Talking with Seattle's blogging bus driver, Nathan Vass

Since June of 2012, Nathan Vass has been blogging about his experiences as a driver for King County Metro. On his blog, The View from Nathan’s Bus, he writes candidly about what he sees as a driver on the 7 line through Rainier Valley, which is commonly stereotyped as the city’s most infamous route.

Operating a bus gives you a front row seat to the very best and worst of humanity. Vass witnesses surprising generosity and bitter conflicts on his daily trips, and he records it all. In five years on his blog, he’s published posts about race and gender roles and the changing face of Seattle and art and feces and pretty much everything else you’ll find on public transportation.

I had arranged to meet Vass for the first time at a coffee shop downtown for an interview. At first, I walked right past him. I failed to immediately recognize Vass for two reasons: first, he looks too young to drive a bus (he turns 31 this month, but he is a very youthful 30;) and second, he was staring so intently at the paintings coffee shop employees were in the process of hanging that I assumed he was the artist. (Vass is a photographer and filmmaker in his spare time, currently working on his ninth feature.) In person, Vass is well-read and deeply thoughtful; he keeps a journal by his side and takes notes whenever an idea occurs to him.

The name of his blog — particularly the “View” in “The View from Nathan’s Bus” — is no accident; there’s a reason why it’s not “Stories from Nathan’s Bus,” or “Overheard on Nathan’s Bus.” Vass really looks at things —he notices fine details and takes in context and nuance. While many people wander the city in a daze, Vass doesn’t miss a thing. In the middle of an answer, he stops and points out one of his regular riders, who just happens to be passing by across the street. He knows his name and what his days are like.

When Vass started driving for Metro in 2007, he says he was “resistant to the idea” of writing about his job because “I felt that we live in a time where documenting life is given priority over experiencing life, and I didn't want to fall into that.” More than that, “these moments on the bus are quite special, but they're also private and precious — and perhaps I would be interfering with their preciousness by writing about them.” He notes that memorists often find their memories to be “shifted and be reframed by what they've written” after converting their lives to “narrative form.”

Ultimately, Vass says, his friends convinced him to share his stories with the world. He also thought that perhaps he could be a counter to the horrible news people encounter every day, that he could make his blog a space “for people who want to read about all the great things that are happening in this life, especially the subtle, everyday, beautiful things that I think a lot of us notice but don't talk about.”

Vass had actually been writing about his route for years. During his breaks, he would write down noteworthy moments on the backs of bus transfers. He still remembers the first note, which was about “the look on this boy's face as he took off the bicycle from the front” of the bus — a look of “excitement and respect” and “vitality.”

But when he started blogging, Vass realized it takes a lot more work to write a blog post than it does to scribble a note on a bus transfer. Vass says that on almost every post he writes, “the last paragraph or the last sentence — you can read that and know that I spent 45 minutes staring at the computer screen, figuring out how to write that.” Vass often carries a printout draft of an upcoming post on him, and during breaks on his route he’ll edit the piece with pen on paper. (He’s an analog guy who shoots on film and prefers to listen to music on vinyl.)

The blog will continue for the forseeable future. If anything, Vass has too many experiences to share. He’s got plenty of notes written out on transfers “that seem like they'll make pretty good blog posts, but then they get tossed by the wayside because other things happen that are more interesting. And there's always more things.”

But isn’t blogging supposed to be dead as a platform for writing? Vass scoffs at the idea. When he’s writing a post, they’ll often “run longer than I think they will, and I discover they're actually about more than one thing. And I love that the blog allows for that space.” He resists the brevity of Twitter and Facebook: “people are complex and we can't address that complexity using only the most simplest and reductive of communicative forms. I think that's why books still persist, because we need that.”

Vass admits when he started out he was “apprehensive” about his bosses and coworkers reading his blog. And they definitely do read it: “there's a person in the HR department at Metro who's required to read everything I write,” he says. But that HR staffer “shared with me that she's grown to look forward” to new posts, and that they give “the administrative staff at Metro an armchair perspective of what it's like to be on the street.” Some of Vass’s posts are used as training materials for new bus drivers, and he’s been asked to speak to new classes. He believes that the administration likes that his blog “underlines the fact that this is a customer service gig. We're not driving around potatoes here.”

Ask Vass for his influences and you’ll get an impressive list in response: Tolstoy, Van Gogh’s letters. But so far as literary influence goes, “the first name that flashes to mind is Don DeLillo.” Vass loves DeLillo’s obsession with and respect for the rhythm of the language: “the English language is large enough that you can [substitute] any word for another word for the sake of rhythm. And he's very meticulous about that. That's something that I try in my own very small way to emulate.”

Over time, his blog has developed deeper rhythms and a novelistic understanding of time. Characters recur and Vass grows to know his riders more and watch kids on his route grow up. It’s a complex story of life in the city, and that book-like feeling is no accident. Vass confesses that “it’s always been a dream of mine to get a publishing house interested” in a book version of the blog, and he’s saved some potential posts specifically for that eventual book.

But in the end, writing the blog is its own reward. Vass wants more than anything “to inspire a sense of hope and belief in other people, not just to make them feel better, but to make them think that, ‘Okay, the world is a good place. Humans are good people.’” Does Vass really believe in the goodness of the human race? “I actually don't think it matters if that's true or not, but I think it does matter if people think it is. Because if they think the world's a good place, if they think people are great, then they'll be inspired to work hard at making that become closer to reality.”

In the end, Vass says, as a bus driver and a photographer and a filmmaker and a writer, “I want to remind folks that you can contribute.”