Friday, October 26, 2018

Catching whales

Saturdays found me driving the 55, serving the Commercial Boulevard corridor from Galt Mile by the beach to Hiatus Road in close proximity of the Everglades. Thanks to a sizable loop at the west end of the route, the actual starting point is at NW 94th Avenue, east of Hiatus. It was no longer raining, but the streets were slick and I had to use the wipers as cars sprayed mist on the windshield.

The sun rose on a quiet weekend morning. Ridership and traffic were lighter than usual. The first round trip came and went without event. It is days like this when the ghosts of Broward County past come out. The light slants low, the pace of Life is slow, and you get a glimpse of the laid back days when people had time to breathe. And time to care.

We were heading east, but still way out west at University Drive when a 30ish man boarded with a fishing pole. I'm a Florida boy so fishing is in my blood, and I asked if he had a good spot. He was going to Anglin's Pier in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, forty minutes down the road. His expectations were kept in check.
"I'm not trying to catch a whale."

The pier came into sight not long after we crossed the Intracoastal, which meant it was time for us to turn south on Bougainvilla Drive and make our turn around at Galt Mile. This brought us back on to A1A going north, and to a rest at our layover in front of the Starbucks at 36th St. The wall of condo skyscrapers are all you can see to the east here, but the occasional whiff of salty air reminds you that the Atlantic is beyond them.

Time to go west again, and a couple of stops in we pulled up to a man with both hands cupping beside his eyes, as if to shield for sun glare while squinting at the headsign.
"Are you the 55? I can't see the sign."
The headsign had been blank all day so there was nothing to see there. We shared this stop with Route 11 so I assured him it was the 55. He told me a workplace accident had lodged a sharp object in his eye. He was on his way to the hospital to have it examined.

The next few hours slipped by in a hazy daydream of kids on playgrounds, people walking their dogs, shoppers tending to errands, and all the other activities that sprout on a sleepy Saturday.

My last trip was a short one, eastbound ending at 441 and passing the bus on to my relief. Last trips have a reputation for delaying the bus from a timely arrival. So naturally I wasn't surprised when I spotted an old man in a wheelchair giving it his level best to get to the bus stop. I was already there at University and saw him in the mirror when I was ready to pull away. Since it was the weekend and would be awhile till the next bus came, there was no way I was gonna leave him behind - especially after his valiant effort. He was so excited to catch the bus that he rushed the boarding process, catching his wheel on the edge of the ramp. Now he decided to watch the wheel, sticking his head past the side of the wheelchair perilously close to the door jamb.
   'Watch your head!' I advised him, as he was so focused downward.
"You ever try to watch your own head?!" His response was quick, as if he'd used it more than once before.

Our delay was minimal and I still got to the relief point on time. The bus would continue on with a new driver and new riders, picking up where we left off. They'd make their own shadows in the slanting light, hopefully taking time to breathe - and just a little time to care.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Two of a kind

Long routes can mean long shifts, so when you've got eleven hours on the clock ahead of you, it's best to just settle in and let the good times roll. The long route today was the 2, dedicated to nearly the full length of University Drive, a broad artery running through the swollen western suburbs. Generally straightforward and sedate, like any route it has its hairy moments.

The day's schedule called for a northbound start out of West Terminal a little before 6 that morning. On those dark weekdays when the city is still dreaming, most of those on the bus are the first sign of its awakening. There are exceptions, and one boarded at Oakland Park Boulevard.
"Is it possible I could get a ride to Commercial? I cannot find him," she asked with pursed lips. She held her hand out with rubbing fingertips. If there were coins there, I couldn't see them. Jail ink on thin forearms and dirty blonde hair were signs of more than one rough night. A light rain appeared soon after, growing heavier as we drove into it. She exited at Commercial, but not before spreading some cheer in the gloom.
"Happy holidays, everyone," she called out to the rest of us. "Shitruffenuff. Thank you friendbro." Her words were light, trailing her as she disappeared into the drizzly dark.

While she looked for 'him', we found our way to the north layover. A Breeze bus showed up and the driver shut it down. It was running slow and he'd be waiting for road service to check it out. Our 2 bus was going strong though, so off we went, picking up a waitress, talking about bus routes and long hours.

The Breeze is a limited stop route, and at every shared stop at least one person asked if it was coming. For those needing to go far down the line, the Breeze is the most direct way, with fewer stops and bypassing West Terminal. I could only tell them it was delayed, but would be coming.

The sun pushed the night out of the way and set to work drying the damp earth. Rain-weighted branches spread low on the poincianas, jacarandas, and mahoganies surrounding West Terminal. Flocks of white ibis pecked in the lawns around Westfield Broward Mall, grabbing fat grubs brought up by the saturated ground.

Down south at Pembroke Commons, an older woman boarded, her arms laden with bags and cleaning supplies.
"I'm going to put my things down," she informed as she walked by the fare box. Some people will put their things on the floor to swipe their pass, but for her "the bus is so wet, and sometimes they don't clean them. If I was cleaning the buses, they would be sooo clean."

We finished the trip a few minutes down, but still had ten minutes to stretch. Our next trip, going back north, was nearly two hours of driving bliss. It was that magic window between the morning rush and the lunchtime crowds. The road was a conveyor belt gliding us along unimpeded. It was the type of trip that becomes forgettable by its very smoothness. It was also the calm before a storm no one had forecast.

A middle-aged man was waiting at Wiles, barely into our brand new trip southbound.
"I need to get to University Hospital." A request like that prompts me to make sure EMS isn't required. Nope, he just wants to go to the hospital in Tamarac. Travis McGee fans will remember this hospital as the scene of Gretel Howard's untimely demise in The Green Ripper.

At Royal Palm Boulevard a young woman patiently waited with her toddler son and mother. They had a stroller which I helped stow as they had their hands full with the boy and accessories. Grandma was very appreciative: "You're the first one to be so generous and help!" Of course I'm not the only one, but it was a nice thing to say.

The day degenerated after that. A horrific two-car crash at 50th St created a serious delay which knocked us down by seven minutes.

At West Terminal, another bus operator spotted me and had to have some fun.
"Thank God the month is almost over and I won't have to look at your face anymore at the office!" My 'Operator of the Month' poster was still posted in the Dispatch lobby.

Massive congestion around the Broward Mall leading to the I-595 interchange soon proved to be an epic traffic jam crawling south of Broward Boulevard. This stretch is notorious for that, although today it had started way earlier than usual. There is no way out of it, so the only option is to inch along at glacial speed until it eventually thinned out. By the time we got to 30th St about a mile later, we were more than thirty minutes late. A student from NSU across the street must have been waiting for awhile when she boarded and asked, "Do you know what time the last bus came?" 'No, I don't. We're all backed up from the traffic,"I answered while pointing my thumb back. Here traffic was heavy but moving nicely south of 595, so from her vantage point she had no idea what we'd just endured the previous half hour. I spared her the details.

The clock said we were more than 40 minutes down when we finally turned on to 207th St in Miami Gardens. No time to stretch or even get out of the seat after that 2 1/2 hour grind. So I picked up, dropped off, and spun it back north for my final trip of the day.

On Miramar Parkway, I picked up the vet in the wheelchair, service dog on his lap. Customers impatient after the long wait skipped by him rather than let him board first. Inconsiderate perhaps, but we would take all the time we needed to lower the ramp and let him board safely. Along with the faithful pet he calls a brother to his daughters.

We were back on University moving nicely but not making up any time. After Sheridan St, another #2 going the other way passed us. It was the third one in the last ten minutes, an indicator that the morass we'd been caught in was still wreaking havoc. More surprising were the four #2 buses within a mile span after we left West Terminal. The accident at 50th St we'd gotten through earlier was still not cleared, and had grown out of proportion as early weekend traffic flooded the streets.

Long routes and long shifts can be exhausting, taking their toll on you even when you're letting the good times roll. You give it your all and leave a piece of yourself on the road. Sometimes that piece tugs on your heart a little bit, not wanting the good times to end.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Ringing true


Midweek fill-in on the 19, rolling on 441 from Lauderhill Mall to Sandalfoot Boulevard in Boca. The relief point was at Turtle Creek and it was a pleasant surprise to take over from a driver who was a recent graduate of the operator training program. Like a relay race, she passed me the baton - only this one was sixty feet long. The transition was smooth and I continued the course down to the Hill on time.

An old co-worker from a previous life was there, waiting for the 40. We fist-bumped, then he spotted his bus and ditched me. A heavy overcast had settled over the south end of the route, but it was cool and dry. No sooner did we turn back on to 441 than we came to a halt at the rear end of a back-up. A disabled car at 16th St was delaying us at a critical point in the route, setting us back before we really got started. We finally got through about seven minutes later, and that deficit would stick with us for the next hour.

A teen girl got on at 24th St with a shy look about her. "Just got out of school, I don't have no dollah," she explained as she boarded. Her boyfriend jumped in behind her, pointing and mumbling. I didn't catch what he said and called him back. "I'm with her," he clearly said this time.

When we got to Oakland Park Boulevard there was a minor glitch in the matrix when two unrelated people, a man and a woman several spots apart, both asked with similar curiosity: "This isn't the Breeze is it?" The question itself wasn't unusual, just a bit uncommon since the headsign was working and clearly didn't read Breeze. Their identical phrasing and delivery were uncanny.

A teenage boy looked confused at Kimberly while trying to operate the bicycle rack. Apparently a first-timer, I hopped out to assist him. It's a simple process and speeds things along if I help, plus he'd know how to do it himself next time.

We finally neared the county line when just before Hillsboro Boulevard a passenger asked with mild humor: "Driver, do you hear ringing in your sleep?" They were referring to the ding of countless stop requests. I may have dreamt of that tinny tone in the early days, now years of conditioning had morphed it into a subconscious command to turn on the blinkers and stop by the side of the road.

The next trip found us in the ever-growing afternoon traffic, and we were getting the worst of it going south. I was stuck in the pull-in stop at 12th St in North Lauderdale, started inching forward in anticipation of a gap coming our way in the endless stream. If we could just slide the bus in there... out of my left hand blind spot a running man triggered my instinct to press the brakes. An older gentleman in an untucked white guayabera had decided to dart from the median and through our gap right in front of the bus. His blind trust that no harm would come to him made me shudder. I let him on as another opportunity to exit the bus trap presented itself. I asked the man to have a seat before we moved, but he remained standing and responded with a smile. His curious mannerisms were reminiscent of Harpo Marx: playful gesticulations with his duffel bag, bowing, and prayer hands. He finally sat down briefly as we got to the end.

During the whole shift a woman's forceful voice made periodic announcements in the back of the bus. It was a jarring contrast to the even-volumed male voice which made announcements in English. She was BCT's Haitian Creole announcer, and it sounded like she was yelling from inside a bathroom. I had named the male voice Izzy after the company that made him; his predecessor was a distinguished woman's voice I called Maggie. The new Haitian woman telling us about bus safety needed a name as well; Marie had a nice ring to it. They may be disembodied voices residing on a microchip, but they speak to us for hours, more often than most people in our lives. Maybe their words even ring in our sleep.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

What's in a name

In reviewing the names I've been called over the last few months, it's clear that we're running out of options. It's only a handful of new ones, and the list is dwindling. Despite the shortness, it's still a mix of sweet nothings and zingers. Browardians have no problem calling their bus drivers by all manner of descriptions. Here are some new ones to add to the archive.

-Leonardo DiCaprio
-Doll
-My driver
-White Boy
-Shakespeare
-Darlin'

---

List One

Boss
Brotha
Man
Sir
Mon
Partner
Chief
Bus Driver
Papa
Se├▒or
Captain
Sweetheart
Ma'am
Pops
Bro
Buddy
Sweetie
Young Man
Papi
Michael J. Fox
Superstar
Bud
Driver
Honey
Brother
Guy
Cap'n
Operator
My Favorite
Darling
Kid
Pussycat
Dude
My Friend
Mister
Big Dog
Baby
Monsieur
Cutie
Papacito
My Man
Stranger
Ami
Dahling
Handsome
Babydoll

---

List Two

Good boy
Bus man
My baby
Mayor
My boy
Boss man
Slick
My brotha
Papito
Champ
Big man
Big fella
Dawg
Young brotha
Bud
My main man
Sonny
Doogie Howser
Homie
Cowboy
Tiger
Johnny Depp
Pal
General
My son
Killa
Trooper
Podner
Mr. Bus Man


---

List Three

-Hustla
-Blue
-Bo
-Kennedy
-Billy Bob Thornton
-Dumb Ass Cracka
-Kiddo
-My Potna
-Bubble Burster
-Clark Kent
-Big Bo
-Mr. Driver
-The Man

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Open door policy

"You're late, Papa, late!" The middle-aged man chided me with a relaxed Jamaican accent as he paid his fare one clinking quarter at a time. He was right - we were two minutes behind schedule. The predawn darkness at 41st St may have altered his sense of time, or maybe he'd just missed the previous bus twenty minutes earlier. Either way, to him we were late and most likely everyone else on board were equally anxious to get where they needed to be. The cabin of the sixty-foot 441 Breeze filled steadily with the faces of the waking city.

The Miami Subs just south of Griffin Road was a conspicuous beacon on our dim journey. A crew was applying stucco in the harsh wash of flood lights. Traffic is still friendly at this hour so we were never more than five minutes down, even though we had to take it easy on the Swiss cheese stretch of road under construction in Hollywood.

We were on time when we got to County Line Road, with only two more stops between us and the layover at Golden Glades Interchange. I serviced the stop and clicked the door lever closed, but the rear doors remained open. An interlock prevents a bus from moving when these doors are open, so I parked it and got up to investigate. Nervous eyes looking on became nervous voices wondering what the problem was.
"What happened? Are you going to get me to the Glades before 7?" I recognized her as a long time regular from when I drove her home in the evenings on this route. She had to make her connection for her job in downtown Miami. The doors were able to be coaxed shut and we booked it south. When we arrived at Golden Glades with ample time for her to transfer, she made it a point to thank me on her way out.
"You did well. I commend you." These are the commendations that encourage me daily. They come by the busload, each one cherished, knowing they will never collect dust like the paper kind.

Sticky stops

Early morning buses are extremely critical for the riding public. Oftentimes, connections must be made where jobs and livelihoods are on the line. As a bus operator, it is up to me to make sure my bus is where it needs to be, when it's scheduled to be there. While pre-tripping the bus one morning I discovered sticky residue all over the driver's console, where commonly used controls are located. The good men in the service line took care of it and soon I was through the gates - eight minutes late. Fortunately the start point at Central Terminal is some miles from the garage, giving me a chance to make up some of that time. The minutes were dropping off like magic, I pulled off 95 to Broward eastbound, confident about starting service close to on time. A turn on 7th Ave, then another on 4th St and the terminal was in sight when red lights started flashing in the darkness. The ear-pounding bells of the railroad crossing began their clanging and I could only sit, wait, and watch as the time gains disappeared. The first inclination is frustration, but when you actually pay attention and look at the train you have to marvel at its strident persistence. It's been rolling on the same path through Broward County since 1896. We finally pulled out of Central Terminal, but the damage was done and we would never be on time this trip.

A 'ghost in the machine' was creating a peripheral distraction: The headsign would randomly go blank, the annunciator would occasionally stream out its usual technobabble ("Offset" this and "Bootloader" that) at a loud volume that couldn't be muted. Strangely the fare box was mute, confusing people when they swiped their passes and no affirmative tone beeped back at them. Those problems were minor and probably the types of things only an operator dwells on. Once we're in service, they take second place and our customers are the top priority.

About halfway in to the shift, we pulled up to a stop by a grocery store. A sometime-regular with beard and beret boarded almost backwards as he was looking back at something in the parking lot. "A fight," he explained. I wanted no part of that and was ready to leave when a young man in his 20s appeared from the rows of cars. In orange t-shirt and khaki shorts, arms hanging with grocery bags, we couldn't very well leave him in a parking lot brawl so I kept the doors open for one more passenger before we got out of there. With both feet aboard, he turned and yelled with fiery anger back from where he'd come, "If I had a gun I'd shoot you, bitch!" Now it was definitely time to roll. He slid his fare in the box and with the flick of an internal switch became a different person. In calm and gentle voice he spoke: "Hey, did you see that guy? He's a KKK."
I never did see that guy, we were already gone.

The bus is a moving ecosystem, however just like a stationary environment, the weather changes. The storm of that previous trip moved through and sunshine took its place. At Holy Cross Hospital, Minnie Rose and her owner boarded. Candace's senior dogs provide pet therapy for senior humans, and Minnie Rose is a sort of resident therapy dog on Broward Transit. Her social media is covered with the smiles of all those who happen to ride with her - including myself. The animals were well-behaved, sharing their instant friendship and reminding us how simple it is to be kind to one another regardless of obvious physical differences.

Life gets sticky at inopportune times. We clean it up as best we can and ride on to the next stop...

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Can't beat that

Ahhh, Sundays on Federal Highway. The slow day of the week, when all chaos and furor subside to give us a day of rest. This shift on the 10 meant starting with the rising sun, a hopeful time when the day is born anew. Pre-tripping a bus at the garage acquaints an operator with the personality of the machine he'll be operating that day. It doesn't matter if they all came off the same assembly line, they each have their own quirks and glitches. The ghost in the machine today presented itself as a permanently blank headsign and a rear door in no hurry to close. The first was no big deal, in fact I prefer it since it gives me another opportunity to greet my passengers. Their quizzical looks at stops shared with other routes are replaced with either a smile of relief when I announce the route, or wondering when the right bus is coming by. The second glitch becomes a frustrating time-eater, but everything else was operating fine and it was Sunday after all - the slow day of the week.

The streets were shiny from overnight rain, not exactly wiper weather anymore except for a brief moment while deadheading downtown. An overcast sky, but the clouds were bright in Broward County. Sunday service is more spread out, so I couldn't assume a missing leader bus as my cabin quickly filled. We were packed full by the Gateway Curve, including two folks in wheelchairs, less than twenty minutes into the trip. That snowball effect that occurs even in subtropical regions had begun, and the deficit in the schedule kept growing as we kept going north. Five minutes down, 7, 8, 12, etc. At the last stop in Broward before crossing the Hillsboro inlet into Boca Raton, a regular rider awaited by the edge of the curb. An older man, he can come across a bit gruff until you catch his brand of humor.
"Are you a bus driver?" He asked as he boarded.
   'I'm fakin' it! I got this uniform at Goodwill.' I joked back.
"I'm looking for a driver who can keep the bus on time every day."
   'On time?' I asked, reliving the delay-filled memory of the trek all the way up here.
"To the second!" His well-timed punchline was good-natured and included a beaming smile as he exited stage left into the cabin.

Another quirk of the bus revealed itself this trip: the kneeler did not work every time I tried to operate it. Also the ramp only opens with the bus kneeled, but I was able open it manually for a wheelchair passenger to roll on board.

Ample recovery time at the north end gave me a few minutes to get out of the seat before heading back south. About fifteen minutes in, a middle-aged man boarded cursing and blessing aloud in turn. The drugstore didn't have his prescription, which triggered his outrage, quickly followed with words of politeness. When he exited a ways down the road, I wished him well and hoped this trip had brought him to some relief.

At Sample, a group of men including restaurant workers stood impatiently. They'd been waiting a long time, and were wondering why. I explained this was the first bus of the day servicing that stop, though two earlier buses started a little south of here at Copans Road. They were thankful for the information.

We were getting back near the Gateway Curve again when a familiar figure seated at a bus bench motioned to rise. His impressively massive dreads and walker are part of his distinctive style. He is one of our homeless regulars, with a consistent kindness that can only come from strength of character in spite of the daily struggle he endures. It's a pleasure to have him ride with me, though others may be put off by inconsistent hygiene.
"Happy holiday..." he replied to my initial greeting, in voice quiet and clear.
   'Another exciting day.' I responded as I tend to, thankful for the moment.
"Another exciting day, huh?" He pondered. "Another day in paradise. Can't beat that!"

It was time to go north again, and this trip began to make up for the first, as we were able to more closely adhere to the schedule. We'd just crossed over into Pompano when my old friend the Penny Lady shuffled over to the curb as we approached. An encounter with her earlier in the year had left an indelible impression on me about the importance of service to our customers. I appreciate her for that, and also for her frankness - she lets you know how she feels. It gives us a chance to win her over with a kindness that she may not receive as she goes about her errands. She is an older woman and short in stature, so one request she makes every time she boards the bus is to lower it for her. I do it automatically now whenever she rides. Unfortunately for me, the bus kneeler chose this moment not to cooperate. No amount of toggle-jiggling would activate the lowering mechanism, so I could only apologize and ask her to be careful and take her time while boarding. She accepted the situation and we continued. About a mile up the road a man with a cane needed to board, and this time the kneeler worked. My penny friend immediately became loud and upset at this unfairness, accusing me in front of everyone in no uncertain terms of choosing when it would work. She took note of the bus number when she exited, telling me she would call it in. I encouraged her to do just that, as it could possibly help the problem get resolved.

Up at 10th St in Deerfield, a 3-man crew was applying fresh stripes in the crosswalks. The powerlines at Eller Drive were covered with flocks of starlings.

Our final southbound and we would soon be in the home stretch this fine Sunday. I held my breath when the Penny Lady came into view just past Copans. Would the kneeler work this time? Yes, it worked like a charm. Not only that, it worked a second time when she exited, pleasing her enough to tell me she wouldn't call it in since it works again. I would report it to Maintenance at the end of the shift.

By now church was out, people were awake, and the street was buzzing. Massive congestion around Best Buy was good for their business, but knocked us back five minutes before we could break through.

Well into the afternoon now, moving ever northward where I would be relieved on the road. Before that transition however, I needed to shift lanes on Sunrise Boulevard at the Gateway Curve. The relentless gridlock of sun-hungry beach goers inching eastward weren't giving us an inch, much less forty feet to slide a bus into. Eventually the bus gets where it needs to go, and long after leaving the congestion behind we were finally way uptown at Atlantic Boulevard. Someone was playing music without headphones, but low enough that no one seemed bothered by the classic Marley jam.
"Don't worry, about a thing..."

It was Sunday after all - the slow day of the week.