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Confessions of a Former CTA Bus Driver

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I pick him up on 47th Street, somewhere around Morgan or Racine, an industrial no-man's-land between decaying neighborhoods. It's the middle of a chilly, winter's-coming, late-September night. Usually they watch the door, gauging where the bus will come to rest. But he watches my face--as if he's afraid I'm going to roll on by.

Up the steps he bounds, and, glancing down the aisle, discovers to his satisfaction that he is my only passenger. With a cringing smile, he settles into the forwardmost of the bench seats across the aisle from me. His fear is palpable. I can see that this trip down 47th is going to be on the buddy system.

He's a frail man, probably in his mid-50s, wearing a hip-length khaki coat with knit cuffs and collar that hangs like sackcloth. I guess him to be of Eastern European extraction, maybe first or second generation. He volunteers what he does for a living, maintenance, something like that, in a factory.

But that's just warming up. What he really wants to say is that he's already been mugged twice waiting for a bus on the same corner where I just picked him up.

"A guy came up to me, a black guy," he says, his eyes finding mine in the mirror. "Stuck a gun in my face." The other man who robbed him, also black, he says, eyes in the mirror again, took him down first with a club.

He speaks confidentially, as if he hasn't told this story already to every driver on the route. He assumes that he and I are the usual targets of these vicious assaults, that we have something in common. I wonder what he'd be saying if he'd gotten a black bus driver instead of me.

"What'd they get?" I inquire. I don't feel like giving him sympathy.

As we head west, from the black through the brown to the white neighborhood, where he'll be getting out, he keeps up his end of a conversation despite a nearly total lack of encouragement. He acts like he's riding shotgun, diligently checking out every stop as we approach it. And if someone is out there waiting, he watches closely to see if I'm going to pick him up. Am I one of those naive college kids, he wonders, who'll pick up any jerk on two legs in the middle of the night in a desolate neighborhood where I am (he is) in the minority?

No, I am not. At 2 AM, on 47th Street, picking up fares is a judgment call. But there is no one this night I decide to pass by for the sake of surviving the run.

"Good-bye now," he turns and says before getting out. There's a load of meaning in his eyes and voice. He's thinking, we made it together, maybe we'll see each other tomorrow if I'm back on this route; and he probably knows how many more trips I still have to make tonight down 47th Street. Guys like him always know your whole fucking schedule from talking to other drivers. Again, from the curb this time, "Good night." It sounds like a little prayer for my safety.

I nod and grimace at him, shutting the door, like, you're safely delivered, sir. On to the next case.

I have no sympathy for this guy. First of all, he's already been robbed twice. Why doesn't he find a new way home? The guys who did it know right where he is and when. They'll come back for more when they need it, even if it's only to see if he's carrying a bus pass. Which, of course, he won't be--he's hoping word gets around that it doesn't pay to rob him. I wonder how many months or years until retirement he has to go without getting killed on that corner.

Here's what guys like him are all about. He probably lives in his basement. Keeps the upstairs nice. If he's lucky, he's got a wife who stays half awake to make sure he gets home every night. Someone who appreciates his decision to take a lump on the head and save the cab fare.

I was a CTA bus driver for three summers in the late 70s. "Full-time temporaries" in the parlance of the CTA, the summer drivers work off the "extra board," which means they are generally given the day's unassigned and unwanted routes. That's why I was making a late-night appearance on 47th Street.

Like my 47th Street pal, bus drivers do have reason to be afraid. Last month, for instance, a CTA driver was pinned by his own bus against a lamppost at 39th and Ellis after he'd struggled with an assailant for a handful of supertransfers. The next day, another bus driver opened her door between stops on the 71st Street route. She thought she'd do a favor for a man who'd come running up, knocking on the side of her bus. He stepped up and threw acid in her face.

Evidently, things haven't changed much in the decade since my bus-driving summers. When I hear about crazy, inhumane, or bizarre acts committed by or against CTA drivers, I think back to the days when I was one of them.

My first two summers I drove out of the Archer barn, at Archer and Rockwell. Archer is said to be the best south-side station. When it was busy, the shouts of black drivers slamming checkers in double and triple jumps echoed off the walls of what the old-timers called "the train room," a large, depotlike space where drivers not assigned permanent routes wait for assignments and watch the clock. If you wait two hours without being given a route, you go home with eight hours' pay. Other guys are there on lunch hours or between shifts of a "split," a morning and evening rush-hour route with the midday hours off.

My third year, I was at the idyllic-sounding Forest Glen station. A lot of the white old-timers bid onto routes up there. I understand they have some beauties, but I always seemed to pull Central Avenue, the worst street in the station.

The Central Avenue recovery time was the worst part of driving that street. Recovery time is the unscheduled period a driver gets at the end of the route. If the driver's behind schedule, it's catch-up time; if not, it's rest time. The late-night Central routes give the driver 10 or 12 minutes to sit at Central and Harrison, which is straight west-side ghetto, urban blight, whatever you want to call it. A driver is a sitting target there. The maddening part was that the other terminal point on Central was the station itself, cozy Forest Glen, with its TV, its vending machines, its clean, well-lighted bathroom, and its idle conversation with CTA clerks. But we were supposed to sit at Harrison and wait for trouble.

The way most drivers I knew handled their late-night Central Avenue recovery time was to leave the station a few minutes late and creep down to about North Avenue. You'd want to be about 10 or 15 minutes late at North, then fly down to Harrison, change the signs, and fly back up to North Avenue, more or less on time again. This isn't good bus service, of course, but it's safer. Safety first, like the signs on the station wall say.

One way of keeping safe is not to pick up suspicious characters. Naturally, it's hard to sort them out at a glance and sometimes you make mistakes. I was on Central the night I breezed a young guy, probably in his 20s, who ran after me for two blocks and got his arm caught in the door after I'd let a woman off.

That put me in a difficult position. I either had to run him down the street a little bit, hoping he'd work his arm out of the door, or let him up. So I let him up, prepared to take some serious heat and maybe have to defend myself. The guy was mad. Outraged. Screaming at me when he could catch his breath long enough. It turned out that I'd made the wrong call on this one. He was OK, or would have been.

"Why'd you do that? Why'd you do that?" he demanded to know. "You saw me. I know you saw me."

I had seen him. I'd slowed down, taken a good look at him, and left without opening the door. He'd concerned me because he'd been standing out in the street waving his arms before I'd pulled up, really pumping them wildly, and, as I got closer, I saw he was drinking from a bottle in a brown paper bag.

I told him I'd seen his bottle and thought he was drunk. He showed me what by then I already knew; it was a bottle of pop. Orange pop.

"But you saw me flagging you," he insisted.

"Too much motion," I advised him. "You look crazy."

He seemed to understand my point of view. I had no problem understanding his. "Where you getting off?" I asked him. He told me and I said OK, making a mental note to stop there real nice and let him off at the sidewalk. It's a little courtesy that a driver can extend. I didn't charge him for the ride, either.

My best friend among CTA employees was a summer driver I'll call Julio. He was a big, heavyset Mexican who had grown up in Pilsen and attended an Ivy League university on a scholarship. He was mildly eccentric, fierce looking, fiercely intelligent, and he had a "sardonic"--his word--sense of humor. An aspiring writer, he was a great student of films and literature and he introduced me to several previously undiscovered authors and auteurs, reserving his highest praise for deeply troubled artists like Jerzy Kosinski and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Julio shunned the bland world and values of middle-class America. He was the only driver I knew who owned only one uniform shirt, and he wore it the whole week before he washed it. He wore his CTA sweater over it, he explained one warm, late-summer evening, to keep the smell down.

We met at the Archer station at the beginning of my first summer. We happened to be standing next to each other copying the schedules for our routes from the master schedules that line three walls of the station, and I noticed the book he was reading, Cien anos de soledad. I don't speak Spanish but I could translate that, One Hundred Years of Solitude.

"Good book," I said.

Julio was shocked. Later he said most of the summer guys at the station were from the Illinois College of Optometry, and he didn't figure them to be great readers. (The CTA may have felt they'd have good eyesight, though.) He asked if I'd read it in Spanish. I hadn't, but he was still impressed. Each of us was someone the other could talk to about the things we liked most, books and films.

One day Julio slammed on his brakes with what is called a standing load and some of them lurched and tumbled up the aisle, ending up, as they will, toward the front of the bus. No one was hurt, although the glasses of one older gentleman were broken in the fall. The proper thing to do when passengers are knocked to the floor is to give them a chance to fill out an accident card. But Julio, ignoring the passengers' protestations, kept driving. He told me later he was afraid he'd be suspended a day or two without pay if the accident was reported, so he'd decided to cross his fingers and tough it out.

Of course, the passengers were furious. They demanded he call the station (actually, it's a controller at the Merchandise Mart) on the radio phone. He pretended to, but kept driving, thinking that sooner or later they'd all get off at their stops and forget about it.

Finally, after they'd copied down his badge number, the route number, and the bus number, all of his numbers, he yielded to his fares' collective wrath and curbed the bus.

"A supervisor has been called," he announced. "I'd like you all to please step off the bus. I'll give each one of you an accident card to fill out as you step off."

He passed out the little accident cards, which are less than three inches square--the CTA presumably doesn't want too much information about an accident and when everyone had left the bus he shut the doors and took off. Of course, they reported him. He denied everything in a meeting that night with a station superintendent and kept denying it, but I think they suspended him anyway.

There was no question of culpability in my accident. I hit a car on Archer Avenue one afternoon just minutes after pulling out of the station. It was a rainy day and I'd left a little late. When I saw the light turn yellow, I assumed the car several-car lengths ahead of me would keep going. I knew it was a long yellow light because Archer's an angle street and the intersection is oddly elongated and the light's been timed to allow traffic to clear. I was going to go through it.

But the guy ahead of me stopped. I had to change tactics suddenly and stop the bus, which I had just enough time to do, but for two things. One, the pavement was slick from the rain. The other, the brakes locked. When they locked, I pumped them, like you'd do in a winter skid in your car. The bus didn't even slow down. I skidded at least a hundred feet and rear-ended the car, knocking it well into the intersection, which, fortunately, was clear of traffic at the time.

(What I didn't know about the brakes, but found out later when I got a day off to be retrained, was that you can't pump air brakes. You have to take your foot entirely off the brake and let the brake line fill up with air again. My retraining mostly consisted of talking over my accident with an instructor and then going out in a big lot and skidding around until I understood how to handle air brakes. All in all, not a bad system.)

I ran out to check on the car, greatly relieved to see there was just one guy in it and no children. That was my first thought: were there children in the backseat? He had opened his door but was sitting there dazed. I'd hit him pretty hard, it looked like. The headrest was broken from the impact of his head against it, and the back of his bucket seat had stripped its gears and was tilted back at an unhealthy angle.

I told him I was sorry and he said something about how hard it must be to slow do wn a bus in the rain. Maybe he was too rattled to be mad. He asked me to reach into his shirt pocket, get him a cigarette, and light it for him.

The cops were on the scene quickly. One of them talked to him and I went over to talk to the other. A Fire Department ambulance pulled up and a guy got out and came over to where the cop and I were talking. Nodding at me, he asked the cop what had happened, although it was fairly obvious from the positions of the car and the bus that I'd plowed into the guy from behind.

"Aw, he just booted him in the ass end a little bit," the cop said, already bored with this accident victim. The Fire Department guy gave me a comradely look, like, hey, no big deal. Traffic accidents are routine, I suppose, but it took me a minute to figure out what was strange about this one. The authority figures on the scene were on my side because we were the guys in the uniforms. It didn't matter if I was at fault.

I was never issued a ticket, or if I was, it was handled by the CTA. I heard later that the guy I hit sued for fairly minor damages, $50,000, claiming he'd lost a percentage of his ability to rotate one arm. I assume it was settled out of court.

A full-time driver of about 30 told me that driving the bus had changed his personality. Before, he'd been very outgoing. He and his wife socialized with other couples, went to parties all the time and clubs where they could dance into the wee hours. Now, after a day on the CTA, he didn't want to be with people, he said.

It's part of the tendency drivers sometimes have to dehumanize people. But it's a two-way street. The best expression of the uneasy sharing of humanity by bus driver and rider lies in the single point of physical contact between the two: the exchange of the transfer.

A number of messages can be communicated through this simple act. If the passenger wants to show disrespect, he claws at the transfer, reaching for it like he's swiping a handful of peanuts out of a bowl. His fingernails scrape down the length of your hand until he reaches paper. You're just the object dispensing it. I got a cut on my finger one day from one of those fingernails. It pissed me off as much as anything that ever happened to me driving a bus.

The typical bus driver responds to this kind of grabbing by dropping the transfer on the floor. Let the passenger pick it up if he wants it, which some people, sensitive to issues of respect, are unwilling to do.

The most common form of communication in the exchange of the transfer is one that cuts both ways. It can be a sign of respect or disrespect. Exceedingly careful not to touch your hand, the passenger (or the bus driver) holds only a small corner of the transfer during the exchange. This is either stilted politeness--in which case the other party looks at you, maybe says hello. Or he's sending a signal that he regards you as something it's risky to touch.

I knew a female driver who deliberately touched the hand of each halfway decent passenger whom she handed a transfer, like a grandfather pressing a bill into a farewell handshake. She was trying to establish a connection, she said, so that if something bad happened down the road, these passengers would be on her side. I thought this was taking a chance, but she didn't have any problems with it.

Occasionally, a passenger expressed contempt by offering the transfer, usually folded up small for good measure, in a hand that also held a halfeaten piece of chicken or some other hunk, of food. I remember looking at one such woman in disgust and waving her back to a seat. She shrugged like, hey, if you're too good for it honey, that's your problem.

The playful types have a bit where they hand you a transfer, indicate they want it back, but start walking away as you try to return it. You're like a relay runner trying to pass the baton to a runner who has taken off too soon. You reach and reach for the hand that is always just a few inches away from yours. When your arm's extended all, the way down the aisle and you look up into their eyes, irritated or confused, they've won. They're already laughing.

Not all of the disrespect happens between drivers and riders. One night a CTA supervisor pissed on my bus. I was parked at the 47th and Lake Park turnaround for a few minutes' break before heading back west. A supervisor drove up in one of the brown CTA station wagons that they used to have and boarded the bus, nodding hello as he walked down the aisle. He's just giving the bus a cursory inspection, I figured. Then I saw him in the mirror standing in the back doorwell, pissing. Those back doors remain open a crack even when they're shut, so he was more or less aiming it outside. I was too stunned to say anything. When he was done, he pulled down the emergency door release with the red knob and jumped off. That set off an alarm that rang until I went back there and pushed it back up.

One night on Central, just after I'd left the turnaround at Harrison, I picked up the first guy I saw even though he looked like trouble. True to form, he started begging a free ride. He got right in my face and started rapping in a low, pleading voice, "Man, I'm totally out of change and trying to get home, tapped out, man, it's a pity, gotta get myself back to the crib . . ." On and on. It's a handout routine, pure shtick. The idea is, he'll violate your personal space, but completely nonviolently, until you say OK just to get rid of him. If you press the point, he usually has the fare on him.

But I didn't want to argue. "Have a seat," I said. He sat down. I picked up the next guy and he started a similar bit, not the handout routine, something more belligerent, the point of which was he wanted a free ride and a transfer.

"No transfer," I said. "Take a seat." It's an important point for a driver. If I give him a transfer, the first guy sees he could have gone farther with me. Maybe comes up to get his transfer. They both see they're scamming me. Then I've lost control of the bus.

So I'm still at the curb holding the line with the second guy, who's putting up an argument about the transfer. I've got the brake on, so I swing around toward him, look him in the eye, the connotation being I'm not going anywhere until we settle this. "Get it from the next guy," I say. Pause. Stare. "You can ride, if you want." My final offer. He goes on by and sits.

The next one I pick up gives me an expired transfer and wants me to punch it, which, under the transfer system in effect at that time, could make it good again. "It's no good," I say, throwing it away, "but I'll let you ride."

When a couple get on next, a man and a woman, I leave my free hand resting over the fare box and give them a nod toward the seats. They're pleased. I do the same thing with the next guy. Why not? I'm driving quickly now, efficiently. I just want to get all these people where they're going and get them off the bus.

Then a guy gets on, drunk or high, very animated and angry. Confrontation is his thing. "I ain't payin'," he announces, loudly, so everyone is tuned in to the confrontation.

He looks back down the aisle to assess the situation. He figures he's got everybody on his side. I study their faces in the mirror for a moment and find a couple of ironic grins.

"You see these people?" I ask, loud enough for everyone to hear. "None of them has paid."

He can't help but look back at the passengers for confirmation. In the mirror I see them laughing. "Go take a seat," I say. He does. Everybody's satisfied, including me.

There's no real danger here, but it's a shot of confidence to handle a street situation well. Two bus drivers were killed during the first couple weeks of my second summer, 1978--that's why I transferred up to Forest Glen. Like all bus drivers, past or present, I like to think I can handle street situations when they arise.

Late at night, drivers often find themselves "dragging the street." You drive 10 or 15 miles an hour, way over by the curb to stay out of the way, and stop at every light whether it's red or green. You do it to keep from getting ahead of schedule. If you go past a cross street ahead of schedule, riders on the intersecting line miss their connection with your bus and may have to wait another half hour or more for the next one.

It can be a lonely way to spend the hours between midnight and morning. One night, after dragging up and down 39th Street, I got stir-crazy. I was sitting in my bus at the west-end terminal with a lot of recovery time. There wasn't anything to the terminal point, just a place to park the bus by the side of the road and wait. I'd read the newspaper all I could, so I was sitting there, amusing myself by singing a David Bowie song, or my version of it, anyway, something like:

Heeerrrrree am I,

sitting in a tin can,

far, far from home.

Planet earth is blue

and there's nothing I can do.

(I'd pick up my radio phone and sing into it here.)

This is Major Tom to Ground Control:

I've really made the grade.

Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.

Ground Control to Major Tom:

Are your circuits dead?

Is there something wrong?

Can you hear us, Major Tom?

Can you hear us, Major Tom?

Can you heeeaaarrrr . . .

. . . Am I, sitting in a tin can,

far, far from home.

Planet earth is blue

and there's nothing I can do . . .

After I'd got all the fun there was to get out of that, I walked down the aisle to see what had been left behind by my passengers. I'd already checked once, having taken my customary stroll to the back of the bus as soon as I pulled in. This was just another trip to see if I'd missed anything the first time.

I noticed a cashew lying on the floor. It was right in the middle of the aisle on that black runner with the drainage grooves in it for when they hose down the interior of the bus. It was half a cashew, really, the round side up. Now, I like cashews, they're my favorite nuts. Which they are for a lot of people, if the evidence of mixed-nut bowls means anything. I don't like them that much, but for some reason I put it in my mouth and ate it.

I guess I just did it because I was bored, or lonely, and it must have seemed like the nicest thing there was to do at the time. Maybe I was just tired of listening to myself sing.

At the end of my last summer of driving, Julio and I went to Mexico together. Sort of together. We traveled down there separately, planning to hook up in Mexico City. The plan was to go to the observation deck of the Latin American Tower, the tallest building in Mexico City, at the same time on three consecutive days until we met up.

I arrived in Mexico City by train and bus from Nogales, a border town south of Tucson, Arizona, late on the first day. The next day I went to the observation deck and met Julio just as we'd planned. I was glad to see him but anxious to get off the observation deck, which was about 50 stories up, because I was catching a cold and it was chilly up there. On the way down in the elevator, I said something to Julio and he didn't answer. When I repeated what I'd said, he dropped his head and gave it a small, furtive shake. Once we were back at ground level and out of the elevator, I asked him what was the matter. He said he didn't want to speak English in Mexico. As he knew, I didn't speak Spanish.

We split up eventually.

The last time I saw Julio, we were both working downtown office jobs. We met, in jackets and ties, for the buffet lunch at Carson's. He'd married a near child bride from the north of Mexico and forsaken his literary ambitions. He had a decent job with a major firm, but it was less than satisfying to him. He didn't go to films anymore, he said. He preferred to watch what he could on his VCR.

After lunch, I couldn't help but notice that he was limping badly and whimpering a little as we walked down Wabash. I asked him what was the matter. He said he'd worn his old shoes until they were full of holes before finally buying new ones a few days before. The new shoes had put large, bloody sores on his feet. He thought the new shoes were too small but was afraid the store wouldn't let him return them. He was toughing it out. He cursed himself for having thrown out his old shoes.

My best passengers in 11 months of summer driving were the Polish washerwomen, as we called them, who clean downtown office buildings each weeknight. There must be hundreds of them. And they all live off Archer between Pulaski and Harlem, down where harmless streets are grouped not exactly alphabetically, but by letter: Kolin, Kostner, and Kenneth; Lorel, Long, and Lotus; Moody, Melvina, and Merrimac; Neenah, Nashville, and Natoma. And so on.

Every weeknight, the old Polish women finish cleaning up the office buildings around 11:30 or midnight and gather out on State Street to wait for the Archer buses. The CTA, which knows these things from years of experience, supplies several of them.

No one gets off during the drive out to the southwest side, and no one gets on either. It's a Polish washerwoman special and they have a ball, laughing and shouting across the bus to each other the whole way back, like on a high school team bus after a winning game.

I don't speak Polish either, and couldn't understand what they were saying, but they had such a great time after what must have been a hard night's work that it was impossible not to enjoy them. Sometimes they pointed at me and talked and laughed, rather approvingly, I always thought. When I let them off in bunches of three and four at their corners, I got as many big toothless grins in return. In their heavy accents, they, said, "Good night."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.

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