Bus drivers route cheer to riders

Sara Goo

Every day 20,000 people use the University bus system. For many, bus riding becomes a routine part of the day: a chance to get from one campus spot to another and occasionally see a familiar face.
Perhaps the most familiar of these faces are those of the bus drivers. Although the encounter may only be for a few minutes each day, bus drivers at the University say meeting students is one perk in a job that can often be monotonous and stressful.
Willie Holland, a 45-year-old driver of the East Bank Circulator, said he prides himself on getting to know the students and faculty members he picks up on his daily route.
Those who know him call him “Chillie Willie,” a name bestowed on him by the school children he picks up on his afternoon job.
“They think I’m a cool bus driver,” Holland said. “I’m like one of them, in a way.”
“Did you shave your head again?” a female student asked Holland as she stepped on the bus.
Holland laughed and picked up his black wool hat to show her that he still keeps warm despite his bare scalp.
Every 15 minutes Holland makes his rounds from Eddy Hall to the East Bank dorms in the shuttle bus.
“He’s the best bus driver,” said Laura Lebak, a chemistry major who got on the bus at Territorial Hall. “The other ones are mean and unfriendly. They’re grouchy.”
Holland turned around from his bouncing seat and thanked her for the compliment.
Casual interaction between bus driver and passenger is the highlight of the day for many drivers.
“Driving itself could be monotonous, if it weren’t for the people,” said Leroy Salinas, a driver of the Washington Avenue Bridge Circulator.
Salinas, 52, is a no-nonsense driver who clocks his route to the minute.
“It’s three-and-a-half minutes (to Blegen Hall) and three-and-a-half minutes back, every quarter hour,” Salinas said.
Salinas has been driving campus buses for four years, but he’s made a living of driving for more than 10 years. He named the different routes he’s driven, and it sounded like a recipe for alphabet soup.
“There’s the 13S, the 52s, the 13G, N, S, F, G, but mostly B,” he said.
Salinas said he likes the University bus route changes this year, which use names for the routes instead of numbers and letters. But he said the changes have caused problems because fewer buses make the rounds, sometimes leaving less room for students.
“You fill up the bus, sometimes leaving people behind,” he said. “They’re looking at you like, ‘Hey, what about me?’ But there’s gonna have to be people not getting on.”
Although his employer is Medicine Lake Lines, the company that subcontracts with the University, Salinas said he considers himself part of the campus.
“I guess I’m a big part of the U because without this, students wouldn’t get to class,” he said. “I feel pretty involved in that sense.”
Salinas said he’s met not only passengers, but also University employees he sees during his breaks.
“I’ve got to know a good number of people who work at the (West Bank) book store and coffee shop,” he said. “I’ll go talk to whoever’s there, like Judy or whoever.”
Bus drivers each have different ideas about how much interaction they want with their passengers. While Salinas said that just seeing familiar faces is enough, St. Paul Circulator driver James Edwards, 46, said he takes it a step further.
“I have been known to distribute unprofessional advice,” Edwards said. “Most college students are younger. Most of the young guys talk about girls. Most girls don’t dress properly for the (cold) weather. See, I have to remind them to put a hat on.”
Edwards said he’s like a parent to a lot of his riders. He added he wants to make sure they have a good day.
“When you get on my bus, I want you to not be stressed,” he said. “I just tell them it’s not that big of a deal.”
While wrinkling his forehead as if in deep thought, he explained his philosophy about students: “I think all kids should be allowed to fail. Because if you always succeed, then you have nothing to shoot for. If you fail, at least you have tried.”
Edwards said he thinks education is very important. He attended a community college for a few years and then became interested in music.
When he was 20, Edwards said he was asked to play drums for an orchestra, but turned the job down. He said he now regrets it, though he still entertains — both by playing in a band and by driving a bus.
“What we are exactly, are closet entertainment,” he said, exposing his toothy grin. “We’ve got a captive audience. We’re in control. We’ve got control over the door and the heat.”
Edwards smiled and fiddled with the separate heat controls for the front and the back. “See this here, if they get grouchy, well, there goes the heat!”
Driving around all day also gives drivers a lot of time to think.
Mel Magee drives the East Bank Northern Circulator every morning while nibbling on a bag of carrots and listening to KSJN, a classical music station. Patience is the key to his job, he said.
“I can chew carrots and drive at the same time,” Magee said.
Magee, 58, said he enjoys sharing his opinion about just about every subject with passengers. In addition, he has published about six letters to the editor in the Star Tribune. The topics range from politics to his area of personal expertise — traffic.
“I wanted to be a philosopher by the time I’m 40,” he said, pausing. “I think I am.”