Friday, December 30, 2016

New Moons and Jaywalking Fools

It was a strange day. Felt like a full moon, but it was only a new one.

First, it's funny how I've transformed in the past few months. Comparing how green I was when this blog was born to how I view the job today, the difference short-circuits my thought processes. A few months ago I hit "the wall." Didn't want to do it any more. Interviewed for a different job in the private sector, found the money wasn't right. I re-focused my energy toward being happier and more positive in this life, and found myself liking it again. The short temper is being replaced by calm acceptance that there are just too many battles one can lose, and those fought are usually ridiculous. Hey, I still don't take any shit, but for a while there I was throwing it back. Now it usually just slides down the back of my shoulder, into a puddle near the door and dissipates when a new passenger boards. It just ain't worth an argument.

Which leads me to today's work. Lighter traffic than normal this week has allowed me to relax. In this job, you know this can be dangerous. A young man I once coached in rec league basketball boarded, and we had a great conversation reminiscing about "the old days." (I have to laugh at this; it was just a few years ago to me, but half a lifetime ago to him.) After I dropped him off, I was re-playing a championship game in my mind. I had stepped in to coach for my buddy who had health issues, and we lost a hard-fought game. It still bugs me, six years later, that I didn't have the team apply pressure defense early enough in the fourth quarter. Anyway, I was tooling along in overdrive when something disastrous nearly happened.

Early in my career I learned the value of covering the brake approaching an intersection. Once again, it saved not only my bacon, but that of two foolish jaywalkers as well. They darted across six lanes of traffic against a solid red DON'T WALK signal. My light had been green a good five seconds. I was in the far right lane, wondering why the two left lanes weren't moving yet. Just as I approached the point-of-no-return line, I caught two dark silhouettes in my peripheral vision. I hadn't seen them in my previous left-to-right scan. Luckily I keep my head moving, which preserves the peripheral vision. Since my foot was already covering the brake, the lack of an extra second of reaction time saved these idiots' lives. A quick, controlled brake and extended application of the horn kept me from smashing them flatter than a bloodless tick. It was a smooth, and nobody fell out of their seat, but it was sudden enough so that many passengers saw a catastrophe averted.


Avoiding use of the plentiful curse words floating within and behind me, I loudly exclaimed how stupid those people were. Several passengers agreed. A few minutes later, I pulled into a stop and stepped off the bus for a much-needed breather and nicotine infusion. Then I did as all bus operators do daily. I let it slide off my shoulders and resumed the route.

A few years ago, this incident would have ruined my day. Today, I count my lucky stars and remind myself that daydreaming while working is strictly boneheaded. Sure, we all have our thoughts while driving, but you learn to multi-task operator functions with higher-level brain activity. It becomes automatic after a while, but that's not necessarily good. If you're on auto-pilot and something like this happens, you may not be as lucky as the last time. The tiniest lapse of attention can allow your 20-ton beast to wreak havoc with disastrous consequences.

Some things you learn only by experience. Here's a few:

* There's no such thing as "luck" as a bus operator. All you can rely upon is your driving skill, your ability to make a split-second decision based on many factors all at once, and whatever higher power you choose to believe in.

* People will do amazingly stupid things without a clue as to the consequences.

* Impatience kills at least seven of a cat's lives.

* A motorist, given the chance, will make the stupidest, dumbassed move possible. You learn to predict it, so be ready with a Plan B, C, D and E. (Especially those in the smallest, most vulnerable vehicles.)

* Management will not back you. Period. They're only interested in risk, avoiding lawsuits and making overall numbers look good. You are only a fraction on a large stat sheet. If you find yourself in a sticky situation, ask the union's help. It's our best, and often only, defense.

* No matter how wild an incident you've just been through, somebody else has experienced the same thing. Talk to your fellow operators. You are never alone, unless you prefer to be.

* If your body says STOP, listen to it. Take a break, no matter how late you are. Walk around, stretch, pass gas, yell at the heavens if you need to. Dispatch would rather have you late than driving impaired.

* This job is not "stress free," as our brother said in the agency's latest recruitment video. It is not for the weak, faint-hearted or boastful. We age a good two or three years for every one we work this job. Take time to be you. Enjoy your time off, be with those you love. Don't work more than necessary. You can only spend money while you're alive, and if you're not careful, that won't be very long.

Peace be with you all, and have a safe and prosperous 2017.




Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Ho, Ho, Slow


I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, as long as it's on TV. The past week was exhilarating at times, but mostly exhausting. It takes great effort and concentration to guide the beast in good conditions. When snow and ice enter the equation, it becomes much more challenging.

Luckily, I usually drive one of the newer buses in our fleet. They have a nice drop-down chains feature, which means the chains can be dropped or raised at the flick of a switch. In snowy conditions with the temperature below freezing, the roads are easier to negotiate in a 20-ton vehicle. When you have to drive up a hill, it's usually not so bad with chains. You just don't stop until you've conquered the incline. Passengers quickly realize when we zip past their stop on a hill that they're in for a longer walk home than usual. The wise ones don't complain; rather, they know from experience that a bus can slide in any direction if the driver attempts to stop on an incline or decline. They're patient, and wait until the hill has been conquered, and thank the driver for a safe ride as they depart.

It also helps if other motorists employ the most basic common sense, which they usually don't. People are in a hurry, especially during the holiday season. Those who know what they're doing behind the wheel are usually safe. Combine poor driving skills with wintry weather and a need for speed, and dangerous situations occur. Zipping around a bus just beginning to negotiate a hill, when you don't know how to properly guide your own vehicle in these conditions is a recipe for a messy ending.

A few years ago, when I was pretty green, a passenger berated our transit agency for "not training drivers how to drive properly in adverse weather conditions."

"This is my training, you dolt," I replied. The best way to learn is by doing.

It's strictly on-the-job, because there is no other way. Operators glean winter driving tips from veterans. We also learn tricks from experience. Trainers are extremely valuable resources. During snowstorms, they're out there hustling to rescue operators who have become stuck. Zipping around with shovels and kitty litter (for traction), I know of several operators who were rescued by training supervisors. They also offer advice at each garage.

Bus operators learn patience is the key to many situations. I've found that simply stopping before entering a challenging situation, studying the road's condition and traffic, and making sound decisions based on the information before me to be the best method of safe winter operation. As we drive a route, operators make mental notes on each section for future reference. Hills are obviously a great concern. My route meanders from one hill to another, with flat stretches in between. I knew the moment snow flurries would arrive thanks to my weather app, and I was already predicting what would happen on certain stretches before I started. It's the surprises along the way that require calm problem-solving and precise driving techniques only learned behind the wheel.

Before starting up one particular hill that snowy eve, I stopped at the bottom. Up ahead I could see good Samaritans pushing stuck vehicles and offering advice. On top of the hill, watching from that viewpoint, was a fellow bus operator doing the same thing I was. Waiting for the opportune moment to say "it's now or never, get the hell out of my way because here I come." Since he had arrived before me, and also because I wanted to watch how his bus reacted, I waited for him to come down. He did so nicely. Slowly. Deliberately. Nary a slide, skid or waver. Nicely done Coop, I thought. He stopped and we chatted a few moments.

"I don't know how you're gonna make it up there without getting stuck," he said, shaking his head. "I barely made it up last time and now things are worse."

"Yeah," I agreed, "but there's only one way to find out, because I ain't backing up."

He wished me luck. I waited for my opening, dropped the chains, and began the ascent. Low gear, no sudden acceleration, and a clear path later, I topped the crest and breathed a sigh of relief. Already 25 minutes late, I wasn't concerned with schedule. The return trip however, would be a much different story. The snow was coming down harder and the road surface was getting worse by the minute.

After a brief break at the end of the line, infused with nicotine and invigorated by a brisk walk in the snow (with ice trekkers on my feet, of course), I muttered my mantra and started back down the road. Just as I thought, the 25-minute interval between runs had turned the hill into a sledder's paradise. Not so fun for the several cars which were stuck on either side of the street, and much more challenging for bus operators. I stopped at the top of the hill and observed the scene ahead. The operator just ahead of me had curbed his bus and promptly been rear-ended by a compact car. He wasn't going anywhere until a road supervisor arrived. Judging by conditions, we agreed that would be a good wait. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the hill another bus waited where I had earlier, watching and waiting. Cars zipped past her and found themselves getting stuck. Smarter motorists turned around when they saw what happened to those in front of them. I flashed my brights at the bus down below to say "go ahead when you're ready, I'll wait." A few moments later, that bus started up the hill. I crossed my fingers and sent forth good luck. Just as the bus started its charge, a motorist passed her, sliding sideways. The bus operator braked. Her rear end slid to the right, duals over the sidewalk and treading nothing but air. To her credit, she avoided a collision with the bonehead, who didn't make it up either. Now there was a bus blocking the bottom of the hill, its front end just a few feet from the opposite side of the street where another car was parked.


I sighed, pulled the parking brake and set the transmission in neutral. "We're not going anywhere now, folks," I told my passengers. They sighed in frustration, but they knew the score. Those who didn't came forward to ask why. I patiently explained, with a full illustration gracing my windshield.

"How long will we be stuck?" Depends on how long it takes for a supervisor to arrive and assess the situation.

"Can't you detour around?" Not on these hilly, residential streets already piling up with traffic taking their own alternate routes.

"How far is the transit center?" Down the hill a mile and to the left.

"Can I have a free pass for the inconvenience?" This one didn't merit a reply. As if inspectors would have time or a reason to check fares on a night like that. Shook my head silently.

We waited an hour. Then 90 minutes passed. Neighborhood residents graciously allowed a few passengers to use their restroom. One guy took a short and quick walk, reminding me of a distant Frank Zappa tune.

During this interim, I noticed a young lady running up and down the hill. She bounced up to my bus and informed me a supervisor was downhill attempting to free the stuck bus. This quick-witted marvel then recommended I put out my reflective triangles to warn traffic behind me that I wasn't moving. Great idea. The other two triangles I placed in the middle of the street at the very top of the hill, hoping this would give motorists a hint that trying the hill just wasn't a good idea. She waved several cars down and warned them not to try it. Even if they made it down, there just wasn't enough room to get between the stuck bus and the parked car. One monster truck on high decided he didn't need to heed, and made it down. I didn't see him maneuver around the bus, but he must have made it because Joey Jeep went down next, barely missing my heroine as he sped by. Then Miss Zippy ran down the hill for an update from our heroine road supe and then back up to tell me the supe couldn't get the bus out and was coming our way. Our white-shirted sister then assessed the rear-end collision and dealt with it before trudging up to me.

After greeting my former manager and now-awesome supe, she told me I needed to turn around and head back to the transit center.

"I need you to do a five-point turnaround in this intersection and take all these passengers back to the mall," she said. "Are you up to it?"

What self-respecting operator would say no? Granted, I had my doubts. I was parked just a few feet short of the cross street. The maneuver would entail a button-hooking wide turn, encouraging a slide if not done just right.

"Aw hell boss, I got this," I said, puffing up. I got in the seat, closed the door and said another silent prayer, between cursing myself for what I was about to do. Taking a deep breath, I released the brake and put it in low gear. Making sure there was nobody coming up behind and that nobody was in the street, I took my foot off the service brake. There was no turning back, only turning around would suffice. I rounded the turn okay, got pointed straight and just barely went up the incline before stopping. Slip sliding, I carefully got her stopped. Lady Liza the Supe walked up to my window.

"Doing okay in there? I noticed a skid before you got 'er stopped."

"Yeah, I thought it would do that, but I'm good. Let's back this beast up."

She back-stepped to the rear of the bus, made sure it was clear, and motioned me back. Already on an incline, I just put it into neutral and gently rolled back until she gave me the stop signal. Into first gear, I turned the wheel as far to the right as I dared and guided it to a safe distance from the curb. If there was such a thing. Now my front end was lower than the back. I had to put it into reverse. Luckily, there was no more skidding. I backed, went forward, backed again and cleared the curb as I went forward. Onlookers cheered. I brought the bus to a stop as near the curb as I dared, earning me a sideways glance from Liza.

"I hope you can get going again being that close," she chided, adding "but that was a great job! Awesome, Deke!"

So as I puffed in some much-needed nicotine, she guided passengers back onto my bus. Outside, I remained humble as people patted me on the back. On the inside, I felt damn lucky that 40,000-pound monster didn't go sliding down to meet the bus at the bottom. When I got back into the seat, my supervisor told the passengers where we were headed and how the reroute would take them to their destination. She also encouraged them to call in "and congratulate Deke on the great job he did getting this bus turned around." Aw shucks, ma'am. Much ado about nothin'. Sheeit.

The rest of the night wasn't nearly as exciting. The hill on the other side of my run had been shut down, so my break at the other end was nearly an hour long each trip. We had it easy; our passengers who needed to get up that hill were stuck, and I felt bad for them because I had nothing to offer.

Such is the way of winter weather transit in Portland, Oregon. A few inches of snow shuts everything down. The media plays the same game each time it happens. "What lessons can we learn from this?" My suggestion is that you actually do what should be done. Period. It happens every other year or so. Haven't you learned these lessons yet? Employ emergency crews to plow the main streets, not just the freeways. Sand the hills. Chain the older buses before the snow, not during. Also, it's a good idea to remove the chains once the snow melts. I don't mind the resulting overtime, but the 25-mph speed limit and constant thumpity-thump of the chains on dry pavement is extremely annoying.

My advice to new operators who aren't familiar with driving during winter weather conditions: take it slow, be patient, be smart, be vigilant, ask questions, use common sense. The rest of it is either skill or pure luck, but most likely a combination of both.

I have a feeling we're in for a much more severe snow event. Or several. Mother Nature is a fickle lady. You never know what surprises she has in store for us.

Great job out there, brothers and sisters. Mechanics on the chain crews, operators, supervisors, trainers, station agents, garage managers and especially our awesome dispatchers, you ALL performed splendidly. Upper management, once again, most likely rode the storm out in front of a cozy fireplace. I hope they remember this as they negotiate our new contract, but they have short memories.



Sunday, December 11, 2016

Holiday Shorts

Short-lived snowfall, before the ice storm arrived.

I received an early Christmas gift today. A lady who works in the office where we're allowed rest room privileges had her sons with her, and she called them out when I arrived. "Boys, I want you to meet my favorite bus driver!"

Wow. I've waited years to hear this. I've wondered if anyone felt that way. Well thanks, Lady Claudine. You made my day!

***************************************
The snow is pretty cool. The ice that follows it isn't.
My normal weekday route is one of those "Jerry Springer Runs." Drama unfolds almost daily between the unwashed who live among us. By the end of a week, my customer service well runs beyond dry. Especially after driving 10 hours through a typical Portland ice storm.

"You're late," a drunk told me as I opened the doors.

He was right. By then I was on my last run. I'd been held hostage several minutes by a pokey freight train, caught every red light, played dodge-the-dumbass at a mall parking lot more than once, and dropped or raised my chains so many times I wasn't sure where they were. I had nothing left in the tank. I thought hard for a few seconds for a witty or artfully-crafted comeback.

"Duh," I finally said.

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

I love teasing kids. This time of year, it's especially fun. One lad of about seven boarded my bus and was excitedly talking about Santa.

"Do you believe in Santa?" he asked.

"Why, sure I do!" I said. "He brings me something every year!"

"Wow," he said, wonder lighting up his cute little face. "See Dad? I told you he was real!"

I glanced at Dad in my mirror. He was not amused. I grimaced and told my driver window, "Ruh roh, Daddy's pissed." Since I was on a roll, however...

Santa's Headquarters on the left.
"Actually," I told the boy, "Santa and his reindeer were on my bus just a while ago. His sleigh was in for repairs and he had to go to Macy's so he rode my bus."

This time, the lad wasn't so sure. "Nuh uh. Santa doesn't ride the bus."

"Actually," I said, painting myself an incredulous look, "he drives a bus too. When he's not delivering toys, that is."

"No way!"

"Yep," I said. "Seriously, if you go into Macy's and ask Santa if he's ever driven a bus, I'll bet he'll wink and tell you he certainly has."

They got off downtown just across from Macy's. Dad scowled at me as he departed, but the holiday spirit returned and he managed a half-smile as he walked by and said, "Gee thanks, buddy."

(So, Santa Mark Lawson, but please tell me if some lil' blond boy asked for your résumé. Oh, and hopefully the sleigh repairs are being covered by the transit agency. Just make sure you submit your expense report before the end of the month.)






Saturday, December 3, 2016

Dear Wayne

Not too long ago, I had an interesting email dialogue with a new friend, and reader of this blog. Thought I'd share it for your perusal.

Wayne,

Thank you so very much for your email. Truthfully, it’s the first contact I’ve had with a reader in quite a while. Sure, I get the occasional blog comment, but nobody seems to connect any more. We’ve lost the ability to communicate. My blogs are written with a great deal of emotion and thought, but they rarely inspire others to engage. 

Lately, I’ve considered ending the blog. At first, the response was enthusiastic. People read with interest, offered feedback and advice. Now it seems FTDS has exceeded its 15 minutes. Do people actually READ anything any more except about Hillary’s emails and Donald’s failed business ventures? It’s a cutthroat world, and it’s extremely discouraging. The working public is at each other’s throats instead of banding together to fight the big money interests which are strangling us with every election. Nobody wants to engage, unless it involves the latest America’s Got Talent contestants or sports team of the moment. The Information Age has seen us devolve into a seething mass of idiocy. Fact checking has morphed into people believing whichever brand has indoctrinated them. There is little original thought. Nobody reads Frost or Dickens or Twain, or Michener, the works of Lincoln. The level of civic undersanding is pitifully low. How can we expect our government to work for us if we don’t collectively understand how it’s supposed to? 

This also relates to book publishing. Very few people read these days. I’ve had to shorten my posts; not only because I’ve been practicing literary brevity, but also because people have such a short attention span. An editor has told me to “dummy up” my language because I “use words that are beyond the normal comprehension level.” Sigh. I remember when expressing oneself intelligently was revered. Now, it’s considered “uppity” or even outdated. To publish a book today requires funding but also a willing audience. While people around the globe have graced my blog with their eyes, how many are willing to buy an entire book written by a bus driver? I’ve found myself straying from the printed page, drawn to the IPhone and the internet like a moth to the flame. My spare time was once devoted to reading actual books. Now I piddle around on the computer as if my world revolves around it. My books gather dust. I’m not sure my publishing FTDS would garner enough interest. 

As you can see, I’m highly discouraged. My blog was meant to do one thing: chronicle the life and feelings of a bus operator. My 21-year-old son recently told me he had read a few of my posts. His critique was simple: “You bitch too much, Dad.” So I read over the previous posts and had to agree. Gone is the upbeat humor, the insights I once had. The job is no longer an interesting challenge. Instead it has become a drudgery, a paycheck. I’ve actually interviewed for another job outside of transit. Sure, I’ve hit the proverbial “wall” as a driver. There’s a chance I’ll rebound. But the future of this job is anything but rosy. Our union leadership is stagnant. They make a little noise and expect the membership to be supportive. Instead of the mighty voice labor once had, it’s more like a mousy squeak before the wheels crush it. There’s just not much to be excited about.

How you did your job for so long is hard to fathom. Having a knife stuck in me over a $2.50 fare is not how I want to leave this world. Being locked behind a cage while driving would insulate me from the very people I enjoy giving rides to. How would this give us any semblance of authority or respect?

So yeah Wayne, it was truly invigorating to get your email. I know, my response probably isn’t what you expected. But if I’m anything, I’m honest with people. This is how I feel. The book is in the editing process. The first round resulted in a 7,000-word reduction! LOL… I told you I’m practicing brevity and it’s a good thing. I sure was a wordy bastard while I wrote many of those posts. It will also include a glossary of transit terms which I hope people would find interesting. Shopping around for self-publishing companies that are actually worth the money. As for the title, I’m not quite sure yet. 

On a more positive note, I’ve started a novel. The idea for this project came about while I was drivng across the Tillikum Crossing one day. It made me chuckle, then laugh. It’s fun… something I haven’t been having enough of the past year. So stay tuned.

Seriously Wayne, thank you for reading. Most of all, thank you for caring enough to not only respond to me via email, but also to contact Rep. McLain’s office and support my brothers’ attempts to spur our legislature to action regarding operator assaults. If our own transit agency still thinks it should remain a misdemeanor to assault one of its own, then it’s time we threw a punch.

Please spread word about the blog. Since my FaceBook profile has been shut down, my reach is dwindling so I rely on readers to help get it out there. Keep an eye out for a new post… it was an interesting day on the road!

Take care and thank you again.

With affection and regards, I am

Deke