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Friday, December 4, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Uneasiness Permeates Route 359

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

A WEEK AFTER the shooting and bus crash that that left three dead, many Metro riders on the fateful route feel anxious. Metro drivers feel it, too, especially when it's not rush hour.

SEATTLE - From morning to night, from dark to dark, the sounds make you see crooked. It is just a bus, a grumbling 20-ton city bus that rides the same line every day, with everyday riders.

But the sound of a loose bolt, a fellow arguing with his wristwatch, and a hundred squeaks and thumps are like an orchestra that cannot ever get in tune. So sometimes a man needs to whistle to himself, maybe even talk, so he can hear something he knows. At least that's what the driver says.

A lot of bus drivers wonder how they do it, how some folks get on the bus and ride all day, just killing time. It's bad enough driving, but at least the driver has to steer.

"Keeps me busy," says Maureen Cote, a Metro Transit driver. "But I do have plenty of time to think, sitting at these stoplights. Makes me crazy sometimes."

If you've got money, you probably don't ride the bus. Especially this one, the one Cote drives. It is "The Six," which is also the 359 express, the same route where a man shot a bus driver and himself, and sent the bus rolling off the Aurora Bridge a week ago today. It is one of the most complained-about routes. Except for two times a day - the morning and evening rush hours, when commuters get on with briefcases and pressed shirts - the bus fills with the poor and the drunk and sad.

It could have been them

When the 359, or The Six, passes the gash in the bridge, where the bus tumbled over, the riders look away. They don't gawk. Most of them - more than could possibly have fit on the bus - say they had planned on being on that bus, but something, God, or stupid luck, stopped them. My brother picked me up. I was late. I just had a bad feeling. It could have been me.

There is nothing dishonest in it; simply it is folks struck that bad things happen, and facing that, sometimes, those things happen near them. And so they look away, as if looking at it might send their bus the same way.

Wanda Wells, of Tukwila, said she wouldn't feel that way if she didn't see such volatile characters on the route everyday. It keeps you nervous, she said. At some point, a Silas Cool (the man who shot driver Mark McLaughlin and then himself) was going to come to some bad end, and nobody should be surprised by it. Wells said she would do a lot to never have to take the bus again, except learn to drive a car.

She's one of the late-afternoon crowd that heads downtown for a transfer home; she gets on the bus just before the full commuter load gets off work. Wells talks about the frustration of riding what is known as one of the rowdier routes in the city:

"The drivers, what are they going to do? People get on and if they are yelling or something, what are the drivers going to do? If they say something, it might get worse. . . . so they just drive and take it. A defining role

Unlike the Lexus that says something about its driver, it is the passenger that defines the bus. Physically, the bus is characterless: gray or white with brown seats and a driver that is instructed not to say much.

The 359 is a husk. Sometimes it is a rowdy schoolhouse, or a homeless shelter, or a detox clinic; sometimes, when the commuters get on, it is quiet like an elevator. The route extends downtown and circles back to Aurora Village and back downtown, circling through good and bad neighborhoods, picking up hookers, professionals, and students reading Nietzsche.

Carolyn Goard, who lives on Vashon Island, said she rides the bus because it eases her conscience. She sits straight in her seat and stares straight ahead for her entire bus ride: "Sometimes I look at all those little cars backed up on the West Seattle bridge and I think we're going to pay for this someday. That's why I take the bus."

Bus drivers wait all day for the afternoon rush hour because, they say, it is relief. Cote said sometimes "I can just feel the people behind me. I don't have to see them. I can just feel them. . . . but the commuters just stand there and don't say anything. They can't wait to get home."

After the rush, a different slice of society gets on. People who have lived lives that pushed them back hard enough that they stumbled into a bus stand, and fell asleep. The man carving a tiny totem pole with a pocket knife, the old woman with skin like a crumpled paper bag, the man with the ruddy face and fine hair the color of bourbon, giving the woman behind him the eye. One man, who dresses all in black, like Johnny Cash, gets on the bus downtown and simply goes to sleep. He never speaks, drivers say. Others talk too loud, often to themselves.

Others get on mad. Drivers say they try not to think about who is getting on, unless somebody smacks them in the face, which is not the rarest of events. (Cote said that once a man who was angry that she didn't stop fast enough for him got on the bus and punched her in the face.) The drivers ignore many of the passengers, no matter how hard they yell, or how foul they talk.

Drivers are limited at what they can do, by rules: They're allowed to make a general announcement to the bus to settle down, or they can call their control center, which will then call them back, and suggest a solution. They can also call the police. But by the time the officers arrive, the passenger is usually gone.

"It's like getting dealt a deck of cards everyday," said a driver named Annie, who didn't want her last name used. "But you always get the jokers."

A place to rest the feet

Beyond that, and beyond Silas Cool, commuters and drivers say it is hard to be angry with the folks who use the bus as a place to sleep. More than anything, the passengers and drivers want a video camera, or a security guard on the bus, to make sure nobody gets harassed that shouldn't be harassed.

"Most people on the bus don't mean anybody any harm," said Don Brady, a driver. They just need a place to rest their feet, and a way to feel they have purpose, drivers say.

The other day, near the end of the morning rush, and just as a man dressed like an Eddie Bauer model left the bus, a group of four people who appeared to be drinking got on. They sat in back, quietly.

Soon, though, one man wanted to chat. The back of the bus was his confessional. He talked about heaven for a little while.

"My life isn't going nowhere," says the man in purple sweat pants and long goatee. He was harmless and gentle and drunk.

He said he didn't know where he was going. He wondered if maybe the bus would take him someplace good.

Matthew Ebnet's phone message number is 206-515-5698. His e-mail address is: mebnet@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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