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.