As Metro driver Dewayne Thomas shuttles his bus around the city, stuffed monkeys perched on the dashboard bear silent witness to harsh words between passengers, to the sometimes rocky passage of adolescents into adulthood and to the older bodies that are failing their owners. Thomas, a warm-eyed, handsome man, says of his monkeys, “They make it more friendly when you ride the bus.
"It creates camaraderie. ‘What’s up with those monkeys?’ I use one of my lines, ‘It’s like a jungle out there.’ I get compliments on 'em every day.”
A few days after a gunman wounded bus driver Deloy Depuis in front of Benaroya Hall during the morning commute, Thomas notes, “These are scary days. These are the kind of days that you don’t look forward to coming to work. ” The shooting, which left Dupuis with cheek and arm injuries, “makes other operators on the road feel not well.
“There’s people in the downtown corridor who are not taking their medication who are armed and dangerous,” adds Thomas, who at 6'4" would tower over most people. He recalls dealing with a difficult passenger. “There was a guy on the bus who was threatening to kill all the white people with a baseball bat. I called the police to come pick him up.”
Thomas says he urges riders not to engage anyone who is bothering them. “You may be talking to a psychotic person. You might be putting people in danger. Don’t argue with them. They may be off their meds and ready to snap Tell me, and I’ll contact the proper authorities. You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
This is the second driver shooting in recent years, although there have been other assaults. Driver Mark McLaughlin was shot and killed in 1998 as he maneuvered his coach along the Aurora Bridge. Although the gunman attempted to wrestle the steering wheel away from him, the mortally wounded McLaughlin managed to hold onto it long enough so that the vehicle didn’t plunge off the steepest part of the embankment and kill all the passengers, Thomas recalls. As it was, McLaughlin and another rider died in the crash and a couple dozen passengers were injured.
Luckily, such violent episodes are not a daily occurrence. On a spring morning, Thomas’ stuffed menagerie seems to calm riders and put them in a good mood, as he shuttles his No. 4 bus between Harborview and Swedish medical centers. (He currently drives the Nos. 60 and 125 routes.)
During that shift, a rider whose facial features cluster below a silver fringe of hair, minces forward with a cane, his jeans and shoelaces trailing behind. He bids adieu at Swedish, squeaking to Thomas, “Take care of your wonderful animals.” A library-bound guy with a salt-and-pepper beard and stocking cap urges, “Have fun with all your friends there.”
“When I started driving, I noticed how hostile it was,” says their guardian, who was once punched by a female passenger whom he had asked to stop drinking. The 19-year veteran had started his career on the night shift, when many transients ride. ”I decided to bring in two or three monkeys. It’s like if you paint a room pink, it starts to change the mood. People liked them and started giving them to me and they’ve been giving me monkeys to this day.
"I figure you can’t argue with a bus driver with all those monkeys. It’s like arguing in front of your kids.”
That first monkey was a Curious George-like creation won at a carnival in Germany, where he was stationed as an Army infantryman in the early 1980s. Bleached beige by the sun, the simian’s chin rests atop the bus radio’s receiver. Other species include a tyrannosaurus rex that rears up next to George. “I got that from a mother of two when I was driving the route in Madrona.” Mornings, she’d take her kids to school and, “I was the only driver who would wait for her. You know how two kids can make you late.” Some of the monkeys were gifts from his younger son, a Navy Master-at-Arms stationed in Japan—including the latest one tattooed with, “No. 1 Dad.” A sock monkey, with a red pompom crowning its cap, smiles down at commuters. “A passenger noticed I didn’t have one, so she bought it for me.”
“All the new ones get to ride up there,” he says, pointing to primates atop the sun screen, from which tails hang down, some curled into apostrophes, others resembling hairy caterpillars. “I’ll drop one down so the newcomers can ride.”
Along the dashboard, a moose leans toward Thomas, as if to confide a secret. Winnie-the- Pooh sits to his right. “A couple of days ago, someone was trying to buy Pooh off me, ‘Is Pooh for sale?’ ‘No, he is not!’ ” Thomas told him. A bear sporting a pink breast cancer ribbon wears a gold helmet, the headgear gifted by a passenger.
On another afternoon, a rider encased in a white helmet hooks his bike to the front rack, before climbing on, along 25th Street. He’s clothed in a red satiny jacket, spotted with grime. “I had another bike. It went bye-bye — it grew legs and went away,” he says, from a toothless mouth. Outside, a purple bear dangles off his bike seat. “It’s my riding partner,” he explains, before exiting near 23rd and Jackson. “You be safe out there,” he advises Thomas. As he unhooks his wheels, he calls out, “I like your animals.”
“I like your bear,” Thomas replies.
“He’s been riding my bus for a long time,” says Thomas afterward.
As one of Metro’s senior drivers, Thomas trains new recruits and urges them to remain alert to aggression. A decade back when the city was suffering gang violence, a boy jumped onto the bus with teenagers in pursuit. Thomas refused them entrance. ”Send him off,” the teens demanded “No, he’s under my protection now,” countered Thomas, who harbored the boy until he was safe.
Thomas counsels drivers to treat patrons with the utmost dignity — whether they wear the ragged clothing of a laborer or carry all their possessions in bags. “You don’t touch her stuff — that’s her world,” he says. He recalls politely requesting that riders steer clear of a seat claimed by an older man — who’d thump transgressors with his cane.
On this mid-afternoon, a man rolls in on a wheelchair. He’s missing one leg below the knee and the other wears a pressure stocking. His hands shake as he fumbles with his seatbelt, before Thomas clicks it in. “Is that OK, sir?” Thomas asks. Then I notice the sheet music to Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Piano #1, dangling in a plastic bag from his chair.
“Do you play that?” I ask. “You must be pretty good.”
“For the teacher level,” demurs the white-haired African-American man. “I started when I was 5. I’m 78 now. I was a high school music teacher in Battle Creek.” His favorite composer? “No one surpasses Beethoven. 'Piano Sonata 25' gave the impetus for piano as a solo instrument — long before Chopin and Schumann."
Although Thomas expertly maneuvers his way around the city, it wasn’t always so. When he met future wife, Saundra Little — and “got the eye for her” at a Fort Lewis nightclub — she scribbled down her home address for him, with an “S” for south, which he mistook for a “5.” “I’m a country boy from Georgia. ... I was like a lost sheep.”
Luckily, he ran into her six months later and after spending an equal amount of time courting his future wife and her family — including her parents who fought for Civil Rights, and uncle, John C. Little, an activist for youth whose name graces a South Beacon Hill park — he won Saundra’s hand.
During a break, Thomas, 52, shows off iPad photos of his family, including his grandkids. “When I was driving the No. 2 line there was this one young lady who would ride my bus every day. She was a little school girl and when she’d get to the second step she’d jump to the ground. I knew she had the youth nature in her — that innocence about her.”
Three years later, he returned to the route and greeted her again. “As she got to the second step, I was expecting another jump and she walked down it. And I said, she passed from puberty to adulthood, just doing that,” Thomas recalls, adding that he has witnessed many others make that leap.
To passengers of all ages Thomas likes to opine, “This is the only bus where you can finally get the monkey off your back." He adds, "I rarely run into anyone who dislikes ‘em.” Except about six months ago.
Thomas' base chief, Pamela Davis recalls, “One customer decided she didn’t like him and was calling up to complain” about late arrivals. The older Caucasian rider, Davis says, “was describing him as the ‘Monkey Man.’ It was offensive.”
“We teach operators safety first, customer service second and schedule third,” adds Davis, explaining that snarling traffic or loading wheelchairs may cause tardiness. “Dewayne’s so conscientious, he doesn’t drive like a bat out of hell to make up the time,” she says.
After a half-dozen calls, the woman tried another tactic: She took umbrage to his display of monkeys and claimed an African-American rider had agreed. “It seemed to me she was trying to say all black people should be offended by a black man with monkeys,” says Thomas.
Metro asked Thomas not to exhibit his entire collection. “If they’re interfering with operations, leave some of them at home,” says Davis. And it informed the rider it would take no more complaints. “I didn’t really take offense to it,” says Thomas of the customer. “When I see ignorance like that, I just shake my head.”
Later on this afternoon, angry voices erupt as the bus door snaps open along James Street. “People just love to quarrel here in Seattle,” declares a large woman, followed by another in khaki pants and braids. As the bus rumbles forward, the woman in khakis hovers above the first woman. “Go sit, go sit go sit,” the first woman demands. Thomas watches in the rear-view mirror. “Hello?” he booms. “Excuse me?” The troublemaker in khakis returns to her seat and later exits. The first woman spots the menagerie. “You got your little friends — that’s cute,” she says, her voice softening. Her mood brightens as she chats up Thomas, reeling off the favorite sandwiches of Metro drivers at Greenwood’s Fred Meyer, where she works.
“You’re a good driver,” says a man in yellow, as he departs.
“This bus is great,” offers another with a greasy ponytail, as he exits at Harborview. “It gets me to the dentist in 10 or 12 minutes.”
“Thank you for the lovely ride,” says a young woman in a burgundy ruffled dress.
“Like I said, it’s the monkeys,” Thomas concludes. “It’s like they have these hypnotic powers,” he adds, wiggling his fingers. “I call it the ‘monkey effect.' "