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.


  1. man buddy really good post I felt your pain out there we have a snowy weather under our belt now.

    1. Yeah buddy I think my snowy weather driving cherry has been popped, and my butt hurts!

  2. Where were the top management indeed? Figuring out how to get themselves another raise at home safe and sound. You know all the Trimet technocrats were given the day off right?

    1. Yeah I kinda figured they were off. We do the work, they get the raises. They get the gold mine, we get the shaft, to borrow a part of an old country song.

  3. Very well written post and nice accompanying photos. You obviously are a highly responsible and dedicated employee which makes your concluding comments/questions all the more poignant. And it's a very good observation you make when you ask why the transit union workers who are deemed too vital to strike are being left hung out to dry (in terms of contract talks) by the same legislators who purport to find them so valuable?

  4. Thank you! Yeah we're only 'valuable', it would seem, as pawns to a queen.