The sights and sounds of the city from the seat of a county bus driver.
KEANU NEVER COMBS HIS HAIR
So a guy gets on the bus with a duck in a bag tied to his leg…
I began driving for King County Metro in 2001. I started as a part time driver, as all drivers do. Part time I was working three hours a day. Fifteen hours a week. Sixty hours a month. I netted $397.50 twice a month and not a dime more. Part time drivers are ineligible for over time, but they have the benefit of only working Monday through Friday with weekends and holidays off. Yee ha! Well, Yee Ha until you want to go on a vacation, buy a home, or eat something other than Top Ramen and Tuna Fish. Then, you are counting down the days until you can make a living and lose your social life to driving a bus. Not everyone loses their social life. Some drivers are married, engaged, or stay part time.
Driving for the county gives me the opportunity to OBSERVE people. I should underline observe. I don’t have time to get to know most of the people I write about. I see them as I’m driving around The names have not been changed because I don’t know any of their names.
I take that back, I might know one or two names, but I don’t know any last names, addresses or phone numbers, (though there was this one guy who tried to give me his phone number)… anyway. I’m going to take you along on some of my bus rides through downtown Seattle, Capital Hill, the University District, Ballard, and over to the east side: Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland. You are going to read about what I see, hear, smell, try not to touch, and what I THINK about what I see, hear, smell and try not to touch. When I originally hired on as a driver I was under the false assumption that I would only be driving. I also double as an information booth, keeper of the time, mind reader, psychiatrist, medic, and babysitter. Ready to join me on an eye opening ride? Here we go.
I first met him while driving the 15 express during the morning commute. He was tall and slender and had a dark brown helmet of hair. I pulled into the zone at 15th and 65th southbound in Ballard, where a dozen riders stood waiting to board. He was just standing there and I did a double take. Could it be? No way! Keanu Reeves is waiting for the route 15 express at seven in the morning? In Ballard?
When he finally boarded the bus he whipped out his boarding pass and took a seat. Honestly I don’t remember seeing the pass. All I noticed was the stark resemblance he bore to the same gorgeous hunk of creature I had gladly paid $6.50 to watch light up a movie screen. (I miss when movies on cost $6.50.) I tried not to stare, but who could blame me? He had his tuft of uncombed hair, deep blue eyes, thin to medium build, and was standing about five feet ten inches tall. I LOVED driving the number 15 express that spring. Here was a guy who could stop-a-train. ( At least I think so.) I don’t remember seeing any other women swooning over him when he entered the bus. (Okay, I wasn’t swooning over him. I’m a professional. I was inwardly gawking at him.) He looked good in everything and wore very nice cologne as I recall, but for some reason after tending to the usual morning grooming routines, like brushing one’s teeth and shaving, it seemed he never bothered to comb his hair. It was kind of endearing, and every morning for four wonderful months from February to the first week of June, he stood outside waiting patiently for other riders to board before entering, whipping out his pass and taking a seat. (It took a while, but eventually, I did notice the pass.)
“Keanu” would ride all the way to 1st and Marion in downtown Seattle, where he would hop off and cross the street. I would just watch him walk away and think, ‘One day I’m going to write a book about all of this, and call it, “Keanu Never Combs His Hair.” I miss that uncombed hair when I drive through downtown Seattle. I’ve looked and looked, but I never see him anymore. So you have “Keanu” to thank for inspiring all of this. Or maybe you are now wishing Keanu had combed his hair.
Downtown Seattle is a virtual cornucopia of hairstyles and personalities. Everyone with a unique story to tell, and some of them are probably just chomping-at-the-bit to share with a captive audience. That would be me. The creative part of me wants to hear the story of how some of these people came to exist as they do. It makes great fodder for this story. The logical, responsible part of me wants to pay attention to my driving so I don’t hit anyone. The logical, responsible part usually wins. While the logical part usually wins, the creative part takes a snapshot in my mind of people like “Moses.”
“Moses” hangs out on Jefferson near Harborview Hospital. “Moses” always dresses to the to-the-nine’s, complete with brown fedora to match his brown three piece suit. He carries a ten-foot scepter, like the one Charleton Heston used in the Ten Commandments, that be bangs on the pavement before he points an index finger in the air and motions to an invisible object to come toward him. He then laughs, walks back up the street and repeats this ritual.
He almost boarded my number 3 trolley one morning, but changed his mind and just stood there. I don’t know what his plans were, but my schedule didn’t allow time for small talk. I haven’t seen him in a really long time. Years as a matter of fact. I’ve driven through the area recently, but no sign of “Moses.”
The Frye Apartments guy doesn’t live at the Frye Apartments anymore but he talks about it all the time. I was driving the number 12 trolley and we were stopped at the Fry guy’s hangout at 5th and Pike westbound. He too carries a scepter, but it’s only about three feet, and it’s adorned with lots of shiny, round objects. He talks about how the Seattle Police Department “IS COMMUNIST.” Come to think of it, that’s really the only thing he says that I can understand, and he always barks it out at the end of his speech in the deepest voice he can muster.
The “Fry guy” lived in the Frye Apartments, but he was selling drugs and they kicked him out. That’s what one of my riders told me. The Frye guy has been at the corner of Fifth and Pike “preaching,” about it ever since. He boarded my bus one day at 5th and Pike and rode it out to the SODO Bus-way and Holgate where he promptly hopped off and “into the sunset.” I think it was sunny that day. I haven’t seen him since. Though I heard from another driver that he’s alive and well, and still hanging out at 5th and Pike. And still complaining about the Seattle Police Department. (A little history here for those who are wondering where the name SODO came from. SODO is originally named for being south of the Kingdome, but when the Kingdome was demolished in 2000, it was changed to refer to south of downtown. SODO.) History lesson over.
Then there is “the quiet man”. I saw him all over downtown when I was driving the number 3 trolley. He got on my bus one morning, very early. What I call “O dark hundred” early. It was about five a.m.
“You really get around,” I said. This quiet man, who walked with a cane and always dressed in the same black leather jacket and black pants, responded with a gentle, velvety voice.
“A body in motion stays in motion.” he said, and then took a seat and didn’t say another word. I often wondered where he stayed. Where did he live? And one very cold, February morning, while driving the Number 3 trolley, I saw him laying on a bench at the bus stop at Third and James. It was five a.m. and I had just started my route. I guess he was sleeping or trying to. My heart sank for this gentle man, who always looked like “death-warmed-over.” I don’t think it was even thirty degrees outside but there he was, laying on a bench in the northbound zone at 3rd and James. I haven’t seen him in a really long time either.
The one I see pretty regularly is the lady with the purple, wool cap. She always wears that cap whether it’s the dead-of-winter or the sun is beating down mercilessly on the streets of downtown. She walks with a demonstrative limp and usually has a cigarette in between her index and middle finger. She catches my bus and says, “I don’t have fare today.” She’s never had bus fare, but she manages to find a new outfit to wear everyday. Come to think of it I’ve never seen her wear the same thing twice. I guess she goes to the local mission and finds something there. I wonder what she does with the clothes she was wearing the day before? Does she have a locker somewhere? Does she stay in a homeless shelter? I don’t know, but I see her all over the city. I saw her again just last week, same purple wool cap. It was a sunny day.
I don’t see the “Vietnam guy” all over and I don’t know if he served in Vietnam, but he looks old enough to have fought in the conflict that ended some thirty years ago now. Perhaps his missing appendage is his unfortunate souvenir. He actually spoke to me briefly once a few summers ago. I was driving the number 43 and I picked him up at Fifteenth and John in Capital Hill. I was really happy to see him again and equally surprised that he remembered me too.
“It’s been a long time,” I said as I lowered the lift to make it easier for him to board with his crutches.
“How are you doing?” I asked. His response was muffled. He got off at Nineteenth and John.
“Take your time now. There’s no hurry. It was good to see you again,” I said.
“You used to drive the number 3 bus right?” He asked.
“Yes, I did. I remember picking you up near Harborview. It’s been a long time.”
I don’t remember his response as he hobbled away that evening, toting the same green Khaki Army jacket and wearing the same fatigue boots. His medium length, dark blonde and graying hair was now masked by the hood of his jacket and what looked like a gray hood underneath. He still had the unkempt beard that hung several inches off his chin. I don’t remember every seeing him display a paid bus transfer of any kind before that night, but that evening he went out of his way to insure I saw it. I miss that guy every so often when I think about the number 3 trolley.
One player who has remained on the stage is “Bellevue and Pike”. I’ve seen Bellevue and Pike many times while driving the 43 trolley out to the University District. B&P likes to dress ostentatiously and practice some sort of dance ritual on the corner of Bellevue and Pike I would see B&P when I was turning right on to Pike south bound. “Bellevue and Pike is a very large individual, who smiles a lot, and actually seems aware that people are watching. As big as this person is, I’m certain he is finding a meal from time to time. I don’t know if it’s an act or mental illness, but when no one is watching he stops. Then when his traffic audience returns he waves his arms over and around his head while taking huge steps forward with his right leg. He then thrusts his massive torso forward, toward the street, backs up and repeats the who ritual over again until traffic has passed. He always has a huge grin when he’s “performing” almost daring the outside world to figure him out. I haven’t figured him out.
I often wonder with B&P as with all the others, what keeps them going? Where do they stay at night? How did they get where they are, and did they have life before this one? Did they have a family, children, a dog? Or did the city suck the life right out of them? One of the “regulars” actually surfaced the night of the Torchlight Parade in downtown. I was surprised to see him again. We use to cross paths daily when I walked out to my road relief at 3rd and Pike. A road relief is a location predetermined by Metro, for a driver to meet another driver along a route, where the new driver, that would be me, takes over the route.
When I first encountered the “Dunkin Donuts” guy, I thought he was joking….he wasn’t. I was standing at the intersection of Cherry and 2nd Avenue and across the street was this man, dressed in a three piece gray suit and gray shoes. He had a five o’clock shadow, a dark brown mustache and he was wearing a gray wig that covered all but a tuft of brown hair sticking out near his left ear. He was looking straight ahead. When the light changed he crossed the road, passed to the left of me, and continued on. I chuckled as I went on my way, thinking, ‘he can’t be serious, but the next day I saw him again, dressed in the same outfit, and the next day, and the next, all summer long. He stands about five feet five, has a stocky build, and frankly looks just like the actor who played the “Dunkin Donut’s” guy in commercials. “Time to make the donuts” was all the guy on TV said, which was more than I ever heard out of the guy at Cherry and 2nd.
Well, I saw “Dunkin” the other night at the Torchlight Parade. He was walking north bound at 3rd and Marion and wearing the same exact outfit, but his gray wig was in a “bob” cut. (It must be time to make the donuts.) While he was making donuts, another street regular who occasionally catches my bus, was trying to make up his mind. He seemed relatively normal at first glance. He stands about six feet and pushes a very nice blue luggage bag on wheels everywhere he goes and usually drags along a bag as well. I don’t know what’s inside and have no desire to find out. He stutters and speaks quietly, so I don’t ask him where he’s going since I can’t understand him anyway. I just open the door and wait for him to enter. He wears thick, dark, horn-rimmed glasses and a red baseball cap, though lately, it’s been blue. He appears to be very studious, and may well be. I’ve never had time to sit and chat with him.
Well, the other night he hopped on my number 43/44. This particular route heads out to the University District and turns west on 45th where it becomes the 44 and finishes out in Ballard.
When we arrived at my final stopping point for the evening I found him in the back seat looking very confused.
“I need to go to Ballard,” he said. (It was the first I actually understood him.)
“We’re in Ballard,” I replied.
“I need to go to Ballard,” he repeated
“We’re in Ballard. This is Ballard.” I again replied.
“I need to go to Swedish,” he said.
“I’m not going to Swedish,” I replied. “That would be another bus.”
(I assume he meant Swedish Hospital.)
“Can you take me to the main intersection.? “ he asked.
“The main intersection of what?” I asked.
“I need to go to Ballard,” he said.
We bantered back and forth for about five minutes and he finally decided to get off there, which was no small project for him. (I was so glad he didn’t ask for the lift. He has added a few containers to his carry-on luggage.) It never ceases to amaze me how some of these folks get around from day to day and just keep going. One guy who keeps going and never misses a beat is Tom. I met Tom while I was walking to a road relief at 3rd and Pike. I spotted him and said hi.
“Oh you’re the driver on the number 22,” he said.
“Yes I am.” I replied. “How are you?”
“I’m okay, I’m just out running errands.” he replied.
Tom doesn’t give the impression he’s an errand type of guy, but he doesn’t give the impression he could run a lap around the block either. And in fact, one day he was running late and I noticed him as I turned north bound on 1st Avenue from Spokane Street while driving the 22. I had a hunch that he needed to catch my bus so I pulled into the north bound zone at Spokane street and waited, but I didn’t wait long. Tom stands all of five feet tall, maybe a little less. He’s pushing ninety, and doesn’t weigh a penny more, and on this particular day, in the middle of summer, he needed to catch the 22. He needed it so badly that he ran for it. My jaw dropped as I watched this pint sized man, with barely a tooth in his mouth, thinning white hair, and sunk in facial features, running! I mean making time to catch my bus. He hopped the steps and had energy to thank me for waiting. Tom is a quiet man who works as an errand boy for the manager of his apartment complex. The last time I spoke with him, on the way to my road relief, he was out taking care of laundry and making a run to the post office. He’s the cutest little old man who usually wears a pair of Khaki slacks, a red or blue, corduroy shirt and an old tattered, tanned, baseball cap. He has a very genuine grin with one tooth in front. I use to see him around downtown here and there depending on what route I was driving that day. One time I passed him as he was rushing to a sale at a clock store that I didn’t even know existed, but Tom quickly educated me to the fact the I had been passing this clock store everyday on my way to my road relief. I’m not a big shopper so I don’t pay attention to sales unless I really want something, and then I’m too late for the sale anyway.
I was almost too late to see the “quiet man” when I was driving the 71 a few years back. He was crossing the road east bound at 3rd and Marion with his usual saunter and cane in stride. It was a beautiful, balmy seventy degrees and he looked dressed for a party in pink polo shirt, and faded blue jeans, toting a faded blue jean jacket. I wanted to stop and talk, say hi, compliment him for “staying in motion,” but I had a bus full of people who probably didn’t much care about the itinerary of a quiet, homeless man.
It’s strange to think that I would miss these people whom I’ve never met per se. I can’t imagine what their life is like. But when I see them again there is a sense of nostalgia, an odd sense of “joy” that our paths have crossed again. Maybe because I’m glad to see them alive and well. I felt that sense of joy again recently while driving the 106. I came to my layover at 9th and Olive and to my surprise there stood Bellevue and Pike. I guess he had a better audience here. I think he IS a him, or a very ugly woman toting a goatee with three day growth. (I have a few female passengers who actually match that description.) B & P was performing his usual dance ritual so I stopped a block away just for entertainment purposes. I still haven’t figured him out nor have I figured out the new guy on the block.
“ Pound the pavement man” which is what he was doing at 3rd and Pine when I was making drop offs there while driving the number 5 route. The number 5 is one of my least favorite routes, but I’ll cover that in a later chapter.
I was driving the 5 one night and was stopped at Virginia waiting for the light to change so I glanced over and saw “pound the pavement man” pounding the pavement. There was nothing on the pavement. (Maybe an ant…. poor ant) but there he was, squatting, wearing his usual dark green slacks, dark brown leather jacket, toting a plastic bag full of something, and pounding the ground with his fist. After a moment he finished, stood up and found a comfortable place to stand next to the entrance of Macy’s. He looked straight ahead as if he was waiting for someone to come and inspect his work. I’m not sure what an inspector would actually look for, but as “pound the pavement” was standing right there he could probably point it out.
“Pound the pavement” wasn’t there to point out an elderly man I picked up one morning, but he didn’t need to be. I was having one of the worst days I can remember while driving a trolley. I don’t like driving trolley’s and I’ll explain why later, but for now suffice it to say, trolley’s are not my cup-of-tea. This particular morning I was tired. (I’m not a morning person either.) I was frustrated and unhappy with my lot in life when I came to the intersection of Rainier Avenue and Othello, heading north bound.
There, on the west side of the street was a little old man with a cane, using every once of his being to cross the street in front of me. The light turned green but traffic did not move in either direction. We waited through three cycles of the light as this elderly man took one shaky, fearful, step at a time. My heart broke as I sat behind the wheel of the trolley. Once he was safely across traffic resumed. Just for a moment I thought, ’I wonder if he needs to catch this bus?’
I pulled over to the curb, opened the front door and yelled out, “Do you need a ride?” I never heard his response. I just prepared the bus and lowered the lift and waited, and waited, and a few very long moments later he appeared at the door. I held out my hands and helped him to a seat.
“I’m sorry for holding you up like this. Thank you for waiting,” he said over and over again.
“It’s okay,” I replied. “I just want to make sure you are alright.” Once he was settled I returned to the driver’s seat and off we went. As we continued on I just thought about how hard it must be for him to get around. I couldn’t get the picture of him crossing the road of out of my mind. For the first time that day I was thinking about something besides ME. I often think back on that day. Driving for the county is exhausting work. It’s mentally draining to watch for pedestrians, bike riders, other traffic, dogs, cats, you name it, and keep up with the needs of the 80 people sitting behind me. I answer lots and lots of questions eight hours a day, forty to fifty hours a week, and sometimes I get a 30 minute break if I’m lucky. After forty long hours of this there isn’t a driver in the world who isn’t ready for a day off.
So, here was this elderly man who appeared totally alone and it brought me to tears. (Later on my very short break, that is.) I cried. I cried a lot and for the first time I really had a purpose here. With each mile I drive, every stop I make, every rider I pick up, there is another opportunity to be there for another little old man with a cane and ask, “Do you need a ride?”
Well there you have it. These are some of the characters I have come across but there are more. (With the exception of the elderly old man. He was charming.) In the coming chapters I’ll introduce you to “garanimals lady” Metro Man, and others. For now, lets move on. Lots of territory to cover. No pun intended.
Pedestrians and bicycles
Pedestrians are a lot like cats; they have to be somewhere else
right now for no apparent reason. Bicycles…another story.
What do you get when you jam thousands of cars, bike riders, tourist attractions, construction, pedestrians, and businesses into three and a half square miles of steel and concrete? You get nowhere. At least in a car or bus. I understand people need to cross the street, but when it comes down to reaching the other side, ego’s use crosswalks. On days when I’m in a relatively good mood it’s humorous, watching grown men and women entering a crosswalk. You would think it was a career move. I’m getting paid for every minute it takes to make it to the other side of the street. (Man, sign me up. I’ll go walk for a living.)
Pedestrians are entertaining whether they are standing at a crosswalk, in a crosswalk, no where near a crosswalk, at a stop sign, walking down the street, running down the street, (usually after me) or just waiting at a bus zone. So many pedestrians, so little time. My favorite ones are those who take off running across the street as I come barreling through downtown. They weren’t doing anything to speak of where they were, but now need to be on the other side of the road. When they arrive they continue doing what they were doing before. Nothing. It was IMPERATIVE that they reach the other side to do it.
Pedestrians waiting to cross give the impression that they really don’t understand the walk signs. They could have been standing at the light like an athlete on his mark waiting for the “shot” to take off, and when the little white man appears, they become like a deer in headlights. “Oh, is that for me? Am I suppose to walk now?” They wait and wait, and wait, and before they know it a red hand appears. “Oh, I need to cross now.” Teenagers make a game of it. They actually WAIT for the red hand to appear and NOW they want to cross. They don’t want to be told to cross. They want to be told not to. It’s that rebellious nature rearing its ugly head. If they are in a group of friends it becomes a peer pressure thing. “I must rebel so I will look “cool” to all of my friends.” Then when they FINALLY start to walk, they have to saunter to make the rebellion look real. Waiting till the last minute and then running across would make them look foolish. If only all pedestrians could be eight to ten year old little boys. When that little white man appears they race each other across to the “finish’ line.
Sauntering has many forms when it comes to teenagers. They look the other way to see if traffic that is sitting at a red light might be coming. They turn the crosswalk into a new playground and play fight with each other. They FIND objects on the ground that must be picked up. It could be a cigarette butt, but they will pick it up. When they reach the other side they throw the object on the sidewalk, but by all means, that crosswalk WILL be clean. Entire conversations that were not taking place before the light changed are now held in depth in the middle of the crosswalk. Sometimes they forget something and must turn back only to reach the other side and discover that the forgotten item wasn’t forgotten after all, and now they must cross again.
Crosswalks are placed strategically near stop lights and stop signs so as to be more conducive to communication between driver and pedestrian as to whom may have the right of way. Pedestrians often TAKE the right of way or lengthen it by making the driver wait for them to finish walking across (even when the light is solid green for the driver.)
Unfortunately, many bus stops are not placed strategically near crosswalks which creates confusion for pedestrians, who must now determine right of way on their own. While driving the route 166 and 164 one night in Kent I was happy to see that the teenage pedestrians boarding and exiting my bus had determined that THEY have the right of way whether they can be seen or not. In hours of darkness it can be extremely hazardous, but I was greatly relieved to witness cars coming to a screeching halt and swerving when necessary to insure that right of way was maintained. I fear the teenagers were very disappointed with the outcome as I believe they were secretly hoping to be introduced to the “next life” and were not accommodated. At least not this time. (Sadly, sometimes they are accommodated. Only a month ago a teenager ran behind a south bound 101 on Martin Luther King Way and 63rd Avenue where he was hit by a passing vehicle that never saw him. That teenager did not survive.
Crosswalk extensions. The crosswalk isn’t actually confined to the eight divided white lines at the intersection. They are like the free ride zone in downtown, they really never end. Basically, the entire street is a crosswalk, if you ask some pedestrians. But then again, you don’t have to ask. They will show you, day after day, green light after green light, city after city. When there is a need to cross it doesn’t matter what time it is, where they are, or whom they happen to be with, shops are waiting!
While driving on the east side one afternoon, a young mom with four young children, under twelve and one in her arms still nursing, (though not at the time) decided to make her move and cross while oncoming traffic was oncoming. I was heading northbound in my bus on 156th Ave in Bellevue. I watched as four little ones between ages five and ten darted into traffic. Traffic of course stopped. What else could we do? Crossroads was the destination, and traffic, that would include me and my bus, a mere obstacle. When people do this they always flash big smiles. I’m still not sure what the smile is for. “Thank you for not running over me and my five children ?” (Oh you’re welcome. Gee, I could have killed your family and spent the rest of my life in jail. I believe I made the right choice. ) I make exception for people with walkers, canes, and wheelchairs. And frankly, they are giving it everything they’ve got to get across and they stick to crosswalks.
A police officer once told me that as soon as the walk sign flashes red, all pedestrians are jay walking. If only Seattle police had the man power. They could balance Washington’s state budget on jay walking tickets. People who actually use crosswalks will run to a crosswalk and then suddenly they have all day long to cross. I mentioned a couple in an earlier chapter who stopped midway to admire, Lord knows what, while crossing the street. The look on the face of the male counterpart was, “we’re helping the environment by walking.” (Sorry, while I wait for you I’m dumping more toxins into the very air you are now trying to breath. IF you would get a move on, I might be able to spread the “wealth around”
a little more.)
The only thing people don’t appear to hold up when crossing the street is each other. They happily hold conversations with friends, family, strangers, and whoever happens to be on the other end of the cell phone. Sometimes, they, again, mostly males, will saunter across the street with a big ol’ smile on their face. Not enough time on the playground I guess. I only wish I had more time to stop my bus and play catch, hide and go seek, or kick the can, but they caught me at a bad time. I have a bus load of people who did get enough time on the playground and now they just want to go home.
I’m constantly watching out for pedestrians because I don’t want to run them over. Well, that’s not true. I would love to rack up points as it were, if I could actually get something for the points, like maybe a new HDTV or a free year of TVVO. Just once I would love to stop and ask, please do tell, if you hadn’t been able to dart across on-coming traffic to reach your current do nothing location, what would have been the end result? Would you have broken out in hives or experienced a panic attack? Do you have some rare medical condition that causes you to put yourself in life threatening situations?
I think that pedestrians are single handedly responsible for the success of the cell phone. Really. The businessman who is waiting for the aforementioned pedestrian to lollygag his way in and out of a crosswalk, is using up precious minutes that it takes to finally make it to a underground garage, park his Lexus, and ride the elevator up to the fiftieth floor of the Columbia Towers. When the cell phone came into life as we know it today, the businessman was able to get some of those precious minutes back, not to mention gaining the ability to roll them over the next month. I guess we have the pedestrian to thank for bringing us all into the loop. Now if only we could find a way to make a hover craft and the pedestrian has the streets all to himself, which I believe is what he secretly wanted all along. How pedestrian of you!
It occurred to me recently that pedestrians in downtown Seattle are confused because they are simply inundated. Every corner, every block, every where they look there are signs, tourist attractions, shops, businesses, local artisans, other pedestrians, not to mention traffic. It’s overwhelming really when you think of it. I liken it to shopping, for me. I don’t like to shop because I walk into a store for one item, and there are fifty to a hundred items everywhere I turn. I lose my ability to focus and pretty soon I’m running for the nearest exit. I have to stop and remind myself, “No, I have to go back and by food for the week.” I think this is what pedestrians downtown suffer through. They must be thinking, “Where in the world do I begin?”
I think it was much less complicated for early settlers who arrived at Alki Point in 1851. They had a boat and a beach. There’s not much to that. Walk off the ship onto the sand, begin a new life. But pedestrians in downtown Seattle have millions of choices. They can stay in town or leave it. They can shop, watch a movie, visit friends, go to a museum, walk around Pike’s Place Market, OR… get a latte and watch and see what other confused pedestrians are doing. You know, get a few ideas about where to start when the latte is done. The only problem is that most of them ask me and as I already said, shopping/tourism is not my area of expertise.
One rider boarded at the Bellevue Transit Center while I was driving the route 271. I had just told another rider that people treat me like a tour guide. True to form a man boarded and said,
“What can I do in the University District?”
The pressure is on. I size him up. Six foot male, medium build, entering very full bus… no claustrophobia there. The Seattle Underground Tour, oh wait, he’s going to the U-District. Never mind. Whatever will I tell him? It would help if I had any idea what his interests might be. Then again, no it wouldn’t. Unless we are talking bookstores. Bookstores are my weakness and the U-District has a bookstore on almost every corner. So many paper backs, so little time. And then you throw in a latte stand on every block… well, just come pick me up later. Before I had a chance to come up with a few ideas for the aforementioned rider I was bombarded with “twenty questions” from other pedestrians waiting to board.
Put a pedestrian on a bicycle and you have a whole new experience in bus driving. Just for the record I am a bicycle commuter. I don’t own a car. When I ride my bike I use three head lamps. One on my bicycle helmet and two on the handle bars. I have a flashing red light under the bicycle seat. I also wear two reflectors on my backpack. I want to be seen, which is more than I can say for the majority of my fellow bike riding enthusiasts. I ride on the side walk and bicycle trails as much as possible.
There is nothing more frightening and infuriating than driving through the streets of downtown Seattle, or anywhere in King County for that matter, and you come within ten feet of a bike rider on a dark, rainy night. You don’t even know he is there until you are practically sharing his tiny bicycle seat. It’s really unnerving. The rider is wearing all black, or camouflage. (I was behind a bike rider dark green Khaki pants and jacket. Good thinking. You already can’t be seen and now you blend into absolutely everything.)
You are driving along it’s dark and you suddenly see this object moving in front of you. You are happy that it is not the pavement making those motions as driving would suddenly become A LOT more interesting, but it’s already interesting just trying to steer clear of the bike rider who has taken over the lane. That’s right. They take over the lane. They don’t share it. The county has all kinds of posters telling me to share the road with them and they take advantage of it. There is no “sharing” going on. It’s all about a bicycle and he’s riding at a whopping five miles per hour. Now you are driving at a breakneck pace of “coasting.” If he’s going up hill, he loses four of those.
I think that bike riders and pedestrians have teemed up against the driver. I don’t know if either group owns a car, but sometimes I think they can’t afford a car and are taking out their motor-less frustrations on the rest of us who do. Excluding of course your humble author, but I also stay out of the street! Call me crazy but don’t you wonder sometimes too? Doesn’t it seem like bike riders and pedestrians are looking for a little sympathy? I’m not sure what they are hoping to receive from the rest of us… maybe a car, but I for one don’t plan on buying one for anyone else.
Honestly, I really think they suffer from some sort of “tunnel vision,” if you will. I was sitting at a traffic light in downtown Seattle next to a bike rider who of course had no helmet, no lights and was wearing dark clothing. I opened my window and said, “You do know you are riding illegally, don’t you?” The stunned rider just looked at me. He seemed shocked and put out.
“Are you going to lecture me?” He asked. Lecture you? Don’t you want to survive your bike ride and actually sleep in your own bed tonight, as apposed to a hospital bed, or worse yet, a morgue?
“By state law, when riding during hours of limited visibility, you are required to have a head lamp and a back light, and a helmet is mandatory,” I replied.
He again seemed more agitated than interested. I’ll admit my tone was probably a little harsh. I guess I should first thank the bike rider for being so “green” conscious and compliment him on his desire to live a healthier lifestyle by riding his bicycle, then I would be justified in informing him that he’s putting his safety and the safety of others in great jeopardy, considering that no one else can actually SEE him.
“Well, thanks for the lecture, now go drive your bus and bug-off,” he said, or something like that. I just shake my head when I think about it. A friend of mine once told me that people in general look at Metro bus drivers as professional drivers. They assume that we are looking out for other drivers, pedestrians and bike riders, so that they, the general public, don’t have to look out for us, Metro drivers. Well, as professional drivers we are looking out for others, but here’s a news flash: all drivers, professional or otherwise, bike riders and pedestrians are responsible for their own safety and to a limited extent the safety of others.
I only wish that the aforementioned rider was the worst of it. Bike riders weave in and out of traffic, tend to ignore stop lights and have on more than one occasion ridden their bicycle right into a car. While waiting at a stop light at the intersection of Emerson, Nickerson and Dexter, heading northbound toward the Fremont Bridge, a bike rider appeared out of no where to my left, swerved around the front of my coach and hit a sitting car, broadside on the passenger side. He wasn’t traveling fast and merely lost his balance in the attempt to maneuver around traffic to the head of the line, but in doing so he proved the very point I am making. Bike riders and pedestrians have tunnel vision. They act as if they are all alone on the road. They aren’t.
In downtown Seattle bike riders weave, fly through stop lights, make illegal right hand turns in front of traffic, and then have the audacity to complain when we don’t yield to them… and we’re supposed to share the road. That’s laughable. The state of Washington has implemented a three feet rule. All motor vehicles must give bicycle riders three feet of room when traveling side by side. That’s a hoot! Most of us have been trying to share the road with bike riders for some time now. Bike riders using the road don’t give a lot of thought to their positioning on the road.
They like to ride directly on the white line closest to my lane. So much for the three foot rule. If I give them three feet I am now encroaching on the lane to my right. I suppose the county just wants me to stay behind the bicycle rider, crawl up the hill at a whopping 1 mile per hour and deal with the complaints from any customers who missed a transfer, were late for work, or were just in a bad mood that day. There's no stress involved in my job whatsoever.
I actually had a comment from someone reading through this story. He said they don’t make the bike lane big enough. Do they make the lane for buses big enough? I still have to stay within my lines, and sometimes that’s a chore when I’m dealing with a bike rider.
Trolleys (and other buses)
“Trolleys, you love ‘em or you hate ‘em”
“So how many people have you guys almost run over?” I asked the four drivers riding back to base on the route 41.
“What, you mean…today?” the number 41 driver answered back. I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so stressed out after a long morning of driving the number 3 and 4 trolley. That really was one of the longest days of my life, but on a Trolley there really aren’t any short days, especially when you don’t like driving trolleys.
“You love ‘em or you hate‘ em,” as all drivers say. I HATE them. They are a lot of work.
Before trolleys came into existence people rode on horse drawn cars along the dirt roads of Seattle. (If they were still horse-drawn I would happily drive them.) The first electric trolleys were introduced in the spring of 1887, in Richmond, Virginia, and in my opinion, it was the beginning of the end of the fun of driving a trolley. It’s one thing to be pulled along by something that smells like a horse, but actually has a personality and even on a bad day I might be frustrated, but still love the horse. At the end of a bad trolley day, I just hate trolleys.
If only I could go back one hundred years and talk to the designer, and “Father of electric traction,” Frank Sprague, and let him know what a mistake he is making. Really, one hundred years from now traffic is going to be chaos, millions of pedestrians will be roaming the streets, because apparently the sidewalk just isn’t big enough, and the horse will still be alive and well. It will be more than capable of pulling this thing along. People mostly love horses and usually appreciate their beauty. It will cost less to maintain a horse, unlike the trolley which will use thousands of volts of electricity, its’ poles will get caught in the wire grid ripping it down, occasionally causing it to snap it’s poles off and it will be all YOUR FAULT.
Frank Julian Sprague, born in 1857 in Milford, Connecticut, was an American naval officer and inventor who helped design the electric motor, the electric trolley and the electric elevator. The invention of the electric trolley car spurred urban development. It enabled businesses to be concentrated in one locale causing a housing explosion outside of the cities. By World War I, the railway was the fifth largest industry in the country with more than 100,000 employees.
The trolley was the name of the “shoe” or wheel at the end of the trolley pole. The shoe runs along the underside of the overhead wire. The trolley is connected to the trolley pole which is connected to the trolley car. (The shin bone’s connected to the thigh bone…)
The trolley was nearly an overnight success. People rode the trolley to work in the cities, to visit friends, and to amusement parks, which were originally built and operated by trolley companies. This generated a lot of revenue especially in warmer months when people paid a fare to ride the trolley, paid the trolley company for admission into the park and the company sold tickets for the rides in the park. Coney Island, in New York still stands as one of the amusement parks originally built and operated by a trolley company. There are amusement parks in New England still in operation that were originally owned by trolley companies. Six Flags, originally called Riverside Park, located in Agawam, Massachusetts, was owned by Springfield Street Railway.1
The popularity of the trolley car and demand for service created a need for larger trolleys with more power and in summer months companies ran “open” trolleys with no windows, known as “Breezers,” It was considered an air conditioned service.
This all sounds very quaint until you happen to be the driver of one of these contraptions: enter your humble author.
Come, join me in a typical day of driving a trolley through downtown Seattle. That’s where the wires are, but they are not alone. OH NOOOO! They have company. They have special work, dead spots, switches, and lots of unhappy, cranky riders. (Not to mention drivers.)
Special work is where wires cross. When wires cross the bus has to go from really slow, to almost dead, to avoid creating an arc across the wires. A driver must get up just enough speed to get through the special work, but not too much speed to avoid the arc. Now considering that the speed limit through the special work is 5 mph, you can imagine how much fun it is to get up the speed necessary to get though the special work. If you don’t have enough speed to coast through, the bus will get stuck and you don’t move. If you’re having a bad day it’s completely maddening to go through this. If you’re having a good day, it’s completely maddening to go through this.
Putting aside all of the responsibilities of just driving a trolley, a driver’s concentration level goes up one thousand percent because most of the driving is done in downtown. Downtown is congested with pedestrians, bicycle riders, taxi drivers, other buses, other cars, tourist attractions like the horse-driven carriage, (what did I tell ya. The horse is still very viable, and the people inside the carriage are smiling, which is more than I can say for the people inside the trolley who are now frustrated because the driver just LOST HIS POLES.)
It’s exhausting just thinking about it. If you turn down the wrong street, or up, as one driver on the number 10 did one afternoon, it’s not as simple as driving around the block and trying it again. Trolley’s are dependant on the electrical wire above them. If there’s no wire there, the trolley has to get back on to the power somehow. The above mentioned driver had to back the trolley through the intersection, that was now laden with traffic, get back on the wire, and back on route. This requires supervision to make sure no one gets hurt. It took him quite a while to get back on track as I recall and now, on top of everything, he was behind schedule and whatever recovery time he had to take a break and collect his thoughts, was gone. Now he gets to spend the evening answering even more questions. “Do you know what happened to the 6:05 bus?”
But the fun doesn’t end there. Oh no, no, no, no. Trolleys share a wire. A trolley can’t pass another trolley unless the forward driver pulls his poles off the wire enabling the one behind to pass. Depending on how long a driver has been driving a trolley, what route he is driving, the day he is driving the route, and whether or not there are any power outages in the grid, a trolley driver can spend a lot of time struck behind another trolley. If you’re driving number 3 and your are behind another number 3, one of you has too much or too little work to do. This is daily, constant, and adds to the already frayed nerves acquired from driving a trolley to begin with.
Some drivers will never drive anything but a trolley, and I take my hat off to them. Some drivers will never drive another trolley as long as they live, and I empathize with them. Some drivers have never had to drive a trolley… I hate them.
For the most part I managed to survive trolleys though I wouldn’t wish the experience on my worst enemy. Hmm… then again. I did have one day that I will never forget while driving the number 43. I only had to drive it out to the University District and back into town to drop off passengers and head back to base, and in the course of the three hours I was driving, I lost my poles twenty-five times.
I had lost my poles now and again over the course of the four months that I drove them, but on this particular day, the fun began at the corner of Bellevue and Olive north bound, where, for whatever reason, the poles came off of the wire. I got out and put them back on and drove another block and off they came again. I put them back on, drove two blocks and off they came. This happy little routine carried on until I reached 23rd Avenue and John, where I called the coordinator to ask for assistance. Assistance would meet me in the University District, but in the mean time I drove a block and off they came again. And again. And AGAIN. By the time I reached the University District I was BALD.
The supervisor had two mechanics ready to meet me, and they checked out everything, thoroughly, while I took a break. When I returned they assured me that all was well and I could continue on. So, I continued on, and at 41st and Fifteenth, south bound, they came off again. I lost the poles before the Montlake Bridge. I lost the poles on the Montlake Bridge, I lost the poles after the Montlake Bridge. I called the coordinator.
“Do you think you can make it back to base?”
“I’m sure I can I just don’t know how long it will take. I could get some nice overtime out of this.”
“Do your best,” he said. (No, I’m going to do my worst. I need the money.) I took off and lost the poles again. This bus had no sense of humor whatsoever. I apologized to my riders until I had run out of ways to say, “Gee, I’m sorry. I’m driving a piece of junk tonight. You might get there sooner if you walk from here.” (No takers. I guess a dead trolley beats hoofing it any day of the week. Personally I’d hoof it. So I drove a block and lost my poles. Drove a block and lost my poles, do dah do dah.
I finally made it to First and Pine, by some miracle. Actually, I guess it wasn’t a miracle at all. A lot of the return trip was down hill, so if worst came to worst, I could just coast back to base. I just about did that very thing, except that First Avenue levels out around Pioneer Square. There’s only so much coasting a bus can do on flat ground. The last of my die-hard passengers finally decided hoofing it wouldn’t be so bad, and by the time I reached Pioneer Square my trolley was empty.. And I lost my poles again. There would be very little coasting from this point on. I would have to depend on the wire nearly all the way back to base and after replacing my poles once or twice I thought I was free and clear. I pulled into the base, turned very carefully into my lane, took a deep breath… and lost my poles.
Whereas I hate trolleys, it’s not like other buses are a piece of cake, though compared to trolleys, they are a walk in the park. The very first hour of the very first day of part time training class was nerve racking all by itself. Twenty-four of us sat in a big classroom at South Base Training Center wondering what we had gotten ourselves into when the first instructor welcomed us to Metro. It wasn’t like they showed us pictures of dead bodies or hair raising accidents to avoid, but it was just the knowledge that we would be trusted with driving the “Titanic”, and it wasn’t until I got picked as the very first pilot of the aforementioned Titanic, that I realized, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
After the instructor, George, introduced us to all the bells and whistles we would be playing with, while driving mind you, he decided to put me in the driver’s seat, where I instantly felt totally out of place. I looked in the rear view mirror some two feet above my head and it occurred to me… this thing never ends. Forty feet never felt so long and so far away. My heart was racing, my mind was racing, and I could feel my stomach starting to catch up with both. I don’t remember another single thing until I pulled that monstrosity out of the parking lot and onto East Marginal Way, and then all I remember is George telling me I had to speed up. ‘You have got to be kidding me!’ I thought to myself. My panic stricken mind sent a message to my eyes to check the dashboard.
The speedometer read five miles per hour and frankly that was five miles an hour more than I was comfortable with. I would have been content to sit in the parking lot for another eight years. I very gradually increased my speed… six miles and hour, seven, eight, nine, pushing it!!!!
“Take a right and go up this hill,” George instructed. A HILL!!!! The hill he was sending me up was a tiny little side street where a normal sized car barely fit, and he was sending me up it in this thing. Six hours and four other drivers later I was back in the driver’s seat tooling down the highway back to base at sixty miles an hour. Sixty miles an hour. Only eight hours earlier I would have been content to become a lot more familiar with the parking lot. We exited at Boeing Access Road and turned left where Pacific Highway meets East Marginal Way. That particular turn is where lots of homeless people use to sit all the time with their card board signs. There was no one sitting there when I approached for my left hand turn which was the only turn that day where I ran over the curb. Had there been a homeless person there he would no longer have needed the sign. To this day every time I make that turn I think of the homeless guy I would have put out of business permanently had he been sitting there so many years ago now.
The first week of training was mostly spent familiarizing us newcomers with bases and buses. Bases are bases are bases. Buses on the other hand are another story all together. My favorite bus used to be the articulated sixty-footers, because frankly, they are solid and easier for me to drive. I know to look at one of them it doesn’t seem so, but really, they are more stable on the road, and have less tendency to bounce everyone inside all over the place. You still bounce all over the place, but not as much as say a thirty footer.
I was driving a thirty footer over I-90 during training and I was glad I had my seat belt on. I felt like a human projectile. One bad bounce and I was through the windshield and joining the aforementioned, non-existent, homeless guy in permanent non-existence. It was one of the scariest drives I have ever taken as a professional driver and for most of my eight years I have steered clear, no pun intended, of thirty footers. (As drivers we refer to buses by their length and type. Thirty, forty, articulated, (artic’s) etc. Thirty footers are easy to pick out because they have only one door for entry and exit. Forty and sixty foot buses have two doors. And then you have the van.
The problem with the van is that there is no room. I’m not a big person. A whopping five feet five and a hundred and forty pounds and I feel cramped in a van. A driver is totally confined to this little space between the dashboard hump where the engine sits and the driver’s door. To make matters worse vans are noisy and do not have a PA system. You end up shouting the announcements several times so by the days end you can’t walk or talk.
Then there is the forty foot bus. Not much to say there. Most drivers like the forty footers. I’ve gotten use to them but it’s too easy to run over curbs if you don’t set up right. Setting up for a turn requires two lanes for forty and sixty foot buses, depending on the turn. Some right hand turns are wide enough that thirty footers can turn just fine. Vans don’t need to set up for turns. When setting up for a turn the driver signals with the left turn signal that he is going to encroach on the adjacent lane. As he nears the intersection he maneuvers the coach into a forty five degree angle with the rear of the coach blocking traffic in the right lane, and the front of the coach blocking traffic in the left lane, on a four lane road. The driver then pulls out into the intersection and makes an extra wide turn in order to bring the back of the coach around and away from the curb. He straightens out and hopefully completes his turn without taking part of the curb in the process.
One of the most difficult right hand turns for buses is found at entrance to the Burien Transit Center at the intersection of 4th Avenue and 148th. I can usually make the turn but not without a lot of pre-maneuvering set up. Another difficult right hand turn is found at the intersection of Kirkland Way and 6th Avenue in Kirkland. Drivers have been complaining about that turn for years, but last I checked it’s still in the loop. It’s difficult as it is a very sharp, right hand turn and oncoming traffic is always backed up, so if you don’t make the turn “just so” you are sitting and waiting for some breathing room to complete the turn. There is a similar right hand turn in the Fremont area at the intersection of 35th and Fremont Avenue. The route 26 operates through this turn and on more than one occasion while heading north bound towards Green Lake, I have had to wait in the middle of the intersection for another bus or truck to clear before finishing my turn in a sixty foot articulated.
The articulated bus, artic, for short, known as banana, slinky, tandem, caterpillar or accordion buses, are sixty feet in length and round corners in a crab-like fashion. They have a larger passenger capacity, 120 compared to eighty or ninety in forty foot buses, and increased stability due to a lower center of gravity. (1)
Other than difficult right hand turns one huge difference found in buses is climate control. For some reason trolleys are like sauna’s when the weather becomes warm. I’m probably the only driver who doesn’t mind the sauna, but I hate trolley’s so it doesn’t matter. The definition of warm weather for me is somewhere between 90 and 100 degrees. Seattle doesn’t actually get warm for me until somewhere around the end of August, and then only for about a week, two in good year.
For most other drivers, March is considered summer. Most of Metro’s fleet is not air conditioned. Some of the newer coaches have air conditioning, and Sound Transit has air conditioning. I’m one of the few drivers who seldom uses AC and then only when my riders complain that it’s too hot. I will be easy to spot this summer. I will be wearing my Metro fleece jacket. (I’m not kidding.)
Know your route
If you have been driving for any length of time, more than a couple years, you learn to avoid certain routes: The 174, 3, 4, 7, 9, 106 (in the summer anyway), 5, 240, 522, and the list goes on depending on the driver you ask. Some drivers don’t like the 194. I’m okay with that one. My first year I was going to school full time and driving about 12 hours a week. The route I picked my second shake up was a whopping two hours long. Unfortunately I had four hours worth of bills to pay. That doesn’t seem like a big deal until you break it down a bit.
I had a lot fee for my mobile home. That was two hundred eight five dollars a month. That mobile home had almost no insulation so heat got pricey especially in the winter months. I also had to pay a phone bill, food bill, gasoline bill. I didn’t have cable, didn’t eat out, and didn’t go to movies. I studied. Remember. I was studying web design hoping to leave the driving to someone else in the future. I soon found myself studying ways to bring in additional funds so I went to see my base chief.
He had four routes open and I was unfamiliar with all of them, but one lasted for four hours and I snatched it. I learned the hard way: KNOW THE ROUTE YOU HAVE PICKED. When you walk into a route like the number 174, you’re in for a big surprise. After my first day I emailed all of my friends and asked for prayer. I’m not kidding. I honestly didn’t think I was going to live out the week driving this route. It travels through downtown Seattle, and then heads down Pacific Highway to the airport. Everyone who has ever owned, borrowed, stolen, used, sold, or played with a needle, rides this bus. And many of these riders are connoisseurs of cheap, intoxicating beverages that are usually discarded at the back of the bus for lucky drivers like me to find.
My first day driving the 174 was eye opening. I was heading south bound on Pacific Highway and had just crossed over Highway 516, Kent/Des Moines Road . A very intoxicated female passenger approached me and asked,
“Do you know where the Sunrise Motel is?” (Her words were slurred and she wreaked of alcohol.)
Here I am, brand spanking new to the 174, and not real familiar with the area so I just say what I was taught to say in training.
“I’m sorry. I’m not familiar with that motel.” The next ten minutes were filled with expletives directed at me with great anger and hostility. I found myself looking everywhere for that motel. Had I not been so “green” as a driver, I would have said, “Oh, there it is. The next stop is yours. Have a wonderful day!”
I had one rider so drunk, he fell asleep, slid out of the seat and decided to sleep it off on the floor with a bus full of people. I managed to help him back into his seat as he simply could not get up and he was a safety hazard for my other passengers. I contacted the coordinator, who basically told me to do my best and get him home. (Thinking back, the coordinator should have contacted the police and had them handle the situation. I guess we’re all learning on the job.)
The 174 is better known as the “hotel on wheels.” Of all the routes in the Metro system, it is in the top three for police response. Lots of homeless people ride the bus all night long especially in the winter months. It gets them out of the weather. Between Seattle and Federal Way the 174 stops a “hundred and seventy four thousand times” and one of those stops is at SeaTac Airport. Back in the day when I was too stupid to know any better, I would pull in to Bay 2, pick up passengers and advise those heading downtown to wait for the 194. The 194 is an express route that only makes a few highway stops before heading downtown. One particular night with an extra aggressive group of lower class teenagers, it occurred to me as I was driving northbound, that once again, I had warned all sober “witnesses” away from my route, and in the event of my unfortunate demise there would be no one to either come to my aid, or be conscious enough to understand I might need aid.
The one afternoon I needed aid, it finally arrived, forty five minutes after the damage was done. I was driving the 174 north bound on forth avenue. The bus started rocking back and forth and someone yelled out, “Driver there’s a fight in the back. Do something.”
The bus was full and all I could see in the rear view mirror were standing passengers. I called the coordinator, described the situation as best I could, and was ordered to pull over, engage the emergency brake, open both doors and wait for assistance. I was one block from the Holgate zone so that is where we stopped and waited. When I opened both doors the bus shook and I saw a dozen people rush out the back door and out of sight. We sat and waited, and waited, and waited, and about forty five minutes later, the Seattle police arrived. No offense to the Seattle police, but by the time they were on scene, nobody else was. My bus was all but empty, and the one rider who had been hurt, couldn’t help the police at all, as he only felt fist after fist pummeling his face, and never had a chance to defend himself, much less identify anyone. He was beaten by a mob of about ten to fifteen teenagers who were attacking a young lady sitting near him. He defended her, so they went after him. I have no idea what happened to the young lady, but the rider came up to introduce himself as he departed the bus at forth and Jackson. His shirt was covered with blood and his lip was cut. It was the first and the last time I ever saw him. It was not the last time I would deal with this activity.
The number three and four trolley is the most torturous route in the system. At least I think so. I consider it an ‘initiation by fire” in trolley driving. It carries most of the load of downtown riders and it carries them between Queen Anne on the north end of downtown Seattle and Judkins Park on the south end.
The three and four trolley picks up three to four wheel chairs nearly every run, carries Russian and Asian immigrants to the Northwest Harvest food bank, and transports regular visitors to Harborview Hospital to receive free medical services for everything from gun shot wounds to paper cuts. (I don’t actually know about the paper cuts.) The trolley, as I already discussed in the previous chapter is a job all by itself to drive. Add just one of the list above, and you have a very full day. For instance wheelchairs.
God bless those who depend on wheelchairs for mobility. These riders are thoughtful, grateful, and patient. Mostly. They will be in line with one to thirty other people, rain or shine, dead of winter or the heat of summer and they wait for everyone to board. Sometimes the lift doesn’t work, and then they have to wait for another coach. One particular wheelchair rider I picked up at fifth and Jackson was just too heavy for the lift and had to wait for one of the newer coaches which allows wheelchairs to wheel up a tiny ramp. Once aboard the driver attaches three seat belts to the wheelchair to keep the chair stable during transport. It’s so easy to describe, and sometimes a whole other story to accomplish. Sometimes the seat belts don’t work properly, meaning, they do not pull out from their floor mount. Sometimes the bus is full and the driver has to squeeze between riders to get to the seat belts, or the chair is made in such a way that is difficult to hook-up the belts. I could go on and on with all the “problems” one encounters with stabilizing a wheelchair. And then of course sometimes the owner of the chair has his own idea of how to stabilize the wheelchair. “No, don’t put it there.” “I want it under my arm rest.” “I don’t need that one.” And so on.
Then there are the immigrants. On Wednesdays, the Northwest Harvest food bank opens up and gives out bread, rice, potatoes, etc, and these immigrants, who speak little or no English, pack into the bus with folding hand carts, suitcases, large clothing bags, whatever they have that they can fill up with food to carry home. The return trip is always interesting as they cram into the bus with the now very loaded carts and suitcases. Trying to keep the bus isle free for passengers to load and unload is a challenge at best. As the immigrants speak little or no English, and explaining to them that another number three trolley is right behind me and they can catch that one, is nearly impossible. If you recall from the chapter on trolleys, it’s very easy for one trolley to be stuck behind another one, and the Northwest Harvest bus zone is usually where the hold up begins. The immigrants look at you and smile and continue trying to squeeze into the remaining twelve inches of room in front of the “yellow” line. The yellow line on the floor is the “safety line” on the coach. A driver depends heavily on his side mirrors to view traffic, and maintain proper spacing, and when his line of sight is impeded by standing passengers both road and personal safety are diminished. So when dealing with carts and suitcases full of free potatoes and immigrants who don’t understand “I can’t see my mirror,” the thought of driving a trolley down a very steep “James” street, is what Excedrin” was made for.
And then there are the Harborview outpatients. Many of whom have not bathed in days, weeks, and some, sadly, since childhood perhaps. One rider who had bathed, had experienced a lifetime of trials in his sixteen years leading up to his ride on my Number Three. He had just been released after surviving a gun shot wound to the neck. The young male rider stood six feet and was a freshman in high school. He was wearing a neck brace, a red t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. When I asked him what had happened to his neck he spoke nonchalantly, like he was talking about the weather.
“I was shot,” (Gee it’s kind of warm today.)
“You were shot?” I replied.
“Yeah, but it wasn’t bad, just a nick. I’ve been shot at before.” (I wonder if it will be this warm tomorrow?)
“You have?” I replied.
“Yeah, I’ve been shot six times before,” he said as he pointed to his upper arm. “Here, here, here, here, here, and here.” (today it’s going to be sunny and warm with high’s in the mid to low eighties.)
“What does it feel like when you get shot?” I asked.
“It just stings,” he continued as un-phased as when he began. How does one even respond to news like this? It’s too late to call the police. It’s too late to do anything except continue driving and wish the young rider a better life. As I said earlier, driving trolleys is a job all by itself, and then you add in the collective stories I’ve just shared, and frankly, “Calgon” can’t take me far away enough.
A lot of riders carry weapons with them, and boast about their escapades as if they were on “Entertainment Tonight.”
“I just got out of jail last week. They (the police) did a sting on me and I spent six months in the King County jail. I have to contact my parole officer next week. I gotta stay away from cocaine. It messed me up real bad.” (Well, they got that part right.)
One rider had lost everything because he got drunk one night with two friends. He was a conservative looking man who sat just across from the driver’s seat. He rode with me a long time as he was looking for a particular address. He had just been released from jail and was sharing his story.
“I was just stupid one night,” he said. “I was out drinking with two friends and one of them pulled out a gun. He shot at a passing car and hit the tire. The police showed up and arrested all three of us. I lost my job at Boeing, my house, my car, my family. Now I have to start all over again. I’ve been applying all over the place for any job. I can’t find work.”
I felt so badly for the guy. One mistake. One strike and you’re out. I’m so grateful Jesus doesn’t count my sin against me like that. What impressed me the most was the attitude of this rider. He wasn’t angry, bitter or upset. He took responsibility for his actions and the consequences. He wasn’t even bothered when I missed his stop, though, I only missed it because he didn’t chime me and I didn’t know where he was going. When he noticed he simply said, “I’ll just get off at the next stop.” He then pulled the chime. As he was leaving I wished him well and he thanked me for the ride.
One route to stay away from is the 106 during the summer shake up. (I‘ll explain shake ups later). This route is an “express” route for the number 7 which has the most calls for police assistance of any route in the system. The 106 goes through downtown and then gets on I-5 south bound briefly taking the Albro/Swift Avenue exit cutting across to Rainier at Othello. The route heads through the Rainier Valley on its way to Renton Transit Center. For the most part it is not a bad route, not bad that is, until about nine thirty at night when it picks up a load of teenagers at Third and Union who are heading back home for the night. Teenagers in the summer have nothing to do and all night to do it.
One of the worst nights I had driving the 106 route I stopped at Holden and Rainier and a dozen teenagers jumped off, and half of them jumped back on and began screaming, “There’s a fight out there.” It was mayhem from then on, and it didn’t stop until I reached the Transit Center. With a bus load of teenagers jumping up and down, pacing back and forth, I made a pathetic attempt to control the situation with a threat of calling the coordinator. (I was still young and dumb. The only people that works with are drunk or stoned adults who fear the cops will show up and they will get busted!) A more mature and seasoned driver wouldn’t have threatened anything. He would have contacted the coordinator and let the police handle the mess. So I made my pathetic attempt to “scare them” and they basically told me what I could do with myself. (No need to repeat the graphic description.) I was frazzled at the end of the evening after being yelled at by a bus load of teenagers who decided they owned the system. They called me every thing but a child of God. It was lovely.
Equally lovely are riders who get on because they see the number but don’t notice anything else about the sign. I was driving the 101 to Fairwood and a female rider came up yelling at me when I turned on to Talbot.
“Where are you going? Don’t you go to the Renton Transit Center?” she asked very agitated that I had the nerve to go in another direction. Another rider yelled out,
‘This is the 101 to Fairwood.”
“Since when does the 101 go to Fairwood,” she asked sounding more agitated.
“Since the sign says it goes to Fairwood,” another rider answered.
“You need to tell the riders when you aren’t going to the Renton Transit Center,” she yelled at me. (Of course it’s my fault that she got on the wrong bus.) She got off at the next stop.
“I’m also responsible for the national debt, in case anyone is wondering,” I announced over the PA after the rider had left, cursing my existence as she walked away. The rest of the bus broke into laughter. At least they have a sense of humor, because many of them are deplorable at reading signage.
Most of my routes had me working out of bases that I didn’t want to work out of but when you have no seniority you work with what‘s left over. I don‘t know why it‘s called “pick“ for operators with no seniority. It should be called “Take this“ after the senior drivers have finished “picking“. I’m surprised they don’t just hand you a route and wish you a happy shakeup, because you have almost no say in the matter anyway.
After three long years I finally had enough seniority to pick a route driving out of South Base. It only takes about twenty minutes to drive to work and I can ride my bike during the warmer months. I had to drive the 174 again, but I was close to home and this time I knew what I was getting. I was driving the 174 on the weekends and the rest of the week I drove the 150. I managed to score the 150 number 9 on Monday, which for me is “Friday,” because I had Tuesday and Wednesday off. The 150/9 has a road relief of 1:30 at the Tukwila Park and Ride north bound. It heads into downtown Seattle, makes a return trip out to the Auburn Rail Station and back downtown where it turns into the 101, heads out to the Renton Transit Center and back and finishes as a 194 heading to SeaTac Airport. The 150 runs mostly along Auburn Way, which turns into Central Avenue in Kent. It’s not a bad route, per say, but it’s definitely a work horse. It carries a lot of passengers everyday, every trip. It’s a step above the 174, but not a big step.
With this particular run of the 150, however, I only drove the 150 for about two hours and the remaining six were devoted to the 101 and finally the 194, which for me is a dream route. And to have the 194 as the last trip of the evening is almost like getting off early. I would layover at Convention Place and take off heading down Stewart to 2nd Avenue, turn left and head down the Bus-way and head down I-5 to the Airport. Sweet. On the nights that I wasn’t driving the 150 I was driving the 174. No need to go there again. I ended up having trouble that shake up with both the 150 and the 174, where I was attacked physically twice in one night by wanna-be gang bangers on the 150. A dozen teenagers were listening to rap music on the bus. It was littered with obscenities and other riders complained. I told them to put on headsets. Fortunately they were getting off at 3rd and Pike, but not before one of them hit me in the chest with the radio and another little, four-foot nothing, snot nose hit me in the face with his fist. It didn’t hurt, but it really pissed me off. I went back to Bellevue Base for nearly three years because of it.
The 194 use to be the “dream route” out of South Base. I hear it’s losing it’s appeal. I haven’t driven it lately so I don’t know, but one particular afternoon, it lost its appeal for me. I was at SeaTac Airport, parked in Bay 1 preparing to head out and south bound toward Federal way. A passenger boarded and asked me if I was heading to downtown Seattle. The signage on my bus tells potential riders that I am going to Federal Way, and I glanced up to make sure my signage was correct. It was. The sign for Bay 1 terminal at SeaTac Airport reads, Federal Way. I told the young lady that I was heading to Federal Way, and she would need to catch a bus in Bay 2, which is behind my bus about one hundred feet. I then made an announcement over the intercom.
“This bus is going to Federal Way. If you need to go to down town Seattle, you need to get off of this bus and go to Bay 2.” I then opened both doors and waited about thirty seconds. Nobody moved. I closed both doors and slowly headed out and a man approached me.
“Do you go to downtown Seattle?” he asked.
I stopped the bus and pulled over. I again made an announcement over the intercom.
“We are not going to downtown Seattle. If you need to go to downtown Seattle, you are on the wrong bus. This bus is going to Federal Way. If you need to go to downtown Seattle, please get off the bus now.” I again opened both doors and waited about thirty seconds as about five people grabbed their bags and left the bus. I closed both doors and pulled away and another rider approached me.
“Do you go to downtown Seattle?” he asked. I shook my head, pulled over to the curb and stopped. I made a third announcement.
“We are not going to downtown Seattle. This bus is going to Federal Way. It will not go to downtown Seattle. We are only going to Federal Way. If you want to go to Seattle, you need to get off this bus, and go wait in Bay 2 for the 194 that goes to downtown Seattle.” I opened both doors and waited about thirty seconds, and watched another hand full of people exit the bus.
“Anybody else?” I asked before I slowly headed out again and drove about ten feet when yet another passenger approached me.
“Do you go to downtown Seattle?” She asked. I pulled over for the forth time in as many feet, and engaged the emergency brake. I opened both doors and made another announcement.
“This bus is not going to downtown Seattle. This is the last announcement I will make regarding the destination of this bus. If you need to go to down Seattle, you are on the wrong bus. Please get off of this bus and walk back to Bay 2. We are going to Federal Way. We are not going to down town Seattle.” I looked back and three more passengers left the bus. I waited for one minute just in case and then slowly pulled out of the airport and we finally headed south to Federal Way. I only wish I could say this was an isolated case or that it only happens at the airport, or that it was confined to every third Tuesday in months beginning with a “J”.
Speaking of difficult routes, and frankly depending on the day and time, almost all routes are difficult. But the route 5 is one of those, “Ooooh,” routes. All you have to do is say the 5 route to some drivers and that’s the response. The reason for this is simple:
No break time. This route services West Seattle to Greenwood. It’s mentally challenging in West Seattle because of all the teenagers who board. It’s physically challenging driving up to Greenwood because there are stops nearly every five hundred feet, and nearly every trip through Greenwood has a minimum of two wheelchair riders or walkers. A trip is defined as the drive from one end of the schedule to the other end. The route 55 begins in West Seattle at Avalon and Fauntleroy, heads through downtown Seattle via 1st and 3rd avenue where it changes into the route 5, and heads north on the Aurora, through the University District and up through Greenwood where it ends in the Shoreline Community College parking lot. If you rode this you have now traveled one very long trip. You are also qualified on the route. This means that I can let one of my riders take over the driving responsibilities. (Just don’t tell Metro.) Back to wheelchairs.
Wheelchairs take a lot of time and time is not something scheduled into the route 55/5. If you pick up one wheelchair rider, you are not taking a break for a very long time, and driving six to seven hours without any kind of break is mentally and physically fatiguing. It takes over an hour to drive the length of this route. By the end of the evening everything hurts. Your body hurts, your eyes hurt, your brain hurts… your hair hurts. It’s exhausting just describing it. Anyone care to write the rest of this story?
A Piece of Heaven
Amidst the chaos of downtown it’s easy to overlook simple beauty. I never knew it existed until I drove the route 71. Yet here it sits. Partly cloudy, tender blue skies rise above the glass framed canopy that partially houses a twenty-two foot rock waterfall.
An assortment of Japanese Maples, Ginkgo trees and flowering shrubs reside here. The leaves have begun to sing a new song with the changing of the season. This sixty by one hundred twenty square foot paradise stands as a monument to the many United Parcel Workers who have been delivering holiday, overnight, and emergency same day packages around the greater Seattle area since it’s humble beginnings in this state, in the very same square footage nearly one hundred years ago.
Way back in 1907, James Casey and Claude Ryan opened up the American Messenger Service, with a hundred bucks borrowed from Ryan’s uncle Charley Jones. According to an article by James Warren at Historylink.org
Casey and Ryan started operations in the basement of a saloon on 2nd and Main. They delivered packages and messages on foot, bicycle and streetcar. They sold the idea to other teenage boys who agreed to purchase uniforms and operate under a strict code of conduct that included, no whistling. American Messenger Service became what is today known as the United Parcel Service. (1) All that remains of the original site of UPS is a concrete slab honoring the men and women of yesteryear and present day.
Today the main attraction here for the weary traveler and tourist is a waterfall constructed of natural granite boulders hewn from a nearby mountain side, where every minute some fifty-five thousand gallons of water cascade downward into a recycling pool.
Walking into this inexplicably secluded park is somewhat like entering a time gone by and yet with every entrance I make, time just seems to stand still. There is a sense of calm and unabashed serenity all but bating the passerby to step inside. If the granite slabs could speak they might just coerce me to stay a while longer.
I sit and listen to the symphony before me. The wind, like a flute blowing a gentle tune through the leaves causing them to shake ever so gently like a tambourine. The water crashing down on the granite slabs thundering away like a kettle drum, all kept in perfect time by the unseen Master’s hand. Calm, peaceful and serene. Impossible. Impossible solitude surrounded by absolute chaos.
I reluctantly relinquish my black, metal seat and with each hesitant step, I leave the solace of this little known paradise and enter the cruel, concrete prison of my eight hour obligation. I even glance back a few times just to remind myself that I wasn’t dreaming.
How Do Our Groceries Ever Make It To The Store
My riders come from all walks of life. They are homeless, fast food workers, grocery clerks, bankers, salesmen, reporters, (Chris Legeros of Channel Seven hopped on my number 4 trolley one morning.) Sometimes they bring their work home with them. Some times they share their work with other riders, unintentionally. Sometimes they share more intimate details of their life. One regular rider on the 240 was a rider whose dress style always reminds me of the Garanimals clothing style that was popular in the seventies. She wears very nice, albeit somewhat odd fashions. Usually a sky blue or purple dress or skirt outfit, with matching, gloves, shoes, nylons, and hat. Sometimes the hat has a matching feather or other matching adornment. She’s a heavy set woman with a somewhat nagging tone of voice that has one level. LOUD.
One evening I picked her up in the southbound zone in front of the Factoria Mall near 41st street. She took a seat and as usual was talking on her cell phone. The bus wasn’t crowded but was nearly full and all passengers were quickly entertained by the ensuing conversation and requests of the Garanimals lady.
“I’m over drawn in my account? I didn’t know I was over drawn. How much am I over drawn? I’m overdrawn by twenty dollars? I didn’t know that. When did that happen? Yesterday. How can I fix this? What? What number? Wait a minute. I need to write it down. I need to find a pen. Can you hang on a minute?” (I could hear shuffling sounds and guessed she was looking through her purse for a pen. A moment later she continued.)
“I can’t find a pen. Can you hang on a moment. I need to find a pen? Does anybody have a pen?” She spoke even louder. “I need a pen. Does anybody have a pen? Do you have a pen. I need a pen. Do you have a pen? Do you have a pen? I need a pen.” I can only guess people were looking to see if they had a pen. The garanimals lady left her seat and proceeded down the aisle in search of a pen. It looked like one passenger might have found the needed writing implement, but alas, no such luck and garanimals returned to her seat.
“I can’t find a pen. Can I call you back? I’m going to call you back when I get home. I don’t have a pen and I need to write this down.”
A few weeks later this same lady was on my route 240 again and we were driving through a residential area in Newcastle. I turned on to a street and suddenly, on top of all my other responsibilities, I was a horticulture expert.
“Driver. Do you know the name of that plant?” she asked. I sat silent.
“Driver. Do you know the name of that plant? The one we just passed. The big pink one on the corner,” she asked again. I sat silent hoping against hope that my silence would speak for itself. No such luck.
“Driver. Did you see that plant? The one on the corner in front of that house we just passed by? The big pink one in front on the corner?” Okay, silence isn’t working.
“No ma’am. I didn’t see the plant. I don’t know,” I said. (It wouldn’t matter if I had seen the plant. I don’t know plants. I planted a garden last year and couldn’t tell you what’s back there. I know the plants were purple, red, white, and yellow, and in my opinion very pretty, but when it comes to plants I know them only as plants. Trees are the same. It’s a tree. I discovered only recently, that somewhere out on the route 232 which runs out of Bellevue Base in Bellevue, are trees grown specifically for toilet paper, and you guessed it. I call them toilet paper trees. When it comes to science, I keep it simple. Trees, grass, flowers, bugs, dirt. If I was a science teacher everyone would pass. Garanimals Lady finally gave up on me. Phew. I was afraid it was a test. Garanimals Lady is just one of the unique riders a driver comes across on a daily basis. I don’t know what she does for a living, but considering her very nice, not to mention very coordinated outfits, I’m guessing she earns a living somehow.
You wouldn’t think of a bus as a gymnasium but because of the horizontal and vertical hand holds riders have been known to perform sets of pull ups, leg ups, and somersaults. I had some middle schools students about six years ago who were turning themselves upside down to touch the bus ceiling with their feet. They ended up damaging an emergency exit in the back of the bus.
Riders have been known to consummate their relationships in the back seat, sell, buy and use drugs of all kinds and sometimes fall asleep. When I think about the many different people whom I stop and pick up everyday, and their individual quirks and endless questions, I can’t help but wonder sometimes, how on Earth do our groceries ever make it to the supermarket, much less end up on the shelf? Seriously.
If you recall from a previous chapter while I was driving the route 194 it took me four separate announcements on the loudspeaker to finally get everyone off of my bus and on to another bus that was actually heading to downtown Seattle. They were all English speaking people, or at least knew enough English to ask me if I was going to down town Seattle. Maybe that was the only English they did know. Heaven help them when they actually get there.
I pick up all types, nationalities, diverse educational backgrounds and for eight long hours every day there are endless questions. Sometimes I get the same question over and over. Just this past week while loading passengers in Bay Two of the Kirkland Transit Center a line of people boarded and one after the next asked the exact same question: Do you go to Totem Lake? Six different riders, male and female, all adults asked if my bus was heading to Totem Lake. Had they boarded one at a time in increments of thirty to sixty seconds, hearing the same question six times would almost have been understandable, but they were all boarding at the exact same time leaving me, and my current riders shaking our heads. (Which previous time did they not already hear the answer to that question?) Just the other day on the 242 I pulled into the Overlake Park and Ride on my way to Redmond Transit Center and three people stood outside the front door. My signage in front and on the side as I approached them read, REDMOND. Each one of them asked if I was going to Bellevue.
My favorite question has become, what time is it? When I was a brand new part time driver heading south bound on Second Avenue in down town, a man who looked to be in his thirties literally ran after me down the side walk for a full block. When I stopped and opened the door to let him board he just wanted to know what time it was. He ran past shop after shop with a clock hanging on the wall. I guess he just wanted Metro time.
One older female rider was trying to get to a pharmacy at Overlake Hospital on 116th, in Bellevue. She asked me to call out the stop for her, which I did. Then it got interesting. She comes to the front of the bus and says,
“Do you know where the pharmacy is?” I was not expecting that one.
“No ma’am, I don’t know where it is, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know where it is either,” she replied, “can you help me look for it?”
I didn’t quite know what to say, but I was thinking,
“You mean, park my bus, tell the rest of my riders I’ll be back in say, oh I don’t know, fifteen minutes, get off the bus and walk around with you until we find it?” hmm…
I just wonder what they are thinking when they get on the bus, or better yet what they are thinking when the bus is coming toward them. Some of them see only the number and flag me down. Some see only the bus. Some barely see me at all and nearly get run over as they run out in front of coming traffic to catch my bus. Then the questions begin: Do you go downtown? Do you go to Bellevue? Do you know what happened to the 6:30 bus? Just last night while driving the 250 I stopped in the Overlake Park and Ride and picked up a nice young man with tattoos covering his arms. I actually saw the tattoos before I saw the young man who was wearing them. After hopping on my bus he took a seat across from me and asked not once, not twice, but again and again, even after I said three times, I was not going to Bellevue, he asked again.
“Are you going to Bellevue?”
“No, I am not going to Bellevue. This is as close to Bellevue as we will get,” I said as I drove east bound on 24th avenue crossing over 156th, heading toward West Lake Sammamish.
“This isn’t the 253?” He asked. (This of course freaked me out. It wouldn’t be the first time I had misread my own signage, or failed to change it.) I looked up and breathed a sigh of relief. I was driving the 250 and I was heading in the right direction.
“No, this is not the 253 and I’m not going to Bellevue. This is the 250 and we are going to Redmond Transit Center.”
“Oh, I got on the wrong bus,” he finally realized. Call me crazy but when the bus comes toward me I’m reading the signage, ALL of it. Once while driving the route 15 express a rider asked me what bus he needed to take to a specific location. I was still part time and barely knew my route much less any other routes, and I said, “I’m not sure, but you can call rider information and they can tell you.” With cell phone in hand he replied, “No, I don’t have time for that.” He didn’t reach his destination until the end of the route some thirty minutes later and had put his cell phone away. Clearly he didn’t have time.
My friend Sandy always tells me, “Everybody is not like you.” For which I confess, I am very grateful. However, as true as that may be I just wonder what keeps people from using common sense? Could it really be that un-common? I spent a year in South Korea from 1996-1997 where I was teaching English conversation. I have SO much respect for teachers now. Talk about an unappreciated, underpaid, overworked profession.
When I left for South Korea I could not speak, read or write a word of it. Before my very first class I remember thinking, ‘how will I get my students to repeat what I’m saying?’ About an hour before my first class I spoke to my bilingual boss and asked for a few sentences in Korean. I kind of started learning Korean from there and within five months I was speaking somewhat fluent, albeit elementary, Korean. I traveled the length and width of South Korea and did so without asking a single bus driver for directions. It wouldn’t have helped anyway. My elementary Korean was elementary. I wouldn’t have understood the directions if they had mimed them.
I rode the bus everywhere, from Seoul to Iksan City, Kunsan to Taegu. I didn’t find it difficult at all to get around South Korea by bus, by train or taxi, yet I come home to America and I’ve got passengers who were born and raised here asking me what bus to catch to get downtown. Readin is such a lost art form. You ask “why does it bother you so much to give directions?” My first answer is come drive a bus.
My second answer is join me on my route. Let’s just take the 194, which is a pretty nice piece of work, mostly. It runs from Federal Way to downtown Seattle and takes about forty five minutes. At the end of each trip I am given what is called “recovery time.” On this particular run it’s about ten minutes in Federal Way. So I pull into the Federal Way Transit Center where I am met by a dozen or more curious bus riders who are trying to get somewhere else. Mind you, I need to use the rest room, and I have about ten minutes to drive to the Federal Way Park and Ride, drop off any last passengers and then try to use the facilities.
So here I am at the Federal Way Transit Center and a dozen people with a dozen different questions swarm my bus.
“What bus do I take to the airport?”
“What bus do I take to Twin Lakes?”
“Where do I catch the 174?”
“What bus do I take to Tacoma?”
“What time does the next bus for Tacoma leave?”
And it just goes on and on. Let’s just put this into perspective. If you should take a bus from any transit center you will find KIOSKS with maps of the greater Seattle area, poles with bay numbers on them and a listing of the areas that particular bay will serve, and a time sheet on the pole that tells you when the bus is expected to arrive. The Federal Way Transit Center also has an information booth with a clock in it, and a nice gentleman inside who is just waiting for someone to come and ask him all the questions I am now being pounded with, not to mention that the clock is running and I might have five minutes to get to my layover and use the facilities.
When I miss my layover time and am running feverishly for the comfort station, (Metro’s version of the bathroom) I am now running late for my next time point. I arrive back at the Transit Center and am greeted with…
“Why are you so late?”
“You’re going to make me miss my transfer bus.”
…And the hits just keep on coming.
A driver really does need recovery time, in laymen’s terms, a break. I really enjoy driving, which is good, because if I hated driving, boy would I be in the wrong occupation. Having said that, I’m also human. All drivers are. I know, it’s hard to believe. It’s even harder to believe, as a driver, how “hearing challenged” some riders can be. Case in point. I was driving the 194 in the summer of 2009, and a tourist approached me and asked if I would call out Westlake Station. No problem I told her. It was the next to last stop in the bus tunnel. She went away returning when I entered the tunnel, and proceeded to ask me if we had arrived at Westlake Station, for which I responded, “No ma’am, it’s the third stop in the tunnel and I will call it out for you.
The rider remained at my side for the remaining three stops where I then announced three times, (I’m not kidding.) In to the PA which was set on it’s highest level. I could hear my voice in the back as I annunciated each word.
“WESTLAKE STATION, MONORAIL, PIKE PLACE MARKET.” The aforementioned rider stood right next to me. Not at the back of the bus, not half-way back, not even three feet, but less than one foot away from me, and after having made the announcement a third time, she turned to me and asked?
“Is this Westlake Station?”
This my friends, is why drivers need RECOVERY time.
Traffic and Weather
People don’t drive cars, ego’s drive cars
I have such an odd career. I really enjoy driving but never imagined myself behind the wheel of a Metro bus. The odd part of my career is that people seem so impressed when I tell them that I drive for Metro. “YOU DRIVE FOR METRO?” It’s a peculiar sort of celebrity that quickly wears off when John. Q. Public gets behind the wheel of his own car. Then, suddenly, it’s every man for himself and whether there are 350 horses under that hood or it’s a Schwinn, I am now, THE ENEMY.
I personally have been flipped off, cut off, cursed out, given the look (the stare down), nearly broadsided, and blind sided almost every day of my last eight driving years. There is a section of fence line on Bellevue Way and 24th Avenue in Bellevue, where an impatient driver cut off a bus to turn right on 24th, lost control and ended up plowing through the local resident’s wooden fence. One of my riders pointed it out to me and told me the story of how the “lighter fence” came to be.
People don’t like buses unless they need to catch one and then the smiles come alive, especially when people are running late. But when they have to share the road with a bus, the bus is always in the wrong, and I have the complaints to prove it. We don’t like not seeing miles ahead of us when we are driving. It’s a control thing, though I’m not sure what we think we are controlling other than arriving at our destination two minutes before our coworkers. I have attempted to merge into traffic along with a line of vehicles only to have a driver “push” me out of the way so that he could sit on the highway right in front of me. Neither one of us were going anywhere but he was bound and determined to go nowhere, two feet ahead of me.
I never know what to think when I’m merging onto the highway or into another lane. I will look in my mirror and see “blinking” headlights, to “go ahead” . People like to give me the go ahead and then take it away. Or better yet give me the right of way and then speed up to within five inches of my bumper, (I’m exaggerating) it’s probably a generous twelve inches. They then sit there twelve inches from the back of my bus and I’m supposed to be thrilled with all the space I have to merge. Often when I look back in my side mirror, I find them slamming on their brakes. Somehow they just didn’t see the remaining ten feet of my bus when they decided to let me over.
Some of my favorite obstacles as a Metro driver are bus zones, HOV lanes, bicycles, other cars stopped on the side of the road, and drivers who “think“ they know how to drive in bad weather. Bus zone? You wouldn’t think of a bus zone as an obstacle unless you have to drive into or out of one. I never quite know what I will encounter when approaching a zone. People sleep in zones, eat in zones, have conversations in zones, and occasionally wait for a bus in them as well. I’m always surprised when I come across a group of people in a bus zone who actually want to catch my bus. I assumed they were just meeting for lunch.
People of all ages like to use the curb of the zone as a seat and they read while they wait for my bus. They often sit right in the middle of the zone, which gives me very little room to maneuver and bring my bus to the curb so riders can safely board the bus. I don’t know how the noise of my bus escapes their hearing, but just yesterday while driving the 164 in Covington, a young reader looked completely stunned when she finally realized I had arrived and was positioned just a few short feet from where she sat reading.
I’m not sure how people manage to sleep in zones considering the little metal bench is barely usable as a seat, much less a bed. One must be drop dead, can’t take another step, exhausted to fall asleep on one of these contraptions. Then somehow they hear me and wake up, they come running with arms flailing. I’m not sure how someone in the dead of sleep can actually hear my bus, and yet if they had been reading they might not even know I was there. Whether reading, sleeping, or doing nothing at all it’s amusing how difficult it can be for some riders to notice my big blue forty footer with noisy muffler.
Whereas arriving is one obstacle, leaving is a whole new experience in merging.
What most drivers don’t know is that there is a law that gives Metro Transit the right of way when reentering traffic after making a stop in a zone. Most drivers don’t know about it because Metro barely advertises other than a square on the back of the bus with a yellow yield sign on it. In tiny lettering barely noticeable is the following: (RCW 46.61.220). Metro goes to all the trouble to stick this little yield sign on the back of the bus, and like every other sign on the bus, like the signage, it is never read.
As Washington's “Yield to Bus” law states: “The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right of way to a transit vehicle traveling in the same direction that has signaled and is reentering the traffic flow.” It has been on the books for more than ten years beginning in 1993, but even the police seem completely unaware of it. I have waited with turn signal flashing for as long as three to five minutes to reenter the flow of traffic. Many patrol cars have passed me by while talking away on a cell phone.
I have come to the conclusion that people don’t really drive cars. Ego’s drive cars. We all drive by our ego. We feel like letting someone in and suddenly we are the most patient person in the world, (in our minds), but if we’re in a bad mood, late, hungry, stuck in traffic, missing our favorite television show, (mine in House), then look out. Not only are you not getting in ahead of me, you are going to rue the day you entered the road along side of me. Just last Friday I was reentering I 405 north bound from Coal Creek Parkway, with blinker on, and an eighteen wheeler was coming up behind me. He was several hundred feet behind me and I could have easily moved over ahead of him, but I waited to see if he was interested in sharing the road with a fellow big wheeler. He wasn’t. Not only was he not interested in sharing the road, as he passed by he stared me down as if he had accomplished some great feat in life. Maybe for him it was. Maybe that’s why he’s driving a truck. POWER. Ego’s drive trucks, too.
It’s our ego’s that cost us the most down the road. When I was still a part time driver I had just completed my year long probation the day before and I was driving northbound on Interstate 405. Traffic was heavy, and around the 85th and Kirkland exit it came to a stand still for everybody but me. I was in the HOV lane and it was wide open. Next to me was a good sized pick up truck and the driver was determined to out run me. I looked at the traffic ahead of him and thought, this isn’t good. This guy is right next to me and he’s not stopping and in about 200 hundred feet he has no where to go. I floored it to get out of the way. Flooring it didn’t help much because I was only able to get to sixty miles per hour, but I had to get out of the way. A few seconds later I heard tires screeching and the sound of metal crashing into metal. I was fine, but the driver next to me had quite a mess on his hands. To this day I wonder what he thought traffic would do when he came up to it… disappear?
What can I say about the HOV lane? Most people know that buses merge left to enter the HOV lane. Buses don’t need the fast lane for the most part because they really can’t go that fast. Buses have a governor that kicks in around the sixty one to sixty five mile per hour mark, and the fast lane starts at sixty five, depending on whom you ask.
So, when merging onto the highway the bus is heading over to the HOV lane and once again, that ego kicks in, and NOBODY wants to let you in. We might be buried in a traffic jam and car after car, ego after ego, pushes past me as I attempt to move a bus load of commuters into the open lane and off to another work day. I’m not even using their lane that long. A minute, maybe two until I can get over and out of the way, and the only reason it is taking so long is because so many ego’s can’t stand to be “put out,” while I attempt to move out of the way.
On the other hand the HOV lane can be dangerous. The same ego’s that don’t want to let my bus merge left, now want to jump into the HOV lane and take their chances at getting caught while they jump a hundred feet, two hundred feet, maybe a mile if they can find an opening somewhere, and get ahead of their fellow “ego’s”. The HOV lane on the 520 is especially notorious for this practice. Fortunately the state highway patrol goes “fishing” on Friday’s and they are pull over cars like a master fisherman.
The rest of the week I have to be on the look out for “jumpers.” Jumpers are drivers who jump out into the HOV lane thinking they have room. Sometimes they do, sometimes… not so much. It was only a few weeks ago that I had a jumper jump right in front of me and it was nearly the end of his sporty little “spider.”
Jumpers like to take advantage of lane closures. They drive to the top of the open lane and signal for merging. This drives me nuts. When a line of cars does this it opens the door for many to follow and before you know it, all of those drivers who are waiting in line are sitting at a stop light for six cycles. Having a bus is a big advantage for keeping everyone in line, IN LINE. It’s pretty arrogant if you think about it. Jumpers are basically telling the rest of traffic, my time is just too valuable to hang out with all of you losers. I’m jumping ahead of you. Just try to stop me. (Don’t worry I will. And I have the bus to do it.)
The most notorious ego’s aren’t even in cars. They ride bicycles. They ride as if they are all by themselves in the middle of downtown Seattle. I like to ride my bicycle. I ride it constantly. I ride it on a bicycle path where other bicycles ride and cars are not allowed. Seattle has decided to go green and is so determined to get people out of their cars that our illustrious powers that be have given bicycles “carte blanche” to ride however they choose, whenever they chose, regardless. I’m not sure why they bothered to legislate bicycles riders with this law:
When lighted lamps and signaling devices are required.
Every vehicle upon a highway within this state at any time from a half hour after sunset to a half hour before sunrise and at any other time when, due to insufficient light or unfavorable atmospheric conditions, persons and vehicles on the highway are not clearly discernible at a distance of one thousand feet ahead shall display lighted headlights, other lights, and illuminating devices as hereinafter respectively required for different classes of vehicles, subject to exceptions with respect to parked vehicles, and such stop lights, turn signals, and other signaling devices shall be lighted as prescribed for the use of such devices.
This law is neither followed nor enforced. Ever. Drive through down town Seattle, the University District, Redmond, Kirkland, Renton, Kent, Federal Way, West Seattle, Bothell, Lake City Way, Shoreline, Lynnwood, pretty much anywhere in the King County area and I guarantee you this law is being broken by hundreds of bicycle riders. To make matters worse, skate boarders are following suit and taking to the roads. It’s completely illegal and it doesn’t matter. I have yet to see even one of them pulled over.
SKATEBOARDER KILLED IN METRO BUS COLLISION. That was the top story on King 5 in April, of 2008. The driver of the bus was going through a green light in the University District and never even knew the accident happened. The University District in particular is notorious for this behavior. College students somehow believe they are invincible. Here’s a news flash for college students: you are invincible until you die. And on that happy note…
Sadly, pedestrians are pedestrians, regardless. God bless construction workers. They give us roads, highways, bridges, and they fill in potholes and such, eventually.
They also give warnings. Road closed. Sidewalk closed. (This sign just means that now pedestrians need to use the road for travel, which they were doing anyway. Maybe we should “eighty-six” the sign. Save money.) For the most part, construction workers are great people to work with, when it comes to driving a bus. I really do believe they “get” that I have this huge vehicle and I need room and time to maneuver it through THEIR zones. But not all construction workers are cut from the same cloth and one zone in particular will always stick out as one of the most challenging to maneuver, with the least helpful construction worker I‘ve ever met.
I was driving the route 271 in the summer of 2007, and right in front of Swedish Hospital, along West Lake Sammamish Way a construction crew was tearing up the road and plastic construction cones were set up parallel to concrete barriers. It was TIGHT. I coasted up, almost at a crawl with my forty foot bus and shook my head as workers signaled that it was “okay.” IT WAS NOT OKAY. I had less than twelve inches on the right side of the bus, where the cones were set up, and barely ten inches on the side with the concrete barriers. In my mind I thought, I’m not taking out the side of my bus with a concrete barrier so I bared “right” toward the plastic cones. I was running over the base of the cones and managed to knock a few down, but they are plastic and cheaper than replacing the entire side of a forty foot bus. One construction worker did not agree with me. She stood at the top of the zone about thirty five feet ahead of me, jumping up and down and waving her arms, directing me away from the plastic cones and toward the concrete barrier. I shook my head to let her know I wasn’t going to follow her directions. When I was within earshot I yelled,
“Do you want to come drive my bus?” to which she responded like someone who had never driven a bus, “Do you want to replace my cones?”
Hmmm… plastic construction cone, what, a couple hundred bucks. Side of a forty foot Metro bus: couple thousand bucks. Easy call.
Last but not least is my favorite obstacle of all. Cars on the side of the road. There are only a few reasons why a car is on the side of the road and everyone who has been a driver or passenger of a moving vehicle has seen them all, which begs the question: Why does traffic come to a stand still if a fellow driver is pulled over getting a ticket, changing a flat tire, out of gas and calling for help, of sadly, part of an accident, usually in bad weather. Most accidents happen when it rains, and it rains a lot in Seattle, so, we have lot of accidents around here all over the place. It doesn’t help that our roads were built fifty years ago for half the population we currently support so it doesn’t take much on four lane, two directional I-405 to back up traffic for miles. But it’s not just I-405. We have problems on I-167, I-5, 518 and I-99. Driving a bus in normal traffic is a chore, but add three feet of snow and now the bus driver is just waiting for someone in a little red “Miata” to dash through like he’s making a commercial for Mazda. What’s left of his little red sports car is usually the making for a commercial all right!
By the time most of us reach the accident it is being attended to by those who attend to accidents. They are known as emergency aid: police, fire, medics, etc. Highway accidents will close down a lane or two, which of course makes the back up even worse, but what prevents the back up from being unclogged is that everyone MUST slow down and look at it. Every gory detail must be identified by each passing vehicle so that when they each arrive at their destinations they now have something to talk about. One would think with everything else going on in our lives that we wouldn’t be so dependant on tragedy and misfortune for a simple conversation starter. Makes me wish Leslie Nielsen would show up with his line from Naked Gun, “Nothing to see here, please disperse.”
This chapter is dedicated to all drivers everywhere.
Complaints, unique riders and unnecessary equipment
And the FARE
non peak fare 1 zone: 2.25
Peak fare 1 zone: 2.50
Some customer complaints: PRICELESS
“Driver, this lady is calling me names,” an elderly man sitting across from my driver’s seat said.
In the seven plus years I’ve been driving I have received complaints, and heard stories from other drivers of interesting comments and complaints from riders. Metro customer service passes on every complaint no matter how trivial. Metro really should have a “bar” of some sort to determine what is worth passing on, and what should simply be “round-filed.” (Thrown away.) If I had any say in the matter I would automatically round file complaints like these:
“Driver told me to have a good day! How rude. She has no business telling me what kind of day to have.“ (That was on the 7 Trolley,) ‘nuf said.
“Driver only says good night to women riders. He never says good night to male riders.”
“Driver did not say good morning to me.”
“Driver did not smile as we entered the bus.”
“Driver threw a cigarette out his window.” (The driver in question here, doesn’t smoke.)
“I was running five minutes late and the driver didn’t wait for me.”
“Driver got angry, reached into the fare box and threw all the money out on the floor.” (Driver’s have no access to fare box contents.)
“Driver talks to himself.” (It’s the only intelligent conversation we have some days.)
“I missed my bus because I was late and the driver of the 128 said it was my fault that I missed the bus.”
“Driver did not yield to me as I was merging on to I-5.” (My personal favorite. I received this one in the fall of 2008.)
“Driver calls out the stops too much.” (Calling out stops is an ADA, Americans with disabilities, requirement.)
“Driver calls out the stops too loud.”
“Driver is too happy. He must be “high”.
“Driver is always in a good mood. Something must be wrong with him.”
“People on the bus don’t bathe or use deodorant, and they fart. Can’t Metro install air fresheners.”
Some of my favorite complaints are directed to me right on the bus.
“You didn’t tell me I was on the wrong bus.”
“Your signage says you are going to White Center.” (Actually the signage read that my 128 was going to South Center, VIA White Center.) VIA means through or by way of, by means of. And I dearly love riders who wear headsets, talk on cell phones or get deep into conversations with other passengers, and then complain that they didn’t hear me call out their stop. One young male rider approached with headset still intact and asked if I had called out his stop. When I said yes, he replied, “What?“
(I can’t imagine how he could have missed the announcement.)
Complaints are so subjective, and solely at the whim of the complainer’s mood for the day. Just recently I was leaving the north bound zone at 4th and University and a lady approached and began screaming at me.
“What do you mean why am I asking you a question? It’s your job to give me directions,” she yelled.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. The screaming continued. She stood less than a foot from my face and just yelled at me.
“I asked you a question. Your job is to give me directions,” she screamed. I took a deep breath and tried to calm her down and understand her rage.
“Okay, let’s have a conversation,” I responded. She just became angrier. Mind you I was sitting in the middle of traffic, at a red light, trying to concentrate on traffic all the while she continued screaming,
“I don’t need a conversation. I need directions and it’s your job to give me directions. Don’t you take out your bad day on me,” she yelled. This fun little incident continued for about five minutes. Three of those were spent waiting for the light to change. It was the LONGEST red light I can ever remember. I pulled over at the next available zone and after yelling at me some more, she finally hopped off. I still don’t know what she needed directions to.
While driving the route 564, (I think) it was a long time ago now, I would wait in Bay 3 of the Renton Transit Center, for transferring passengers from the 169. I received a complaint that I was holding up the 564 for riders from other buses. I mentioned this to my riders one morning, and one of them told me that the one who had complained was one of the transferring passengers. (You can’t make this stuff up.)
He wanted me to wait for him and take off, leaving his fellow transferee’s to fend for themselves. One of my oddest complaints was that I had run over a construction cone. I don’t remember the route I was driving, but I remember the crosswalk. I was stopped at a light and was about to turn right on to 164th. A construction crew was painting the crosswalk but had positioned cones in such a way that turning through them was nearly impossible. I spoke with one of the crew from my driver’s window and said,
“I’m going to run over the cones. It’s too tight for my forty foot bus.” The crew member was okay with it, one of my passengers wasn’t. He complained that I had run over a cone. (Whatever will I do next, run over a freshly painted crosswalk line?)
A female driver in an SUV followed me into a park and ride to complain that I had taken her right of way. A rider in China Town once complained that I left her family behind. The complaint read that the rider boarded through the front door and her family tried to board through the back door. I didn’t know I had a family boarding and certainly not through separate doors. And I don’t know what I did wrong but an elderly lady on the 240 gave me an ear full one night in another language.
While in the Federal Way Transit Center changing my signage I opened the door and announced in MY very loud voice, (ask any of my friends) that I was no longer the route 183. I was now the route 187. It’s hard to believe but no one heard me and several people boarded. A young man came up and asked if I was still the route 183. When I told him I was now the 187 he said, your sign says 183. Before I could say a word those who had already boarded came running to the front.
“You aren’t the 183? Your sign says you are!”
‘No, I’m the 187. I changed my signage before you boarded and I announced it while you were outside.” I told them, but I was wasting my time. It was my fault that they had boarded and hadn’t heard a thing I said.
Riders through the bus tunnel in downtown ask what I refer to as “drive-thru” questions. If you have ever worked at a fast food restaurant at the drive-through window you will have people ordering food and asking, “can I have that to go?” You laugh, but it happened all the time when I worked at McDonalds many years ago.
Now take a ride through the bus tunnel. There is one in downtown Seattle. Construction on the 1.3 mile tunnel began in 1987 and was completed in 1990 at a cost of 444 million dollars. Four hundred forty-four million dollars worth of concrete, steel and laminated wall maps with station names, bus routes, destinations and times. And if you still can’t figure it out there is a phone number for rider information. There are four stations in the tunnel that riders can board heading north and south. Heading north bound from Royal Brougham the first station is the International district/China Town.
Continuing north bound, stops are Pioneer Square, Union Street Station, Westlake, and finally the Convention Center. In reverse order if you are heading south bound. Buses can become stalled or stuck behind one another, but they cannot turn around, or for that matter leave the tunnel early. Being confined to an underground tunnel is by definition, confining. Still I have riders boarding at Pioneer Square and asking, “Do you go to Westlake?” I just chuckle and respond, “I don’t have any choice.” One rider boarded and asked, “Do you go to the next tunnel?”
I think what surprises me the most about commuters of all ages, with a few exceptions, is how unprepared they are for the trip they are about to take. They automatically assume that Metro drivers can contact each other, other bus systems, such as Community Transit, Sound Transit and the like, and they often assume that we know about the ferry system.
“When does the next ferry take off?”
“Where do I catch the Bremerton ferry?”
Their questions surprise you but their actions surprise you even more. One driver was entertained while driving the 358, by a beautiful young woman whom, “could have been the cover of Playboy” in his opinion. She boarded his bus, stripped down to her “birthday suit” and began to enjoy her own company. She exited at the next stop where she thanked him before leaving. On another occasion a young lady boarded the same driver’s bus, stripped right at the fare box and begged him to have his way with her. His reponse was priceless, “I can’t, I’m driving.” When male riders say this to me I like to say, “Not tonight dear, I have a headache.”
I met another driver once who had a file of complaints against him and all from the same rider. He drives too slow. He drives too fast. He’s not very nice. He’s too talkative. He’s lets too many people board the bus. He ran through a yellow light, Etc. The day I met him he had just finished meeting with his base chief over another complaint from the same rider. I think people believe that complaining will send the driver to the Metro “clink.” Sorry Seattle, Metro doesn’t have a clink.
I had a rider complain to me that I wasn’t stopping to pick up the newspaper that had just been thrown on to the floor by one of his fellow riders. I just thought, would you like to me drive or clean up after you? Probably both. I guess I should bring my maid apron and make sure they wipe their feet before they enter.
There are three things on a bus that really don’t need to be there. Outer signage, inner signage and the PA system. The only time people read signage is when it’s wrong, and I’m not sure why incorrect signage is so appealing to the naked eye. Detailed signage about the route and it’s destination is located on the front and the side of the bus, facing the would be terminal where passengers board. The signage gives the final destination, Kirkland, Airport, Husky Game, and the number of the route where it pertains. 101, 166, 150, 140, and the like. The signage is also set up to let the future rider know that we are going to end up at one location, I.E. EAST GATE, by way of another destination, VIA BELLEVUE.
“The sign says you are going to White Center!” one lady exclaimed when she approached my driver’s seat. I looked up and re-read the sign above me to make sure I had the correct signage, which I did, and replied,
“No ma’am, the signage states that this bus is going to South Center, VIA White Center. White Center is behind us and we are now heading to South Center.”
The signage on the inside of the bus doesn’t seem to be of much service either. Metro has spent a lot of money recently to inform current riders of a change in fare. This information is listed on signage at all transit centers, on the fare box as they enter, above their heads in the bus, and on time tables printed out in a new color every new shake-up. With all of this information, not to mention word of mouth, since most people have friends who ride the bus, riders will enter one after the next and ask what the fare is. (They never seem to hear each other when they board the bus together.) One female rider asked me where she could catch the route 71, while we were stopped at 4th and Pike north bound. Another female rider was standing right next to her.
“You get off here, cross the street and walk one block to 3rd Avenue. You can catch the route 71 to the University District on the north bound side.” The first female rider thanked me and hopped off. The second female rider then asked,
“Where do I catch the route 71 bus?”
“You can follow the same directions I just gave to that passenger,” I said, pointing to the rider who just hopped off the bus.
“I didn’t hear what you said to her,” the second rider said. The sound of laughter emitted from remaining passengers who were probably as surprised as I was.
“You gotta be kidding,” one rider responded. I guess everyone BUT the second female rider heard the directions I had given.
It seems that no matter how much information is out there it’s just not enough. Last evening I pulled into Bay 3 for the 164/168 route at the Kent Rail station and had to change my signage which read TO TERMINAL. I opened the front door and called out,
“THIS IS THE ROUTE 164. YOU ARE FREE TO BOARD THE BUS.” No response. I left the door open and finished changing my signage and tended to other responsibilities while a rather large group of people stood there watching me. After a few minutes a rather stout man standing at the bottom of the stairs asked,
“Can we get on now?” I just shook my head and said,
“I have got to work on my communication skills.” I said. “Apparently when I said, you are free to board the bus, no one understood me.”
“It was pretty clear to me,” one rider said as she boarded. She was NOT standing in front of the line when I made the announcement. Still SHE heard the announcement. I guess she didn’t board because she wanted to be polite. How thoughtful.
Speaking of announcements if there is one system on the bus that seems to have no reason for existence it would be the P.A. system. I can call out every stop, every street, every transit center, in a loud clear voice, and as passengers are leaving they will ask
“Is this the transit center.”
Maybe the problem is my driving. People are always telling me I drive really well.
“You drive so smoothly. You are such a good driver.”
It leaves me wondering, what do other drivers do, take the sidewalk? Do I lull them to sleep and they miss the announcements I make as we go? Maybe I need to start driving over a curb or two, then when I make announcements people will be begging to get off the bus. I have pulled into the South Renton Park and Ride, announced that we have arrived and what time it is, and eight out of ten passengers wanting to exit the bus will come up and ask me what time it is and where we are. Between signage that no one wants to read and announcements that no one listens to I wonder if we shouldn’t just save the money spent on all of that, and hire a few more police officers to keep the peace on difficult routes like the 174. (This is now the Rapid Ride A Line)
People complain a lot about the fare. Most of the people complaining about the fare are the same people who have just visited one of Seattle’s many tourist attractions. I know this because they get on my bus and talk to everyone about how the Seahawks just played, or what movie they saw at IMAX, the Argosy Cruise they took, the Experience Music Project, the Seattle Underground Tour, the Space Needle, Seattle Art Museum, Museum of Flight, and the list goes on.
Let’s compare for a moment.
Seattle Art Museum: All prices based on April 2009 listings.
One Adult ticket: 15.00 Service Fee: 3.00 ( I have no idea what a service fee is.)
Military: 12.00 Service Fee: 3.00
Senior 12.00 Service Fee: 3.00
Student 9.00 “ “ 3.00
Teen 13 and up 9.00 “ “ 3.00
Ride the Duck:
12 and under 15.00
No service fee
Space Needle: A ride to the top:
4 to 13: 9.00
62 and up: 14.00
This does not include souvenirs at the gift shop or the cost of lunch in the restaurant. This is just to ride to the top.
62 and up: 12.00
EMP: Experience Music Project
Adult: 15.83 Harbor Cruise
Adult Peak: 19.95
The other cruises require that you call for rates and scheduling.
Seaplanes: 87.50 for a twenty minute ride.
For other rides: call for rates.
7.00 Center Field Bleachers (The cheapest ticket in the park. It goes up from there. There is no age limit, but the prices appear limitless.)
Metro bus fare:
Weekday Peak Fare:
Adult one zone: 2.00
Adult two zone: 2.50
Senior Peak: .50
Senior Off Peak: .50
5 and under free.
All Day Pass: 4.00 (These were eliminated in 2011.)
It’s the cheapest, most economical mode of transportation to all of your favorite destinations, yet the brunt of every angry traveler in town. People will go shopping at Nordstroms and complain about the fare for the ride home. I actually picked up a lady at the Aurora Transit Station who had just finished shopping at Nordstroms. I was brand new to part time and the off peak fare at that time was $1.25. With bags in hand she boarded my bus with an expired transfer. I pointed it out to her and received an earful about how it had only expired ten minutes ago.
“I’m going to call Metro. That’s not fair.” I wonder if she gave the clerk at Nordstroms that much guff? Probably not. She was only too happy to spend money there. For $1.75 off peak, which is most of the day, a traveler can board in Federal Way and travel all the way to Bothell, a distance of 36.09 miles according to mapquest. You have to transfer to another bus in downtown Seattle, but that’s what the 1.75 transfer, is for.
When people go to IMAX, the Space Needle, or take an Argosy Cruise, all I hear about is how great the movie was, how cool it was to go up in the Space Needle, or how beautiful the sunset was during their cruise. If they do mention the price it’s to say,
“Oh, but it was totally worth it. You have to go.” When they exit my bus all I hear is, $1.75, that’s too expensive. But the fifteen dollar, half an hour cruise, now that was a bargain. One teenage rider on the 101 said, “I don’t feel like paying.”
I don’t really feel like driving so I guess were both out of luck.
And when it comes to a transfer grown men and women are always losing them. People will hang on to a Bruce Springsteen concert ticket from 1980, pebbles they collected at the beach, Sea Fair souvenirs, old Frito Bandito erasers from the ‘60‘s, and the like, but ask them to hold on to a transfer that they must have to catch the next bus, and they have no idea where they put it thirty seconds after they have taken a seat.
When it comes to the fare, believe me, drivers want it simplified more than riders. Trust me. Drivers have been complaining since before I ever started there in 2001. We have asked for a simple fare of two dollars. It would be paid no matter where you were going and it would be paid promptly when entering the bus. One fare you’re done. If only it could be so simple, but we are talking about a government agency here. Nothing is simple when the government is involved. The powers that be, (that would be the King County Council) decided long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, that until 7 p.m. all riders leaving downtown would not pay the fare until they arrived at their destination. They said, and I quote my part time instructor, “It takes too long to board people leaving the downtown area and buses get backed up while waiting for passengers to pay the fare as they enter,” so Metro lets you pay when you leave. Like I said, it’s the government and nothing is simple.
That certainly can be said about the varying fares, which of course is explained in the time tables, on line, inside the bus and of course in the tunnel. But as we all know, no one has time to read any of that and I wager a guess that no one has time to read it here either. For the small percentage of you who will take the time, here it goes.
Metro has two fare zones on most routes. The Boeing Access road is considered a boundary which dictates a new zone. This zone change covers any bus that drives on Interstate 5 during peak hours. The 194 for instance travels north and south on I-5 and as I mentioned before travels from downtown Seattle to Federal Way. If a rider boards in downtown Seattle and doesn’t exit until SeaTac Airport, he has now traveled two zones. He boarded the bus in one zone, crossed over the Boeing Access boundary and into a second zone. This two zone fare applies to the 101, 150, 106, 177, 192, 196, 198, and a dozen other routes that travel on I-5 during the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 a.m.
The other zone change happens whenever a bus crosses over water. So anytime a rider boards in downtown Seattle and travels over I-90 or 520 he is charged for two zones. Two zone fares are ONLY charged during peak hours between 6 and 9 a.m. and 3 and 6 p.m. because those are high ridership commuter times. The remaining 18 hours of the day are all off peak and one zone no matter what bridge you cross or what Interstate you travel on when you are riding with Metro. Sound Transit is a whole other animal. So for 18 hours out of a twenty four hour time period you pay only $1.75, yet inspite of that incredibly inexpensive means of travel, the complaints fly fast and furious… that is after they finish telling everyone about the fun time they had on their Argosy Cruise!
The Pick, Coordinator and Supervisor
Three times a year, 2500 drivers head downtown to the second floor of Central Base located at the intersection of 6th Avenue and Royal Brougham, one block from Qwest and Safeco fields. There, spread out in two adjoining rooms is where drivers with more seniority than I have spend between five and twenty minutes changing my schedule for the next four months.
Because they have been driving for ten years or more they have access to the work available long before I will ever get anywhere near that room. They have first pick of the Regular board, day and night board, days off and vacation time. Our lives as drivers go through what is lovingly referred to by Metro drivers and many of our riders who are in the know, as the “Shake-up.”
When I first began driving as a part timer I heard lots of more senior drivers complaining as they left the pick room that there was nothing left to pick. That’s not something you want to hear as a part timer with three people below you. As a part timer I often wondered why it was called the pick after the senior drivers were finished foraging through the “basket of goodies,” because by the time I showed up they basically handed me my work and said, have a nice four months. Then again, part timers drive mostly commuter routes like the 564, 212, 554, 177, 192, 196, etc. These routes are nice but the hours are starvation work. Like I said, I worked a whopping three hours a day, fifteen hours a week and brought home just enough to be a step above welfare. In fact, while shopping one day I found myself behind some shoppers paying with food stamps, that I of course made twenty five dollars a week too much to apply for. When I left the store with my Top Ramen and tuna fish in one bag I saw the same shoppers putting their bags of groceries into what looked like a brand new SUV. I almost cried. But back to the pick.
When I walk into the pick room my eye is automatically drawn away from the bases I will not be working out of. To my right is a sign for Central Base. Underneath the sign are printouts taped to the wall of all the work that has been picked and the work that is still available for picking. A sign for Bellevue Base hangs to the left with similar printouts taped to the wall underneath. This signage and available work is duplicated for the other five bases all around the room. The printouts have the names of the drivers written in space provided for each route and shift. A colored marker of red, green, blue, yellow, and orange, is used to cross through the driver’s name indicating to those coming behind that this work is taken. When I walk in I find a rainbow of information telling me just how little seniority I really have.
I have already decided that I will not be picking anything out of Central, Bellevue, East, North, Ryerson, or Atlantic, so my pick just became even pickier. I have a choice of picking a line on the day board, the night board, combo’s, (split shifts,) or picking my own work from what is left of the regular operator board. If I pick the day board I will end up somewhere around line twenty and below. This means that I might start anywhere between two and six o’clock in the morning. I could pick the night board and choose between line four and sixty. If I pick high on the night board I might again find myself starting between two and six o’clock in the morning. I’m not a morning person and I have decided before I walk in that I don’t want to be on the day or night board.
Operators who work the board have their life dictated by a computer. The computer keeps a running list of all drivers who are on vacation, sick like me this week, have a doctor appointment, or some other appointment that keeps the driver from performing the work he picked to drive. The computer than goes down the list of drivers on the board and fills in the blanks from line one to thirty, forty, or sixty, depending on the size of the base. If a driver isn’t qualified to drive the work he is given another piece of work by the computer. Sometimes there is no work left and the computer lists the driver as a report operator. The driver then shows up at work at a pre-assigned time and waits for someone to call in sick or not show up for work, and the report operator then goes and drives that work. I have waited all day and then received a nine hour piece of work. I have also sat around watching movies all day and been paid to do it. When you become more familiar with operations and what report operators are ahead of you, you can actually use the time to go exercise. I usually went and worked out for an hour whenever I had the chance.
When I first had enough seniority to go back to South Base I jumped at it. As I explained in another chapter, I picked the 150 and the 174. I didn’t want either route, but I knew what I was getting, and because I was working closer to home, I went for it. It only took one month into the shake-up for me to remember why I didn’t want to drive the 150 and 174 at night. I was attacked on four separate occasions. I was attacked twice in one night on the 150 by a group of teenage, gang-banger wanna be’s. They were listening to some expletive-filled rap music that other riders were complaining about. I asked them to put on their headsets, but they were getting off at the next stop on 3rd and Pike and didn’t care. Before leaving the one with the radio hit me in the chest with it, and his little four foot nothing friend, punched me in the face. It didn’t hurt but it really pissed me off. I was relieved of my work that night, which was good, because I was ready to kill the next teenager that dared to board my bus. Needless to say, I went back to the east side the next shake up and worked the night board at Bellevue Base for nearly three years.
I picked line five on the night board and found myself getting up every morning at three thirty a.m. so that I could sign in between five and six a.m. I would work between three and six hours, have a break in between of three to fours hours, and go drive another two to three hours, getting off between 5:30 and 6:30 only to find myself sitting in traffic once again on the long ride home back to Kent. It ended up being a sixteen to seventeen hour day, and since I’m a “night-owl” I then had to force myself to go to sleep by ten p.m. so I could hopefully get five hours of sleep before I did it all over again at three thirty the next morning.
After nearly three years of heading north on I-405 every morning at four thirty a.m. only to find myself stuck in traffic between Renton and Coal Creek Parkway, I came to the conclusion that I-405 and I needed to part ways. We just weren’t getting along anymore. Next pick I was heading south. As I stood there in front of the printouts at the pick, I once again looked over my choices. I started at the top of the regular work on the day board and my eyes quickly headed south to the bottom of the page where my choices were once again, the 194 four days a week, the 150 one day a week. I also had the choices between the 166, 168, 169, 101 and 128. Having driven the night board and being assigned the 166, 168 and 169 on regular basis I decided to pick my work instead. Last shake up I drove the 168 so many weeks of the shake-up, I might as well have picked the work myself, because the operator who signed up for it didn’t want to drive it either. I decided to pick my own work this past shake-up to insure I would not be driving the 168 or 169 any time soon. I hear the 169 isn’t bad on Sunday morning, but then again, all the little sinners are still asleep, as I’m certain they don’t dare share those “mouths” with the Lord on Sunday.
There are several nice things about being a board operator. First is that you don’t have the drive the same routes all the time. For the most part you are driving something different everyday, though you do find yourself driving routes like the 168 and 169 more often than you’ll ever care to. At South Base when I tell another driver I have the 168 or 169 for the night the usual response is, “Ooooh.”
Another nice thing about the board is that you don’t see the same people all the time. So if a particular person or group really gets on your nerves, chances are you won’t be seeing them again for a while, if ever. You can also receive a lot of nice over time on the board since you are filling in for another driver who might have a lot more seniority and may have picked a nine or ten hour piece of work. It’s a good way to get overtime that you can fill up your AC bank with. AC stands for accumulated comp time. Full time operators are able to put all overtime up to 100 hours into this account. They can then use it to take a day off with pay.
Lastly, being a board operator gives you an opportunity to check out different routes out of the base for future reference when you finally have enough seniority to pick in the first week. Every driver wants to be the operator who picks his work the first minute of the first hour of the first day. His options are wide open. He can go to any base and choose any route, any hours and any days off he wants. Unfortunately for me several hundred drivers need to retire, quit, be fired, or pass on to the great Metro base in the sky, before I will get any where near the first week, much less the first day.
The one real negative about being a board operator is that your hours vary so much that you nearly have no social life. You can’t make any real plans because you never know what time you will be starting. When I was line eight on the night board at South Base I started as early as 10:30 in the morning, and as late as three. You don’t know until two o’clock the day before what hours and routes you will be assigned because the board of work is not assembled until 2 p.m.
After three and a half years on the board, this last shake-up I kind of lucked out. I was able to pick my own work so I signed up for the 194 three days a week, the 560 one day and a combination of the 194, 150 and 101 the remaining day. The reason I stay away from Central, Ryerson and Atlantic are because they are mostly inner city routes. They cover West Seattle, Columbia City, Rainier Avenue, Burien, Des Moines, Lake Forrest Park, the University District, Lake City Way, and of course, downtown Seattle. I need lots of highway underneath my tires, and between the 194, 150 and 101, I get plenty of highway. I also have definite hours and start usually between two and two thirty everyday and finish by ten thirty.
After I make my decisions and write in my name on the printout, I then fill out a piece of paper handed to me when I entered the room. The paper lists the base I’ve chosen, the days, the routes and shifts I have picked and whether I would like to work any additional hours during the week. I usually don’t sign up for automatic overtime because I’d rather be free to “scrounge” for it on my days off.
When I finish, two supervisors with colored markers come over and put a colored line through my name and the choices I have made to once again indicate, this work is picked and is no longer available. They hand me my sheet and I head for the adjoining room where I hand this sheet of paper to another staff member, who enters the information into a computer at one end of a table, and another staff member receives the finished printout at the other end of the table.
At yet another table sit’s another person who asks me for my medical card and drivers license. Every two years an operator must go see his personal doctor for a physical. The doctor then fills out Metro paper work and if everything checks out, the driver is given a little two by two inch sheet of paper that says this driver is physically fit to drive for another two years. The medical certificate does not prevent young drivers from passing away, or old drivers for that matter. It doesn’t prevent heart attacks, broken limbs, strokes, cancer, colds or viruses like the one I have been dealing with for more than a month now, but if the driver doesn’t have this card on his person when on duty, the driver isn’t allowed to drive. I actually received a miss, because my card had expired and I didn’t have time before signing in, to go get a new one.
After I have finished checking in and out with all these people at their respective tables, a small group of us who have been through this together now for nearly eight years, stops to console, congratulate or make fun of each other for the choices we have made. There is my buddy Skylar, who has been driving trolleys since before he went full time. He prefers trolleys and because most drivers want nothing to do with Atlantic, myself included, he has his choice of shifts and days off to spend time with his children.
My friend Rudy drives out of North Base as he lives up near Green Lake. The rest of us head back down to South Base. We have all known each other since we went through part time class together, and with the exception of Skylar, who is counting down the days until his twins graduate from high school so he can kiss Metro goodbye forever, we will probably all be driving for at least another eight years.
(My tenure will depend on how well this book is received. I would much rather travel the country laughing about all of this from a distance, than raking in miles of new fodder for the second addition. We’ll see.)
Then again, fodder is what enables me to write about all of this. Driving a bus means dealing with lots of different people. Some of the people I deal with are other Metro employees known as coordinators and supervisors.
Coordinators work out of a central location in downtown Seattle. I’ve never actually been to that location so I’m not exactly sure where it is, but I hear it gets busy, crazy, insane, and sometimes, rarely, it’s slow. As a part time driver I was taught to call the coordinator if I needed help with anything: a coach change, fare box doesn’t work, lift doesn’t work, doors won’t open, won’t close, a headlamp is out, flashers don’t work, windshield wipers don’t work, bus won’t start, and those are just mechanical problems.
Riders have epileptic episodes, heart attacks, give birth, fight amongst themselves, and occasionally they need something simple like calling ahead to make a bus wait for them. The coordinator handles all of that and more. As a more seasoned driver I have learned not to contact the coordinator unless I’m bleeding. (Not really, but there are times when the coordinator gets so overloaded with emergencies that unless I as a driver actually have one, I don’t dare contact the coordinator.) There are some coordinators I have no desire to contact because their attitude makes some of my difficult riders seem like nice people, and then are coordinators like Suzy. I can’t spell or pronounce Suzy’s last name, but she is one of the best coordinators Metro has. Suzy is wonderful. I have been lost, off route, taken ill, and on at least one occasion, I called her just to vent, and Suzy said, “No problem.” I love Suzy. Everyone who knows Suzy, loves Suzy.
One evening while driving the 174 I was way behind schedule, and hadn’t had a break in more than five hours. We are allowed to take a break, but sometimes you just don’t. I had one last trip and one of my riders was attempting to remove his load of personal items, including four plastic containers loaded on a dolly. I contacted Suzy and informed her that I was running way behind, hadn’t taken a break all day, and was late for my next trip.
“I have one rider who is getting off the bus, and I don’t even know how to describe what he’s doing.” I told Suzy. Suzy was a driver for many years before going into supervision and simply replied, “I understand.” I would do anything for Suzy. Most drivers would, she’s that good.
On another evening while driving the 174, Suzy was not working. I had two riders remaining, a male and his female friend. Both were intoxicated. The male approached me at my last to next stop and asked me to contact the police for assistance in getting his friend off the bus. I contacted the coordinator. A male. Not Suzy. I explained that one of my passengers wanted police assistance in helping him get his very inebriated friend off the bus. The coordinator directed me to the next zone and told me to wait there.
About five minutes later I watched a very big fire engine roar down Westlake Avenue. I thought, another busy night in downtown Seattle. I sat waiting for police when the aforementioned fire engine returned to my location and four burly firemen jumped out and approached my bus, wherein my remaining intoxicated passengers walked off the bus where they were met by the four burly firemen. One of the four took a look at the two riders and then flashed a very disgusted look at me and said,
“We don’t handle this kind of call.”
“I didn’t call you,” I responded, very surprised at his surly attitude. I took off and was heading to my layover when a very unhappy coordinator called me and said,
“Where are you?”
“I’m heading to my layover at Westlake,” I replied.
“When you arrive, call me back,” he said sounding even more disgusted.
I arrived and contacted him only to be yelled at because he had the fire department responding to a “police” call. By this time I was really dumbfounded.
“Let me see if I understand this correctly,” I replied to the coordinator, who was not Suzy. “One of my riders approached me and asked me to call the police because he was having trouble getting his drunk friend off the bus and he needed assistance. I then contacted you and asked you to call the police because one of my passengers requested police assistance. You directed me to the next zone where the fire department showed up to handle the problem. In the future if I should have a similar situation and a passenger asks me to contact the police, what procedure would you prefer me to use?”
There was a pregnant silence.
“You did exactly what you were supposed to do. I’m just having a very challenging day. Have a better evening.” The coordinator said.
There are coordinators and there are supervisors. Suzy has also been a supervisor and has been extremely helpful in department as well. Not all supervisors are created equal.
One area where Metro goes out of its way to make a drivers life even more challenging is in the “rule” department. I feel like I spend my entire eight hour day answering to the rules of Metro and the rules of hundreds of riders who want everything to go their way, all the time.
One rule that really leaves no room for common sense is a brand new rule that only a supervisor with way too much time on his hands would come up with.
The rule: Drivers will not change their signage until they are heading to their last terminal. This rule is all but useless if your last terminal happens to be the Federal Way Park and Ride. Here’s why. Metro has built a new transit center in Federal Way aptly named the Federal Way Transit Center. All major routes now run out of the transit center and only commuters who park at the park and ride are picked up there. Everyone else, catches a bus out of the transit center.
In the afternoons and evenings, the only people I take to the Federal Way Park and Ride are those remaining commuters from downtown Seattle who parked there. I have taken as many as six and as few as one. On one lone occasion I picked up a rider from the transit center who wanted the very next stop, located a block away. Had this young person not waited for my bus he would have been there already.
When driving the 194, we drop off passengers at Bay Eight. Before we arrive at the Transit Center we change our signage to read: To Terminal. If we don’t change our signage to read To Terminal, there are between 10 and 20 riders waiting in Bay 7 who will come to Bay 8 and ask,
“Are you going to downtown Seattle.” They will not read the signage. If they would read the signage they would see that it says, this bus is going to Federal Way Park and Ride. I don’t know what they see when it says, To Terminal, but I do know they don’t come running and ask me if I go to downtown Seattle. When they do stop and ask me that question because I haven’t changed my sign, I spend the whopping five minutes of recovery time I hoped I would have to use the comfort station, answering this question.
Enter supervisor. Again, not Suzy. Allow me to set up the scene. The day before there had been a shooting at this very Transit Center. It was in the news that night. A teenager was fatally shot.
Teenager shot at Transit Center
Submitted by Morris Malakoff on Thursday, September 17th, 04:29pm
A 16 year old was shot in the chest this afternoon at the Federal Way Transit Center around 3:30 p.m.
So the next day I am pulling into this same transit center and my first thought is, this is where the teenager was shot yesterday. I felt a little anxious, to say the least and I noticed that there was only one police car on the premises. The same police car sitting in the exact same location it always sits. There was no additional security on scene, and there was a shooting here, less than 24 hours ago. It was not a comforting thought, and I entered with some understandable trepidation.
I pull into Bay 8 and am immediately met by a supervisor in training and another supervisor. I’m thinking, “What happened? Oh no, is something wrong?”
“Why does your signage read, “To Terminal?” The trainee asks me. Remember earlier I was talking about useless rules made up by supervisors with WAY too much time on their hands? Allow me to introduce stupid rule.
I was stunned.
“This is my last terminal,” I replied, for which the old as dirt supervisor responded, no it isn’t. (OKAY!! YOU GOT ME. IT’S NOT MY LAST TERMINAL.)
I just shook my head and explained to this supervisor what he already knows.
“If I don’t have To Terminal up there, I am going to spend what little recovery time I have telling a whole bunch of riders in bay 7 who want to go to downtown Seattle, that I don’t go there.” In his infinite wisdom he responded as only a supervisor with way too much time on his hands, could.
“No they won’t. They will read your sign and see that you are going to Federal Way Park and Ride.” (What universe have you been working in the last 100 years, because it ain’t this one.) I promptly got back on my bus and said,
“You want your sign, you got your sign!!” I closed my door, gave him the most disgusted look I could muster, shook my head and drove away thinking, go ahead, write me a PR. I don’t care. (PR’s are performance reports, that are three points against you as an operator. When you receive too many points against your record you are reprimanded, depending on the infraction. There are major and minor infractions that can add up and can lead to termination, but frankly, unless you are just a real trouble maker as a person and not a quality driver, you don’t have a lot to worry about if you do your job, stay out of trouble and show up on time.
The truth about supervisors is that for the most part they really are helpful and because they were all drivers they know what we are going through out there, and they really do go out of their way to help drivers as much as they can, but occasionally, you just come across one who acts like the aforementioned supervisor, and as a seasoned driver you just shake you head and try to keep your thoughts to yourself. And you hope that one day, should you become a supervisor you won’t forget where you came from.
History of the Bases
North Base, South Base, Central, Atlantic, Ryerson, East and Bellevue, (The Country Club)
When I first moved to Seattle in 1988 I lived in the Shoreline area off of 174th and Richmond Beach road. I can remember driving south bound on Interstate 5, noticing a humongous hole in the ground that was more than a city block, with back hoes, cranes and other construction paraphernalia. That hole in the ground turned into North Base operations for Metro and was completed in 1991. Ten years later I was working out of South Base operations in Tukwila, Washington.
There are seven bases now, but it hasn’t always been this way, and who knows what the future will bring with the introduction of light rail in the Seattle area. As I began writing about the bases I found myself asking, when did each base open? Which base was first, and what did we have before all of that?
What we had long before all of that was known as the Mosquito Fleet, dating all the way back to 1850. There were hundreds of these ships, in the neighborhood of 2500, that carried settlers, troops, farm produce, livestock, machinery, timber, mail, etc. from port to port. There were so many ships that people said they resembled a swarm of mosquito’s. Matthew McDowell owned seven of these, the Daring, Dart, Defiance, Daily, Dove and Dauntless The Mosquito Fleet brought in many new settlers and between 1870 and 1880 the population of Seattle grew from over 3500 to more than 42,000 making travel by water time consuming and impractical. (1)
Let’s go back a bit. Henry Yesler, one of the city’s founders and a sea captain, sailed to Alki Point in 1851. Yesler, originally from Washington County, Maryland, had learned the trades of millright and carpenter as a boy, and operated a saw mill in Massillon, Ohio before heading west to Seattle. Yesler crossed Elliott Bay to the waterfront of Seattle proper in October of 1852. The land where he chose to build the first steam powered saw mill was owned by Authur Denny, David S. “Doc” Maynard, and Carson Boren. The three men weren’t interested in selling, but after realizing the opportunity for employment and growth, they, mostly Maynard, donated three hundred and twenty acres, including a strip of land that went up hill from the saw mill, known originally as Mill Street, and then Skid Road. Today it‘s known as Yesler Way.(2)
They got the name Skid Road because logs were skidded down the road by loggers on the way to the saw mill. Historian Greg Lange, writes that this would not have been possible because of the deep ravine on what is now known as 4th Avenue. Mr. Lange writes it was more probable that logs were brought in from Elliott Bay. (3) Well, logs may not have been transported down the road, but people certainly were. Robert Abrams, a teamster and livery stable owner charged a days wages of fifty cents to haul people up and down skid road in his wagon. (Technically, Mr. Abrams was the original Seattle bus driver.) Why someone would pay a days wages I’ll never know, but back to my story.
So Henry Yesler moves to town in 1852, builds a saw mill, lots of new settlers are employed and Seattle starts to take off as a community. New businesses, new opportunities, more needs for alternative methods of travel. We had railroads, but that didn’t really help people to get around town once they had arrived here. It rains a lot in Seattle and with horse drawn wagons leaving huge ruts in the muddy roads, citizens found themselves in peril just trying to cross the street. Enter Frank Osgood.
Frank Hines Osgood, born in Charlestown, New Hampshire, September 2, 1852 and educated at the University of New London, New Hampshire, found opportunities abounding in the west and relocated to Seattle in 1883. The city of Seattle was awarding private developers with street use permits and franchises to spur development of street rail lines. One year later, Osgood introduced the first horse drawn railway system to Seattle. They were called Hay burners.
These horse drawn rail cars originally traveled down 1st Avenue, now Front Street, but businesses balked at the system fearing it would interrupt wagon business, and the hay burners were moved to Second Avenue. A ride cost five cents. The only problem was the horses couldn’t pull heavy loads up the steep grades of James, Madison and Yesler, so… I have Mr. Osgood to thank for what came next. The electric rail car. Eight years after Edison perfected the light bulb, Frank J. Sprague, known as the Father of Electric Traction, used electricity to power up electric street cars in Richmond, Virginia.
Among his inventions were streetcars powered up by overhead wires, and the spring loaded trolley pole, with a wheel attached to roll along the overhead wire. He installed the first streetcar passenger railway in Richmond, Virginia in 1888. (4)
Osgood and other investors brought the idea to Seattle and “voila” the Seattle Electric Railway and Power Company was born. It didn’t take long for the rail car to turn into the trackless trolley… and you know how I feel about trolleys.
Four years after introducing the hay burner, Osgood converted over to electric traction and by 1892 Seattle was running 42 miles of electric street lines and 22 miles of cable car lines. This was no small feat when you consider that in 1889, only three years earlier, a fire destroyed 29 city blocks of Seattle, including all but four wharves, all of the train terminals, and nearly the entire business district, according to historian Greg Lange in an article dated January 16, 1999 at history link.org.
With 42 miles of street lines and 22 miles of cable car lines, lots of independent lines sprung up as entrepreneurs set out to turn a town into a city. One year later in 1893 the economy crashed sending Seattle into a depression that lasted four years. Most of these independent lines went belly up or were sold out to a new investor: Stone and Webster, whose company was named Puget Sound Traction, Light and Power, known today as Puget Power and Light Company.
Charles Stone and Edwin Webster became good friends while both were attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1884. They studied electrical engineering and formed the Massachusetts Electrical Engineering Company. In 1893 the name changed to Stone and Webster. By the early 1900’s they owned forty nine utility companies, and the city finally approved a forty year franchise for them to operate under.(5)
The early 1900’s were busy times with unions trying to organize, a war in Europe that caused a shortage of men who were available to run and operate streetcars, and horrible working conditions for those here at home. New trolley operators were given little training, little compensation, and long hours with no guarantee of relief at the end of mandatory sixteen hour days. To make matters worse the car had been invented and lots of drivers in “jitneys” which is slang for a nickel, were rushing ahead of the streetcars and offering rides at cheaper fares, not to mention clogging the streets which slowed down the railway. The street car was a losing proposition for Stone and Webster because the fare had remained at the 1902 price of five cents but operating costs were climbing. Stone and Webster wanted out.
This was the beginning of the first federal buyout. Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson bought the entire system from Stone and Webster for 15 million dollars, which was three times its worth, and citizens took him to court where it was determined that he was not corrupt just stupid. Hanson was a real estate developer who dabbled in politics, and co-founded Lake Forest Park. After an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1922 he moved to California and founded the town of San Clemente, which has tributes to him all over the city. The legacy he left behind in Seattle was an unpayable debt. (6)
The new Seattle Municipal Railway began operations on April 1, 1919. What Hanson had purchased was a financial “Pandora’s Box” as the deal included 195 miles of electric railway tracks, nine miles of cable tracks, 477 passenger cars, freight and work cars, seven car barns and yards, three cable stations and a large car repair shop in Georgetown, all of which were badly in need of repair or replacement, and the bond payment of $833,000 in interest alone, to Stone and Webster wasn’t sustainable. By December of 1920 the city had an operating deficit of over 500,000 dollars.
By 1930, there were 90,000 private automobiles and taxis sharing the roads with the street railway which was on the verge of bankruptcy. The system was vamped and revamped and workers began accepting I.O.U’s to keep the system a float, and in 1938
after a succession of mayors who tried and failed to save the system, newly elected Mayor, Arthur Langlie, applied to the Federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation for a 10.2 million dollar loan to pay off Puget Power. The loan was approved in May of 1939, but unfortunately didn‘t solve the debt crisis. The state legislature gave management of the city’s transit system to a new independent Transportation Commission, renamed the Seattle Transit System.
The new commission ordered 235 trackless trolleys and 102 motorbuses. Streetcar lines were replaced with 402 miles of double wire. Cable cars were replaced with buses as Seattle moved from rail to rubber. (7) The last street car run was April 13, 1941, but not without a fight. The Seattle Downtown Association, led by attorney Ben Maslan, sued but only delayed the eventual end of the street car. In a Seattle Times articled dated July 27, 1938, Maslan is quoted, “The board, (City Council) ordered the cable lines discontinued without a public hearing of interested parties.”
Street cars were scrapped for metal against the wishes of then Mayor, John Dore who said, “If officials carry out their plan to burn the city’s 450 street cars and tear up its 232 miles of track, selling the metals for junk, Seattle will look like Rome did when Nero was fiddling. I’ll not stand aside. I’ll not be another Ole Hanson!”(8) Unfortunately Mayor Dore passed away April 18,1938. A lawsuit was filed but dropped because all the street cars were gone before it came to court. There were mixed reactions from citizens and street car operators. Citizens thought it would be “picturesque” to hold on to the streetcar. Older transit operators didn’t want to learn the new equipment, while younger operators liked the idea of being able to sit down while driving. Operators who stayed on the job went through an operator training school.
Having operators learn new equipment was just the beginning of challenges that Seattle Transit would experience. December 7, 1941 thrust Seattle and the rest of America into World War II where amongst other supplies needed was transportation. The decision to scrap street cars for metal was coming back to haunt the city as defense workers needed transportation to factories. Railroads were busy hauling supplies for building tanks, planes and other weaponry and couldn’t keep up with necessary repairs on the current railway equipment, much less help transport defense workers. Orders for one hundred new buses were on hold because factories didn’t have time to make them, according to an article in the Seattle Times dated January 18, 1942. Citizens who once cheered the end of the “noisy and antiquated street cars, suddenly had second thoughts about the discarded railway system,” writes Leslie Blanchard in her book The Street Railway Era in Seattle.” in a quote from the Seattle Times editorial section from 1942. The editorial continues, “one cannot resist the wistful thought that if some of the old equipment had been preserved, it might have come in handy these days.” Then Mayor, Earl Millikan, called on home makers to avoid riding the bus between four and six p.m. Even firemen and police officers were denied free rides. (9)
Adding insult to injury the city went into “blackout” according to an article titled, “Black out cuts into transit income,” from the Seattle Times, December 14, 1941.
The article states that there was a fifteen percent decline in fares because bus signage was not lit up, though bus headlights were on. Windows at Atlantic, Jefferson and North Base were painted black before lights could be turned on. Riders complained that they couldn’t read the signage to catch the right bus, (frankly, even with the lights on people can’t read the signage to this day!.) One driver was beaten for having his headlights on, but it was an official order to keep headlights on at night. Amazingly, with a 15.5 percent decline in rider-ship, only two weeks later on January 1, 1942, Seattle Transit reported revenues of 900,000. (10)
In the midst of World War II, ridership jumped to a record level 130 million, mostly due to rationing during the war. This number actually reflects usage and not population, because according to demographics in 1940, Seattle only had a population of 368,302 and only 99,289 more in 1950. A far cry from 1million, much less 130 million. Not many people owned a car so getting around was mainly by streetcar. People went to work, to the store, or out to Lake Washington for a swim and they rode the street car to get there. Though Seattle Transit had grossed 900,000, operators were only given a seven cent wage increase. On January 11, 1946, 1100 transit operators went on the first strike in Seattle Transit history, and four days later workers received a whopping four cents more raising their hourly wage from 1.15 to $1.26 an hour.(11)
Those four days of negotiations now look like a walk in the park comparatively as it took another thirty years to arrive at the current system. By 1950 King County had grown to 733,000 in population. Seattle’s original city border was extended from 85th to 145th Street, bringing in an additional 100,000 residents with the extension. Seattle paid off the 1940 loan by 1950, and reworked the bus system by 1951, but Seattle Transit recorded half as many riders and the number was dwindling.
The growing city soon found itself with population and pollution problems. King County’s population grew by 28 percent from 1950 to 1960, but suburban areas grew by 43 percent bringing an additional 700,000 residents to the area. The Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, Metro, originally formed in 1910 as the Municipal League, set out to clean up the waters of Lake Washington and put together a comprehensive plan for city growth to include mass transit. The measure for water cleanup was approved but adding a transit system was defeated in 1958 and again in 1962, 1968 and 1970.
So far Seattle Transit System was operating out of three main bases. Atlantic Base, Jefferson and North Seattle. Despite being voted down five times, proponents for mass transit fought on with a little help from environmentalists. (Just for the record, I’m not a big fan of environmental groups) but their activism gave Metro a jump start beginning on April 22, 1970, with the first Earth Day. One way to combat pollution was to get people out of their cars and into buses. Save gasoline, save energy, save the environment!
Environmentalists and residents used the new Environmental Protection Act to stop construction of a 14 lane I-90 bridge, and with the election of Seattle Mayor, Wes Uhlman, and other progressive city council members, a fifty cent tax per household, revived the Seattle Transit System. Uhlman revamped the transit system, taking it out of the control of the commission and putting it under the control of his deputy mayor, Robert Lavoie.
Lavoie implemented the Blue Streak, an express route running from downtown Seattle to Northgate, but it wasn’t enough. Riders were declining and the system was “bleeding red.” The powers that be went to work one more time and came up with another plan that would build twenty five park and ride lots, 550 new buses, a network of bus ways, “Freeway flyers”, one hundred miles of high occupancy vehicle lanes, 1200 passenger shelters, and 25 new routes to serve downtown, University of Washington, Bellevue, and the Duwamish Industrial Area. With help from the Federal Government to cover most of the 92.5 million dollar budget, Metro hoped to make up the rest with a sales tax and matching state funds. That of course, has not happened. This plan also covered preservation of the electric trolley. (If I had had any say in the matter, trolleys would been discarded with the street cars.) After fourteen long years the plan was approved on September 19, 1972 and one hundred and three days later on January 1, 1973, Metro was born. Metro began adding bases and service starting with Dearborn Base in 1973, East Base in 1977, South Base in 1978, and Central Base in 1979. Ryerson came a year later in 1980 followed by Bellevue Base in 1984. (12)
There is a lot of history here and fortunately for me drivers like Al Ramey, Dan Linville, and others have shared some interesting stories with me.
Al Ramey used to drive for Suburban Transit before it was acquired by Metro, way back when. When driving with Suburban Transit, Al carried around what looks like a tool box that held transfers, change maker, a money bag, etc. He delivered mail, newspapers and freight. Every morning he would show up for work in full dress uniform with other drivers for inspection. If they didn’t pass, they sent them home. (No one was ever sent home.)
Every morning Al would empty a big safe that housed the receipts from the previous day, and deliver them to the main office at 1820 9th Ave. Every evening he would add up his receipts from transfers and drop the finished product into the same safe.
Before Seattle Transit became Metro, coaches were still making change for fares up until the Spring of 1969. According to an article at Historylink.org, entitled, Buses in Seattle stop making change on March 20, 1969, passengers were required to have exact fare when boarding buses: 25 cents, plus five cents for each zone line crossed. (There used to be 35 zones, now there are three.)
The article continues “In Seattle, 18 drivers were robbed in 1967, 25 fell victim in 1968 and in the first two months of 1969 there were 15 more robberies. Over the years drivers had been assaulted during robberies and one was murdered.” The murdered driver was Harry Wren. Al told me that Harry was being robbed, he handed over his change maker and the robber still shot him. The Exact Fare Plan was effectively eliminating robberies and holdups.(13)
Another big change at Metro has been the uniform. Driver Dan Linville, who started with Metro back in 1973 shared the following story with me from the early years:
“When I started with STS each driver was required to buy his (no women yet) own uniform. The most expensive item was the green wool "Eisenhour" jacket that looked identical to a military uniform. (A jacket similar to the jacket worn by President Eisenhour.) While on probation we were required to wear long sleeve shirts with a tie and our uniform hat any time we were in the seat driving. The jacket was optional and probation drivers never bought one until they had to.
At the end of my probation I was called into the Stationmaster's (Base Supervisor's) office for a probation review. I didn't know this review existed. Mr. Jung chewed me out for my slacker attitude and told me I was blowing a great opportunity to climb the ladder as Metro grew. He told me go buy a uniform coat and not to report back to work without it. Stunned by the threat I stammered that I didn't have the money. The coat would cost me $75: almost a weeks pay. He assured me the uniform store would take payroll deductions. (Gee thanks) and told me to get the coat and return to his office for another inspection, because I had failed my first one. Without that coat I was fired.
I got the coat and reported back to the window where the window man, the legendarily
gruff Tom Rhinehart, gave me the brush off, and told me Jung had gone home. I never heard another word about the coat or my probation. When I asked my old classmates about their "Inspection" or probation they shrugged and said it was never brought up at their base and they never bought the jackets. New "Metro" uniforms paid for by the company arrived about six months later.”
Some procedures have changed in thirty years and some have remained the same. We aren’t subject to inspection, per se, we don’t carry tool boxes, we don’t deliver freight or mail and we don’t make change. But drivers must be in complete uniform to sign in. (Hats are optional.)
When I arrive for work each day I first go to “the window” at the base. It’s a long counter with lots of pieces of paper to be checked or signed on to. It depends on the base as to where all the paper is found but basically there is a clipboard with a sheet for items left on the bus by riders, that drivers turn in and make a record of. The next sheet is the sign in sheet which I have been signing for nearly eight years now. The sign in sheet contains the list of drivers and their routes and report times. If I sign in one second after my assigned time, I receive a “miss” for the day, and can be sent home without pay. I then receive a “see me” slip from my base chief and have to meet with him and explain my tardiness. A “miss” stays on your record for 60 days. I think I received one miss one time when I was a part time driver. I wasn’t actually late, I just had an expired medical card and didn’t have time to get a new one before signing in, so I got a miss. It was so much fun. Medical certification cards are pretty useless really. Every two years a driver must see his doctor and take a physical. We are then given this card if everything checks out. We must have this card with us at all times while on duty. It doesn’t stop young drivers from passing away, or old drivers for that matter, nor does it stop a driver from getting pneumonia, the flu, or a respiratory virus such as the one I am now recovering from. It doesn’t do any of that, but without it, we are not allowed to drive. But I digress.
The next sheet at the window contains all the employee numbers. If your number is highlighted, “you’ve got mail.” Mail can be anything from a letter welcoming to you the base to a complaint from a passenger. (Complaints are pretty common as we discussed in an earlier chapter.) Occasionally one of our lovely customers calls in to thank us for a job well done. (I’ve been promised many of these from riders. I’ve received very few. People can’t wait to complain but have short term memory when they are grateful.)
One of the last sheets of paper I fill out is for a base car. Out in the suburbs when we meet a driver on the road to relieve him from his shift, we sign out a key and take a base car. Monday through Friday base cars can be hard to come by. Lots of drivers and only so many base cars. Weekends are a little easier. Not as many drivers so the key box is usually very full and a key is anyone’s for the taking.
Once I am signed in and check through all of the aforementioned paperwork, I then check the general updates, reroutes, and gather necessary items to assist riders, like timetables, that almost none of my riders bothers to read. Time tables have a plethora of information on them:
The major stops along the route, a map of where we are heading, the zone change, if it applies, fares for peak and off peak hours, snow route information, transit stations and what routes run out of those stations, special fare information, where to purchase a pass, when to pay, accessible formats for riders with disabilities, holiday information, other rider share programs, time table symbols, and if you are still confused there is a number for rider information, (which I have personally used many, many times… I get confused, and I’m a driver.) All of that information at your finger tips and it’s like pulling teeth to get a rider to read the thing!
Okay. I have signed in, checked for messages, checked for reroutes, checked in with other drivers to ensure we are all still frustrated over the same stuff, gathered all of my belongings and now I’m ready to go find a bus, unless of course I‘m taking a base car. I head out the opposite door that I came in, and into a gargantuan parking lot full of buses, and one with my name on it. (Actually, it just has a number on it.) I find said assigned bus, check it over and prepare it for driving.
If I had to choose a favorite base it would be Bellevue Base. Of all the bases, it covers mostly the nicest routes, nicest territory, and mostly the nicest clientele to pick up every day. It’s known as the “country club.” It’s a really small base, but not terribly user friendly as small bases go. The first week I was there I went to the exercise room and got lost trying to find my way back to the window that I spoke of earlier. After finally heading for the nearest available exit and ending up outside on the back corner of the same building, I was totally stressed out but never happier to see the window guy in my life, (Drivers who know are agreeing with me right now.)
The only reason I left the base is because I had to drive north on I-405 to get there, and there never seems to be a good time to be on I -405. (All of Seattle is agreeing with me now.) East Base is just across the street from Bellevue Base and is a large base, with a larger lot full of buses. I’ve never driven out of North Base, and have no desire to, and in fact, have only been to the base one time that I know of. It was part of the tour for new part time drivers. North Base is home of the infamous route 359 that lead to the unfortunate death of Mark McLaughlin who was shot by one of his passengers in 1998. Metro in its infinite wisdom changed the route number to 358. (So that’s how you deal with homicidal riders!)
Ryerson, Central and Atlantic Base are located across the street from Safeco and Qwest Fields. The original Atlantic Base had a cafeteria called the Transit Café, back in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. Atlantic is not one of my favorite bases as it houses the infamous trolleys. We won’t go there again.
The future of Metro is really anybody’s guess. We have the light rail coming on line in June of 2009. After that, who knows. One thing is for sure: We’ll get you there. Or as I prefer to say, We’ll get you near