My Spectacular Odd Job: A Special-Needs Bus Driver
Writing often didn't pay the bills, so mine has also been a life of teaching school, digging graves, making rounds, cutting lawns, and many other gerunds with objects attached. In Sinatra's words, I have been "a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king," only with less lyricism and charm, and with little alliteration.
My favorite job
A spectacular job? If the glory of human endurance is a spectacle, then the most spectacular job I've ever had is my current employment. I am a special needs bus driver-for the wheel-chair bound, the elderly, the sick, and the dying. I took the job looking at four, maybe six months -- enough paychecks to get me a flat-screen television. That was 10 years ago. I'm older, still grabbing the bus keys and heading out at 5 o'clock each morning, with a grin, a purpose, and no thoughts of quitting.
I could list a thousand reasons that I love this vocation so, but they all boil down to one: my riders. They are without a doubt the toughest and most noble collection of human beings that I have ever met.
Witness: I drove one guy to the respite house, both of us knowing it would be a one-way trip. He spent the time shouting jokes and one-liners to me from the back of the bus. For sheer toughness, Cagney on his way to the electric chair in all those 1930s film noirs had nothing on this guy.
Also: An eighty-something-year-old gal could only get out of her chair with the help of a cane. The neighbors worried when she was still setting up a step-latter, climbing the rungs, and trimming her twenty-foot spruce tree. They insisted she would have to stop this madness; they would do it for her. So she took her flashlight and ladder and trimmed in the middle of the night, when they couldn't see her.
A unique bunch
My riders' universal refusal to be stereotyped never fails to buoy my spirit and improve my writing. Consider this elderly Vermont farm wife-reserved, quiet-voiced, sweet, unassuming. I stop the bus at a light, a cop car pulls up beside us. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, with all the vigor of an inner-sitter Corner Boy, she calls to me, "Look who's here, you can smell 'em."
How could I be satisfied with creating any stereotypical characters in my books after hearing something like that?
Sometimes sports analogies are the way to go, so: These folks are crouching in the batter's box, down two strikes in the count. Maybe they've worked it to three and two, but there they are, still fouling off curves, staying alive, clutching the pine tar, digging in, confident and convinced. With no fear of the third strike.
Or maybe a boxer, down on one knee, shaking off the pain and the dizziness, ready to get back up, as many times as it takes.
Last week: pushing one ancient gal in her wheelchair, trying to get the chair smoothly up her cracked cement driveway. She's coming home from kidney dialysis; she's blind, frail, she's come off the machine drained and exhausted, barely able to talk or stay awake. Here's how our conversation goes:
"I hope these bumps aren't hurting you too much."
"No, don't worry about it, I've been meaning to get this driveway fixed, but I keep putting it off. Haven't got around to it yet."
"Yeah, I understand, getting it all black-topped could get expensive."
"Oh, no, I'll just buy some cement and do it myself."