After serving as a police officer for six years in the Brazos Valley, Klimple “burned out” on working with the public and sought refuge in truck driving. He got his commercial driver’s license while hauling oil equipment for Halliburton, never imagining that a year later he’d put it to use cruising the streets of Austin as a city bus driver and falling back in love with the public.
I had never driven a city bus when I climbed onto that forty-foot “passenger rig” for the first time two years ago. But I needed a new job, and Austin needed bus drivers. It was time to take the bus-driving test.
I wasn’t scared, but it was a little weird when I got on and looked back at the passenger seats. For some reason there were five instructors on my bus instead of just the one I was told was going to be there. I played it cool, sat in the leather driver’s seat, and pushed the ignition button. The engine was surprisingly quiet, since it was in the rear. We rolled down Lamar Boulevard in North Austin, hit U.S. 290 heading toward Elgin, and drove through some commercial areas. Then I had to parallel park the damn thing. Have you ever watched someone parallel park a city bus? It’s not easy. It helps that I had just come off of driving an eighteen-wheeler for a year and that in college I drove a yellow school bus. I ended up scoring 100.
Before they turned me loose on the streets, I had to pass the written test. It had questions about what to do in emergencies and stopping-distance stuff. I had to know what to do at a railroad crossing or if the bus catches fire. And there were lots of questions about braking—I guess because a New Flyer bus is such a big vehicle. I mean, the momentum is pretty crazy, because of the weight. The lanes in Austin can get really small. And I’ve sometimes got 59 citizens on board.
I work for Capital Metro. Bus drivers in Austin work for one of three contractors. We all wear the same uniform, but our checks come from different people. I guess they split up the pie. My first four months, I handled the E route, which is one of the Night Owl routes. I mostly took college students back and forth between Sixth Street and their dorms and off-campus housing. The bus runs until four in the morning, because that’s how long it takes to ship them out from the bars and parties.
My friends always tell me that my job belongs on a reality show. That was especially true those first few months. Passengers threw up a lot. People who ride in the daylight might be surprised to know that we drivers put little barf bags on board. They’re hanging on the windows. And you know what? Most of the time, those partying kids actually used them pretty good. Some even took the bags off the bus and threw them away. But there was always that one guy who would drop the bag and spill it.
One night, a drunk guy got on with his shirt off, and I told him that was against the rules. I asked him to put his shirt back on. He told me, “I don’t have to wear a shirt. I don’t have to wear anything.” So he got naked. I saw a cop outside and motioned for him. He got on the bus and told the kid to get dressed. The kid refused and was escorted off in handcuffs. Everybody clapped. We videotape everything, and I’m sure that’s some funny footage.
Now I work the day shift. I drive three days during the week from seven in the morning to seven in the evening, with a three-hour break, and then on Saturdays and Sundays I drive from ten in the morning to six in the evening. That’s better than the overnights, but it’s still the hardest job I’ve ever had. I drive total strangers around for eight, sometimes nine solid hours. There’s no blow-off time, no goofing off at the watercooler. The whole bathroom-break thing was nerve-racking at first too. If we pass a Whataburger and want to get off and use the bathroom, we can. We’re allowed to stop at any time for that. But it’s just not as easy as walking down the hall in an office. I also heard recently that bus drivers put in a lot of medical claims. I think it’s that popcorn thing—we’re always bouncing up and down. Pop! Pop! Pop! We get lots of back problems. Capital Metro tries to help us out with healthy incentive programs, and we even have a company gym.
Driving around Austin, I have fallen deeper in love with the city. I’ve been to parts of town I never would have seen, like the far east neighborhoods. They feel so remote, even though they’re within the city limits. You can’t see downtown from there. I’ve also fallen deeper in love with Austin’s citizens. I greet everybody when they get on, and 90 percent of them say hi back. We exchange pleasantries. I feed on that.
It’s funny, when someone doesn’t say hi, it bothers me. I start to wonder why they didn’t. I end up thinking about what kind of day they’re having. I see some people who have a lot of struggles. I can tell when people are really dreading going to work. I can sense when they don’t want to go where they’re headed. I see folks who are dealing with alcoholism and drug addiction. I see folks with physical challenges. It reminds me that I’m not the only one with struggles.
I sit and drive all day. When I’m at work, I always know where I’m headed, and I am grateful to be going in that direction.