Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Shocking Operator Stalker

Recently, after one of our own was punched in the face because the driver couldn't make change, and my post on "Safety vs. Customer Service" was published, another one of us came dangerously close to being physically assaulted. This time it was someone very close to me. All my brothers and sisters are vulnerable, and considering our protection is evidently not a priority to anyone but US, I'm going to speak out. Again. This time hold onto your hats, 'cuz my response ain't gonna be sweet.

In an exclusive one-on-one with the victim/driver, I could feel his remaining anger, fear and feelings of isolation and frustration after what was, as you'll discover, a sadly common occurrence for bus operators. He asked not to be identified, as he is a victim here. His eyes told their own story as the words angrily poured out of him. Alternating between anger and shock, he was able to paint a very real and disturbing picture of the incident. Here's what he said.

"I was driving Line 9 on Friday night, and was coming to my stop at Hall and 5th when I heard a commotion near the back on the bus. One voice stood out, and I asked this man to please quiet down. He refused. In fact, he came to the front of the bus to yell at me. Feeling threatened, I told him to leave the bus. He refused again, and would not stop yelling at me. He went as far as to say I was an Uncle Tom and the only reason I 'picked on' him was that he was black. If he had actually read the story, he'd know the character 'Tom' was black, and I'm not. It was a moot point, so I deduced there was something else going on. Dude was a few quarts shy of a gallon. I'm not racist at all, and jerks come in all sizes shapes and colors.

"I asked Dispatch for police to come and remove him. He was very loud and threatening, standing in between the fare box and the door, refusing to leave. I remained in my seat and spoke with Dispatch, who helped calm and reassure me help was on the way. When police arrived, he had left the bus and my doors were closed. An officer came in, asked a few questions. By then, I had been told by two kind lady passengers that this man had been verbally harassed by other passengers and was angry about that. I wasn't aware of this, because I was keeping an eye on a different passenger who appeared to be in physical distress. When this unruly dude raised his voice to others on the bus, his was the only one I heard. I didn't hear anyone harassing him. So I felt bad for him even though he had verbally assaulted me. All I wanted was for the guy to get off my bus so I could finish my run and take a break at the end of the line. He hadn't touched me, so I asked Transit Police to tell him not to interfere with my job. I thought the guy just had a bad day, and as it is often the case, took it out on me. As long as he was off my bus and outta my face, that's all I cared about.

"The police cleared me from the scene, so I informed Dispatch I was heading to the end of the line. I was a little rattled and very late by then, but just needed a little time to clear my head before making my last run to Gresham TC. When I emerged from the company break room, I finished talking to my wife on the phone and returned to my bus. Guess who was waiting for me?"

So this guy somehow left the stop at Hall and 5th and made it to North Terminal before you were ready to leave? That tells us this guy is a bit fruit loops, not right in the head. I would call this stalking. What did he do then?

"Well," the driver continued, "yeah it was stalking. And by then he was even more agitated. He was waving his arms around and yelling at me, stepped between me and my bus, throwing one helluva fit. I told him he was trespassing and he had to leave, and in fact I told him to leave me the fuck alone. I was done with him at Hall and 5th, didn't press charges, but this guy came all the way to our break area just to mess with me! I called Dispatch and asked for the cops. Again. I was beginning to get nervous, thought I would be physically attacked. My body was now in full 'fight or flight' and I was preparing to defend myself. He even harassed a lady driver who had come in for her break. I told him to leave her alone. She was trying to calm him down but I told her just to GO! Luckily the cops arrived just then."

Did they arrest him this time?

"Well, I thought they had. They put him in handcuffs, and I was out of earshot so I couldn't hear what was said. I didn't want to be anywhere near him, obviously. By then I was extremely upset. I mean really? This guy came 15 blocks up there to mess with me again? What the hell? When the cop came over to talk to me he said he'd 'dealt with this guy before' and 'he's off his meds and can be violent', I thought 'oh great'. I was sure the dude was under arrest. For trespassing at least. Another driver came over to me and said he'd dealt with the guy on his bus too. 'Yeah, he's a royal pain in the ass'."

So he's messed with other drivers then?

"I guess so."

Right. Like we have any idea who is excluded from riding. That dude should have been excluded long ago, but we all know that's about as effective as a bald porcupine fighting a wolverine. So let's finish this up. What happened next?

"You won't believe this shit," the driver said. "I'd seen the cops handcuff this dude and thought he was in the police car when I finally left the lot. I was done for the night, too stressed to safely continue my route. Remember, I had been in fight or flight for about an hour by then, so I wasn't going to put my passengers at risk by driving in a diminished capacity."

He paused, head bowed in deep thought, then added, "Thanks Henry Beasley, you're right. I woulda thought about this shit all night instead of being able to be vigilant and drive safely. So I told Dispatch I was done for the night and they cleared me to head back to the garage.

"But then before I could get even get three blocks down the road, guess who was waiting for me?"

You're kidding! They let him go again?

"Yep. He was screaming and carrying on even worse than before. When the light turned green he raced the bus from the sidewalk and when I stopped at the next light, the dude jumped into the street, in front of my bus. He actually dared me to run him over! Good freakin' grief with this guy! So I locked it up and called for police. The THIRD time. They were there in seconds. By then, this dude was shirtless, screaming at everyone and blocking traffic in all directions. After a few minutes they had him cuffed again so the intersection was clear of this freak and the cop came back to get into his car next to my bus.

"I said 'I thought you had him back there!' and he said 'You told us not to arrest him!'

"So I gotta ask that cop when the hell it became my job to tell him how to do his? I mean this guy coulda attacked me, and this cop is acting like this was all my fault! He coulda killed me for crying out loud!"

Our interview was over. This driver, two days after the incident, was still visibly shaken. He told me he hadn't slept well, and he worries what might happen if the guy gets on his bus again. He'd had to drive a different line the day after the incident and it still affected him. I was surprised by what he said next, because his thoughts were about what had been interrupted.

"I feel terrible about my regular passengers. I mean I had to leave them standing, late at night, waiting for me to give them a ride and I didn't show up. They're good folks and didn't deserve this, but at the same time I owe them a safe ride. I hope they got home okay."


Mercifully, the station agent allowed him to wait out the rest of the time on his paddle in the bullpen. He wasn't forced to drive in that condition, which is best for everyone. Instead of allowing him a day off to recover from his body's intense biological 'fight or flight response' however, he would have had to take sick leave. This would have given him time loss, which ironically counts against his accumulation of safe driving hours. If you take too much sick leave, your 'clock' starts over from zero and you lose however many safe driving hours you've accumulated toward our honored drivers program. So in theory, you could have a safe driving record for years without being recognized as a Master Operator by our district. Instead of risking time loss, he chose to drive the next day when he should have been at home, recovering from post traumatic stress.

But this is what happens to many operators every day of every week. You don't hear about all the verbal assaults we face out there. Many of them border on violent, and some assaults apparently don't make the news. Passengers spit on us, throw drinks, scream terrible insults at us for no good reason. His wasn't an isolated experience, nor did it end violently. It has however, for other operators.

When Pamela Thompson was attacked a few years ago, her assailant's attorney whined to the court about what a horrible time the accused had experienced prior to his horrific attack on our sister. Poor thing, blah blah blah. I'm sorry, but I don't give a damn. We all have a rough time at points in our lives, and we persevere. It's no excuse for punching a humble civil servant several times in the face over a lousy couple of bucks. Imagine her distress, fear and pain. Did that matter? Her assailant was given a year's probation and exclusion from riding local transit for a year. Ordered to pay Sister's medical bills including her broken spectacles. Big deal. Slap on the wrist. He should have spent a year in prison and been thrown out of town. Records say he apologized and Sister forgave him. But she's a good, decent lady and he's a lucky jerk. Our management was nowhere to be seen at the court proceedings.

Management loves to say pretty things about safety, while turning the other way when faced with the reality we face daily. Until a few years ago, we could count on fare inspectors and/or cops to ride our buses from time to time, checking fares and showing a presence. Not a forceful deterrent, but a reminder that people could face a hefty fine for not paying. It also showed potential troublemakers there were possible consequences for bad behavior. Nowadays, the fare inspector is a thing of the past. Our warnings to fare evaders they can ride at the mercy of an inspector boarding are met with "Yeah, right". Passengers know this is a toothless warning; they're even more brazen now, and we're increasingly vulnerable.

When you're in the driver seat, range of motion is extremely limited. If confronted with danger, we're still expected to "remain in the seat" or face discipline. This makes us sitting ducks, easy targets, and sometimes afraid for our very lives. Our Standard Operating Procedures are extremely vague, saying only that we may employ "reasonable self defense" when attacked. I'm sorry, but when somebody attacks me while doing my job of driving a 40,000 pound vehicle full of people, or even on a break outside the bus, I would expect the district to have my back rather than kicking my butt when my body says "fight or die". We're not even allowed to carry pepper spray!

Until state legislatures declare that violence against any civil servant is subject to severe penalties, we'll continue to be the public's punching bag. Especially in the corporate press, as contract negotiations begin in December.

As for violence, we hear mumblings from time to time about how they want to retrofit buses with 'protective cages' around the driver seat. That's not encouraging for those of us who are claustrophobic, and insulting to the many passengers who actually enjoy friendly interaction with their driver. It won't stop the violence though; we have to get out of the cage eventually. Our district won't truly protect us, it seems, until one of us dies from an attack. And then because of their lack of respect, we wonder if they'll blame the operator.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Transit Pancakes and Intellectual Perversions

Sometimes people say the silliest stuff. Today, I had a few such gems. They were so amusing I had to share them.

First, the ugly. Poor ol' fella left his cane on my bus, but by the time I was alerted to the fact I had already left the stop. Downtown. Can't go backwards or stop in the intersection. Late to my break, had to pee. Felt bad, but rules are rules and the transit mall was packed with buses and misguided motorists. So I get to my end point, take an abbreviated stretch and hit the road again. Downtown traffic these days is a bear because one of our bridges is closed for repair. As I proceeded through a traffic light adjacent to a MAX train, the lady who had accompanied the now-caneless gent stepped into the transit way, between my bus and the train, screaming at me to stop. In the middle of the intersection that is, so she could berate me for "stealing" the cane. Sorry lady, but I'm not going to stop there, open the door in a dangerous place and allow you to yell at me for doing my job. Plus, you just came close to becoming a tragic transit pancake. Strike two to you, bubbaloo. Cane will be waiting at Lost and Found in the morning. Top o' the day, now get the hell outta the way. I felt bad, thinking ol' Pops must really depend on the cane. But I'm not the one who forgot it and I can't travel backward in time... only forward.

During rush hour on my outbound trip, traffic was typically backed up for about 15 blocks. At the end of this parking lot lies a particularly busy stop. A sulky looking teenaged girl mumbled something directly behind me. It sounded like a question, but I couldn't be sure. It was a warm day, the air conditioning thinks it's still winter in Portland so I have two fans blasting, so I looked in my passenger mirror and asked "Hmm?" This time she walked up and stood directly behind me. "When are we supposed to get to the stop?" It was obvious this 10-second traffic signal wasn't going to oblige my already-blown schedule, as I'd watched it cycle about five times before I got within striking distance. I frowned at her and said, "We were supposed to be there about 10 minutes ago, but I reckon we'll make it sometime before sundown." She wrinkled her brow into a sulk and sat back down.

Next, I roll up to a major stop and an older gentleman (I use the term grudgingly) asked me to give him a courtesy stop a few blocks up and around the corner. Explaining to him that it wasn't a safe place, I gently refused. "I'm sorry sir, I can't let you out there." His response was rude at best, ruefully vulgar at worst. He emphatically cursed me, then suggested I perform a sexual act upon myself that is neither possible or attractive to me in the least. "Have a nice evening sir," I replied through gritted teeth.

Just a bit later, downtown again, I came upon a young man with a fascinating question. "Hey, the bus that was supposed to come didn't come," he said. "When is it coming?" Hmm. No details here. Let's see. Either I could brand him for a dumbass just for asking such a thing, or take a gentler route. "I'm not sure sir, I'm not driving that one."

On my last trip out, one lady came up to my door just before my light turned green. I sighed emphatically. "Yes ma'am?" I said in my best controlled customer service voice. "The board up there says my bus won't be here for another 29 minutes, so when can I expect it?" This question, in addition to the day's previous gems, just floored me. I hung my head a moment, thinking of the best reply. "Well ma'am, I'd say it'll be here in about 28 minutes and 14 seconds." Then I shut the door and floored it.

It can often be a long, frustrating day behind the wheel of a bus. But sometimes, it's just entertaining enough to keep me smiling. Smooth runs, brothers and sisters.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Another Hit

Just a few hours after I published my recent post about Safety, one of our bus operators was punched in the face, apparently over a question of the person's fare.

One of my brothers reports this assault happened when the operator informed a passenger who paid $3.00 for the $2.50 fare that we don't give change. Nor have we for decades. So instead of just eating the $0.50, this punk punched the operator, sitting in the driver seat and doing his/her job. We don't take credit cards, and the fare amounts are plainly posted on the bus next to the front door.

So, just as I thought, the district put out a statement on the assault which sounds good to the public, but makes union operators sigh and shake our heads.

"Our operators provide a vital service every day, getting riders where they need to go safely day in and day out. We ask riders and the public to treat our operators with kindness and respect," was the district's statement. You ask them? And when they say no, then what? Tap them on the fingers and give them a time out? These people need to be p-u-n-i-s-h-e-d, and severely. Jail time, and a meaningful exclusion from ever riding transit again is my idea of treating us with respect. There is no excuse for this increasingly violent behavior. It isn't acceptable for any reason.

What's it going to take before Portland and its transit agency get truly tough on crimes against transit workers? Must one of us die before they actually stand up behind their rhetoric and set some examples? I'm sorry, but lip service doesn't protect us from violence. Only action does, and I'm not talking about some cage around the operators; that's like a bandage on a scratch.

If the district wants to show that "Safety is a Core Value", it should ask the prosecuting attorney to push for a felony and full punishment. Maybe then the public will realize that punching one of our operators will result in serious consequences.

The Tragedy of Safety vs. Customer Service

Portland's spring has sprung!
"Safety is our core value," says our management.

"Bullshit," says I.

I'm reminded of a scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Red comes in front of the parole board for the final time. They ask if he's been "rehabilitated". His response is that of an irritated, tired old man who is done with their nonsense. His plea has been rejected twice before, and after 30 years behind bars, Red doubts if he can make it on the outside.

"You know," he says with a sigh, "I don't have any idea what that means."

Parole board guy starts to say something, but Red interrupts.

"I know what you think it means sonny," Red says. "To me it's just a made up word. A politician's word, so that young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job."

This is exactly how I feel about my employer's "safety" statement. It's so easy to say: "We value safety." Easy, that is, if you're sitting behind a desk pulling a six-figure salary instead of doing what we do for half that pay, making the wheels go around. Operators don't just think safety, we breathe it. We devour and digest, rinse and repeat it. Safety lives with us from the time the alarm interrupts our rest until pillow time returns. Each moment we're responsible for a transit vehicle, safety is the main subject of every thought we have or move we make. Our personal safety seems less important than the sanctity of the vehicle or the customers who ride it. Our customer service skills seem to resonate more with management than the actual safety of those we serve.

I had a discussion with my manager one day, and it was about whether I should serve somebody who throws all caution to the wind, runs across a busy street and directly in front of a bus, demanding a ride. Most bus operators will say "they're too stupid to ride the bus, pass 'em by". But not according to management. We're supposed to stop what we're doing and give them a ride. All in the name of customer service. If I do as they say and board this passenger, it says to everyone on the bus, "It's okay to do stupid stuff because they'll let you on anyway". It's a terrible example to set. Safety be damned, we're customer service representatives now. Once upon a time, professional drivers were respected. Now, that idiot who nearly became pavement paint is to be catered to, rather than taught an important lesson in safety. To management, boarding that passenger is a safety procedure.

Usually, when boarding somebody who has narrowly avoided death under a vehicle, they're the first to insult the operator who opened the door to them. They rarely thank us. Of the 100 calls to our customer service, a full 99 are complaints from people who often lie or don't understand the situation. Customers think we're machines, and we have no authority to tell them how stupid it was to run against a traffic signal to catch a bus that runs every 10-15 minutes. It doesn't matter if we're 10 minutes late; they don't know and they don't care. The next bus could be a few car lengths behind ours, but they have to catch this one. If we drive off without them, you can be sure their next call will be a complaint.

Why did the district continue to buy new buses with a safety hazard we've brought to their attention numerous times? The extended front end of the new Gilligs is a vision barrier. The "A frame" windows actually can obscure our vision of side streets. Instead of heeding our warnings, the district boasts another 70+ new buses this year, all with the same design flaw. The district's answer? Rock and roll, baby. Sure, we do this anyway. But to do it several more times a minute than necessary on a traditional flat-front vehicle adds extreme amounts of stress and fatigue to bodies that get a tough workout several hours a day. Ever heard of repetitive motion injury? Bus operators suffer this in alarming numbers. Driving a bus is a strenuous job in addition to one of the most stressful. Our right foot pivots from accelerator to brake thousands of times a shift. My boot heels are worn down after only a few months from this repetitive motion. Our legs, and actually our whole body behind them, depress the brake pedal thousands of times a day. It takes a great deal of pressure to slow and stop a 40,000 pound vehicle, because the pedals aren't as easy to depress as they are on a car.

There are many arguments to be made about Operator Safety. If "Safety is our Goal", why did the district quit providing eyeglass cleaner? Is our clear vision not a safety concern? Sure, we can provide our own. But if "Safety" is Management's goal, wouldn't it make sense to make the extra effort to ensure something as simple as eyeglass cleaner is readily available?

Many operators have been victim of assaults, yet forced to continue with their shifts. This is in direct contrast with what "safety" actually entails. When an incident occurs that is out of the ordinary, it triggers the body's "fight or flight" response. The brain sends commands to all parts of the body when faced with immediate danger. Adrenaline increases, blood flow concentrates on the core, hormones race, the heart pumps faster, breathing increases, muscles tense, senses like eyesight and hearing intensify; all these are part of the body's innate response to a threat. We are slapped and punched, spit and puked upon, screamed at, stabbed and shot at. While I've been lucky when faced with dangerous situations and have been allowed to "call it a day" without repercussion or time loss, fellow operators have not been treated as I have. A few months ago, one operator reported an assault yet no police responded and she continued her route. Another operator's bus was riddled with bullets, yet she had to finish her route. When her manager granted a day to deal with the post traumatic stress, she says she wasn't paid for it.

My brother Henry Beasley has advocated that the Standard Operating Procedures be amended to provide a (paid) cooling-off period for operators who have experienced a stressful situation, and I agree. As he so aptly describes it, a driver with diminished capacity "is a safety hazard to themselves, passengers and the general public". This is a crucially important statement. An operator who has just experienced an assault or other incident isn't thinking "safety" once the wheels are rolling again. They're thinking about what just happened to them, and are experiencing emotions best dealt with in their own homes. A soul needs time to recover, and if an operator is forced to do so behind the wheel of a bus carrying even one passenger, then that passenger's safety is then compromised. This seems to be of no concern to the district. None whatsoever. And the operator's safety certainly seems to not be important either.

Our supervisors and dispatchers know what we go through out there, and they have always been extremely supportive of me when something out of the ordinary happens. I'm usually given the option to continue on route or take recovery time. I'm very grateful for these brothers and sisters, for they have done the very job I'm entrusted with. The problems seem to lie with those managers who have never driven a bus in service. They just don't get it. They haven't been screamed at by a manic passenger who might just have a weapon under that jacket. They don't have to make split second decisions that could save some idiot's life but throw a passenger onto the floor resulting in a Preventable Accident. The managers who have driven a bus actually understand what we go through, and I'm lucky to have one of them. But if management truly cared about "Safety", they wouldn't be forcing us to give rides to the unsafe. It's not good "customer service" to encourage stupidity.

During my last Recertification Class, someone from the "Safety" department came in to present his idea of the term. It consisted of graphs and charts boasting how "safe" our job has been lately. Then he left the room while we watched a movie about Slips Trips and Falls. Come on. Really? I learned about that stuff in grade school. Is our Safety Department so detached from what we face out there that their main concern is how we walk?

The higher up the management, the more detached from reality they are. When I saw my sister Pamela's bruises that Christmas Eve, I wept. Not only for her, but also in fear of knowing it could someday happen to a dear friend, family member, or even myself. As she trembled facing her accuser, I felt so damn proud of her. At the same time, my anger toward our upper management intensified due to their conspicuous absence in the courtroom. When her attacker wasn't dealt the harshest of sentences, my confidence in the court's protection was wounded.

If "Safety is a core value", I'd like to know why a mobster is a more vigilant protector than our employer or the law; at least he kicks some ass when someone messes with his employee.