Monday, September 26, 2016

I've Hit the (Figurative) Wall

The path ahead is foggy, unknown, but passable.
It's been six months since my last vacation. Luckily, my wife and I were able to escape the city for a few days this weekend.

Family and friends have mentioned that I've been "bitchy" a lot these days. Introspectively, I agree. It has been a rough year. No, I'm not whining. This blog is my therapy to deal with the rigors of the career I chose. Sometimes I report on the good. There is a lot of bad that happens, and some is downright ugly. In this job, it's common for operators to "hit a wall" before their fifth year of service. With me, it has been a gradual wearing down of my resolve to have a good day, every day. The ugly has overshadowed the good, so I'm re-training myself to put the blinders on.

Over the past year, my body has changed too. There are aches and pains I've never had before, and they're directly attributable to driving a bus. Posture is important, and being aware of poor positioning is vital. My foot, for example. Servicing bus stops requires a firm but smooth application of the brake pedal. If your foot is too high on the pedal, there is an initial "jerk" which can force standing passengers off-balance. Place your foot too low on the pedal, and you don't get enough force to generate enough stopping power. The trick is to find your "sweet spot" on the pedal and come to a smooth, gradual stop. I've found that fine motor control can be achieved by using my big toe as a means to finesse the vehicle. In fact, many of my passengers have remarked on how smoothly I drive. It's a source of pride, and when it doesn't happen I'm unhappy with my performance. Unfortunately, when you start and stop a bus upwards of a thousand times a day, your feet take a beating. Your entire body does. Soreness dictates slight deviations from the sweet spot and well... you can't be perfect all the time.

Once a month I get a full-body massage. I've tried yoga and meditation as well. But this weekend I indulged in a natural mineral hot springs, where I soaked for hours. It was pure bliss. At first, my inflamed tendons screamed in protest. Gradually, the minerals and heat loosened and relieved many of the sore spots. Walking in the forest was beneficial to heart and soul, as this wonderful land has soothed me for many years. Long talks with my beloved wife helped me deal with this turning point in my career. We spent a weekend free of this blog, social media and phone calls. It was also a nice break away from editing my book. Not thinking about driving a bus was blissful. Plus, having no cell signal is a healing escape to today's constant barrage of information. Spending time with the person who knows me best and has the ability to soothe when necessary is the best medicine I know.

Frankly, I'm considering other career interests at this point. Writing professionally for a living has always been a goal, but reality dictates I treat it as a hobby for now. We'll see how the next few weeks pan out. I'm about a month shy of my anniversary as an operator. Whether I continue is based on several factors, but financial stability in an unstable economy is vital. Conversely, it's also important to weigh the effects of this job on my health. The stress is evidenced by an increase in my "bitchy" demeanor. Constant stress on my neck, shoulders, back, hips, knees and feet leave me questioning if I'm actually tough enough to continue. I started this job well into middle age, and it feels as if I've aged five years for every year of service.

This blog has chronicled nearly every step of my career as a bus operator. Along the way, it has been accessed over 77,000 times by people all over the world. These words have described what I've experienced. The events of the next few weeks will determine whether I can continue to describe life as a bus operator. If not, it's been a hell of a ride and I thank you all for sticking with me. If I decide to continue, hopefully some good stories will come out and your Deacon will find a way over the wall.

Until then, I'm climbing the ladder to see what's on the other side. Stay tuned.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Twilight Zone


Late one night I pulled in to service a very dark bus stop. A young man paid his fare, but I noticed a woman in the shelter who stood up, so I waited to see if she was going to board. This one took her time, but when she finally walked up to the door, she didn't get in. She looked me up and down as I waited to see what her story was. It made for an uncomfortable few moments.

"What are you doing," she asked, "planting a field or just sitting around?"

Totally out of the blue, about as nonsensical a question as I've ever been asked. It took a moment to analyze, but I recognized a potential for trouble.

"Isn't it obvious what I'm doing?" I replied, trying to conceal my growing irritation mixed with a healthy dose of "Huh?!?"

"Well I'm not sure what you're doing, so it's my right to ask," came another ludicrous statement. This one isn't playing with any aces in the deck, I reasoned.

I took a deep breath to calm myself. She reminded me of someone I don't like to think about, who is sadly afflicted with some serious mental disorders.

"Well okay then," I said. "I'm driving a bus tonight. Either you're riding or you're not. You have two seconds to decide."

She then began an eerie soliloquy I deemed unnecessary to hear. I shut the door after a generous five seconds and drove off. A few passengers audibly sighed and a single "Thank God he didn't let her on" was uttered. Someone told me this woman is a regular trouble-causer, and they were relieved I denied her service.

This person seemed non-violent, but as bus operators we realize even the sanest-looking people can be totally unpredictable. Say the wrong thing, and SNAP! You could be assaulted without warning, and being restrained to the seat, you have little if any means of self-defense at your disposal. If you want to keep your job, that is.

Instead of finding out whether this person could have been dangerous, I made an executive decision, from the seat. We're told we are Captain of the Ship while we're in the seat, and I decided this person could have caused trouble on an otherwise peaceful ride. So I left her there.

To paraphrase a cliché, that's called 'thinking in the seat.'

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Divine Intervention

As I began my Friday work, it was hard to get in the mood to drive a bus. My whole body ached, as did my soul. All week I had read many discouraging reports about my brothers and sisters being slandered, insulted and assaulted. Not just in Portland, but everywhere.

While thankfully I've narrowly escaped a few dicey situations without a scratch, I've had my share of insulting and rude passengers. On this day, I was asked by a passenger if I'd allow him to get out on the near side of an intersection. The bus stop was far side, and my light was about to turn green. Although I normally would allow this if the light was going to remain red and conditions were safe enough, I knew it was a short cycle. So I politely told him no, just as the light turned green. After I crossed with the light and smoothly came to a stop, I started to explain why I denied his request.

"It just doesn't matter," he snapped. "I don't need to hear an explanation that won't make sense anyway."

Well, I thought to myself, at least he didn't spit on me, or curse me out. "Have a nice day," I managed to say. To my abused driver's window, I quietly muttered a curse and let it slide off my shoulders. Realizing he wouldn't have been very appreciative had I missed my light and granted his request, I shrugged and moved on.

Later, my mood was dramatically reversed by a sweet lady who boarded with a baby stroller while I was on a break. Assuming what the stroller contained, I asked her to remove the baby from the stroller, as per agency policy. She chuckled and explained "there's no baby, it's jut an easy way to transport my stuff". Since she had such a kind voice and manner, and also because I knew this run wasn't bound to involve a full complement of passengers, I didn't ask her to fold up the stroller. We exchanged a few pleasantries, and I answered a question or two. My Friday was progressing without too many problems, and it was refreshing to have her on board. Little did I know, she would make my day.

A short time later, I noticed her writing something down. She looked up and saw me glance at her in the mirror. Oh boy, I thought, I must have annoyed her somehow and she's gonna call in and complain. It didn't seem likely, given our interaction up to that point. So I took a chance as I waited for the signal to change.

"Is there anything I can help you with ma'am?" I asked in a gentle tone.

"Yes," she answered, "what time did we leave?"

Ruh-roh, I thought. I'd lolly-gagged a bit on my break, texting with my beloved, and had left a bit late. It's usually not a problem, as this route generously allows "bubbles" in the paddle and I can usually burn off any late time before reaching the next transit center.

"We're scheduled to leave there at 4:45 p.m., but I may have left a minute or so late," I said in a cautious tone. "Why, is anything wrong? Do you need to make a connection to another bus line?"

"Oh no, nothing's wrong," she said, waving her hand and laughing. "I'm just writing down a few things to make sure I get them right when I call in and say how gracious and kind a driver you are."

BOOM! Man, did I feel like a dork. I didn't think I had been gracious or kind, but rather suspiciously trying to recover from some unknown faux pas.

"Why thank you," I said, smiling. "That makes my day, my week even!"

"Oh it's no problem, really. You drivers don't get nearly the credit you deserve."

Then she told me a moving story about one of our retirees.

About 20 years ago she began, a message came that her father was dying. Since she lived on the opposite side of town and her soon-to-be ex-husband refused to let her use their car, she and her young son raced to a bus stop and caught a ride. Extremely distraught, she explained the situation to the operator.

"Not only did he do his best to get me to my connecting bus," she explained, "but he radioed Dispatch and explained my situation, asking they hold the bus we needed to catch until I arrived."

After nearly two hours of anxious travel, she reached her father's side in time to say goodbye. "He passed away 20 minutes after we arrived," she said. "I was so grateful, I wanted to call in and let them know that if he hadn't made that call, I wouldn't have been able to say goodbye to my dad. Unfortunately, in my rush to get there, I failed to write down his name, and I couldn't even remember the route. I had no information on this man, and I felt so bad I couldn't thank him for what he had done."

It's normal to hear about complaints, but people aren't as quick to show appreciation. So you'd expect this passenger might have just let it go. She didn't.

"I looked for this operator for five years," she continued. "But he must have switched routes. I'd watch drivers downtown, looking for this one guy who had done so much for me. I just wanted to thank him personally. If not for him, Dad would have died before we got there."

Then one day, she spotted the operator and boarded his bus. She asked if he remembered the incident, but he didn't. She thanked him and let him know just how important his actions were not only to her, but also to her young son who had accompanied her that day. Then, he told her something completely astonishing.

"That driver just shook his head and smiled. He said, 'Thank you for telling me this, because I'm retiring today.' "

I shook my head in amazement. What a wonderful story to hear, just when I needed it most. Just before I rolled to her stop, on time as I had promised, she gave me another gift.

"That's why I write down your bus and route numbers," she told me in a soft voice. "You people do a wonderful job, and I try to let the agency know. In 30 years of riding, I've only complained five times. Thank you for what you do."

I was nearly moved to tears, and thanked her for riding, and for telling her wonderful tale. Fate is an amazing thing. Not only did she find this kind-hearted bus operator, but she did so just in time. It makes one wonder if there was some divine intervention at work here. It sure helped me smile the rest of my day. It will again, every time I remember this story.



A Declaration


Dear FaceBook,

For three years now, I've had a profile as the Deacon in Blue. I used it to promote my blog, because it allows access to a global audience. In this time I've made some wonderful new friends and exceeded my wildest expectations for hits. Now all of a sudden, my page is gone. I don't know if somebody turned me in to the FB police or what, but I find your censorship abhorrent and restrictive.

I never used your network to do anything illegal or immoral. Instead, I joined groups of bus operators around the United States and the rest of the world. We've shared ideas and enjoyed stories of the road. Because of my transit agency's penchant to discourage operators from exercising our First Amendment rights by speaking to the media without its approval, I've kept my identity private. I've used this social network to express my opinions to what has been an exponentially-expanding worldwide audience.

In a free world, people should be allowed to voice their opinion without fear of reprisal. It's unfortunate we've devolved into a mass of seething, snarling beasts who can't agree to disagree. Instead, some choose to make it their life's goal to vilify people whose opinions are such that it "offends their morals". Well folks, my morals may not be perfect, but I've yet to find a flawless human. So to judge another based upon your own moral code is like being invited to a party nobody else attends. I've learned to disagree with people without sacrificing our friendship. Some conversations can be harsh and biting, but in a civilized world you shouldn't expect opposing parties to be so vindictive as to attempt censorship. Many of those with whom I disagree have taught me valuable lessons in areas where we have common ground. They are good, decent people who have earned my respect and love.


“Friendship that insists upon agreement on all things isn't worth the name.” -- Mahatma Gandhi


Over the past week, I've mourned the treasured friendships lost because FB couldn't bring it upon itself to warn me of its impending censorship. I could have made a list of those whom I've "friended" and brought the profile down gracefully. Instead, you required me to identify myself. Well, you can kiss my hairy blue butt, because I refuse.

So be it. You have created a monopoly, and I am but one user of millions, perhaps billions. It will do me no good to argue the point. However, I've lived over a half-century now, and I'm pretty damn resourceful. I don't stay mad for long; I just jump back up dust myself off.

Sincerely,
The Deacon in Blue

Monday, September 5, 2016

Deke's FaceBook... Gone!

Oh that damn FaceBook! It requires people to enter an "acceptable" name to have an account. Of all the nerve.

Now I will figure out what to do, after three years and 75,000 hits, but I've always landed on my feet. Please help me by sharing my future posts on our regular groups and on your pages too.

As always, thanks for your support!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means to Me


"I'm only riding a few blocks, is it okay if I only put a dollar in?" The lady asked me this with a sneer in her voice, daring me to challenge her.

"Sure," I replied, "if you want to risk a citation for 'theft of a public service.' "

"Well then, can I have a transfer?"

"No, a transfer costs $2.50."

She gave me one of those 'are you kidding' looks. "If I'm only going two stops, then it's only worth a dollar."

If you go into a sandwich shop, order a full-size sub with everything on it, then tell the cashier you only plan on eating half of it so you're only paying a third of the price, they will laugh you out of the store. Likewise, if you go into a grocery and choose 20 items but tell the clerk you really only need 10 of them, you still have to pay for every item. Why do people consider transit fares different from any other purchase?

I'll tell you why. Because we don't command the public's respect. They think we're a joke. Criminals assault us, and our agency blithely offers a thousand bucks for someone to rat out the suspect. Later, a judge accepts the plea bargain while slapping the offender on the wrist. Gently, as to not injure the poor baby's sweet blood vessels. Hey, it's only a bus operator, after all. The media insults us, telling its audience how a monkey could do our job.

Our own transit agency, which should be our biggest defender, instead offends us with regularity. It hires union-busting henchmen while whittling away at retiree and operator benefits and hiring as many people it can under a contract that screws them. It seems they're out to replace us once they have successfully murdered a benefit package that was once commensurate with the job we do. It sees how many of us are being assaulted, and instead of lobbying the legislature for stiffer penalties for those who commit the crime, they find another way to waste money by caging us into an already-cramped operator seat. This not only separates us from the decent passengers we ferry to and from work, but it also says "We give up; you're going to assault our operators anyway, so there's nothing we care to do about it except cage them in." Well guess what? We have to get out of the driver seat eventually. Even monkeys have to pee.

Any other agency, when busted for not funding a pension for 30 years, as it promised and was legally obligated to do, would have been hung to dry. Yet ours is lauded for doing so, and encouraged to keep finding ways to pare down those "greedy" union benefits packages. All this while management is pampered with golden parachutes awaiting their cushy retirement. I'd have to work until I'm 90 to bring home what some upper managers can expect, yet I'm the greedy one. Hmm...

It's insulting to know that if I fight off an attacker with what I consider "reasonable defense", I could be fired by my agency over any interpretive discrepancy of this purposefully-vague term. It enrages us that we can face stiffer penalties for defending ourselves than those who commit the assault. It's also maddening that fare inspectors were eliminated and operators became punching bags because the public realized fewer would be checking to ensure they're obeying the law.

No, I don't want an unreasonably-high salary, even though we deserve it. Of course I realize there are limits to how lucrative our benefits can be. But I should be able to expect our lot to get better, for our management to have found a way to reward us for weathering the economic storm and performing feats many of them have never attempted. Instead, we're told we ask too much and that it's time to be "more realistic in our expectations."

Well I know something we should realistically expect and deserve. It's called R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and as Aretha Franklin put it, they should find out what it means to me. I won't hold my breath or think about it too long, because it's infuriating. I have a job to do. One which our local economy depends upon my doing without distraction. It takes skill to whistle a tune while I drive. And I've never seen a monkey do it.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

I'M TELLING ON YOU! MOMMY!!!

Millions of people around the world ride public transit each day. As with any time somebody is transported somewhere for money, there is a tendency to be hyper-critical of the driver. Ask almost anyone about their prowess behind the wheel, and they will most likely say they consider themselves a skilled driver. (Even those who have lost their driving privileges believe they are more skillful than bus drivers.) We're all quick to criticize these days, but slow to compliment. The problem is, people will complain even if they don't understand the nature of a given situation.

Passengers are not "customers." Public transit is a public service, a privilege rather than a right. The difference between the two is, privileges can be revoked, while a right is inherent and supposedly inviolable. We provide this service with pride, and are expected to follow the rules set forth in our Standard Operating Procedures. When we enforce these rules to someone refuses to follow them, we expect any complaints to be ignored by management and for the passenger to be instructed as to their appropriate actions in the future. What often happens however, is that many false complaints go into our personnel file. It's like charging someone with a crime, even if they're obviously innocent, just because you don't know what else to do with the complaint.

If its employees were truly vital,the agency would totally re-vamp this "customer service" nonsense. Sure, if a complaint is found to be justified in that we have made an error, the operator should expect a courteous correction. We're not perfect, we're simply human. The pressures of this job can turn the most decent human being into a jaded one in just a few years of service. It's not something we consciously try to do. Yet we are constantly bombarded with news of other operators getting the shaft for no good reason. Too many complaints disqualify us for hard-earned rewards for being safe drivers. And yes, we are the safest damn drivers on the road, bar none.

Many operators are notified of complaints against them that are unquestionably F-A-L-S-E. Perhaps those who field the calls simply don't have the tools (or the time) to examine the facts prior to sending complaints on to management. There are also several times when management has failed to fully investigate whether the operator in question was actually operating the vehicle the complainant was actually riding. I've certainly had a few instances where I had to make them remove a false complaint against me simply because I wasn't driving the bus when said incident occurred. Sure, humans are fallible, but our complaint system needs an entire overhaul.

When we're driving a bus, we're expected to follow Standard Operating Procedures. For the great majority of us, this is exactly how we operate. We're also told that while we're behind the wheel, we are Captain of the Ship, and our decisions should be upheld as long as we operate under the provisions we are bound by. Just because Mad Mommy doesn't want to fold up her stroller and hold Screaming Lil' Cindy on her lap while riding a bus does not give her the right to lodge a complaint against us that remains in our personnel files. By enforcing this rule, we are following procedure. Mommy can piss up a rope, and she should be told just that. Many complaints such as this should end up in the trash. Instead, our reputations are trashed.

We all hear tales of the horrible bus driver. However, these tales are usually told by passengers who are woefully ignorant of the rules of transit operation. When a passenger starts bitching at me about their previous operator, I try to get to the real story. People have a tendency to stretch the truth, to put it politely. Many neither care about the rules and responsibilities of being a passenger. Too many are pushy, rude and think only of themselves. On several occasions I've been told "Just drive, asshole. You don't have the right to tell me what to do." Well folks, it seems our transit agency thinks the same way. Problem is, they're both wrong.

I've made it a habit to only check my interoffice mail at the end of a shift. If I get a passenger complaint, I don't want it to piss me off while I'm driving because it's a distraction. Management says it's concerned about distracted driving, yet it doesn't seem to mind being the cause of said distractions. By allowing so many complaints to filter through to us, many without merit or having been fully investigated prior to being thrust upon us, management is not providing a stress-free working environment.

Instead of "thank you," I would assume.
To be a productive part of the transit system, passenger complaints should be properly vetted prior to making it to a manager's desk. Was the driver following SOP's? Who was actually driving the bus where the incident occurred? During investigation, was a follow-up call initiated to ascertain the validity of the complaint? So many complaints we're assaulted with are not only blatantly false, they're often invalid because the operator was simply following protocol. If we stray from our expected path, then yes, perhaps a well-worded and informative note to the operator is in order. Still, these complaints should simply fall off after a year if we do not consistently make the same mistake. 

It's nice, yet very rare, that passengers call in to tell us what a great job we're doing. In fact, out of 100 calls to our agency, 99 of them are complaints. We're out there 365 days a year, in all kinds of impossible conditions, taking people safely to their destinations. You'd think they'd be a little more thankful. People love to complain, but are loathe to compliment. I don't know why that is. Someone is highly likely to want to complain without even considering their own behavior. Yet we treat thousands of people decently, go out of our way to ensure a smooth and safe ride, and rarely hear about it. We're expected to do that, many say. It's our job, say others. Well, yeah. Of course. But turn it around on someone and they most assuredly would say they're also woefully under-appreciated. Our society has become a bitchfest, and it's sad.

Humans are fallible. Bus operators are human. Managers are as well. We all work very hard, are mostly sincere and honest people who want to do a good job. We should be rewarded for improving, not have minor incidents follow us constantly and hinder our possibility of upward mobility. This job is hard, and we have a right to expect management has our back, rather than having them on our backsides. In a just world, it's a valid expectation. But hey, we're just bus drivers, eh?