Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Warm 40

In a previous post I chronicled some of the relentless grind of the 40. Those experiences were in the afternoon, unlike my current pick when I drive the 40 on Sunday mornings. This route of many faces continues to surprise. As you might expect, at that time we don't have to contend with school zones, commuter gridlock, and other things that go along with a weekday afternoon. Instead we transport a large number of worshipers and workers.

Houses of worship come in all shapes and architectures. The faithful gather in their Sunday best whether they're at a fancy coastal sanctuary, or under the vaulted ceiling of a steeple on MLK, or the utilitarian space of a warehouse in Shallowside. Some meet under a cross, others a menorah, others under the crescent. Some are sweaty after attending the church of the body, their gym.

As the morning progresses, many riders west of Central Terminal head to the Swap Shop, folding carts in tow. Young mothers board smoothly while deftly folding a stroller with one hand, holding their little one in the other, and their bus pass between their lips. Old men slip their bill in the farebox as they head out to have coffee with their buddies. At a certain hour, Sistrunk becomes the most mouth-watering aromatic place in town as the BBQ pits fire up.

East of the terminal, cruise ship tourists ride back to the Port ready to set sail. A Chinese couple with workable English who recently landed at the airport with oversize luggage show me a Google maps print out with Bahia Mar as the destination. The curious daily shuffle the homeless guys do between downtown and the beach gets underway, in both directions. A service animal named Gracie rides without making a peep.

Most of our trips are kept on time, except for the times when a bridge tender in his observation room stops street traffic to let yachts cruise down the New River or the Intracoastal. These interruptions on our journey are inescapable delays.

The only trip that might resemble the chaotic 40 is the very first eastbound out of the Hill. Before I arrive for pullout there is a large crowd waiting to board, so that before we've even gotten to the Swap Shop we are at standing room only. Fortunately we have a lot of good people on the bus this morning, willing to give up their seats so a man in a wheelchair can board. I praise them for their generosity, which helps keep everything rolling. Our Sistrunk passengers squeeze in and find something secure to hold on to while standing. Perfumed women in impeccable outfits don't complain despite the cramped quarters adding a few wrinkles to their skirt lines. I am concerned for everyone's comfort and safety as the cabin gets tighter and tighter, but the best thing is to keep it moving safely and get to Central Terminal. Keeping it safe means lurching to a stop at each railroad, first the Tri-Rail/CSX RR with the bumpiest pavement that demands slow passage just to keep everyone intact. Down the road, the gate arms are blocking the FEC RR, countless empty quarry cars heading south to be filled with Dade County limestone. The cars are empty but the bus is full to the brim and the sooner we get to the Terminal the better, where the bus will empty out and everyone can breathe again.

Or maybe we'll get that breath early. Before the tracks we have a special visitor, the last person to board before turning on Andrews and arriving at the Terminal. Sporting a white cowgirl hat bedazzled with rhinestones and carrying a thick plastic Broward Health bag, he gets on with a flamboyant entrance, excited and energetic. Immediately he kicks into his little routine, like someone accustomed to being the center of attention.
"BCT. Our best. Nothing less" he chimes out loud while buying a day pass. "All haters please refer to your timetables." His shtick is imitating the bus's announcer messages, putting his own spin on them.
We roll over the tracks while he occupies the last available standing space up front and continues his performance.
"Now approaching Andrews Boulevard, connecting with 60." Never mind that it's actually avenue, not boulevard, his one man show has lightened the compact tenseness on the bus, and laughing can be heard throughout, even from those who probably can't see him from their seats.
Thankful for his perfectly timed arrival, I let him know he's awesome - but he already knows he is.
We finally pull into our slot at the Terminal and everyone spills out. Our entertainer soon returns though - he's lost the pass he just bought. Fumbling in his bag, digging in his pockets he pulls out the now crumpled pass, looks into the cabin at the remaining passengers waiting to continue eastward, and blurts out "Route finished. Thank you."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Comfort food

Some routes carry an extra measure of favoritism for me due to nostalgia and sentiment; the 60 is one of these. Long before I became a driver, the 60 was my go-to route for getting downtown. Once there, I could spend hours in the Main Library with its multiple floors of discovery, education, and fascination behind coral-and-glass clad walls. Or to the New River for some brackish fishing - the ghosts of Seminole legends, Major Lauderdale, and Frank Stranahan whispering in the ripples. Or to Broward Community College for some higher education. Or to Government Center (former Burdines building) for numerous reasons.

Most of this past summer I drove the 60 once a week in the afternoon as the second half of a split shift with the 40. For the most part, it was a smooth and uneventful run, servicing the majority of the Andrews Ave corridor, up into Collier City and Broward College North. As a rider, I never traveled the route from end to end and so had little idea of the large area it covers north of Cypress Creek Rd. Even now as a driver, it will always have that connection to my own stomping grounds, and I find myself perking up a bit when we're passing through my neighborhood.

Now I no longer drive the 60 as one of my regular routes, though I occasionally return to it when I'm filling in on one of my days off. I was already accustomed to heavy ridership previously during a couple late afternoon trips when folks were getting off work or school and heading home, but a morning slot I was assigned blew that experience away. I had received the assignment a little later than it was supposed to start, which meant we would have a late start. But it was the first 60 northbound from Central Terminal, so better to run it late and get everyone where they need to go. Even at 5:30 a.m. there was a crowd at the Terminal ready to fill the bus. One problem with running late is that the later you get, the more passengers you get who would normally ride on your follower's bus. So by the time we got to Sunrise Blvd less than 10 minutes after pullout, we had standing room only. Fortunately a few people exited there which made room for the bunch waiting to board.

At the head of the pack was an old regular from my Sundays on the 50, the anxious man with the rolling suitcase.
"You better drive fast man," he said without looking at me, swiping his pass and finding a spot for his luggage.
With his seat reserved, he came back up front a bit mellower and let me know he missed me on Sunday. I returned the sentiment and let him know my new Sunday route. Soon he was laughing with the other passengers, everyone keeping it light as the bus got heavier. Complaints about the lateness mounted, but they were generally about having to wait; it was still early enough that most could make their connections and get where they needed to be.

We passed my neighborhood and one of the streets was closed off with police cruisers, their flashing lights glaring in the dark. A tv news van was set up nearby, telescoping antenna extended.

Finally, near the end of the first trip my follower caught up and passed me. He had called on the radio about mechanical problems and was instructed to return the bus to the garage for a replacement. This meant I now had no follower and no recovery time at the end of the trip. Only choice was to keep it moving lest I fall further behind. So I serviced the last stop and headed back south for our return trip to Central Terminal.

We passed by the closed off street again. I later learned a man's body had been found, stabbed to death. On the same street a young woman was also murdered last year.

Our next northbound trip was truly a grind due to running late. By now I'd been in the seat for several hours and was definitely picking up my missing follower's people. One of these people was a regular of mine from the 40, an older gentleman who works at a restaurant in my neighborhood.
"Hey man, how you doin' this mornin'?" he greeted me.
"Oh, not so good, it's been a rough morning." I responded honestly.
"Aw man, it's not as bad as all that, you'll be alright" he encouraged me.
Suddenly any built up stress was gone. I was doing my best and had to be content with that for the moment. My friend caught me up on dinner specials and shared his ideas to improve the restaurant's offerings for the holidays. Block by block I capitulated to his hospitality, reminded that Life is in the present journey, not the end of the route. A few blocks short of his destination, my follower in a replacement bus caught up to us and all the passengers transferred to his bus so I could get set back on time.

We work to put food on the table and satisfy stomach pangs; occasionally we find we cannot supply our every need - but that together we can find comfort for deeper hungers.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Morning night

There is no place darker than the Sunshine State at night.

The last few months have been all about the a.m. runs for me. It's a definite shift for a self-confessed night owl to ditch any kind of night life for 3 a.m. alarm clocks. Now our new picks have begun, and I'll be doing morning runs for the rest of 2015. So I bid farewell to the 50, 20, and 60 -  and return to the 10 and 36. It'd be nice to see familiar faces from those routes, but I'm not counting on it since those were night runs when I last drove them.

When the sun rises, I say good night. -Villon

The pre-dawn hours in the city are a thing unto themselves. The people of the night are wrapping up their activities, and the people of the day are trickling into the streets. Heading from home to the garage, I sit at a red light with the windows down, playing a song from a favorite female singer. Among the sweet refrains come some foreign words.
'Hey, if I... will you give me 60 bucks' in similar dulcet tones to that of the singer.
The light turns green and the shadowy figure of a woman in long shorts and baggy t-shirt spins away. There had been no greeting to announce her presence, and I'm still unsure what the proposition entailed from this creature of desperation.
Later on the highway, I pass a stranded vehicle on the shoulder, its owner sitting patiently in the dark, the reflective stripes of his mechanic's tunic glowing with irony.

Heading to our starting point for the 20, there is the slightest sliver of moon hovering in the east, like a smile in the sky.
"You're late!" are the first words to start my day, coming from a grizzled, gaunt, and wizened homeless rider I haven't seen in awhile. I show him a schedule, he realizes he got his days mixed and that we're actually on time, and apologizes.
With the bus now in service, we're rolling down narrow 2-lane neighborhood streets. A car going the opposite direction drifts into our lane. I brake, lay on the horn, they drift back into their lane. Shaken but steady due to the averted disaster, I whisper a quiet Sorry for waking the neighborhood, and make a mental note to be extra aware of late-night partiers heading home.

Not all partiers are driving, though. I pick up one inebriated fellow who is obviously out of it, but seems harmless. He pays his fare and I wait a moment for him to seat himself since he is unsteady on his feet. Way up the line it becomes apparent he's not sure where he is or where he's going. He wants to get off at Goodwill, but there isn't one on this route. He wants to go back to where he got on, but doesn't remember where that is. I do; how can I forget.

We have our first layover at Central Terminal. One man, a 30-something with 6 inch dreads wanders in from behind a column anxious and fidgety.
"I'm high as a canopy right now" he declares wide-eyed, seemingly to himself.
He puts a crumpled bill in the farebox, which is promptly spat back out. But he has already seated himself and doesn't notice. Instead, another man has appeared behind him and proceeds to push the bill back in the slot successfully. This second man isn't waiting to board the bus, he wants to test the validity of a worn out old pass for a shy lady he points out to me about 50 feet away. It's no good.
I inform the rider as I exit that we'll be here for a few minutes and the rear door is open if he needs to get off. When I return, he is gone.

Heading east on Sunrise before heading north, an enormous formation of cottony clouds sits over the ocean, glowing pink from the rising sun behind. Florida's mountains are in the sky.
The morning progresses and all my regulars make appearances, everyone seems to be doing well.

There are also a couple irregular regulars on this run.
A fixture on the streets for many years, a homeless woman formerly known as Peppermint Patty boards. She was a regular when I drove the 10 during last pick, when she informed me in no uncertain terms she doesn't want to be called Patty anymore but didn't tell me her new name. She generally has a sharp memory, especially if she's been slighted, and regularly accuses our drivers of ignoring her. But she also remembers small kindnesses like the spare change I gave her awhile ago. At first she can come across as a belligerent personality, but shown a little basic respect she turns on a dime and becomes a sweet-talker. This morning she boards in a huff, tosses some coins in the box, and carries on about all the buses passing her up, and how she's overheating in the morning sun. She is stout in body so her physical well-being is a concern and I make sure she doesn't require medical attention. She's happy to be in the bus's a/c and starts to cool down. She has good news this day: She's planning to get an efficiency soon and get off the streets. I emphatically congratulate her at hearing this. She says she'll have to change her name again, maybe to Brooke Shields. The bluster and fire have taken a break, now she's comfortable and wants to talk.
"You married, Driver? I like you."

Another regular from my nights on the 10, a Jamaican woman with beautiful dreadlocks, shows up at Central Terminal near the end of my day.
"My favorite! I tracked you down!" She has a million-watt smile that immediately lights up the bus and banishes any dark clouds. However, the universe has a balance to maintain and we can't have too much of a good thing, so among the crowd boarding this time is a crude talking man apparently under the influence. He alternately sweet-talks a couple ladies, then curses them with vulgarity. This intrusion of ugly behavior has dampened the brightness Miss Sunshine has blessed us with - or not. She exits with a light touch on my arm, a brief pause of commiseration, and "God go with you."

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Timeliness is next to godliness

There are a million reasons to be late;
there's no excuse for leaving early.
-bus operator proverb

It's tempting to think of buses and other forms of transit the way we think of the planets in our solar system: objects on a fixed trajectory orbiting the same fixed path. Or, to continue the cosmic theme, like Halley's Comet: an object with a reliable return time. We may put far fewer miles on our buses than those celestial bodies, but those miles put a heavy toll on heavy machinery which invariably leads to unreliability. In other words, a late bus. A late start is just as frustrating to the driver as it is to the passenger. We want to get where we have to go, too. As a.m. bus operators, it is our responsibility to ensure a timely pullout from the garage and avoid the dreaded 'delay of service'. This means more than putting time table schedules in the rack; it involves a detailed pre-trip inspection to make sure the bus is safe to operate. So, long before the sun rises and birds start chirping, your friendly neighborhood bus driver is preparing the bus for a day of service.

One Sunday morning I pulled out of the garage 20 minutes down and headed to my starting point, Central Terminal downtown. In spite of the tardiness, those waiting were pleasant and forgiving. Wished good morning to the regulars and welcomed the rest. One young man unfamiliar with the routes had arrived a few minutes before on another route. He was grateful for our late start since he was able to make the connection earlier than if we'd been on time.

Continuing onward, I became a bit concerned to see an empty stop where I normally pick up a regular rider, an Irish waitress with irrepressible positivity. Whew, a few blocks further and there she is.
"Good morning, I see you gave up on us!" I kidded, hoping to lighten the mood.
She was thankful we showed up and on we went.

A few stops up at a major intersection and there's a growing group waiting to board. Among them is another regular, one of our homeless customers. He always has his monthly pass in his mouth, his bag in one hand and thermal mug in the other, ready to go. He's anxious to get to his destination and lets me know this. I inform him why we're late and assure him we'll do our best to get him to his destination on time.

Across the intersection, there's my regular who works at a garden center. I apologize for the wait and she's amazingly understanding. I'm not expecting to get a pass for the lateness, and it's comforting to know not everyone's day is off to a bad start.

As we roll on, the anxious customer's anxiety grows and he feels the need to verbally express it. By this time, every service stop is making him more concerned. Finally, we approach his stop. To accommodate him, I go a little beyond the sign and pull up to the curb to save him a few steps. He books it out of there.

No recovery time for a break at the end of the trip, we need to keep it moving so the final stop is treated as a regular stop and away we go on our return trip.

Up ahead is a customer waiting in a wheelchair. Operating the wheelchair ramp can be time-consuming, but safety comes first so we give every customer the time they need to board safely. This particular customer is another regular, always sweet and kind, and wishing me a happy Sunday though she had to wait longer than expected for our arrival. She's a pro in the mobility device and before the ramp is stowed she's letting me know she's all set.

Miles down the road, there's the anxious customer. Only now he's no longer anxious. He's like a new man, easy going and content.
"Did you make it in time?" I ask.
"Yeah! With two minutes to spare. Had to stow my bag in a bush so it wouldn't slow me down."
"That's quick thinkin', travelin' light!"
Whereas before he was dreading each service stop, now he suggests I slow down in case an elderly woman on the sidewalk needs the bus.

Now we're approaching downtown again, and there's my leader bus just ahead. Not sure what happened to make him so late, but I can empathize. When we get to Central Terminal, he's in the bus bay for our route so I pull into the one behind. There's a puddle from last night's rain in that slot and pigeons are bathing in it. A woman on a bench jumps up waving her arms to shoo them away in front of the bus. She's waiting to board with about 30 others. I comment on her looking out for the pigeons, and she giggles about their ruffled feathers.

I'm back on time and my leader gets instructions from dispatch to get himself on time, so he heads out empty and I welcome the extremely patient passengers onto my bus. No leader bus means we'll be nearly full most of the next trip.

At one stop a young Jamaican man with a bike is waiting. All the slots on the bus's bike rack are full.
"Boss man, can I bring it in the back?" he asks with a languid island accent.
Since there's room by the rear exit door, I let him bring it in there and hold on to it. He's already been waiting for my leader who didn't make this trip, and it's gonna be awhile for the next bus after mine since it's Sunday service. I also take the bus, sometimes with my bike, and appreciate it when the driver gives me a break. A little flexibility goes a long way in life. Let's see Halley's Comet try that.