Driving a City Bus on the Nightshift Is the Worst Job I Ever Loved
"Jack" has driven a bus in Oakland for nearly a decade. He's got stories.
Photo of AC Transit via Wikimedia Commons
For close to ten years Jack* has been driving a bus for AC Transit, a public bus system that runs through the East Bay, covering Alameda and Contra Costa counties, including Oakland, Berkeley, and the Transbay commute over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. Many of those years have been spent driving on the nightshift, from noon to midnight, when things can go a little sideways. Jack's got stories. Here are just a couple in his own words.
You drive a city bus at night for close to ten years, you're going to see some things. You forget most of them, because the outlandish becomes routine. But some of it sticks. It's a bad job in many ways, but I can't help but love it.
One thing I remember most vividly is, a couple of people got on at the end of the line, the bus was mostly empty. After a minute they say, "You know, there's a whole lot of blood back here." I walked back, and there's a pool of blood the likes of which I've never seen. A large pool of blood. Someone sat there, bled out, and walked off the bus. I was in shock this happened while I was driving. I called it in and was instructed to bring the bus to the yard. I get there, a guy hops on with a hose and mop, sprays it down, and I'm back in service in 20 minutes. We have it down to a routine. I always feel bad bringing the bus in like that, but I know they're used to it. They've seen their fair share of shit, puke, blood.
Other things that stand out aren't gross but entertaining. Once I couldn't pull through an intersection because there was a woman dancing in it—just putting it down, really giving it her everything. You heard of "Pop, Lock, and Drop It"? That was happening. Everyone on the bus was amused. I drove slowly through the intersection —I didn't want to hit her—and could hear she was yelling "I'm horny! I'm HORNY!" She keeps screaming it, over and over. We got "I'm horny!" echoing through the bus. That's definitely the kind of thing you tell other drivers when you're swapping stories.
We talk a lot, the drivers. Mostly about what we think is the worst route in the city. It's a popular debate, and we can kick that one around for hours. Consensus seems to be a route that picks up at a certain hospital. A crazy cast of characters come out of there, some of whom move a bit slower, too, so it can become a holdup. I know you're not supposed to say this but I hate wheelchairs!
You have to understand, busses are not set up for wheelchairs. It's insane how much time a single wheelchair adds. The minimum is three minutes; the maximum could be ten or more. Wheelchairs do not come in one size. The American Disabilities Act says they have to be secured by four points. Trying to get these things secured, and quickly, is damn near impossible. People in wheelchairs should of course be able to take the bus. I'm not against it. I'm just saying it's a fucking hassle. But I digress.
Another thing—this is funny—we drivers talk about is the movie Speed. We all look to Speed as sort of a Bible. This is all we're hoping—that there's a bomb placed on our bus, and we can step up to the challenge. I am not kidding you. It was a big movie to bus drivers. We've all talked about Speed at one point or another. It's a bond we share. No bullshit. We don't talk about Speed 2: Cruise Control, though, because no Keanu.
The biggest wild card you deal with as a driver, obviously, is passengers. They can either make your day or ruin it. Generally speaking, if you're on time, you'll have the happiest crew of passengers. They'll tell you, too. "This bus is always on time. This is great. I love it." But if you're late, especially consistently, they'll let you know it, you're gonna get complaints online, and three weeks later your manager will want to have a chat about it. I understand a late bus can really screw someone's day up, but no one thinks about the wheelchair you might have picked up, or the person that was lost and needed directions. Lots of tiny things chew up tiny chunks of time which begin to add up. It can be as simple as a guy hopping on and saying, "I'm going to that thing by the Jack in the Box." OK, this route services four Jack in the Boxes.
Plus, we really need to be tri-, or maybe quadrilingual, to effectively do our jobs. I'm getting handed pieces of paper with just addresses on them, because there's such a huge language barrier. The fares went up July 1, and guess how many in the Vietnamese and Chinese population knew? Nobody. Try explaining that to someone whose language you don't speak.
Another thing that can hold you up a bit is sleepers. Doesn't matter the time of day, you're going to get a sleeper. Sleepers are ubiquitous. Some are homeless. You wake them up at the end of the line, tell them you got to hop off, and then let them hop back on. On one route in particular, you get a lot of sleepers. On the last run, you're likely to have to wake up nine people, all with bags.
One common bus driver experience—this may be scary to hear—but you know "highway hypnosis"? The idea you lock in a location in your mind, drive there, and don't recall the drive? That happens, even while driving 100 passengers. I have absolutely gotten to the end of the line and been like, "Where have I been?" We all check out at work from time to time. And, as a driver, being on guard all the time is too stressful. You'll go nuts. That's why I, against regulations, listen to podcasts and music while I'm on the bus. It's absurd we're not able to listen. I understand. There are lives in our hands. If someone got run over while a driver was listening to smooth jazz, that's a bad look. But we're talking about whether the radio causes accidents.
I don't want to only talk all the crazy stuff, all the blood and shit, the fights. If you've been on a city bus even once you've probably seen something that caught your eye or that was out of the ordinary. Imagine now you're on the bus eight to 12 hours, several days a week. You get the picture.
What I like most is—people still have respect for the bus, and for drivers. Mostly toddlers, but I'm cool with that. You get waves from them, some happy honks from their parents. I like that. The job, despite some of its difficulties, is a great way to get to know the city. Really know it. You see the same people outside their house on their porch, four days a week. You have a really good relationship with those people. I pass by the same dudes hanging out in their front yard every day, different regulars on different routes, and I love seeing those people. They're always giving me a "What's up!?" I love that.
Last thing: One time a woman and her small child were getting off. The woman was blind. She got off the bus, but the little boy stayed. Another driver, a co-worker, happened to be getting on, and he kinda motioned to pick up the boy and asked the woman if he needed help. "Oh no," she said. "That's not what he wants." Then she told the boy, "Go ahead, quick-quick." And the little boy hopped on the first step of the driver's seat, hugged my leg, hopped down, and got off the bus. I still think about that. Just the sweetest thing. This little kid didn't want to leave until he gave me a hug. Shit like that makes up for a lot of the bad.
*Jack is not our driver's real name, because Jack would like to keep his job.
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