Curbing the bus

or, How to drive a bus (part 11)
Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5 
Part 6     Part 7     Part 8     Part 9     Part 10
 Part 11     Part 12     Part 13     Part 14     Part 15

Each day there are three, maybe four of our training buses roaming the city's southlands. I've always ridden with the same two teachers, and on Friday three of us rookies were on their bus, waiting to ride.

Then came a knock at the bus door, and a big black man, about 40 years old, joined our group. We all introduced ourselves, the new man said his name was Gary, and while the bus idled, with no teachers aboard, he told us what had happened and why he'd been added to our group.

Gary had been assigned to drive and ride with a teacher named Juan, and while their bus was idling during the pre-trip inspection, Juan had been explaining the dashboard buttons to one of the rookies on his bus. The student had asked which buttons control the air conditioning, and Juan hadn't answered the guy's question, or hadn't answered quickly enough, so Gary answered it, from the bus's seats.

"Do not answer other students' questions," Juan had said sternly, at least in Gary's version of the events.

Gary said he didn't appreciate Juan's tone of voice, harsh words were exchanged, and Gary was promptly traded from Juan's team to my team. In telling the story on our bus, Gary explained his perspective: "Juan knows how to drive a bus and I don't, but I'm a man, he's a man, let's treat each other like men. Don't be talking to me like I'm five years old."

Ten minutes after Gary joined us, the player to be named later was named, completing the trade. It was me, so I said goodbye to my bus-buddies and walked over to Juan's bus.

I'd seen him around but never met him before, so we shook hands, and Juan asked me a few questions, all work-related.

The rest of my new team on Juan's bus? Mitch, the newbie driver who worries me, and Jo-Jo, who used to drive buses for the Los Angeles MTA. They're opposites — with his experience, Jo-Jo is breezing through the classes, and probably could've driven our buses without a refresher course, but Mitch makes lots of mistakes, and in my opinion, shouldn't be here at all.

♦ ♦ ♦

The plan was that each of us would have two one-hour shifts behind the wheel. Jo-Jo drove for the first hour, and unsurprisingly had no serious issues.

Then Mitch drove, and leadfooted it too much. Juan had to tell him several times to slow down, and at every railroad crossing he needed to have railroad crossings re-explained.

If you don't know like Mitch doesn't know, here's what buses do at railroad crossings: Flashers on, come to a stop, the driver looks left, right, and left again, with the window down to hear any oncoming locomotive. If it's all clear, proceed, and click the flashers off after crossing the tracks.

How many times would you need to have that explained, before you'd understand it? It's been explained at least twenty times to the group, and another twenty times to Mitch, but he never, ever remembers it without another re-explanation.

Other than that, though, Mitch's morning drive was borderline OK. For an hour he kept the bus in its proper lane, and only slammed on the brakes once. At no time did I feel that my life was in danger, which was a big improvement over the day before.

When we took a break, Mitch told Jo-Jo and I that the difference, he thought, was our new teacher. And Juan is completely different from Sienna, who'd been our main teacher for the past week or so. Sienna tells and welcomes jokes, and sometimes talks about things that aren't buses.

Juan does not. He's all-bus all the time, makes and wants no off-topic talk. I like Sienna and she's taught me a lot, but same as Mitch, I appreciated a dose of Juan.

♦ ♦ ♦

As he coached us and answered our questions, I sorta began to see what had gone wrong between Juan and Gary, even though I hadn't been there when it happened.

Juan has a medium-thick Mexican accent, and it's clear that English is his second language, so there's a time lag before he speaks. It's like a satellite interview on a TV news show — a second or two of silence between question and answer. He's searching for the right words, and he always finds them, but it's not instantaneous.

What had happened before I was traded, I'm pretty sure, was this:  Juan didn't answer a question as quickly as a native-English speaker would've, so Gary jumped in and answered, maybe thinking Juan hadn't heard the question, or maybe just hoping to be helpful.

Doubtless that happens to Juan a lot, though, and double-doubtless he doesn't like it. He told Gary not to answer questions, and maybe he said it too snippy, or maybe it sounded that way through the language barrier. To both of them, it felt like they'd been disrespected by the other, but my gut tells me both dissings were accidental.

Usually I'm lousy at being human, so I'm kinda proud of myself for (I think) piecing together what had happened, and why both men were angry at each other though neither was really at fault.

And also, if I hadn't heard Gary's story, I might have jumped into the silence a few times myself, to answer questions better answered by waiting for our teacher.

♦ ♦ ♦

Instead, I shut up and drove, and drove OK, as seems to be my standard. Made some minor mistakes, sure, but no big screw-ups. Juan was watching us all very, very closely, gave me some helpful tips. At the end of the day I told him I'd love to be on his team again come Monday.

My two weaknesses, Juan says, are that I take turns too fast (we're supposed to make sharp turns no faster than 5 mph, and I dare you to try that in traffic), and that the bus sometimes comes close to the curb when I'm turning right.

♦ ♦ ♦

Right turns are tricky, because the length of the bus means that — unlike a car — the back wheels will come closer to the curb than the front wheels.

To avoid having the rear wheels go over the curb, you need to pull further into the intersection than you would in a car, and pay close attention to your side-view mirror, watching the back tires. If you screw up and the back wheel goes over the curb, it's called "curbing the bus."

When that happens, passengers get a big bump, which is always uncomfortable, and for some of our more delicate disabled passengers, that jolt could even be dangerous. It's also bad for the bus, and each bus, of course, costs exponentially more than any driver's life savings.

"Never curb the bus" has been drilled into us relentlessly. It's the most commonly-shouted advice from the teachers, every time any driver makes a sharp right turn — "Watch your mirror for the curb." "Check the mirror." "Be careful of the curb."

I haven't (yet?) curbed a bus, but still, every time I take a sharp right turn, that's what every teacher says.

♦ ♦ ♦

Flashback to Wednesday, our first day driving in traffic: 

One of our student drivers curbed the bus — big bump — and we got to see how seriously it's taken, which is VERY. After the curbing incident, our bus was parked and couldn't be moved until Dispatch had been called, photos taken, and a road-supervisor had driven out to inspect the damage.

There was, of course, no damage. I doubt that curbing the bus would ever do any damage beyond jolting the passengers, unless you're turning the bus far faster than the recommended 3-5 mph. 

It took twenty minutes, though, for the road-supervisor (pronounced "road-soup") to arrive, and we all sat around doing nothing for those twenty minutes. The student driver had to fill out paperwork, because curbing the bus is treated the same as if the bus had struck another vehicle.

Which is, c'mon, ridiculous.

♦ ♦ ♦

When students drive the bus during training, we're supposed to "think out loud," announcing what we're seeing, what we're doing, and what we're getting ready to do.

Typical chatter might be, "I'm approaching the intersection, crosswalks clear, no pedestrians in sight... Light's green, proceeding through... Cresting a hill, so I'll check my speed and ease off the gas... There's a semi in the next lane, so I'll either speed up or slow down to stay out of his blind spot…" And so on.

If there's something the driver should notice but you don't say it out loud, the teacher will point it out to you, and if it happens too often, you'll flunk that day's driving.

Jo-Jo was delivering a monologue like that, and in the middle of it he mentioned, "Hot mamacita on the sidewalk." Everyone laughed, of course, even Juan, but before laughing, Juan first said, "No distractions, Jo-Jo. Never let yourself be distracted." Then Juan allowed himself to laugh.

Nothing against Sienna or Vivian or any of the other teachers, but Juan's demeanor seems simply perfect. He knows his stuff, takes it seriously, and takes teaching it seriously.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Other than the mamacita incident, Jo-Jo's second driving stint went perfectly, and then came Mitch's second drive of the day. It did not go as well.

Much like yesterday, Mitch made big mistakes, drifting inside his lane frequently, and when he wasn't drifting he rode right on the edge of the double yellow line. That's dangerous, because the side mirrors stick out about a foot from the side of the bus, so if we're riding the yellow line, it means our mirror is about eight inches into oncoming traffic.

Juan patiently explained this to Mitch, and patiently explained it again later, and again after that. Meanwhile, I was sitting in a window seat on the left side, wondering whether the mirror would fly through the window and decapitate me when the collision came.

Thankfully, the collision didn't come, but Mitch seems to really like hugging the yellow line. He also went above and beyond the speed limit, often, could never remember to take turns super-slowly, twice steered the bus with only one hand, and still, every railroad crossing seemed to be the first he'd heard of the railroad crossing rules.

After only a few miles of driving, there came a right turn that wasn't even tight. With an entire empty lane's worth of extra pavement to turn across, Mitch enormously curbed the bus. This wasn't a bump, it was a cliffhanger, and then we fell off the cliff. We'd ridden the curb for perhaps two full seconds, before coming down with a thwonk so huge it reverberated. The bus shook for several seconds, and Mitch continued driving as if nothing had happened.

Juan told Mitch to stop the bus, but Mitch simply didn't comprehend, so he continued driving. Juan had to say, "Stop the bus" three times before Mitch stopped the bus, twenty feet from where the curbing had happened, and that's a second major violation of driver rules. After any accident or incident, you're supposed to stop the bus then and there, where it happened, even if it's in traffic. And we weren't in traffic; this happened in a mostly empty parking lot.

Per protocol, Juan called the road-supervisor, and took pictures of the wheel and the curb — yellow from the curb was smeared all over the tire, and black from the tire stretched across about fifteen feet of the curb, then stopped, then started again several feet later, where the bus had bounced back.

Unlike Wednesday's curbing incident, this time the road-supervisor couldn't get to the scene quickly, so we spent a movie's worth of time standing around and sitting around, making bus talk and non-bus talk. I now know all about Mitch's time in the military, and his years as a policeman, his two ex-wives, his recent surgery, and his problems with the VA.

I learned a little about Jo-Jo's family life, and he knows a few things about me, too.

None of us learned anything at all about Juan's life, because Juan only talks the language of bus. He did tell us a lot about how to not curb your bus, though, and it was good advice.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Later during the long down time, waiting for the road-soup, Jo-Jo and I wandered out of earshot of the others, and I confessed to him that I usually curb my car. On purpose. It's how I parallel park — pull in front-first, rolling the right front tire over the curb and back down again. It's lots easier than parallel parking the way you're supposed to.

Jo-Jo told me he does the same thing with his Jeep, but does it backing up, over the curb.

"I do understand that we shouldn't curb the bus," I said, "for our passengers, for the mechanical health of the buses, and just because the boss doesn't want us to do it. I'm a good kid, so I will try very hard not to curb my bus. It's gonna happen, though, and when it does it cannot possibly be the frickin' huge deal they're making it out to be."

Jo-Jo said, "You know, there are times when a right turn isn't possible without curbing the bus. The turn is too tight, oncoming traffic is too close, and it's a metaphysical nope. Your choice is to hit a car in oncoming traffic, or sit the bus in the intersection until the light changes, or curb the back wheel. Guess which I'm going to do?"

"I've ridden buses all my life," I said, "and drivers have taken us over the curb at least hundreds of times, maybe thousands. It happens a lot." There's one tight turn on the #60 route here in Seattle, where the driver curbs the bus more often than not.

"Five rookie drivers in our group," said Jo-Jo, "and we've only curbed the bus twice so far. That deserves a commendation, really."

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Almost two hours after the curbing, a road-supervisor arrived. He took more pictures of the tire and the curb, and asked if any of us had been injured. I hope I didn't laugh, but I know I smiled. Mitch's curbing was grand indeed, maybe the biggest curbing I've ever sat through, but no, nobody was injured. The speed bump he'd taken at 20 mph the day before was a bigger shake-me-up than his curbing had been.

Mitch was given forms to fill out, and a lecture from the road-supervisor about not curbing the bus. I lost my turn to drive that afternoon, because the day was almost over, and Juan wanted Mitch to "shake it off," get behind the wheel again, and drive us back to the bus barn.

Finally, we sat and buckled up inside the bus again, drove away, and Mitch drove us back to the base — via the freeway! — with no major incidents. When we arrived at the base, though, he curbed the bus again, directly in front of the office.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

We had to go inside the building to punch out, and in the hall, Gary and Juan were talking to each other. Were they furious, about to come to blows? Nope. They were shaking hands and apologizing to each other. 

Also, it was payday, and the pay is OK. The starting wage is about the same as I was making after nine years at my last job, working at an insurance company. And driving a bus isn't nearly as boring as insurance. Well, yet.

When I left, Mitch was still filling out paperwork for his two curbings. 

Next: Monday and Tuesday
or, How to drive a bus (part 12)
Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5 
Part 6     Part 7     Part 8     Part 9     Part 10
 Part 11     Part 12     Part 13     Part 14     Part 15


  1. >When we arrived at the base, though, he curbed the bus again, directly in front of the office.

    You have GOT to be shitting me.

    1. Twice in one ride. That's an accomplishment.

      It's kinda risky making fun of him for it, though. The other dumb stuff he does while driving is just dumb stuff, but it's really easy to curb the bus. I've come within an inch of doing it myself, and I'm sure I'll do it eventually.


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