It’s 7:55 a.m. and, like nearly every other morning, students are packed like sardines into the 5A bus en route to campus.
As the bus wheels along Grand Avenue, 60-year-old Phil Jones, an actor-turned-bus driver, belts out a song to the unsuspecting early-morning schoolgoers. Sleepy faces now wear highly amused grins.
“I do it because it alleviates stress and tension – for all of us,” said Jones, who has been working for SLO Transit for six years.
“I generally do it when the bus is packed, literally maxed out, as we call it. When the buses that supply Cal Poly are maxed, it’s a very short period of time, but you have to stay and encroach (upon) other people’s space.
“It’s tough enough to squeeze up next to somebody,” he added. “I’m the bus driver; I will make it as pleasant and comfortable as possible. My job is to get you there safe and in one place, but also comfortably.”
To Jones, after having worked in show business for more than 44 years, being a bus driver, like being an actor, is simply another way to cater to the masses.
“I’m helping them to get to where they need to go in order to achieve what it is that they need to achieve – and then sometimes I take them home,” he said.
“For those Americans who are intelligent enough and who ride mass transit, I provide them a means to an end so they don’t have to spend more money on fuel.”
In total, about 30 people work for SLO Transit. The bus drivers are expected to know all the in-town routes, and three times a year they have what they call a pick, where everyone is given the chance to choose different routes to drive.
“It keeps things interesting, you know, your schedule changes around, you get to take different routes,” said Mike Pace, who has been bus driving for about two years and currently drives routes 6B, 6A and 4A, the ones that provide transportation to Cal Poly.
“You get a good mix, a change of scene, and that’s a good thing (to have),” he said.
The cost of living is high in San Luis Obispo, but the salary of a bus driver is enough to get by on, Pace said.
“It’s not real good pay, but it’s not real bad pay, either. It’s well above minimum wage. But you have to watch your money, that’s for sure.”
For someone who lived in West Los Angeles before moving to the Central Coast, the change in the cost of living has not been drastic for Pace. Since this is a union job, the cost of living is factored into the pay structure, and drivers have good benefits, he said.
Jones, though he said that economically he is proud that he has a job, did add that he lives in Oceano because San Luis Obispo is too expensive.
Though a lot of responsibility (for obvious reasons), the physical nature of bus driving is not too difficult, Pace said. In fact, it is easier than much of his past work, which includes truck driving in Los Angeles (a profession that made the transition to bus driving easy).
“You know, when I first started driving (buses), nothing annoyed me at all, because it was pretty stress-free and easy. Like I said, it’s a responsibility, but it’s really not that hard,” Pace said.
“Then after a while, you start forgetting about the stress you had in past jobs, and little things start to annoy you again. So you just try to keep it in perspective.
“Sometimes you’ll get people who you know ride the bus all the time. And when you pull up to the bus stop, they start fumbling around in their pockets or their purses for their bus fare. Sometimes you’ll get that three of four stops in a row, and it starts putting you behind on your schedule and it starts getting really annoying, especially when you know that they’re boarding the bus all the time. There are a lot of little things like that (that are annoying).”
And you thought waiting for that late bus that one time was annoying.
Some of those regulars, though, make for interesting people-watching. Although it’s bad policy to talk about specific patrons, Pace said he has seen all aspects of humanity through his years as a driver.
“You run into all kinds of characters. You name it, you’ll run into (them),” he said.
“A lot of people are really nice, and then a lot of people are really not so nice. If you ride the bus a lot, you see it, without being a driver. It’s interesting.”
Jones said his favorite bus-driving story, like his singing, came when the bus was completely full – and completely (and uncharacteristically) quiet.
“There comes a moment in time when wherever you are there is just a moment of silence, whether it’s at a Thanksgiving dinner and there’s a lull in the conversation, or wherever you are, there’s just a moment of silence,” he said.
And just such a moment took place on the bus that morning, except for a girl in the front on her cell phone and another girl on a cell phone in the back, who were the only two people on the bus who didn’t stop talking.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, yes, the technological age.’ They wanted to say hello to one another, but couldn’t because of all these people, so they used their phones. I thought that was great,” Jones said.
Another driver, Alice, said once a pair of ladies thong underwear was found on one of the buses at the end of the night. If that’s not strange enough, though, later a man who claimed the pair was his picked it up.
So next time you take that ride to school, remember to be kind to your driver – and don’t leave your belongings behind.
Jones ended with this admonition: “I have realized that those people who acknowledge the living human being at the steering wheel make the driver’s day. (There are)those who take it for granted, as if we’re robots and this is our job and here’s your quarter, and in my estimation of their value as human beings, it lowers them.”