It had to happen. Eventually. We’re all subject to abuse as bus operators, every day we’re behind the wheel. Forty-something incidents in 2016, 93 in ’17, and now I’m Assault #50 as 2018 rolls toward its last half. Portland transit workers, from maintenance to road supervisors and rail/bus operators are vulnerable targets to the mostly mentally ill aggressors who ride.
She kicked me. Not hard, mind you. A three-legged ancient Chihuahua could have at least caused a slight bruise. Still, it was an insult to all who share this profession. All I did was wake a sleeper while my trainee serviced a stop. I was worried because this passenger was reclining along the very back row of seats. She could have rolled off and suffered injury in case of a necessarily sudden stop. Protecting not only the sleeper but my trainee as well, it was my decision to wake her.
“Get the FUCK away from me, asshole,” she screamed. Then the kick to my shin. “I can sleep or do whatever I want, you can’t tell me what to do!”
I stepped back after this, surprised at the sudden outburst. My Irish blood began to boil. The authority figure on board, sole representative of my transit agency, suddenly embroiled in a controversy. All eyes on me.
“You just assaulted me!” I said loudly, for all to hear. “You’ve kicked a bus operator, and now you need to get off the bus. NOW!”
“You assaulted me, asshole!” she screamed.
I hadn’t touched her. Liars, especially in front of 30 witnesses and several on-board cameras, get no consideration from me. None whatsoever.
Backing to the steps leading to the rear of my bus, I repeated myself.
“Leave the bus now,” I said in measured tone. “You can get off voluntarily, or in handcuffs because I’m calling the police. Your choice.”
Flames of fury followed my stroll back to the front of the bus. Trainee had been rolling along like a pro. We were on time, at a point where any other newbie would have surrendered the seat so I could make up late time. I was proud of this driver, but still had to follow procedure and call Dispatch. To do otherwise would have been foolish. Wasted Wanda was still going off back there, her language that of a drunken river rat.
Calmly explaining the situation to an ever-patient dispatch sister, I realized all eyes were on me. All part of the job, a public servant displaying authority during a stressful situation. You see, if someone causes trouble on a bus, it’s an operator’s duty to remain calm and professional. My backing off Wanda was the best way to de-escalate. Taught to be a gentleman by my beloved father and a professional operator by my trainers, the last thing I needed was to further engage her. Dispatch asked for a description of the law-breaker, which I provided. All the while, I ignored the illiterate threats and insults emanating from that wicked passenger’s tongue.
Usually, speaking with Dispatch on the radio is the perfect opportunity for trouble-makers to exit the bus. It’s a clue of the mayhem to follow. Wanda seized this moment, storming forward toward me with a stream of screams as silent passengers made way. As she neared, I turned my back to her. My insult to hers, I wouldn’t give her a moment her misplaced belligerence begged. After she exited, I instructed my trainee to shut the doors, which sounded like a query to my beloved sister on the radio. She advised that very action as he flipped the door switch closed.
At this point, Lady Dispatcher asked if I was going to press charges against my assailant. Here’s where I waffled. You see, I was once married to a very abusive woman. Long ago. Still, I suffer trauma whenever reminded of that relationship. The victim of severe mental and physical abuse during that marriage, I never had her arrested. Back then, it was usually the male hauled off in chains. Husband/victims were rare, and I feared my wife would accuse me of exactly what she had done to me. That, and shame for my circumstances, made me feel cornered into a protective fetal position. Cowering was un-manly, but in my mind, I remembered Dad’s lessons to never hit a woman. Even in self-defense, my legal status was unstable.
I decided not to press charges. Told my radio lifeline I would not pursue legal action. All I wanted was for her to leave. Out of my life. It was my trainee’s last day of Hell Week/Line Training. My passengers had already been delayed about eight minutes and only wanted to get home. My very last thought was for everyone else rather than myself. Sister Road Supe met up with us a few minutes later, and I steadfastly refused to press charges. Dispatch cleared us to roll, so we did.
Today, I chose not to work. Reports written, dinner digested and my mind left to roam, the anger returned. Full force fury. Then, I tried to put myself in Wanda’s shoes. Here I was, a large male authority, waking her from slumber. Perhaps she had been a victim of abuse, and waking to my presence awakened another sleeping beast. Did she feel threatened by me, lashing out with her foot as a protective measure learned from past experience? Instinctive self-defense, perhaps. Part of me felt empathy, even though I was still seething from her abuse. In the moment, I felt responsible for what happened.
You see, just a few hours earlier, I did follow procedure. A man was asleep at the end of the line, and I slowly made my way toward him, making noise and telling him to wake up. It happens sometimes, as hard-working people find time on the bus to catch a few winks of much-needed nap time. Usually they miss their stop and are embarrassed, apologetic even. Not the case with this guy. Since he didn’t awaken as I made my way toward him, I got louder. When I was a step away, I saw that he was holding a large, very sharp-looking knife. An eight-inch blade, cradled in his lap. Images of last year’s knife murder on our light rail system instantly flashed in my mind. Quietly backing away, I returned to my radio and requested assistance. A supervisor arrived, followed by police. He left the bus without incident and sans weapon, which had fallen to the floor before he was awakened by the officer.
Why would I then, not two hours later, feel empowered to roust a female passenger? How could I know she wasn’t armed? A bit of misplaced male arrogance, that’s why. Sheer foolishness, as well.
Social media commenters chastised me for not requesting a supervisor to meet me en route to wake the second sleeper. I felt it more important to safeguard a passenger on my own rather than wait for a supervisor. I didn’t expect the sleeper’s response. A Canadian operator was murdered a year ago when he roused a sleeper at the end of his line. You can’t always tell if any passenger is armed and prepared to kill. There are no guarantees I’ll return safely home after a shift, even if I do follow proper procedure. Regardless of these considerations, I am the victim of an assault, albeit minor in comparison to others.
As a fellow human being, I wish my assailant well. Well away from me, that is. Still… it’s an occasion to remember and learn from. I was lucky this time.