Seattle is a place of weirdness and wonder. Since I’ve been keeping count, there hasn’t been a single time that the bus I take to and from work has not contained at least one person who expanded on what I thought possible for humans to be or do. There are more weirdos here per square anything than anywhere I’ve ever been. New York prides itself on weirdness, but what I’ve seen there has always been a sort of street-wise anger. In Seattle there’s a more laid-back approach to being out of your mind. I see people with rings in their lips and noses, tattoos all over their faces, pants that hang down so far as to incapacitate them, fat people, thin ones with bent legs, old bums with food-encrusted beards, tallow hags with oily hair, and, most importantly, people who talk to themselves.
This page is dedicated to the weirdness of Seattle, as seen through the narrow aperture of what is the #41 bus between 15th Avenue NE and Convention Center in downtown Seattle.
On the bus is a woman who is deeply retarded. I use the word retarded here in its original sense—if you had a device which could register IQ, pointing it at her wouldn’t shift the needle. It isn’t her fault, clearly. She came out that way. However, her slowness has allowed her to think that she can—and indeed must—talk to everyone, all the time, non-stop. I’d seen her do this before and thought that she knew the person she was talking to. Then it turned out that it was just what she did.
Friday afternoon she was on the bus again. I stood in the aisle and she started on the poor guy behind me, a gentle man in his sixties.
“I get off at the next stop,” she said.
We had just left downtown.
“That would be Northgate,” the man said.
“My knee hurts,” she said.
“That’s a pity,” the man said after a moment.
“Your knees must be good,” she said. “I work in town.”
“I work in town too,” the man said, sounding relieved to get away from his knees.
“Are you going to work tomorrow?” she asked.
“Tomorrow is Saturday,” the man said.
“My cousin has a house,” she declared. “I like bagels.”
The man cleared his throat.
“What kind of bagels do you like?” he asked.
“We just need money,” the woman said.
And so it went on, non sequiturs for fifteen minutes.
I got off at Northgate to catch the right #41 for the last stretch. As the bus pulled out of the bay, I marvelled at the patience of this man, standing in the aisle still, nodding and answering strange questions.
I met the #1 insane person in Seattle on the #41 bus today. His name was Seb, or at least that’s what he said. Seb sat in the seats reserved for the disabled and elderly, despite being in his thirties. His face was red with the effort of repeatedly yelling, at the top of his voice, “I’m Seb!”
“I’m Seb! I’m Seb! I’m Seb!” he yelled, looking at the floor in front of him.
Perhaps he really was Seb, although I’d be surprised. If you insist on something so constantly, it’s very likely not the case. His yelling continued all the way from the city center to Northgate, a trip which took some 15 minutes. During all that time he proclaimed his Sebness, without a single pause. What fascinated me, as always, was the lame tolerance of the people of Seattle. Elsewhere, this man wouldn’t have made it onto the bus or would have been tossed off it by the passengers. Here he got to be Seb all the time, all the way.
Today I was caught spying on the #41 bus. I stood and watched a woman who made notes on a writing pad she held in her lap. She looked kind of destitute and had a far-away stare, but that wasn’t what fascinated me. What did was how she wrote. She wrote in a spiral along the edges of the page—along the top, then down the right, then along the bottom, then up the left—and turned the page as she went along. Every now and then she looked up as if to collect her thoughts.
“Then Z called and said that she no longer wanted to come this weekend,” it read along the top.
Up the left, before that, it read—and I had to turn my head to make it out—“Wanted to see Z at UW.”
She turned the page and wrote down the right side, “On the 41 bus. Guy is reading what I write.”
There’s a driver of the 41 whom I sometimes see when I happen to leave work early. He looks like a retired fisherman with a fine arts degree who has somehow wound up driving a bus. He has an infuriating habit of driving very carefully, almost as though he’s taking the bus driver’s test, but he makes me laugh with how he addresses us. Today I stood near the front and watched as he keyed in a few commands into the little console with which the bus presumably controls its announcements about stops and so on. The public address system said, “For your safety, please hold on while the bus is in motion.”
“What was that?” the driver mocked the machine.
“For your safety,” the system said again, “please hold on while the bus is in motion.”
“Say that again,” the driver said.
The PA system played the message a third time. The driver took his microphone and addressed the bus.
“Just to be clear, folks,” he said, “when we ask you to hold on, we mean to a part of the bus. Holding on with the small of you back doesn’t work. Holding on to your cell phone doesn’t count.”
This woman made her appearance on the 41 yesterday. She kept saying the word gasoline, over and over again.
We once came upon a Pug Party in Sea Point. Hundreds of pugs milled about on the lawn with their owners. Most of them (the pugs) were barking and wrestling with one another. There was one pug standing to the side, like someone sulking near the punch bowl at a party. I’m thinking of that pug now.
Here’s something you don’t experience in South Africa. Today, at the Convention Place station in town, a very full bus pulled up to the curb, driven by an old lady. Usually, when the #41 pulls up and is full, the driver opens the door, motions for those of us who are standing outside to wait while he or she addresses the passengers via the PA system.
“In order to make room for others,” she’d say, “move to the back, turn to face the front, slide off your backpacks and put them between your legs on the floor.”
That’s the usual.
Today was different. The driver opened the door and addressed the bus.
“Cozy up folks,” she said in a husky, smoker’s voice. “C’mon, get real cozy.”
People started shuffling closer together in the aisles, moving to the back.
“It’s cold,” she continued. “There’s no harm in getting close. Fight the winter, folks, like the poor sons of bitches outside are doing while we’re taking our time!”
People moved a little more, but it didn’t seem to achieve much. The driver opened the back door.
“Just get in where you can,” she announced. “Never mind about the fare.”
There are two versions of the 41 bus. One is the right one. Today I had to take the wrong one. The right ones were all full. A very drunk man got onto a right one at Convention Place, just in front of me, and that was it. The driver closed the door. I took a wrong 41 just behind it. At Northgate I hopped out of the wrong bus and boarded the right one which had stopped just ahead of me. The drunk man was arguing with the driver in the aisle.
“Ernie,” the driver said, “This is your stop. Get off.”
Ernie tried to focus on a spot behind the driver, like drunk people often do.
“Nghnnn,” he said. “Fpferpt.”
I walked to the back while the argument continued.
“Get off!” I heard the driver say again.
By now Ernie had gotten up but he staggered around in the aisle as though the bus was moving. He grabbed a pole and steadied himself. He turned to face us.
“Pfuck you,” he called out.
He staggered to the front and out the door. A few of us looked at one another and then he reappeared. He waved his hand at us, taking in all that the bus contained.
“Yes,” he said and nodded. “Yes.”
And then he was gone.
It gets dark around 5pm these days, after the time change, and so it’s always dark when I get home in the afternoon. There is a mad woman who lurks near the bus stop. I’ll call her Tilda. Tilda probably doesn’t wait for me to come home, but it sure feels as though she does. I’ve seen her twice now. Today, she stood on the opposite side of the street, waiting for the light to turn. It was raining lightly and I ruffled my hair.
“Yeah!” I heard her say across the street.
She parted her coat to reveal distressed jeans. This was OK, sort of, except for the fact that she was at least 55. She nodded knowingly and smiled at me. I checked to see if she was perhaps smiling at someone invisible behind me, like so many people do here, but there was no one. She nodded again and took a drag from her thin, menthol cigarette. When the light turned, we walked past one another, and Tilda winked. There was something vaguely superior in that wink, something I’d like to check when I see her again.
The 41 is quiet this morning. There are usually a few people talking, but few do now. Many people stare into space and only two I can see are looking at their phones. There’s a numbness which is obvious, and yet hard to explain. If electing Trump was as unthinkable as these faces suggest, how come it happened? Perhaps in Washington state, everyone is aghast. So too in California and Oregon. But somewhere else they’re happy.
“No one is happy this morning,” the man next to me remarks as though he can read my thoughts.
In fact, perhaps he can read what I’m writing. He wears a construction helmet and clutches a bottle of energy drink.
“I wonder why,” he adds.
We talk for a minute. Then he says, “We gotta keep our heads up and our spirits high.”
I nod. Trite though this is, he’s right.
He taps me on the shoulder.
“No matter what,” he says and winks.
I’m sitting in the back seat of the 41 bus, on my way to work. It’s election Tuesday. I’ve taken out my laptop to get something done. A woman has just squeezed into the seat beside me. She is odd in two ways, if that makes sense. She continually bares her teeth, like a monkey I once saw in Bali. As she does this, she hisses and sighs. There’s no apparent reason for this. Perhaps her gums are itching. The other thing she does is more disturbing. She rocks from left to right and back again on her buttocks, lifting each one from the seat and tucking it in more tightly as she puts it down. It looks like she’s doing origami with her underwear. Maybe she bares her teeth every time something goes wrong. She grimaces and watches my screen. I hope she’s not reading this…are you?
Halloween touched bus 41 as well. On the way home I stood squashed between what I’d call a Texan unicorn and an accountant clown. The Texan unicorn was a large, pallid woman who wore a stetson to which a pink unicorn’s horn had been affixed. From her backpack protruded two pink wings that she probably wore in town during the day. She chewed gum and worked her phone while the horn poked me every now and then. The accountant was an accountant-type who, incongruously, had a red clown’s nose pinched onto his own. Everything else about him was accountant-like — a suit, pointy shoes, a tie, and so on. As the bus filled up, I heard the driver’s voice.
“Not like that you don’t!”
A woman in gothic makeup and a wide, hooped dress was trying to board the bus. She couldn’t fit in through the door and wouldn’t fit into the aisle.
As we drove north along the I-5, I surveyed the people I could see. There was Halloween-inspired nuttiness in pockets throughout the bus. What made it weirder still was the fact that no one acknowledged the costumes worn by others or themselves. It was as though they were merely there, today, as always.
This morning an old man boarded the bus at the Northgate Transport Center. I watched as he approached with his walker. The thing had four wheels and could be pushed easily, and yet the man was doubled over it. When he came closer I could see that he was pushing it with his chin. His hands dangled uselessly and in his mouth was a soggy fag. I don’t know what the walker was for.
On the #41 bus today, for the first time since I’ve moved to Seattle, I witnessed a fight. It wasn’t a normal fight either. A normal fight would break out between, say, a stove-sized man and a woman who wants to move past him in the aisle. This I’ve seen. The argument never progressed past the woman saying, with increasing loudness, “Excuse me!”, while the fat man made nano-movements to accommodate her.
The fight today was between the driver and an old man. I don’t know what it was about, nor how it got started. I sat at the very back, minding my own business insofar as that’s possible, when the bus lurched to a halt just after starting out from a stop near Northgate Mall.
“I’m driving the fuckin bus!” the driver exclaimed.
He directed this at an old, bald man who had just sat down in the front seats for the elderly. The old man laughed and shook his head the way someone would who’d just heard a mildly funny joke for the second time.
“What do you want!?” the driver bellowed.
The old man shook his head and looked away. By now the bus had fallen silent but for the thrumming of the engines and the rain against the windows. The driver returned to his seat and engaged the gears.
Beside me an Orthodox Jew who had been half asleep all the way from town suddenly stirred into motion.
“Drive the bus!” he yelled at the top of his lungs.
Every face in the bus turned toward us, except for the old man who still laughed at the lame joke I was imagining.
“Dri-hive the BUS!” he yelled again.
We took off and he looked at me.
“The driver’s just being an asshole,” he remarked. “Happens every time.”
On Friday afternoon there was a woman at the 15th Avenue NE / NE 125th Street bus stop who wore a golden helmet. It was made from what looked like a form of foil, shaped to cover her head of yellow hair. It looked like the skullcaps we see used in cheap movies to extract secrets from the minds of master criminals. Hers had no wires attached but it might as well have had. She was tall and heavy-boned, a castaway Viking. As I walked past her she spoke. I couldn’t make out what she was saying but she appeared to be giving directions in a half-mime, half-shout to someone across the street. I looked, but there was no one there.
There was a man on the bus this Thursday who spoke to himself non-stop, loudly, fluently, using a quasi-English which was impossible to ignore. He seemed to be having an argument with himself. In the end, I think, he lost.
“What’s you what’s they say mecamble,” he muttered.
“No mecamble. Yes mecamble. That’s you what,” he replied.
And so he went on, complete with gesticulations and pauses, rising inflections, ruminative stares at lake Union, and so on.
I wanted to kill him. It was impossible to do anything but be irritated by him. Yet everyone else around me stared at their phones and went about what they always did as though he wasn’t there.
And then it struck me. They are even crazier than he is. And perhaps, just perhaps, their self-absorption is the cause of his.