Chapter 2 – Bus Driver

IMG_0481What are you doing with all this material, making a bedspread?

Ralph Kramden

When all of this went on, Walter was driving Route 60, his Monday through Wednesday route, which ran from River City out to the campus of Lazy River Valley State College and back.  The college paid the transit company for the run and the students covered the cost with their tuition so there was no bus ticket to punch; everyone who wanted on got on.   Walter’s run number 360 would leave the garage at 7:25 a.m., giving him five minutes to get to his first stop.  They started paying him fifteen minutes before that so that he had time to inspect his ride and get situated before driving.  Management liked the drivers to sign-in another few minutes before that and asked that they be in the Drivers’ Lounge, outside of Dispatch, by that time. Five seconds late and they’d write you up; get written up a three times and you were gone.  So, he usually drifted in just before 7 a.m.  The host of Song Sparrows was always there, in the steel rafters, on time. It was about a fifteen-minute drive from where he slept to the parking garage and a couple of minutes from the garage to the lounge so he left home about 6:25 a.m.  At seventeen bucks an hour, he was making about a third of what he was before he heard the call.  Once there, he’d check the roster and, when it was time, head out into the garage and locate his ride and do his Pretrip inspection.

One ordinary day, he had bus no. 1053, lane 16 – they were listed by bus number and the lane they were parked in, on the roster, but sometimes they got moved or taken by an earlier driver by mistake.    Some buses he liked better than others.  No. 1053 was okay but nothing special, a newer one with no personality but he still treated it with respect.  They’re a lot bigger than an elephant but he pretended that’s what they were just to keep it interesting; it was easier with some than others.  He had told a few other drivers about his mind-game and how he named the elephants so a few of them had started playing the game, too.  Occasionally another driver, usually a female, would come to him with a name and the reason behind it which was usually something taken from the character of the bus or sometimes taken from some incident the bus was involved in. Some buses were smooth, some were quiet, and some would brake well while others were just the opposite.

It’ll probably take me longer to tell you this than it actually took Walter to do but, as he walked up to the front of the bus, he checked it to make sure it was level and there was nothing obviously wrong with the suspension as well as looking for spots or, as he called them, elephant droppings on the floor that might indicate a fluid leak.  The front door would be open and it was always dark as he stepped in, slung his bag behind the driver’s seat and planted his butt.  He made sure the air brake was pulled out and that the doors were released before turning the engine start knob two clicks.  The buses wouldn’t roll by accident unless you really screwed up but he’d seen the videos in safety class where an operator did just that.  The dash lights would come on and he would see that the transmission was in neutral before pressing the start button and firing up the engine.  He typed his driver and run codes into the Avail, flipped the overhead light toggle, and stepped out of the bus to do his walk-around.

He checked the headlights, signal lights, and running lights to make sure they were all working.  He checked the windshield for cracks and chips, pulled the wiper blades away from the glass and ran his fingers along them to make sure they were smooth and attached, looked at the front outside mirrors, making sure they were secure, clean and not cracked, pulled the bike rack and checked both arms before hooking it back up, walked around the driver’s side and opened the air valve door and toggled each of the levers to make sure there was no water in the lines.  He checked the tread on the front tire, its inflation, the rim for cracks or welds, the hub for leaks, the lugs and nuts for wear or looseness, and the well for any hanging cables or lines.  He moved along the length of the body checking for damage or loose panels, patting her side while he walked, whispering, “Good girl.”

He checked the back driver’s-side tires, walked around the rear of the bus and checked the brake lights and back-up lights as well as the Luminator Sign, which, by that time, was showing, “LRVSC Connector/Kickoff”.  Just like they taught him, he did all of this again on the passenger side but added a check of the back passenger door to make sure he could open it from the outside, seeing that it wasn’t stuck from the washing. Next, he opened the fuel door to see that the cap was in place, shut the door and then looked under the bus for anything that might be hanging.  Climbing back in, he did a walk-thru, pulling the signal cord at three specific locations to make sure the stop signal worked, checked the floor for garbage; he pulled up the front seats, which would make space for the wheel-chair riders and checked the attachment cords and signal buttons and then put the seats back down.  He opened the back door from the inside and checked the windows to make sure they were shut but would open in an emergency.  He knew that the front windshield could be kicked out in an emergency.

Back in the driver’s seat, he checked the wipers at three speeds, the wiper fluid, the defrost/heater fan, the driver’s booster fan, the power ceiling vents, reset the odometer to zero, checked the oil and heat gauges. There were two dash mounted fans that he positioned and checked on low and high speed knowing that on that not-so-rare occasion in River City when it rained, the bus windows would fog right up and these fans and a cracked-open window were the quickest way to clear his vision.  In a bus, you drive with your mirrors and if you can’t see them you’re quickly in trouble.  He made sure the right turn horn was on, that the engine was switched to fast idle, and that his roadside lights were selected.  He checked the right side mirrors to make sure it was safe and then powered up the handicap ramp and deployed it and then brought it back in.  He adjusted his seat and floor pedals and then adjusted the outside and inside mirrors to make sure he could see what he wanted to.  He wanted to see high and low, near and far outside, and the back door and the seat behind him in his blind spot on the inside. He checked the inside and outside speakers to make sure they were working. He checked the camera light to confirm that the seven lenses were functioning. He slipped on his driving gloves, made sure the air-brake was engaged and then shifted the transmission into “Drive” and rocked the bus back and forth a few times, checking the brakes; they held. He went through the cycle of buttons on the Avail system, confirming the checks he’d made, and then punched the transfer button on the fare box and it kicked out a ticket with his run and the current time: it had been nine minutes since he started.

He’d been recording everything he’d done on a large yellow Physical Check Card as he went along – anything too major and he would have called Dispatch and either gotten it fixed or been issued another bus. After his run, he would turn in the card along with his time card.

Each day, at about this time Julie walked by; she had the same route but a different run that left fifteen minutes after him.  They had only talked a few times, at that point, and he made an effort not to talk to her anymore.   They waved at each other in the garage, in the lounge, and every time they’d pass on their routes but like I said, they didn’t talk. There was an instant and obvious attraction between them when they first met but I guess he knew too much to do anything about it and she knew he wasn’t a plaything.  Sometimes, though, he would think, “She’s so fine,” and then, “Fuck it.”

He honked the horn and moved forward in his lane wondering if everyone reached a point where they give up; not a point where they surrendered to some higher power or something noble and wise and they were left better off even though nothing externally changed, but a point where they realized that all their hopes, ambitions, and dreams weren’t going to come true.  Maybe it was middle-age crisis.  Maybe it was existential angst.  For Walter, the problem was that crappy feeling had been with him most all of his life, he told me, except for those times, looking back, when he was mentally ill or most asleep.  What a waste.  He had more talent than ambition. They say people kill themselves when they’ve lost all hope.  I guess he wasn’t there yet although, from what I know, he certainly had the thoughts.  Three things kept him going: The hope that someday he’d be happy and things would all make sense in more than an intellectual way; knowing that he wouldn’t do that to his boys, and the realization that through some accident or the process of natural decay this life would be over soon anyway.

At the appointed time, he pulled out of the garage while honking his horn in a warning, and headed over to his starting point where he kneeled the bus, took on his first load and waited for the proper time to move on. I joined that crowd one time.

At his 7:30 a.m. time point, a signal sounded and he used his right hand to raise up the elephant and it beeped while the right front corner lifted.  He always imagined his beast doing a respectful curtsy to the riders.  He looked in the right outside lower mirror to make sure no-one was trying to get on at the last minute, used his left hand to turn the lever and shut the bus doors, pushed the drive button on the automatic transmission, punched the air-brake release with his left palm and it made its trumpeting sound, took his left toe off of the four-way flashers and shifted it to the left-turn signal, looked in both the left outside mirrors to make sure he was clear, looked in the inside mirrors to make sure everyone was seated so he wouldn’t drop someone to the floor as he moved, took his right foot off of the brake and pushed down on the accelerator pedal and pulled 40 feet and 36,000 pounds of bus with 6,000 pounds of passengers out from New Campus.  He maneuvered around the two school buses that were, as usual, parked halfway out in the street as it curved around between the campus, the museum, and the parking ramp where the early morning worker bees were rushing in from the opposite direction to store their cars for the day.

It was left on Opal Street, under the S-136 overpass where the lanes merge in a way that almost always caused confusion for the drivers, up to the train tracks by the health club where he put on his flashers then stopped just over the manhole cover, opened his doors, looked both ways for trains, closed his doors and moved forward, keeping the flashers on until the rear-end cleared the tracks.  He would barely notice the conversations taking place behind him.  Even though he’d given them adequate warning with the four-way flashing lights, the early morning commuters would often narrowly miss rear-ending the bus as he checked for trains. It would piss most of them off also, because there was a traffic light there and it was pretty easy to get stuck for an extra minute or two.  Opal transitioned into River Dr. and there was a stop at the next corner where Leeward Street intersected.  He’d hit the right turn signal that also beeped, switch to the flashers and then pull six to eight inches from the curb, making certain that side mirror didn’t hit a road sign or a passenger, then kneel the bus and open the door as quickly as possible.

Walter made a point to greet everybody, while looking them in their eyes, with a “Good morning!” or “Howdy!” and a smile.

“I’m looking for someone who’s awake,” he said, when I asked him why he looked in his or her eyes.

He said that some of the kids looked like they were ready to cry, and some were cranky with the hour but each of them was a jewel in Indra’s Net whether they knew it or not.

It was a mile-and-a-quarter, five traffic lights, one stop sign, and that one bus stop from New Campus through Leeward to the next time point at River Dr. and Bellfield Road and they gave him four minutes; he and the bus were almost always late but they would, most often, make it up later on.

At Bellfield there was usually a car parked as close as could be to the bus stop without infringing on the no parking zone so he would flash, kneel and stop straight out in his lane making sure to protect his rear and the boarding passengers by keeping the bus close enough to the parked cars to prevent a car from pulling through.

“No dipping and diving,” he would remind himself.

More pissed off commuters stuck behind a bus.  The speed limit was 25 mph and there was almost always a cop around there so he kept it at the limit.  Up the hill, merge with traffic from W. Motion Ave. and go under the S-96 overpass to the next stop and time point at Vellco Street, about two minutes away but they gave him four.  There was a brick pattern on the Finest Realty building, behind the stop, that looked like a person and it sometimes tricked him into slowing for the stop when it was not needed.  If there was a passenger waiting, it was usually that thin professor with the beard or the young guy with the skateboard and book bag.  That stop was just past the light and it was a pull to the right shoulder in pretty busy traffic, same routine, then back out again: two minutes to the light and stop at Dalecollin Blvd. in front of the Family Fare unless there was an infrequent someone standing at the stop at Oakleaf Street.

Still heading west, it was a lesson in being present, what with drivers on cell phones talking, or texting though it was illegal, eating some kind of fast food meal, getting spooked and giving him the finger when the bus came near them while they were distracted.  There was usually someone at Oakcrest Apartments where there was a good pull-off but it’s over a hump in the road at a strong speed and the lollipop’s positioned behind a tree so he had to watch closely from a distance.  From Dalecollin it was a five-minute time allowance to Spinney St. and the right hand turn to the left hand turn and the stop behind the Area Fire Station.  There would usually be a bus headed the other direction coming through right around the same time, assuming they were both on time, and the drivers would slow for each other then give a man nod or a wave.  If things were good, he had a few minutes to wait before he needed to pull out from there.  Some drivers read a book for three minutes at a time.

He just sat and thought, “All these kids learning how not to be.”

He would pull out, go back on to River Dr. with a right turn over the sidewalk making sure to miss the pylon, up to the next light at Pilsner then on to the stop at Crest Bank across from the shopping center and at a light.  The day I rode, there were a couple of cars in front of him so he couldn’t quite make the stop.  He always left enough room between the bus and the nearest car so that he could drive around the car if it broke down or there was some emergency.  He waved at the students at the stop, signaling them to stay where they were; he’d be right there.  From there, the speed limit increased to 55 mph.  He usually had a couple of students standing just behind the yellow line, staring straight ahead through the windshield, acting like they’re surfing, watching what he did.  That day, there was a beep and a flash and a signal came over the Avail telling him that he had a message. There was one light at 18th Avenue that he had to watch closely. I watched him as he watched the walk light on the right until it got blocked by a road sign then looked to the one on the left when it came into view; when either one turned red he had seventeen seconds to make it through the street light before it would tell him to stop.  Sometimes it was a close call at 55 mph.  He said that when the road was slick in winter, sometimes it was safer to hit the flashers and pound the horn and race on through rather than trying to stop and risk dumping the standing passengers and still sliding into a car.

From that light, it was about four miles to the next light where he’d make a turn into the campus.  The course was a gentle downhill for a mile-and-a-half, then steeply up, and then dropped 140 ft. in the next mile-and-a-half where it crossed the Lazy River, then back up to the campus turnoff.  He liked to stay light on the brakes and maintain as much speed as he could, without getting too crazy, through that stretch.  On each run, it was a new decision whether to get in the left lane before or after the big bridge.  He had never felt it to be too slick or frozen but, if there was going to be an incident, he would rather it happened before or after the bridge where there was more room to maneuver and more room for emergency vehicles, so it came down to the amount of traffic around him.  If he pulled over too soon, he could end up becoming a block to the faster cars; too late and he could get crowded out or be forced to move the cars back or over with a lane change. Getting stopped at the light allowed him to check the message: “Missing person. White female 6 feet 2 inches wearing a gray sweatshirt and gray sweatpants and a pink and black jacket.  If she’s on your bus, call in.” He smiled to himself, slightly nodding his head left and right.

“She’s not on my bus,” he thought and erased the message.

He had four minutes to his next time-point but preferred three so that he wouldn’t block traffic on the two-lane campus roads where it was illegal for cars to pass a bus.  He had to do a lane change before the next light and he drove slowly to eat some time, hoping that the light would catch him and/or someone would want off or that someone would be waiting to get on at the stop just past the light.  It was on to Dreamstate Hall, where half of the riders got off.  Many of them thanked him and wished him a good day, perhaps having had time to realize he’d said hello when they boarded.  A few more got on, including one pretty lady who acted more than her age.

“As if she already has it figured out but doesn’t hold it against anyone,” Walter told me, later.

She lit up, as he said she usually did, and said, “Hi, How are you!”

When she came on board the atmosphere changed. She was wearing something classy, made of some fine looking material in a pleasing color.  He said she always dressed that way.  That day, her brunette hair was in curls and she had on a rose colored top and jeans.  Her gaze kind of lingered on Walter before she moved on.

“I’m old enough to be her dad, if not her granddad,” Walter thought to himself, keeping things in perspective.

Next he drove on to Kickoff, the student center and terminal on campus, where the balance of the passengers would get off, the Luminator changed to “Campus Connector/New”, and he had time to take a leak, if he needed to.  It was a rally point, so to speak, for the buses that ran students back and forth in loops to the apartments and dorms, as well as the other connector buses.  With a few minor changes, the drive back was a mere reversal of the drive out.  It was twelve to thirteen miles each way and Walter would make seven runs before handing the bus over to the next driver.

– Keep Going –


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