Chapter 16: Go North Again, Young Man
Jobs 37 - 39
Job #37: Bus Driver
Job #37 was my first foray into public transportation. All of my jobs in this field have been right here in Butt County, for three different contractors (and even more name changes) for what has essentially remained the same public transit system. Since the first contractor has long since gone out of business, normally I would feel comfortable using their real name in this pseudonymous memoir. I know my disguised business and place names are as thin and transparent as fairy wings, but I must be careful. So, I'll have to call them...oh...Eastwagon. Yeah, that'll work.
There is only one other person at my current job beside myself who was there back in the Eastwagon days (and she has been there this whole time, which is very impressive – one job in thirty one years, especially compared to my 47 or so in the same period), but my employers would know who Eastwagon was if I used their real name, and therefore they would know I'm talking about them (in a very actionable kind of way). I don't think they'd necessarily know the real identity of Rimpy, since I've never used that name at work. But since I've just admitted that there's one other person who knew me at Eastwagon, all they'd have to do is ask her. Then I'd have to kill her, and I'd hate to have to do that. Or I could just take that bit out. Naw! She'll just have to take her chances.
I'm probably going to spend a bit more time on this job than many of the others, because it relates to my current position. It's interesting to compare public transit then and now. I know it's easy to say something like “people are getting dumber”, but from my view from the driver's seat of a bus over a few decades, it really looks like they are.
I suppose it could be a matter of simple numbers. The population of Butt County has grown in the last 30 years, and so has the size of its transit system. The old bus schedules used to be printed on a single piece of paper which was folded into a handy pocket size, with a map of the routes on one side, and the times on the other side. Now it's a quadra-fold, multi-page affair with a staple in the middle and everything, and it seems to strike fear and loathing into the hearts and minds of average bus passengers.
The downturn in the economy has also caused an uptick in bus ridership. So it could be that the proportion of blithering idiots in the population has remained constant, but I'm just seeing more of that slice of the demographic because of my job. That could be part of it, but I don't think it's all.
At the risk of sounding like the old fogey that I am, thanks to the proliferation of the internet and mobile devices, never before has so much information been so readily available to so many people, and yet fewer and fewer people seem interested in accessing that information. A lot of people on my bus carry smart phones and other devices, but they can't be bothered to look up what bus goes where and when, let alone take down one of those scary paper schedules in the rack behind the driver.
There were other things that made my first job as a bus driver truly seem like “the good old days”. Back then buses didn't have cameras in them. You're probably thinking that cameras help protect us in case we're attacked or robbed, and you'd have a point, but more often than not they are used to catch us making mistakes. We also have sensors that trigger the cameras when we hit the brakes too hard, or don't wait long enough at stop signs. It's all in the name of safety, but it feels very oppressive at times.
Back in the day, the fare boxes were simple brass and clear plastic cylinders with an opening at the top into which passengers dumped their money. If they used a lot of change, it was impossible to verify that they had paid the correct amount, but, oh well. The worst thing that happened with those old fare boxes was when a dollar bill would hang up in the opening. Then we drivers had to take a piece of Venetian blind we kept on hand and push it down, and we considered ourselves misused when we had to do that. We also kept count of fares manually with a big clicky machine thing.
Now the fare machines count each coin, which sounds great, but the coins must be deposited one at a time, and they're absolutely terrible at taking any dollar bill which isn't as pristine as when it rolled out of the mint. If you think that helps the buses run on time, then you haven't ridden public transit. Consider yourself lucky.
The other thing that made them “the good old days” is probably going to upset some politically correct types, but here it is: prior to 1990 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, buses didn't have wheelchair lifts or ramps. The transit company had a division of vans with those capabilities for people who couldn't access regular public transit. We still have that division, but now all buses have to be able to accommodate wheelchairs as well. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it certainly doesn't help us to run on time. The buses can only take two chairs at a time, but you can get several getting on and off over the course of just one loop, and then you're thirty minutes late and you've got bunches of angry people waiting at bus stops, who of course always think it's the driver's fault.
In the mid-eighties we didn't know how good we had it, but now I look back on those golden days and let out a sigh of longing. I really can't remember how long I drove bus, but it was probably most of a year, which is a goodly while – for me at the time, anyway. For a while things were good. I had a tiny but very adequate studio apartment and even cable TV (great fodder for my favorite hobby).
My downfall came in the form of a bunch of unruly high school students. I was only about 25, so I wasn't a whole lot older than them, but I was ostensibly an adult, and the captain of the ship, and I wanted them to respect my author-i-tah! I just hadn't dealt with children before. I was the youngest in my family by a good ten years, so I didn't even have the experience of relating to younger or near-age siblings.
Things went from bad to worse. I had parents wanting to murder me for saying something rude to their precious progeny. Eventually I couldn't take it anymore, and quit. Sometime after I left, Eastwagon went bankrupt, and the various cities within Butt County and the county itself that supported the system had to scramble to keep it running. My long-ago and current co-worker said that some of the drivers actually worked for free for awhile because they cared about the passengers.
Soon a nationally known contractor took over operating the system, which is who I worked for in Jobs #60 and 62. By the time I came back for job #85 in 2010, that contractor had been bought out by an international firm. Since I've been there, that company separated from its parent company, merged with yet another international firm and changed its name once more. Oh, the hurly burly of public transportation contractors!
Job #38: Delivering Coupon Books
I went into a bit of a slump after leaving the bus driving job. I couldn't work up any enthusiasm for, well, work. I couldn't get unemployment benefits because I had quit the bus driving job, so I found odd jobs when I could be bothered. Job #38 was once again delivering coupon books, but for an outfit operating out of a dingy office downtown. A handful of workers cold-called people and tried to sell them the books. When they were successful, I would then deliver the books in my 1959 VW van, named Klaus. He was a rusty old bucket, but I loved him. He was rather rare, having the double cargo doors on both sides. I wish I still had that rig.
Job # 39: Yard and Job Site Clean Up
The coupon job wasn't enough to pay the rent, however, and I got evicted from my groovy studio apartment. I stayed with my friend Steve for a while (a very little while, because his roommate didn't like me), and together we performed my 39th job. Steve had acquired the use of a dump truck through his roommate's brother, who was in the construction business, and we would go around to construction sites and anywhere else someone needed junk and debris hauled to the landfill. We also did some yard work as needed.
I hadn't done any really physical labor in awhile, and after a couple of days of that, I was so sore I could barely move, but I kept at it. I was basically killing time waiting for my tax refund, which promised to be substantial because I had been pretty steadily employed for most of the year. You see, I had hatched another (escape) plan.
I felt like I had already burned out the local job market, and needed a change of scene. I had a vague plan of moving north. I wasn't sure whether I would settle on Portland or Seattle. I didn't know much about Portland, but it seemed cool, especially with that flashy major...
But I had spent more time in Seattle, and sort of knew some folks there - a couple named Lan and Lar(ry). Lan was the sister of my brother Dick's girlfriend at the time, and we had stayed with them on our way through town on our wonderful Alaskan vacation. I had also called upon them when I was on my to live in Alaska, and they had helped me get to the airport shuttle in downtown Seattle so I could catch my flight to Juneau.
There had been some sort of delay in my tax refund, and I had to contact the IRS about my much-anticipated check. When it finally arrived, I cashed it and started making final preparations for heading north. The next day there was another check in my post office box! They had somehow sent me two separate checks for the same amount. I was sorely tempted to try to cash the second one before they realized their mistake. I even solicited the opinions of the other patrons of the bar where I was having a couple of drinks while mulling over the problem. The general consensus was that I shouldn't cash it, so I tore up the second check.
Soon I was on my way north in my rusty, trusty Klaus. Steve had built a platform in the back so I could put in a full length mattress, so I had a pretty comfortable makeshift camper. It was late spring or early summer, and I was under no deadline, so took I my time on my trip. The national speed limit then was 55 MPH, but I stayed at a steady 50, for no particular reason. I told myself I just wanted to savor my trip, but I'm sure I was just delaying the inevitability of having to look for work where ever I settled.
While cruising through rural areas on Interstate 5 at five miles below the speed limit, I discovered a curious phenomenon. Packs of cars doing 55 would pass me, then there would be long stretches when I had the road to myself, then another cluster of cars would go zooming past. I thought it was funny that even though most drivers were content to all do the same speed, they didn't seem to want to be alone. If you were in the middle of one of those packs, you probably couldn't tell that there were large patches of empty road between yours and the next pack. They probably wouldn't want to admit that they were engaging in herd mentality, but it seemed pretty obvious to me.
By the time I reached Portland, I had already decided that I would continue to Seattle, where I at least knew somebody. I gave Portland a cursory visit, then headed more north. I stopped in Tumwater, Washington to tour the Olympia brewery. We had stopped there on our Alaska trip, but I had been too young to sample the wares after the tour. I intended to correct that temporally-enforced oversight.
The amount of free beer they gave us after the tour wasn't huge, but I've always been a bit of lightweight, and I got rather more light-headed than I had intended. For some reason I can't recall, I didn't want to spend too much time in Tumwater. Perhaps I was aware that my funds were dwindling, and I needed to get to Seattle and procure lodging before they ran out altogether. I walked in the park along the nearby waterway and viewed the famous falls from the beer label until I felt like my head was clear. I may have been mistaken about that, and it may have contributed to what happened next.
As I was getting back on the freeway, there was road work on the on-ramp. I was following what I thought was a safe distance behind the car in front of me. The flag woman abruptly halted that car, and Klaus' brakes never having been terribly good, I banged into the back of it. There wasn't much damage, but we had to exchange insurance information and wait while the highway patrol did their thing. They cited me for following too close, which I didn't appreciate, but I was just glad that the fact of my recent visit to the brewery never came to light.
Unfortunately, the collision somehow blew out what little was left of Klaus' already dodgy brakes. I managed to limp him into a nearby regional park, which was at the bottom of a terrifyingly steep hill. The park didn't allow overnight camping, so I drove back up (much easier) and parked behind a bar. I had a few more drinks before crawling into my now-crippled transportation to sleep.
The next day I called ahead to Lan and Lar's to tell them I was coming into town. They were a bit caught off-guard, but were much more gracious than I had a right to. I really had a bad habit of surprising people with my burdensome presence, didn't I? I then caught a Greyhound into Seattle. I rented a U-Haul truck and a car-trailer, and Lar and I drove down to Tumwater to recover Klaus. I parked him behind Lan and Lar's house. I stayed with them for a couple of days until I found a room in a house with some other people.
I probably shouldn't have bothered to haul poor old Klaus up to Seattle, because I ended up having to junk him. Repairs were beyond my means, especially (and ironically) after the unexpected expense of the hauling.
So now I was in my new chosen city, in need of work, but without my own transportation. Fortunately, Seattle has a wonderful public transportation system, so I could get just about anywhere I needed to. In the next chapter, we shall embark upon a whirlwind of false starts and dead end jobs above the 45th parallel.