Monday, 3 November 2014

Speaking Up

I am pulling into the Rideau Centre on a Wednesday morning.

It's the end of my first shift, a long morning piece that winds its way from Vanier to Carlington while cutting through the heart of the city on Rideau street. Most drivers I know hate the number 14 route. It's all strollers and arguments, and Wednesdays' seniors day turns each bus into some kind of strange mashup of Honey Boo Boo and an episode of Hoarders. This is not easy work.

This shift was no different than any Wednesday, and I was elated to see my relief man as I pulled in.

We shared a typical conversation about the bus, detours and such, when a commotion of yelling started. I poked my head out the bus to see who was yelling at whom, then grabbed my backpack and headed out onto the sidewalk.

This young couple were in the shelter, and the young man was absolutely berating what appeared to be his girlfriend. He was calling her all kinds of names, calling her stupid, taking long pauses then starting back up again. Cruel words, shocking words, and she was in tears, completely silent.

This was not an argument, this was a public humiliation.

Everyone who had been standing inside the shelter was now standing outside the shelter making eyes at each other, or pretending that nothing important enough was happening to get involved. There was nothing physical happening, but it still felt violent. I walked into the shelter, and stood there staring at this young couple. The young man kept yelling at her, not even noticing that I was standing there.

At this point, I had a decision to make. Do I get involved? Or do I do as most of the folks who just vacated the shelter did, standing on the sidewalk listening to the entertainment like a child at the top of the stairs who's half interested in the party events, but mostly avoiding the monster under the bed.

I made eye contact with her, and held it.

"Are you okay? Do you need help? You can walk with me, right now. I am a bus driver with OC Transpo, and you can trust me. We can just walk. I'm married with three kids, I'm not a threat, and I can help you."

I'm not going to print what the young man screamed to me next, but I ignored his words and continued talking to her. At this point, I'm surveying the crowd outside the shelter, who are now more interested in this event but still not getting involved. I'm wondering who might support me if this event goes where it seems to be trending to. The young man is starting to threaten me.

At this point I have another decision to make. Sizing the young man up, I'm pretty sure I could handle him, even if he has a weapon. There are no buses around, no way for me ask a colleague for help, but I'm pretty sure I can handle myself. I've been in a scrap or two.

In my mind, I'm thinking I's like to try to get this young man to throw a punch at me. I will damned well make sure he spends the rest of this day in jail rather than continue this verbal attack. I can take a punch, and press charges. Part of me is hoping he will make me defend myself vigorously, but I know that what is really needed here is an arrestable assault, not a corporal lesson.

I say to her:

"Is he hitting you yet? Because he will. No person yells at someone he really loves like this guy yells at you. No person degrades another person like that, and loves them. This is a control issue. If this guy is not hitting you yet, trust me, he will be hitting you in the future. I have lived through this. You are so young. You need to walk away from this, right now."

The young man doesn't throw the punch. He just continues to tell me to walk away, this is none of my business, "What's this to YOU?", etc, etc. He's all talk, and too smart to take the bait. Like most of these cowards, he likely doesn't want to pick a fight with someone he can't control, or someone who hits back.

That's when the young woman broke my heart.

"I'm okay." she said.

I can see her fear. I can see her pain. But I know I can't do a god damned thing about it. So I walked out of the shelter as he called me an effing idiot.

I have no idea what happened next. I'd like to think that this young lady managed to get away from this situation, or that this young man was not what he seemed and that this was a bad day.

Mostly, I hope that both of these people get help.

If you find yourself looking for help, and don't know how to get it, click the above link or call them at 613-238-3311.

We all need to pay attention to the voices we hear around us, in the shelter at Rideau street or the homes of friends we visit. We need to listen to the strangers in our lives, and the friends we choose. Most people fear that they will not be taken seriously.

We need to give them a voice. We need to speak up.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

From The Beginning, With Feeling!

The first thing I learned after I was hired at my job was that the job would harden me.

This was a credo that was repeated ad nauseum by any driver I talked to. Training was a strange mix of route memorization, on-street maneuvers in buses, and war stories. And the war stories were plentiful. You couldn't talk shop without listening to a variation of some story that began with a belligerent passenger beaking off, and ended with an "I showed them" type resolution. Every driver had a story, and it became evident that it really was Us against Them.

This is not a concept that was unique to Ottawa. I have friends in other cities who told the same types of stories. It's strange, but the stories seem to be generic plot lines passed around transit properties throughout the industry. I'm not saying the stories are not true, but I have always questioned whether the stories told are actually being told by the author, or simply reiterated folklore that all drivers hear and then re-purpose to suit the conversations around the drivers' lounges.

This job will harden you.

That was the credo. I had come to transit from a life on the road. New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta... I had spent years driving freight all over North America, in horrible neighborhoods, tarping loads in freezing temperatures, working 80 hour weeks, hauling explosives, in all kinds of weather... But transit? This will harden me?

When I look back on my days spent on the road as a trucker, I look back with a sense of wanderlust and adventure. Every day was a new zip code, time zone, and challenge. I have been places many folks will never see. I have been to 48 states and 9 provinces. I have had the stressful fatigue ridden pressure of a deadline met with the knowledge that my hard work prevented the closure of a factory's third shift, as the company needed these supplies to prevent layoffs.

I felt important back then. Needed. The distance between me and that career grows bigger, and perspective adds to the lore of the stories I tell about it.

As I look back at my transit career, now older and more experienced, I realize that the lore of driving a bus has it's own perspective, and that much of what I thought I had learned from training and other more experienced drivers was just that -lore. We tell these stories over and over, all variations of the same plot, and we laugh about them. I hear the same stories from other fields in customer service. We all tell variations of same exaggerations! Driving a transit bus is a difficult job, yes. But I think I have drawn a conclusion.

This job has not hardened me. The dire warnings and predictions did not produce fruit here. People are not terrible to us. Okay, some are, but the good outweigh the bad by a looong shot. It's not even close.

In fact, this job has taken a cynical know-it-all trucker and moulded him into a thoughtful, reflective man. This job has made my life better, and has provided for my family. This job has made me a better person.

There are likely to be hundreds of new hires over the next few years, and the vast majority of drivers currently driving have been hired over the past few years. This represents the biggest opportunity in company history to shift the culture of transit driving in Ottawa, ever.

If you're a recent hire, or thinking of joining the organization, I'd like to share the following things that I wish I had known when I started at this job.

  1. Your passengers do not know you, so whatever name they call you is irrelevant and made-up.
  2. You will meet one hundred times more clients that are nice and love the service you provide than you will meet clients who are upset with you.
  3. You will remember the ones who are upset with you, and that is irrational and wasteful. Don't focus on that.
  4. Every conflict is an opportunity to win a person over. Looking for opportunities to win people over is the most rewarding aspect of this job, and has increased my personal happiness and job satisfaction more than any other aspect of this job. You may drive five hundred people to work in a day, but the accomplishment is temporary. Tomorrow, there will be five hundred more people. A resolved issue is the only accomplishment you can take home with you. 
  5. The people I work with are awesome. The media is bored with this concept, so ignore it. If you are looking for validation, you will never find it in the comments section of the Sun, because these are the types of people who read the Sun. Just sayin'.
  6. Exercise. If you are going to spend the next few decades sitting down behind a steering wheel, keeping strange hours, and microwaving most of your daily calories, then don't fall into the trap of a sedentary lifestyle away from the platform. Look around at your co workers. This is essential.

There is no real life handbook for being a transit driver. There is no hard and fast guide to dealing with the unique challenges you will face, nor is there a pat on the back for a job well done.

If you let it, this job will teach you important lessons about life. You will find your limits, you will test them. You will work hard most days and the lessons may seem unfair at times, but you have an important choice to make on how you apply these things to your life:

 You can let those lessons harden you, or you can let those lessons temper you.

So choose wisely.

Sunday, 11 May 2014


My mom is a pretty awesome person. She is a tireless volunteer, an activist, a former RCMP archivist, and she's currently in charge of the difficult job of taking care of my post-stroke father, who is somewhere around stage 4 of grieving his very recent blindness. It has been a tough year for the Drives family to say the least. I appreciate my family. I appreciate my mother. She is also the maker of pies, which is good people in my book.

For many years at OC, I also had a second mother. Many of the drivers called her Mom, some out of respect, some parroting other drivers, most just couldn't find another word to call her that fit as well as "Mom". It was simply the word that best described how she treated us.

Mom rode my number twelve (and number two for you veterans) for years. She'd hop on the bus, say her morning rituals, and commence with the small talk right away.

"How are you doing?" became "How's Renée?" became "Has she had the baby yet?" became "I bought this bear for little Jakob" became "How are the kids?" became "You're getting a little grey!" became "They're HOW OLD now?!?" and so on an so forth.

One day, Mom walked on the bus with a small tinfoil package. I could see a bit of steam rising from the foil chimney that had formed in the top fold of the warm treat. This woman had baked me a banana bread, and was proudly describing her process, her ingredients, and the care in which she made it. I'm normally pretty cynical when it comes to food given to me by passengers. I had never eaten anything given to me by a person riding my bus. I teach my kids about candy from the man in the white van, and it is a lesson I always took to heart.

However, after Mom got off at her stop, and I continued on with this bread sitting beside me, steaming out an aroma of lightly toasted walnut and cooling banana, I was seriously considering breaking my rule. For thirty minutes I smelled what could only be lightly toasted walnuts, the crusty caramelized exterior of where bread meets a hot pan, and the unmistakable aroma of banana and sugar dueling it out on the stage of warm crusty goodness.

The first bite was still warm, and it tasted like home.

Mom knew me as a trucker trying to figure out how to deal with cargo that walked and talked, and helped me grow up into the man I am, walking and talking on my own as a bus driver in this city. She shared her stories of growing up in Jamaica, her family, and all the things that made her, well... her.

She baked me many banana breads over the years. In a job where you find many of your day's calories coming from the Quickie at Bayshore, home baked banana bread can become more valuable to job satisfaction than a negotiated benefit.

I credit Mom for breaking me out of my bus driver shell, and making me think about all the great things that happen to me at my job. I credit Mom for making my job enjoyable in that snowstorm, when the whole bus hopped out and helped push a man and his car past the curb of his apartment building on Somerset.

Most of all, I thank Mom for that banana bread.

Wherever you are, Mom, I'm thinking of you today. I hope the sun is shining on you.