent, client of the institution. It was still on the grounds; she got the van stopped, tried to defend herself as best she could, but was choked and sustained a broken arm. The security staff heard her honking and came running.

When Jimmy saw them, he snapped back into docility. “I be good, Mabel. Jimmy be good now.”

“Damn right you’re going to be good,” she said, as the badged apes hustled Jimmy off for an impromptu Rolfing session.

This seemed to have blown the doors of the conversation wide open. Lauren talked about her three sons, all of whom became garbage men:

“Larry had a route that went through a rich neighborhood. He used to make out like a bandit at Christmas.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Oh, some of the rich families would get drunk and fight. And then he’d score a $200 sweater from Nordstrom’s, still in the box, sitting on top of the garbage can. Stuff like that.”

Another son, she said, had a lot of sex with women on his route: “Lonely housewives. He kept a collection of dildoes on his dashboard.”

Part of what makes my life interesting is short-term gullibility. I believed her, though somewhere in the back of my mind I was trying to picture having sex while your truck is blocking the street. Henry and Mabel didn’t have much to say about that story.

Then Lauren got onto a story about a plumbing explosion at a summer cabin: “There was shit flying everywhere, shit all over the walls.”

It was getting a bit weird. And—how did the dildoes fit in (so to speak)? Would you bother with toys during quick sex? Would a garbage truck driver really sport a pastoral tableau of dildoes in the window of his truck? (For some reason, I pictured them in a dashboard display of a meadow, a pond, maybe some toy animals contentedly grazing among them.) And how many women would want to have sex with an on-duty garbageman? I was starting to wonder about Lauren’s veracity, if not sanity. I started driving faster. Fortunately, we were now headed up the badly paved road to the airport.

I tried to steer the conversation towards potholes. Sometimes these old people scare me.

Whale Shark

Call him Whale Shark. But first, let’s talk about her.

She was nerdy-stunning, early 30’s, with dark pinned-up hair and black glasses, clear pale complexion, and a low musical voice from ye faire isle of Britian. First stop of a yellow 2 out of Ballard, about 7:30 in the morning, yet she was as sleepy-eyed as a 3:30 pickup. Not a morning person, but still capable of witty, yet trenchant, pleasantries. I really wanted to talk with her more, but she clearly needed space, so I didn’t push it. Sure enough, she sat in the back row, always the sign of someone who doesn’t want to talk.

(Except for one guy from Everett who went all the way in back, then started a shouted conversation with me over the freeway noise. I finally pulled over so he could move up. I don’t know why, he didn’t have that much to say—I guess I was just tired of being shouted at.)

The other stop, Whale Shark’s, was on Phinney Ridge. “Ridge” is Seattlish for “View”, and “View” translates as “money.” He had the whole kit: two stories of Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains, German cars, the “My Kid Is an Honor Student at Precious Prep” bumper sticker. Dressed in technocrat khaki and an invisible “Smartest Guy in the Room” sweatshirt, he started to sit in the first row, spied her, and switched to the middle row, just in front of her. Wave bye-bye to the wife and kids, champ.

As we pulled away, he tried to strike up a conversation, despite her minimal replies. “Parry” and “deflect” are sword fighting terms that have been drafted into describing conversation, and never has it seemed so literal to me as I watched her fend him off with as little energy as politeness would allow.

He was growing desperate, and started talking about his visit to the Atlanta Aquarium, and their stupendous whale sharks. “Biggest fish in the sea: forty feet long, 20 tons, and you’re right there looking at them. Amazing. I mean, forty feet…”

We were at a red light, and I glanced back in the rearview mirror. She had had enough. With the efficiency of a master swordfighter, she pierced his heart (or loins) with the tiniest of gestures: she closed her eyes. He was frozen with disbelief for a few seconds, then turned around and stared morosely out the window for the rest of the trip.

When we got to the airport, I unloaded her luggage, and she signed her credit card slip. A good-humored look passed between us: acknowledgement of what had happened with Whale Shark, an appreciation on her part that I was letting her be a sleepy morning traveler, without asking for more. And maybe something else, a sense of kindred spirits, an acknowledgement of the conversation that could have been. A special bond, perhaps.

That night, I told Tess the story of the trip, including the exchanged look with her at the end of it. “Oh God,” she said, “you’re as pathetic as he is.”

Whale Shark, my brother!

Living Under the Sword

Living Under the Sword

I picked him up at airport around 4 a.m. A Hispanic man, middle height, barrel-chested, could have been either side of 50. A big duffel for luggage. He was an itinerant construction worker—cement was his field—headed for a job up in Everett. It was just him and me, so there would be at least 40 minutes to talk.

He told me about working on a high building early in his career, and how it terrified him, so he went to the library and got a book about fear, and studied it.

“Did that cure it?”

“No, I was still afraid.”

I forget how it came up—but it turned out he’d had a stroke once, and had fully recovered, except for one thing: there was a small blood clot in his neck, a vein too delicate to operate on. The surgeon told him that when it broke loose, it would enter his brain and kill him.

“He told me it could be tomorrow, it could be 20 years from now—no way to tell.”

“Do you think about it often?”

“Every day when I wake up, I wonder, will this be the day?”

The doctor told him he was okay to work, but also let him know (wink wink, nudge nudge) that he was willing write him a recommendation for disability, because he’d gotten such a lousy break. But when the man learned how much money he would get each month, “and the kind of flophouses I’d have to live in,” he decided to take his chances and keep working. It had been about 10 years so far.

I asked if the news had a spiritual effect on him. It did, but not in the way I expected:

“I used to be a Pentecostal, but when I was recovering from the stroke, I started reading about biology to learn what was happening to me. Then I started reading about evolution, and I ended up leaving the church.”

I once heard about a study that showed even highly educated people often cling to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence. I loved and respected his intellectual curiosity and honesty—and his courage—how he would seek answers, and live by the best ones he could find. He was one of my all-time favorite people on the van. The conversation was pretty wide-ranging, but I still remember the last thing he said:

“People are out there trying to build financial empires, but that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what it’s about at all.”

Pee Bitch

I picked her up at a low-rent apartment warren in Kent: she was in her 50’s, Hispanic, short, round features; the years had marked and weathered her, but she had an impish vivacity that made age moot. She sat in the first row of the van, the first passenger on a Yellow 2. (“Yellow 2” was a radio code, based on stoplight colors; followed by a number, it indicated how many stops you were assigned. Once, I was taking an Asian student to the U district, and I got paged an assignment. I radioed confirmation to dispatch: “This is 832, I’m Yellow 1.” I thought I felt a chill from behind me, and wondered if I should explain that “Yellow 1” wasn’t racist, but that seemed awkward, so we just drove along in silence. Awkwardly.)

Anyway, she reminded me a lot of my brother: it turned out she was also the oldest sibling, and she had the same kind of megawatt personality, the open, say-anything fearlessness. She was so easy to talk with, and although it wasn’t that far to next stop in Fairwood, the conversation covered a lot of ground.
It was her birthday, she was dying of cancer, and was flying out to see her little sister for the last time.

She had been quite the party girl, a long dance with drink and drugs. Regrets, sure, but she had had a lot of fun as well. Wondering about God. I said I didn’t think she had anything to worry about on that score. I know she had dark moments, but she was yet another one of those people who astound me with their bravery, even with finality’s teeth sunk deep in their arm.

The Fairwood stop was two people, an upwardly mobile couple transitioning from hip to middle class. Traveling abroad. They sat behind her, we chatted a bit, then she and I continued talking. We were a few minutes out from the airport when she said, “Excuse me, I’m sorry, but I really need to pee. Could you stop at a gas station?”
“Let me think about it for a sec.” Let’s see, one possible exit coming up, but the traffic lights… while I was mentally mapping it out, she turned to the couple and said, “I’m sorry the pee bitch ruined your trip.”

I watched them in the mirror; they were pretty cool, didn’t say anything, just looked at each other with raised eyebrows: Well, that just happened. I said to her, “Actually, if you can just hang on for about four minutes, the airport is faster than any stop we could make.”

She thanked me and we continued talking. When were on the airport drive, she said to me, formally, “I would like to see you after I return, sir.” What should I say? What happens internally when you have to make a decision on the spot like that? My Danger Robot was flailing its accordion-pleated tubular arms, my Spiritual Wanderer was wagging a finger, telling me accept everyone, and my Company Man was waving the rule book: no contact with guests outside work. I tell myself it wasn’t Company Man who won; it was just not wanting the complication, and feeling like what we had had was all it needed to be.

So I demurred, and she asked one more time, again with “sir.” I evaded. And then we were at Southwest Air. The young couple dashed off. I took her suitcase to the curbside check-in where she was talking to the Southwest agent. She didn’t seem to be in a hurry to find a bathroom.

Maybe Company Man didn’t win, because I did something very unprofessional: I gave her a good-bye hug. I suddenly realized, seeing how the agent was looking at her, that maybe she was drunk or high. I wondered if they were going to let her on the plane, if she would get to see her little sister.

I called Clear on the radio, and got a yellow 3 out of Ravenna.

Take the Airline Confirmation Number Personality Test

So you’re trying to spell out a confirmation number into a cell phone, and to make sure there are no mistakes, you say words that begin with each of the letters. There’s a standard one the military uses, something about Foxtrots and Tangoes (what’s up with NATO and ballroom dancing?), but you don’t really know that, so you make something up.

Go ahead, try this 6-digit confirmation number. But first, do some method acting: you’re going on an important flight, and you need to fix the reservation, but you’re running late, and now the shuttle van is here. You get on, and you’re self-conscious about something you don’t like about yourself: hair/weight/ age/income, whatever. You feel everyone’s judging you. Got it? Okay, make the call…they want the confirmation number…don’t think, just say whatever word comes up for each letter:

G F 3 L B 7

She was in her 50’s, a large white woman, about 300 pounds. Hers was the last stop before the airport, a modest house in the Lynwood suburbs. There was something incredibly decent and likeable about her; she seemed like someone who was fair-minded, always trying to do the right thing, kind to those around her. (These are judgements you make while meeting, greeting, taking their luggage, etc.) After we got going, she politely excused herself to make a call to the airline, and they asked for her confirmation number. In her phonetic alphabet, it was “God Fat three Love Blame seven.”

Colliding Metaphors

She was a gregarious young white woman, early 20’s, a brunette pixie out from the midwest to visit her boyfriend. She sat directly behind me, the only passenger; she asked me when we’d arrive and called her boyfriend to let him know. Then we had a lively, if not deep, conversation. At one point she stopped to take a call from a girlfriend. She started talking about her job.

Sometimes you start out on one train of thought, only to derail into another. Maybe you start to say “he blew his top,” but switch to “he had a cow.” That’s what happened to her: she was talking about a problem at her job and said, “Like, Jason, the assistant manager? He got so mad, he blew a cow.”

I held the steering wheel in a death grip. Do not laugh out loud. Do not drive into the ditch. Fortunately, because she was right behind me, she couldn’t see the war between hilarity and professionalism taking place on my face.

This was early in my shuttle career, and I chose a poor route that made us about 15 minutes late. The boyfriend seemed angry, and kept looking at me suspiciously. Good thing we weren’t near a cow pasture–who knows what might have happened?