On the Busy Number 1 Route

Don’t call me Ishmael.

In his adventurous novel, “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville’s protagonist Ishmael tells us why he feels the need to go to sea. He says in part, “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper-hand of me that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.”

How ghastly. I have never felt an urge, not even an iota of one, to assault people, even when my hypos have had me in a sturdy headlock. And certainly I have never felt a “damp, drizzly November” in any part of my soul. When I do I’ll make sure to buy more life insurance.

Poor Ishmael. He would not have made a good bus operator. It would stress him out easily. Especially if he had to work the number 1 route, which I do every weekday after I finish the Leander Express.

The number 1 is our busiest line. I drive the 1L, which goes from Tech Ridge Park & Ride at Howard Lane to Southpark Meadows, at the new shopping center at Slaughter and I-35. On the map in the schedule booklet it looks almost like the Mississippi River.

Because it is so busy and taxing on operators, I had to look at it from another angle and see what it affords me. I found a prize. It is ripe with opportunity to help others. Like assisting a visually-impaired man cross a busy downtown street so he can hop on another bus; helping an elderly lady unload her groceries; helping a young mom carry the stroller on board; helping confused out-of-towners with information; or, helping all my passengers by staying on time so they won’t miss their connecting route. These opportunities, as they pop-up, I hit out of the park like a slugger. Because I know if I allow one opportunity to help someone go without my aid, I will never get it back.

Arthur tries for Four

Capital Metro Bus Operator Arthur Murillo is in Seattle, Washington, to defend his title in the 2009 International Bus Roadeo. Arthur has won the international title in the 35-foot bus competition three times. He’ll attempt tomorrow to rack up a fourth title.

Earlier today, Arthur was interviewed by Seattle Public Radio Station KOUW. Listen to the interview below.

You may be familiar with Arthur: in recognition of his third championship win last year, Capital Metro designed a bus wrap in his honor. Arthur was also voted “Best Bus Driver” in the Austin Chronicle’s readers’ poll.
But Arthur isn’t the only one representing Capital Metro at the International Bus Roadeo this week. Bus Operator Abdelkader Tenouri is competing in the 40-foot category, and Mechanics Mike Clements, Phillip O’Neal, and Gary Hosea will compete in the Vehicle Maintenance competition.

Good Luck, Capital Metro!

Don’t Leave Me

You step off the bus and walk the short distance to work. You’ve already had your coffee. Perhaps you were just promoted the day before. Or your kids are doing extremely well in school. Whatever the case may be, you feel good. You reach into your pocket for your wallet and, oh, my gosh, it’s not there.

You think you might have left it on the bus. “Yes,” you say to yourself. “I remember I pulled out my monthly pass.”

What to do if you leave a personal item on the bus? The first thing to do is contact customer service at 474-1200. This number is posted at every bus stop. If you remember the bus number, perfect. This works to your advantage because customer service can contact the driver a lot faster. If you don’t know the bus number, don’t worry. Tell customer service which route you were on and at what time. Customer service, along with a radio dispatcher, will do some digging for you.

Capital Metro will work quickly to return a lost item left on one of its buses with the owner, be it a valuable item, like a wallet, purse or cell phone, or just lost marbles that someone wants back.

Once customer service has located the right bus, a radio dispatcher will call the operator and ask her or him to search the bus for the lost item. The operator will do so at the next bus stop. The operator then reports back that the item is in his or her possession. This is communicated back to the owner and arrangements are made to return the items to their owner. The owner can wait for the bus to make its return trip; sometimes a street supervisor is sent to retrieve the item; or, the owner can pick-up the item at the downtown office at 4th and Congress.

Here is a friendly reminder. Just before you deboard the bus, look up at the advertisements. Notice the one with a picture of a set of keys, purse, cell phone and other items and these three words: “Don’t Leave Me.”

Wednesday Morning on the 987

The oblong box cruises south on Mopac. It is 6:22 on a mid-week morning and still dark outside. The interior lights are off. Two individual overhead spotlights are on as two of my passengers read. That means 21 passengers are asleep in the recliner seats. That makes me feel good because my smooth driving lulled them to sleep, which is what they wanted and looked forward to when they boarded at Leander and Lakeline. A 15-minute nap will help them get through the morning. As I drive this particular morning I see a meteor streak down and quickly disappear. It is the end of its million mile journey. I don’t mention this to my passengers. It is too early to wake them.

But like almost all good things, this ride, as comfy and cozy as it is, is disturbed at 6:26 when the first passengers deboard from the bus. I go into my routine. “Time to get up. Don’t forget anything. Make sure you have what belongs to you. Up and at ’em. Show them what you’re made out’ve.” Reminds me of when I was the duty N.C.O. in the Marines and had to call reveille, decades back. I walked the barracks to make sure every marine was up. Job well done.

My passengers know me by my name because this is the third time (or “mark-up,” to use transportation lingo) I’ve had this run, the 987 Leander.

Each of my passengers smiles at me as they walk out and onto work. It’s priceless.

They are in a good mood because their morning commute was quiet. Uneventful. Just as they like it. I did my part in making their day start off well. In turn they will make other people’s day better. It is a chain reaction made from positive energy. At 6:44 the bus is empty except for me. And I think to myself, “Another job well done.”

A Million Miles

“Congratulations, Leo.” That is what I heard from many well-wishers (they did wish me well) last week on my crossing over the million mile safety record. I am looking forward to receiving my green patch to wear on my uniform. Really. It feels like being awarded a merit badge from the Boy Scouts (I’m guessing it feels good for Girl Scouts, too) for something you worked hard for. That is my feeling about it. Call me a sentimentalist. Or don’t. Capital Metro has quite a number of million milers. And also a few two million milers. A million miles is almost equal to two round trips to the moon, and it takes 13 years of safe driving to achieve it. What is amusing, a little not a lot, is that I drove the million miles going north, south, east and west all over Austin. I am glad Capital Metro acknowledges our accomplishments. I can compare this with being in the Marine Corps (I was in the Marines). Both are quick to reward you for your achievement.

I want to thank my friend Erica for asking me to write for the Capital Metro blog. Thanks! I will do my best to stay inside the theme of “pi,” at least my interpretation of pi. And that is the relationship of things, situations or people around me and how it pertains to or affects me. And now if you will excuse me, I have to drive the bus.

Forty footers rolling out next

Bus Operator Mary Molina has been with Capital Metro for 13 years. She’s up next in the 40-ft bus category. She says she’s not nervous just yet. She’s been through this before. Seven times before, to be exact. Two years ago she took 3rd place at the state roadeo, and last year she took 2nd place… so she’s hoping to continue the trend.

Mary is not sure how she’ll do this year–she wasn’t able to practice the course beforehand. Although the challenges at the roadeo encompass the foundation of skills needed to drive a bus safely with passengers through all kinds of traffic conditions, the competition itself is quite technical. “Everything is a little different,” Mary says. “Your mirrors and your seat position are different. It’s challenging.”

Good luck, Mary!

Challenge #9: the passenger stop

Meet Risk Manager Mike Nyren and Safety & Training Manager Andrew Chavira, volunteer judges on the 9th challenge in the obstacle course: the passenger stop.

The objective of this challenge is to simulate a bus stop. The operator has to pull close to the curb but not touch it. The front wheel should be within 6 inches of the curb, and the back wheel, within 15.

Competitors must also announce the stop, kneel the bus, and open the doors for passengers.

Thirty-five-foot competition

There are two bus categories at the bus roadeo: 35-foot buses and 40-foot buses. Juan Maldonado has been driving with Capital Metro for 23 years. His competition, the 35-foot bus, is up next. Juan Maldonado gears up to drive in the 35-ft bus category.
Juan reports that the dynamics of maneuvering a 35-foot bus are very different than a 40-footer. “Your reference points are different just because of the extra length,” he says. And reference points are pretty important for depth perception when turning, backing up, etc.

Juan has earned the designation Million Miler, having driven more than one million miles without any accidents. Even so, he’ll have his work cut out for him in today’s competition, as he’ll be competing against three-time international champion in the category, Capital Metro’s Arturo Murillo.

2009 Bus Roadeo!

Some of Capital Metro’s finest will be competing in our local 2009 Bus & Paratransit Roadeo this weekend in Leander. The annual competition for mechanics and bus and van operators is part skills showcase, part learning exercise, and reinforces Capital Metro’s emphasis on safety and customer service.

The local competition is the precursor to the State Roadeo and then the International Bus & Paratransit Roadeo. The top two winners in each division move on to the next competition.

Three teams of Capital Metro mechanics competed today in various timed challenges in which they diagnosed and fixed various engine problems. On Sunday, twenty-three operators will complete an obstacle course of nine challenges that test the operators’ technical abilities, as well as the use of safe driving techniques and good customer service. The fun begins around 8 a.m. Sunday at the Leander Park & Ride.

The local bus roadeo also includes an amateur competition. The criteria for being an amateur: you’re a Capital Metro employee but you’ve never had a commercial drivers license. Amateurs participate in teams, splitting up the nine challenges among the members. I’m participating on a team called “Death on the Yard,” and I’ll have you know I only ran over one curb at the Leander Park & Ride last weekend during our practice session! Wish me luck.

Driving a bus is hard. After the practice session, I had a renewed appreciation for this major portion of our workforce who transport people safely all over the city, all hours of the day and night.

From Alcoholic to Workoholic

Here’s a feel-good story for the holidays. The New Jersey Journal reported on a former homeless man who turned his life around and is now recognized as one of New York City’s nicest bus drivers:

Once lost in drug haze, now ‘nicest’ bus driver
Friday, December 26, 2008

After being homeless for more than a decade, a Union City resident has found a home, love, and even an award for being one of New York City transit’s nicest bus drivers.

His employer, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, presented David Abramski, 51, who now lives in the Doric Towers in Union City and drives for the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority, with an award after 21 passengers contacted the authority in 2007 to praise him for being courteous and helpful.

He was one of four MTA workers presented with the Govan Brown Presidential Award in October. The award is named for a retired bus driver who collected 1,400 commendations for charming passengers during his 21-year-career.

Abramski chalks up his popularity to common courtesy, saying “Hello” to anyone who looks at him, announcing every stop and saying “Thank you” when passengers are departing.

“I try to treat everyone like they are my friend – like it’s a rolling party,” Abramski said. “I want everybody feel at ease.”

He also goes the extra mile with service. He has hand-delivered valuables left on his bus to their owners.

Once playing guitar for a band that landed gigs at the storied CBGB’s rock club, Abramski’s life spiraled out of control in the mid-’80s, leading to his eviction from a single room occupancy hotel. He was homeless for 10 years, living in an Amtrak tunnel below Riverside Park in New York City.

Smoking pot since his teens, he says he got hooked on crack cocaine and alcohol when he was laid off from his job as a bicycle messenger after breaking his shoulder.

“I finally hit the bottom,” he said. “You couldn’t get any lower than living in that tunnel.”
His parents took him into their home and clipped out job advertisements to help his search for a “real job.”

He became a motorbike messenger after attaching a small motor to his bike. Then he got a motorcycle. And then finally a bus, when he landed a job as a part-time bus driver with NJ Transit before being hired by the MTA in November 2000.

“I’m sorry I messed up. I was so bad as a kid,” sighed Abramski. “I was such a rebel.”
After moving from a boarding house in Union City to a condo in Jersey City, he met his wife, Barbara Alice.

He plans to retire when he is 63 years old and move with his wife to Florida, and has been working overtime to earn enough to buy a house there.

“I used to be an alcoholic, but now I’m a workaholic,” Abramski said.