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.