Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Riddle and A Frog

The sun came out to play on Thursday. How refreshing to know spring is near! I finally had the chance to test my new eyeglasses, and thankfully they darken inside the bus too. It was quite a challenge when the rainy streets were ablaze in sunlight and my old specs didn't filter the glare. Either way, I hope this is a glimpse of more to come.

With the bright rays came a lighter mood. I was jovial, opposed to the previous five months of steady rain dampening my spirits. Plus, that happened to be St. Patrick's Day so people were playful. When thinking of bloggable subjects, I came up with this bus operator's riddle:

This shade of green beckons from afar,
Shining below an amber star.
But if you try to reach it too quickly,
The result could render some sickly.

I doubt this will fool most of you,
Today it's framed by a shade of blue
We Nor'westerners rarely can see;
Oh what then my dears, could it be?

* * *

A sweet girl boarded my bus on a layover one recent rainy evening. Her hands were cupped protectively in front of her, around something I couldn't see.

Noticing my curious glance, she asked "Want to see my frog?"

Instantly, I was trying to figure out if this was acceptable behavior. She had ridden before, and had always been sweet and respectful. What came out of my mouth next was a surprise to us both.

"Oh," I said, "is that your service frog?"

After we both laughed at my clumsy humor, she explained. 

"I'm bringing it to my friend because you see, I broke his terrarium earlier and I feel bad. I wanted to give him something to make up for it."

I was simultaneously amused and perplexed. What if little Freddy escaped his bondage and jumped up some lady's skirt? Might somebody's work boot accidentally prove fatal to this juvenile amphibian?

Stepping off the bus to contemplate amongst a satisfying cloud of nicotine vapor, I was flummoxed. Knowing the Standard Operating Procedures require pets to be in an enclosure, it worried me she didn't have one. If someone complained, I might hear some grumbling from management.

Luckily, a friend picked her up a few minutes later. My worries were no longer valid.

Service frog, indeed.

15,000 Hits In One Month!

New records smashed, and a new milestone set for the blog. Ol' Ma, RIP, would be proud of her boy today!

"Just keep writing," she'd mumble. "Just don't let it go to your head."

Thanks folks. I just took a break from the painful editing process associated with publishing my book, and saw the stat flash on my screen.

Let's just hope the book sells more than just a few hundred copies...

Monday, March 20, 2017

Do the "Right Thing"

It's been a busy few weeks for me, so I was sorely tempted to take the week off from blogging. Last night however, I heard that one our brothers was assaulted while he was on duty. Now I'm a bit steamed around my collar, so it's time to decompress.

Our good brother and stalwart defender of every union member, Henry Beasley, long ago introduced what he believes would be the decent response to any assault upon one of us. Out of respect for his steadfast insistence that management adopt this, my preference is to call this the Beasley Doctrine. It calls for our immediate removal from service to facilitate our healing/recovery as well as the safety of our passengers.

When an operator is physically assaulted, which happened 55 times in 2016, our soul has been forever altered. To continue driving afterward goes against the "Safety Is Our Core Value" mantra we're expected to believe. Unless the operator is super-human and can truly ignore what just happened, their thoughts are almost entirely centered upon the assault. It's infuriating, frightening, and psychologically injurious to be attacked. It's not beyond belief to imagine what would happen to a person in management if they endured an assault while on the job. Most assuredly, they would be sent home to recuperate. They wouldn't dream of losing pay while recovering from a terrifying incident. Yet a union driver whose job it is to safely transport any passenger aboard to their destination cannot expect the same treatment.

The other day, I had the honor of meeting a fellow driver who was sexually assaulted while driving a bus. This brave soul, in unwavering and strong tone, testified before an Oregon legislative committee in Salem in support of a bill that would toughen the penalties for those who assault transit workers. I marveled at her poise while describing her assault. She did every one of us an incredible honor by sharing her horror, in hopes the committee would be moved to recommend government do the right thing by us. What is that? To insist that transit operators be shown the honor and respect we deserve, by demanding that those who assault us in any aspect of doing our jobs be reasonably punished for their actions.

As I spoke with this brave lady whose courage I admire, she told me that it is still difficult to even ride on transit let alone operate a bus. This is obviously a sign of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There have been times in my own career when my safety was threatened. Trapped in the operator seat, it was a 50-50 proposition as to whether I'd be beaten or worse. Luckily for me, my tormentor was apprehended before any possible assault could occur. In our sister's case, her assailant has never been found. She bears the emotional scars of a scene that will never leave her memory. Yet she had the intestinal fortitude to tell her story, in a powerful voice, with the hopes that her words would help convince that committee to do the right thing.

"Do the right thing," said another brother, one of two who spearheaded this plea to our legislature.

It is time for our management to do right by its employees. It insists we are a "family." How many of you would rest easy until the assailant of a family member was brought to justice? Also, wouldn't you insist that every available option be made available to help your loved one recover? Should they be penalized for taking time off? In our job, it is imperative that we operate with confidence in order to ensure our passengers are safely transported. When fear distracts us, concentration is affected. Without a reasonable expectation that we operate with the full support of those entrusted with our safety, self-doubt can lead to possible distractions. In my experience, distractions are counter-productive to the safe operation of a bus.

To be fair, it is encouraging that our agency changed its fare policy. This act alone is a positive step. But it's reactionary rather than proactive. I applaud my fellow operators for their input and full participation in a process which encourages our management to find innovative ways of protecting us. While it's a bit late, it is an encouraging step.

Whether we are caged, assured that we are valued members of the transit agency family, or left to our own well-being, we remain vulnerable. I understand management believes that by placing a barrier between us and our passengers this will protect us from attacks. It might, however, further induce an assailant to find a more creative way to wreak havoc. Hiding behind barriers might elude an attacker, but those insistent upon violence will find a way around it. Will that barrier stop a bullet? Will the enclosure create yet another vision barrier? Might it also offend those passengers who are kind and polite to us?

My recommendation is to lose the barriers and educate the public. How to Ride the Bus. What Is Acceptable Behavior? This is What Happens When You Assault a Transit Worker. How to Drive Near a Bus. Transit Mall Rules and Procedures. Considering our city is transit-dependent for a strong economy, it seems odd there isn't a focus on educating it. Our union should take the lead in this regard in the absence of management's doing so.

We should expect management to do everything possible to keep us safe, but also to ensure that when attacked, we are given every opportunity to recover. I have no doubt my own family would automatically afford me this benefit. It's time for my transit agency to become a protective partner in our safety, rather than reactionary and punitive. Our fellow brothers and sisters are a collective family, and when one is hurt, we all feel the pain. It would be comforting to know management shares this bond. When we feel safe, it's a given that the public is further assured of a safe ride.

Slogans make management feel as if it's doing the right thing by its employees, but positive action comforts those who make the big wheels roll. Hopefully, we're headed toward a more meaningful and productive conversation than we have seen in the past decade.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Fare Extension

Our current fares are fairly inexpensive for the service provided.

Not really wanting to beat an already fatally-stricken horse here, but a conversation with a beloved brother who has nearly five times the experience I have on this job has me needing to take another stab at it. The severe tests this job already presents my razor-thin patience are multiplied dramatically with the transit agency's recent change in fare policy. In a way, I might add, that I didn't truly realize until said brother explained his own predicament regarding the change.

Years ago, he told me, transit here adopted a fare policy that basically amounted to an "honor system," where passengers either paid for a ride or did not. It didn't go well, evidently. Then, they reverted to a stringent collection policy that basically forced operators to make passengers toe the yellow line and pay up. They hired fare inspectors who weeded out the violators and cited them for not having valid fares. Even regular riders who may have forgotten their passes at home were fined for fare evasion, along with the poor who just couldn't afford it or the pathetic few who simply refused to pay. A few years ago, they eliminated this position and put the onus on operators and road supervisors along with transit police to enforce fare. The result was a marked increase of fare-related confrontations which led to an increase of assaults on transit workers. Now, the agency has reversed itself again, due to lobbying from those who believe low income residents are prosecuted more frequently than others.

According to the new fare policy, we are not allowed to refuse service to anyone refusing to pay a fare. Sure, we've been beaten up and bloodied over fare, and I understand part of the logic behind this move is reportedly to protect us from assaults. However, it is a hard pill to swallow for an honest rider to pay their fare and then watch some slacker board without being required to pony up a few bucks. These fare evaders are getting the same courteous, smooth service that the honest folks have paid to acquire. So which is better? Fare, or not fair?

What's wrong with this new policy? For starters, many who have avoided fare payment in the past have been subject to an operator having the authority to refuse them a ride, which is actually a nod to the paying passengers. Or, upon being given a ride, these people have been informed that they ride at their own risk, subject to citations if fare inspectors actually board the vehicle. Now we have neither the authority to require people to pay a fare or suffer consequences, nor the agency's support when doing so. So why should people pay anything for this service if the transit agency doesn't care either way?

This brings up an interesting point shared by my fellow blogger and great supporter, Al Margulies (rantingsofatrimetbusdriver.blogspot.com). We usually agree on most points regarding transit. But Al believes that since transit is supported by local taxes, it should therefore be a free service. Well, I believe (as does my brother who raised this point with me earlier tonight) that those who pay for a service are invested in the ride and are therefore entitled to a safe, smooth and efficient one. Those not required to pay are less likely to have respect for the operator or their fellow passengers than those who do. Also, it takes a lot of money to provide transit services, and removing fares altogether would place an unfair tax burden on an already multi-taxed economy. Even though our fares are truly an outstanding deal, it's still a valuable service we provide the local populace, and nothing of value should ever be "free." Somebody always pays an additional fee for the misleading price of nothing.

Most trouble on transit, in my experience and that of many of my fellow operators, is attributed to those who are professional trouble-makers. They brazenly refuse to pay fare, board intoxicated on the drug of their choice, and spend an entire trip giving people grief. They know that once the operator calls for help, they can escape before help arrives. They mostly have no moral conscience, and certainly don't respect the operator who has spent years as a professional driver. They have no cognizance of what it takes to maneuver a 20-ton vehicle in traffic. When they cause a disturbance requiring the operator to stop-and-lock in order to deal with their troublesome antics, they're interfering with transit operations. Not only don't they understand this concept, they don't care either. All the paying passengers are therefore delayed because some goofball gets a kick out of making others miserable.

In addition, with the focus on our On-Time Performance, we'll now be further delayed when we have to explain to our honest fare-paying riders why they should pay at all since Freddie Freeloader didn't even put a dime in the fare box. It's an understandably-perplexing policy to explain. We can't be expected to do so while driving, because having conversations with people, especially if they can get heated, is distracting. Distracted driving is not conducive to safety. Safety is Our Core Value, they say.

Our transit agency is flailing under management that is trying to be "everything for everybody" while entirely missing the point. It's supposed to stand behind every operator, but it enacts policies that are misguided and illogical. This makes it even harder to do our job as "fare informers, not enforcers" because now we have to attempt an explanation for their policy reversals.

It won't be long before the riding public rises up and refuses to pay at all. Why should it? This flip-flopping fare policy makes us all look silly, from management to operators. I cannot explain it, nor can I even justify using the "Fare Evasion" button on my on-board computer, if fares are no longer necessary.

What do I propose? Hire back Fare Inspectors by the dozens. Instruct them to frequently ride the high-evasion lines. Cite the bad guys, but use basic human decency and offer leniency at their own discretion. Lower the fines to a more reasonable level so the working poor aren't unfairly targeted. District attorneys should mete out strict punishment to those who assault transit workers, and our agency must permanently exclude chronic offenders. When people are arrested, their photos are published in a tabloid. Public shaming our trouble causers isn't exactly necessary, but distributing photos of our assailants and excluded passengers amongst transit workers might help us be safer out on the road. Transit management should take to all media outlets to make our policies known to the public. Further, there should be public service announcements on how to ride transit, how to drive on the Transit Mall, and recommended driving safety around transit vehicles.

This mangled web we're weaving is an honest spider's nightmare.

Monday, March 13, 2017

I Won't Pay, And You Can't Make Me!

Our transit agency has some serious problems with fare evasion. On my route alone, I press the "Fare Evasion" button at least 10-20 times every day. Now local district attorneys are further eroding transit operators' authority by saying they will no longer prosecute fare evaders, except for various repeat offenders.

It's a great deal these days to ride the bus or light rail here. A mere $2.50 gets you almost anywhere in the Portland metropolitan area, good for 2.5 hours from the time of purchase. Try getting a cab ride at that rate. You'd grow gills and swim there faster. Given the extreme rainfall totals we've amassed this winter, I wouldn't be surprised if some residents had so evolved.

The economy is still a bit rancid in these parts. Yet what rankles me most is the guy who can be seen smacking down a new pack of smokes at the shelter, looking at his cell phone while sporting the latest pair of athletic shoes, getting on the bus with a poorly-concocted story as to why he doesn't have fare. "I'm just going a few stops anyway, can I just have a 'courtesy ride'?" Now what the hell is that? If he was 88, pushing a beat-up walker and too broke to afford a raincoat, I'd feel pity. I'd stop for the old guy in between stops just to help him out. But the young slacker who doesn't have a job, borrows $50 from Aunt Peggy every week for smokes, and causes a ruckus on the bus? Why shouldn't he have to pay? Now evidently, he doesn't even have to fear prosecution for theft of a public service.

There are scores of people who need to ride the bus and actually can't afford it. I accept this reality; once upon a time I was one of them. But they are much fewer in number than those who just don't want to put transit fares in their budget. They get on reeking of the local pot shop's finest strains, theatrically patting their pockets in the comical "I just had my fare, where did it go?" dance, then shrug and take a seat. When you inform them of our fare policy, they just shrug. "I'll take my chances... just drive, asshole."

Some are calling for transit to provide free rides to the "poor." If it has value, it shouldn't be free. By not charging people even a minimal fee, it severely devalues the exemplary service my brothers and sisters provide Portland's populace. Operators can tell the cons from the honest, hardworking people just scraping by. Most of us are willing to help out the honest folks, but we occasionally let the cons slip through. Sometimes regulars forget their pass, or they truly lose it. I give them a ride without a second thought because I know they're truthful. Now we have no authoritative threat. We can't even say, with a straight face, "If a fare inspector gets on, you're on your own."

We already have a pseudo low income fare, called "Honored Citizen." It's half the price of a regular Adult fare. It is enormously abused, because people don't have the identification card required or fail to show it when paying fare. Asking them to prove their status can, and has many a time, lead to an argument at the fare box. This is something we're trained to avoid, in an effort to increase our safety.

The district attorneys and our agency are proving soft on transit crime. The court system allows violent assailants to plead down their charges, and all transit can come up with is caging operators like monkeys. No wonder we suffer a massive lack of respect from the community we serve. Now we're pressured to make transit a free ride to anyone without requiring basic common decency to rule their behavior.

On Friday comes "Driver Appreciation Day." It seems more of a theatrical con job to make transit management feel better about its poor treatment of us by putting on a big media event. Put your money where your verbal jabs blast forth, fellas. I get more appreciation from my daily regulars than from your once-a-year dog and pony show. They at least have a better understanding of my job than management does. I take them home or to work, safely and smoothly with a welcoming smile on my face. It's better than some cabbies would give, and it's a helluva lot cheaper.

We Fight Or Die!

Contract talks have resumed. According to a fly on the wall, probably located nearest the source of bovine excrement, a few odorous surprises were hurled at our union officers. It seems our employer has come up with some innovative propositions.

First, they want to scrap our retirement plan altogether. Since management is reported to have avoided funding the pension for decades, the obligation is too high to ever fulfill. They replaced it with a 401k option a few years back, but now they're balking at paying for that too. It might cause more financial difficulty, and this would evidently interfere with building the Brown Line from Gladstone to Oregon City.

To alleviate their financial woes, they now intend to scrap all pensions in favor of the Fools' Upward Creative Karma Initiative Tomorrow (FUCKIT) plan. Included with our paychecks would be three Scratch-It and two Powerball lottery tickets. Given the strong possibility of a future stock market crash, management is touting this new plan as safer and more easily funded. With its attack on retirement benefits, our chances of winning a lottery seem congruent with the possibility we'll be financially stable in retirement.

Second, all insurance plans will be replaced by a single octogenarian nurse (with a dirty sock fetish) at each garage. Their office hours will be from 3:00 a.m. to 4:30 a.m. An operator marking off for the day must have a valid excuse from the nurse or risk termination. Anything more than a scratch or slight sniffle will no longer be covered. Everything else will be considered a pre-existing condition. No further workman's comp claims will be paid, as they believe any injuries suffered on the job are our own damn fault. Safety is after all, "our core value." Getting sick is no excuse for time loss.

Traditionally, if we are one second late to work, we lose our pay for the day. So they've decided that any time we're even one second late or two seconds early at any point on our routes, our pay will be cut in half for that shift. This is to ensure our passengers get the best service no fare payment can buy. These funds will automatically be added to the GM's retirement bonus.

If a state arbitrator approves the agency's "last best offer," all union activity will be strictly prohibited. All new hires will be required to sign a letter promising to trust the agency to provide the best possible terms of employment. There will be no promises made so none have to be kept. Our jobs will be to drive a bus or light rail vehicle until the coroner pronounces us no longer of this world.

* * * 

It sounds a bit far-fetched to you? Of course. Management would never do anything this extreme. Would it? Each contract negotiation, its demands approach ridiculousness. It's a vicious time in the media, during which we're denigrated as greedy monkeys demanding far more than we deserve. It chips away at promises one at a time. For instance, our retirees were promised long ago that in lieu of regular raises, they'd get free healthcare the rest of their lives. Pretty expensive, indeed. Considering the years of being pounded up and down and all around in an unforgiving operator's seat, their bodies were all used up by the end of a career. Their service was more valuable "back in the day" than it is now. Transit operators commanded more respect in decades past. In addition, they were promised a pension of x-amount of dollars per month multiplied by the years they served. We found out a few years ago that the agency hadn't fully-funded this pension. Instead of heads rolling after a full investigation of these shenanigans, we heard excuses. The blame shifted to our supposed "greed" while management found a secret way to increase non-union salaries. To add further insult to injury, retirees were suddenly charged a percentage of their insurance premiums... another promise broken. Considering the pension amounts have remain relatively unchanged for decades, many retirees faced financial ruin when the agency was permitted this grievous sin.

So I ask again... given what has happened in the past, is this truly an unbelievable scenario? I believe it could, in some altered state, become our future reality. Unions don't seem to have the respect and power we had while building the incredible superstructure and ferocious military might that gave us superpower status in the last century.

It is up to US to rise up and fight this battle on the vanishing middle class. We do the work, the uppity uppers collect the gold. We've now seen a billionaire gain the White House, who seems hell-bent on the continued upward redistribution of wealth rather than horizontally across the mid-section of our great country. It is up to each hard-working person to rise with our brothers and sisters against this gradual weakening of the masses who made this country "great" to begin with. If we don't win this war, there will be no more crumbs for us to fight over. Chaos will reign, the rich will only become more so, and we'll have nobody but our apathetically pathetic selves to blame. With numbers come strength; division breeds apathy and consensual weakness.

I don't need to be rich, only to be rewarded sufficiently for a lifetime of brutally-hard work just to survive. Help me, raise yourselves, lift us all.