Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ch..Ch..Chains and Devastation

My chariot awaits in the desolate, frozen wasteland.

Oh, how horrific the damage from our first "major" winter storm! Tens of dollars of damage, snow drifts up to at least 1/32" deep, wind chills harsh enough to make Midwesterners laugh scornfully!

The dire predictions of 4-6" of snow topped with a layer of freezing rain failed to show. It was almost as cold as my first wife, and nearly as windy as she.
Half-inch icicles... how much damage can we endure?

My thanks to the tireless efforts of our mechanics who chained our buses the night before, then had to un-chain them the same day when the storm pretty much fizzled in most of the district. It's brutal for them to battle wind, traffic, and everything else to do an outstanding job.

But the question remains as blase as a FaceBook meme... will we ever recover?

A poor tree buried in a snow "drift".

Signs on the Bus


Ever wonder why your operator gets irritated, or sighs in frustration? Even though you might think "riding the bus" is as simple as just boarding at a stop, it isn't.

Buses operate on schedules. Along each route are "time points", which are specific points where an operator is scheduled to be at certain times. If people board at their leisure, are texting in the shelter and don't look up until you're stopped and THEN gesture they don't want your bus or simply just look back at their phone, it eats up precious schedule time.

You might not think this is a problem, but lately it's epidemic. People operate at their own pace; operators  are often saddled with unrealistic schedules. If circumstances create time loss on the run, it means our break at the end is cut short. The average rider doesn't ride the entire route. We do. If we're late at the end, our break is cut by the amount of minutes we're late. Traffic, inexperienced (or rude/indifferent) passengers, construction delays... they can all wreak havoc on schedules.

If you'll notice next time you ride, there are countless signs on a bus which help riders make boarding quick and efficient. Problem is, most folks are focused solely on a tiny screen upon which their entire lives seem to revolve. Reading signs on a bus is not nearly as exciting as whatever meme FaceBook is featuring at that moment. So here's a few you may have missed, and what operators think (see comments in italics) whenever they're unseen or ignored.

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We've all seen this guy: far down the street he awaits the bus. Just standing there, Larry Loitering, looking at the sky, glancing at his watch. Not a care in the world. As the bus ("finally," he sighs) pulls up, he takes his sweet time navigating the six-inch step up and in. Gee, doesn't appear immobile; step up the pace, Ginger Toes. Then, as he gives the operator the "stink eye", which is paid back his way in spades by the patient driver, he looks around. Can he go just a bit slower?

"How much to ride downtown?" Larry asks.

"See the sign up there?" Ollie Operator replies with a finger pointing above his head. "It says $2.50, unless you're under 18. If you're under seven, it's free." Perhaps he's capable of understanding that bit of information. Not even mentioning the other fare... he looks as "Honored" as that goober who just paid a buck and smells like yesterday's puke.

Then he begins to dig in his pockets. Out come the rubbers, Safeway receipts, video game cheats, one used butt plug (Gee, maybe that's a spare plug... no wonder he's so friggin' slow), then the money. Of course, it's wadded-up in numerous denominations; a grand total of about $8 Ollie estimates. As he fumbles for the right combination, Ollie lets out the world's most impatient sigh.

"You know," Ollie says, "it would truly be helpful if you had sorted through your detritus for the fare while you were waiting for the bus, rather than taking two minutes to find it now that I'm sitting here. Just like it says on that sign telling you how much the fare costs."

Larry takes offense. Who's this simple operator to tell him how to ride a friggin' bus? For the next several minutes after getting his receipt he's badgering Ollie. Rudely. Questioning his ancestry, nastily trolling anyone who isn't plugged in and tuned out. If you're not careful, butt-breath, you'll be early for the next bus. Ollie begins to whistle Don't Worry Be Happy and it drones out Larry's incessant insults.


When he finally leaves, he can't wait to get off the bus. Unfortunately, he makes a rookie mistake. Ollie has hit the first downtown stop at rush hour, and there are about 250 people waiting. Larry, of course, saunters toward the front door where the hordes are coming aboard.

"Please exit in the rear (Hmm... perhaps I phrased that wrong...) sir," Ollie tells Larry.

Larry gestures a "whatever" and heads to the back door. But Ollie forgets to push the door handle as he takes fare from the boarding hordes.

"Hey BACK DOOR, driver!" Larry yells impatiently. Yeah, and your mother inserted that plug for ya there, eh? Ollie twists the handle, but before he can, Larry has started slamming the door. Of course, it won't open yet. The green light hasn't appeared overhead, and now Larry is angry. Again.

"I said, BACK DOOR!" Larry shouts impatiently.

Ollie points at the mirror. "Read the sign, sir, and it will instruct you as to the proper door-opening procedure." You can read, I hope.

Now Larry stands at the door, having failed to open it prior to the green light, which is now illuminated so brightly the sight-impaired lady across the street can see it.

"WELLLLLL?" Larry brays. He's standing there with his palms outstretched, waiting for the door to open. By itself.

Ollie can't take it any more. "Push the door, it will open!"

Larry complies. The door is stuck now, due to improper operation.

"You'll have to exit the front then," Ollie says, turning to hide a gleeful smile. The bus is now packed, and rather than Ollie getting out of the seat to "fix" the problem, he'd rather see Larry fight his way to the front of the bus. Perhaps so he can kick the inbred dolt in his impaled derriere on his way out.

Uh oh, light's green, buses piling up behind me and I'm in first position. Guess Larry's outta luck.

Larry is jostling and shoving his way forward as Ollie closes the front door and takes the green light. He steps on our previous heroine Lady Guttersnipe's foot as he passes and gets a cane-cruncher in the groin in return.

"HEY!" he shouts as he painfully reaches the front.

"Sorry sir," Ollie says. "Procedure dictates I can't loiter in the first position on the transit mall. Gotta go. We'll let you out next stop." If you can manage, pendejo.

Larry doesn't like this, and stands up at the fare box, yelling into Ollie's face. "You let me out RIGHT F*****G NOW!" he bellows, his spit spraying the windshield and Ollie's glasses.

Ollie puts his arm out and points to the sign above the windshield. "See that sign? You'll need to move back behind the yellow line, sir, I can't drive with you there, plus I can't open the door while the bus is moving."

"You stupid prick! I wanted out at the last stop!"

"Bummer. You need to learn how to read signs." Ollie motions Larry back. Downtown traffic is heavy with all the skateboarders, bicyclists and cars cluttering up the bus lane and the person crossing against the light in a mobility device directly ahead of the bus, for whom Ollie must brake so they don't become a bloody bike rack ornament. After a few blocks of Larry's illiterate linguistics, the next stop looms.

After a ration of obscenities, Larry finally manages to exit. Ollie's a few seconds early, so he waits until Larry turns the corner and gets out of his seat. He casually walks off the bus to the rear door, pushes it firmly closed, gets back into the seat, turns the door crank and has a passenger push it open. Ahh, worky fine now. On with the show, sans Loudmouth Larry.

A few stops later, Barry Bicyclist (successfully) exits the rear door. Ollie hasn't noticed his helmeted head exiting, and prepares to depart on the impending green light. Just as it turns green, Barry hops in front of the bus.

"WHOA THERE BUDDY!" Ollie bellows. He opens the front door as he says this.

Barry shrugs, pointing a finger at himself in a "Who, me?" gesture.

"Yeah, you!" Ollie roars. "Come here for a second, eh?"

Barry shakes his head, annoyed a simple bus operator would have the nerve to yell at him. After all, he saves the climate by riding his bicycle three blocks from bus stop to home again, the world should bow to him! He takes his time, carefully removing his $3,000 bicycle from the rack, and pops onto the sidewalk, near the open bus door.

"What?" he says to Ollie.

"You didn't see the sign that clearly states 'Alert Operator before removing bike'? Ollie asks gently.

"But I did!" Barry says. "You just didn't hear me, I guess."

"Well," Ollie replies, "good thing I saw you before I hit the accelerator or you'd be bouncing down the street by now. You need to make sure I hear you, please. I don't want you to get hurt."

"Yeah, whatever," Barry says with a dismissive hand gesture. After all, he has an MBA in Obnoxiousness and who the hell is a simple bus operator to tell him how to behave?

"Hey buddy, come here for a second, will ya? I wanna show you something." Ollie gently gestures for him to get back on board, smiling reassuringly. Barry hesitates yet complies, even though he's embarrassed to note all the riders are watching this exchange.

"See this?" Ollie points to the sign showing the Gross Vehicle Weight of the vehicle. "It should paint a graphic picture in your mind of what happens to someone who steps in front of a moving bus," Ollie quietly tells him. "With all these people aboard, it's more like 50,000 pounds of moving steel and glass, you know." Bet they didn't teach common sense at your universidad, cabron.

Luckily for illustrative purposes, a fly lands on the window next to Ollie. He deftly swats the buzzer flat, bug guts oozing down the glass.

"This could happen to you, and I don't think all the king's men could put you back together again. Okay? Got it?"

Barry's not satisfied. "Then you should be more careful before you move this bus!" he shouts at Ollie. He starts to step off.

"Good thing I am careful, buddy," Ollie says to Barry's departing back, "or you woulda been the bug."

Later, the passenger load having thinned a little but still full, a little old lady with her full shopping cart awaits Ollie's ride. The Priority Seating area is jammed with 30-somethings staring into their tiny device screens, ear buds blasting their cochlear nerves to shreds. Ollie tries to prepare them for what awaits.

"We're going to need a few of these front seats," he declares as he rolls to a stop. A middle-aged man who appears down on his luck politely obliges and moves into the aisle. The other two squatters don't  hear him, or they're artfully ignorant.

Granny Gilmer boards after Ollie deploys the ramp to make it easier for her to cart $300 of groceries into the bus. Still, nobody seems to have noticed Granny.

After all he's been through the past hour, including passengers wanting to know detailed schedules of a bus route he doesn't drive, teenagers obscenely arguing amongst themselves, Larry and Barry's antics, and a host of other annoyances, Ollie is now almost nine minutes late to a 12-minute break at the end of the line. His last straw is sucking air.

Turning in his seat, he bellows at Ichabod I-Phone and WannaBeARapper Wanda, "Please MOVE from the Priority Seating Area so this dear lady can have a seat!" Wanda somehow gets that Ollie is addressing her, and moves her head so she can see Ollie past Granny's rain-soaked head.

"Say what?" she asks loudly, removing one earplug. "You talkin' to me? Whatchu want?"

Ollie is beyond words. He gestures toward Granny.

"I was here first," Wanda whines.

Ollie is now 13 minutes late. He covers his face and rubs his aching temples. He unbuckles his seat belt, stands and excuses himself as he steps past bewildered Granny. He walks up to Wanda, bends over and motions her to remove her other ear bud.

"PLEASE MOVE FROM THE PRIORITY SEATING AREA SO THIS DEAR LADY CAN SIT!" he roars.

"Sheeit mister, you don't gotta yell! Fine!"

Evidently, Ichabod hasn't paid any attention, or doesn't care. He hasn't budged. Ollie reaches under the seat and heaves upward, interrupting Ichabod from his How To Get Rich In One Illegally-Easy Step video.

Ichy (pronounced "icky") indignantly glares at Ollie.

"Hey dude, watch it!" he cries, still refusing to move his enormous gluteus from the seat.

"Move, please!" Ollie bellows, and motions for Ichy to unplug and tune-in.

"What, I gotta move? I was here first!" Ichy whines even louder than Wanda had. Ollie points to the sign directly across from Ichy.

"I got an Honored card too!" Ichy complains.

At this point, our earlier heroine, Lady Guttersnipe, has had enough. Ollie is her favorite operator. Even though she's sight and hearing-impaired, she knows what's what. Stiffly rising from her seat across the aisle, she raises her cane. Ollie shakes his head (not just yet, dear warrior), Lady lowers it, but addresses Ichy in a very threatening manner.

"Either you mind your misplaced manners and make room for this sweet lady," Lady growls, "or you'll find I've discovered a new dance move, and it ain't gonna be pretty. Now, UP, you ungracious sloth!"

Lady G again raises her cane, and Ichy immediately responds. After a few seconds of oomphing and aw-helling, he manages to rise. Ollie wastes no time raising the seat, and it's settled. Granny thanks him and glares at Ichy, who now stands trembling in front of Lady G. For good measure, Ollie makes sure to displace another discourteous rider so Granny's overloaded cart remains out of the aisle.

*******************************

Ollie finally reaches the end of the line. He's three minutes past his departure time. His bladder aches dangerously, his sphincter muscle is approaching maximum capacity, and his nerves are shredded.

He pushes "Restroom Delay" on the computer and exits the bus, wincing with each step. Two hours-plus in the seat is strenuous, and his legs complain painfully. Fifteen minutes later, he emerges from the break room, somewhat relieved. His shift has another six hours to go, but Dispatch will have to deal with scheduling him back into service.

Ollie slowly makes his way back to the bus. Darkness has set in. The transit center swarms with characters of dubious intentions. As Ollie prepares to enter his bus, he's threatened by a knife-wielding transient demanding to know why he's so late.

Ollie remains calm as he deftly breaks the assailant's wrist, bashes his skull into the front of the bus and kicks him in the groin on the way down. There's no sign warning people to "Beware of Driver".

Guess he's still just a simple bus operator, but now he's grown an attitude.



Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Question to Settle

Time to ask you, dear readers, for your opinion.

When I first began writing this blog, I promised not to deluge you with ads. I abhor them. Whenever I try to read something of interest on the web, ads seem to pop out of nowhere. As if I fuggin' ask for them. Like most of you, I make it a habit of killing them as quickly as they appear.

Last spring however, I've seen my readership explode. In one day, my hits went from 25-30 to over 600 in a single day! Not sure if it was Al Margulies or a ton of FaceBook friends sharing it, but FTDS's popularity took off. It is humbling, and very exciting, to have enough people interested enough in the subject matter to actually read what I write. My words haven't had this much exposure since my early adulthood adventures in small-town journalism.

As of this post, I am averaging 2,650 hits per month. As of today, the ninth of November, there are 708 hits. Last year, the entire month of November scored a scant 78. It truly boggles my mind.

Of course, I hope to be able to continually produce decent material and further grow these numbers. Yet when I first began, I had no idea it would come this far in such a short period of time.

So here it comes. What say you, my beloved readers? Would I be a horrific eel if I allowed ads on here? Given my promise to not do so, would you be less likely to read in the future if I changed my mind on this issue? The lure of extra money is a major factor in this question. At the moment, I am the lone earner in my family. We could all use a little more dinero in the bank. If this blog continues to grow readership, it's fiscally irresponsible of me not to allow advertising.

Because of my stubborn reluctance to alienate any of you, the folks who have made this explosion possible, I will leave it in your hands. If you read this on a traditional computer, you will find the poll "Ads Yes or No" on the far right-hand side of the page in a hidden block of "gadgets".

For those of you who use electronic devices, for some reason these gadgets don't appear when you visit. So you could just tell me on the FaceBook post. I don't want any arguments between people as to whether I should or should not. I just ask you to speak up and tell me your thoughts on the matter.

So what say YOU, my dear readers, yay or nay? I eagerly await your response.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Pains in My Butt

My butt hurts. Had back spasms last week, now my knees hurt. Bowels not responding well to circadian rhythm changes. Head to toe, and I ended up at the butt again. Just part of the job, I reckon.

This time, let's examine what it takes to be a good "bus operator". No, we're not "drivers" in the typical sense. Moving a bus down the road is much more than that. Once again, I mention Lars Larson's foolish comment that driving a city bus is "easier" than operating a school bus. From experience on the city bus side, I do not mean to diminish the professionalism or importance of a school bus operator, but my job is extremely more difficult and stressful. Their passengers are precious, to be sure, but there are far fewer of them and the routes are much shorter. Nor do their charges pay a fare. Regardless, my hat is off to those wonderful people who transport our children to and from school. Even as a parent of three, I wonder if I could keep from being too distracted by their joyful noise.

To be a "good" operator of a city bus takes many years to accomplish. My own tenure has taught me that there is something to be learned each day. I have always had the greatest respect for my trainers, but much more so now that I have a few years behind the wheel. Each day presents new challenges. We constantly need to adapt to ever-changing conditions. Maneuvers I once thought toughest to master are now second nature. Yet, I'm often presented with challenges requiring split-second reaction. One slip could result in somebody's injury or death. It is the same with school bus operators, true. Yet a city bus operator is usually in-service for eight to 14 hours as opposed to two to six.

I do not want to even hint at disparaging my brothers and sisters who operate school buses, so we'll leave them at this point.

At least once a week, a passenger will insinuate they know more about bus operation than I do, simply because they ride daily. Once upon a time, I thought so too. Having been a passenger both to school and work, my favorite operators made it look easy. On my first day behind the wheel, I realized how difficult a bus is to maneuver. Having driven a tractor-trailer rig across country, I believe a bus is harder to drive. There is only one "pivot point" on a bus, and that's the dual wheels at the rear. A truck has two: tractor and trailer axles. It is challenging to back a trailer into a dock around several obstacles, but the extra pivot point allows greater rear visibility. Bus operators cannot see behind a bus, and it's not advisable to even attempt backing up without a spotter. A friend of mine noted that tractor-trailer operators have cargo that doesn't talk back or offer driving advice.

While some operators navigate the same routes each day, others have different routes every day of the year. As an extra board operator, this is my life. I've done it long now enough to learn 52 lines. Even if you're familiar with a route, road conditions or construction can present constant challenges. Delivery truck drivers habitually park in the worst possible spots, and often make terrible decisions while driving. Marvin Mercedes and his buddy Beavis BMW are impatient so and so's. Pedestrians rarely look before darting out into traffic, especially if they want to "catch" my bus.

Recently I winced as a teenager darted in front of a pickup to cross the street so he could board my bus. The pickup driver had to brake suddenly to avoid hitting the kid and his girlfriend. These juvenile jaywalkers were oblivious to the stupidity of their actions, and were miffed when I chastised them. They were indignant, yet I would be haunted forever by the sight of their bodies being hurtled through space in broken and bloody pieces. Normally, I would let them get safely to the sidewalk, then drive off without them. I couldn't this time; maybe my bitching them out will make them think before they try this maneuver again.

So just because your operator makes it look "easy", don't be fooled. If their uniform is adorned with Safety Award patches, they deserve your utmost respect. If they bitch you out when you board, rest assured you did something that scared the shit out of them.

Now do you know why my butt hurts?



Monday, November 3, 2014

Early Board Gets the Prize

...and now I'm working early AM's! Didn't I just write about the yo-yo effect? Of course I've been called one many a time, and deservedly so, but I digress.

Spent my weekend sleeping a lot, recovering from last week's midnight sojourns. I went to bed last night to prepare for my early run, was too restless. I tried counting sheep, but they morphed into scantily-clad Roald Dahl characters hell-bent on robbing me of sleep. So I just drove eight hours by noon today, time for a nap then a three-hour tripper. Eleven seat hours today plus an early 9.5-hour run tomorrow equals a lucrative start to my week.

Odds are I'll be on PM's again in two days, but I'll take what OT crumbs they leave me.

Z-zzz-zzzzzz-zzzzzzzzzzzz.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Bouncy Boppin' Board


My bus drivin' buddy John gave me some good-natured ribbing during a recent phone conversation. He tends to enjoy my posts about driving, but when it comes to politics we disagree. John's a great guy, and I love him like a brother. But one thing I learned during the last election cycle was that nowadays, friends can be quickly lost in the fiery arena of politics. I'm not always right, he's not always wrong. We agree on many things in the middle, but on other points we are at odds.

Our union recently ratified a new contract, so I waxed political. This blog wasn't originally meant to cover politics, but sometimes it just slips out, like an elevator fart. So let's just say I've taken John's hint, and a bit of literary antacid as well. Back to business at hand...

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Driving the extra board lately, I feel like a yo-yo. Mornings, then nights, back to mornings again. In the span of four days. It's rough on Ol' Codger Deacon, to spin my circadian rhythm in drunken circles. Our bodies work best on an orderly schedule. Humans want to sleep when the sun don't shine. Just when you've achieved a rhythm on the board, your seniority and position sway-drop-roll like Dolly Parton's bosom on a roller coaster. You have to adapt, or find someone willing to trade your work. Sometimes, people don't want your work, so you're stuck with it. Lately they're hiring so many "newbies" who go full time and end up on the board, it's always a game of chance.

I sign the board because A) I don't have enough seniority for good runs; B) Working overtime is good for a healthy bank account; and C) Constantly driving the same runs is about as exciting as the first day of a stomach virus. Lately, I haven't had enough of Part B. I've noticed that PM work seems to allow more overtime work, so I'm tempted to stay on the dark side. Only problem with that is I won't see much of my family. It would give me more time to write and sleep though. So it's a conundrum. In night mode, I have to call in for the next day's work before I even begin the current day's schedule. It's odd, and it's a tough row to hoe. I'm tough too, but my hoe is getting dull with age.

It would be nice if they had one extra board roster for AM reports, and another for PM's. The district is reactionary rather than visionary. They revised hours-of-service rules in a supposed attempt to give operators more pillow time, but it cut into the overtime extra board operators desire. This came after the scandal-hungry media "exposed" a few drivers who dared make $100k a year by working up to 20 hours a day. Some were found to be overly-tired, which is not safe. But there are hundreds of operators who are in uniform 12-14 hours and only get paid for 10 or less.We're certainly not making $100k; considering a majority of board operators are relatively new, the average salary range is more like $40k.

The glut of board ops is so heavy, there's also little opportunity to work on your regular days off. The board is no longer lucrative, and it would seem it's this way by design. Rather than trimming the amount of new hires, the district would rather pay thousands of dollars more to train new drivers than pay veterans overtime. It defies the "safety first" credo the district feeds the media, to have inexperienced operators clogging the board.

The board should be staffed by operators who have driven long enough to know more than a scant handful of runs. A new operator is often unprepared to drive a new route with usually no more than 10 minutes preparation. It makes them nervous, concentrating on turn-by-turn instructions rather than constantly scanning for possible hazards. An experienced operator, when faced with an unfamiliar run, knows how to balance scanning with reading instructions two or three turns in advance. I read route instructions while stopped, so my attention is on the road. When I first signed the extra board, I had been off probation a few months and had completed my first three-month full-time signup. Although I was still "green", I had at least some confidence in my abilities. Perhaps more importantly, I knew our union would represent me at the accident review board if something happened on the road.

A newly-trained operator is on probation for six months once they go in-service. For me, it made sense to stay part-time while in this precarious no-man's land. As a probie, the union cannot fully defend you if an incident occurs. If you get two PA's, you're fired. All those thousands of dollars the district just spent to train you are wasted if you slip up. I recently heard that of the 20 new hires put in service, about 25% of them don't pass probation. Part of the reason lies within their rush to go full-time and earn a decent living. Just a few years ago, new hires had to wait up to three to five years before they went full-time. Nowadays, they're brought up only a few months into their probation. Believe me, the jump from 30 hours a week to 40-45 is huge. The stress of driving as a newbie is hard enough, but when you add another 10-15 hours a week, the odds of making a mistake rise substantially.

Scanning the new "block system" of run selections available, my seniority left me with slim pickings. So I'm on the board again once winter signup begins. Many operators dislike this new way of signing runs. After years of earning their seniority, many have said this new system doesn't work for them. I'm resigned to working the board because what's available by the time I sign is not attractive to me. At least on the board I only have to drive the less desirable runs on occasion. As with any new system, this one needs work. Those union reps charged with making these changes are certainly aware of the problems and will work hard to improve it. If after four signup periods it still has problems, perhaps it will go back to the original system. As long as it fairly rewards those with seniority, the operators who have devoted their working lives to this job, I have hope that someday I will reap the same benefits they deserve.

We'll see what happens. For the next several months however, you never know where the Deacon's wheels will roll. See you 'out there'.