Take 5

It's better than HBO! Riding the mean streets of Minneapolis on Metro Transit's busiest bus route.

"Everybody gets off the 5 comin' from north to south to make money. But not from south to north!" he hollers, milking his audience like a standup comic. "This is the hardcorest bus. The 5: 5 black eyes, 5 broke toes."

More laughter. "I'm a south-side nigga and I loooove the 5. You get on the 5 to do transactions. People bond on the 5. People talk here in the back of the bus: You know this is Black History Month? Damn!"

Amid the monologue, a gaunt black man has maneuvered into a seat nearby and is clearly waiting for an opportune moment to interrupt. "Give me the bid, Chilly," he says now. "Give me a square."

"Wait until we get off," Chilly brushes him off. "I'm tellin' you that the 5 bus is the same bus that travels to the Mall of America. Whatever you want out of this interview, I'm giving you the ghetto version. I don't sugarcoat it, don't sugarcoat a damn thing. I've been riding this bus since 1988. I've been on the corner for 13 years. The Ghetto Godfather. King of Lake Street. I just got out of the penitentiary. I ain't scared. I did my time. And then I hopped the goddamn 5 bus line. Sold my crack on the corner. I did my karma, did my damn time. I been out eight months. I love the 5 because all my friends ride the 5.

"And the 5," he concludes with a grin, "is always on time."

 

Real People

Ten years ago Metro Transit driver Jim Debill accepted an assignment on the No. 5 because it was a "one-piece day run"--meaning he could drive the same route every workday between 5:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. "I figured I'd work it for a while and then change," says Debill, a 26-year transit veteran with a slight paunch, a ponytail at the back of his balding head, and tattoos of his two children on the inside of his left forearm. "But once you get out there, it kind of gets in your blood. These are real people--truly real people. Each and every day most of them are fighting their own individual battle. I look at 'em and go, 'Wow.' Of course it doesn't make me any softer. But I'm sure I'll stay on the 5. I like the rush."

Two years ago Debill joined the ranks of No. 5 drivers who've been attacked by passengers. (Besides being Metro Transit's busiest route, the 5 has the dubious distinction of boasting the highest incidence of driver assaults.) It began when a quartet of young women ignored his warning to stop swearing loudly. He radioed a patrol car to come escort them off the bus, but before the squad car arrived, one of the women came after him. "I thought the girl who attacked me was a dude until she took off her stocking cap," he remembers. "She came up and spit at me first and then started clawing at me. I started throwing punches and the other three girls were kicking me in the shins."

Stewart Rudi was assaulted while driving the No. 5 along Penn Avenue North in 1995. It happened in the afternoon, he recalls, right after school. Rudi, who is six foot eight, told four kids he couldn't let them all ride on a single bus pass. The last of the quartet didn't go quietly; after starting to get off the bus he came back up with a fist cocked. "I was lucky he was slow," Rudi remembers. "I was able to get my arms up."

Rudi, who was a member of Metro Transit's Safety and Security Committee at the time, says the incident made him a forceful advocate for the installation of onboard video cameras. (Today more than two-thirds of the Twin Cities' 971 buses are equipped with cameras, including all of the vehicles that run the No. 5 route during off-peak hours.) "Once word got out that we were convicting people with videotape in court, things really began to quiet down," he says.

Drivers are protected by a sheet of curved Plexiglas that prevents passengers from attacking them from behind, and, if they've been properly trained, they are permitted to carry pepper spray. At the first sign of trouble, they're able to radio a "priority call" for one of the transit police force's 11 squad cars to respond. The drivers I spoke with told me that when a fight breaks out, the sound of radio communication usually ends it. Each bus is also equipped with a silent "panic button" that triggers an alarm at the control center, in the event of an accident or other life-threatening emergency.

Nevertheless, the threat of assault remains a fact of life for drivers, particularly on the No. 5. This year, for example, transit police reports indicate that on January 4--the same night the driver on the No. 18 line endured the beating that made the WCCO evening news--another man was jailed for verbally threatening a driver on the 5. The next day a driver on the 5 was slapped. Three days later a No. 5 driver was kicked in the thigh. On January 11 a driver on the 5 was "assaulted by a disorderly passenger," and five nights after that another was hit in the head with a backpack. January 27 brought two separate reports of passengers brandishing knives on the 5.

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