"Nigger!" The 40-year-old Caucasian woman screamed as she made her way out of the bus. Just when I thought the worst was over, I watched a large spitball fly out of her mouth and land on the bus driver's face. I rubbed my eyes, bewildered at this scene. This was the 21st century right? The bus driver remained collected and composed, and continued to drive, unfazed by the incident.
At a stop that earlier day, the driver had faced another vicious battle with an elderly woman who had refused to pay her bus fare. The driver had later told me that she was a regular rider who always relied on sympathy of the passengers on the bus to avoid paying her fee. This woman was not a penniless panhandler. Her attire and appearance was better maintained than half the passengers on the bus. Yet she seemed to enjoy the game of free riding, refusing to move and budge from the bus. We were stalled at the stop for nearly 5 minutes and many passengers, including me, became frustrated, and sympathetically offered to pay for her so that the bus could continue on. The bus driver announced, "Don't give her money. She needs to learn a lesson about righteousness and morality. She can do this with other drivers but not with me."
It never occurred to me that a job as simple as driving a bus would require so much abuse, leadership and complexity. Incidents like these are one of the reasons why I avoid taking the bus whenever possible. The first time I boarded a public bus in Los Angeles, I found myself trapped next to a homeless man who carried four bags of decaying trash along for the ride. He had snuck on the bus through the back exit and had refused to leave, despite multiple requests from the driver to "please pay your fare or exit the bus." The stench was so unbearable that I found myself heaving over a trashcan after getting off. When this driver threatened to call the police, the man shrugged off the threat. He intuitively knew that the bus driver would not congest the entire bus line to wait for "the po po" to arrive.
Perhaps I was just unlucky during my limited experiences riding the Los Angeles public transportation system, experiencing the worst during my occasional rides to West Hollywood or Santa Monica. Nevertheless, I developed immense respect for the drivers and their ability to tolerate abuse from the various types of passengers who tried to take advantage of the system.
Subsequently I began a conversation with Anthony, a driver on the number 4 - Big Blue Bus line last Saturday during a trip from UCLA to Santa Monica. Anthony was a Belizean driver in his mid-40s. He described to me about his experience on the job.
"I have been called everything from nigger to insults about my mother. People have threatened to physically hit me. Yet I absolutely love this job. It is more than I can ask for, especially in this economy."
Surprised at this statement, I urged him to tell me more.
"Well, you see, we are not paid by this right here" (points to coin deposit machine). "We are paid by the city and they have incredible insurance benefits for my family, high job security, and a month of vacation each year. Many people don't realize the salary we make." He grins.
I knew of the sensitivity and impoliteness of asking about salaries these days. Yet my curiosity and uncontrollable mouth somehow blurred out the words, "If you don't mind me asking, how much do you make?"
Anthony hesitated for a second, and then decided to answer my question with pleasure.
"I get paid $28 an hour, and work 12-hour days, five days a week. We get paid overtime on holidays. And some city bus drivers can make up to $100,000 a year. The salary is usually $60,000 to $100,000. The requirement is just a high school degree and although many people may look down at the profession, thinking it's blue collar and easy, we usually make more than students who graduate from a 4-year college. But best of all, this occupation is completely unaffected by the economy. What do people do when fuel costs rise or when they can't afford a car?"
I smiled and answered Anthony. "They take the bus."
"Exactly. I am the CEO of this bus. I am the authority. And I love driving and being able to help people get to places. And this city uniform I wear, I wear it with pride."
I suddenly felt a sense of gratifying satisfaction for the driver. Despite the abuse they endure every day, I was delighted to discover that that these neglected bus drivers were well appreciated compensated by the government for the overlooked difficulties of their work.
"So what is one of your favorite parts of this job?"
"Great question." He chuckles to himself. "When I make a sharp right turn at an intersection. Watching the expression the faces of the drivers when they think I am going to hit them. So priceless! And of course, the many interesting conversations I get to have with good-natured people like you."