Nathan Vass has seen some shit. Literally.
In "Fecal and Philosophical Matters," one of the many poignant pieces in The Lines That Make Us: Stories from Nathan's Bus, a collection of photos and essays chronicling Vass's 12 years driving the night shift on the 7/49 bus route, Vass tells the tale of a panhandler in a wheelchair who got hit by a bag of shit tossed from the window of a BMW.
When Vass pulled his bus up to the stop on Eastlake and Harvard, the panhandler asked if he could catch a ride to the Urban Rest Stop downtown to get cleaned up. Vass obliged and wheeled him onto the bus himself. The thankful passenger wept with shame and gratitude, telling Vass that four other drivers had turned him away. Vass doesn't blame the other drivers for passing on the man in his condition. He understands that taking on such a passenger could pose a risk. But Vass is just the kind of guy who will take that risk to help the powerless every time.
Vass has hundreds of stories just like that one. He has collected some of them in The Lines That Make Us, which was nominated for this year's Washington State Book Award, and the rest he posts to his blog, The View from Nathan's Bus. The stories range from hilarious character sketches to deep meditations on human nature. And though he doesn't ignore the darker parts of that nature, he chooses to champion the small moments of joy, solidarity, and fellow feeling he sees on his circular route around the heart of the city.
Two things immediately become clear even just a few pages into the essay collection. The first is that Vass—a writer, filmmaker, and public servant in his 30s—loves his job. The second is that Vass is unfailingly nice. He projects positivity and acceptance in every aspect of his bus-driving work. He personally greets the hundreds of riders who step onto his rig each day, and he calls out each stop himself rather than relying on the robot voice.
In an interview, Vass blamed his parents (both painters, incidentally) for his sunny disposition. Though he grew up poor in Los Angeles and in working-class Redmond, he said his parents never really let him dwell on his circumstances. If he wanted a toy at the store, his parents wouldn't tell him they didn't have the money for it. Instead, they'd ask, "Do you really need that toy to be happy?" Those sorts of questions allowed Vass to develop a better sense of perspective and instilled within him a healthy habit of self-reflection.
But maintaining a positive worldview takes work. "You don't wait for optimism to get dumped in your lap. You have to generate it," Vass said. "And you can't conflate pessimism and realism, which is easy to do."
He added: "We could talk about how many heroin needles I found on the bus tonight, and that wouldn't be any less truthful. But I feel like that kind of information is already out there. What's not out there is this really cool conversation I just had with this guy who is on heroin, who used to be a construction worker before he got addicted to pain pills, and he's remembering how cool his girlfriend was back when they were together—you know, that sort of thing, the human element."
That element overflows in Vass's terrific collection. And it's one this city needs to consider now more than ever.