Poetry in Motion: Tales of life and death aboard Metro buses

A new book of poetry from a retired driver is a window into the trials -- and amusements -- of Metro drivers.
A new book of poetry from a retired driver is a window into the trials -- and amusements -- of Metro drivers.

Metro driver Mark McLaughlin whistled to himself on that late November afternoon in 1998, musing about his upcoming nuptials as he steered his bus toward the Aurora Bridge. A rider loomed over him, the graphite gleam of his weapon glinting in the sun as he pointed it at McLaughlin — and pulled the trigger.

McLaughlin, wounded and struggling to control his coach, headed southbound over the bridge, stopped blowing “White Bird” by “It’s a Beautiful Day.” “It feels like my whole side’s gone deaf and numb: I can’t keep the wheel from lurching left. I dodge the cars, they’re swerving everywhere…The stone railing bursts away, only blue for a moment flying…”

Crosscut archive image.
Poet and former King County Metro driver Michael Spence, at home in Tukwila. Credit: Laura Kaufman

Poet and retired Metro driver Michael Spence re-imagines this slow-motion nightmare of McLaughlin’s last moments in his fourth collection of poetry, “The Bus Driver’s Threnody,” published in August 2014 by Truman State University Press. Spence, after a Bachelor’s degree in English and a four-year stint onboard an aircraft carrier, in his own words, “… washed up once more on shore, then dropped into a life he never foresaw at all."

In “Threnody,” the award-winning poet crafts dramas in miniature unfolding aboard the coaches that he piloted full-time for more than three decades. Some are based on events he experienced, others fashioned from stories recounted by colleagues. There’s the Goth character, “coins sliding like liquid from his fingers,” who foils an iPod robbery; and the runaway bus that gets stuck in ice, then crashes into a house.

In “And Don’t Forget the Fruit,” an operator outwits a rider who threatens to cut him by asserting, “‘You know what happened to the last guy to show me a knife? I shot him.’ He licks his lips. Taking a step away, and nearly trips as he hurries off. When I lean back, I hold a banana in my hand.”

Spence likes to point out the only person definitively unarmed aboard a coach is the driver — which makes operators dread fights between riders. One Saturday night, a rumble broke out on his No. 7 as it headed into Rainier Valley. “It was so packed, there were people in the aisle. I couldn’t see the back of the bus. ” He radioed it in.

“The first thing the coordinator said, ‘Are there any weapons involved?’ And I said, ‘I don’t see any, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go back and check.’ “

At the next stop, riders, including the troublemakers, piled out of the bus. Spence snapped shut the doors — only to have the pugilists attempt to pry open the back exit, which, if successful, would have kept the electric coach stopped for safety reasons. Luckily, Spence sped away first, with the frightened passengers urging him on.

Metro operator Dennis Mellon wasn't so lucky. He was brutally attacked in May 1986 — one of a spate of driver beatings that year, some gang-related. He strode to the middle of the No. 7 bus, teeming with dozens of rowdy teens he had picked up at Rainier Avenue South and South Henderson Street and asked them to quiet down. Mellon was kicked, punched and dragged off the coach, then held down and beaten.

“It resulted in a pretty smart rule — don’t get out of your seat,” said retired Metro driver Jay Hamilton. However in May 2006, Metro operator Anthony Woods did just that when a teenager pointed a 9 mm pistol at a rider in a robbery attempt. Instead of staying put and radioing for help, Woods parked his bus, bear-hugged the assailant and carried him off the coach. Metro initially criticized Woods for not following proper procedure, but removed the letter from his file after witnesses — and police — praised Woods’ heroism.

That year, 2006, assaults on Metro operators spiked at 189, but an assault prevention program — including targeted patrols of buses by King County Sheriff deputies, acting as Metro Police — halved that, albeit with a small bump the past couple years. Most of last year’s 100 reported assaults were minor, a handful resulting in serious injury to the driver, said Metro spokesman Jeff Switzer.

Even non-violent riders have all kinds of scams to avoid paying the fare. A common tactic is what Spence calls, “The Nine-Pocket Macarena,” where riders make a show of searching for fare money they don’t have. “…Now his feet take up the beat: shifting foot to foot like a sliver’s in each one, he smacks the back pockets of his jeans, then waves his hands around his jacket, outside, inside against his shirt, frisking himself for the crime of being dimeless.”

Another well-known trick: Waving a large bill and proclaiming you don’t have change. Hamilton, who also retired from Metro this year after a three-decade part-time run, recalls the rider who each week used to board his No. 27 headed westbound on Yesler. "He’d show me a 20 dollar bill and say, ‘Hey man, I didn’t have time to get change.’ And I would let him on. This went on for about six weeks.”

Finally, Hamilton demanded he fork over the $20. “And he says, ‘what?’ And I said, ‘I’ve given you a bunch of free rides. I’m sure you’ve been doing this to other people too. By now, you owe us 20 bucks.‘ ” The rider feigned indignation and refused. So Hamilton ordered him off the bus. “I never saw him again.“

Metro’s driver handbook requires operators to “state the fare amount once, if you feel it is safe to do so.” If the customer does not pay, the driver should press the broken coin icon, (the non-payment of fare button) on the console. “Usually I let it go ..., “ Spence says. “Frankly, we had the guy shot downtown last August for asking for the fare.”

He is referring to the August 12, 2013 attack in which a rider shot operator Deloy Dupuis, after entering through his back door at a Third Avenue stop and being asked to pay. The assailant, upon boarding a second bus, was killed by police. Dupuis suffered arm and cheek wounds.

Metro rules say drivers can prevent an “unsanitary” rider from boarding, but if he or she is already riding, operators should stop the coach and call a supervisor. Normally, if the bus driver has received five or six complaints about an odiferous rider, “we’re more likely to get action. If it’s just one person, they tend to overlook it,” said Metro operator Hal Poor, a former shop steward.

In Spence’s poem, “Alien in Allentown,” a smelly rider dubbed, “Mister Mold,” repeatedly changes seats, driving passengers to change theirs. “I blink as I realize, he’s doing this on purpose. He catches my eyes in the rear-view mirror. While I grin back, his wink is slow, like moss growing over rock.” Spence writes.

Bus-driving can prove unhealthy if operators don’t exercise after-hours. The gig is basically sedentary, so a "life behind the wheel can lead to a life that’s all behind,” Spence writes, noting that it’s common for drivers to gain weight on the job.  Many have college degrees — some of them advanced —and interests which range from studying the classics in Greek, to running a bed and breakfast.

This spring, Spence was awarded a Literary Fellowship from the state Artist Trust. In 1990, he received a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, enough to sustain him for six months. And four years before that, his first book, “The Spine,” was a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets.

And the gig proves attractive to those like Hamilton — who performs with his folk-blues ensemble, Turtling Dithers and composes classical music including operas — with after-hour passions they wish to explore. “If you take your job home with you, it’s grand theft auto,” opines the silver-haired Spence, who sports a t-shirt that reads, “Eschew Obfuscation," while relaxing at home in Tukwila.

Even the career itself produces its pleasures. Back in the 1980s, Hamilton used to ferry students daily for a school desegregation program. He would hand out library books to read during the rides and at year’s end take the kids out for ice cream. And a few years ago, he discovered an abandoned apple orchard on Vashon Island and picked fruit on his breaks.

Some operators even welcome the night shift —  fewer Metro supervisors looming in the shadows, but more lost souls among their charges. In Spence’s “Riders in the Dark,” it’s almost as if the driver is ferrying passengers to the underworld. As a curtain of rain veils the stops, black-clad riders appear as “phantoms. But the endless dips and swells in the road tell him the course he travels is a river — and all night long, he’s nothing more than Charon, the soul who’ll never step ashore.”

If You Go: Spence will read from, “The Bus Driver’s Threnody”, as part of author presentations at 7 p.m. September 10th at Station Bistro (110 Second Ave., SW) in Auburn and 6:30 p.m. September 11 at Office Nomads (1617 Boylston Ave.) in Seattle’s Capitol Hill.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Laura Kaufman

Laura Kaufman, an award-winning journalist, is writing a book about First & Pike News.