There was a time when Ann Washburn felt the dull ache of loneliness even when she was around the people she knew best. She didn't mix much...

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There was a time when Ann Washburn felt the dull ache of loneliness even when she was around the people she knew best.

She didn’t mix much with co-workers. Her family relationships were strained. She’d lie in bed all weekend, bewildered that in this web of people connected physically, emotionally, digitally, she still felt totally alone.
Then one day she got on a Metro bus. It was the number 359, headed from Shoreline to her phone-company job in downtown Seattle.

The driver smiled and said hello. So what? Happens all the time. She may not even have noticed.

But when she got on the 359 the next day, and the day after, there was the same beaming driver. He always said hello. It wasn’t her nature, but at some point she said hello back.

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They made small talk.

He was big, nearly 300 pounds. He liked to goof around. Sometimes he’d stick his tongue out at bus drivers passing the other way.

She began to sit in the front of the bus to hear him talk. It was warm there, not cold and dark like inside her head.

One morning after another lonesome night, it hit her: “The only reason I’m getting out of bed is my bus driver.”

How pathetic is that, she wondered. She didn’t care. On her way to the bus stop was the only time she felt hope.

This went on for a year. She saw the driver only 30 minutes a day. He seemed congenitally happy. They always talked, but never about anything an eavesdropper would have judged interesting or important.

“He was just my bus driver, but he was my link to life,” Washburn recalls. “I never said a thing about it or told him what he meant to me. I wonder if he knew?”

She credits him that her gray cloud of depression parted slightly. She took a risk, voicing an electronic hello in an Internet chat room and improbably meeting the man who would become her husband.

She moved to Everett and stopped riding that bus. A few months later, the driver was shot to death by a loner on the 359, the bus plunging off the Aurora Bridge.

That was 6 ½ years ago. I’m telling you this story now because last week Ann Washburn, 37, had a baby. And she named it after the bus driver: Mark Francis McLaughlin Washburn.

She admits it might seem obsessive. She did it to say what she never told McLaughlin in person — that he saved her life.

She also wants to say something more.

At times the crowded city feels empty. People drive solo in darkened SUVs. They pass unseeing on the sidewalk. They sit mutely at adjacent cubicles.

Sometimes a stranger leaps across the gulf, if only by making eye contact or saying hello.

Big deal, we shrug. We can’t be bothered. Most of us, myself included, pass through our days acting as if basic human acknowledgment is as mundane as it is disposable.

Ann Washburn wants everyone to know there’s a week-old baby up in Everett, name of Mark, who proves it’s not.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.