Make A Call

I know I’ve said it before, as a bus driver one of the hardest things is knowing when to step in. Most conflicts on a bus are Rider V Rider not as people suspect Rider V Driver. Sometimes as a bus driver you have to know when to step in, when to say something, when to change someone’s focus. In other words, you have to learn to de escalate and head off trouble. Sometime it’s obvious, sometimes it’s not and sometimes as a bus operator it is up to you tomake a call. 

The problem is this, as a bus driver your focus is outside of your bus most of the time. Watching the inside mirror and getting involved in bus issues that nine out of ten times sort themselves out, is a good way to get in an accident. Yet sometimes you cannot ignore what you see and hear. Sometimes experience teaches you what to look for and when you see it, you have to act. 

This happened last week to me. 

Useless Information

  • Route: #4
  • Time: 6:45 PM
  • Location: Division st. heading for Gresham
  • Condition: Last rush hour load. 

She: She gave off student vibe when she boarded downtown, Mid 20’s soft spoken, Asian woman, small of size, long hair, well dressed, carrying books. My bus was full but not crowded having snagged just the end of rush hour. She boarded, smiled said something pleasant I could not hear and found a seat near the front. I will call her the “Student” for our story.

He: I saw him as I approached the stop, I had seen him before but could not recall why I remembered him. He was not on my bad list but I knew him. He has short, gray hair, gray short beard, drab clothing and backpack, mid 50’s, male. Perhaps suffering some mental issues, spent a life on the streets, used more than his share of pharma and alcohol. He is at the point where the difference between him sober and intoxicated or under the influence is non existent. What ever part of your mind that is suppressed by alcohol when it comes to talking does not exist in him at all. So he talks loudly and non stop all the time. I will call him the “Talker” for our story. 

On the approach: rewind a little here. As I pulled up to the stop I saw these two social opposites standing close together. He was talking and sort of leaning in close, she looked on with a detached interest that you would see in a clinical professional or someone who simply was faced with unwanted conversation. Well unwanted conversation goes hand in hand with public transit. She seemed in no particular distress boarding, did not ask for any help so I figure all was good. 

The Talker entered my bus blabbing about his pass and having to find it. I let him step passed the front line of the bus and hold on while I kept moving. He Talked on and on and on and on and on. I crossed the bridge out of downtown, he was still going on about his pass. I was just about to say forget it, just have a seat, when he produced wrinkled ass pass, Thank the gods of transit. 

I rolled on.

Leaving downtown Portland on the 4 you have pedestrians, automobiles, cyclists and choke points all keeping your attention so I wasn’t watching in the bus. Oh but I heard the Talker start up on the “Oh you won't believe the kind of things I’ve seen.” This is at 5th st and by 16th street I’m tired of hearing him so I turn on my window fans. When I look back I see he is telling his story to the Student. He is seated next to her, sort of looming over her and talking in his typical run on sentences, paragraphs and stories. 

The situation seemed… odd. This put a blip on my radar. 

She seemed to be listening but there was a distance. I kept rolling and decided to check back latter. I don’t believe that every woman lacks moral agency or that you have to rush to protect everyone the second something doesn’t comply to your personal yardstick of behavior. If she needed help she would just have to say something for now. 

When I looked back later I saw that he had crossed the line, growing too close, I saw the student physically push him back and establish her proper boundaries. He seemed to respect that and my first thought was “Good for her.” and “That’s how you do it.” Except I kept noticing she would interject here and there with talker. She was… talking to him?

So be it, who am I to judge. I focused on driving, the loud stories continued. 

At 39th I looked back and I witnessed her put him back in his position again, removing his arms from her proximity, yet she kept talking with him. This was another blip on my radar, was she so interested in the fabricated tale of woe? Why was she talking with him? Did she need help? That was two replacements of his hands and body that I knew of. 

I decided to keep rolling, if she needed help I now had witnessed enough to interfere but she seemed ok with whatwas going on. Other people nearby were growing agitated by Talkersactions and a few said something as they left the bus. “Keep an eye on that girl,” the said under their breath as they filed out. 

Unfortunately I’m a bus driver not law enforcement. I rolled on, monitoring the goings on when I could at stops. She kept playing along and he kept spinning his BS, after 80 blocks the life story of talker was not even half done. 

Now another factor came in and that was even if this was uncomfortable for her I was nearing the last 25% of my trip so sooner or later the odds of one of them stepping off the bus was high. I decided to chalk this up to something that looks bad but was under control, besides any second one or both were getting off of my bus. So how hard can that be?

Along the way I picked up a young man who is a well known special needs rider and is really a gentle giant. He is someone I look out for and is often a very poor communicator. Within minutes talker and Gentle Giant were in some sort of verbal altercation over some casual contact the Giant made walking down the aisle of the moving bus. I took a breath and just listened in, things were calming down. Then I noticed a third time that the talker, now agitated, had crossed the physical proximity limits of the Student. She brushed him back and this time it was more abrupt. All this time the talker had kept up a nonstop monolog about his life the universe and everything. So far his story was at 80 blocks of long, not a single break for anyone else to say a thing really. I didn’t mind the story, but now I had seen him crossing the line physically and had to make a call. 

“Where are you getting out?” I asked the Student, she told me 170th. Ok now for the important question… “Are you ok? Do you need help?”I have found over the years that direct blunt questions are the best. 

There are a few responses I get to this question. 

  • Yes I need help and they do
  • Yes I need help and they don’t
  • No I don't need help, but really they do
  • and I don’t need help and they really really don’t. 


What did student do? She said “Well…” and then said nothing. Giving me no clear direction.  Talker then decided I had crossed some line and started calling me names. “That’s it!” I said. “You have to move.” 

Now the geography of the bus is such that up front there are seats that face the isle then seats that face forward. They were sitting in the first forward facing seats. It is from here the Talker began to tell me all sorts of colorful things about my anatomy, my biological heritage, legitimacy and my flexibility and capacity of a certain orifice Vis à Vis it’s ability to accommodate my emend cranial radius, and yes, how he will have my job as a bus driver. 

The student quieted the talker down and directed him to sit right in front of her in the seats facing the isle. He did so, gaining distance from her. My request fulfilled, I thanked the talker and rolled on. He obviously did not like this distance from the Student even though they could easily talk and would periodically rail at me for making him move. 

The student kept engaging him in conversation… she wanted or needed or… I don’t know why kept talking with him. He kept railing and complaining in between continuing his story of woe about how “They” were out to get him. 

At 170th the bell rang and I pulled over. The Student got up, and she walked towards the front of the bus. Talker lit after me again in a barrage of verbal attacks I ignored. This made him even more angry, the simple truth is he was not asking me a question or trying to talk with me, he wanted to talk at me and he didn’t need my participation for that. 

I looked up at the Student, she stood there with an angry face. “You didn’t have to do that you know,” she said. “He’s had a tough life, you have no idea.” I gave her my best poker face. Having heard his tale before. This does not mean he had not faced hard times. Far from that, what my face covered was what I felt like saying. I felt like saying “What are you thinking!” but All I wanted now was for this incident to end.  

“Cause he’s a fascist man!” said the Talker, who now made to get off the bus with the student. Student walked off and The Talker stayed right in my face giving me yet even more wonderfultalk. Then left the bus mumbling, walked right up to the Student and tried to put his arm around her. She was obviously uncomfortable but my mission was done, I closed my doors and rolled away. If she wanted his company, wanting his touching, wanted to hear more of his story then by all means blame me the driver. She was on her own now. 

Maybe I was wrong. 

Maybe I had grown agitated with 92 blocks of Talkers talk… Could be. 

Maybe I was trying to “White Knight” the situation… Could be again. 

Maybe I misread something… Could very well be true. 

I don’t know how I looked to others in the bus, no one said a word. Not sure how I came across to Student or Talker. Not sure if I would have a mail box full of complaints waiting for me Monday when I came into work. 

It’s a hard thing to do, to make the call when you are the driver. To step in on what could be a bad or worsening situation. There are no easy answers. 

I could have been 100% wrong. 

I felt 100% wrong after what she said leaving the bus. 

Here is the deal. Every driver has to decide where the line is. When to get involved. No matter where you draw your involvement line there is also human error. 

So as a driver you really have, t first the choice of action or no action. Then you have to consider what if I’m wrong? What if I interfere and make things worse or I’m just flat out wrong and I read something as bad when it’s not. Then you have to make another choice of what kind a bus driver you are. Are you a bus driver that fears being wrong or a bus driver that want’s everyone to feel safe on the bus. 

I know this breaks no new ground to say that the world we live in is far from perfect. Sometimes people will ask for help and not need it and sometimes people will not ask for help and need it desperately. 

What kind of driver would you be? Would you face called in complaints, verbal attacks and maybe a reprimand for doing what you think is right? Or are the kind to hunker down and just not care. 

I know what I am. 

When I see something that doesn’t smell right I act. I know I can be wrong, I know I have been wrong before and I know I will be wrong in the future, it comes with the job. I would rather be a driver who acts and makes mistakes than a drive who does nothing and lets people get victimized on a bus. I can take the complaints or reprimands, I can take the problems and I can take being wrong. When you are as wrong as I have been in my life the embarrassment of one more error seems to make little difference. 

It’s easier to say I’m sorry and to just roll on. 

On this day I could have been wrong, I could have not seen something, some days are like that. I felt bad, but not all that bad. It was just about 3 minutes of interaction and to be honest I still don’t know what was going on. 

Those are the choices you make. I don’t let it bother me I just keep moving. 

“Sometimes You either get rolled or you roll easy I chose rolling easy.”

———Dan Christensen