Sunday, June 25, 2017

Internal Clocks and Virtual Speedometers

When your body is strapped into a driver's seat, it undergoes many changes. Mine certainly has. The human's normal perception of time is warped into what I call... The Transit Zone. Compared to how I felt and believed at the start of this career, I'm a radically-altered person. This blog was meant to describe what it's like to be a transit operator, so here's a look at how I've evolved.

Keeping in touch with your body's needs and changes is imperative if you plan on living past this career. I've not gained any weight since I began driving a bus. In fact, I've beaten the odds and actually lost some extra pounds. The methodology however, isn't as healthy as my weight maintenance stats sound. There are many factors which determine this outcome. First, I just don't eat as much as I once did. I'm not a kid any more, and my portions are smaller I believe, because my metabolism is slower. While it does take physical energy to drive a bus, now that I'm a few years into it, my body is acclimated to the job. My diet consists of a hearty breakfast, several snacks during my route, then dinner when I get home. I found that if I eat a meal in the middle of my shift, I tend to get sleepy. This is not an ideal state when you're operating a 20-ton vehicle with precious cargo aboard. So I eat nuts or chips as my body asks for fuel. I drink copious amounts of water, and I bring soda along too. Sure, it's not the healthiest of diets. But it works for me. When I'm hungry, I eat. If things work right, I get enough fuel every day. Hopefully I burn as much as ingest. After I've been home a few hours, I strap on the snore inhibitor and snooze for nine hours before I rinse and repeat.

Time is a category that all bus drivers find is a major focal point, but one we treat differently than people in other professions. We have to be punctual (early) to work, and are expected to remain on time during our entire shift. It's a stressor we gradually adapt to. Yet as the years accumulate, time becomes something other than what we've been accustomed to. Days of the week change names depending on what days off you have. Some people take Tuesday/Wednesday off, so Monday is actually their Friday. When somebody asks me what day of the week it is, I have to think before answering, because my interpretation of the work week is entirely different than that of most folks.

I sign runs for about 10 hours a day. Anything more is too demanding. Already middle-aged when I signed on, it's important to pace myself. Years on the Extra Board added to the aging process. Other than that, the word "time" is broken down into "runs." One run, from one end to the other, takes "x" amount of time. I know the route is just over three round trips. The run is broken down into "time points." These are geographical locations along a route where the transit agency expects us to arrive as close to "on time" as possible. Between these points, I'm oblivious as to the actual time of day unless someone asks me. If you do a run long enough, you can pretty much tell someone what the time of day is without looking at your watch or onboard computer screen. I've developed a system for getting through a shift by breaking it into runs. Halfway through my day, I know there are two round trips left before the garage-bound deadhead. During a break, I may consult my watch to make sure I don't overstay my allotted time, but after a while I can tell when a break is about over just by my internal clock.

Speed is something I've come to feel without glancing at the speedometer. I'm too busy watching the scene in front of and around me. I check air pressure when I'm stopped, and other gauges as well. But when I'm rolling, I can feel when I've accelerated to just under the speed limit. My foot just automatically eases off the pedal. I watch the traffic lights and know when they will change. A line trainer once told me to keep my foot covering the brake unless I'm accelerating, and this advice quite often saves my posterior aspect. A stale green light is something I can predict changing about 90% of the time. Considering Portland's antiquated light synchronization system, that's pretty accurate.

One of our trainers told us that eventually, the "good" operator will be able to judge how long to stay at a service stop with a red light ahead. I am never in a hurry, unlike many other motorists on the road. I'll sit tight, and just when I see the left-turn arrow go green, I'll shut the doors and roll up to the intersection just as the through traffic light changes to green. I pass by all those busy bees who were frantically passing my bus as I patiently sat back and enjoyed a refreshing sip of ice water. This also adds to the comfort of my passengers. If I'm not racing to each red light and slamming down on the brakes as I get there, they are spared the forward-backward momentum swings this kind of driving produces. A smooth roll is part of my daily mantra, and I take pride in my ride.

Turning is another function that becomes routine, but no matter how experienced you are, this requires special attention. Veterans have become one with the bus, and know exactly when and how much to turn the wheel. Watching mirrors while simultaneously checking activity in front and to the sides is automatic. If we see something that isn't right, we stop. I've stopped a bus in the middle of an intersection for a good 10 seconds, blocking cross traffic that has the green light, because somebody has entered my safety zone. Doesn't affect me now, but it scared the hell out of me when I was green. Now I just stop and stare at the offender. Once they figure out how to get out of the way, I proceed. Usually these days it's fun to roll past people (with inches to spare) who have pulled up a bit too much, but not too far that I can't complete the turn. Their eyes get as wide as saucers, but if they just stay put, a professional can maneuver a vehicle safely around them.

Yeah, I can be cranky sometimes. I honk at danger, shake my head at everyday foolishness. Various parts of my body hurt, so I change my posture in the seat. When something scary happens, it's easier now to let it slide off my shoulder. Hey, I perform a vital function to Portland's economy. Gotta keep the wheels rolling. As long as my mind and body are in harmony, I'll get a thousand of you each day where you need to go. Safely, smoothly and all with a smile. That's how I roll.

Thanks for riding.


  1. Awesome post, Deke!

    You know, when I take an accounting of the tolls my nearly 3 decades as a transit operator has taken on my physical health, I am ashamed to admit I have let it get the better of me. While operating the equipment takes the least of these, it is the stress of navigating through urban traffic, and then the grief of serving a largely indifferent, if not completely disrespectful public that takes the greatest toll on my aging persona, to say nothing of the District's managers. Some days it all hurts too much to even roll out of bed.

  2. I think we all deveop the "here we are at Queen St so it must be 0633" internal clock. (Checks watch). Yep, it is.
    I am now surprised how seldom I do check the time compared with the early years.