Driver In Crisis: "Touching What Is Human In Us All"

Warning! Warning! Warning!

This post consists of…

  • Callbacks
  • Flashbacks
  • A List
  • Invention of New Words
  • An analogy.

(The Story you are about to hear is true, the name’s have not been changed by permission. Set your secret bus driver decoder ring to K7 and let’s go.)

I knew the moment I walked in the door, something was wrong. Just like when I was in high school and I came home and my Mom and Dad were sitting in the front room, arms crossed ready to ask me who broke the window to the garage. I got that feeling, and I know you know that feeling.

{So for the first time In the long history of all my transit blogs I’m going to use some bad language… not all that bad but I thought I would warn you now. It’s Coming Soon.}

Ok back on track…

I knew the moment I walked in the door, something was wrong.

It was a winter night and the evening commute had been hard as heck. I slogged my way from my bus to the Powell Garage Station in driving ice-cold Portland rain. I can’t tell you how happy I was to be done that night, I was happy when I entered the doors but then I caught sight of Becky, that’s when I knew.

Her name is Becky. She was already a veteran when I first started driving the bus. After years on the extra-board together covering runs for drivers who called in sick or just didn’t show up we got to know one another very well. We became good friends for another reason, we had also known one another in high school where she was two years ahead of me.

(John Adams High School RIP)

 John Adams High School, gone but not forgotten. 

John Adams High School, gone but not forgotten. 

On the night in question she was seated off on her own in the bullpen, with that thousand yard stare. I turned in my pouch and paperwork as fast as I could and headed right to her table. “What’s Wrong!” I demanded. Ok Ok I’m the least subtle person in the world, fine!

See Becky was, and is, a positive person who is outgoing and fun to be around. What I was seeing at that moment was not that happy person, but a person who was hurt, wounded by her job. This happens to drivers more often than you would think. There is a look the drivers get when they are sitting there, you just know. I have a phrase for this, I say it this way, “Their cup is full.”

{bad language is getting closer… not all that bad but I thought I would warn you now. It’s Coming Soon}

The Cup Analogy.

 Like this but on the inside.

Like this but on the inside.

Bus drivers each have a cup inside of them, it’s no small cup either it’s a good oversized cup like all the hip coffee shops have on those TV shows. Into this cup is poured all the negative things that happen in a day. Someone yells at you, a little more is added, someone blames you for rush hour delays, as if you personally invented Rush Hour that morning just to mess with their plans. Yup add a little more to your cup. A rider is a dollar short and looks at you as if you are some animal if you don’t give them a half price transfer, a few more drops. Maybe it’s filled a little by management who want’s you to believe that you are doing something wrong, when you are doing something right. Your cup fills up a little or a lot each and every day

Cups are drained by sleep, time passing, exercise and many other positive activities. For some people church helps, for one it’s wood craft, another meditates and another does long runs after work, we all deal with the cup in different ways. Just an aside my cup is drained by writing.

There are tough guys who like to pretend they don’t have a cup or that someone should just “Ignore all that crap” This all sounds tough and hard, but in reality when your cup is full that is the worse thing you can hear. We are all humans and we all have a cup and when the cup has been filled faster than we can drain it then we reach that crisis point.

{Profanity Warning!}

Now before I go on this is for all you jack holes, I know you are out there. Jack holes are the ones who say.

“You’re the professional you have to deal with what goes on, that’s what you are paid to do.”


Go stuff your hand in a blender and then “Deal With it.”

I hate “Deal With It People” wait…

DWIP’s I like that. “Deal With it People” Aren’t Jack Holes they are Dwips!

You DWIP’s can go stuff yourself.

Ok there I vented, see now my cup is just a little less.

Where was I?

Oh yes. Cup is Full =  A driver at a Crisis Point.

You hear drivers with full cups say things like

“eF this eFing job!” or “eF those eFing riders!”

You can see that look in their eyes. They are broken, lost, angry, pissed off. It really doesn’t matter how the cup got to overflow they are in crisis. If you know that bus driver or not you have to help. Well I knew Becky and I had to lend a hand.

List: Four things you need to do for a driver at the Crisis point.

  1. Recognize the driver is in Crisis: Without recognition nothing can be done.
  2. Identify the Real Cause of the Crisis: It’s not always what they say.
  3. Reach them Emotionally: A Crisis is an emotional reaction you must respond to this.
  4. Help Empty The Cup: Focus them on things that help empty the cup for them.

So I had caught Becky at

1. I recognized her cup was full, I saw her in crisis and I acted.

She now began to vent about moving to Montana and leaving the job. I let her vent out her frustrations trying to sort what she needed from what she was saying. She was on the verge of tears and I could really hear the hurt in her voice. The problem is we always over focus on the last thing that filled up the cup, the bit that spills over, if you will. The truth is everything in the cup counts as much as that last bit.

It was hard to keep her on point, hard to find the details but after a short time the picture cleared up. It was in the end The Morality Trap, that’s right the Morality Trap, or as I like to point out to people, “the more you care the more it hurts”

The Morality Trap: “The more you care, the more it hurts.”

The morality trap is a dangerous view of bus drivers who use their own personal code of morality as a life guide. Say you don’t take things, you don’t lie, you don’t hurt people and you are polite. All those are really awesome attributes and they make you a good person. Now take a job where you have to work with a public where a major part of the people you deal with do not share those attributes, in fact many hold the opposite. The trap is the more deeply you care and believe in your moral attributes the more painful your job is on a day to day level. That pain that you feel pours right into your cup. In other words the more seriously you take your personal morality, the better you are, the faster your cup fills.

The Morality Trap is common among bus drivers. It’s a sneaky flaw that never seems to go away but lurks around just under the skin ready to pop out like an Alien.

 Knock Knock, Who's there? MORALITY TRAP!!!!

Knock Knock, Who's there? MORALITY TRAP!!!!

What she needed was a way out, for some this is a road map of things to do, for Becky it was more spiritual.

That solves

2. Identify the Real Cause of the Crisis: It’s not always what they say it is

I recited to her some good old “Trainer Pete” advice that I was lucky to get way back when I started, “You can’t teach from the seat.” This profound little rhyme reminds you that people don’t care what you, the driver, have to say. So what if you almost killed them when they ran in the road, so what if they almost stepped in front of your moving bus to put a bike on the rack or they ran in front of your bus when they got out and you almost flattened them, or they tried to pick a fight with another rider for no reason or they don’t want to pay their… you get where I’m going here? Whatever they do wrong, it doesn’t matter. You must always remember “You can’t teach from the seat”

She looked at me in shock, Then she tried to defend her position. She asked “If she didn’t do it, who would?” She felt compelled because of her very strong moral compass, she really thought she was helping others. I told her she can “help from the seat” but not teach. She had a difficult time seeing the difference. It came down to this, people ask for help. When you start teaching from the seat it’s a good bet that no one asked for that advice.

Her big thing was payments to ride. Here is Becky, she pays her own way in life and she could not fathom why others were not doing the same. Her Moral Trap forced her to teach from the seat over and over again not knowing she was secretly filling up her cup. We at Tri-Met are told to be fare informers, not fare enforcers. The problem is almost everyone knows about the fare system. The one thing the people cheating the system don’t want is your input at all. Her cup was filling up so fast she was unable to drain it just because she was informing and suffering the blowback.

I pulled out my notebook I always carry, I scribbled out a bus driver prescription. “Here” I said handing her the prescription. I gave her a week off of enforcement of payments on her bus. She looked at me and laughed.

“I’m serious,” I told her. She stopped laughing. “For one week, don’t give a slap about fare’s. Be the hero, give out as many tickets as you can for little as they put in. Don’t say a word just do it. Don’t teach, do. Don’t talk or inform for a week, stay out of it. The only way you talk about fare is if someone asks and then only to respond to their question”

She smiled. “What’s that going to do?” she asked.

“For them nothing,” I said. “It’s all for you.”

She gave me a hug, tears in her eyes. She was passed the crisis point and we had beat…

3. Reach them Emotionally: Crisis is an emotional reaction you must respond to this.

Now came the real deal.

You see getting passed the crisis point and stopping her cup from being filled up is one thing, now we had to figure out how to unfill that cup. This step is often missed and when it’s missed those drivers that seem past the crisis point bounce right back there as soon as something goes wrong. Without this step, failure is the inevitable outcome.

(Yes I know unfill is not a word... Hey look over there behind you! SHEEP!)

For Becky it was easy to find the solution by asking her “Hey, if you moved to Montana what would you do?” Becky listed off artistic and spiritual projects she had been putting off for years. It was clear that she had no creation in her life, she was a frustrated creative person. We all use our creative talents in one way or another. It could be singing, painting, writing, cooking, sewing, knitting or a hundred thousand other creative outlets.

I reminded her of my personal creative slogan

“You are alive, Create!”

I had to write it out for her and she kept repeating it, looking at the words. She began to talk about her creative projects and just like that…

4. Help Empty The Cup: Focus them on things that help empty the cup, was done.

Over the next week, months and years Becky has repeated back my quotes to her.

“You can’t teach from the seat”  and “You are Alive! Create!”

She even tells that last one to passengers on her bus from time to time. She is back to her old… wait what am I saying! She isn’t her old self! she is her new self and best of all she is happy.

I get hugs from Becky all the time. She found a great guy and wouldn’t ya know it we both knew him in high school. Together they have weathered many a storm from Cancer to Housing Issues and beyond. They are good people and I love them.

Now days she autocorrects when she catches herself crossing the line into teacherville, now she is there for other drivers when their cup is full.

I’m not magical or have any sort of special insight. I do however, know a thing or two about bus driving and what it does to you as a human being. We are all fragile, we are all flawed and we can all make mistakes. If you are lucky there is someone there for you, and if you are really really lucky, you are there to help someone else like I was that night.

The truth be told I was simply passing on what I experienced when my cup was full. I figure every driver pays it forward to the next. When you see someone in crisis you see them at their most vulnerable. When you see that vulnerability you are seeing what is human in another. That is hard to turn away from and you are lucky to be there for that person.

That’s all I have to say this week.

Love you all, be cool and Roll Easy.