Sunday, November 25, 2007

BUS STORY # 60 (Shorts 3)

Waiting for the homebound Lomas just east of the Wyoming intersection. It’s dark, and it’s getting cold. Kid rides up on his bike, dismounts, and asks, “The bus here yet?” I auto-answer “Not yet” before the question sinks in. I’m still amused when the bus actually arrives. The kid walks his bike to the front door. “I only got sixty cents. Can I ride?” The driver nods, and he moves to the front of the bus to mount his bike on the rack. Inside, it’s warm and bright.


I’m at my Lomas stop a little early this morning because we don’t have a regular driver this time around, and the schedule has about a seven minute wobble. This morning, it’s pretty much on time. But as it gets closer, I realize it’s gonna blow right on by. I step into the street and the sweep of the headlights and wave my briefcase at the windshield. I yell “Hey! Hey!” as the bus rolls right on past. It squeals to a stop down the street. I walk over and board. The driver tells me she didn’t see me in the dark. She’s new to me. In the back, one of the regulars tells me yesterday, this driver explained to the first boarders at Lomas and Tramway she didn’t have to pick up passengers along this route until Chelwood, west of Tramway. She told them she was just being nice to allow these folks on board now. She was nice to all the other boarders east of Tramway who started yelling when it looked like they were going to be passed by, and she made sure they understood she was being nice. Words were exchanged, and my fellow rider suspects some calls were made. She didn’t tell me she was being nice this morning. But my fellow rider told me she might not have been so nice if the riders hadn’t yelled out she’d just driven past another passenger – me.


Lou Reed is coming to Santa Fe. A week before the concert, I spot him here in Albuquerque, waiting for the Rapid Ride at Wyoming and Lomas. Same unmistakable hair and sunglasses, same black leather jacket and pencil-thin jeans. He’s got a little ditto-mark thing going below his lower lip now, and he’s wearing athletic shoes instead of boots. But look at the way he’s leaning against the bus stop sign. Look how he holds his cigarette, the way he hunches over to take a drag. Lou Reed. Right here in the Duke City.


Coming home on the Lomas bus, we stop for a family of six: two parents and four children whose ages range from maybe 10 to toddler. They have grocery bags and a stroller. The toddler is a handful. So are the groceries and stroller. The older kids pitch right in. Despite the management challenges of this family outing by bus, all of them look like they’re having a good time. They laugh and talk among themselves. It occurs to me I’m looking at a happy family. Right here in the Duke City!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

BUS STORY # 59 (Special Thanksgiving Edition: The Albuquerque Journal’s Bus Story # 1)

Most Albuquerque Journal stories are electronically accessible by subscription only. But here is a story that remains fully accessible to anyone using the web. It is a good decision. And Toby Smith's story is an exceptionally fine Thanksgiving story.

Dateline: January 27, 2006
Author: Toby Smith, Journal Staff Writer

Local Bus Driver Changed Course of His Life, Others'

Perched behind his steering wheel, the city bus driver robotically takes transfers from passengers and quickly inspects their passes. Wearing dark glasses, he shows little emotion, says even fewer words.

In truth, you aren’t supposed to say much to him. A sign above his windshield reads, “Unnecessary conversation with driver is prohibited by law.”

Dillon Van Fleet doesn’t talk a lot mostly because he’s paying attention to the road, as he should be. If he is thinking anything, it might be how his life keeps getting turned – literally – upside down.

For years Van Fleet was an alcoholic, a fact he freely shares. Now he is a hero, after pulling a couple out of a wrecked car, but he’d rather no one make a fuss of it.

Van Fleet, 50, officially is a “motorcoach operator,” one of 213 employed by the city. As he glances at the passing parade that climbs the steps into his bus, as he rumbles past the aging motels and palm readers of Central Avenue, he surely marvels how badly things could have gone for him.

Born in Arizona, Van Fleet grew up in Denver. In his youth, he didn’t say much either. When he turned 21, however, he started to talk a lot.

That was the day Van Fleet took his first drink.

It was a beer, a Budweiser, and he eased it down, then quickly had another. The beer relaxed him, he decided, helped him become more sociable. Within a few years, he was the life of the party.

“Every day, all day,” he remembers, “I was drunk as a skunk.”

The years slipped by, as if a mist. He wound up in Albuquerque in the ’80s, earning a living as a woodworker.

He got married, his wife gave birth to a son, he kept drinking.

Twenty-one years ago, he took his young son to a bowling alley. As he watched the boy attempt to bowl, Van Fleet finished one Bud after another.

A couple of hours of that and Van Fleet’s wife appeared. Dismayed by the scene, she took their son home. Van Fleet stayed at the alley. There was more beer to consume.

Later that night, he got into his Chevy Cavalier and tried to make his way home. As he weaved down the road, drivers honked, but he kept going. Young people in a Thunderbird laughed at him as they went by.

Giving chase, Van Fleet braked quickly and the Chevy rolled over, then stopped.

From his inverted seat, Van Fleet watched the Thunderbird pull away; then he blacked out. He awoke to a rapping on the windshield. A police officer’s nightstick.

“You OK?” the cop asked.

“Yeah,” Van Fleet said, rubbing his head.

The cop reached in, unsnapped Van Fleet’s seatbelt and pulled him out.

Van Fleet spent three nights in jail, enough time, he says, to consider what might have happened if his boy had been with him.

That single thought kept him from taking another drink. Ever.

Almost six years ago, he quit woodworking and applied to be an Albuquerque bus driver. Though he knew it might hurt his chances, he wrote on his application that he had a DWI — back in 1985.

He was hired.

“We check out every applicant’s background and driving record, of course,” says Jay Faught, marketing specialist for ABQ Ride. “For the driving record, we go back only five years.”

Once on board, Van Fleet found he liked his new job. He doesn’t mind dealing with passengers who get on his bus inebriated. It’s almost as if some of them sense his past.

“They argue with me,” Van Fleet says, “but they listen.”

“Dillon’s a quiet guy,” says Ishamel Montañez, his boss at ABQ Ride, “but I can tell there’s a lot going on with him. He’s a fine public servant.”

Four days a week Van Fleet drives a Rapid Ride bus, one of those extra-long vehicles with the accordionlike midsection. He starts the route on Unser Boulevard and goes east on Central all the way to Wyoming. Then he heads north and turns west on I-40, to the Uptown area. After pausing there, he turns and goes back the same way.

He completes this route about four times daily. His other day he drives the No. 8 from Downtown up Menaul to Tramway, then back.

He enjoys the Rapid Ride because it goes faster than the older city buses like the No. 8.

“These Rapid Rides, they have a lot more giddy-up and go.”

A security guard accompanies him on the Rapid Ride.

“People on Central,” says Van Fleet, “they can get …” He stops to move his hands slowly around in circles. “They can get kind of violent.”

Once a passenger suspected in a slaying had to be taken off Van Fleet’s bus by police. Another time Van Fleet stopped at a light and watched a driver get out of his car and walk around the front of the bus. When the man arrived at a car waiting at the light on the other side of the bus, he calmly fired four shots at the vehicle.

That task accomplished, the man walked back to his car, got in and waited for the light to change.

Did anyone get hurt?

Van Fleet doesn’t know. Fearing the gunman might fire at his bus, Van Fleet dared not move or reach for his telephone.

When the light finally turned green, Van Fleet pulled his bus over and for several seconds remained in his seat — shaking. If he ever needed a drink, that was the day. But he didn’t give in.

Van Fleet’s heroism came on a warm Saturday afternoon last July.

He had completed his shift and was being driven from Downtown to the ABQ Ride center on Yale SE.

As the ABQ Ride shuttle van approached a stoplight at Second and Coal SW, Van Fleet rubbed his tired eyes and stared out the window. Suddenly, in the center of the intersection, almost directly in front of him, a Ford Explorer ran a red light and T-boned a white SUV that was crossing at the green.

The collision sounded like a bomb going off, and the force knocked over the SUV. The driver of the Ford Explorer paused, then quickly sped off.

Everyone in the ABQ Ride shuttle van froze, including Van Fleet.

“It was,” he says, “one of those moments you don’t believe is happening.”

Then something caused Van Fleet to bolt out the door of the shuttle van and rush over to the SUV, which had landed on its roof.

After kicking in the door of the SUV, Van Fleet got down on his stomach and crawled inside. Reaching up, he unbuckled the seatbelts of a man and then a woman. He pulled them both out.

That done, he heard a baby crying and realized there were children somewhere in the back of the SUV. By now the father had gotten down on his knees and was extricating his two small kids. Incredibly, no one was seriously hurt.

Later, Albuquerque police picked up the driver of the Ford Explorer, a 16-year-old student who didn’t have a driver’s license. Police cited him for several violations, including leaving the scene of an accident and reckless driving.

In the commotion, Van Fleet didn’t get to meet the driver of the white SUV. His name is Donghai Dai, and he’s a research professor of genetics at the University of New Mexico.

When contacted recently by the Journal, Dai, who is from China, said, “That was a scary, crazy time. My wife and I knew someone helped us, but we never knew who.”

After requesting Van Fleet’s telephone number, Dai called the driver and thanked him. The two men talked about meeting again in person.

“What Dillon did that day last summer,” says Montañez, “was totally in character for him.”

Adds Faught: “We’re extremely proud of Dillon and his efforts that day.”

Embarrassed, Van Fleet urges, “Please don’t put me down to be a hero. I was doing what anyone would have done.”

Anyone who knows exactly what it feels like to be pinned upside down in a wrecked car.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

BUS STORY # 58 (Reindeer Man)

There’s only one guy at the bus stop when I arrive. He looks a lot like Tom Waits circa Closing Time, with a Pirates of the Caribbean sweatshirt, black pants, and black and white basketball shoes. He’s also wearing earphones and bopping with closed eyes to whatever he’s listening to. The earphones are sideways, so the strap that normally fits across the top of the head is resting instead on the back of his neck. That, I know, is because of the antlers.

That’s what I’m calling them, anyway, even though they poke out individually from all over his head. He’s pulled up and twisted strands of hair together, dyed them Christmas green, then jelled them so they stand up some six-to-eight inches, segmented like antlers. Or branches. Maybe he’s actually wrapped his hair around tree branches. There’s at least a dozen of them. I’m thinking he could be a character from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream when his name comes to me: Reindeer Man.

He opens his eyes, sees me on the other side of the stop, asks me for the time. I tell him the time. He launches into an editorial about how we’ve grown into a city but still have a small town bus system. He’s supposed to open the shop at 7:00 a.m., and there’s no way the current bus schedules can get him there in time.

He works at a tattoo parlor. I figure the antlers work just fine there.

The buses also don’t run nearly late enough, he continues. They close up as early as the restaurants here. We’re not like real cities, he says. I’m thinking how the only way to use the bus after 8:00 p.m. is to use the Park and Ride and hope the Rapid Ride goes where you want to be.

What we really need, he continues, is a light rail system like the one they have in Portland. You ever been to Portland, he asks. I have, but I haven’t seen the light rail system there. Just read about it on a couple of sites reporting on public transportation here in town. I tell him we tried to do just that.

He looks surprised. When was that, he asks. Just a few months ago. I explain the mayor was pushing for light rail here, but there was a lot of push back both from the city council and from citizens who didn’t see the point in duplicating a current bus route with a light rail, or who weren’t all that keen on spending that kind of money on public transportation. It was controversial, and the mayor reluctantly backed down, at least for now.

This is such a hick town, he comments. Then he speculates with the mayor now running for the U.S. Senate, light rail for Albuquerque may not see the light of day for a long, long time. He’s got a point, I tell him.

Then he asks me if I’ve heard about the new buses. Seems six of the first seven arrived with transmissions that don’t work. One of them didn’t even have the passenger seats bolted down. They’re running the one that works so people can see what they look like and get the impression they’re being incrementally introduced into the system. No word on the fate of the remaining 51 which were supposed to be on the streets last month.

I express genuine amazement. He assures me it’s true, he’s knows somebody who works in the garage. He says the company is telling the city they’re gonna have to fly out a specialist at the city’s expense to fix the transmissions. He figures the news is being suppressed because of “Mayor Marty’s” bid for the Senate seat. “But it’ll all come out in the wash. Just a matter of time.”

He’s right about something getting out, fact or otherwise. I’m telling myself not only is this just a street rumor, it’s a rumor from a guy in green antlers. What could the odds possibly be?

A cursory web search netted three blogging entries which, taken together, report the first bus arrived with transmission problems. (One blogger heard the bus wasn’t able to go over 35 mph.) It was “sent to Allison Transmission” for repairs. (Allison Transmission is headquartered in Indianapolis, but has over 1500 certified distributors and dealers around the world. Three of those are in Albuquerque.) According to the November 1 Albuquerque Tribune, “The first bus is rotating among different routes, and another five buses are coming in by the end of the week, [ABQ RIDE director, Greg] Payne said. All 58 should be running by mid-January, he said.” No mention of transmission problems.


Sunday, November 04, 2007

BUS STORY # 57 (They’re Here)

Mayor Martin Chávez and ABQ RIDE Director Greg Payne are pleased to announce that 58 new fuel-efficient, hybrid buses will be arriving in Albuquerque to replace the aging fleet of diesel buses.

"This is exciting news for Albuquerque," said Mayor Chávez. "These low-floor buses meet all ADA requirements, meaning they have ramps and lifts for wheelchairs. They are quiet and comfortable for our passengers, fuel efficient and healthy for the environment since they are hybrid diesel-electric."

I spotted my first new bus Saturday a week ago going south on Wyoming (the vanguard of the autumn migration, no doubt). It looked sleek and a bit generic. Gone is the distinct ABQ RIDE paint job featured on the 300s and 400s. The thumbnail photo from the city’s website is the best I can do for now.

The new buses are by New Flyer, the same folks who make the articulated buses for the Rapid Ride routes. As near as I can tell from my guidebook (Peterson’s A Field Guide to Western Buses*), this is a DE40LFR (not to be confused with a DE40LFR with a Low Profile Roof, and clearly distinct from the DE40FLA). For most of us, however, this is one of the new 700 series which will be replacing the old 100s and 200s.

I suspect the “DE” at the beginning of “DE40LFR” indicates this is the diesel-electric hybrid – what makes this bus “99 percent emission-free”. I have no idea what the "R" at the end means.

Our hybrid buses offer reduced emissions (compared with standard diesel buses) to meet or exceed local emissions standards. Independent testing has shown reductions in particulate matter, CO2 and NOx emissions of up to 90%. Our hybrid engines are EPA Certified to 2.5 NOx and 0.05 PM, g/BHP-H.

And here are the specs for bus spotters and gearheads everywhere:

The first thing I noted in the specs is that they seat “up to 39” with standing room for “up to 43.” Conspicuously absent are details about the new buses’ ability to adhere to a schedule . . . In all fairness, they should prove to be much more reliable from a performance standpoint. Which means our buses may still be late, but not because they’re collapsed by the side of the road or wheezing back to the garage. Kind of makes me wonder what ABQ RIDE’s new script will be when riders ask, “How come the five-eleven didn’t show at Lomas and Wyoming?”


* There is no such field guide. This is a spoof on Peterson’s A Field Guide to Western Birds. I started the birding-bus spotting conceit back in Bus Story # 54 and just couldn’t help myself. Sorry.