Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Anemic Poll Results

A while back, my dear readers, you were asked to vote in a poll. It was designed to A) discern which entry was your favorite; B) to get a glimpse at what is most entertaining to you; and C) to provide a bit of an ego boost for yours truly.

Results are in. A whopping eight (8) of you voted on the choices provided! The two leaders were 'Twitterpating' and 'Other'. Since there was no way for you to pencil in which 'Other' you voted for, these choices will remain a mystery. Each garnered a blistering three (3) votes!

Since the results were miniscule in number, the Deacon's ego took a major shot. Of course, if you don't use a computer, even finding the poll was a challenge; it doesn't appear on tablet or "smart" phone screens. Until this blog space gets more creative in making "gadgets" easier to use for all, polls won't really serve their intended purpose. However, please leave comments on the blog itself or on my buddy's FaceBook page. He has been ever so kind as to publicize this exercise, and your comments are read and appreciated. In addition, there is ONE "follower" of this blog, so if you want to keep up-to-date on new entries please become a regular.

At this time, there have been 5,417 "hits" here. Each one encourages me to continue writing, and the number has substantially increased in the past two months. This itself is cause for the Deacon to celebrate, because he hasn't had this kind of readership since he began writing 30+ years ago.

For some bus operators, after driving the "beast" for an entire day, the last thing they want to do is read about it. They would rather "fuhgeddaboudit", so to you fellow drivers I give an even more enthusiastic "THANK YOU" for being here.

Truly, I thank each of you for taking the time out of your busy day every few weeks to peruse these lines. I hope to keep finding topics that interest you enough to continue reading. For now, it's time to head back out, to keep all 6 on the road, and to do my part to keep this metropolis rolling.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Slippin' Through the Blizzard of '14

If I see another snowflake this winter, I'm gonna blowtorch the lil' sumbitch, I tell ya. After five days of driving in the worst storm since '08, my body felt like it had gone 10 rounds with Ali. This post will deal with (pardon the ripoff from a great movie title) the good, bad and ugly of what bus operators and our various support staffs endured during the Blizzard of '14.

First, the good. Your local bus operators are well-trained in how to drive a bus. The rest comes from experience. Those who have made the upward step into supervisory positions know what we're going through out there, and they busted their posterior aspects to help out. Many of the "white shirts" were out from early morning to late at night, for the duration of the storm. Trainers with shovels and kitty litter dug out countless stuck buses. Our union president (and our union reps too) ferried stranded drivers to restrooms, among other things. The maintenance crews tirelessly chained hundreds of buses, fixed broken chains and broken-down buses and God knows what else. Dispatchers and snow-line helpers calmly and patiently answered questions and guided me through re-routes. As a relatively new driver, I am thankful for all of them. I'm also very appreciative of the many pointers the veterans gave me along the way. Without all their help, this marathon stretch would have been 10 times more stressful than it was. When the times are tough, tough people stick together.

As I've said before, the great majority of our riders are transit-savvy and gracious. Only a slim (yet always more vocal) minority are a pain in the tookus (new word for you to chew on). Countless times I was thanked for being out there and safely maneuvering the sloppy streets to get them where they needed to be. I saw people taking food and hot coffee to stranded drivers. On my breaks, people walking by would stop and thank me for being "out there". Many patted me on the shoulder on the way out the door telling me "great job, driver, thank you!" and so on. It was inspirational. They were extremely patient, kind, polite and thoughtful. Only once did I have to remind a rider who was in charge, and it wasn't him. He quickly backed off and let me do my job in peace. One ornery rider out of about a thousand? An impressive statistic, from the driver's side.

As fellow operators congregated at the garage, we shared stories from the road. One told me about a passenger who left his "stash" behind, complete with aromatic pipe-filler. He was evidently too stoned to remember his baggie, but his driver, of course, bagged and tagged the stuff and turned it in to Lost and Found. Bets are in, but odds are it won't be claimed. Another driver was alerted by his passengers there was a man struggling to get to the bus stop in his manual wheelchair. The driver pulled over, deployed his ramp, ran out into the raging snow and pushed the man into the bus. As soon as he pulled away, the man rang for the very next stop. Other drivers were picking people up in mid-block because they were desperately slipping and sliding as they hurried to catch a ride.

Having never driven a rig this big in snow and ice before, I was on edge and high alert the entire five days. Had I not been so vigilant, I would have found myself stuck on the side of the road or worse. Coming upon a transit center, I was turning onto the street when I noticed a bus sideways at the far intersection. I stopped and thought how long I might have to wait if I pulled in behind her. I quickly aborted the turn and informed the disembarking passengers we were going to Plan B. After dropping them off, I went down a block and turned down a street which another line uses and snuck around the backside. Down the road where another bus had been previously stuck trying to climb to an intersection, I sat down below until the light turned green before starting up the hill. After a few hair-raising seconds of slippage and slidage (another new word!) I fish-tailed that sucker through the intersection and onto the street without getting stuck. My riders then applauded me! Golly gosh gee whiz and by-jiminy that was nice! Thinking on your feet while sitting in the seat helps you avoid tricky situations. This constant state of alert, however, is exhausting.
The bad? I'm not one to complain, but there is always some bad to go with the good and ugly. It's kind of an in-between spot I suppose, where you wince instead of smile or shout "Oh HELL NO!" One pedestrian tried to push a bus that was attempting to climb an incline at an intersection. Four of us were stuck there for about 90 minutes because we couldn't move. It was blowing snow, the bus was slipping toward a parked car, and this idiot thought he could push 40,000 pounds of glass and steel up a slope? I honked at him and waved him away, at which he angrily motioned for me to push the bus with my own! As if a) I would do such a thing which was almost as stupid as what he had attempted; and b) it would do any good since the both of us had no chains on our buses? Later I saw a photo a local radio station had posted of a bunch of high school students pushing a bus from behind in a snowstorm. The caption praised the kids for their selfless and commendable behavior. A bus driver I know quickly pointed out how utterly stupid it was of them. Picture this: sweet kids trying to help, one or more slips and falls, bus runs over them. Word of advice: stay the hell away from a stuck bus or one you can see trying to free itself from icy bonds. Better yet: never touch a bus unless it's your feet boarding through the door, your hands holding on or your butt planted in a seat.

Now we must wonder why the buses hadn't been chained already. It had been snowing a few hours by that point, and the route I was driving went up a hill to a hospital. I'm not begrudging our chain crews, but those who make the call to chain buses were way behind on this one. When every local weatherman and the National Weather Service have issued winter storm warnings, all hands should have been on deck chaining us up. Sitting for 90 minutes, unchained, expected to make it up Pill Hill makes one wonder who failed to make the call. After we were freed from our icy prison, we were instructed to go get chains on our buses, which took another 90 minutes because there were only two people at this location to do the work. So there went three hours we could have been giving rides, and that left hundreds of people stranded. Many of them walked down the hill to try and catch a bus downtown.

Which brings us to the ugly side of things. Even though a "major snow event" only happens about once every five years, where are the snowplows when they're needed? I understand the interstate highways take top priority, but the major transit routes should have been plowed after the first 24 hours of this storm, which dumped close to a foot of snow in three days. The downtown transit mall became a treacherous, slippery mess in no time. Street markers showing which lanes cars could legally traverse were covered, so we were navigating in impossible conditions to begin with without cars turning right in front of us or honking at us for pulling out into our legal transitway.

Also invisible was upper management. They so smugly inform the public that our union demands "cadillac benefits", but where were they during this storm? While I was out there safeguarding countless human lives while risking my own, I didn't see the General Manager handing coffee to drivers, giving us kudos and encouragement. Nor was his bargaining-table hit man anywhere to be seen. Just a thought... but I hope they cannot be counted with the Mercedes, Audis, 4x4 pickups or Range Rovers who routinely blasted around our Yield signals with extended middle fingers and annoyed honks of their horn. If I'm wrong and they were out there, then good on them. I just didn't feel their pain.

I'm glad we got through this with few accidents on the road, although a couple of drivers were seriously injured en route to work... I hope you join me in wishing them a full and speedy recovery. But one question looms large now that it's history. If this city loves us so much and we are so vital to the economy that the state made it illegal for us to strike, then why are we fighting for our lives in contract talks? Where is our local support? Why aren't we taking advantage of public opinion which is heavily on our side after the storm? Upper management is whupping us in the court of public opinion by making us look "greedy" while they hide their raises and offend us with ludicrous contract proposals. If you love your bus operators, and by definition that includes all who work with us, please call in and give us commendations. People are quick to call in a complaint, but it is rare to hear about all the good we do out there.

I wear a button that states "I Love my Riders". I certainly do appreciate... most of them. Mostly, I love my job and the important role it serves in the local economy. Thanks for your patience and support, and thanks for reading.

I don't think I'll complain about the rain any more.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Avoiding Personal Pronouns in The Deacon's Abridged Biography

After some mind-bending and provocative thought in this aging brain, perhaps it's time to diverge from the well-trodden path and explore a different trail. For this entry, anyway.

The moniker 'Deacon in Blue' was chosen in homage to a favorite Steely Dan tune, and also because the uniform of local transit operators happens to be blue. It came quickly as the question of what pen name to use as the first blog entry was written. Now that it's been about a year since that initial foray, we can take a look into why the Deacon writes. Although he can sound a bit preachy at times, the term 'deacon' isn't linked to any one religious identity. Information here is put forth for your entertainment as well as practice for even more industrious future wordplay. Hopefully it is interesting, sometimes finds you laughing or at least mildly amused. If not, hopefully you will voice opinions of this nature and chastise the author for boring you.

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen on the 'Deacon Blues'

This will be a tough exercise, for the task today is to refrain from referring to the author in the first person. It can be said that someone who prefers to use the ninth letter of the alphabet too much is a bit vane and/or literarily lazy.

Having toiled at several diverse occupations, they have merely been a means of gathering material for the Deacon's true purpose. Since the tender age of eight, writing has always come naturally to him. Words dance into view and are plucked out of space, clicked to life on a keyboard and transmitted to you. Here. There. Wherever the reader happens to be. Once upon a time, these fingers clumsily clunked and clanged one-fingered exercises on a 1920s Smith-Corona typewriter. Yes, an old-fashioned relic then and antique now, it was a fascinating piece of machinery. Typing class in high school offered a chance to be one of four boys amongst 25 young ladies, and this was truly alluring. With the realization that none of these lovely girls would entwine their digits with mine came the epiphany that typing class had a deeper meaning. The skill these fingers learned propelled an aspiring wordsmith into a career of journalism and then typography.

While the young poet scribbled his lines with a pen, the journalist began in that form but his final product was typed. As typing speed increased, the quality of written material did as well. The words developed in the mind and were transcribed much faster than if they were handwritten. To this day, handwriting remains a slow and laborious practice reserved for thank-you notes and other items requiring a personal touch.

Back in the late 1970s, the college newspaper was produced in several steps, as opposed to current methods. Reporters would research a story, interview various people and take handwritten notes. A rough draft would then be typed and submitted to the editor, who would usually dissect it with a red pen and send it back for revisions. This pen could be wielded ruthlessly as to make the ink resemble bloody stab wounds in the reporter's proud creation. They would re-write the piece adhering to the editor's strict notes and submit a second and hopefully final draft. Once approved, all stories would be estimated for length and assigned column inches in that edition's design. Headlines would be crafted, photos would have captions created, and advertisements designed. Then the whole batch would be sent to the printer to be set in type. Photos would be re-imaged as "halftones", which meant the pictures would be transformed into an image that was a series of dots; the more dense an area of dots, the more ink would adhere to the paper in the printing process, creating shades of black, gray and white into a composite image the human eye sees as a photograph.
When the printer had finished the initial pre-press preparation, the galleys of type, halftones and finished ads would be sent back to the newspaper staff. At this point, "paste-up" would occur at the college newsroom. The pages would all be laid out to specifications of the editor. Columns of type would be proofread again and cut out of the galleys. Wax would be applied to the back, and the stories and ads would be affixed to a sheet with corresponding headlines. It was very precise work that required an artist's eye for use of white space and different page design. Important stories were allowed large headlines and prominent placement, while others might only require one column and "below-the-fold" obscurity. Careful attention was given to the layout, as baselines had to be straight and perfectly aligned to adjacent columns. Sometimes it would be necessary to cut between paragraphs to add space to a column so they aligned properly. If color ink was to be used in the edition, a "mask" was created for each page, where holes were cut on an overlay to show only the areas to be printed in a color. It was very time-consuming, but also rewarding to produce a clean, professional newspaper. Once all the pages were pasted-up, they were proofread a final time by two or more staffers before being shipped back to the printer for the final pre-press work and printing.

As computer technology advanced, this particular college purchased its own phototypesetting equipment. All type needed for the newspaper could be produced in-house. The editor often would write directly on the computer, negating the need for initial typewritten copy. Eventually, separate consoles could be added to allow several reporters the same luxury. Fast forward to today, and each reporter of a newsroom has a separate computer that feeds copy directly to the editor who designs an entire edition on-screen and can even go directly to press from there, eliminating all the steps once employing several people along the way. Evidently, the Deacon's college no longer produces a printed newspaper. This is becoming a trend, as newsprint gives way to the electronic age of websites.

Having found journalism in the professional world to limit creativity, the Deacon left that world. It also didn't help that he made a goofy mistake which got him fired from his job as a reporter. (Telling another how much one makes when it is more than the other, more experienced reporter is paid, results in an embarrassed and angry boss.) Somehow, it became more interesting to work in the pre-press and printing area, leaving the writing to people who didn't mind that mundane world of city council meetings and sewer projects. The Deacon found himself a typographer who could accurately keyboard at 100 words-per-minute with very few mistakes. It was very creative and technically challenging, and paid well. Writing became less a priority while earning more was vital as a young father. Short stories and personal letters became the Deacon's literary exercise.

As he found himself inching toward middle age, he found inspiration in the pages of Stephen King's book 'On Writing' and began creating his own GAN (Great American Novel). Some 16 years and 970 pages later, he hasn't finished this expansive semi-autobiography. The first 700 pages were produced in the first few years, while the remainder has come in fits and starts, coughs and burps. He wonders how so much time passed so quickly and whether his life experiences since he began the project have altered the mindset present at the book's launch.

There have been inspirations for funny stories, sad times of eulogies and self-reflection, happy times of love and growth. Each person has a story within, yet few find their voice to express themselves. Some think if they lack grammar skills, their story shouldn't be told. Balderdash and bullshit! That's what editors are for. Just write! Write what you know, as they say. Avoid agonizing over planning a story. Just write it down. Fix it later.
One might wonder what the Deacon did in addition to journalism and printing careers, but a smidgeon of mystery is healthy in the reader-writer relationship. Suffice to say, a series of fortunate events led to the creation of this blog. Along the way, he created a few pieces that have yet to be offered in this or other venues. He often questions whether he has "what it takes to succeed" in the literary world. Simply having the ability to write isn't enough; one must have the creativity necessary to hold the readers' attention. For this old boy, time is running fast. From the Driver Side is good practice, but he often wonders if those who read this find it interesting enough to afford his venturing forth with bolder offerings to publishers. The 4,700-odd page views are encouraging, but most who read mostly opt out of leaving comments. There have been readers who bump into the Deacon here and there, and he is surprised to find a few followers. Yet the true purpose of this exercise is to stretch and practice. Worrying too much about what one thinks about this blog is counter-productive.

Thanks again for reading. I'm happy we've had this time together. (Oops!)