(The names and runs have been changed to protect the rider’s privacy.)
One aspect of being a bus driver that no one really talks about is the sheer number of people who have some form of metal limitations that use mass transit. The first day you hit the streets you realize that dealing with these people is a major part of what you do.
Coming to grips with this early on, I made it my personal mission that no matter what their issue was or how they got there—either by birth, drugs, accident or stress—they deserve a ride and my best effort.
This is not always easy. Anyone that tells you that the mentally challenged are just like everyone else is full of rocks. It’s often the most difficult and frustrating part of your day. How I cope with these challenging moments is by not looking away but by looking at these riders with the same lens I use to view everyone else. I always wonder “What is your story? What is your life like?”
One such rider I will now call the “Shambler” took me a few trips to figure out. You see, I don’t do the same run every day, so it’s hard for me to notice what would be obvious to a regular driver who interacts with you five times or more a week. For the Shambler it took me a month of periodic runs on the small downtown loop through Portland.
The Shambler is a scarecrow of a man. He stands five foot ten—though he seems shorter because of his stoop, maybe tipping the scales at 130 if someone put an extra ten pound weight in his backpack. His face is sallow and sunken and he would look ill except for his very dark facial hair that competes with the heavy acne scars of his youth. He has an angular narrow face, with a small mouth and a large regal hooked nose. He seems to be about fifty seven as far as I can figure, though the harsh life on the street makes him look much older. His bone thin frame seems to be almost hiding out in his large black leather Jacket. The Jacket seems newer and cleaner when compared to his stained, button-up checked shirt and well-worn black jeans. Whatever ex-motorcycle gang looking mojo he has going for him is defeated by the child's stroller he pushes along to carry his belongings.
He’s cooperative, never causes a hassle, and shuffles along, his voice low and mumbling. I have to turn off the vents in the bus so I can hear him when he gets on. I have a soft spot in my heart for him and even at rush hour with a full bus I always wait for him to find a seat before I roll.
What is interesting about the Shambler and what took me a while to put together, was this. Every time he gets on my bus, he has an item he found left behind at the stop. At first I thought, oh wow that’s awesome this guy cares enough to turn in lost items to me, not everyone does that obviously.
It finally clicked in my mind: this happens each time I pick him up.
I went over a mental list of the type of things he has given me as left behind items, things like: old reading glasses that are cracked and missing a lens; headphones that are busted and crushed; wallets that are worn out and empty; ripped books; old magazines; broken coffee cups; a crumpled up handwritten note. Another revelation struck me: What he gave me was not lost items left behind; these are items he has found wandering around the streets.
Each item he turned into me is, well, junk. Dutifully, I have turned his findings into Trimet’s lost and found filling out a form for each item at the end of my shift while off the clock. I can’t began to tell you about how exciting it is sitting around after your shift filling out forms.
On Tuesday night as he boarded and handed me yet another collection of strange items, mumbling something about them being left behind at the stop, you can imagine there was more than a little anger in my heart. I don’t want to do paper work for no reason and as his hand reached out, words pushed forth from my brain heading to my mouth like a freight train coming down the Rockies on tracks covered in ice.
Somehow, and this was not easy, I stopped the words before they came out. I was just about to stay something negative, like “Why do you always give me this junk?” But then I stopped, and the part of me that always looks for the story had time to cut in. That second or two of silence, an epic amount of time for my mouth to stay shut to be sure, gave me what I needed for all the pieces fall into place.
It wasn’t about me, he had no idea about lost and found paper work. He wasn’t harming me. “Thank you,” I said “I’m sure someone is missing this, I’ll turn it in at the end of my shift” Then I saw it., the little crinkle at the corner of his eyes. This was not someone getting over on a bus driver. There was something else there.
He wasn’t doing this to harm me in any way, there was no malice in this actions. For a moment—just a brief moment at the front of my bus—he was a hero.
The Shambler isn’t hurting anyone, or playing a false hero to claim a prize or to win fame. He is just trying to fit into the world that surrounds him. He is trying to be the hero of his own story. We all do this to one extent or another, and this is just his way of stating to the world that he is here and has value. This is his way the world gives him positive feedback and says “it’s important that you are here.”
Tossing out the obvious junk at the end of my shift is easy. Reacting in a positive way is effortless. It costs me nothing but a smile and a few good words to make the magic of belonging for the Shambler happen. It’s a small price to pay to make someone feel like a hero, if for only one bus ride.
The simple fact is that for far too many people, we operators are often the only positive contact they have in a day. It’s far too easy just to write off those who take a little more time and effort as problem makers. It’s easy to build up a resistance to even interacting with them.
But one can never overestimate the simple power of a smile, a touch, a kind word. With a little effort, before you know it you can connect with someone and, if you’re lucky, even make someone feel like a hero,
Remember to Roll Easy out there..
Next Week We Talk about the Dangers of Grizzly Bears on my bus