Saturday, July 11, 2009

Late Friday night on the 358

My wife's family has been trickling in and out of town for the last couple weeks. We all rented a couple houses in the San Juans for a week around the 4th of July weekend, and her out-of state family has been circulating among her in-state family's homes since then. Her sister wanted to go to a Mariners game and see SAFECO Field. I urged them to take the bus there, while I drove to work and then parked near the ballpark. Afterwards, I would take the bus with one of my kids while my wife, her sister, and our other kids drove home in my car.

The game was OK, not great (we lost), but it was still a good family trip. My daughter gets on the big screen while waving her poster of Ken Griffey Jr. while he's at bat, whereupon he hits a clutch single. Afterwards, we all walked back to my car, and then my nine-year-old son and I continued into downtown to catch a bus home. Since the buses don't come very often at that hour, we did quite a bit of walking along 3rd Avenue before we finally decided to stop and wait at 3rd & Union. It was 10:45 before the bus, a King County Metro #358, finally arrived. We took our seats in the back, as there weren't two anywhere close together farther forward.

First mistake.

By the way, my now-seven-year-old daughter, the one who'd ridden the bus to Hollywood with me a couple Christmases ago, wanted to ride home with me tonight, too, but I know what the 358 can be like late on a Friday or Saturday night, and I wouldn't let her.

One good choice made, at least.

In the very back of the bus a man and a woman are sitting together with a boom box turned up higher than it should be, but not egregiously so. She seems a little high. The stop after we get on, probably at 3rd & Pine, where I know from experience that things can get lively, especially at night, and not in a good way, a bunch more people get on, including a couple that moves to the back. The woman sits down across from my son and me while the man, who's wearing a blue shirt, negotiates with the man sitting in the back row, who's wearing a red shirt, to move a pile of his stuff so he can sit down, too, including the boom box, which gets turned up louder, but the pile of stuff is getting moved. The woman in the back starts sassing the newly arrived man. Talks about the "mafia" and calls him a *bitch*. This infuriates the man in the blue shirt. The n-word starts flying. So do f-bombs. Nobody is backing down. All the antagonists seem impaired by some substance or other, to a greater or lesser extent. The man in the blue shirt's female companion starts pushing him away. He lets himself be pushed but occasionally pushes back past her to reinforce his point, which is (paraphrasing) that he doesn't appreciate being called "bitch". Nebulous threats of violence are made. He allows himself to be pushed far enough forward that there is little immediate instigation for further conflict. The man in the red shirt gets up and starts hassling his female companion. Tells her (paraphrasing again) that she shouldn't have been saying what she did. The sound of what sounds like a loud slap comes, but I can't see past him to see what happened. She becomes quiet and stays that way. My son, who'd been sitting right next to the man with the blue shirt, has wide eyes but doesn't look spooked. I have one arm around him and the other wrapped around a pole with my hands clasped together in front of us. I don't want anyone crashing into my son accidentally -- at this point there've been a lot of angry words, but no indication that the situation is in immediate danger of escalation, and while I'm concerned that my son has to see this, it's also a fairly safe exposure for him to an uglier side of life than he usually sees, and he hasn't seemed frightened by it, at least not yet -- two reasons I hadn't already removed him from the situation.

The man in the red shirt apologizes for frightening my son. then calls out to the other man that he's taken care of the situation from his end, just like the man in the blue shirt's female companion has, so "everything is cool now". He emphasizes their brotherhood (and sisterhood). This seems to annoy the man in the blue shirt, but not enough to rouse him again. He and his companion are talking quietly. The man in the red shirt's boom box gets turned up louder. I'm noticing that so far the loud hip-hop music has seemed to aggravate the situation rather than soothe it. A couple minutes later the man in the blue shirt walk backs again, once again right in front of me and my son, to emphasize that he "is cool", too. The man in the red shirt notices that he isn't exactly apologizing, and points this out. The man in the blue shirt, a little more loudly, reiterates that he "is cool" (with the situation). The man in the red shirt points out that "the kids" (meaning my son) don't need to be seeing this kind of behavior. The man in the blue shirt turns to my son and tells him he may want to move away, then gets a little louder and more aggressive, complaining about being called "a bitch". The n-word starts flying again.

I move my son forward, where seats have started opening up as the bus continues on its route north -- we are out of downtown and near the Aurora Bridge by now. I make eye contact with the man in the blue shirt's female companion as we move past her. The situation in back seems to calm down a little, perhaps as the ramifications of our exit become clearer. The man in the blue shirt's female companion may have gone back to defuse the situation again, too, but at this point my visibility into the situation isn't so good and I can't tell. Another man, older, comes forward too, shaking his head to me: "he just can't leave it alone" and expressing concern for my son. I tell him my son is OK, just as I'd told the man in the red shirt a few minutes earlier.

The man in the red shirt's boom box gets turned up even louder. Soon the commotion in the back gets louder, too. It has now escalated to pushing, apparently. An exodus of people who seem genuinely frightened begins past us. At the bus stop at Aurora & 75th, just outside PCC, after everyone has offloaded, the bus driver opens the rear door and, over the intercom, tells unspecified persons to get off the bus. I figure the aggressors in this situation have exactly zero motivation to comply, and since we're within half a mile of our home, we might as well do so ourselves, before the situation gets even worse. Half a minute later, the bus proceeds past us with all of the aggressors still aboard. Not many people are left in the back of the bus, though the front is jammed. I'm hopeful that with fewer people in close proximity, that tensions will defuse. Especially if the damn boom box gets turned down.

My son and I have a conversation on the half-mile walk home. He tells me it was like being teleported to New York. I ask him why he thinks so and we then discuss the effect of poverty, powerlessness, alcohol, and drugs, and how they can sometimes reinforce each other to create a bad situation where none needs to exist. He seems fine, but I hope will come out of this wiser and better equipped to deal with tough situations in the future. Later, when my wife asks him about it and asks if he heard any bad language, he says nearly all of it was bad. He has no trouble falling asleep. Neither do I, for that matter, but I have troubled dreams.

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