He’s looking a bit like David Lee Roth on a really bad day, sitting in the back of the No. 20 bus on a Friday night.
Khaki shorts, muscle shirt, bracelets, Doc Martens, says he’s 56.
He’s pretty intense.
Something about having accidentally sprayed his old lady with beer — “I understand her point, but it was an accident, man” — and he’s bar-hopping along Hastings Street looking for her.
“I get really mean when I’m drunk,” he offers up when I ask if we can take his photo, then gets off.
Sitting beside me, Province photographer Gerry Kahrmann offers a suggestion once the intense guy is gone: “You could always talk to a guy who doesn’t have a knife.”
I never noticed the sheathed blade at his side.
CROSS-SECTION OF HUMANITY
It’s quite a cross-section of humanity that rides the No. 20, starting downtown and heading down Hastings before turning south on Commercial and then travelling along Victoria to Marine Drive.
The Nos. 14 and 16 are also good for people-watching, especially after 8 p.m., as they go back and forth on Hastings.
Some passengers call those three buses “loser cruisers” because so many people ride without paying.
Sometimes these fare jumpers aren’t only trying to ride for free, they’re carrying bags full of who knows what or pieces of small furniture.
There’s a guy on the No. 20 drinking from a bottle of Bailey’s. “I don’t read the papers and I don’t want to talk,” he says.
There are several people drinking cans of Cariboo and Colt 45.
Then two guys get in across the street from the B.C. Liquor Store on Commercial, toting eight-packs of beer and reeking of pot, their two female friends trailing behind.
Apparently one owes the other for something.
“Hold out your hand,” one of the girls says to one of the guys, and she puts some weed in a paper cupcake holder and hands it to one of the guys in exchange for some Pilsners.
The boys put the rest of the beers into backpacks, throw the empty box to the back of the bus and get off.
There’s a girl with a hookah and a girl with a violin.
Erin Stackhouse, 22, gets on at 34th and Victoria, carrying her Rayne longboard. She’s one of the most pleasant people to sit at the back of the bus.
“I’ve lost my board into traffic a couple of times,” she says.
She’s on her way back uphill after riding her board down to the library.
Then there’s Miss Prim in a tight ponytail, trying valiantly to keep her eyes open, but she keeps failing. She nods, is jarred awake at stops on 38th and 36th, then nods off again before waking at 33rd and getting off.
A gentleman in a Manchester United shirt tosses his lit cigarette out just as the door starts to close. He snuggles in next to a woman in a checkered green hoodie and John Lennon glasses who seems relieved when he moves to an empty bench, dropping his prescription painkillers in the process.
“Can’t drop these, can’t drop these,” he says as he picks up the scattered pills off the floor, before dropping them again.
“Can’t drop these again,” he says.
A man with scabs on his face turns and stares at the girl behind him, then turns around again just as suddenly, before offering his seat up to a woman who has boarded the crowded bus.
Another two gentlemen sitting seats apart shout their conversation like there’s nobody else around.
We get back downtown. It’s been about two hours. Just one loop and it’s been nuts.
The no. 20 is huge. The 60-foot articulated (the back end swivels) trolley with poles to overhead wires is really hard to manoeuvre.
You’d assume it takes a seasoned driver to wheel that baby around.
But you’d be wrong.
#20 - AN EVENING ROOKIE ROUTE
The veterans don’t want that route, travelling down Hastings and Commercial, so it’s the rookies who get stuck driving the travelling circus known as No. 20 at nights.
“People see the ‘artic’ with the poles up in the air and they think, ‘That must be a real senior operator driving that one,’ but it’s like, no,” George Tomlinson, a bus driver of seven years, said. “It’s the most junior people there are because of where it goes.
“It’s a trolley so you’re always on the wire. It’s so hard to drive, you’re constantly on.
“The makeup of passengers just keeps changing and changing . . . going to the worst parts of town.
“When we get a new depot manager that’s what I do, I take them out on that run and they’re like, ‘Oh . . .’”
Just weeks ago a passenger, who sucker-punched a driver and shattered his orbital bone because the driver asked the passenger to pay his fare, was sentenced to 60 days in jail after breaking probation.
Many drivers, however, don’t see enforcing fares as part of their job, especially not on the sometimes dangerous and always unpredictable downtown Vancouver routes.
“Many people feel they have the right to travel without paying,” said driver Rupinder Thind. “That’s not my concern. I have no issue with not paying a fare as long as they behave well and give me respect.
“I give them respect. I’m a human being, I deserve respect back. I don’t count how many and I don’t bother them. My main concern is safety — of myself, my bus and my passengers. And then I go home to my family.”
The same passenger can get on one day full of “pleases” and “yes sirs” and “thank yous,” then get on the next day and call the driver all sorts of names.
Security is called, the disruptive passenger is removed. Then the next day he shows up all nice again.
CONSTANT BALANCING ACT
It’s a constant game of analyzing moods with some of the more troublesome passengers drivers face.
There’s also the balancing act of letting someone on for free — say they’re shivering and soaked after a January evening in the Downtown Eastside — and dealing with other passengers who get upset because they’ve coughed up their money.
That’s the reason drivers don’t want to hear your story about why you can’t or won’t pay. They don’t want to draw the attention of the other passengers.
“Think of [fare jumpers] as a fellow human being,” Thind said. “Give him a ride. Maybe you’re saving him. Maybe he’s going home now.
“Those things we have to deal with right there and then. You can’t just say, ‘You have no fare, you go out.’”
The next time Thind saw the wet and cold guy who had no money for fare, the guy gave him a gift of chocolate.
“He said, ‘From me to you. Yesterday you gave me a ride.’”
Put it this way, driver George Tomlinson said: You’ve got people in the Downtown Eastside, especially in winter, who are just looking for a place to get out of the wet and warm up a bit.
“They just want a place where they can sit down and feel like they’re somewhat safe,” he said.
LOST AND FOUND
You wonder how someone could leave their bike behind on the front of a bus, until you consider that just a couple of weeks ago someone left behind their late-model Porsche on the deck of a ferry.
Alcohol. It’s a mind-bender.
People leave purses, wallets, phones. You could plant a forest of umbrellas with the number of them that are forgotten on buses.
And it’s just as amazing how many times forgotten items are turned in and returned to their owners.
Take cash-fat wallets, for instance.
There’s something you’d think people would be happy having returned, but sometimes they claim there was more money in the wallet than is being returned.
(Again, alcohol — if you go to the bar with $200 and are drunk enough to leave the wallet on the seat of a bus, maybe you actually spent a fair chunk of it yourself.)
“Now that we have cameras on the bus,” driver Al Hoft said, “we open the wallet, go like this [turns his fists outward as if he’s spreading open a wallet]. This is how much it is.
“During the Olympics I found two wallets, both stacked with American cash, about $300 US each. Full of credit cards, business cards, everything.
“Bikes — we have a lot of those. Some days we’ll come back here to the depot and there’s three of them sitting there in the lost and found area. You go, ‘Hey, wait a minute, that’s a $1,000 bike!”
RIDERS GENERALLY HONEST
People are pretty honest, driver Rupinder Thind said.
“They find something, they bring it to a driver instead of taking it themselves and bye-bye.
“Very, very honest, I find. Small thing, big thing, they bring it to the front and say someone left this behind.”
As far as anyone at TransLink knows, no one has ever left behind a baby. Yet.
SPIT AND RUNS
There you are, driving your bus into downtown over the Granville Bridge, when a great big guy comes up behind you and starts threatening you. Oh, great, you think.
The bus travels all the way down Granville and turns onto Cordova.
A couple of stops before Main Street the big guy says, “I’m just going to kill you.”
You continue driving to the next stop, remaining silent. You get to Main, where the courthouse and police station are, hit the master brake, open the doors and run.
Relaying the tale to fellow drivers, you tell them: “I knew at the very worst I might have to climb up onto the top of a cop car because they’re parked all along there.”
The driver did the smart thing, union rep George Tomlinson said.
“He didn’t interact, didn’t respond, didn’t escalate it,” Tomlinson said. “He just let it all happen and looked for his opportunity to get away.”
The number of bus-driver assaults in the Lower Mainland is half of what it was six years ago — last year there were 116, compared with 242 in 2006, Peter Arkell, an assault and worksafe prevention specialist with Coast Mountain, told the Sunday Province.
That’s for 3,500 drivers and 800,000 passengers (including SeaBus) daily.
But Tomlinson said that isn’t true of the Vancouver routes, which he said average six to eight driver assaults a month, most of them passengers spitting on a driver.
“People spit and run, that’s the common one,” Tomlinson said. “And it’s disgusting.
“We get people with mental illness, drunks, addicts, and it doesn’t matter what they look like. They can look like anybody, they can be dressed any way.
“If they’re aggressive, we’re sitting there, we have a steering wheel in front of us, we have a seatbelt on, we have no way to defend ourselves.”
COLOURFUL CHARACTERS GALORE:
There’s the random goon or shouter. Then there are the regular colourful characters.
Such as the guy drivers call Linus.
Like the Peanuts character, he always carries a blanket.
He could just as easily be called Pigpen because of his body odour.
Bipolar or schizophrenic, he’d head to his mom’s place when he needed to get his head together every two or three months and seemed to have settled down on the return trip back to his home.
But mom couldn’t help his BO, apparently. Sometimes drivers just wouldn’t let him on the bus because the smell was so overwhelming.
There’s John and his ghetto blaster. Yes, some people actually still carry them around in the iPhone age.
“He’ll have his good days and his bad days, like a lot of regular passengers,” says driver Al Hoft. “Sometimes you have to tell him to turn it off because he’ll go to the back of the bus and just figure he can crank it all the way up.”
Then there’s a woman they call Pauline. She claims to have Tourette’s and sometimes she’s on her medication, sometimes not.
She goes to the back of the bus and begins panhandling. If she’s on her medication and drivers ask her to sit up front and not bother anyone, she does.
If she’s not medicated, she’ll wander back and the commotion begins as passengers begin to lose their patience with her requests for handouts.
“You never know what you’re going to get when you let them on,” Hoft says. “Like Pauline’s outbursts. It’s pretty scary when all of a sudden a four-letter outburst comes from the back of the bus.”