Take 5

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

Stewart Rudi, who participates in a peer counseling program for drivers, says that after an assault "the emotions go in stages. First you start second-guessing yourself: What could I have done differently? Why am I in this job? Then the driver gets mad--mad at the company for not doing more to protect him. The last step is when you understand what really did happen and you go on with your life."

Inexperienced drivers have an especially hard time, Rudi goes on. "A passenger might say to a driver, 'I'm going to come after you,' or 'I'm going to come back.' But the thing is, most people look at a driver as a part of the bus and don't even remember who the driver was. If a driver is obviously nervous, that translates to the passenger. We've started training new drivers to make eye contact with people getting on board, to call out the streets, to make a connection."

Jerry Pratt is no rookie. For eight years Pratt worked days as a chemical-dependency counselor for Hennepin County and supplemented his income driving a bus at night. About a year ago Pratt--a father of two who fancies the nickname Bad-to-the-Bone ("because I'm such a nice guy")--quit his county job and went full-time with the bus company, splitting his time between the 5 and the 16, another inner-city route.

"This is the best job I ever had," he says. "Less stressful than my other job. Fewer issues. There's more enjoyment and more freedom. I get to see my kids. People who are afraid of the bus don't ride them--they get scared by what they've heard or read in the paper. I never had no problems and never expected any. Maybe it's because I'm a big guy. I just let people be who they are. The worst thing that ever happened to me was a guy exposed himself in front of me about five years ago. I've never had a bad experience. If they had a route that ran right by my house, I wouldn't even own a car."

According to transit police reports, assaults on drivers most commonly stem from fare disputes. With that in mind, the agency trains its drivers to ask for payment one time, then let it go. While Pratt is a veritable poster boy for that policy ("I'm a soft touch," he shrugs. "They can see it--it's written all over my face: a big teddy bear"), others are less lenient. Jim Debill says he always requires payment. "I explain it to them like the bus is a McDonald's. I say, 'If a Big Mac is $1.50 and you give them a dollar, will you get the Big Mac?' And of course they say no. So I say, 'Well then, pretend this is McDonald's. If you can't pay the fare, hey, God gave you some legs; start walkin'.'"

Debill doesn't think his hard line puts him in jeopardy. "The important thing is being confident and in control of your environment," he asserts. "By now people know me: There are passengers who are about to try and ride for free that see it's me and turn right around and walk away. But that's not the danger. Let's face it, there are some people who don't care if their eyes open the next day or not. Those are the ones you have to be very cautious of. Because if they don't care about themselves, they certainly don't care about you."

 

The Graveyard Shift at the Holiday Inn

Drivers on the No. 5 refer to the "owl" buses that run between 1:00 and 4:00 a.m. as "Holiday Inns." When the weather is particularly cold, a dozen or more homeless riders may be slumped in their seats, encased in fortresses of their belongings.

"We are in a dangerous place," a thin black man in a leather jacket tells me as we head north on a Monday owl run. "The young kids will terrorize us. I'm scared." With his slurred words comes the unmistakable smell of cheap booze. "Young-ass kids--13, 14 years old--talkin' shit. Black, white, Hispanic, it doesn't matter--they have no respect. No respect. I ride with my grandmother, we ride in the front seat, all scared as shit. Especially on the 5 line.

"So you're from City Pages? Do you write about gays?" he asks me.

"Are you against them? Be honest now: In your heart, are you against them? Shit. You a cop, ain't you? Stop these crazy-ass nuts on the bus. Boys--and girls!--they will beat your ass. I've been smacked several times. I've seen them smoke reefer right in the middle of the damn bus. Seen them come up and beat the damn driver, beat him to a fare-thee-well. I've been spit on, hollered at--and she was black!

"I have kids that age. But if they ever acted like these kids do, I would kill their ass. I lived down South so I wasn't raised that way, and my kids weren't raised that way. They respect me. They know their dad is a gay father. To keep me on, I know they had a hard time. But they love me. I'm going home June first. My daughter will be graduating from school. My kids love me, bigtime. But drugs have a hold on me. I've been drinkin' and takin' that shit, that crack shit. I had a friend in Louisville, I was staying with her. Now I've been riding the bus to stay warm, for one whole month."

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