They’re a fine bunch, the operators. Bus Driver Appreciation Day was originally designated in Seattle, and I’m not surprised. We’ve got good people here. Like all bunches, there’s a portion of sour grapes. I recall a passenger blurting out one evening, after some apparent thought: “ninety percent. That’s about what it is.”

Before I could ask him to elaborate, he did. “Take any group of people, any race or workforce or whatever, and ninety percent of them will be pretty cool. They’ll be basically all right. Most folks in any group are all right. Homeless people, bus drivers, rich guys. You always get a few assholes, but hey, whatever. Yeah, I’d say about ninety percent.”

There are some great folks out behind those big wheels. It’s a test, requiring a commitment to patience and self-generated positivity, a commitment that has to be re-upped daily, sometimes hourly. City bus driving takes a special breed. Few jobs require such an extreme level of technical driving prowess simultaneous with such a prodigious understanding of human psychology, and no other job requires a dexterity in these unrelated realms to the degree where the lives, jobs, and the safety of many are at stake. I’m honored to work alongside my colleagues, whether old, young, beautiful, fat, trim, crabby, or happy. They are the lives unsung, expended with great effort, largely and forever unknown. But they–we–did happen.

The best way I can appreciate my fellow cohorts is by sharing a few of the valuable nuggets I’ve gleaned. As with art and film, much of what I’ve learned about bus driving I’ve “observed” (stolen outright) from others. Some are technical, others personal; some will only make sense to operators, but it’s interesting how many others are universal.

I hope reviewing them reminds us that we can search around the edges of any activity, any profession, and carve it into something ever more capable, more meaningful, with greater relevance and a kind of beauty. In another life I might have scoffed that bus driving has no business being among the transcendent, all-encompassing human endeavors. I would have been wrong. Bus driving is nothing less than the full human organism, up close, and it is, intriguingly, an experience that ends up being largely what you put into it. I suppose that’s how the world turns.

To me, this list is so short. There are so many more operators than the ones mentioned here whom I adore and respect beyond all reason. But a short list is better than no list!

Regarding customer service:

  • “It doesn’t matter if they return your good energy.” That’s not why you’re nice to them. You’ve done your part. Ernie.
  • Announce the zones yourself. This was required when I started. Jack, Walter, Tony, Anthony, Greg, others.
  • Announce the zones colloquially, using complete sentences. The human touch makes a surprising difference. Brian.
  • If there’s something about the job you don’t like that’s out of your control, rewire your brain so you like it. Paul.
  • The power of smiling at people in a low-income neighborhood. “They’re not expecting to be treated nicely by authority figures. When you do, it’ll blow ’em away.” Mark.
  • Love everyone. Jessie, Joni.
  • Respect people. Especially the people who seem like they deserve it the least. Bob.
  • Actually turn your shoulders to greet the passengers. Catherine.
  • Wheelchair-bound people know they’re inconveniences. They’re reminded of that constantly. “You need to be the first person who doesn’t treat them as an inconvenience.” Mark.
  • One person with a bad attitude shouldn’t affect how you treat everyone else for the next month! Dan.
  • It’s okay to yell pleasantries to the back door people. Brian.
  • You know you’re doing something right when people come up to the front door to thank you as they exit! Ken.
  • It’s possible to chat amiably with most anyone… even LSBW! Walter. It’s amazing to watch him work.
  • The world won’t end if people know your first name. Harold, who would announce his name on overloaded trips, pilot-style.
  • Kindness goes a long, long way. The passengers.

Regarding downtown & night operations:

  • “They will push your patience to the absolute limit.” The trick is being in control of yourself even then. Terry.
  • It would cost King County more money to enforce the fare than the revenue generated by that enforcement. There’s a percentage that’s expected to fall through the cracks. Don’t sweat it. David.
  • Carry Febreze! Carry Vick’s Vapor Rub! Liz, David. We Night Operators need these things….
  • Hand out transfers like candy. The gesture, more than anything, solves most issues. John, Maurice.
  • Never give them an opportunity where they can say no. Figure out a way of saying it that isn’t a demand. Brian.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. What’s the small stuff? Everything’s the small stuff! Dan.
  • Tell yourself this: “every passenger is telling the truth.” This prevents a lot of internal headaches. Michael.
  • It’s okay to like the 7 because of its clientele. Eileen. I’ll never forget her saying she liked the route because of its people, without irony, as if utterly unaware how absurd the comment would sound to most.
  • “Even if they do have money, if they’re bumming rides on buses, they’re probably not doing too well.” Michael.
  • Recognize the compliment implied in flirtatious comments or advances, and then move the conversation out from under that, in stride. Joni.
  • Near-death or near-accident? Step outside for a moment and walk it off. “Guys, we’re gonna take two minutes.” Brian, Michael.
  • Sometimes it’s okay to let sleepers sleep through terminals. Brian.
  • If it’s not as important as not hitting jaywalkers, question the degree to which it should even be on your radar. Paul.
  • When two people are arguing, say something like: “okay, I’m gonna step out and smoke a cigarette. Y’all just come on up let me know when you’re done…!” James.
  • Passengers will sometimes resolve problems for you– especially if you say something like, “okay, we’re gonna have to sit here until this guy leaves…” watch the other guys come into action. Dan.
  • Literature and bus driving go hand in hand. Paul, who read the unabridged, 1,500-page Les Miserables in between driving Night Owls. Could there be anything more romantic? His tattered copy lost the final chapters, which he ended up reading on the floor of a bookstore.

Regarding driving:

  • Try to make imperceptible stops. Bob.
  • “You have to go bang out into the lane. Don’t stop. Be careful, go slow, but don’t stop.” Dean, on the impossible magic trick of causing a bus to reenter traffic.
  • When you become late, slow down (Why? Because it’s then that you’ll get in accidents!). Tracy.
  • Stretch. “My doctor told me, you did almost all of it. For thirty years of bus driving, you ate right, you were healthy, you exercised, you did everything right. But you didn’t stretch. And that’s why you have to have back surgery now.” David.
  • Jackknifing on ice or slush? Put the transmission in neutral. The weight of the front half of the coach will pull the articulation back into a straight position. Some Guy at East Maintenance (that saved me multiple times, whoever you are!)
  • Lean forward during turns to avoid over-stretching your shoulders, keeping your back straight by pivoting at your tailbone. Never touch the top half of the steering wheel. Richard. I can’t even explain how much this advice has helped my upper back.
  • Never sit except when operating. Stand (or lie down) during all of your breaks. (I forget your name, but you always did this at the Bear Creek layover! Thanks for leading by example!)
  • If you’re late, change the DDU screen so you can’t see how late you are. It focuses you in the present and helps eliminate the incentive to speed up. Paul, Soheil, many others.
  • Set up the seat and wheel slightly differently all the time, to minimize the repetitive nature of the movements. David.
  • “If you don’t know which bus goes to West Seattle, or the U District, you need to go get a job working somewhere else. Have some respect. Make the effort.” Dave.
  • If you’re overwhelmed, just take a breath, and pause. It’s okay to pause, and figure it out. Bill.
  • You can say “good evening” in your answer the coordinator! Paul. I was surprised by his comfortableness with them. I had always been trepidatious prior.
  • Recognize The Fall as it’s happening, not afterwards. Address it. Aaron.
  • Go slow, so you don’t “see red” in everything happening. Giving up the desire to get there fast changes the nature of every interaction, every moment. Everything that happens is no longer an impediment. We talk about living life in the present, because you might not make it to old age; likewise, relax and enjoy your time on the route now, because you might not get a break at the terminal! (Me!).

You can go above and beyond. You don’t have to go as beyond as some of these giants, but the ceiling is high, and there is room to play:

  • Chuck, walking a sight-impaired person across the street.
  • Po, cooking breakfast chili with his children and bringing it to the folks at Third and James.
  • Greg, driving the last 49 of the night, in the days before it ran 24 hours, overloaded and leaving seventy or so people behind, demanding the coordinator send out another 49 after him, even though it didn’t exist on the schedule. He told the people left behind to wait for that hypothetical bus, trusting the coordinator and an operator would come through. They did.
  • Paul, exiting the bus, following for a block, and calling the appropriate numbers to make sure an intoxicated girl didn’t get raped. Sure, he probably broke half the rules in the playbook, but you better believe that girl was thankful afterwards.

All of which is to wit: say thank you to your bus driver!

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Article Author

Nathan Vass is an artist, filmmaker, photographer, and author by day, and a Metro bus driver by night, where his community-building work has been showcased on TED, NPR, The Seattle Times, KING 5 and landed him a spot on Seattle Magazine’s 2018 list of the 35 Most Influential People in Seattle. He has shown in over forty photography shows is also the director of nine films, six of which have shown at festivals, and one of which premiered at Henry Art Gallery. His book, The Lines That Make Us, is a Seattle bestseller and 2019 WA State Book Awards finalist.