My friend Eveline Mueller-Graf is a driver for Metro KC, the King County agency that runs commuter bus routes in Seattle and close-in suburbs. She’s a percussionist, a member of the gang of independent musicians that constitutes my main group of personal friends in Seattle. During our Bainbridge Island hike on March 8 – just eleven days ago, but what an eleven days it’s been – she invited me to ride along one morning on the 44 bus from Ballard via Wallingford, the University District, and Capitol Hill to 5th & Jackson at the south end of downtown. (At some point along the way, for some reason, the 44 bus morphs into a 43.) Eveline came to Seattle from Switzerland in 1989 and retains a strong accent that gives an impression of a less diminutive Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
So this Monday I was at stop #18085, on 32nd Ave NW just south of Market Street near the locks on the ship canal, at about 7:10 a.m. One other passenger – a fortyish woman – arrived at the shelter, and a minute or two later the bus pulled up. And the door opened and, sure enough, there in the driver’s seat was Eveline.
“And I’m even early,” she said cheerfully by way of greeting. “First time ever. No traffic. Usually I’m three to five minutes late, because I can’t get through downtown [from the base]. This morning I was two minutes early.”
Around the corner there was another stop, and one other passenger got on.
“As soon as I get through Ballard [on a normal day], I’m overloaded,” said Eveline. “Sometimes it’s so packed that I have to pass stops. It’s always a very busy ride. And lots of students. But now that UW is cancelled, they’re not here.”
Five more passengers boarded near the corner of Market and Tallman in downtown Ballard, across the street from Sip ’n’ Ship.
“This morning another bus driver told me that a homeless guy escaped from his quarantine – and he took the E line!” exclaimed Eveline. (The E line runs up Aurora Avenue, only a few blocks from my house.) She had a gripe with state and county officials. “Them bragging about how good they are doing is kind of a joke. And cynicism runs kind of high amongst bus drivers. And I don’t know if you want my take on it?”
“Of course I do,” I assured her.
“I think all those politicians and rich people are going to get bitten in the butt.” King County executive Dow Constantine is Eveline’s particular bete noire. “I don’t know where that arrogance comes from. But we need visionaries right now, that can actually see a new way, so we can come out of it in a new way.” She cited some numbers she had heard: that the county was putting up 14 modular homes to house 100 homeless people, or something along those lines. Anymore, it’s hard for any of us to keep track of anything. “Which still leaves over ten thousand,” she pointed out. “So that’s just a joke.”
“What is Inslee doing about the homeless population?” I asked.
“I’m not sure there is a plan,” she said. “I’m gonna write him a letter!”
At Market & 11th – that is, between the big 15th Ave intersection and 8th Ave, where Market starts climbing toward Phinney Ridge before dropping down into Wallingford – I asked her: “So would the bus be full by this point on a normal day?”
“It would be full,” she affirmed. “So long as they don’t address the inequality …” She trailed off, leaving the rest of her sentence unsaid.
She had recently spoken to her family in Switzerland. “The whole canton is blocked off,” she told me. “There’s no traveling, no nothing. In Switzerland they’re closing all shops except grocery stores. My half-sister, with her little boys, she cannot have her parents babysit. I talked to my father, and he can’t see his grandkids. I’m not sure how well informed people here are, about how kids can carry the virus. Because I talk to some of the people on the bus, and they say, ‘Yeah, my parents are taking care of my kids.’ And as long as you have the homeless population, it’s not going anywhere. Especially the bus drivers. I mean, we drive the homeless people around all day. Not necessarily on this route. But they don’t cough into their elbow. I feel like if the politicians were smart, they would take the moment to reorganize. Like rent control and affordable housing, and all the things that need to be done. And the virus is a problem, because we do have so many poor people and uninsured people and homeless people.”
As we crossed Phinney Ridge the early morning sun was golden and the Cascades were magnificent. “Oh, this is going to be full-on,” said Eveline, pulling down the sun visor on her windshield. “We definitely feel left out,” she added.
“‘We’ bus drivers?”
I was standing just behind the yellow line that you’re supposed to stand behind, moving somewhat awkwardly back and forth from right behind Eveline’s seat so I could hear her while she watched the road, and the other side of the aisle where that metal box always is that you’re not supposed to put stuff on.
“You can put your pack there on the box,” said Eveline.
“Right here, where it says ‘Do not place items’?”
A woman sitting a few rows back heard our exchange and laughed.
A black man, by his demeanor a regular on this route, got on at the next stop. “Everything closing down, everything,” he remarked to Eveline by way of greeting. “Don’t never get home this early.”
“It’ll be interesting, like, how long people can stay away,” Eveline speculated. “If it’s a novelty it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll stay at home.’ But if it goes on for two months or three months? Somehow I think it’ll get worse. And it won’t go away in April.”
We were now on North 45th Street, the main drag through Wallingford. “So 45th would be totally jammed?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, yeah. This is always backed up. And the freeway entrance. See, here, I can never use the right lane because it’s [usually] backed up.” On the east side of the freeway, going into the U District, was a small homeless encampment, a couple of tents and two or three men standing around.
“Thursday-Friday I’m always fifteen-twenty minutes late on my route, in the evening if I have to get back to base on the freeway. And this Thursday-Friday I was like fifteen minutes early. So this is the one thing that I actually enjoy!”
“So this would be jammed too, right?” I asked at 45th & Roosevelt. I’m familiar with morning traffic in the U District, because it’s Jenny’s commute. The last few years it has become increasingly congested with expensive cars and black SUVs and all the new construction.
“Oh yeah. Like this bus stop, I can never just pull up.” As she was doing now.
The same black man now got off the bus. “Thank you, ma’am. Have a good one.”
“You too!” said Eveline.
At 45th & University Way a young homeless man got off the bus, but Eveline noticed in her mirror that he had dropped his purple sweater in the aisle. She called to him, then honked, but he disappeared around the corner. I offered to take the sweater to him. I bounded off the bus and ran around the corner, thinking that by now he must be halfway down the block. But I almost ran into him. And he wasn’t pleased to see me.
“You left your sweater!” I cried.
“Get away!” he hissed. He sounded terrified. “Just put it down!”
So I dropped the sweater on the sidewalk, backed away, and got back on the bus. “He needs his sweater,” said Eveline. “Use your hand sanitizer.”
The light changed and she drove on. “People say, ‘Don’t politicize the virus,” she said now. “And I don’t agree with that either. We really should politicize it, and criticize what’s going on. And I have another thought. In one way, we want protection and sanitizers and all that. But I’m wondering how much garbage we’re going to produce: plastic gloves and sanitizer bottles and wipe containers, stuff that doesn’t break down. But I guess we’ll deal with that later.”
“What have you been given?” I asked, meaning bus drivers.
“Nothing. We were given one little packet of like five wipes, and one tiny bottle of sanitizer, and a few pairs of gloves. It was a joke. Everybody was like super upset. But now they have a bigger bottle, so you can refill your little bottle. I saw that at the base this morning. But that wasn’t available last week.”
The bus was mostly full now, in the sense that most of the seats were taken, but nobody was standing. At the University of Washington Medical Center they all got off, as Eveline had predicted they would, leaving just me and one other passenger. A Sound Transit bus was idling in front of us with its hazards blinking. Eveline honked a time or two and expressed herself to the Sound Transit driver, as if he or she could hear her, but all we could do for a few minutes was cool our heels. But then Eveline lost patience and gently backed up, executing a nifty partial jackknife with her articulated bus, to make just enough room to pass the other bus on the left.
“Wow, you can do that?” I marveled.
“If I have to,” she said. “Only because I have a bus behind me, covering my butt.” The Sound Transit bus had now also started moving. “And then once I pull out, he starts driving. That was, like, super annoying.”
We zipped right across the Montlake Cut, which is almost always a bottleneck, especially in rush hour. We didn’t even have to stop at a light. “Normally I can’t drive in the right lane here either,” said Eveline. “This is [usually] a complete mess.” Heading up 23rd Avenue she remarked, “There are definitely some regulars that aren’t around anymore. Like the Montlake library, there’s always one or two people at the stop there.” I told her I had fond memories of the one time I had been a regular on a commuter bus, from Berkeley to downtown San Francisco on AC Transit in another lifetime, circa 1989-90. “Yeah, and you wait if you see them running,” she said.
“Nobody has gotten on since the hospital,” I pointed out.
“No. Yeah, typically people get on there too, going downtown. Twenty-third is usually way more traffic than this.” Turning right on John Street she commented, “That’s a nasty turn. That one is hard with a lot of traffic.” A woman got off at the first stop on John. “All right, now you’re alone,” said Eveline. We drove past a school. “So are all the elementary schools closed?” she asked me.
“Yeah, I think today’s the day they’re supposed to be closed, because it’s Monday.” The 16th. That was the date I thought I remembered schools were to close.
We drove past the next stop. “Man, nobody here? There’s always somebody here.”
We turned left off John onto 15th Avenue.
“So what’s this turn like when there’s traffic?”
“You just have to block like crazy. We have our own asshole methods.” Now heading west toward Broadway she added, “Man, there’s usually so much traffic here too. Looks like you might have a completely private ride to downtown. Your sixty-foot limo.” But a homeless man got on at the last stop before we crossed Broadway. A Rite Aid on the other side of Broadway had a sign:
FLU SHOTS AVAILABLE
COME IN NOW
West of Broadway, John Street becomes Olive Way and heads downhill over the freeway into downtown. Eveline stopped at a crosswalk, per the sometimes overly polite Seattle custom, to let a pedestrian cross. “It’s funny,” she said. “When it’s so empty, you can drive very politely. But most of the time it’s just rush rush rush.”
Heading down towards the notorious 3rd & Pine intersection, where Dennis and I once witnessed a shootout between rival drug dealers, Eveline mused: “I am absolutely not interested in the stock market, and I couldn’t give less of a shit whether it goes up or down or whatever. But I recently heard somebody say that their retirement money is out the window. And that’s not good.” She turned left on 3rd. Just before Marion Street she couldn’t see the curbside because it was blocked by another bus. “Was that my stop? Yeah, that was my stop. Oh well, I don’t have any people anyway.”
We made our last stop at 5th & Jackson and, just before we reached the base, she asked me: “Can you do me a favor, and walk through the bus and make sure that everybody got everything?” I did, and found nothing for the lost and found. At 8:28 a.m. we pulled up to Ryerson Base, east of the baseball stadium. “I’ll let you out here, and I’ll meet you over there where the gate is,” said Eveline. So I waited and checked email on my phone while she parked the bus and punched the clock or whatever. When I left the house just before seven there had been frost on my car, but by 8:30 it was shaping up to be a beautiful, sunny spring day. Eveline came out through the gate, and we walked through the International District (Seattle’s Chinatown) toward Pioneer Square, looking for somewhere we might get coffee to go. The big Asian grocery store Uwajimaya was closed, even though its sign said it opened at eight o’clock. The 85°C Bakery Café was closed too. “This was always packed full,” said Eveline. “Morning, seven in the evening, whenever I would come here, it’s always full.”
Then we spotted the hipsterish Zeitgeist coffee shop, where a barista was once rude to me after I complained that she was taking too long with my sandwich. To our amazement it was open this morning, and the baristas were nice. A few other customers were scattered around. We placed our orders, and then I asked the young woman: “If you don’t mind me asking, you’re open …?”
“Today’s our last day,” she said. They had to try to sell as much “product” as possible today, she said, after which leftovers would be shared among the staff.
“We all have to file for unemployment,” said the other barista. “All of the restaurant workers in Seattle, that’s what we have to do.” She had only recently opened a practice as a licensed massage therapist. The coffee shop job was supposed to have paid her rent while she got the business off the ground. But now she had no massage clients, and the coffee shop was closing.
She was kind enough to give me her business card. I hope she replies to my email, so I can tell more of her story.