Thirty three questions with Nathan Vass, artist, photographer, filmmaker...and Metro bus driver

with William Pennington

 

If I were invisible, I'd sneak a ride on Nathan Vass' bus, just to see if it's as interesting as I think it is.  Actually, I don't need to do that.  I can just pay the fare, say something strange and see what happens. My guess is that he'll find some way to spin the conversation around and somehow make me feel better. A happy bus driver is really hard to find, for some reason, but this is only one thing he does well.

His photography thankfully lacks the positivity of his personality, which helps his photos carry such grit and depth that even I am a little jealous.  I thought I was a decent photographer until I saw his work. His short films also seem insanely real, from a documentary on a Real Change newspaper seller to an ordinary ride on the the 7 (and 49) bus. 

When I asked him the bus questions I've been dying to ask any driver, he expounded and then some. He writes a bus blog for theurbanist.org, which is where I first discovered him. His own nathanvass.com features his work.

 

I can't tell which I like better, the positive nature of your bus blog, or the grittiness of your photos.  I bet they help you stay balanced, but is there a medium which you couldn't live without?

Visuals will always be the first lens through which I look at the world. Writing is profoundly satisfying but secondary. My parents are both painters. They introduced me to painting (acrylic) and 35mm film at a very young age. The magic dance of light and emulsion on film, of exploring the world through the film camera, feels as natural as breathing. Although I love the expansive nature of the English language (there's always another word that means what you want, but which might have a more suitable rhythm), it is still reductive, and even it can't hold a candle to the communicative power of images.  

 

Why aren't bus tires filled with foam pellets or something to help prevent flats?  It seems like a bus flat tire would be a major inconvenience for a lot of people for a long time.  A driver once told me that sometimes the bus could jump a little when a tire explodes.

If you're referring to the urethane air cells (Tire Balls), those are for off-road vehicles only. Regarding foam tires, they weigh 2-3 times more than pneumatic tires, give a much bumpier ride, and often amount to higher lifetime cost due to different maintenance procedures. Interestingly, in my near-10 years as an operator and even more as a bus rider, I've heard of only one bus tire blowout in King County. It was northbound on I-5, and didn't affect the bus's movement other than slow it down- thankfully no jumping or steering catastrophes. One of the many perks of a vehicle so well-built it costs (depending on model type) $750,000-$1,000,000 each! 

 

Do you have a favorite video section at Scarecrow Video?  Or maybe your films are already there, in the local section? (I should know this)  I don't think there's a bus section, but there is a trucker section (my personal favorite).

The Director Section is my favorite! To organize the films that way is by its nature to emphasize and celebrate auteur theory, which I am a big proponent of. I love how conducive that place is to browsing. I still need to get on their case about letting my films be there, although I only have short films to offer at the moment, which I imagine they would have less of an interest in!

 

Are drivers responsible for cleaning the messes on their buses?  Or does a cleaner come in?  What's the procedure?

Thankfully, no! The cleaning crews kindly do that. There's a nightly sweep and air removal (gigantic vacuum tubes attached to the doors), and a deep clean that takes place less often- I forget the exact frequency. I used to often get my bus right after its deep clean, and it felt like driving off the factory floor. Nothing but fresh lemon scent, although boy, did it ever dissipate quickly! Some routes are instantly identifiable by the chaotic state of the interior of the coach, and the routes I love are certainly on that list!

 

Is there an art medium where you want to improve upon?  Like maybe drawing or painting?

Drawing was my first passion, followed by painting, then photography, into which I now involve cinematography and directing. The medium is slightly less important to me than whatever it is I'm trying to express. To take writing and photography, for example, since they're what I do most nowadays, I see them as of a piece: you the artist, using the medium's aesthetic to investigate the details of an emotion or circumstance. So much of my art now has to with the idea of, "what does life, in this moment, really feel like?"

 

What do you do if someone starts smoking on the bus?  Do buses have smoke detectors?

Buses don't have smoke detectors, just a fire detector and alarm. Due to the enclosed space you can instantly tell if someone's smoking, however! It hardly ever happens on my bus. Generally other passengers or myself will encourage the person to stop smoking their substance of choice. I try to phrase it amiably- I'm going to be seeing these people again, after all! "Smoking's bad manners," etc! 

 

Also, how do you handle kids who keep pulling the cord for every stop?  What's your strategy?

Once I figure out that's what's going on, I have a tendency to turn off the bell. Anything else is too much an interruption of service- stopping at every zone needlessly slows the route, and although the kids' actions may be annoying, they're not being unsafe. In my view, it's not a security issue and doesn't warrant the significant time drain of police or supervisor involvement. I'll let passengers know to give me a shout or wave rather than pulling the bell. 

 

There are times when I really connect with a driver, and feel a need to shake their hand or hug them, but the "Don't Touch the Driver!" sign threatening legal actions prevents me from doing this.  What's the best way to show my gratitude?

The "Don't Touch the Driver" language is needlessly all-encompassing. Touching the driver isn't against the law; harming the driver is. Handshakes, fistpounds and the rest are all great! Bring it on!

 

The way you a make normally thankless job into something positive brings me a lot of joy.  And it also makes me wish I had done something similar when I was a mail carrier for the Postal Service.  Does Metro officially recognize your blog?  Have they ever officially told you to stop, or have you ever gotten a feeling that they'd rather you curb any criticism or negativity which might seem detrimental to the organization?

They do! When a post is particularly good, it gets sent around to the top brass. I continually get feedback from many within the organization, especially on the administrative side, of how much they appreciate the unique armchair perspective it gives them of what Metro is like on street-level. There have been other bus driver blogs, basically long-form ranting and complaining, which haven't lasted for obvious reasons. I see the blog as a way to share the beautiful moments I see every day; Metro recognizes it as good publicity and a great internal tool for other operators in learning customer service. I can't express how grateful I am for this, and for the support and kudos I get from management and training. Everyone wins!

 

The great nathanvass.com offers me a glimpse into what my life might have been like if I had pursued the fine arts.  Do you ever want to go back to school, or perhaps learn how to fix buses?  

Fixing buses I'll leave to better folk than I! I'm currently back at University to refine my Korean, but beyond that my time is so filled with artmaking endeavors (gallery shows, film submissions, blog-to-book work, and screenplay work these days) that further schooling in those realms would be redundant.

 

Why did the free ride zone really go away?  And what does Metro think about that Facebook page that gives away the free transfers?  By drawing more attention to it, am I jinxing it?  Should I have not even asked?  I heard they don't really care, because it helps poor people ride the bus.  

There's a lot of politics involved with the elimination of the RFA, which is partly linked with arriving at compromises during the years of Metro's budget deficit. Those were dire days, and tough decisions needed to be made in order to preserve service. What surprised me most was how quickly people acclimated to the simplified "pay as you enter" system. It's dramatically streamlined things, and new elements like ORCA LIFT have helped mitigate certain issues. As for the Facebook page- I can only speak for myself here, not Metro. I find it annoying but unavoidable. Transfers are rampantly abused by some, but they're also very important for others. All systems are going to be abused by a percentage of a population, but that doesn't discount the value those systems offer. Given that the lion's share of revenue is from sources other than cash fare, I don't see the abuse as a major issue. 

 

What happens when a bus or trolley breaks down on Broadway and Pine?  There's no room for cars to get around.  Why did they design the streets that way at that particular busy intersection?

Again, speaking from my own perspective- I imagine Vision Zero has something to do with it. Traffic calming measures like what we've seen on Capitol Hill or Columbia City reduce speeds and contribute to saving lives. Nobody likes being stuck behind the streetcar, least of all me, but you're right in that intersections like that require a little more vigilance and aptitude on the part of not just transit vehicles but ubers, taxis, and SOVs.

 

Can I bring food on the bus?  Or is it more about the trash?

I think the rule is drinks in covered containers only. And yes, the rule really has more to do with cleanliness. Definitely not the most urgent safety consideration as far as what I'm usually thinking about when operating!

 

I heard there was a rule against letting on smelly passengers.  Is that true?  What if they're with me?

Being smelly is constitutionally covered! Entirely legal. If it's a hygiene issue that interferes with customer safety (contagions, blood-borne pathogens, etc) or safe operations (risk of operator vomiting, eyesight inhibition, etc), that's a different story. I've recommended various facilities to people for taking free showers, etc, but finding polite ways to talk around this is tricky! 

 

How fast can you get your bus, and is bus jumping sadly a thing of the past? 

Our coaches have governors that cut off the speed at about the speed limit- it varies from coach to coach. Steve McQueen would be sorely disappointed. 

 

Do you ever have dreams at night of recklessly driving your bus thru downtown to make it time to slay Kong on top of the Space Needle to rescue the girl?  Maybe you shouldn't answer this.

Now that you've suggested it, I just might tonight! Truthfully though, nearly all my bus driving dreams have to do with signing in on time. Any Metro driver will tell you, accurately, that that's the most stressful part of the job (1 minute late and you don't work!), and therefore plays most often in my dreams! Losing track of time, running late on my way in, missing the bus to work, all the rest. Your dream idea sounds so much more exciting! Time to go pull out the 1933 classic!

 

Is there a Metro Bus Driver Hall of Fame somewhere?  Or maybe you can describe who goes on your Mt Rushmore of Metro Bus Drivers?

They select Operators of the Month at each base, based on commendations, safe driving, and more, selected by their peers; from this pool is selected the Operator of the Year. I've been Operator of the Month twice, which is rare. My Mount Rushmore contains the great men and women who are able not just to stay positive in the face of unrelenting stress, lunacy, and negativity, but to stay positive for years, even decades. To be a happy bus driver requires a decision made toward that effect every single day, all over again. It takes real effort, and it's worth it. I look up to the drivers who still call out their own stops, who care about others even though it doesn't benefit them, who send love out to the people without needing it in return, who take pleasure in serving the unlikable, the poor, entitled, the hateful, the ugly. Being nice to people you like is not a talent. This is. Some of these guys are absolute saints, and I learn from them.

 

When visiting NYC, you see everyone (even the police) walk thru the Don't Walk signs.  How does the strict Seattle jaywalking law help or affect bus drivers?

It couldn't be strict enough. Bus drivers save so many lives each day, just by vigilantly avoiding the oblivious souls who wander into the roadway. I jokingly tell operators that jaywalkers are actually showing them the ultimate sign of respect- look, they're completely entrusting their lives to you, the operator, by stepping in front of your coach! They have THAT MUCH faith in your abilities! Regarding jaywalkers and the driving decisions of cars: I refuse to think people are idiots. I think they're just preoccupied. They're distracted. They have skewed priorities they haven't realized could be reorganized. The text they're reading is important to them; they've just temporarily forgotten their life is more so. 

 

How great was it to see a King County Metro bus used as a flying projectile weapon near the Space Needle in the movie Chronicle? I imagine there might be a poster of this hanging in the main terminal bathroom somewhere.

The 69 Metascore kept me away, as did director Trank's track record- but all that is nil, now that I know there's a Metro bus projectile involved! Hang on while I order some posters!

 

I remember this movie awhile back, called Kids. There's a scene where a taxi driver gives advice for the key to happiness, which is to not think so much, forget, and block it out. When i read here that you say "there is value in trying to forget", I immediately thought of that Kids line. Such great advice for our human brains.

It's a delicate line. Processing is good; festering is bad. Letting go is good; ignoring problems, less so.

 

What kind of training do you go thru to become a driver? Is it the same as driving truck? 

It's a different class of license. There's some overlap. It's intensive stuff! Lots of tests, hoops, things to memorize and recite and execute. I have a lot of admiration for anyone who's able to get through it all.

 

Is the 62 named for the proposed Seattle Worlds Fair (1962) sites it passes by? I heard they considered Magnusson Park, and Green Lake was used a little.

The 62 is brand new. I imagined it's called that only because the number was available, and so few double-digit route numbers are.

 

What do most drivers consider the next step up? Is there upward mobility?

Directly above operators are supervisors, who perform a range of duties pertaining to serving operators' needs on the road- training, dispatch, coordinator (similar to air traffic control), safety, and so on. Above the supervisors are administrative positions. Opportunities for advancement into supervision happen regularly. Some operators have successfully gone directly into administration. Not my scene, though- I belong on the street! Give me the open road and a bus full of faces!

 

And when you're alone on the bus, does it ever get creepy? You ever see things, like ghosts, or hear of a driver who had seen a ghost? Seattle needs more ghost stories, in my opinion 

I wish there was more literature on what the early streetcar operators made of the city- considering Seattle and ghost stories concurrently immediately makes me think of our underground history. As for myself, ghosts tend not to intrude on the 7 (frightened off by the clientele, maybe?? Ha!), though I do consider a bus occupied until I've physically walked to the back to confirm its emptiness. You just never know who might be hiding out back there in the wee hours. This is how you avoid those stories of other operators deadheading back from North Bend at night when the disembodied voice of a passenger suddenly pipes up in their ear!! Eep!

 

I did wanna ask you about the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Have you it?

It's been on my radar, but I've not read it yet. 

 

I guess I imagine being around buses all day would make me curious about how they work, and how to fix them. 

I'm fascinated by disciplines which require both a poetic sensitivity to the world and a highly technical proficiency in craft. Film directing is an example. Although bus driving certainly doesn't require poetic sensitivities, the gained perspective from having such sure changes- expands- the job! Although a four year degree isn't necessary at Metro, I can't overstate how incredibly valuable it is to be able to contextualize what I see on the street, whether in the context of art, cultural anthropology, sociology, psychology, or so much more!

 

I'm not sure if this is an "interview" question at all, just a curiosity I have. You also seem like a curious person, so maybe have you ever thought that mechanical thinking might help your art, or understand your subject matter (buses) a little better? I mean, the bus is your paintbrush sometimes, no?

Great continuation of the tech/art conflation mentioned above. I'm curious about all of it. I drink up a mechanic's explanation of how to avoid jackknifing by shifting to neutral with just the same fascination as watching group dynamics among teenagers in the back. There is such lifeblood contained in the attitude of learning. Jung wrote about how once we think we know everything, we become wooden and dead. Only when we admit we don't know everything can we experience things like joy, excitement, and wonder. Those emotions are not exclusive to the young, but to anyone with such a viewpoint.

 

How much does the myth of Sisyphus play into your daily attitude? Like, "Well, I'm here. Might as well be happy."?

Oh, Sisyphus. The poor guy. His unending struggle has been interpreted to represent so many things- sun cycles, continuous wars, breathing patterns- it's interesting to consider him having a sense of humor about it, despite the fact that his task was assigned as punishment. Despite some broader parallels (there's always another trip to drive, etc), I almost never relate my actions or days to the concept of repetitive struggle. The days are just too different- different people, details, moments, and crucially, all the perspective gained compounds, suggesting directional movement in mental growth, rather than Sisyphean stasis.

 

 What are the three books you're reading right now?

I just finished Miranda July's short story collection, "No One Belongs Here More Than You." As always, her (wildly interdisciplinary but very consistent) work is thoughtful, funny, vulnerable. Before that was Wharton's Age of Innocence. The central dilemma of characters capable of imagining a societal construct which better suits them, without knowing it exists, and lacking the tools needed to arrive or create such a construct, deeply fascinates me. Wharton's understanding of human nature stuns me, particularly the quiet tragedy of the final page.

Before that- Black Boy, by Richard Wright. The educated, highly intellectual African-American voice was rare then, and remains rare now. Vital stuff- I read the expanded edition, which continues after the original ending (where he escapes an appalling life in Jim Crow Jackson, Mississippi for an uncertain future in Chicago) to include his adventures with the Communist Party and others in Chicago, where life was better, but still inhuman. This more sobering conclusion reveals an understanding of institutional racism's insidious nature before the term even existed.

 

What about the passengers, what are they reading?  Do you get good recommendations from them?

This question is too broad for me too do justice to! I get great recommendations (Sex at Dawn, The Spirit Level, H.G. Wells) and awful ones (Fifty Shades, Danielle Steele). I'm reminded of the moment linked below, where a group of passengers and I were discussing Russian and American literature. You just never know when you're going to end up talking about Brothers Karamazov. (http://www.nathanvass.com/the-view-from-nathans-bus/serendipitous)

 

One time on the 30 (RIP), the driver stopped at a stop light, and quickly ran into the gas station for a soda.  Personally, I thought this was really funny, but I bet this was probably against the rules.  Was there any secret lock switch he may have set to prevent any of us from driving away with his bus?  And what kind of trouble would both he and the busjacker get into? 

On outbound trips with a light load, operators are allowed to do that. On any trip, operators are allowed to exit to use the restroom as well- remember, bus drivers don't get lunch breaks, and some routes don't have bathrooms at the terminals! In case you're ever wondering why a given driver might be crabbier than the situation deems.... 

As for a passenger driving off with the bus, I love the mental image! As regards to real life, however, it's hilariously absurd to imagine someone being able to do it without significant prior experience. 

Even if they could turn it on and somehow knew the step sequence for how to do so (that alone is nigh impossible), to ask someone to drive even one city block- to negotiate a 8.5' (9.5' including mirrors) wide vehicle with only a few inches of clearance on either side, that's 40-60 feet long, have an understanding of air brakes, how much further ahead one needs to read the road, how to set up for turns, compensate for being seated in front of the front wheel, negotiate the wheelbase and articulation (if applicable) around a corner, execute a merge, figure out where controls for things like doors and turn signals are, anticipate behaviour of cars, pedestrians and bicycles, answer customer questions, keep an eye on the passengers/interior of the bus,  watch the wire and associated deadspots, and carry on a conversation with the person next to you... yeah, not happening! Not to mention each vehicle is numbered and tracked on GPS. But a fun thought experiment for sure!

 

Where do you think there should be a bus line but isn't?  I find it frustrating there aren't more east/west routes.

I completely agree! There are some strange black holes- east west service on 145th I feel is inevitable, it's such an obvious idea. Another is the empty link between Issaquah and Renton. And why such shoddy service between Kent and Federal Way? Or UW to Seattle U on a single bus. Or crossing I-5 in south Seattle- try going from Rainer Beach to the Museum of Flight, a distance of about a mile, and see how long it takes!

There's also some interesting misunderstandings in planning regarding travel patterns- the splitting of certain routes or forcing of transfers in certain key corridors. People on Rainer south of Othello all want to go Renton, but you'd never know it looking at the network map. The ludicrous Vision 2040 idea of splitting the 7 at Mount Baker and having it go north to the U District instead of downtown, Vietnamtown, and Chinatown... totally at odds with rider destinations. Not to mention breaking it from the 49 and eliminating a nice Light Rail shadow. As for the idea of taking the 36 out of those three neighborhoods as well (also part of Vision 2040), that's equally amusing- do they really think all those elderly east Asian ladies want the bus to go somewhere besides the International District?

Or the deletion of the 43- one day Service Planning will realize that rail and rapid service is not a replacement for local service. You need shadow routes. Imagine how effective the E Line would be, for example, if the 358 still ran, freeing up the E to make maybe only 5-10 stops total. Almost all cities with rapid bus service do this- rapid service is overlaid onto existing service, instead of replacing it (the 20 & the 720 in L.A., for example). Three stops of Link "replacing" the 43 while also reducing the span of service- it'd be hilarious if it wasn't hurting so many people. Looking to high ridership figures on the rapid lines is hardly a barometer of success when no alternative service is given on the corridor.

What's also desperately needed is a printed system map. A nationally renowned transit mapmaker voluntarily made one pro bono about a year ago, and Metro still wouldn't pick it up!! Talk about turning a gift horse away!

 

I think I mentioned that I was a mail man for the USPS.  Upon hire, I received a pamphlet titled "The Truth about going Postal".  I think the difference between the two vocations is that postal employees don't really have to talk to anyone, or deal with the public.  It's very isolating and monotonous, which is the reason I quit.  But is there an equivalent "rage mode" for bus drivers?

Well, the crabby bus driver stereotype is certainly well known, but it's lacking the right terminology to go with it, a la "Going postal!" "Going transit" just doesn't quite get the point across...! In all seriousness, I find the work oddly relaxing. Once you realize you don't have to rush, everything becomes easier.

 

 2017