Hopping on a Metro bus with Nathan Vass behind the wheel is like going to a dinner party at his place.
A woman jumps on, exclaiming, “I’m out of the chair! I’ve been walking for three days!”
“You’re out of the chair, I was just going to say!” replies Vass, as the woman cuts in to catch him up on her health issues.
Another passenger hops on and fills him in on her work day. She tells me the two first met a few months back when he began driving her route, and became fast friends.
Vass, 27, just might be the happiest bus driver you ever meet. He greets every single rider, even on the roughest of routes.
“I feel like I’m in the best position to accomplish something useful,” said Vass. “Saying hi to someone, asking how their day is can mean the world of difference.”
But Vass doesn’t stop at a smile and a hello. Over time, he tries to get to know his passengers. And they, in turn, open up.
“We’ll start off on the weather and we’ll talk about their kids or their job,” he said. “Sometimes the conversations are deep and wonderful, but often the environment doesn’t allow for that. Sometimes the conversations are not about anything of consequence, but you sense this camaraderie that exists underneath the words.”
Vass first began driving buses in 2007 while studying photography at the University of Washington. He has since graduated and launched a wedding photography business, but he prefers to be behind the wheel at least some of the time.
“I found myself cutting back [on photography], because I got more out of being out here on the road,” he said. “There’s something about being down here … there’s this energy. You put this positive energy out there, and you get it back in spades.”
Perhaps what’s most surprising is the fact that Vass, a soft-spoken man of small stature, prefers the notoriously tough routes no one else wants. Like Route 7, which loops from downtown Seattle to Rainier Beach, and Route 358, which travels north on Aurora Avenue and has more than twice the number of security incidents than the average route, according to Vass.
When he was first assigned to the 358, other drives told him it would be the route that “finally wipes that smile off your face.” But Vass says he “had a great time.” In fact, he is one of the few, if not the only driver, to volunteer for the 358, to other drivers’ relief. Currently on Route 70, he is scheduled to return to the 358 in October.
“One of my favorite things is an honest, open conversation. There’s something so satisfying about cutting through these facades that we’re so accustomed to manning in society, and speaking authentically with someone,” he said.
And to his own surprise, he has found that riders on the rougher routes are quicker to open up; it’s the well-dressed commuters on the quieter routes who often take time to warm up.
“I don’t know why that is,” he said. “Who would expect that?”
It may be his own working-class upbringing in south-central Los Angeles that gives him empathy for his passengers, he says, or his photography background that trains him to find beauty in the mundane.
“I take a lot of pictures of garbage, and litter and stuff. It’s like a discipline, a practice. If you can make this aesthetically appealing, then you’re good,” he said. “So that means my goal is looking for the beauty in everything, and maybe that’s what translates over.”
Driving the 358 bus has placed Vass in dangerous situations. But he’s not interested in talking about those times.
“I discovered that if I talk about them, I remember them more,” he said. “If something serious happens, or something life-threatening, I’ll think about how to deal with it in the future … then I’ll try to forget about it. Of course it’s natural for our brains to want to remember the negative stuff, but I think there’s value in trying to [forget].”
Vass drives part-time, about 38 hours per week, so he can keep his nights and weekends for his art. But even if he becomes the most famous of photographers, he has no plans of ever quitting King County Metro.
“I still want to come in for at least for a couple hours and drive the Metro bus. Because this is grounding. It gives me perspective and prevents me from getting self-absorbed in my own world,” he said.
And if he ever has children of his own, he plans to make sure they ride the bus “a lot.”
“I think there is something that gets ingrained from spending time with strangers in this sort of familiar stranger environment and building up the perception that we’re all equals. I think that’s so important,” he said.
Read more about adventures aboard Nathan Vass’ bus on his blog, The View from Nathan’s Bus.