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.

http://www.dcottawa.on.ca/

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

Mom

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.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

September 18

I have sat down at this keyboard many times over the past six months. Each time, I think about what happened on September 18th, I write a few sentences, I think, and I stop. I honestly cannot believe what happened that day. I cannot erase the images from my mind, the scene, the way I felt, and the memories of the folks I knew on that bus that day.

I was driving the 122 route in Orleans that morning. I had been tinkering with some notes on bus driver assaults, and I was moving through a few paragraphs on the subject. I took the summer off from blog writing, choosing instead to enjoy my free time planning a trip to a remote part of North Carolina with the wife and kids. I had been writing mostly short stories over the summer, choosing pleasure over work, but it was now September and I was in the mood to write a bit here.

A regular passenger gets on my 122, puts an ominous hand on my shoulder, and says "Drive safe today, we're all thinking of you."

I thought about that strange interaction all the way back to Place d'Orleans. I had no idea what had transpired in Barhaven. When I arrived at Orleans Station, I could see a group of drivers huddled around the front of a bus, one was crying. I parked, and picked up my phone. Twenty texts, all asking if I'm okay, who is it, what happened? I flipped over to Twitter, and I could not believe what I saw.

I dashed into the station and did what many drivers did that morning. I looked up the bus number, and found out who was driving that bus. The name rang a bell, but I needed Facebook to connect the dots. God, he was such a nice guy. People tend to throw around the term Infectious Smile a little too liberally, as if it means a really nice smile. Dave made others smile, and that's what it really means. I paused on the pictures of his wife and his daughter, wondering if they knew yet, and if not, who would have to tell them. I grieved.

It wasn't long before a media type contacted my Twitter page. Can we talk? No good can come of this. This reporter from CBC is asking me to confirm the driver's name. I'm not biting. She is desperate for details, and to be first to confirm. She puts Dave's name out there, but really only clicked his Facebook page and thinks his name is Terry. The interaction feels like a shady car salesman trying to sell me electronic rust protection and a diamond grade clear coat. We know his name is Terry, it has already been confirmed. I'm feeling ill at this point. CBC wants to be the first to tell his wife. On the radio.

I drive around Orleans for the next few hours listening to the radio. I'm not supposed to do this, but I can't pull myself away. I wonder about the supervisors who had to respond. I wonder about the other passengers on that bus and how they got off. I think back to my trucking days, specifically a day where I was first responder to a horrible crash on I75, and the days that followed that. So senseless, I cannot turn the emotions off.

My first shift is over, and I now have to pick up another bus and drive up and down Bank St on the number one route for the afternoon. I am a zombie at this point. People want to ask questions about the morning, and they get on the bus and ask them. I can't answer any of them. I can barely make eye contact. Someone beside me is speculating that the Driver Must Have Fallen asleep, and a passenger hushes him, tells him to be quiet. As I ride up and down Bank, each bus I pass is a raised eyebrow, a shrug, a lowered gaze. The company is in pain.

When I arrived back to the barn, drivers are quiet. I walk back to the parking lot, all the while wondering if his orphaned car is still parked in this lot. Who might have to pick it up? Will it stay there, collecting the dust of age that has been denied to Dave? I break down, sitting in my car, feeling sorry for Dave's car.

“And when something awful happens, the goodness stands out even more ...” 
― Banana YoshimotoThe Lake

The next few days, I began to realize just what kind of city we live in. It seemed that the entire city was in mourning, each passenger struggling to find some kind of connection to the event. While a few people still tried to engage in speculation, most were telling me that they've taken that bus, or that they knew someone who did. Some paid tribute to the victims with a hand on the shoulder, and a kind word. Passengers were so nice, and supportive. I really appreciated the kind words, Ottawa.

That night, I had discovered the names of the passengers, and upon seeing their pictures, was terribly upset to see a few faces I knew. One in particular, with whom I had shared a running joke about the motorcycle helmet I sometimes kept on the dash fan of my bus. I would tell her that I do all of my own stunts. She retorted that the passengers should be the ones wearing the helmets on my bus.

The response from our passengers was so very supportive, equaled only by the support of OC Transpo management and employees. If there is ever a case study to be made in how to do things right in a time of crisis at a major company, the study should begin with John Manconi.  His performance was exemplary. I can't imagine how this must have affected the higher floors at the Ivory Tower, but Mr. Manconi walked shoulder to shoulder with his troops and enacted a plan of support that caught this driver way off guard. There was never a question of where to get support. There was never a question of what was going on. There was never a question unanswered for the blue collar driver. Mr. Manconi put it all out there. Drivers banded together to support those that needed to attend services, or grieve. Work was covered across the board, with drivers cooperating and helping those in need.

It's funny. I was thinking about Dave's car the other day, and how it had triggered me to break down. I was sitting in my car, listening to Steve Madely praddle on about how he cannot trust John Manconi anymore because he did not disclose details on a minor brake maintenance bulletin set forth by Alexander Dennis around the 18th of September. These types of service bulletins happen all the time, but Madely decided to turn it into a core-meltdown major story, with all of the duck-and-cover fervor of a tabloid story about Justin Beiber.

There really is no need to make this story worse than it is. It makes me angry and a little ill to hear this kind of bunk.

If you really want a compelling story to accompany this tragedy, talk to the other 3,000 people who have a version of this story just like mine. Talk to the families of the passengers that had to hold it together while supporting all of us. Talk to the thousands of people who look to John Manconi with reverence and respect in the way he handled all of this.

Treat this story with the respect it deserves.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Distraction

I sat all the way in the back of an articulated bus yesterday on my commute home. The heat pumped out from under the seat turning the air into a moist, fog inducing, musty mass of thick boots and wet socks that had me toggling from taste to smell as I tried to find a comfortable way to breathe.

I sat in the rear seat, and watched as the passenger in the other rear window seat banged his head on the very same overhead bulkhead as I did while he sat down, only he clutched his left temple whereas I banged my right side on the poorly placed panel. He glanced at me quickly, likely mistaking my silly grin as laughing at him when I was actually very much laughing with him. 

I love to watch people.

Directly in front of these rear seats are easily the most uncomfortable seats on the bus. Now it's not that the seats are physically uncomfortable, there are no pointy parts of the seats nor do they sit in a funny way that makes your back hurt. It's something else entirely. These seats directly face another row of seats. It never occurs to the occupants when they move to sit down in these awkward seats that they will be face to face with other passengers, but the minute they sit down and realize this, their eyes hit the floor. 

To sit here, you will inevitably wind up making eye contact with someone sitting directly in from of you, and hilarity will ensue. The dance begins with each person becoming very interested in footwear. Each detail of the shoes across from you becomes a focal point. The narrow point of dress shoe, or the thick mullet of a work boot takes but a few seconds of your attention to fully process. Slowly you wind up on the artistry of a pant leg, or a dress hem, your eye creeping side to side or back and forth like the persistent sailboat tacking through a strong headwind. Floor, to boot, to pant, back to floor again. You catch yourself looking upwards, maybe at a button on a shirt or the embarrassing glance at a crotch.

And then it happens. Eye contact.

Once eye contact has been established, there is nothing left to occur besides more eye contact, more shoe study, and more uncomfortable eye contact as both parties in this uncomfortable dogfight of deflected attention is decided by a rung bell, and an exit to freedom.

Sitting in the rear seat, a people watcher can enjoy this dramatic dance from a distance, be it watching directly through some sunglasses, or indirectly through watching your subjects in the wide fluorescent reflection of the rear window. Once in awhile the reflection technique results in eye contact itself, sending a misdirected jolt of electricity through both parties as the subterfuge is uncovered.

As I lose interest in these seats, my search broadens for distraction. There are 17 passengers in plain view. I count 12 of them feverishly pecking at devices. They too are looking for distraction. I watch a man open and close an app on his phone about twenty times. He clicks the app, closes it, opens something else, then back to the first app. It becomes obvious that he really has nothing to do on the phone, and that simply being on the device has become the purpose of the device. Marshall McLuhan never intended his famous quote "The medium is the message" quite in this way, but it fits.

Another man is playing a card game on an impossibly small screen. He is overlooking an obvious solution to win his game, but to admit that I too am looking at his device, and playing his game by proxy, would likely not be a welcome gesture.

To look around this bus as the commute unfolds is something every bus driver should pay attention to. These people we serve each and every day are behind us, distracting themselves from the mundane ride with equally mundane tasks and distractions. The only real interaction that occurs on a transit bus seems to be the interaction with the driver.

In the coming months, OC is rolling out its Customer Service Excellence program. I took the pilot program, and I'm impressed. Putting the focus on our clients ahead of all else is the direction that all transit companies need to go. We spend far too much time focusing on the vehicle as drivers, and not nearly enough time on the cargo.

I could teach almost anyone to drive a bus safely, but that would not make them a good professional bus driver. The real skill is maintaining professional standards.

 OC Transpo has not done a very good job in the past of training its employees to be service professionals. In fact, training has been nearly nonexistent for long term employees, having only a few hours of training every three years. The Union hasn't supported training, especially this kind of training since I've worked here.

Like the commuter, The Company and The Union have been distracted, spending far too much time trying not to look each other in the eye. Things seem to be changing on this front.

Finally.