Deacon Who?

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(Note: Ideas and opinions expressed in this blog are not necessarily shared by the transit agency I work for. This is simply an expression of free speech while describing the work bus operators perform.) I have been (and called) many things in this life. Most of all, I'm a writer who happens to drive a bus. In May of '13 I thought it would be fun to write about my job. As a direct result of this blog, I published a book in November of 2017 called "JUST DRIVE - Life in the Bus Lane" that is available on Amazon. I write to provide insight as to what it's like on a bus... From The Driver Side. Thank you for reading!

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Ultimates In Transit Service (Especially Chip)

Deke's Note: You might think, hey these bus drivers get paid a lot of dough to just sit and drive all day. What you fail to realize is the inordinate amount of crap we have to endure each shift. Occasionally, the detritus of everyday toil is pleasantly interrupted. Here's a verbal clip of a current day in the life of a Portland transit operator. It encompasses the good, the bad and the ugliest of worst times we endure on the job every day. Bless you brothers and sisters... I KNOW what you're going through. No matter whether here in Portland, Oregon or anywhere across our great country... Alabama, New York, Texas, Michigan, Florida, California, Rhode Island... north to Winnipeg, Toronto, Calgary, and west to Vancouver. We ALL see the worst, and truly the best, of humanity. I bow to your hard work and diligence in the shadow of the worst that could happen to US and those we love. Roll safely, and know I truly love you.

* * * * *

We're often faced with challenges from passengers who are wholly ignorant to the reality we are bound by Standard Operating Procedures. Some of them are federally-mandated, and far beyond our control to ignore.

As I stood with a few fellow operators at a layover in Gresham last week, one of my closest transit buddies, Jeff, told me of a passenger he had a dispute with. She tried to board his bus with a gas can. He informed her it's against Federal statutes to board a public transportation vehicle with anything containing a flammable liquid.

"I'll just put in my bag then," she told him.

"It's still not allowed on the bus, ma'am," he replied. "If you had a bomb and put it in a backpack, it would still be a bomb."

Jeff is not one to suffer any type of fool. Especially one who is beyond foolish.

The passenger stared at him, intent on having the upper hand. Jeff stood his ground, as any of us would, and do, every time this scenario unfolds.

"I'm going to report you," she threatened. I laughed aloud at this. The puny threat those without a chance pull out of their gas-drenched bags when we call them on their bullshit. Not happening, Granny.

Jeff didn't bat an eye as he told her, "Here's my bus number (pointing upward), let me know what they tell you."

She exited in a huff, having been righteously thwarted. Good job, Jeff. It happened to me, several times in fact. Once, I had the last laugh.

"Why didn't you look at your gas gauge before you ran out of gas?" I asked one indignant intending passenger a few years back. "It's not my fault you were unprepared. Get off my bus with that wannabe-bomb, or I will forcefully evict you." Luckily for me, he exited and I shut the door as soon as he cleared the threshold. I was afraid he'd douse me with gasoline and light me up.

* * * * *

One of my favorite sisters on this rough road told me of a disturbing incident she recently endured. Servicing a Downtown Portland stop on the Transit Mall, a man blocked her doorway and began berating her. Knowing there were buses behind her in the busiest of our transit rolls, Angel asked the man to either board or clear the doorway. He would not. Instead, he threatened and berated her. She began to get nervous, as the area was besieged by Federal agents determined to escalate the intense emotions of nearby protesters.

Finally, he cleared the door, which she immediately closed. This fool walked in front of her bus as she prepared to leave the stop. He menaced her from the weak position in the pathway of her 20-ton vehicle, which only infuriated her. However, to her credit and professionalism, Angel just waited until he moved away and it was safe for her (and him) to proceed.

That's one reason why, newbie operators, you don't become impatient while languishing in the second or third positions of a transit mall stop because the lead us isn't moving. They are likely dealing with stupidity you cannot see. Be patient, be supportive of your fellow operators. Some of you have not operated long enough to warrant Trainer Bishop's declaration you've worked here "minutes". What you cannot see is likely what you will someday yourself. Chillax, brothers and sisters.

* * * * *

In a lighter note, I must take time to salute the new hires who have come aboard to sanitize our vehicles at transit centers. These good folks, many of whom who may have been unemployed due to COVID-19, take considerable care in wiping down our buses. Prior to their belated hiring by our reactive management, I took time at the end of each run to wipe down the poles, seat backs, and (later) hand sanitizer touch points with wipes I took several of the night before from the stores afforded operators in our garages. I did this not only for the good of my passengers, but for my own well-being. It was truly a point of self-preservation, given I fear the germs of those who do not have the benefit of restrooms where hands can be thoroughly-washed. I used about eight wipes as I searched my bus for trash, lost possessions or even (God forbid) suspicious-looking items.

I truly do care about those who ride my bus. It's not something I take lightly. I've been a blue-collar worker my entire life. Realizing the sacrifices many people like me have suffered, I could not bear the thought of a hard-working stiff touching a stanchion on my bus, scratching their eyes and becoming infected by this little bastard we're all living in fear of. So yeah, I APPRECIATE the efforts of these new hires, who may not be with us months hence because our management doesn't understand that COVID-19 is only ONE infectious disease shared along transit vehicles every moment of each service day.

Because of the lowest-paid workers of our current workforce, I can use those few extra minutes to actually breathe, to revel in the 20 minutes or so between driving stints. A few bites of nourishment, a loving respite with my wife or sons/daughter, all because of the diligence my bus is afforded by the efforts of people we should have employed LONG before a pandemic made management react, rather than thinking proactively by making this a staple of the transit experience years ago. God, how I wish a former bus operator would be named General Manager of our inept, out-of-touch management. Things would surely be more efficient, cost-effective and frontline-friendly than they are now.

THANK YOU to the 150-or-so people currently employed to sanitize our horribly-filthy rides. I hope, but don't for one moment believe, management recognizes the importance of this vital service. You should be afforded the opportunity, like yard shaggers and other Maintenance workers, to take advantage of what once was our honored Maintenance Apprentice Program where hard-working apprentices could aspire to move up within our agency to train as Mechanics. Unfortunately, our management would rather hire non-union workers than reward upwardly-mobile blue-collar hopefuls. Still, you are at risk too, given our worldwide nightmare. I pray you remain virus-free, and I appreciate your hard work.

* * * * *

I cannot leave this post without mentioning Chip, the General Manager of The Cheerful Tortoise on Sixth Avenue downtown near Portland State University. He rode my bus the other evening, and I truly enjoyed our conversation.

What a motivational, strong and inspiring character he is! One of the reasons I took this job eight years ago was because I enjoy meeting people, especially those of inspiring character. This young man, born the same day one year earlier than my incredible daughter, brought brightness to my Friday evening not seen in months. His conversation was heartfelt, lively and inspiring.

Chip described his own COVID-hell, but he did not beg sympathy as many have to my great dismay the past few months. He's just like millions of other Americans who are victims to a pandemic not properly-addressed from the beginning. He lost weeks of work. Chip's wife is an Emergency Room nurse, and her continuous Herculean efforts kept their household running through our Metro-area's months-long shutdown.

His love and respect for his wife shined within his words, along with the pain he felt not being able to work during that nightmarish moment in time. Chip described the hardships they fought through. His wife stripped upon arriving, throwing her clothes into the wash before showering to wash away any lingering threat which may have clung to her even though she had showered at work before driving home. She is one of MY heroes: those who treat everyone who walks through their doors, no matter how many days they consecutively do so, without reservation or judgment. She deals with the least-healthy on a good day; these days she is subject to anyone who might carry the virus we all fear.

Still, Chip was chipper. Even though he works 12+ hour days, he is thankful to be working again. He recalled his first day back at the Tortoise, where he confronted a storeroom full of empty bottles and cans. Knowing they needed to be recycled, Chip loaded up his truck with a hundred-or-so bags full and headed toward a nearby Safeway. He was confronted there by what he described as a young fellow who was headstrong in corporate-driven dictates that he could only allow 144 recyclables per trip. Contemplating this obstacle, Chip recalled he was initially upset with the young man. After weeks of no billable time, Chip knew he had a lot of work to do just to get his pub ready to re-open.

"At first," he recalled, "I was really pissed at this guy. I had a full storeroom of empty bottles and cans to clear, and he was insisting that he could only take so many. After a few minutes of giving him a really hard time, I stopped. I realized he was just doing his job, like I was trying to. I thought of what this period in time has done to so many others, and I stopped arguing. It wasn't his fault. And I was being an asshole. I had to stop, rethink things and remember my humanity."

The next 10 days, Chip showed up with the pre-requisite of recyclables. It became his morning routine, until the storeroom was clear, and he could clean up what had been left behind. From a time when we didn't realize what was coming.

Chip regularly rides a bus to and from work, so his wife, who works 12-16 hour shifts at a local hospital, could drive their only car. When he first boarded, he politely asked me to remind him when we reached his stop. He was dog-tired, and I could tell when I saw his bloodshot eyes.

"I fell asleep one night and ended up at the transit center," he told me. "It was the last bus, and I had to Uber home, even though we couldn't afford it. I still can't afford it, so please don't let me miss my stop."

How could I not remember this man's stop? Of all I've seen, the most respect I have is for those who have found their employment once again after this hellish scene we've lived through since March.

"Sure," I told him in a reassuring voice, "which stop do you need?" There were only about three passengers. If I can't remember one passenger request, that's the time I should hang up my hat and badge.

He told me, then began a discussion I'll never forget. He first thanked me for doing this job. "Without you guys, Portland couldn't work at all. Thanks for what you do, sir."

After days of silent dismissal, this statement nearly brought me to tears. It was the last day of a work week in which I had endured more stress than many do in a year. Recognition is something we rarely hear. Often, I feel the mongrel dog being shooed away from table scraps left behind by someone taking their trash to the curb. Having one, obviously exhausted from his 14-hour shift, giving me praise after working a mere 10 hours, is wondrous to my soul. It's humbling at the least. I promised Chip I wouldn't let that happen to him again.

Even though exhausted, Chip rewarded me with a conversation I'll likely not forget. He had recently celebrated a birthday, which was the same as my daughter's. His Cheerful Tortoise employees wrote "Happy Birthday Chip" on the pub's marquee. This sign is one that I have passed many times as a bus operator, and it daily offers either a humorous or inspirational message. The fact Chip's employees chose to honor him on his birthday is a testament to his dedication to those who work for him, and truly cherish his example. I told him that it was obvious he was admired by those he manages, and he just thanked me.

"I was truly humbled by that," he said. "We have a special bond between us. Those who work hard get my deepest respect. Those who don't, don't last long. We're a close-knit group, and that happy birthday message really made me feel honored."

We spoke of the many challenges people face these days. Masks were prominent in his comments.

"I hate the government telling me what to do," he said with a sigh. "But I wear a mask because it's the right thing to do. It's so disturbing that people don't want to wear a mask. It's not a political thing, it just needs doing."

The "passion flower", dedicated this post
to Chip, the GM of the Cheerful Tortoise.
I'll bring my wife sometime after
this pandemic, buddy.
The Thank you, Chip. It wasn't long after that comment that you exited my bus. You wrote down my bus number and asked my name, promising to call in a commendation. I told you that wasn't necessary. Just having an inspiring and thoughtful conversation was plenty, but you insisted. Too many people complain without acknowledging when public servants sacrifice themselves for the common good. After recently receiving a complaint from a fake-ADA passenger who refused to wear a mask, your kindness made the insults easier to accept.

Bless you Chip, your wife and family, and all those like him who only aspire to earn a living and do the right thing by others. You inspire me to continue seeking the good in those I serve. As you have shown, it is well-worth the patience I found on my Friday, just to hear you.

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