It’s after 10 o’clock on a Monday night and I pick up the No. 14 at my usual spot in front of Benaroya Hall — near where a bus driver managed to live after getting a couple bullets pumped into him. Because that happened during the morning hours, I somehow feel safe in the bosom of the night. The bus door wheezes open and reveals the same driver who ferried me downtown a few hours earlier. Flat-ironed bangs drape to one side, her black hair swept up in curls. Feathery lashes canopy her eyes. She’s glammed for clubbing — but for that green Metro shirt.
As the bus heads south, I ask if she likes driving the No. 14.
“I don’t have a favorite route,” she says. “I’m just doing it for the paycheck.”
We stop near the Union Gospel Mission and a man encased in a walker appears at the foot of the stairs. A navy hoodie warms him and dark lenses obscure his eyes. The driver presses a button, a motor squeals — but the lift does not turn into a verb.
“I can’t get up,” says the man, slurring his words. The driver remains seated and silent. Pressing himself forward, the man with the walker finally drags his body to the second stair. I reach down to lift his walker wheels. Then a fellow of Asian descent, whose red t-shirt looks like it has a gym membership, rushes forward. He moves the walker down the aisle without its owner ... until he realizes the man needs it to steady himself.
The walker man rolls by. “Nice hat.” he opines. He settles next to me and my oilskin chapeau and mumbles something, but I can’t make it out. Maybe it’s those earplugs I’m still stuffing after a night at the Triple Door. He repeats himself, louder but not clearer. Then I realize he’s saying, “Night Watch.” That’s Operation Nightwatch — the check-in spot for homeless shelters. He seems to be asking a question. Finally it sinks in.
“You get off at Rainier,” I tell him. The driver adds, “I think they start assigning beds at 9:30. You’re lucky. It looks kind of quiet tonight.”
The man’s hood falls backward — his silver comb-over collapses. Lenses lighten, revealing pale blue eyes. Rouged neon of the New Hong Kong Restaurant casts a radioactive glow on his walker, as we head east on Jackson.
That’s when I notice a slab of wood in the basket of the old guy’s walker sitting atop a half-filled, plastic grocery bag.
“It’s the next stop,” the driver informs the man. We halt at the bus shelter, beneath the faded letters of the Rainier Oven Corp. ghost sign and the man mutters something. “You just go across the street,” the driver tells him, pointing.
The old guy struggles to his feet, then wheels up to the driver. He stares down the stairs. “I can’t get down there,” he tells her.
“You knew the lift was jammed when you got on,” she responds. The driver remains buckled into her seat.
“What do you want me to do, fly?” he asks.
I catch the eye of the polite, red-shirted guy across the aisle. “I think he needs help,” I whisper. He approaches the man, then carries his walker down the stairs, again leaving the old guy without support.
A woman in a wool cap and khaki jacket moves forward and takes the man’s arm, as you would a blind person, leading him down the stairs.
“Get your hands out of my pockets,” he demands, his voice rising as he jerks his sleeve away.
The woman releases his arm, a scowl creases her face. “I just wanted to help you down the mother-f—ing stairs,” she growls.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I hear the man’s voice creak, from the outside, before the door squeezes shut. Clearly, kindness throws him off-guard.
If you are old and frail, and all your possessions fit inside an emaciated plastic bag, you have little defense against any bully itching to separate you from them. I suddenly realize what that piece of wood is for.