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Washington Bus Driver James Beale Recalls 40 Years Behind the Wheel - 2003-04-06

Millions of Americans ride buses whether it's from home to work and back again on weekdays, or for a weekend outing. In large metropolitan areas, like New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., drivers and passengers generally exchange perfunctory greetings. The driver's job is to get riders to their destination on time. Every second counts. Even a minute of pleasantries can lead to later delays in traffic. In his continuing series on jobs in the United States, VOA's Andrew Baroch decided to spend some time getting to know a local bus driver named James Beale.

"I can drive the bus with my eyes closed. I can turn a corner with this bus with my eyes closed. That's how easy it is to drive it," says Mr. Beale.

I have to admit I was startled when James Beale proposed the idea of driving his 46-passenger bus with his eyes closed. Frankly, I didn't even check to see if they were closed, as his black-gloved hands twisted the bus's wide steering wheel and his behemoth of a vehicle barely made it through the narrow gate of a housing development parking lot and out into busy traffic. Mr. Beale says the secret is to give the bus some space and close your eyes, for a few seconds.

"You're not driving a Volkswagen, you're driving a bus," says Mr. Beale. "So that means you need bus space. I think a lot of folks get in trouble when they forget the size of the equipment - be it car, vacuum cleaner or whatever. If you got a little vacuum cleaner, then you can go in a little space. If you got a big one, you need more space."

Baroch:"Sounds pretty simple."
Beale:"That's it. That's all there is to it. Once you do that, it's it."

Whatever he says. Sixty-year-old James Beale has been driving a city bus for 40 years. He's the most senior driver of a crew of about a thousand men and women. He trains new drivers and he's been honored by Metro, the local transit agency, for a record of more than a million miles without an accident.

James Beale doesn't hide his self-confidence, like the time I was on the bus with him and he pointed out that he'd arrived at a stop right on time.

Beale:"I'm due at this point at 1:34 [p.m.]. What time do you have?"
Baroch:"Exactly 1:34. How do you do that?"
Beale:"I'm that good."

Mr. Beale, a Washington, D.C., native is one of about 350,000 city transit bus drivers in the United States. They all started in the business the same way: six to eight weeks of training, then driving with a supervisor. Starting salaries average about ten dollars an hour, but veterans like James Beale can earn at least twice that much.

Mr. Beale remembers that he became a bus driver sort of accidentally, in 1962.

Beale:"I didn't want to drive a bus. I wanted to be a policeman. But I was told by Chief Murphy that I was a quarter of an inch too short."
Baroch:"The police chief in Washington at that time."
Beale:"In hindsight now, I guess he did me a great favor. There's no way you're going to put 40 years in the police force [the way I've done in bus driving], I would have been retired, sitting in some big office, making a lot of money. What would I do with that? No way."
Baroch:"You still think about it a lot, though."
Beale:"I just talk about it. It's over. It's history. Yeah."

Bus driver James Beale received a nice package of benefits: health and life insurance, sick leave, dental insurance, up to four weeks of vacation, and a generous pension plan. Nearing retirement, he's looking forward to that.

But for now, what lies ahead of him every weekday from about 5 in the morning to 1:30 in the afternoon is about 70 kilometers of driving - three round trips in all - from downtown Washington, D.C. to suburban Prince George's County, Maryland. He drives through all kinds of neighborhoods middle class, working class - some areas, where many of the storefront windows are boarded up or shuttered with iron bars and the ground is littered with trash. Mr. Beale says no matter where he drives, he keeps his guard up.

Beale:"A lot of [drivers] have had all kinds of problems - people with weapons, etc., but I've been kind of fortunate. I put a bus driver's face on, a mean face."
Baroch:"What's that look like?"
Beale:"It's scary."
Baroch:"You just had a man get on the bus who was talking to himself, a woman who claimed she'd never ridden a bus, and a man in the back who sounded like he was throwing up in the back. It sounds like you see the grittier side of life."
Beale:"I don't normally get these folks. Today, I think you brought them on. I'm hoping to blame this on you. I normally don't get that."

One of Mr. Beale's regular passengers is 20-year-old Lori Anderson, a student at the University of Maryland in College Park, which is her daily destination. On a recent trip, she stood next to him and they talked about the bus driving profession.

Baroch:"Excuse me, I couldn't help overhearing: you said you wanted to be a bus driver?"
Anderson:"Possibly yes."
Baroch:"He was telling you whether it was difficult or not. I just wondered what you learned."
Anderson:"He said there's no rush. You just drive. If there's traffic, there's nothing you can do about it. You're not really pressed for time. It's really easy. You're sitting up straight. You're tall in front of an [wide] open windshield."
Baroch:"What do think of the fact that Mr. Beale has been driving a bus for over 40 years. Did you know that?"
Anderson:"I know. He told me. I am so lucky to use the line he drives because every time around we usually have very interesting conversations. He told me that there was an event for [drivers in the job for] 30 or more years. I was like 'Oh, that's great, you've been driving the bus for more than 30 years?' He's like, 'Well, actually, it's been a little longer than that.' I was like, 'Wow, that's awesome for him to stick to his job.'"

The job prospects for people interested in being a bus driver look good. The U.S. Department of Labor says that as bus ridership increases, so will the need for drivers. There probably won't be another like James Beale.

Baroch:"This is probably the best bus ride, I've ever had, Mr. Beale. It is."
Beale:"Thank you. This is the best time of my run. In about 12 minutes, I am history until tomorrow. This is my last trip. And most of it was true."