Book Report: Driver tells of 'Life in the Bus Lane'
"Just Drive, Life in the Bus Lane" ($15, Just Zakanna Productions) is a collection of blog posts written by Deke N. Blue about life behind the wheel of a Portland bus.
It's a job that's stressful and hard on body and soul, but one that he loves all the same. He's a glass half-full type of guy, which keeps this from being just another harsh rant about public transportation.
It's an interesting book because the author's identity is known to many of his readers, but he uses a pen name and TriMet isn't mentioned by name.
A typical bus weighs 40,000 pounds (without passengers) and is 40 feet long. Driving a "20-ton monster" on old, narrow streets and staying calm in the face of impatient customers and drivers isn't for everyone. There's a mantra that Blue says he chants before each shift: "Be Safe, Be Kind, Be Considerate, Be Thoughtful, Be Patient, Be Smart, and Be Smooth."
The book holds five years' worth of driving stories told with a mix of laid-back humor and philosophy. The bus and its riders are a well of inspiration, and we get a glimpse of the likable man behind these essays. The writing is therapy after a hard day dealing with everything from rude drivers to feisty riders. Naturally, this "driver-who-is-a-writer" has a few pet peeves:
• Be Seen. "People need to say 'Hey, here I am!' and be seen," Blue says. "Portlanders love black and other dark colors but riders should know they can't be seen at that bus stop, especially at night. So hold up that cell phone! We're always scanning and looking around, we have only seconds to see you." Lifting the middle finger is never a good way to salute a transit worker.
• People who complain when drivers are late but don't have their fare ready. "How about they use that time waiting to have their fare ready if they're so concerned about being late?"
• Driving downtown. "Really treacherous. I don't like the transit mall. Some downtown streets were designed for horse carriages. And the No. 4 line is too long, but they're probably going to break that one up."
• Impatient drivers. A universal irritation for professional bus drivers, says Blue, are clueless drivers who actually wonder, "'Why is that bus stopping every other block?' C'mon, there are traffic laws for a reason," he says. "Oregon state statute says to yield for a bus when its yield lights are flashing, NOT pass it to get to a red light while giving me the finger. Be patient. Chill-ax. I have 50 people on my bus. You are one person on a cell phone."
Blue has been a writer all his life, he says. "When I got this job I asked myself, 'What are you going to do now?' They say write what you know, so I began writing about my job as an exercise." He started the blog From the Driver Side when he began driving approximately five years ago and it just reached 185,000 views.
Most popular blogs were about the time he played a trick on a snobby teenage girl who didn't want to speak or say hello. "I told her our new ticket machine was voice-activated," he says. He also writes about the time a beautiful woman boarded the bus and she seemed to be beckoning from the back of the bus. Turns out it's his wife.
In "Deke Gets Vocal," he takes on the bicycling community.
People are still the very best part of his job, he says. "Ninety to 95 percent of them are great," Blue says. "We have a vast cross-section of people in Portland. They're fun to talk to and I love that." He relies on the support and community he gets from other drivers in the industry who truly understand the work.
Asked if driving is less safe than when he began, Blue is diplomatic.
"Society has changed in the last few years," he says. "The stabbing on the MAX got our attention, it got everyone's. This is unofficial, but there were 83 assaults on drivers this year alone and about 50 last year. To their credit our employers are concerned, too, and just reached a new contract (recently)."
A provision in the new contract states that drivers assaulted on the job who need to leave their route for medical care won't lose time as a result.
Blue's driven 85 percent of the lines. His favorites start downtown and end in the suburbs.
"There's one line I've done for quite a while now, but every line lasts three months so you get to know some of the people," he says. Some pay their fare and don't talk much, he says.
"They may eventually open up when they realize I'm not going to kill them," he adds, laughing. "I've made some really good friends driving."
Traffic and cell phone use by passengers have changed things for the worse, he says.
"When I first started driving, the buses were alive with conversation," Blue recalls. "Sometimes it's so quiet it's like a funeral. I'll say, 'Hey, look, Mount Hood is beautiful today,' and someone might start talking and notice that 'yeah, it is.'"
Safety is his top concern. "It's getting crazier out there so you just keep your fingers crossed. My job is to keep my bus and everyone on it safe," Blue says.
Blue's sketches of daily life as a bus driver are amusing and heart-warming. They also serve as an important reminder to thank your bus driver for a job well done.