He is known among passengers, co-workers and friends as a charismatic storyteller who can defuse tough situations that come with a nighttime bus route traversing Seattle’s urban core.

Share story

LeRoy Haigler first rode Metro Transit’s No. 7 bus after a one-way train ride from his home in Philadelphia to start over in Seattle.

Homeless and fleeing family trauma, the 19-year-old had little money, few belongings and no place to go. He boarded the downtown-bound bus on Rainier Avenue round midnight, finding a seat in the back after swapping a quick greeting with the driver, Nathan Vass.

That was Sept. 13, 2014. Haigler remembers it as the day Vass saved his life.

“Not a way, like, oh, he jumped in a burning building or he stopped a car from hitting me,” Haigler said. “Nathan gave me hope. ”

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab » | Follow us on Twitter »

At the route’s end, Vass listened to Haigler’s story, explained temporary shelter options in Seattle and gave the teen $20 before the two parted ways. The conversation and cash, Haigler said recently, was what he needed to get through the night and eventually start applying for jobs.

Vass, 31, a Metro driver for the past 10 years, is known among passengers, co-workers and friends for his ability to connect with people, suggest help if it’s needed and defuse those tough situations that come with a nighttime bus route traversing Seattle’s urban core.

He greets each rider who boards “the 7,” a route with a reputation among drivers for trouble. He personally calls out each of his route’s 126 stops — from Rainier Beach to the University District — rather than relying on the recorded announcements most drivers use.

Regular riders often find space near him to talk, and he knows hundreds of passengers by name.

“One of the things you’ll notice about Nathan is every person who gets on the bus, nobody gets ignored,” said Celia Berk, 20, of Capitol Hill, who first rode Vass’ bus about five years ago.

Born in Los Angeles, Vass’ fascination with public transit began young. He grew up in Seattle, where he began riding buses at age 12 to people-watch and take pictures.

That’s when working for Metro became a goal.

Now, Vass documents his experiences as a driver through words and pictures in a blog, The View From Nathan’s Bus, which he hopes one day will become a book.

“If we’re going to anthropomorphize buses, they’ve become, like, the friendly uncle who loves everyone, who doesn’t judge,” Vass said. “The bus is rare in that it brings together all class groups and my route, specifically, everyone. ”

Vass makes Route 7 his own

Route 7 is one of Metro’s busiest bus lines, shuttling about 11,000 people each day through diverse and more affordable South Seattle neighborhoods and into a city center being transformed by wealth from the tech boom.

The 7 extends farther north at night, pushing past downtown’s high-rises and construction cranes, to include Route 49’s stops for partyers on Capitol Hill and students in the University District.

Considering its high ridership and wide geographic sweep, the 7 ranks among Metro’s highest for safety threats.

Bus operators across the transit agency’s roughly 185-route system deal with people in distress, acting inappropriately or being threatening. Eighty-six bus operators were assaulted last year, Metro reports.

Route 7 drivers documented just under 270 “security incident reports” last year, ranging from fare evasion to assault. Only the RapidRide E bus line on Aurora Avenue North — Metro’s highest ridership route ­— tallied more reports.

“Challenges operators face have nothing to do with moving the vehicle down the road,” said Metro supervisor Paul Margolis, 37, to whom Vass reports. “Everything that you struggle with out there has to do with people who are mentally ill, or people who are having a really bad day and taking it out on you.”

“Nathan has a strategy for every incident that happens out there,” he added.

Vass chooses to stay on the 7 for the nighttime shift between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m., even though he has the seniority to request other routes.

Three times a year, drivers can change their routes based on how long they have worked for Metro. Vass said many stay away from the 7 because of the stress involved, or leave it when they get the chance.

But he said the route’s challenges make the job more worthwhile. The 12-mile stretch brings together people of all backgrounds, and passengers seem more apt to interact with him compared to other routes, Vass said.

“These are the people I want to be spending time with while I’m at work, and that’s what actively made me choose these routes that everyone else hates,” he said. “I get more out of it. I feel more useful.”

While driving the express bus to the Issaquah Highlands years ago, Vass said riders seemed generally withdrawn or glued to their phones compared to those on his Rainier Beach-University District bus line.

“You, the operator, are not having a significant impact — you’re just having a mildly positive one in that you’re getting these people home,” Vass said of the Eastside route. “Where person-to-person stuff has way greater impact, I just feel better being out there.”

“He humanizes people on the bus”

Vass doesn’t like to talk about his worst most moments on the job.

One of his blog posts, though, describes a challenging shift on Mother’s Day in 2015.

Early in the drive, Vass radioed Metro’s control center to seek help for a young woman who felt threatened by two riders who had previously assaulted her.

Meanwhile, an intoxicated man berated Vass for stopping the bus to make the call.

Vass said remaining polite is key to defusing such situations. For example, he recalled, when someone pulled out a crack pipe on the bus, he said matter-of-factly, “Smoking is bad manners.”

His reputation among fellow drivers has earned him Metro’s Operator of the Month. Twice.

A University of Washington graduate with a degree in fine art photography, Vass has maintained his blog since 2012, sharing driving tips and chronicling his experiences and observations. Roughly 2,000 people read it daily, he said.

His storytelling extends beyond the blog. Photography and art galleries, including the Seattle Art Museum, have featured him and his projects over years.

He currently has an art display at Pioneer Square’s Shift Gallery about driving the bus. And he’s directed more than a half-dozen short films.

He says his creativity is fed by his experiences on the bus.

During a recent late-night trip, Vass recalled a crowd of riders who tested his mediation skills — a man with dilated eyes begging others for money, an angry drunk man and another rider whose “body kept contorting in a certain way that didn’t quite make sense.”

Everything turned out well, Vass said, meaning no one turned violent. Other passengers who knew Vass stepped in to help get the intoxicated man off the bus.

“I think he (Vass) sees a lot of stuff,” said Metro operator Anthony Njuguna of Kent. “He does a very good job of how he deals with it.”

The following evening, gunfire on Rainier Avenue South rerouted Vass’ bus.

Vass and Haigler, who was on the bus at the time, reviewed the new stops while parked a few miles away near Rainier Beach for a break. They ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that Vass had brought.

Vass — 5-foot-9, 149 pounds with glasses and a boyish face — snacks regularly during his shift since he says the work is mentally and physically exhausting.

“Another night on the 7,” Haigler said to Vass.

Like his first bus ride three years ago, Haigler still boards Vass’ bus without a destination in mind — though now usually after shifts serving at Pike Place Chowder or in between hanging out at his Greenwood home.

He calls the trips “bus therapy” — a time to clear his mind and catch up with Vass.

Both he and Celia Berk, who became friends riding the 7, said they want to drive for Metro someday because of Vass’ influence.

“If you’re a veterinarian, if you’re a gang member, if you’re homeless, it doesn’t matter — he humanizes people on the bus,” Haigler said.