Killing cones

or, How to drive a bus (part 7)
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

Wednesday afternoon was the first time we were allowed to drive a bus, but our wheel time has been frustrating so far.

In a class that's basically Bus Driving 101, I would've appreciated a quick overview of the bus's dashboard and instrument panels, but we were driving old GMC buses that are no longer in service. One of our teachers said (and it makes sense, to be honest) there's no point teaching us the GMC dash and instrument panels, since all the buses we'll be driving are newer Fords with a very different layout.

Soon as I slipped behind the wheel, though, an instructor — Vivian — asked me to open the bus's passenger door, so she could climb up and get some paperwork she'd left aboard. It took me a long moment to find the 'open-door' button, and the instructor asked, "Why don't you know the instrument panel?"

I answered, "Hey, this is the first moment my butt has been behind the wheel of a bus. I need a minute to look around the dashboard."

Vivian laughed and gave me more than a minute, thankfully. It's not the military. Vivian laughs a lot, though, even at things not at all funny.

For driving, our instructors are Sienna and the perpetually laughing Vivian, and the way the lessons are organized seems strange.

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We started at the serpentine track, where you're supposed to navigate around several orange traffic cones set up to make the bus swerve like a snake — and then you navigate the same cones in reverse.

When I say "we started" at the serpentine track, that means it was the very first time we'd driven a bus. Seems to me, a better start might be to let us spend a few minutes simply motoring around the lot, working our way around some free-standing cones, to learn how the bus handles, get a feel for its width and turning radius, etc.

Nope. We started with the serpentine dance, and it felt like stunt driving — swerving between cones, and in reverse, and being graded on it.

Unsurprisingly, all the new drivers ran over cones, or at least nipped the base of the cones. We're told to imagine the cones are people, so Sienna's recurring line was, "You killed my father!" and "You ran over my sister!"

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Then we did a second test, called the six-point course, where many more cones gave their lives.

The six-point course is conducted all across a vast, empty parking lot dotted with many, many orange cones. I can't find a video on-line to show you how the six-point works, sorry, but that only means you'll be as confused as we were (very). Vivian explained all the following only once, far too quickly, and laughing inexplicably:

① Maneuver your bus from a parking space delineated by cones, to Point One, another set of cones located at the 3:00 position from your starting point. Bear in mind, though, that due to the bus's large turning radius, Point One cannot be reached unless you swing the bus's wheels 25 degrees to the left before turning right. Also, the switch from left to right must be done at exactly the right moment.

If you miscalculate, make either turn two seconds too early or too late, you'll miss the target, kill a cone, and must start over. Simply pulling the bus a few feet forward and back to make a correction? That's not allowed.

② From Point One, back up the bus, to some cones marking a space to your left — Point Two. This destination also cannot be reached without bumping or crushing cones, unless you pulled into Point One perfectly straight, and with the bus aligned closer to the left cones than the right cones, but not too close, and unless you crank the wheel all the way on your way out, and at exactly the right moment.

③ From Point Two, your trip to Point Three is a straight line across the length of the lot. Pretty easy.

④ Point Four is another almost-impossible target, though. You need to back the bus out of Point Three, turn the wheels a bit to miss a cone, and then turn hard to the right to back into the space.

And everything on this course has been laid out mercilessly by someone with a tape measure. If either turn is six inches early or late, you'll crush another cone, and fail.

⑤ Point Five is a fairly simple left turn from where you landed for Point Four, into a parking space across the lot. Anyone could do it (but Mitch somehow screwed it up).

⑥ Point Six is backing up from Point Five, all across the lot, studying your mirrors all the way, and stopping half way across the distance for a second walkaround.

What's a walkaround? There's very poor rear-visibility from the driver's seat, so any time you shift into reverse, you're required to step outside and walk all around the bus, to look for anything you couldn't see from inside or in the mirrors. And, if you're backing up more than a certain distance, you're required to stop the bus a second or third time, for another walkaround as you proceed.

That's the six-point course, and if you don't quite understand it, you and I are on the same bus, so to speak. At least you have the advantage of having it explained in writing, so you can pause and re-read a sentence that makes no sense. We were given nothing to look at except a parking lot full of orange cones — and jeez, a diagram or a map sure would've been helpful.

When I asked for clarifications on points ①, ②, ④, ⑤, and ⑥, Vivian said it would all make sense as we drove it. We drove it for the rest of the day and the next morning, and it never really made sense. The six-point test is where cones go to die.

We've spent hours driving the six-point, and standing on hot asphalt watching the other student drivers kill cones, all with lots of coaching (shouting) from the teachers and laughing from Vivian. By Friday, Sienna was hoarse. Vivian never stopped laughing.

Driving any one of these six points would be doable, especially with practice, but to pass the six-point track we're required to do all six points in one extended drive, all without any coaching yelled from the sidelines.

One student is a former bus driver from L.A., so he passed the six-point course without coaching, on his second try — and yet, he still has to keep driving the six-point course. He's hit cones every time, after his one lucky run. Nobody else has come close to passing.

We'll keep trying next week, and I'm not looking forward to it.

Sure, I'm a rookie, know nothing about driving a bus, and even less about teaching people to drive a bus, so my perspective is worthless. But — dang, the curriculum seems like a counter-intuitive way to start with raw newbies. And Vivian, what's so funny?

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Meanwhile, Mitch is still Mitch. He often asks odd or irrelevant questions, or extremely basic questions, or misunderstands the teacher's instructions, even immediately:

"Pull forward slowly, turning your wheels slightly to the left, and then hard to the right," says the teacher.

"Wheels slightly to the left," says Mitch, "and then hard to the left."

No, no, no. All day. And yet, Mitch always volunteers to go first on everything. Gotta admire that, I guess.

Doing the serpentine, Mitch twice cranked his wheels all the way in the wrong direction, and would've hit a fence — twice — if the teacher hadn't stopped him.

At his first try on the six-point course, he killed 12 cones; nobody else has killed more than a few on a single drive. When Mitch backed his bus into Point Six, he continued backing up even past the cones, crushing four. Sienna shouted and banged on the side of Mitch's bus to stop him, had him get out of the bus, and we conducted a brief memorial service for those four flattened cones.

Sorry to say it, cuz I like the guy and he's told me he needs this job, but Mitch is a worrisome driver. Certainly, let him keep trying, and maybe he'll get it. If he doesn't have a major breakthrough, though, and quickly, I'd feel safer on the streets if they'd drum him out of training. Whether I can respect the organization hangs in the balance, to be honest.

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Coming back from lunch on Friday, I got a laugh from my classmates and a frown from Vivian, when I said, "Let's get to it. Those cones aren't gonna kill themselves."

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Office work — my career until now — is usually air conditioned and requires no physical exertion. This is very different.

With six student drivers, and nobody's allowed onto the bus when a student is driving, we're spending 5/6 of our time standing on hot pavement in the hot sun. I am tanned and tuckered at the end of every day, but I've never slept better — ten straight hours, Wednesday night and again Thursday.

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We're supposed to wear dark blue or black pants, leather shoes, and a shirt with buttons — the official bus drivers' uniform — but I don't own such stuff. Vivian mentioned that I was out of uniform, and then she laughed because she's Vivian, and I told her what I'll tell you:

"You can't be a bus driver until you pass the six-point course, which still feels impossible. And after that, who knows what the next requirement might be? So I ain't buying squat until I've passed the entire dang course. Till then, I'll be the rookie wearing tie-dyed sweatpants and a t-shirt."

She laughed, and didn't push it.

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Training continues to be exhausting, often frustrating, perplexing, and sometimes it feels downright counterproductive, but it's paid training so I'll stick it out until the end, pass or fail.

We've completed two weeks of this. They originally told us it was a three-week course, but rumor has it that's flexible, so maybe there'll be a fourth week before we're out there endangering the general public. I hope so. I want to be a safe and competent bus driver, and know that I need more time and more training.

The extra week, though, hasn't been decided yet. Each day's training seems unplanned, until it happens. Someone asked Vivian first thing on Friday morning, What are we doing today? and that was her answer: "We haven't decided yet." And then she laughed.

I haven't decided yet, either, whether I'll be a bus driver. I want to be, and they're grading me, of course, but I'm also grading the organization. We'll both need to pass.

Next: The criss-cross exercise
or, How to drive a bus (part 8)


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



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  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2_w-QCWpS0

    1. I've never seen The In-Laws, but that scene -- I suspect it would be funny even to someone who hasn't heard the word 'serpentine' a hundred times this week, but it's friggin' *hilarious* to me. Grazi. Gotta see the movie, now.

  2. You are unfair to yourself, saying this is of such limited interest. I don't care about busses and I think it's fascinating. The joke about cones killing themselves -- priceless. Keep it coming please.

    1. That was a good crack, glad you liked it. I'm fairly fair with myself, though. I'm a far better writer than people who don't write, but really not much compared to writers.


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