Monday, January 15, 2018

Cruel Sickness

We were instantly wise to this scam. What kind of "family"
allows people to beat up their brothers and sisters?
A dysfunctional one, of course.


It seemed like there was a light at the end of the tunnel when management and our union came to agreement on our latest contract. Then I noticed the light dimmed shortly after we approved the contract. Seems they left their high beams on just long enough to blind us, then added fog lights for special effect.

Management seemed to be getting the hint that we were due some valuable concessions. We weathered the Great Recession and saw our benefits go under the knife. Decades-long promises were broken in two, as if they never existed. We watched in horror as our honored retirees were lied to and insulted. Then last year, when it seemed we'd be heading to binding arbitration (because "vital services" like transit are not allowed by law to strike in Oregon), our outgoing GM conceded to some vital contractual terms and agreed to a contract with our union leadership. Management  acknowledged our need to recover after assaults, agreed to an extra two contractual days off, and gave us raises, among other "wins." Then it got petty, downright mean, and spiteful. We also learned just how much disdain they actually have for us.

Now they've screwed us out of the two extra days and have yet to change another insulting policy that further places operators in danger when we're too ill to drive.

Imagine becoming violently ill while driving your shift. Common sense and training tell you it's no longer safe to continue driving in service. Not safe to keep driving your fellow citizens down the road in your 20-ton six-wheeler. You've just soiled yourself, or a light-induced migraine has nearly rendered you blind, or last night's goulash is splattered all over the floor. You're weak, scared about this silly "time loss" edict management bullies us with, and not thinking lucidly. Not only are you in no condition to operate safely, but you're miles from your garage, even further from your home, and you need help. So you push "Operator Ill" on the Computer Aided Dispatch console. A few moments later, a Dispatcher calls on the radio.

"I'm too sick to continue in service," you tell them. "Please fill my run and I'll take the bus back to the garage." If you feel okay to drive yourself but not the 20 people who just filed off your bus, mumbling insults as they shuffled past, you're willing to take the bus back to the barn and head home. That would be the logical thing. But no.

"I'm sorry," the Dispatcher tells you, "but you'll have to lock up the bus and wait for the relief driver who's been sent to finish your run."

"Okay," you reply. "How about I just drive the bus back to the garage? The passengers just boarded my follower's bus, and I'm empty."

"That's not how it works," the voice says. You can tell our Dispatcher brother is annoyed, but not at you. It's as if Big Brother is breathing down his neck. "I'm sorry, but you'll have to find your own way back. You can't have a ride with the other driver in the company car, and the supervisor isn't allowed to drive you back either. Do you need medical assistance?"

This is where it gets tricky. You'd think our agency has our backs, right? No, not in the least. Not in Portland, Oregon anyway. You're screwed, outta luck Chuck, and not thinking rationally. Nah, you think to yourself, it's just a virus. Just get home and ride it out. Still, your head is screwed on crooked and it hurts too bad to turn it right.

"Nah," you answer, "I'm okay. I mean, I'm not okay, but I can get the bus back to the garage. I'll just do that."

"I need you to lock it up," Dispatch says. A pleading tone follows. "Are you sure you don't need medical?" This is actually your only avenue for rescue at this point. If you ask for medical assistance, you will be transported to a medical facility. Sometimes, you don't know it but you might actually be experiencing a serious issue that needs immediate medical attention. Heart attack? Stroke? Kidney failure? Who knows? You're probably not the best one to decide whether you're physically capable of driving a bus anywhere, let alone your garage.

Brother Dispatcher is trying, under strict guidelines, to determine how to help you. But his hands are tied. Some foolish edict has handcuffed them to an impossibly cruel policy that strands its operators when they desperately need to be aided and supported. Instead, Dispatch has to hand you the horrible truth: management wants you in the seat, and if you can't be there, you're of no value to them. Replacing you with a fresh body is the only answer. Your well-being is not a high priority.

The Dispatcher's voice sounds resigned, ashamed they have to say what they do. But management is calling the shots, not our brother on the other end of the line. Realization sinks in. You shake your head, trying to figure out what exactly it is you're supposed to do. Are we "valued" members of the "family," or simply expendable parts to be discarded when we become momentarily defective?

Meanwhile, a road supervisor has arrived. With one look, she can tell you're not well. Speaking with Dispatch, she confirms you are in no condition to drive safely. You ask her to drive you back to the garage, but she declines. She's not allowed to do this, as it's "against policy." Although she was recently promoted to supervisor and knows what you've had to endure just to get to this moment in time, she cannot help you. She'd actually be risking suspension, or worse, to do the right thing for her brother operator.

How utterly abandoned you feel at that moment. Not only are you suffering physically, but you're also tormented, disoriented, not sure what to do. You've been abused by the same people who just gave you a "Customer Service Award." It's beyond cruel to do this to a fellow human being, but to subject a valuable public servant to such abuse is criminal. The people who run the agency are employees of a public entity, who tend to value the dregs of society more than their own professional operators. It's madness in motion, and you're too ill to think clearly enough to fight back.

Most of us will deny that we need medical help even when it's obvious to those around us. Many people have died because they weren't treated at a critical moment. Their friends and family listened to their plea not to call for help, not wanting to be "a burden." These crucial moments are when we need help the most, and should not be making decisions for ourselves. This is precisely when responsible people make decisions for us that ultimately save many lives. A family member will usually override our request and call for help anyway. Because that's the right thing to do. Our brothers and sisters, unless we're in obvious medical distress, can only ask us if we want help. If we're in no condition to make the decision, we could die from management's neglectful policies.

Operators from transit agencies around the world shake their heads at Portland's lack of empathy for its transit drivers.

"They'll ask if you are okay to continue," a Tempe, Arizona operator said. "When you tell them no, they send someone to get you. And, yeah they'll take you home if you don't look well enough to drive." Wow, what a concept: compassion.

Others from Vancouver chimed in, saying they would be transported wherever they needed to go, hospital or home. A New York City operator, however, said he'd be on his own "without pay" if he called in from the road. The majority I heard from said their agency would take the steps to ensure their safety. Not mine, not in Portland. And our management should be ashamed, for this and many other reasons. It's disgraceful, inhuman and tells us they have no regard whatsoever for our well-being. Calling a taxi, at the very least, would be the right thing to do.

Driving behind a deadheading bus the other night, I noticed our employer has realized we're not a "family" after all. If we are, it's weirder than Little House on the Prairie meets Dirty Harry. Our rear signs no longer tell people to "Join Our Family," but to "Join Our Team" instead. What, Mommy and Daddy, are we bad kids? You're punishing us as if we are. Yet we make the wheels roll, and you count the change that trickles into the fare box.

It took me a while, but I now understand what my brother told me when I was new. "This is the best job I've ever had," he said, wistfully adding "but the worst company I've ever worked for."

BANG. Management, you're out of line. On this and many other issues. If you can't understand where you're wrong, then you should step aside and let us run the show while you try to walk a mile in my shoes. Oh wait, I'm sorry, I forgot. You might get an overdose of oxygen if you step down from that ivory tower long enough to drive a bus in service. The first week you even tried, you'd get the flu and be disciplined for the two weeks you took to recover.

We're exposed to every pathogen that slithers onto our bus, so we're constantly fighting bugs. I'd rather fight them though. At least they're predictable and exit the system. We're stuck with you.

Don't forget, brothers and sisters, there's no "I" in "TEAM."
You and I? We're on our own.




Monday, January 8, 2018

Deke "Thinks Out Loud"

My first radio interview about the book, JUST DRIVE - Life in the Bus Lane, was a success. In spite of your Deke's rustiness in dealing with the media, my talk with Dave Miller of Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Think Out Loud" radio program went very well today.

Of course, I wanted to use this wonderful forum to publicize the book, but also to inform listeners that bus operators are professionals charged with keeping everyone in and around our bus, safe. Hopefully, our 20-minute chat helped dispel some myths and opened some eyes.

Sorry, Washington drivers, I picked on you a bit, along with bicyclists. But I tried to be fair, or at least explain what I meant. The book isn't all about people doing the wrong thing. It has plenty of human interest stories within too. While I may have made some blunders, it's easy afterward to pick apart what I did wrong, because I'm my own worst critic.

When you're live on the air, it's impossible to know what they're going to ask, and I thought Dave did a great job guiding me through the show. It was fun, and I tried to be thoughtful and entertaining. Sitting across the desk from Dave, the interview started off at a leisurely pace, then it picked up some steam as he shot several questions across the table. I tried to keep up and provide good answers, be fair yet informative, and explain what it's like, From the Driver Side. It's truly being "on the spot," and my mind is best behind a keyboard rather than in front of an unforgiving microphone. I couldn't find the "delete" key, try as I may.

In retrospect, it was a fascinating and fun experience. The staff at OPB was very helpful, and I'm happy they interviewed me as Deke rather than... well, you know... the other guy that I am. My manufactured dual personality allowed me to introduce Deke to the public, and I'm truly grateful. Anything "wrong" about it was my own doing. Dave's questions were poignant and inspired. I've been a big fan of this show for years, and was honored to be their guest.

Not having my own publicist, I've had to learn on the fly. Yeah, I want you to buy my book. However, the main goal of my writing is to inform a public that mostly depends on what it hears or sees on local media. Now I've given them a taste in that forum, and hopefully it leads to more.

At the end of my segment, I was amused at their choice of music to fade out with. It was "Deacon Blue," by Steely Dan. Hmm... great choice!

Thanks for listening folks,
Deke

A Weird Little Transit Tangent

Self portrait.
It's been a while since I wrote about writing. As this blog has grown, so have my literary bones. It is sometimes difficult to find something engaging to tell you, but if I sit at this keyboard while listening to James Taylor talk about his muse many decades ago, I've found a correlation between songwriting and my humble scratchings.

"Songs sort of find me," a very young 1970s-era James said.

Topics for bloggery tend to do the same. As I drove bus the other day, it suddenly was apparent the initial difficulties of the job were no longer there. I'm of two different minds these days. My conscious state is operating the ride, my subconscious is wandering along another zone. Bringing the two states of consciousness together, a sort of zen occurs. I'm fully in control and in tune with everything in and around the bus, but this soul is in another lane. Running parallel the beast, zipping around the past while the heart beats my present and gifts of the future beckon me outward.

Sound strange? Yeah. There's not a lot about me that isn't so. Still, this career is never boring. I don't need to escape, but it happens. It's very difficult to describe. Meditation is always good for the soul, but perhaps not recommended for someone charged with safely guiding 40,000 pounds along roads crowded with the pathos of four-wheeled egos. Nonetheless, it happens. A combination of meditative trance seems mixed in with some serious concentration upon the blacktop and everything surrounding it. A cellphone dings, lifting me back into the now; it pisses me off.

"Please," I implore the video-watching passenger, "use headphones or keep your phones muted while on the bus. Thank you."

The bus makes predictable noises, like the telltale beckoning of the wall-phone in my 1970s family home. 2018's telephones make every sound in the human eardrum's spectrum of recognition. If I hear something out of the ordinary diesel hum, I think there's something mechanically-funky happening to my ride. Shut that damn thing off, willya? Once the normal hum and buzz reappears, I settle back into drive.

Yeah, me again.
So the writer who drives a bus for a living is once again free to ramble along in auto-pilot. Blog ideas come and go. If they stick, I write them down at the next typically-forever red light. Could be a phrase that comes to mind, or bits and pieces of pax conversation which parallel a common thread within. Thoughts from months before might return, bits that never made it yet nag me to remember once the keyboard is within reach again. The rhythm of a poem comes to mind, maybe a new one is born. I hum favorite tunes and memories of the corresponding past trip past my mind's eye. My vision sees the 10-year-old pedaling his bike into pending disaster, but I slow to a stop and block traffic to allow him his youthful mistake and prevent an early end to his tender life. A switch is thrown and the hum returns me to the comfort zone.

Before I can close the book that has opened while in this state, the next break happens. It's then time to breathe in some nicotine, greet fellow drivers, answer a brick-load of questions just because I'm wearing the blues, man. I have to engage, inform, be official. They expect me to know the schedule of any bus that might (or perhaps not) come through there. For 12 hours a day, I'm not allowed to be incognito. My mind, however, is not for sale. It's the only thing I have, while working, that is mine alone.

Once the wheel is back in my hands, Deke is drifting off into earning a paycheck while simultaneously finding ideas to hopefully entertain you. It's what I like to do. It's where I am now as the history of one transit employee's career enters a new dimension. If I'm lucky, I'm still interesting enough to keep your attention for as long as I keep rolling.

Happy New 2018, folks. We're about to enter our sixth year together in Blogville this coming May. Thanks for rolling along with me. I'd love to meet you in person, but for now Blue remains a figment of your imagination. He writes this, but I drive the bus. Hope you enjoy the ride.




Sunday, January 7, 2018

Deke On the Air

Your irascible blogger will be interviewed on Oregon Public Broadcasting's radio program, "Think Out Loud," about my book. On Monday, January 8 around noon PST, I will be live on the radio, on this spirited and interesting syndicated show. It's incredible, that this humble blog writer who published a book will be speaking to YOU, my readers, about JUST DRIVE -- Life in the Bus Lane.

It's been over three decades since I was News Director at a small country music radio station in Arizona. A few years later, KWFM in Tucson had me in the studio to talk about the trip they gave me to see Huey Lewis and the News in Hawaii. Now I'll be discussing transit, and my related blog.

It's an honor, the biggest of my blogging (and writing) career. Hopefully, it spurs book sales, which have been lower than a pregnant rattlesnake's belly as of late. Give me a listen. Go to opb.org and check out the podcast. Hopefully, I will do honor to my fellow brothers and sisters, we who make the big wheels roll in every transit-served metropolis.

Thank you,
Deke


Saturday, January 6, 2018

Tragedy Averted


Statistics show most accidents occur when we're closest to home. Tonight, I almost didn't make it out of the bus yard.

Part of my daily mantra has me intent on being "vigilant." This means to always employ safe practices. When we're pulling into the yard to park our bus on its assigned track, we're not "home free," but after a long day, it's easy to assume we're done for the day. Chalk another mark on our safety record, we're logged off and bullpen-bound.

Pouch in hand? Check. Drinks and goodies stowed in backpack? Ditto. Reflective jacket on? Yep. Head screwed on tight? Nope.

If there's one thing a bus operator knows, it's that our 50+ tracks where buses are parked can be a dangerous place. When I arrive, several other operators are coming in, and the maintenance crews are servicing the rides to prepare them for the next day's work. Because it's a hive of beastly activity, everyone must maintain no more than a five mile-per-hour speed limit when in the tracks. Luckily for me, my sister maintenance worker was going even slower.

Telling one gent the bus was all his, I looked left, at him instead of scanning to my right. Just as I stepped off, he yelled "Watch OUT!" As my head turned away, I was staring directly through the windshield of an approaching bus and into the wide-eyed terror of the lady behind the wheel mere inches from where my head would have been... if she hadn't stopped... just in time. She turned away, incredulous that a bus driver had done something so stupid. Another maintenance worker was on the bus with her, and he turned away from me. Probably cursing my dumb ass. I shook my head at not only my good fortune, but also my momentary lapse of vigilance.

A split second later, I would have been under the front of that bus. Dead or dying, most likely. Had my brother not sounded his warning and my sister not been watching out for me, I wouldn't be writing to you now. I knocked on her window, and she opened it.

"My bad," I told her. Duh, Deke. "Thank you for driving slow in the tracks!" In the moment, that was all I could say. Later, I thought of many other things I should have said. Like, "thank you for being vigilant and saving my life."

How fortunate. Not only for me and my family, but for those awesome professionals who were looking out for this errant fool. I can't imagine the pain either or both would be feeling now if my fate had been delivered at that moment. It would have devastating consequences in the form of flashbacks and nightmares the rest of their lives. I'm happy not only that I'm alive to tell this tale, but also that they have all been spared the tragedy nearly perpetrated by my own foolishness. Either way, it was a major wakeup call for me. The maintenance worker did her job correctly; I did not.

It took about 15 minutes afterward to recover from the shock of what happened. Still, I could think of little else as I drove home. Of all the times I've scolded people for not applying basic safety principles, this is one time I'm the one who deserved the lecture.

Luckily, I've always been conscious when I do something insanely stupid. But truly, it can happen to anyone, any time. We become complacent, but the shift isn't over until we've arrived safely in the bullpen.

Yeah. Most definitely, lucky me.