“Kris, why do you want to drive a bus?”
I sat in an orange plastic chair and stared at the manager across from his desk. It was June 1967, and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) was hiring hundreds of temporary bus drivers for the summer, paying $3.50 an hour, about two dollars more than minimum wage. Chopra and I drove to Chicago soon after the school year ended, and we were contacted the same day we filled out applications.
“Sir, driving a bus is in my blood,” I answered. “My father is in the transportation business, and my grandfather was in the same business. I want to do it too.”
I really wanted this job, and the manager would never know if it was true or not. He would never attempt to track down my family background in India.
A day after our interviews, Chopra and I received calls offering each of us a job. We were to report to the bus depot office the next day for training.
“You must accelerate gradually and apply the brakes gradually,” the instructor urged. “Pretend an old lady is sitting in the very last seat, holding a bowl of hot soup in her lap. We don’t want her to spill even one drop!”
As bus operators, most drivers wore two watches—one on their wrists and the second, a larger watch chained to the belts to be punctual by the minute.
At the end of our week-long training, our instructor emphasized: “Keeping the schedule is of the utmost importance. People are going to their jobs and need to be on time. It is up to you to make sure they get there when they need to.”
* * * * *
The first day on my own, I arrived at the bus depot at 6:45 a.m., wearing my navy blue uniform, hat, black leather shoes, and a badge stating my assigned number. The man behind the ticket window supplied me with transfer tickets, a puncher, change dispenser, my route number, and street name representing my route.
“There is a man in the parking lot who will help you find your bus,” the ticket man said.
On my way, I asked another bus operator if he could explain my route to me because I didn’t know which way to go. He explained the directions in a leisurely manner while I looked impatiently at my watch. It was 6:50. My route started at 7:00, and I still needed to find my bus. How can I get rid of this guy? I thought, unable to focus on the directions. I can’t be late on my first day!
At 6:53 I interrupted him and hurried into the parking lot. For several minutes, I wandered up and down row after row of buses, searching for my bus. There must have been at least two hundred of them. Having no luck on my own, I found the man who could help me, and he showed me the bus right away.
Once in the driver’s seat, I could not work the lever to change the route number on the sides of the bus and the street name on the front. I was running four minutes late in a city where the route must be followed by the second! Giving up on the lever, I turned the key in the ignition, shifted the bus into gear, and stepped heavily on the gas pedal. The bus lurched forward as I turned the wheel. Sccreeeeech! I slammed on the brakes at the metallic sound and stared in horror at the bus next to me—the side mirror, knocked clean off, lay smashed on the ground. I glanced around the parking lot anxiously, but no one was around to notice. Holding my breath, I maneuvered onto the street, the large bus bouncing over pot holes and swaying slightly before I straightened it and accelerated toward my first stop.
Even though I was running six minutes late and did not know where I was going, I could not remember the last time I felt so important. Sitting behind the steering wheel of this large bus gave me a feeling of power. Moments later, I neared the first bus stop on my route where a line of passengers anxiously watched me approach. Needing to make up for lost time, I sped past them. Everyone stared after me in confusion and dismay. Stopping would only throw me off track. Now I was four minutes late, and the line of people at my next stop was even longer. Once again, I passed them without slowing down.
Passing one more bus stop in the same manner, I could go no farther. I remembered all I could of the man’s directions before I stopped listening. At the next stop, I pulled the bus over to the curb and swung the doors open.
“Come on, people. Get on the bus!” I called out. The people just looked at me, looked at the front of the bus, and then looked at me again. No one moved. “What are you waiting for?” I asked. “Get on the bus!” I finally caught up with my schedule, and now these people were causing a delay.
“Sir, the street sign and route number…” a woman said.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Get on the bus. I’ll take you wherever you need to go.”
“But the sign is not right,” another person protested.
“Just get on the bus, and I’ll take you wherever you need to go!” I commanded.
Hesitantly, the passengers climbed the steps, paid their bus fare, and took their seats. When everyone was seated, I called out, “Okay folks, which way do I go?”
No one said anything.
“Folks, tell me which way to go,” I repeated.
Realizing that I truly did not know which way to go, the passengers began calling out directions. I smiled and pulled into traffic.
“Take a left up here!”
At one intersection, I missed a turn by several feet.
“No! Wrong, wrong! Stop!” they shouted. I halted the bus in the middle of the intersection.
“What are you doing?” the passengers demanded.
A car beeped its horn and swerved around the bus, the driver yelling at me as he went by.
“Don’t worry. No harm done,” I said. “We are going to back it up.”
“You can’t do that!” the passengers yelled at me.
I could not see behind the bus and so it was difficult to know if the traffic was clear behind me. Pointing at a young man near the front of the bus, I said, “You, get out and tell me when traffic is clear.”
He stared at me speechlessly.
“Come on. Get off the bus!” I was determined to back up and make the proper turn. With everyone staring at the young man, he shook his head in disbelief, climbed down from the bus, and stood in the intersection, waving for the cars around us to stop. When all was clear, he motioned for me to back up. Just when I was in position to make the turn, a police car pulled up with its lights flashing. An officer got out and approached the bus.
“Driver, what’s the matter?” he asked.
“I’m backing up the bus,” I said.
The officer stared at me for a second. “You’re not supposed to do that,” he said.
“Gee, I didn’t know,” I said quickly. “But now I’m done, and I’m making the turn.”
The officer looked at me strangely. “Okay, well don’t do it again,” he said, shaking his head as he walked away.
Miraculously, I did not lose my job that day. None of the stranded passengers complained to the Transit Authority, and most people understood that I was a temporary bus operator filling in for the employees on summer vacation. In a sense, I was lucky to be given such leeway, not even getting in trouble for the bus I damaged. It was my first day on the job by myself, and I knew that I could only improve from there.