YOU BET THEY have the stories. Decades of them. They’re a group with at least 4,400 combined years of memories.
They’re the 163 older King County Metro bus drivers who this summer applied and were approved for a “voluntary separation” package, although that number might increase a bit. It meant saving the jobs of younger transit operators, as ridership had cratered because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Their stories are from the likes of Robert Duncan, 65, 37 driving; or Kathleen Dunne, 63, 41 years; or Stanley Bascomb, 65, 32 years; or Patsy Breazeale, 63, 31 years.
They are about the first time they drove one of the 40-foot, 15-ton behemoths, the well-being of some 60 passengers their responsibility. Or about choking on tear gas in the May 1999 “Battle of Seattle” during the WTO protests. Sometimes, they’re about the kind gestures during a bus ride.
Truth be told, they’re going to miss driving the buses.
DUNCAN NEVER MARRIED, has no children. “I’m having a very emotional problem,” he says of Sept. 18 approaching, the date when that separation would become final.
When the pandemic hit, a lot of his regular passengers stopped using the bus.
“I had become very close to them,” he says. “I learned about their families. One particular gentleman, when he had a second baby, we texted and he sent me pictures.” Now, with retirement, “I’ve thought, ‘I’m never going to see them again.’ I’ve struggled.”
Duncan is a 1971 Roosevelt High grad. For a few years, he worked at a janitorial company, then a carwash. In 1977, he started at Metro. He stayed there except for six years in which he was a Seattle Police officer, just because he wanted to try that. Then he went back to bus driving.
He is Black, and in the Central Area, he says, for a young guy, “The two big jobs to get to a career were Boeing or Metro. The pay and benefits were excellent.” (Currently, the average hourly wage for drivers is $32.01.)
He remembers walking in the Central Area in the old Metro brown uniform with yellow stripes. “People would see you, and they were respectful. ‘Hey, how you doin’?’ ”
Duncan says that in those 37 years, he was called the “N” word maybe five times. He remembers one time, in West Seattle, when such an encounter happened.
“I told him, ‘Sir, I understand the reason you’re upset. You’re a redneck, and you’re mad because at first we all had to be at the back of the bus, then we moved to the middle of the bus and now I’m driving the bus.’ He called me the ‘N’ word and got off. People clapped,” he says.
THE FIRST BLACK bus driver in Seattle was Thomas J. Allen, hired in 1945, writes Quintard Taylor, history professor emeritus at the University of Washington, in “The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era.”
Allen “was forced to quit four months later because of racial insults received on the job,” writes Taylor. Not much else shows up in the records about Allen.
These days, Blacks make up 40% of Metro’s full-time transit operators, its largest racial group. Whites make up 36%, followed by Asians and Hispanics.
The estimates for those thousands of years of combined service for the retiring drivers come from Local 587 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
To be eligible for the buyout, drivers had to be at least 55 to qualify for a state pension. An added incentive was a one-time payment of $20,450, the maximum amount the county would have paid in unemployment compensation. That’s if they had been laid off, unlikely because of their seniority. Other Metro employees taking the buyouts were a smaller number that included such positions as vehicle maintenance and facilities.
Metro’s management says it had to do something to cut costs.
Bus ridership had gone from 400,000 passengers a day before the pandemic to 140,000. The pandemic meant $130 million to $150 million less in fare box revenue for 2020-22, and $465 million less in its main funding from the county’s sales tax.
KATHLEEN DUNNE UNDERSTOOD the deal. “Just a whole lot of us being exited out the door,” she says.
Dunne was a 1975 grad from the old Immaculate Conception High School on First Hill. For a while, she worked an office job. “I hated it,” she says. “I couldn’t even imagine being in a cubicle.”
It’s a common explanation from bus drivers.
“Just the freedom of moving around. I even love the rainy days,” she says. “The scenic beauty is everywhere. You’re not in Roswell, New Mexico.”
In May 1979, she became one of four women in her class of 24 bus driver trainees. By then, seeing female bus drivers was becoming more commonplace.
During World War II, because of labor shortages, women had first joined the Seattle Transit System in large numbers. The system was the precursor to today’s countywide agency. They weren’t exactly accepted.
A Dec. 10, 1951, Seattle Times story about Bea Coffin, one of those early drivers, told how a “slightly intoxicated little man” began “to torment [her] with a steady stream of taunts and insults.” Coffin told how she stopped the bus, walked back to the heckler and told him, “There’s only one place for you — OFF.”
Seven decades later, those kinds of encounters still take place.
Just the other day, says Dunne, when driving the No. 62 from Wallingford to downtown, she asked a man who decided to board through the front — which, during the pandemic, is only for riders with disabilities — to put on a mask. When he put it only over his mouth, not nose, she asked whether he could cover his nose.
The man began screaming Bible verses at her. That lasted the entire trip. When she stopped at the end of the run at Washington Street, the man wanted Dunne to keep driving up the hill. When she said she couldn’t, the man took off his mask and, 2 feet away from Dunne, let off a string of obscenities aimed at her gender.
“I sure wanted to smack him. My head was about to explode, and I had to sit there and take this crap,” she says. The man finally left. Dunne says drivers these days are very aware that there’s a camera on the bus recording everything. Just keep your cool.
As Dunne remembers those 41 years, she remembers May 1999, WTO: “I remember the radio call that went out: ‘All units, wherever you are, do NOT proceed through downtown Seattle at all!!!’ We were instructed to go to the edge of town and continue to go back and forth to whichever terminals we were serving.
“I remember the tear gas, smelling it, choking on it, the percussion bombs going off like a block away some days. What made me really sad were the parents that had to walk through the ‘war zone’ to get their children out of day cares that were downtown, or the older and disabled folks that go on their walkers, wheelchairs or canes through the chaos. I’ve always referred to it as ‘The WTO Hell Week.’ ”
And as for the 2020 street protests — “Same thing. Put up with it.”
By 1951, the number of female bus drivers had dwindled to eight. They now make up a fifth of the 3,143 drivers.
IN 2019, METRO BUSES traveled 53 million miles, and it’s inescapable that there will be accidents. Well publicized was the $7.7 million Metro paid when Amazon worker John Ahn was fatally struck on Oct. 12, 2017, as he was crossing Westlake Avenue on a rainy night. The bus driver had failed to see him in what was ruled a “preventable” crash.
There are two main kinds of accidents for buses: the ones involving pedestrians, and the ones involving other vehicles. Metro says that in 2019, there were 40 bus-pedestrian accidents, of which 15% were ruled preventable. There were 1,927 bus-vehicle accidents, of which 17% were ruled preventable. The statistics don’t separate the severity of the accidents, from a car clipping a bus to a pedestrian walking into the side of a moving bus and leaving the scene.
Not publicized so much to the general public are the injuries suffered on the job by bus drivers.
The medical literature has plenty of studies with titles such as “Working on the hot seat: Urban bus operators” (College of Human Ecology, Cornell University, 1994). There are neck, back, shoulder, limb and knee problems, often from long hours sitting. There is hypertension and stress from continually being alert to what is happening on the road and inside the bus.
STANLEY BASCOMB SAYS that on Oct. 23 of last year, he was driving the No. 183 out of Federal Way. He was parked in a bus zone, his four-way flashing lights on, “When I feel a thud, and I got moved forward,” he says.
It turned out a young woman driving an SUV had rear-ended him.
“I tried to console her,” he remembers. Then, as is procedure, Bascomb began gathering information for an accident report. But he wasn’t feeling right. Things weren’t syncing as he tried to fill out the form. Bascomb told his base chief, “I got this headache. In a couple of days, it’ll probably go away.”
He hasn’t been back to driving since, says Bascomb.
“I’m doing a lot better now,” he says. “But I was losing my balance. I wasn’t able to go to sleep. I was losing my sense of conversation. People at the base said I sounded like I was drunk. I’ve never smoked or drunk in my life.”
Bascomb says his neurologist told him, “There’s no magic pill we can give. The brain has to heal itself.”
So, he decided to take the retirement package. He wasn’t about to put anybody in danger.
Bascomb liked his job. He’s kept the numerous printouts that Metro’s customer service has made of passengers commenting on his driving: “Driver of this coach had to pick up 20 kids … driver made sure every kid had a seat … asked riders to give seats to the kids … to make sure that the kids had a safe ride.”
PATSY BREAZEALE remembers her first year of driving a bus, learning how to handle this huge piece of equipment, learning all the streets. She’d end her shift, she remembers, “And I was absolutely covered in sweat.”
In those intervening years, she says, she’s had four surgeries. “Both wrists, carpal tunnel. Both knees, blown,” she says. “The knees were from twisting your legs and feet back and forth. The carpal tunnel was from gripping and turning the steering wheel back in earlier days. Now, with power steering, you could almost use a finger to turn it. But you used to have to literally fight to turn.”
But then she talks about the rewards of being a bus driver, especially with those riders whose appearance is grubbier than others’.
“It’s easy to drive commuters. They dress nice; they’re with their computers. But you have to treat everybody equally,” says Breazeale. “When I think of a homeless person, and they’re dirty, I think that they were a ‘goo-goo’ baby at some point. They were cute for somebody.
“I try to make eye contact with them. I say, ‘Hi. Have a good day.’ They might think about that. When they go back to the front to leave, they’ll acknowledge me, and I’ll acknowledge them.”
BILL CLIFFORD, 66, retired in April after 35 years driving. He missed out on the voluntary separation buyout, but, he says, “The pandemic was a sign my time was up.”
Like a lot of drivers, he wouldn’t fit the office-worker mold.
Clifford plays in an informal group that calls itself “The Anti-Fascist Marching Band.” Clifford plays the baritone sax. They’ve played every year since 1983 at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. march, as well as rallies for the Metro union. This year, for the latter, they called themselves the Transit Band. “Antifa is giving anti-fascism a bad name, and we did not want to complicate things for the union,” says Clifford.
He says there’s a saying about the difference between truck drivers and bus drivers, both with commercial licenses. “Truck drivers tell us, ‘My cargo doesn’t talk back to me.’ ”
He also has the passenger stories. There was the guy he picked up downtown a few years ago, on a trip to Group Health on Capitol Hill.
“He was lit, and his wife was having a kid, and had kicked him out. He jawed all along the trip. ‘I’m gonna quit drinking. What can I do? I want to see my wife and my kid,’ ” Clifford remembers.
He listened and was sympathetic.
“Then the guy wanted me to go into Group Health with him and find a counselor, help him dry out,” says Clifford. He told the guy he really couldn’t; he had to drive the bus.
Inebriated people are a fact of life for bus drivers. Sometimes, the concluding memory is a nice one.
“I can see a guy down the aisle. He stumbles. He smells drunk. You never know what a drunk is going to do,” says Clifford. “There’s a woman with long, curly blond hair. She’s wearing a white summer dress, kind of like a Renaissance angel. She smelled like a lilac.
“She takes the smelly old drunk’s bloody hand — I don’t know why he had a bloody hand — and says, ‘Sir, you’ve hurt yourself. Let me help you.’ And she guides the guy off the bus, and gives me a big wink. I can still smell the lilac.”
THERE IS ONE senior driver who isn’t taking the buyout, and he’s actually now the longest-serving Metro operator.
He is Al Ramey, 89, and he began driving for Seattle Transit on Nov. 5, 1952, when he was 21. That’s 68 years of driving, although now it’s part-time.
Just this past January, he again passed the physical for the commercial driver’s license: “Blood pressure, body mass — I’m good for another two years,” says Ramey. At Metro, he’s been nicknamed “The Legend.”
Perhaps he’s doing what some others taking retirement might have thought about.
“I like to drive. Other drivers and passengers tell me that when I’m driving, I look comfortable, like I’m on a chair, watching TV. I do relax, waving at everybody,” he says.
Why give that up? And do what? He talks about people retiring, and a couple of years later … well, you know.
Every day, says Ramey, he makes sure that he’s up to the task of driving.
Recently, he drove his bus back to base in Tukwila. There are “stop bars” painted where the front of the bus is supposed to be when parked. Something didn’t look right.
“I got out, and I was 6 inches short of the stop bar,” he says. He got back in the bus and moved it those 6 inches. “Nobody would have expected me to do that. But it mattered to me.”
Al Ramey is a happy, fulfilled guy. How many can say that about their jobs?