Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Dangerous Place to Be

It's getting worse. As if this is a secret nobody wants to talk about, like how Uncle Harry farts at the dinner table and thinks it goes unnoticed. Well the stench is permeating all that is good about downtown Portland, and somebody's pants are about to show the ugly truth.

Portland's downtown transit mall is a mess. It's an unruly and supremely dangerous place for anyone to be. Nobody will speak up about it. Except me. I've had enough, and it's time this debacle is dealt with.

A city government's job includes doing everything possible to ensure public safety. When it comes to downtown, nobody seems to care except transit workers. We've seen people injured and killed due to a shocking unwillingness to leave conditions as is. When accidents happen, the blame seems to be thrown upon US. Nobody takes responsibility for their own safety anymore. The status quo needs to go.

Nearly 40 bus, four light rail, two streetcar lines, Lift vans and thousands of other vehicles use Portland's Transit Mall every day. It was designed to avoid total chaos with all the transit traffic combined with private and commercial vehicles. Each line has specific stops to service, and transit workers do an admirable job working together to transport thousands of commuters daily. But it's not easy, nor is it a safe environment for traffic or pedestrians. And it's getting worse.

From what I've been told, local leaders decided long ago it wasn't in the city's best interests to enforce traffic code on the mall. They didn't want to scare away tourists by enforcing laws written with the express reason of keeping people safe. This is ridiculous, but from all accounts I've heard, it's true. As a result, motorists brazenly defy signs prohibiting use of transit lanes, ignore "NO TURNS" signs and have a flippant attitude about doing it.

"Cops aren't going to write me a ticket anyway, so fuck off driver," one particularly aggressive motorist yelled at me one day. Sadly, I couldn't disagree with the first part of his statement. The expletive insult I could have done without.

Tourists are simply baffled as to how they should behave on 5th and 6th Avenues. The signage is horrible; they're so small they seem like polite suggestions rather than legal statements. Street markings are all but worn away in some areas.

If motorists aren't just waiting to make an illegal right turn behind a bus which is servicing a stop, they're swerving around and cutting in front of buses attempting to continue in service. Often, they display their driving IQ in an not-so-friendly salute out the window as they go by. Cars routinely run red lights on cross streets, making our light rail operators sweat bullets at every intersection. Transit workers are highly-trained and always on the alert for boneheads in traffic; motorists are either in a hurry to get nowhere fast, supremely arrogant and ignorant, or blithely unaware of their poor driving habits inviting disaster.

"...US UNL..." what? Oh, you mean "BUS ONLY"?
Pedestrians are too busy staring at their phones to look up and see the DON'T WALK signals. Some just don't care. I've had to brake hard to avoid hitting people who wander idly into the bus lanes, halfway between intersections, while checking their FaceBook or Twitter feeds. Then they yell at us for giving the customary "beep beep" of our warning device (aka 'horn'), or throw that one-fingered salute we so love to see. I don't truly mind that. Transit operators believe that if we don't see that finger at least once a day, we're not doing our job. I'd rather be flipped off than to have Joe Schmoe flipped under my bus.

Look as far as you can up either street, and there are no cops. Their downtown headquarters is within walking distance of the mall, but rarely are cruisers on patrol there unless they're en route to some waiting catastrophe. But hey, I don't blame our brothers and sisters in law enforcement for their conspicuous absence. It's their bosses' bosses who are solely to blame for this terrible lack of enforcement. City leaders bemoan budget deficits and warn of impending cuts instead of additions to an overworked police bureau.  There simply isn't enough money, they cry, to keep the city safe.

Try this: start regularly patrolling the mall. Design and print brochures explaining basic laws and procedures for downtown driving, and distribute them to info centers, hotels, malls. Do some public service announcements showing how we all need to be more safe and follow the laws so people aren't hurt. Re-design the transit mall and be creative about it. White markings are mere suggestions; make yellow double lines separating regular from transit traffic, install flashing signs (light rail designers had the foresight to do that right) as warnings. Try something innovative: install solar roadway tiles in some areas which would light up as signage, warm streets during icy weather, and eliminate bone-jarring potholes that grace nearly every block.

Transit operators and supervisors provide this city with an invaluable service, by transporting its workforce. The downtown transit mall is a vital piece of the system. When it works (usually early Sunday morning when Portlanders are sleeping off the latest beer festival), the mall is a wonderfully efficient engineering marvel. When it doesn't, people die. They step off the curb in front of 100,000 lb. light rail vehicles and end up underneath. Motorists cut off buses and find out what 40,000 lb. vehicles can do to a BMW's paint job. Bicyclists weave in and out of traffic, playing chicken with all traffic, and blame the driver if something goes wrong.

It's a mad world out there. But I'm madder. If the City of Portland truly cares about all who live or visit here, they'll find a way. Hey, if they'd just enforce the law and fine offenders, it could probably pay for enough officers to regularly patrol the mall. If TriMet truly believed "Safety is Our Core Value", it would push city leaders to action on this matter. Instead of pussyfooting around and whining about not wanting to offend people, take a stand and insist that obeying laws is vital to assure public safety. In a city this beautiful, boasting one of the finest transit systems in the world and a spectacular new transit-only bridge, it's perplexing to have such a dangerous downtown transit mall.

In the meantime, please take your eyes off your phone and pay attention whenever you're on the move. Your life and your fellow Portlanders depend on it. Pokemon can Go to hell, but you only have one body on this Earth.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

I Don't Need to Be A Jerk

Ever had a passenger that initially annoyed you, yet your conscience told you patience was the key to working with him? I have one this signup.

Nearly every day, this aging little fella boards my bus around 3:30 in the afternoon. He asks if I think he'll be able to catch a bus that will get him to the east side of town by 7:00. After a few days of this, instead of being irritated at having to answer his daily query, I realized he must have a memory issue. He's usually disheveled, hair a mess and looks like a scared puppy. At first, I was impatient. I groaned when I saw him shuffling toward the bus with a frantic wave. He always has his pass, but he has to dig for it. I would sigh impatiently, tap my foot, and was your total jerk bus operator. After three days of this, my impatience turned inward. Is this what I've evolved into? The snarling driver people always bitch about? Tonight after my run, I just sat in my car, head hung low, as I realized how uncomfortable my actions must make this poor fellow. Shame sunk in, along with the painful fact that I'm not always as nice as I'd like people to think I am.

What if he has some sort of impairment which affects his memory? He's always apologetic, polite and tentative. Compared to some people, he's the kind of passenger I should look forward to driving. Lately, I've had some real bozos ride my lines, and it's been harder for me to be kind and gentle. This Irish temper has been sorely tested on several occasions recently and it's been very difficult to remain calm under pressure. My soul is in upheaval, because I'd hate for someone to be as impatient with me as I have been with him. He's somebody's family member. What if someone was mean to my brother, who was born with Down Syndrome? What if someone treated my brother the way I treat him? So what to do about this, Freaky Deke?

Beginning today, I resolved to turn my frown upside down (pardon the cliché) and be the person he doesn't need to fear. I've nicknamed him "Frank", the name of a dear friend of mine who while was as ornery as I am, had a heart of gold and the patience of a saint. I miss my friend, and by giving this poor soul his name, I'm going to turn myself around and quit being such an asshole. So while Frank dug through his wallet this afternoon, I told him it was okay, he could have a seat. "I know you always have your pass sir, so go ahead and have a seat."

"Thank you," he said quietly, then added "but do you think we'll make it to the transit center in time for me to get to Powell by 7:00?"

"Yes sir," I replied gently, smiling. "It's only 3:30 now, and you'll have plenty of time. Now go ahead and sit down, and I'll get you there with time to spare!"

He half-smiled, trembling, his eyes betraying a remaining trace of fear. "Oh thank you, yes I'll sit. Thank you, sir."

As I continued down the road, he rose and came up to me. "Are you sure I'll make it on time?"

"Yes. It's gonna be okay," I replied, knowing this same scene will play out again every day. If I work on it, maybe he'll lose the fear. Maybe I'll be one of few people who are kind to him. And perhaps, I won't have to kick myself for being the type of driver I said I'd never be.

When he de-boarded at the transit center, he turned back around as always, waited for people to board, and thanked me again. Then he asked if his next bus will pick him up at that stop, which I assured him with a smile and a nod. Once more, he thanked me several times. He seemed slightly more at ease.

Of all the people we transport daily, there's no real way of knowing how many are scared to death, fighting illness or inner demons. It's hard sometimes to remember patience. It is, after all, part of my mantra to be kind, thoughtful and patient. We're often treated to a large ration of rude, and it's hard to avoid becoming jaded. But I'm ashamed of myself for allowing it to happen. Life is full of bad news, hard times and mean people. Why must I be one of them? There's no excuse, but there is redemption.

That old song, "What the World Needs Now, Is Love Sweet Love" comes to mind. Not just for some, but for everyone, it says. Another thing I need to remind myself of is that we are judged by how we treat those with the least, and I am blessed with so much to be thankful for.

I'm sorry, Frank. You deserve better from me. From now on, you'll have it.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Toast for Willie

Reading through my blog posts over the past three years has me in a nostalgic, contemplative and amused mood. I once wondered how my readers who are road veterans could tell I was so green when I started writing here. Now I know.

Passing by the "rookie table" in the bullpen these days, I often chuckle at the stories they tell. While the adventures described seem amazing to them, it's easy to remember being just where they are. First, they congregate far away from the extra board table, as if veterans are intimidating. You know how it is, when you're new to something you tend to associate with the comforting familiarity of those wearing similar shoes to your own. It's a tad intimidating to venture away from that table and from those with whom you were trained. As the miles click by, you meet operators on the road who are kind and helpful. Some aren't much senior than you, and your circle begins to widen. Eventually you feel more comfortable with your brothers and sisters. Then, you come across a hardened old-timer who won't even acknowledge you when greeted at a break room. There are some operators who don't speak to trainees or newbies or even those they have never met. Reality bites in every vocation, especially in a seniority-driven career.

Willie Jack, veteran of nearly 40 years.
Occasionally, you meet a veteran who goes out of his/her way to help others, offer advice and extend a friendly hand when you're feeling isolated. One of my favorite veterans here is Willie Jack. He's earned so many Safe Driving Awards they keep having to create new levels to honor his impeccable credentials. For almost 40 years he's graced this city with his calm, quiet, friendly service as a bus operator. A true gentleman who comes from a family known for exemplary community service, he's so humble he prefers to keep his accomplishments on the down-low. When I first met him, my Line Trainer introduced him as "our finest, most decorated operator". Willie's reaction? "Oh come on now Steve, I'm not that good!" Yet, he most certainly is that good. About six months ago, a local television station featured him in a news story because he locked up his bus and ran out to help a blind elderly lady cross a busy street (See: Willie Jack Good Deed). This attention embarrassed him, most likely because being kind is simply his nature. Back then, our transit agency had created "Gold Master Operator" just for him, but now they've had to up the ante as he recently became the first "Platinum Master Operator".

His daughter is a good friend of mine, but I didn't immediately make the connection. I should have, because she's a lot like him (a bit more ornery perhaps, but a sweet potato nonetheless). Jenelle was just a few classes ahead of me, and for a few signups I unknowingly picked her old routes. She gave me great pointers and let me know who the regular riders were. Just like her dad, she was (and still is!) eager to help when many wouldn't even look at me, let alone speak.

Just like others who are intelligent, kind and truly caring, Willie is humble and soft-spoken. While I'm sure he's a force to be reckoned with when somebody acts up on his bus, he's also one of the most beloved operators we have. Passengers who know him sing his praises. Fellow operators love and respect him. I don't know him as well as I'd like to. Every time I've been invited to join a family gathering, work or other obligations have intervened. Someday soon, I look forward to sitting down and getting to know this remarkably decent gentleman.

All good things come to pass, and this summer is Willie's last as a bus operator. He's retiring, leaving behind a family of fellow operators who will truly miss him. Surely, I'm but one of hundreds, probably thousands, who aspire to honor his legacy.

Roll easy, Mr. Jack. We're sorry to see you go, but you've earned a long and happy retirement. Congratulations, kudos and may the Lord always bless you and yours with the best life has to offer.