The Lobby

by johnthebasket

Every transit system has a lobby: a place where drivers can relax before their shift, access their locker to change into their transit uniform, wait for a possible shift if they were on the "extra board", and hit the bathroom before they boarded their bus.

My memories of Dad's lobby are from a long, long time ago, when all the drivers were white men, when you didn't need exact change or a pass or transfer to ride the bus. This was the Tacoma Transit lobby of the 1950s. (I'm proud to say that when Dad got promoted to Superintendent, he personally began hiring people of color and women as drivers and received death threats for doing so, but the 50s were a time of racial and gender disparity).

You had to get "buzzed in" to the lobby because there was a cashier cage there that contained plenty of change to fill the drivers' coin changers as well as the day's receipts.

The first thing you noticed upon entering the lobby was the smell of leather (the janitorial staff kept the place very clean, so there was no smell of must, dirt or sweat). The drivers all wore leather belts and had leather holsters to hold their punches (for issuing transfers), a leather apparatus for holding their change-maker, and wore leather shoes. Their hats had a leather badge holder in front and a band of leather around the brim and the back.

The second thing you noticed was that there were lockers on two sides of the lobby -- maybe 200 of them, one for each driver. The third side of the lobby had the cashier's cage and supply windows, so you could get change, get your questions answered by a supervisor, and get supplies (books of transfers, shoe polish, etc.). The fourth side of the lobby featured the rest rooms and Dad's modest office (he was Safety & Training Supervisor at the time).

The third thing that caught your eye was a regulation-sized pool table right in the middle of the lobby with the greenest felt I'd ever seen. This table was purchased and maintained with funds from the vending machines that dotted the lobby: a coffee machine, a cigarette machine, a candy machine, a cold drink machine, and several snack machines. It was the 50s: everybody smoked and everybody drank coffee.

There were usually two or four drivers playing pool, waiting for a run to become available. When a driver was first hired, he was placed on the "extra board". If someone called in sick, or got sick or injured on their route, or if someone wanted to rent a bus and driver at the last minute, someone on the extra board was called. The extra board guys already in the lobby had the inside track on getting a run or route. If one of the full-time drivers was particularly broke or behind on his alimony, he could sign up for the extra board after his regular route and hope to make a few bucks by replacing a regular driver who got sick or hauling a busload of churchgoers to an emergency revival meeting.

I was pretty small in the 50s, but the lobby seemed enormous. In fact, it was probably 100 by 100 feet or a little smaller, but it seemed to go on forever. Dad's office was a cubby hole next to the rest rooms. It was jammed with a desk, stacks of training materials, an eye chart for vision testing, and all sorts of gadgets for training and testing drivers.

My favorite gadget was a "time to brake" machine: it was a black box in the shape of the floor in front of a driver, and had a clutch pedal, a brake pedal and a gas pedal. There were two lights that turned off and on: a green light and a red light. You'd sit in front of the device and place your right foot on the gas pedal. When the light turned from green to red, you quickly moved your right foot to the brake pedal, and the time it took to do this was displayed on a dial that measured time down to hundredths of a second. It was my favorite toy, but, of course, for Dad it was a way to measure a driver's (or a prospective driver's) reaction time.

My sister and I occasionally went to the lobby with Dad on weekends when he had to catch up on work. We were allowed to play with the balls on the pool table, but not with cues: we could grab a ball with our hand and try to hit another ball at the other end of the table. When drivers approached, we vamoosed. We still thought it was pretty cool. Between the pool table and the brake machine, there was plenty to keep a couple of youngsters busy.

All too soon we were old enough to stay at home with minimal supervision, and we stopped going to the lobby. That seemed pretty cool too, but in retrospect I really miss those trips to the lobby, a place where real men worked and played and smoked lots of cigarettes. But no amount of smoke could overcome the wonderful smell of fresh leather and the hubbub of working men.

August, 2022 

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  1. I like these stories and never knew there was (once?) such a culture around bus driving.

  2. Dr John, I've already told you privately that this is a marvelous piece, so I won't embarrass you by saying it again.

    By comparison and of course, the lobby at our bus base is just a big room, with uncomfortable chairs, plain tables, a bulletin board with the day's safety tip, and a screen that shows safety reminders in an endless loop, repeating every five minutes. On the plus side, there's free chilled water bottles, a free popcorn machines, and a vending snack room.

    And there's a pool table! It's covered, with some bus-related equipment stacked on top, and I've never seen it being used. Curiously, though, on one of our learning-to-drive-the-bus trips, we stopped at a different bus barn on the opposite side of town, where there's a nicer lobby than ours, slightly like a cheaper, more modern version of the one you described, because the building had previously been a casino. And that lobby had a pool table, too. Two drivers were playing, and one driver was waiting to play the winner.

    I thought nothing of it at the time. Now I'm wondering whether it's a long tradition, to have pool tables in every bus barn's lobby.

    1. There aren’t many spaces that will accommodate a full-sized pool table. Few houses and even many taverns lack the proper dimensions. Churches frequently have the space but not the inclination.

      A transit lobby combines space with waiting employees with cash flow from vending machines. Try finding a 25X20 foot space around the house.


    2. If there was an unused 25X20 foot space anywhere inside this house, the landlord would rent it out.

    3. Hell, he’d install a curtain and rent it twice. Your chef would be in porcine heaven: more storytime victims.


    4. You've met my landlord?

    5. Well, I worked in corporate America for 45 years; same game, different scale.


    6. The landlord racket is much bigger than anything I worked on. But abetting the screwing of decent people is a coat of many colors.


    7. It's the American way, or maybe it's the way of humanity -- screwing people over, and not only over money, over *everything*. I'll bet Carthusian monks with their vow of silence still find ways to make the other Carthusian monks look bad.

  3. And that was the end of the monk the monk the monk the monk . . .



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