Monday, October 31, 2016

Are We Valued Or Not?

My fellow bus operators are truly amazing people. Of course we all work hard to take Portland safely to their destinations. We make transit WORK, along with rail ops, station agents, supervisors, dispatchers, maintenance workers and trainers. Yet the nagging question in my mind is, why do we feel under-valued?

The reason I feel this way is you rarely hear anything GOOD about union employees. As we head into contract negotiations, management feeds the media negative images. We're portrayed as secondary players between progress and the sun, and the resulting darkness is supposedly our own fault.

Overpaid. Greedy. Cadillac benefits. These are just a few of the terms used to describe us. Does it sound like management believes we are valued when you hear these things? To me, it's painfully clear they think we're just a pain in the ass.

Almost every day, I get thanked by passengers for the smooth and safe ride I provide. It feels great! It's a validation for the effort I put into creating a stress-free and comfortable experience for my passengers. Rarely do they call in and offer their praise on the record, which can be a downer. But as an operator, I've learned to accept it as one of many facts of life. When someone takes the time to pat me on the back and thank me for not jerking them around like a kernel of corn in the popper, it's validation enough.

If management wanted to value us, it would be all over the airwaves informing the public about the 44 assaults on transit workers (so far) this year. If I were the general manager, I'd be visiting every media outlet and screaming my outrage. I'd also offer to pay the victims for their pain and suffering in addition to compensating them for as long as they need to recover, without time loss or fear of being fired. My attendance at court proceedings held for those accused of committing assaults on transit employees would be obligatory. I'd visit every site and listen to the operators who make the big wheels roll, the maintenance garages where our outstanding mechanics keep the fleet going, and everyone else who is instrumental in the 24/7/365 operations of this agency. I'd be on the transit mall, looking for ways to improve it and bugging the city to patrol for traffic violators. I'd find a way to thank my employees EVERY day, in person and anywhere else possible. Because without everyone else, I'd have no job.

One night recently, I dreamed I was the GM. My first day on the job, I cut my salary in half and reduced my benefits to match what union members get. My position was restructured to require I drive a bus in-service a few weeks every year. I moved my office from up on high to the lion's den, where it once was, and kept my door open so anyone could come in to chat. Complaints weren't just heard, they were acted upon. Customer service was re-structured so that operators had real-time reports and could explain many of the nonsense calls or flag them for the circular file (trash can). In my new position, I believed it was vital to show the Operations Staff just how truly valuable they are.

In my first day I also formed a task force to ask the state legislature to enact laws protecting transit employees from attack. I asked the Governor to make the governing board an elected body, answerable to the public in elections every two years. To end this first day, I visited the ATU757 office and apologized for past transgressions and asked for a new beginning, a partnership of trust and cooperation.

The results in my dream were outstanding morale, a resurgence to being the Number One transit agency in the USA, and the confidence borne of knowing I was doing the right thing by my truly valued employees.

But hey, I can dream can't I?

Monday, October 24, 2016

Please Pass the Salt

It had been a steady stream of passengers on-edge. It seemed everyone had a grudge. My attempts at humor failed miserably, and the mood was chilly.

My normal weekday run is a busy one. Each trip out of downtown is full of commuters. The trip in the opposite direction serves an entirely different clientele. A young couple boarded, and I was feeling ornery. Again.

"Two adults, please," the nice young man requested as he put a fiver in the till. I paused a moment, appreciating their cheerful demeanor. A definite departure from the rough and smelly juvenile delinquents I had recently dealt with.

"Sorry," I replied with a slight grin. "We had a couple on board, but they got off a few stops ago."


And then there's this...

Bambi's pop just had to go and get shot. Ignorant buck, to let this happen. He should have known better. Now his fawn had no father to warn him about the dangers of city life.

Operator Kay Lady warned us about this wayfaring young lad. He seems to have staked claim to a dark stretch of a winding highway. You'd think sister's near miss would have scared him to greener pastures, but that area must offer some tasty tidbits not yet laid waste by our rapidly cooling weather.

So here I was, tooling along the highway just under the speed limit. This stretch of road is a bubble in my paddle where I make up time burned downtown by pokey streetcars and errant pedestrians. I was making it up nicely as I neared a hilltop. Luckily I had my brights lighting up the distant roadway, because without them I wouldn't have seen Bambi doing La Bamba in the middle of the darkest stretch 50 yards ahead. It's also a good thing my foot was already covering the brake pedal. Instinct pressed my foot down hard, like I was stopping a downhill fall during a drunken ski run. The bus slowed. Rapidly but steadily, from 44 to 15 miles per hour as Bambi wisely skittled right. If he had trotted left, it would have been messy.

The funny thing is, I had just thought of Kay's tale of narrowly missing a deer on that stretch of road. Perhaps that's why my foot uncharacteristically moved from accelerator to brake while going uphill. I don't remember consciously doing so.

Moral of the story: if your foot mysteriously meanders from one pedal to the other, there's a higher power guiding your bus, and it's a safe bet to trust it. Otherwise, you might have Bambi Tartare splattered all over your windshield.

Thanks for the heads-up, Kay Lady. None of us need a trophy on the bike rack.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Whale of a Job

It's my Friday, and I have my favorite run of all time to end the week. It's a nice departure from my weekday work, and the view from my office seat is often splendid. The passengers sometimes engage me, but today I was treated to a phrase that delighted me.

One stop is particularly difficult to service. It's a temporary one, due to nearby construction. It's usually occupied by legally-parked cars near some popular eateries. As I approached it, a passenger requested the stop. To ensure their safety when exiting or boarding, I cruise past the stop to the curb, finessing my beast into a tight fit. Those exiting thanked me on their way out, always a nice thing to hear.

A young lady boarded with a bounce and a beaming face.

"I just gotta say, sir," she said, "that the way you gracefully glided this traffic whale to a perfect stop was a sight to see."

It made me pause. I guess a bus somewhat resembles a whale. To think of it as graceful though, is a bit of a stretch for my imagination. It's huge, often hard to maneuver, and unforgiving if you mess up.

"Wow," I said, stunned. "That's nice of you to say. Thank you!"

Another passenger chuckled at the mammal reference, but I didn't hear another word. So with a smile and a nod, I glided that monster back into the roadway. One who drives a bus rarely thinks of it as graceful, especially when you're walking back to it after a break and it releases excess air from the tanks in what I refer to as a 'bus fart.'

As if you couldn't tell, I've been a bit down lately. It was elixir to my soul to hear such a creative compliment. Operators who truly care about giving a smooth ride rarely hear praise. Not only was it the last trip before my weekend, but it came with an unexpected bonus. I made sure to thank her again as she departed.

"Thanks again for the 'traffic whale' compliment," I told her. "Have a great evening!"

She turned around just outside the door and added, "Not just that, but a graceful traffic whale. Thank you and have a safe night!"

My remaining passengers noticed my grin as I shut the door.

"Now," I told them, "if I could only learn to dance as gracefully as I drive, maybe I could impress my dolphin at home."

Monday, October 17, 2016

80,000 Hits!

80,000 posts as of today, October 17, 2016. Thanks everyone. Hopefully I'll find some interesting tidbits to share with you soon.

You Complain, I Listen

I just posted my latest blog entry, and in the span of two hours, there have been 50 hits. If FaceBook had not cancelled my online persona, there would be closer to 200. No, it's not ego. It's the truth.

Where have you gone, oh thousands of readers? I mourn your loss. By now, I should be closing in on 90,000 hits. Instead, I'm just a few hundred shy of 80k.

In life, you win and you lose. I've lived long enough to learn this. For over a year and a half, I was overjoyed at seeing 5-6,000 hits a month on my blog. It's been a lifelong dream to reach a wide readership. Perhaps my writing doesn't warrant such a bonus, but I'm an artist. Maybe not the best, not worthy of wide acclaim. But I am, nevertheless, better than some. Not as good as others, but still. Is it unseemly for me to say this? Too damn bad.

I've spent three point five years pouring out my heart and soul to the transit world, and I'm sensing the end of a run. My book is nearly ready for publication. Will you, will others, buy it? Will I make enough to pay for the investment of self-publication, or am I simply a dreamer? Writers are judged by not only how many people read their creations, but also by our critics. Have I reached the pinnacle, gone as far as my meager talents will allow? Is there hope for me not only as a bus operator continuing in the profession, but as a writer?

At the end of my bus line the other night, I found a customer complaint awaiting me at the garage. This person berated me for not being sensitive to a local protest downtown recently. Yeah, I was pissed. These folks, while exercising their rights as Americans, held up my bus and many others. They were protesting the injustice stemming from the outrages of law enforcement against our fellow Americans' of "color." I heartily agree, as a Caucasian, that my race has sinned against our brothers and sisters of different shades. For millennia. I am certainly guilty of enjoying "white privilege." Whatever this person heard was construed as possibly racist, even though I count myself as one who believes skin color has no merit in determining another's value. Our nation's founders dreamed of a future in which all are equal. I've read extensively about man's inhumanity to itself, and it has only spurred me to be that which my fellows haven't been. Humane toward others. Compassionate. Loving. Did I allow my frustration of being a late bus operator betray my supposed true self?

Perhaps I don't have the right temperament to be a bus operator. Maybe this customer was right to call in a complaint. I don't always think before I speak. For that, and for insulting anybody's right to protest, I sincerely apologize. My beliefs are such that if you want to change minds, you find ways that inconvenience, to challenge, those whose minds you aim to change. Maybe my mind still needs to evolve in a manner I'm not quite sure of at this time. But I sure try, and I realize the human condition is forever in need of perfecting. Had the complainant engaged me, asked what I meant by my grumblings, perhaps we could have had an in-depth discussion. By doing so, I'm sure this person would have left my bus with a much greater understanding of who I am and what I stand for. Instead, they assumed. They took the very stance the protesters railed against. They stereotyped me. Because of my skin color? I hope not, because that would be a hypocritical position: exactly what the protesters are against.

Like I've said, the wall we all come up against is upon me. I cannot see over it at this time. Going to work is no longer something I look forward to. Instead, it's a chore. There's a great chance I will soon leave it to those who are better at it than I. For now, I'm just biding my time and working very hard to keep everyone safe. Maybe I deserved the complaint, but I've also earned the respect of those whom I deliver safely to their destinations every day. While the satisfied thousands don't bother to call in a compliment, I'm satisfied in knowing I've served them to the best of my ability.

As always, thanks for reading. Peace be with you, and safe travels to you all.

We Have to Fight for Our Safety!

Assaults on operators weigh heavily upon me. Not only that they happen with increasing regularity, but also because our transit agency is so utterly quiet about them. Not a peep in the media. Why?

Perhaps the agency is ashamed, but I doubt it. Management seems more concerned about our response when attacked rather than the effect on the assaulted operator. It's a very uncomfortable subject for them, yet far more so for us. 

We hear about how concerned the agency is about assaults, but we wouldn't hear about how operators can be suspended for fighting back, leaving the seat, allowing our emotions to overrule the edict of "de-escalation" and "non-confrontational discussion." This leaves the logical thinker to wonder why the agency doesn't stand up and loudly proclaim its full support of all operator assault victims. A responsible media, which once employed actual journalists, would inquire as to how the district cares for an operator who has been assaulted. The answers from on high would be usual corporate doublespeak, but the media isn't allowed to ask US how we feel. We're not allowed to talk to the media without permission and, I would guess, likely coached on guidelines on how we're expected to respond.

One day I drove a fellow operator to his road relief. We were discussing the assaults, and he had an interesting question.

"What actually constitutes an assault?"

According to Oregon Revised Statutes 163.165, Assault in the Third Degree is a Class B felony, only under these circumstances: "Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causes, by means other than a motor vehicle, physical injury to the operator of a public transit vehicle while the operator is in control of or operating the vehicle."

Interpretation of this statement, while best left to more adept legal minds than mine, leads me to believe what I've been told by supervisors, that the vehicle must be in motion to qualify as a felony. Otherwise, it's a misdemeanor. As an operator of a transit vehicle, any time we're in the seat, we're in control of that vehicle. Unless a trained operator is at the controls, the vehicle could move. If a vehicle of that size moves, it endangers anyone in its vicinity. 

Back to my brother's question. He told me about an operator who was assaulted one night by the lone passenger on her bus. The passenger did not strike her, but he made an unwelcome physical advance. She repulsed him, and he exited. For several days, she didn't report it because she wasn't sure his action was actually an assault. I'm not sure what the outcome was, and I didn't press for more information. It did leave me feeling angry, because we're not actually trained as to what actions by passengers can be defined as "assault." Nor are we taught how to legally defend ourselves while facing forward in our seat.

Since this operator, as I understand it, did not sustain physical injury other than emotional distress, there would probably be no charges filed. Her waiting to report it isn't something to scorn. If she drives the same route every day, perhaps she believed nothing would come of it. Perhaps she believed that our agency's management wouldn't back her up, and that a police report could incite the offender to boldly step up his intensity at the next opportunity. Whatever her reasons, it's sad to feel so isolated on the front lines of transit.

A troubling point he offered was, "How many operators never report things, because they don't know if they were (assaults)?" Hmm... good question. A shove on the way out the door? Knocking off a hat, threatening language? Any number of instances might qualify, but I'll bet many operators shrug it off wondering if it's worth reporting, or fear it could bring retaliation later.

After an operator was spit upon a few days ago, the number of reported assaults on Portland transit employees has risen to 42 thus far in 2016. In 2015, there were 41 reported assaults. We still have 11 weeks to go. At this rate, operators are reporting just over four per month. If this trend continues, we're looking at 52 by the end of the year. That's an average of one each week. What if there have been another 50-100 incidents that might qualify but were not reported? It's an epidemic that will only worsen unless drastic measures are taken.

While we're not feeling the love from management, two of our brothers (Fred Casey and Mike McCurry) are working with Oregon Representative Susan McLain (District 29-Hillsboro, 503-986-1429) to sponsor a bill making assault of any transit employee a felony. I urge whoever reads this to call her, or if in another state your own representative, and support this drive.

If we can't physically defend ourselves without having a law degree to know what constitutes "reasonable self defense" in that moment we're attacked, should we simply just allow ourselves to be bloodied? It is a human's biological response to protect ourselves. It's in our physiological makeup, dating back to our evolutionary beginnings. As operators, we're expected to sit back, remember that others have been disciplined for defending themselves even though it's a natural response to a threat. Someone who is high on drugs, or drunk, doesn't have the psychological ability to know when to back off. They don't recognize our authority as Captains of the Ship. So if they hit me, I have to assume they will not stop assaulting me just because I ask them to cease and desist.

If (God forbid) anyone in management were attacked at their desk while safely within their office, surely they wouldn't be in fear of losing their job if they fought back. Our office has six wheels, and we're at risk every day. It's getting so bad that I wonder sometimes not what if, but when I'll have to defend myself. 

Since our agency won't fight for us, we have to make our own case to lawmakers. Hopefully these efforts will score a legal knockout punch. Even with this change in the law, it would still be nice to believe management is in our corner. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Silent Drums of Our War

the drums of war against us
played out daily on the bus
no fare, no fair
they pull our hair
pay your fee
and don't assault me
take a walk
or better yet, a taxi
then let's talk;
but instead he attacks me.

no, no, we cannot walk
our safety takes a back seat
to words softly spoken
from lofty heights on harrison street.

swords are nice to carry
yet forbidden by prince harry
no mace
bruises on your face
no defense
makes no sense
stay in the seat
don't wield your feet
just drive down the street
no parry, no thrust
the silence is unjust --
we're just nuts on the bus.

put us in a cage
like animals in a zoo
it's another outrage
nothing better to do.

no, no, we cannot walk
our safety takes a back seat
to words softly spoken
from lofty heights on harrison street.

--deacon in blue

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Take Your Punches! (Reasonably.)

Unconfirmed reports hint at a possible suspension for an operator who was assaulted. Why? Because he defended himself.

If this is true, and I'm pretty sure my information is reliable, then it further proves that "Safety is Our Core Value" is pure bunk. Perhaps it's a value of management for management, but to us it's just a feel-good phrase that is anything but satisfying.

While we're told that if attacked we may use "reasonable self defense," this is a vague statement that makes us even more vulnerable to not only the public but to our management as well. For who is allowed to determine what is reasonable? It would be up to the operator under attack, in a logical world. But obviously, there's some definite illogical reasoning going on here.

We're also instructed to "remain in the seat." If we are attacked, our only way to get the word out is to hit our magic panic button, which immediately puts us in contact with Dispatch. In an emergency such as witnessing an injury, remaining seated allows us to radio vital information to be communicated with 911. It is in our nature, as public servants, to naturally reach out to help in any way possible. But it makes sense that the best way to do this is to provide as much information as quickly as we can so the proper assistance is sent to the scene.

When the injuries are being inflicted upon US, management seems to think it makes sense for us to reasonably defend ourselves from there. Leaving the seat is thought to be an aggressive move which can make matters worse. However, while in the seat we're extremely vulnerable and virtually unable to deploy any self defense tactics. We're facing forward, leaving our right side totally exposed. Our legs are in driving position, with the steering column preventing a possibly live-saving pivot. The time needed to turn and face our attacker is enough for them to stick a knife in us or land several punches in the most vital parts of our body. So unless we turn to our right or leave the seat, we're sitting ducks.

Being in a face-forward position also adds "reaction time" to the mix. At least we have our foot covering the brake at intersections, which can save lives if a motorist enters the vehicle's safety zone. In the seat, we cannot defend from a blind side thrust of a deadly weapon. When we're attacked, there is no reaction time, because our focus is on the road and everything around the bus. This multiplies our vulnerability 10 times over. Our own lives, in the event of an attack, are more at risk than the motoring public's. It's our instinct to stop and lock when confronted with any possible danger, around or inside the bus.

Once again, the term reasonable sticks out. Is it reasonable to expect us to calmly de-escalate a situation when our safety is threatened? Perhaps a trained hostage negotiator is able to do this. Someone with a gun to their head is thinking only of their loved ones.

A well-placed punch can be deadly. If we're being physically assaulted, isn't it reasonable to defend ourselves by any means possible? Beating the living crap out of our assailant is therefore reasonable self defense, because the alternative could be our own death. If management decides to punish an assault victim for fighting back, isn't it reasonable to assume that "Safety is Our Core Value" is simply a vague phrase meant only to protect itself? It is surely reasonable to believe that catchy, corporate-speak fantasy phrase defies all logic and reason when you're a transit operator. It may look good in print, but transit work is reality.

Lately our buses have a new message on the destination signs when we're deadheading, informing the public that the transit agency is hiring. On the back it reads "Join Our Family." I'm sorry, but if someone attacks MY family, they're due for an old-fashioned ass whupping. I'm not going to step in between the assailant and my loved one, stop the assault, then kick my own relation bloody and disown them. If I did that, it would be one helluva dysfunctional family. Many operators refuse to advertise the agency's doublespeak. It also confuses a public accustomed to seeing "Garage" on deadheading buses to make our vehicles rolling advertisements for their desperate plea to hire new operators. I've had many people berate me for not picking them up when I'm returning to base after a long shift. Just to see this phony message is enough to make me want to scream "I'M NOT YOUR FAMILY!" My family loves me, and would do anything to keep me safe.

Once again, I'm echoing Henry Beasley's call for a stop to insulting our operators who have been assaulted for daring to inflict any damage to our agency's protected and pampered violent passengers. We need to lobby the legislature to mandate jail time and PERMANENT EXCLUSION to anyone convicted of assaulting ANY transit employee. They should publicly shamed and aggressively prosecuted. The operators should be cared for, given paid time to recuperate both physically and spiritually while also provided with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder therapy. It's what an agency which is truly concerned about "Safety" would do.

It also wouldn't be a bad idea for upper management to take bus operator training and perform several weeks a year of in-service bus operation. Gee, I wonder if they'd feel different if their own well-being was threatened on the job as ours is every day?