I never imagined having a straight job. Yet here I am, wearing a uniform and staring at traffic lights. Like many of my TTC colleagues, I never meant to become a driver. It still gives me the chills to hear one of them say, "I was just going to do this temporarily, and 26 years later here I am!'People ask me curiously, "Is it fun to drive the bus?" The answer is yes, it can be fun to swing around corners, hear the rumble of the motor, sit high up and look out over the road. I recognize that the job carries with it a certain power and authority -- to restrict access if the fare isn't paid, to address behaviour on the vehicle. And it comes with security, a pension and benefits. I have privilege, no doubt.
However, so many things are out of my control -- like weather, traffic accidents, rush-hour congestion, scheduling, fare hassles, construction and unpredictable passengers. Not only is it daunting to think of being behind the wheel for the next 30 years, but it's common lore in the trade that drivers' average lifespan after retirement is only five years.
What strikes me after four years in the seat is that the drivers' and passengers' perspectives will never meet. When I used to take public transit, drivers looked pretty much alike to me. It was difficult to imagine people in public service uniforms as more than representatives of the company whose logo they wore on their shirts.
Now I look at city street cleaners in their orange jackets sweeping the curbs and realize that these people are a mystery to me. If I'm a mother, with political ideas and a life behind the curtain of my work schedule, who might they be? On the flip side, drivers tend to see passengers as opaque. The volume of people, the ocean of humanity that swells daily through the front doors, necessitates some kind of coping mechanism. How do I avoid seeing people as merely a lump called "the public'? How do I remember each circumstance is a potential novelty? After all, the uncertain passenger is on my turf. I know where I'm going.
The fact that my bus has a destination sign doesn't matter. The urge to verify with an "expert' what you see with your own eyes is overwhelming, especially if you don't read or speak the language. Just the same, you have to understand the annoyance of hearing the same question 100 times a shift -- people climbing up the stairs of a bus marked "Exhibition,' like drones on an assembly line, each asking, "Are you going to the Exhibition?'
People watch me all day, if only because they're tired of staring at the advertisements. They watch me eat, they watch me curse the car that cut me off, they watch me scratch my nose. I used to look at the poker-faced countenance of the driver and wonder, "Is he really thinking anything in there?"
Now I know that the desire to be invisible at times is just one measure of self-preservation. I don't want to become just another robotic, anonymous worker, but neither do I want to get burnt out. Sometimes it's not a good thing to become too familiar with passengers. People on the street begin to recognize me on my day off. People I'm friendly with one day understandably want to talk on the next, when I'm off and have the right to feel crabby and anti-social.
As a transit rider myself, I know what it's like to run for the bus, what it's like to wait. I hear from people who spend two or more hours daily on the TTC just to get to work. I watch the ragged triangle of the crowd as I pull up, all heads turned toward the vehicle. Who is the vehicle going to stop in front of? I watch how people climb the steps, how they hand me their transfers, whether they snap or are gracious with one another, and marvel at the theatre that is public transit.
It's too bad there's no easy way to communicate all the variables to everybody. You can explain to one group of passengers that there was an accident, but what about the next 10 loads? Do you repeat it at every new intersection, or just remember to smile instead as they fight their way on?
When you're late and your streetcar short-turns around the block to get back on schedule, do you stop at each stop to explain you're not going where people want, or do you try to get back on time and drive by?
I choose to help with strollers, but how can you tell passengers about the driver who now has a slipped disc from lifting a stroller complete with 20 pounds of potatoes hidden underneath? He's off work getting 60 per cent pay on sick benefits, with a note in his attendance record, while the passenger is long gone. At the same time, my job does give me the chance to do things for people, and to see people help each other. It reminds me of all the small things each day that can annoy you or smooth your path. Did you get to your job interview because the driver waited for you? Does the bus stop in front of you in a crowd, when the possibility of getting a seat after a long day is no small thing?
I get to hear from people about all the jobs that I wouldn't want to do. I get to hear about their day, their corny jokes, the exam they just wrote, the dying friend they visited or the dream they had last night. I once had someone sing Amazing Grace to me in Korean, on their knees, in socks.
They climb the stairs in crutches, or drunk, or all dressed up, going to church. Christians try to convert me. I get to overhear discussions about coming out to parents. I get to watch the transformation of the clouds, the gardens and the different shades of light falling over the day. The thing is, though, the streetcar or bus is always moving, past neighbourhoods, through people's lives, always an interlude, never participating for more than a moment.