Thursday, August 18, 2016

You Need to Relax!

Our bodies are abused daily as we drive. Some of us head to the chiropractor, others to the gym or masseuse. I've tried all three, with a monthly massage being my favorite. Today though, I stepped into the realm of exercising the body, mind and soul: yoga.

My wife has found yoga to help her in many ways, and I've always been interested in it. Already a fan of meditation, I finally stepped onto the mat today and put my body through a relaxing regimen of stretches. While my main complaints are usually lower back, calves and right foot pain, today I discovered my hips whispering "help me". During a five-minute stretch of that area, the new pain gave way to to a gradual relaxation and awareness of how this part of an operator's body is crucial to the mechanics of our job.

Driving "by the seat of your pants" isn't just a tired cliche. If you spend hours every day in a bus operator's seat, your hips are the lower body's command center. Hit the brake pedal, and the femur pushes against the hip socket. It takes a few hundred pounds of pressure to smoothly brake a bus. If you multiply this by the approximately 750 times we do this per shift, it seems likely you're going to develop some pain from all that pressure. Turn the steering wheel, and your body weight pivots with the directional force involved in the bus changing direction. Accelerate, and not only is your foot pushing away, the body is simultaneously settling backward. These conflicting pressures also cause stress on the lumbar portion of your spine and the associated muscles. A constant shifting in the seat is a natural part of a bus operator's day. Sometimes, unless sudden movements accentuate the common stress your body feels, you don't notice how tense the lower body becomes after a 90-minute workout in the seat. Until, that is, you reach the end of the line and you stand up from that seat. Then your body screams "Hey wait a minute, what's going on here?" As you return to an upright homo sapiens, new stresses are compounded by what your lower body has become accustomed to while driving, and those first few steps make me look like a drunk lurching home after several shots at the bar.

For me, the hip irritation is a silent pain, or one I've been able to ignore because there are other stress points my brain centers on. Silent until today's yoga class, that is. Thanks to the meditative state you enter during the stretches, you can concentrate on what parts of the body need attention. I sent warm, healing oxygenated waves toward my hips during two particular stretches. After the first few excruciating minutes and a few minor adjustments in the pose, I felt the tension melting away. It was a wonderful feeling, and I hate to use the term in fear of seeming vulgar, which was nearly orgasmic in nature.

Once upon a part timer's world, I had a daily workout regimen. Working a few hours in the morning with a six-hour stretch before my afternoon shift, I could fit in a full-body workout. Then I could enjoy a leisurely lunch and a nap afterward. Operating a bus was virtually pain-free. When I went full time and ended up on the Extra Board, all that changed. Even though there were long stretches of time when I wasn't driving, there was a short leash around my neck. I couldn't leave the report area or I'd be unavailable when my name was called. Now that I have regular work thanks to a seniority level earned by a few years of longevity, the luxury of taking care of myself isn't always available.

You've read how my mind and body have reacted to this job, and my soul has suffered at times as well. To have the opportunity to soothe all three in one hour of gentle physical therapy is one we should all make time for. Until they find a driver's seat design that adjusts adequately for every body type and size, it's up to us to take care of ourselves. If we don't, and the body breaks down, the mind and soul suffer from worry about how to pay the bills.

I've talked myself into it. Yeah, yoga helps. Now if I could only stretch my butt back into shape, I might feel as good as I did as a mini-runner. Ah, the good ol' days...

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Blowing Off Steam, and Bestowing Fleas

Back to the fun gig, described as "Write Drunk, Edit Sober" tonight. It's my Friday, and it's been one helluva week, so thanks to my designated driver Lady Blue (she HATES that name), I'm home safe after driving about 650 miles in a bus in five days. Got off my bus, changed out of my uniform, and went straight to our hometown bar for some scotch, rock, and pool to unwind.

Everything hurts, down to my soul. Today, we all heard that an off-duty cop was involved in a motorcycle collision with a bus. We're all concerned not only for the motorcyclist who was Life Flighted from the scene, but also the bus operator. It's not known, or important at this time, who was at fault. All I know is that our thoughts, prayers and love go out to those involved. Motorcyclists can be so hard to see sometimes, we all shudder with the realization that it could be any of us who could make a split-second decision that ends disastrously. Perhaps it wasn't the operator's mistake. The media doesn't usually key in on that particular point, because the money-maker headline is usually "Bus Hits Motorcycle" which condemns us from the get-go. But like I said, who's at fault isn't the point; we're all hoping the motorcyclist fully recovers. We also send the operator our love and support, because he or she must be having a terrible nightmare of a time right now.

When you consider how many thousands of passengers we safely deliver to destinations every hour of every day, our collision rate is minuscule in comparison. It would be nice once in a while for the transit agency to tout our safety record as one of the best in the world, which I'm sure it is. We're expected to drive perfectly, yet the public only hears or complains if we dare to show a flaw of the tiniest proportions.

Today, for example, I had one customer who complained about something that was totally out of my control. He made a point to write my bus number down on his grimy, sweaty palm in front of the bus. I felt like he was a whiny child pantomiming "I'm telling Mommy on you! Mean old bus driver jerk! WAAAAHHHH!" It mattered little to me. He could piss up a rope for all I cared. I was polite, mindful of the myriad of Big Brother spy cameras and microphones on the bus. Plus, being my Friday, I wasn't going to let some pond scum ruin the day. I smiled, told him "I hope you have a nice day", and waited for the door to close before commenting to my buddy the operator window: "May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your weeks-old underwear, you ungrateful schmuck."

The full moon approaching, my riders were some surly rotten eggs today. Many of them, anyway. Some were downright rude, yet a few were refreshingly supportive and kind. But the schmucks did their best to shake my resolve to the bone, lemme tell ya. I politely asked a 20-something bicyclist to have his fare ready when boarding, instead of fumbling with the bike rack, then coming on board and rummaging through his designer-ripped jeans for the correct change. You'd think I had farted loudly for 10 seconds on an elevator upon which he was the only other passenger, the face he made at my politely-worded comment. "I'm working on it! Geesh! You can go anytime you know." After an interminably-long 90 seconds, he finally put the fare in the box and snatched his ticket while giving me an animated stink-eye. The fact that he could actually count to 250 amazed me. I waited until he was past the priority seating area, as usual, before moving the bus. Once again, I silently invoked the fleas, begging them to freely mate in his nether regions.

Later, coming up to a busy stop with a full bike rack, another 20-something stood forlornly with her two-wheeler after the last passenger had boarded. "Can I bring my bike on board?" she whined. "No Miss, I'm sorry, but you'll have to wait for the next bus because transit code says you can't bring a bike on board with you." She looked like she was going to wail, but a primitive moan came instead. "But that's not for another 20 minutes!" (Lie... my bus is frequent service, meaning the next one was about eight minutes away, seeing as I was seven minutes late by then.) "Have a nice evening," I said with a smile, as the door slammed in her face. Cry me a river lady.

We do "favors" for people all the time. The only good it does us is the satisfaction of being kind. The general public doesn't give a tinker's damn, nor do they realize half the time, the nice things we do for them. They'll call in a complaint, or Tweet a misunderstood faux pas, quicker than a politician takes a bribe. But telling the world what a fine job we do in the worst circumstances? Fuhgeddaboudit. 

I recently had the great pleasure of spending time with one of our road supes while waiting for a mechanic to diagnose a mechanical issue on my bus. We discussed the current situation of the mess Portland calls its Transit Mall. His words were music to my ears. "It's a testament to the professionalism of our bus and rail operators that so few people are injured or killed. It's a miracle, really." Thanks to our brother, we got the kudos we work so hard to hear but rarely do. I was speechless for a minute. "Thank you brother, it's nice to hear that. We sure try to keep people safe." His reply was equally heartwarming. "I'm sorry you don't hear it enough."

To all of you who work on the road and rail, I know it's hard a tough row to hoe. We're under-appreciated by the public and our management. When one of us suffers, we all do. We're a brotherhood, and we understand what we all go through. What I've described tonight is nothing new. Many of you probably nodded when you read this rambling, having surely gone through something similar many a time yourselves. So thank YOU... for doing what we do, and for doing a damn good job of it.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

I Salute My Brave Sister Operator

My fellow bus operators astound me each day with their personal stories. We are such a diverse group, yet we have a common goal: to get safely from Point A to B. What happens in between sometimes is enough to boggle the most sane of minds. Luckily, ours are more so than many of our passengers.

One sister bus operator had her ex-husband board her bus the other night. Evidently, he caused her great pain over the years. Without knowing details or wanting to delve into them anyway, let's just say it was unnerving for her to see him on her bus. She handled the situation calmly and professionally, and carried on with her regular passengers as if nothing extraordinary happened.

Imagine the incredible stress this situation put on our sister. How would you react? I stated that I wouldn't be capable of behaving as calmly as she did had it happened to me. My first wife was so horrible to me I had to move several states away to escape her, even though the nightmares continued until a few years ago. Even now, I shudder at the prospect of ever having to see her again. How would I react? I'd like to say I'd be calm, polite and detached. My soul however, begs to differ. I have forgiven (most of) her sins against me, but some are too painful to even think about. Having my beloved Lady Blue at my side for decades now, to smooth out the sharp edges of a painful past, continues to be my greatest blessing.

You never know who's going to board your bus on any given day. The most respectable-looking people can sometimes be surprisingly rude and/or impatient, perhaps even dangerous. Those whom you might think to be trouble-causers are often the first to come to our defense in touchy situations. All you can do is be kind, considerate and polite to all while hoping they treat you the same way. What you don't expect is having a painful memory walk through that door and the confidence to not let it rattle you.

As the years roll by, we gain an inner toughness many other occupations don't require. It's not something one notices happening. Each challenge we face comes with its own educational value. We become more hardened, to be sure. Not only do we experience adverse conditions on a regular basis, but we also hear other operators' stories and how they handled these situations. Our personal transit file cabinet gains a folder with each story we hear or live through. The toolbox we each carry within us grows, providing us with a wealth of responses for any number of situations we could face in service. Then something happens that is outside the realm of our understanding, and we have only our wits to rely upon.

In the past month alone, I've heard of several assaults on my fellow brother and sister operators. We all shake our heads and pray for them. All the while, we wonder what lies waiting on our next run. As operators, we're expected to remember all the rules regarding our behavior while in a dangerous situation. One false move while protecting ourselves could land us in the unemployment line. Any overzealous self-defense tactic, while maybe saving our lives, could be construed as beyond "reasonable" and cost us our job. Very few other occupations have as high a stress-level as ours, yet the public commonly spouts smug statements like "all they do is drive a bus". Cops and firefighters know each shift could be their last, and I have the greatest respect for anybody who voluntarily puts their life in danger to protect another. Yet we are constantly left to wonder, "Will I be the next transit casualty?".

So yeah, I nod my head in respect to my friend who sucked it up and kept her cool. Until, she said, she reached her own car in the parking lot after her shift ended. Only there did she allow herself to shed tears and reflect on a painful time in her life.

Thank you, Lady Operator, for being a shining example of the true professionals we all strive to be. You're a gem, and next time I see you, expect a hug.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


Graph of most popular countries among blog viewersOK, this is interesting... I see that my readers in Russia have taken the lead in total hits on my blog. I know two people who are from Transylvania and one from Russia. How did this translate into 1,208 views this week from there? In second place, the United States registered 852 hits while Canada came in third. It's amazing and gratifying to have people read my posts from a country on the other side of two oceans from me.

Either this blog is translated into foreign languages automatically (wow, this here internet thing is cool), or there are more English speaking Russians than I was aware of. It lends credence to the argument that Americans are often less-educated than people in other countries. Whatever the case, I'm curious to know what my new friends in Russia have to say about this blog. Are they bus operators, or just interested in what this strange American has to say about his career?

Mostly, I'm honored by the blog's worldwide popularity these days. Each of you who read this have made a lifelong dream of mine come true. To have over 70,000 hits in three years is just astounding. I can put sentences together which somewhat convey ideas related to what I do and how I feel about it. There are no college diplomas on my walls. Writing just comes naturally to me. I love to do it, but save for a few years in college, I've taught myself through reading. In fact, given my rather ho-hum list of accomplishments in life so far, I often refer to myself as an idiot savant.

These statistics give me hope that the book of blog posts I'm working on right now will have a wider audience than I modestly hope. As a perfectionist, it's hard to figure out the format and such. But I'm actually doing it, which is a departure from past projects which either took a decade to finish or weren't completed at all. Procrastination is best left behind, if you ever get around to doing so.

So, to my readers everywhere, THANK YOU. I appreciate your taking time out of your day to read From the Driver Side. I look forward to hearing from any, or all, of you. We're all just normal people after all. We work, we eat, we exist on the same tiny planet in this dust mite of the Milky Way.

Peace be with you all.

Pageviews by Countries 

United States
United Kingdom
United Arab Emirates

Monday, August 1, 2016

I'm Such a Dork!

When driving a bus, it's easy to become distracted. You're constantly scanning, measuring braking or following distances, planning smooth stops and welcoming or de-boarding passengers. Sometimes for me, the mind doesn't match what the mouth says. I'm the guy who once spat at the medicine cabinet and threw his toothbrush into the sink, for cryin' out loud.

I doubt that I'm reaching senility at this cool age of 50-something. However, I begin to wonder sometimes. Here's why.

Today (and a few other times lately) I had people boarding and others leaving my bus. Since I try to greet even the grumpiest-looking folks as they leave the bus, as well as acknowledge the many thank-you's and "have a nice day" folks, I get a bit tongue twisty.

One lady de-boarded through the front door as I was printing fares for those boarding at a busy downtown stop.

"Thank you," the nice lady said as she exited.

"Hi," I replied.

To the new passenger I printed the fare for: "Have a nice day, thanks for riding."


Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Dangerous Place to Be

It's getting worse. As if this is a secret nobody wants to talk about, like how Uncle Harry farts at the dinner table and thinks it goes unnoticed. Well the stench is permeating all that is good about downtown Portland, and somebody's pants are about to show the ugly truth.

Portland's downtown transit mall is a mess. It's an unruly and supremely dangerous place for anyone to be. Nobody will speak up about it. Except me. I've had enough, and it's time this debacle is dealt with.

A city government's job includes doing everything possible to ensure public safety. When it comes to downtown, nobody seems to care except transit workers. We've seen people injured and killed due to a shocking unwillingness to leave conditions as is. When accidents happen, the blame seems to be thrown upon US. Nobody takes responsibility for their own safety anymore. The status quo needs to go.

Nearly 40 bus, four light rail, two streetcar lines, Lift vans and thousands of other vehicles use Portland's Transit Mall every day. It was designed to avoid total chaos with all the transit traffic combined with private and commercial vehicles. Each line has specific stops to service, and transit workers do an admirable job working together to transport thousands of commuters daily. But it's not easy, nor is it a safe environment for traffic or pedestrians. And it's getting worse.

From what I've been told, local leaders decided long ago it wasn't in the city's best interests to enforce traffic code on the mall. They didn't want to scare away tourists by enforcing laws written with the express reason of keeping people safe. This is ridiculous, but from all accounts I've heard, it's true. As a result, motorists brazenly defy signs prohibiting use of transit lanes, ignore "NO TURNS" signs and have a flippant attitude about doing it.

"Cops aren't going to write me a ticket anyway, so fuck off driver," one particularly aggressive motorist yelled at me one day. Sadly, I couldn't disagree with the first part of his statement. The expletive insult I could have done without.

Tourists are simply baffled as to how they should behave on 5th and 6th Avenues. The signage is horrible; they're so small they seem like polite suggestions rather than legal statements. Street markings are all but worn away in some areas.

If motorists aren't just waiting to make an illegal right turn behind a bus which is servicing a stop, they're swerving around and cutting in front of buses attempting to continue in service. Often, they display their driving IQ in an not-so-friendly salute out the window as they go by. Cars routinely run red lights on cross streets, making our light rail operators sweat bullets at every intersection. Transit workers are highly-trained and always on the alert for boneheads in traffic; motorists are either in a hurry to get nowhere fast, supremely arrogant and ignorant, or blithely unaware of their poor driving habits inviting disaster.

"...US UNL..." what? Oh, you mean "BUS ONLY"?
Pedestrians are too busy staring at their phones to look up and see the DON'T WALK signals. Some just don't care. I've had to brake hard to avoid hitting people who wander idly into the bus lanes, halfway between intersections, while checking their FaceBook or Twitter feeds. Then they yell at us for giving the customary "beep beep" of our warning device (aka 'horn'), or throw that one-fingered salute we so love to see. I don't truly mind that. Transit operators believe that if we don't see that finger at least once a day, we're not doing our job. I'd rather be flipped off than to have Joe Schmoe flipped under my bus.

Look as far as you can up either street, and there are no cops. Their downtown headquarters is within walking distance of the mall, but rarely are cruisers on patrol there unless they're en route to some waiting catastrophe. But hey, I don't blame our brothers and sisters in law enforcement for their conspicuous absence. It's their bosses' bosses who are solely to blame for this terrible lack of enforcement. City leaders bemoan budget deficits and warn of impending cuts instead of additions to an overworked police bureau.  There simply isn't enough money, they cry, to keep the city safe.

Try this: start regularly patrolling the mall. Design and print brochures explaining basic laws and procedures for downtown driving, and distribute them to info centers, hotels, malls. Do some public service announcements showing how we all need to be more safe and follow the laws so people aren't hurt. Re-design the transit mall and be creative about it. White markings are mere suggestions; make yellow double lines separating regular from transit traffic, install flashing signs (light rail designers had the foresight to do that right) as warnings. Try something innovative: install solar roadway tiles in some areas which would light up as signage, warm streets during icy weather, and eliminate bone-jarring potholes that grace nearly every block.

Transit operators and supervisors provide this city with an invaluable service, by transporting its workforce. The downtown transit mall is a vital piece of the system. When it works (usually early Sunday morning when Portlanders are sleeping off the latest beer festival), the mall is a wonderfully efficient engineering marvel. When it doesn't, people die. They step off the curb in front of 100,000 lb. light rail vehicles and end up underneath. Motorists cut off buses and find out what 40,000 lb. vehicles can do to a BMW's paint job. Bicyclists weave in and out of traffic, playing chicken with all traffic, and blame the driver if something goes wrong.

It's a mad world out there. But I'm madder. If the City of Portland truly cares about all who live or visit here, they'll find a way. Hey, if they'd just enforce the law and fine offenders, it could probably pay for enough officers to regularly patrol the mall. If TriMet truly believed "Safety is Our Core Value", it would push city leaders to action on this matter. Instead of pussyfooting around and whining about not wanting to offend people, take a stand and insist that obeying laws is vital to assure public safety. In a city this beautiful, boasting one of the finest transit systems in the world and a spectacular new transit-only bridge, it's perplexing to have such a dangerous downtown transit mall.

In the meantime, please take your eyes off your phone and pay attention whenever you're on the move. Your life and your fellow Portlanders depend on it. Pokemon can Go to hell, but you only have one body on this Earth.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

I Don't Need to Be A Jerk

Ever had a passenger that initially annoyed you, yet your conscience told you patience was the key to working with him? I have one this signup.

Nearly every day, this aging little fella boards my bus around 3:30 in the afternoon. He asks if I think he'll be able to catch a bus that will get him to the east side of town by 7:00. After a few days of this, instead of being irritated at having to answer his daily query, I realized he must have a memory issue. He's usually disheveled, hair a mess and looks like a scared puppy. At first, I was impatient. I groaned when I saw him shuffling toward the bus with a frantic wave. He always has his pass, but he has to dig for it. I would sigh impatiently, tap my foot, and was your total jerk bus operator. After three days of this, my impatience turned inward. Is this what I've evolved into? The snarling driver people always bitch about? Tonight after my run, I just sat in my car, head hung low, as I realized how uncomfortable my actions must make this poor fellow. Shame sunk in, along with the painful fact that I'm not always as nice as I'd like people to think I am.

What if he has some sort of impairment which affects his memory? He's always apologetic, polite and tentative. Compared to some people, he's the kind of passenger I should look forward to driving. Lately, I've had some real bozos ride my lines, and it's been harder for me to be kind and gentle. This Irish temper has been sorely tested on several occasions recently and it's been very difficult to remain calm under pressure. My soul is in upheaval, because I'd hate for someone to be as impatient with me as I have been with him. He's somebody's family member. What if someone was mean to my brother, who was born with Down Syndrome? What if someone treated my brother the way I treat him? So what to do about this, Freaky Deke?

Beginning today, I resolved to turn my frown upside down (pardon the cliché) and be the person he doesn't need to fear. I've nicknamed him "Frank", the name of a dear friend of mine who while was as ornery as I am, had a heart of gold and the patience of a saint. I miss my friend, and by giving this poor soul his name, I'm going to turn myself around and quit being such an asshole. So while Frank dug through his wallet this afternoon, I told him it was okay, he could have a seat. "I know you always have your pass sir, so go ahead and have a seat."

"Thank you," he said quietly, then added "but do you think we'll make it to the transit center in time for me to get to Powell by 7:00?"

"Yes sir," I replied gently, smiling. "It's only 3:30 now, and you'll have plenty of time. Now go ahead and sit down, and I'll get you there with time to spare!"

He half-smiled, trembling, his eyes betraying a remaining trace of fear. "Oh thank you, yes I'll sit. Thank you, sir."

As I continued down the road, he rose and came up to me. "Are you sure I'll make it on time?"

"Yes. It's gonna be okay," I replied, knowing this same scene will play out again every day. If I work on it, maybe he'll lose the fear. Maybe I'll be one of few people who are kind to him. And perhaps, I won't have to kick myself for being the type of driver I said I'd never be.

When he de-boarded at the transit center, he turned back around as always, waited for people to board, and thanked me again. Then he asked if his next bus will pick him up at that stop, which I assured him with a smile and a nod. Once more, he thanked me several times. He seemed slightly more at ease.

Of all the people we transport daily, there's no real way of knowing how many are scared to death, fighting illness or inner demons. It's hard sometimes to remember patience. It is, after all, part of my mantra to be kind, thoughtful and patient. We're often treated to a large ration of rude, and it's hard to avoid becoming jaded. But I'm ashamed of myself for allowing it to happen. Life is full of bad news, hard times and mean people. Why must I be one of them? There's no excuse, but there is redemption.

That old song, "What the World Needs Now, Is Love Sweet Love" comes to mind. Not just for some, but for everyone, it says. Another thing I need to remind myself of is that we are judged by how we treat those with the least, and I am blessed with so much to be thankful for.

I'm sorry, Frank. You deserve better from me. From now on, you'll have it.