Sunday, May 31, 2009

BUS STORY # 135 (Ex)

It happened one day after work. I climbed aboard the bus, took a seat, and there she was: my ex-wife.

I don’t mean physically. My ex would no more ride the city bus than she would pump her own gasoline. I mean her picture was on the bus, across the aisle on one of the advertisements lining the overhead display area.

I tried to remember the last time I saw her. It had been a few years ago, and she was looking her age. She had those grandma arms she always worried she’d end up with when she got older, and I was surprised she was wearing short sleeves where they were on display. She'd always been hypersensitive about her looks, especially about those things she believed were flaws, and she took pains to hide them.

Up on the bus poster, I could see she’d lost the last 30-odd years. She looked exactly like she did when I first met her, right down to the expression.

I could also see she’d changed her name to Carrie Rodriguez, and that she was performing at an upcoming city-sponsored concert called Q-Jam. This was a big change, too, because, when I knew her, she couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.

For the next several days, I’d see her every time I rode the bus, and I couldn’t help staring at her. I thought about going downtown to the Civic Plaza to catch her performance. I was curious about what kind of music she was making these days. After all, in addition to that second glass of wine, it was the astonishing revelation she not only knew who Leonard Cohen was, but was actually familiar with his music, that gave me the courage to ask her out.

The marriage was not made in heaven. But she bent my life’s course toward where I am today and with whom, and she introduced me to the music of Tom Waits and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. What else is there to be but grateful?

I had some misgivings about explaining all this to my wife when she would inevitably ask why I wanted to go see this particular performer.

It’s not that my wife is the jealous type, thank God. My ex was, and because she was, I’m still to this day feeling grateful for my wife’s trust. But something told me that telling my wife I wanted to see some young woman perform because she reminded me of my ex-wife and would she like to join me would not be the brightest relationship enhancement strategy I’d ever come up with.

As it turned out, my boss took the matter out of my hands. I ended up working that weekend. No concert, no rendezvous with the ex, for me.

It was Sunday afternoon, a day after the concert, when I decided to google Carrie Rodriguez. Her web site opened with the same photo I’d seen on the bus, except it was now gracing the cover of her latest album. The title of that album was Carrie’s way of setting me straight about who was who:

Sunday, May 24, 2009

BUS STORY # 134 (On The Importance Of A Good Bus Story)

This past Monday, a group of transportation workers came to the city council meeting to accuse ABQ RIDE director, Greg Payne, of retaliating against anyone complaining about problems in the department, and to ask for an independent audit. Payne (who must have known they were coming) defended himself by showing a sensational series of bus surveillance tapes capturing bus drivers behaving badly, retorting that some employees were not used to being held accountable for their conduct, and asking the council to understand what he was up against.

According to most local news departments covering the story, the confrontation was an unsettling surprise to the councilors, and some councilors thought Payne’s showing the tapes was inappropriate.

One story reported two of the counselors as having said they are regular riders and have never seen anything but professionalism and courtesy from their drivers.

I’ve been riding a little over three years now, and while I’ve seen a few Circle K stops, and once got bypassed at a stop by a driver on a cell phone, I don’t recall a single episode of reckless driving. Further, it is my impression that over the last year and a half, there has been a noticeable improvement in the professionalism, courtesy, and timeliness of the drivers.

Which doesn’t mean there aren’t a few bad apples still in the barrel. On one of my regular routes, several co-riders have told me one of our drivers has exhibited fits of aggressive and dangerous driving. One of them told me he’d called it in, but nothing has happened that he knows of.

To be honest, I’m not terribly shocked to learn that some bus drivers drive their buses like the average Albuquerque driver drives his or her car. I find myself wondering why anyone in his or her right mind would drive a Smart Car out there, never mind a scooter.

But I digress.

The evening following the city council meeting, local NBC affiliate KOB ran this story along with the tapes:

At the same time, ABC local affiliate KOAT ran a council meeting follow-up story featuring American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union local president, Andrew Padilla, protesting the release of the tapes to the public.

Padilla’s objection was two-fold. First, the tapes “are wrapped up in lawsuits or grievances and were not meant for public viewing.”

The second, and by far the more interesting of the two, was that those tapes came from security cameras put there for the protection of the drivers. One can’t help finishing the sentence with “comma, not the riders.”

He also accused Payne of wrongfully firing some drivers.

The last thing busboy is going to do is make a judgment call here. Consider that, if every story has at least three sides, this one has a bunch more: the union’s side, management’s side, the councilors’ sides, the employees’ sides, the riders’ sides, the reporters’ sides of everybody else’s sides, and, finally, God’s side. As usual, God is the only one not talking.

What does interest me, however, is the contest for the hearts and minds of the citizenry. I believe the winner of that contest is the side with the better bus story. And right now, management has the better bus story.

As one news account noted, this is just the latest battle in what has been an ongoing war between the union and Greg Payne.

For some background, consider this KOB undercover investigative report from two years ago, done as a response to viewer allegations about bus driver misconduct:

Two years later, things are better. Ridership is way up, but complaints have actually gone down. Who gets the credit for that? Greg Payne and management. How did they do it? Defining expectations and holding slackers accountable. Oh, and fighting union opposition every step of the way.

Great bus story for management, terrible bus story for the union.

The latest battle at city hall allowed management to emphasize its story line. Whether appropriately deployed or not, Payne scored by releasing those tapes. The next day, those images dominated the conversation around the water cooler. The episodes were graphic, memorable, and emotionally provocative.

The union continued to muff its story line by missing the opportunity to express its dismay over non-compliant and dangerous drivers and to jump on the public safety bandwagon.

Instead, the union is unwittingly telling us a story about how its primary goal is to prevent Greg Payne from firing bad drivers. In the story-telling process, it has also managed to make Greg Payne and management look like the only people in ABQ RIDE who care about our safety and the quality of our service. ¡Hijola! These folks need some serious story-telling help. In fact, the story is so bad, one might be forgiven for wondering if maybe the union leadership is actually in bed with management.

One of my co-workers told me one of the clips featuring an ABQ RIDE driver texting behind the wheel was included in a national news story featuring several “caught-on-camera” videos from around the country. Texting is a particularly effective story line. Consider these:

Last September, 25 people were killed and 135 injured when an engineer drove his commuter train into another train because he was texting and missed a crucial signal. California quickly passed a law making it illegal to text while driving. Of course, this law prevents mass transit operators from texting as effectively as laws making it illegal to drink and drive prevent drunk driving.

On April 29, San Antonio news stations broadcast graphic front window, driver, and passenger views of a bus plowing into the back of an SUV on a freeway because the driver was texting and hadn’t noticed the traffic had stopped.

A couple of weeks ago, in Boston, an operator was texting his girlfriend when he ran a red light and rear-ended a train, injuring 49 people and doing over $9 million worth of damage.

To its credit (enhancing management story lines everywhere), management at the T didn’t just make it an offense to text. It actually addressed the problem by flat out banning all cell phones, iPods and paging devices for drivers while on duty.

Incredibly (weakening union story lines everywhere), the Boston Carmen's Union is fighting the ban.

That, in turn, seems to have sparked a call for Congress to ban possession of all mobile devices by all mass transit drivers while on duty. The call came just this past Thursday on NBC news from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and from acting National Transportation Safety Administration chairman Mark Rosenker. This from a decidedly pro-union administration.

This is why I think management has the better bus story, and this is why it continues to own public opinion – even that part of the public which is texting and emailing and number-punching and conversing away behind the wheels of its own private vehicles.

As long as the union story line remains how mean and nasty management is to the poor, downtrodden workers, and ignores what the rest of us are seeing and thinking and worrying about from those videos, it will continue to have no credibility, no respect, no audience.

Look at all the union issues in this war. They’ve all but disappeared from the public consciousness. The video images of a few bad drivers haven’t. Those drivers have effectively sabotaged whatever legitimate grievances their honorable and responsible fellow employees might have. And that’s a very sad bus story indeed.

Here are links to the rest of the stories from which I’ve put together my own.

May 20 Albuquerque Journal story from McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

The Alibi’s coverage of the city council meeting

Union Officials Protest Release Of Bus Driver Tapes

San Antonio Driver Crashes Bus While Texting

Conductor in Boston Trolley Crash Was Texting His Girlfriend

Union Fights MTBA Cellphone Ban

Mass transit officials want law banning drivers from having mobile phone devices on the job

Sunday, May 17, 2009

BUS STORY # 133 (Free Enterprise, Family Style)

There’s a rider I run into now and again who’s an accountant. The last time I saw him was a couple of months before the economy tanked. He’d just quit a job with the state which had been driving him crazy because, he explains, as an accountant, he likes the numbers to add up. He was thinking about doing consulting work.

I saw him again recently on the ride home. He allowed he’d picked a terrible time to give up his job, and finding work had not been easy. He told me he was currently working as a consultant for an outfit that needed its books put in order. He said it was like trying to find the pieces of something that had been blown up.

He said the company was pretty interesting if you weren’t worried about job security. It had about 50 employees, and most of them were extended family members. He reckoned only three of them were employable in the real world.

He described the workflow as a steady, month-long intake of orders, the filling of which was put off until a few days before the end of the month. Then there was a mad flurry of order filling which resulted in not getting all the orders out before the billing cycle, and getting a portion of them wrong because of the rush.

He was especially amused by the salesmen. They work on commission, he explained, and they have a tendency to add an extra zero or two to their sales total. Nobody checks out the sales before the commission checks are issued. Later, when the “error” has been discovered, they go pressure the bookkeeper not to record the correction so they won’t have to refund that percentage of the commission. Hey, it’s family.

The company had been making enough money to float this family support system until the first of the year, when some of their clients started going out of business. Now, it seems they have a cash flow problem. He laughs, then tells me the only other employees who understand the situation are non-family members. Non-family members, including himself, have no clout, of course.

He says he keeps his head down and does his job as best he can for as long as it or the company lasts, whichever comes first. He sees the company going out of business sooner rather than later. But what both aggravates and amuses him is that the public perception will be the company will have been just another casualty of the economy.

“Well,” I told him, “in a sense, that would be true.”

To which he responded, “Well, at least it’s the employees and not the CEO who’re making out like bandits.”

Sunday, May 10, 2009

BUS STORY # 132 (It’s Got That New Bus Smell)

We’ve read about ‘em. We’ve heard about ‘em. Some of us have even seen ‘em, but haven’t ridden one yet.

But this morning, a brand spanking new 900 series pulls up to our stop. Despite ourselves, there’s a “whoo-eeee” reaction that runs through the knot of us waiting to board. Lilly* is the first to step inside, and she is exclaiming away about the wonders of the new bus. Then she turns back around in the doorway and announces, “It’s got that new bus smell, y’all!”

Even our driver, the guy one of my co-riders has nicknamed “stone face,” is grinning. I wish that co-rider were here this morning.

The 900 series is a New Flyer DE40LFR (DE = diesel-electric hybrid; 40 = feet; LF = low floor; R = Restyled). And despite all the exclaiming, the only difference between the 900 series and the 700 series we got back in 2007 is the numbering.

(I have no idea why the 900s aren’t 800s. I also have no idea why the new buses start with 951 rather than 901. Bus taxonomy is sometimes perplexing.)

Back in 2007, we got 57 of these buses. We’re getting another 31 now, and the new buses are being rolled out a few at a time. First sightings were recorded back in early April.

For right now, the windows are crystal clear, and the upholstery and floor don't have that ground-in dinginess from heavy use. The ride is smooth, and so is the braking. And Lilly is right about that new bus smell. Today, life is good on ABQ RIDE.

*Real name changed.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

BUS STORY # 131 (Roz’s Bus Story # 1)

Roz* is pumped. She’s got tickets to Kenny Chesney, she’s taking Friday off, and – she’s saving this last for Elliott* and me because we ride the bus – she and a girlfriend are taking the Rock Star Shuttle to the concert at the Journal Pavilion.

She tells us the price is pretty steep – $15.00 per ticket – but it means they can both have a couple of beers at the concert and, best of all, they won’t have to wait on the traffic to get in and out.

“You know how that is,” she says, and we do.

When she leaves the office Thursday afternoon, we wish her a good time and tell her we want a full report Monday morning.

And so when Monday morning arrives and Roz walks in, Elliott and I both greet her with “So how was the concert?”

“Awesome,” she tells us. “The show was fantastic!”

“So how was the Rock Star bus?”

“It sucked.”

A big “Whoa!” from Elliott and me.

“What happened?”

Roz says getting to the concert was great. They left on time, passed a long line of cars on the way in, and were at the Pavilion 20 minutes before the show began.

She says there were three buses, two from the east side, one from the west. Her bus was full. She figures if they were all full, that must have been something like 50 cars off the road.

After the show, they hustled back to the bus because the driver had told them the bus would leave 20 minutes after the show ended. They boarded the bus and waited. And waited. And waited some more.

Finally, the riders asked the driver what the deal was. The driver told them their police escort had been diverted to escort Governor Richardson out instead of the Rock Bus. This did not go down well with the riders.

“Hey, don’t complain to me,” he told them. “Tell Greg Payne about it.”

“So how long did you wait?” we ask.

“We sat there a frickin’ hour before the driver decided to try and exit by the old route.”

That took another 40 minutes. It was after midnight when Roz got home.

Roz tells us she took the driver’s advice and called in a complaint to 311 Friday morning. She laughs, then tells us what the response was: the police escort was diverted to help direct traffic around some ongoing construction.

“Construction that’s been going on for months that somehow they forgot about that night,” she adds. “What kind of bull____ is that?”

Elliott and I laugh. “Why, Roz, you’ve been a citizen long enough to know what kind of bull____ that is. That’s Official Bull____.”

There is no way to know if the bus driver was right – although the city’s lame explanation reinforces his credibility. If it is true, there’s irony in our RailRunner governor, unwittingly or otherwise, being the prime cause of conditioning some 100 citizens against using public transportation to future concerts.

Roz emphatically tells us there won’t be any more Rock Star Shuttles in her future.

We’re bummed – for Roz and for ABQ RIDE. Elliott and I both think the Rock Star Shuttle is a great idea, a win-win for everybody. But the selling point is getting in and out quickly while the cars are inching along. And ABQ RIDE has to deliver. Especially at 15 bucks a pop.

Whatever the real reason, the bottom line is they didn't deliver. And word is getting around.

*Real name changed.