The bus driver's mind

Mr. Yost navigates our terra incognita

Doug, 36, and Steve, 50, take the bus every day, “for five, six years now. You can be there on time [at the bus stop],” Doug says, “but if the bus is early, it just leaves early too. They don’t seem to wait."
  • Doug, 36, and Steve, 50, take the bus every day, “for five, six years now. You can be there on time [at the bus stop],” Doug says, “but if the bus is early, it just leaves early too. They don’t seem to wait."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

As a kid watching The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason playing an enraged maniac at home and a bus driver at work, I wondered what it might have been like to ride on this guy’s bus. Of course, the old sitcom was set in New York City, where hostility is hardly a remarkable fact of life, and we never got to see “Ralph Kramden” at work. But in my imagination, he was always throwing people bodily off his bus, slamming the doors shut just as some out-of-breath old duffer jogged toward a heart attack and the bus stop. I pictured Ralph-of-the-short-fuse grabbing transistor radios playing loud Negro rock music from juvenile delinquents, smashing the things to pieces, and booting the punks out the rear door, Pow! Right to the moon.

Bob Newhart, the comedian, had a comedy LP in the early ’60s called The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back! I wish I could find it. This was at a time when comedy records were big, recordings of the shtick of Jonathan Winters, Shelley Berman, Myron Cohen, Vaughn Meader, and Lenny Bruce. On the Newhart album was a bit called “School for Bus Drivers.” I am unable to quote from it, but the idea was that the instructor would train prospective drivers in the art of slamming doors in and on faces; pulling away from the bus stop at the last minute, leaving passengers stranded and late; driving rudely; and torturing riders in every way. The instructor would have them run through these exercises again and again until their skills were equal to those of the Marquis de Sade. It was a riot. My father used to laugh until he choked listening to that routine. So did I.

Yost: “The gas pedal? If you take your foot off of it, the bus will stop. It’s like a brake. It’s a dead-man’s brake. It takes a little getting used to.”

Yost: “The gas pedal? If you take your foot off of it, the bus will stop. It’s like a brake. It’s a dead-man’s brake. It takes a little getting used to.”

My experience with bus drivers in New York was similar, if not as cartoonish. Moving to San Diego, during periods of carlessness, I was impressed by the equanimity of transit drivers, though there were a few who you could tell hated their jobs. They drove angrily, hit every pothole with glee, and made every turn a demonstration of G-force and an opportunity for intense isometric exercise as you stood or sat on your way to your destination. Never mind asking them a civil question, much less trying to pass the time of day with conversation. You might as well try to chat up a prison guard transporting felons.

Dale Yost has been a bus driver for Chula Vista Transit for three years. He was also a prison guard at Nebraska State Penitentiary for a time and a cop on the Fort Worth, Texas, police force in the ’60s. Yost, at 56, a former Navy signalman as well, should be one son of a bitch, which is why it is curious that he is the Angel of South Bay’s #705 bus route. He is a friend, job counselor, baby-sitter, and helpful guide.

Yost, at 56, a former Navy signalman as well, should be one son of a bitch, which is why it is curious that he is the Angel of South Bay’s #705 bus route.

Yost, at 56, a former Navy signalman as well, should be one son of a bitch, which is why it is curious that he is the Angel of South Bay’s #705 bus route.

Yost is formidable, the body of a wrestler or linebacker. You can picture him as a cop or prison guard with whom you would think twice about arguing. He usually wears a baseball cap or visor, the kind tennis players or card dealers wear. Nearsighted, he wears glasses, often tinted, and is partial to shorts and dark socks and black sneakers.

Yost was born and raised in Lincoln, Nebraska. His father owned a liquor store in the city. “I spent some time on a farm with my cousin,” he says. He is driving to the bus yard, on his way to work in his 4x4 Chevy Blazer. Golf clubs and bag are stowed in the rear. “I was milkin’ cows, balin’ hay, stuff like that. I went to Saratoga grade school. Before I became a teenager, I used to ride my bike and go fishin’ a lot.

On Saturdays, Yost pilots the #706A from the trolley station through the Chula Vista Marina and RV park, doglegs around H Street, I Street, Fifth Avenue, J Street, a long stretch down Third, then D, Second, the KOA campground, C, Fourth, E, and then back to Woodlawn and the Bayfront Trolley Station.

On Saturdays, Yost pilots the #706A from the trolley station through the Chula Vista Marina and RV park, doglegs around H Street, I Street, Fifth Avenue, J Street, a long stretch down Third, then D, Second, the KOA campground, C, Fourth, E, and then back to Woodlawn and the Bayfront Trolley Station.

"I had a BB gun. I shot birds and streetlights. Oh, I shot my neighbor in the ass one time. When they confronted me about it, I denied it. But I hit her right in the ass. I think I did it on purpose. In junior high school I kinda got in a lot of trouble. I started hanging out with these guys that were kind of disenchanted with school. I thought it was cool to just sit there and not do anything, just sleep during class. I got set back one semester in junior high. I dropped out of high school after one semester. At that point, my mom had had enough of my shenanigans and she said,‘Well, maybe you’d be better off gettin’ a job.’ So I worked at McDonald’s and a car wash, and then I joined the Navy when I was 17. Became a signalman.”

Yost pulls the Blazer into the parking lot of the Chula Vista bus yard next to the Bayfront Trolley Station at E Street, where he begins and ends his daily circuit. As we get out, I look at the golf bag full of clubs in the back and make a mental note to ask him about them, not that I’m interested in golf, but I’ve noticed that when golfers get to talking about the game, they reveal all kinds of things about themselves they may not intend to.

We pass some time in the tourist information center, where Yost flirts with his friend, Kim, behind the counter. Yost loves women and will talk about them among the guys with all the locker-room machismo of Andrew “Dice” Clay, but in their presence, he is shy, deferential, and engagingly awkward. He asks Kim if she got the birth certificate he sent her and she says she did. From what I gather, Yost found a website that will supply you with a birth certificate facsimile that looks real, but the infant photo is that of a chimpanzee. “It was supposed to be a joke,” Yost explains when Kim seems only mildly amused.

“I know,” she says, but her smile is a little tight as she hands maps to a couple from New York.

Bonita Vista Middle School students. “You guys want to get off here?” We are not at an authorized bus stop, but in the middle of nowhere, with stretches of grassy hill to either side of Otay Lakes Road.

Bonita Vista Middle School students. “You guys want to get off here?” We are not at an authorized bus stop, but in the middle of nowhere, with stretches of grassy hill to either side of Otay Lakes Road.

While Yost gets coffee from a machine (“I can’t drink that Starbucks stuff; it rockets you into another dimension”), I study the bus route and schedule for the #705. From the trolley station to Woodlawn Avenue in Chula Vista, then along E Street, stopping at Broadway, Fifth Avenue and every numbered avenue down to First, and Bonita Glen Drive, past I-805 and along Bonita Road, stopping at Plaza Bonita shopping center, then Willow Street and Allen School Road. From there, the bus heads south on Otay Lakes Road. Yost will pick up students from Bonita Vista Middle School and Bonita Vista High School, ending the route at Southwestern Community College. He then drives back the same way, a circuit of about an hour and 15 minutes that will be repeated seven times during the shift.

The #705 pulls in. It is the shift change and Yost’s departure time. He greets the bus driver getting off and chats with him for a moment, looking over the driver’s seat, controls, and array of mirrors at various angles.

Today is a slight break in Yost’s usual routine: this is one of the big 40-foot natural gas-powered buses, as opposed to the 30-foot diesel-fuel polluter he usually mans. He seems to be looking forward to it, but then he always seems to be looking forward to something, and something that’s bound to be pleasantly interesting.

The big ones are not easier to drive, however. “The gas pedal? If you take your foot off of it, the bus will stop. It’s like a brake. It’s a dead-man’s brake. It takes a little getting used to.” He is adjusting mirror angles to monitor the rear door, the bike rack in front, the left lane, the right lane, the passengers. Five mirrors altogether. If one suffered from, say, attention deficit disorder, driving a bus would not be a realistic career choice.

I steer Yost back to his former lives. He elaborates on his checkered past. “I was in the Navy for four years. I got out the day before I was 21. Right about the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It was January of 1965 and we [the U.S. Navy] had been there since August of ’64.

"Thank God I missed out on that. So I got out and worked for my dad in his liquor store. I had several jobs. I worked as a taxicab driver, I worked at a meatpacking plant, and I worked as a prison guard and a policeman. I worked about six months at Nebraska State Pen maximum-security prison. It was very interesting, and it was also kind of boring. It made me appreciate working with people that are free. People that are locked up are very manipulative and hard to deal with. It’s hard to draw the line where you can be friendly and where you can’t. I was definitely not hard-nosed. I’ve got a people personality. Matter of fact, I was probably a little too lenient, which was not good. Also at that time I was a budding alcoholic. When you’re a practicing alcoholic, you tend not to be too honest and you get yourself into situations you later regret.”

Yost received leather goods from prisoners in exchange for certain items he brought in that were contraband. He told me what they were, and while it didn’t seem all that terrible to me, it was still illegal and Yost is not happy about it to this day. Yost sought his fortune in Fort Worth, Texas.

“My sister lived down there. She worked at Neiman Marcus. I went down and put in an application at the FWPD, and then I decided I wanted to go on to California. So I did. After a short time, I figured, so much for that [California] and went back to Nebraska. Later on I got a call that they (the Fort Worth Police Department J wanted to hire me.

So I went back to Texas and got the job. I went to the police academy, and I managed to get through it. I had a little problem with reading comprehension and they told me I wasn’t gonna make it, but I cut down on my drinking and partying. I stayed home and studied a lot. I transcribed all my notes and I made it through. I wasn’t on top of the class, but I wasn’t on the bottom either.”

As to situations Yost found himself in as a policeman, one in particular haunts him. “One time I was involved in a scene, supposed to be a rescue, where a man and woman had beaten their child. I guarded the back of the house while the other cops went in the front to arrest them. The child was taken to the emergency room with multiple contusions and abrasions and all that stuff and it died. The kid was probably about two. The mother was out of her mind. When you looked at her, you couldn’t feel anger because she was so out of it. She was not in her right mind, and you knew no jury would ever convict her. Probably on drugs, prescription medication, maybe schizophrenic...” Yost trails off. He seems to have been around the block in his head with that scene replaying behind his eyes, trying to make sense of it. He turns to happier memories. “I liked to catch burglars.” He grins. “I liked everything about the job. I liked the feeling of power and authority, driving a police cruiser. But I had a little problem with my driving and got involved in a little minor accident. One day, while making a U-turn, I hit a parked car and I didn’t report it. I decided to settle with the owner without telling anybody at the department about it. But they found out and as a result of that plus the fact that at one time my police revolver was stolen out of my car while I was sittin’ at a bar... They made a note that I spent a lot of my off-duty time in bars, which 1 didn’t see as a problem as long as I showed up and did my job. I figured what I did on my off-duty was my business and no big deal, but I was asked to resign. It was real hard for me. It was really humiliating. It crushed my ego.”

Yost’s career as a policeman lasted almost two years. Steering him back to burglar-catching: “The first one I caught, he was running from the scene of a break-in. We just happened on the scene. It was early in the morning and we were just getting off (the shift). I fired my gun and it scared the guy. He fell down in the weeds and I cuffed him. He’d been trying to break in to this little honky-tonk bar that didn’t have any money in it or anything. Most he could have got was money out of the vending machines.” Yost is laughing, presumably at the mighty brainpower of petty criminals.

“So I went back to Nebraska and worked at the prison again. I got forced to resign from that.” Yost had resumed his contraband trade in the joint and got caught. “One of the inmates snitched on me. I was asked to take a lie-detector test, and I refused to take it. So I resigned.

“I worked for a while at the University of Nebraska in the mail room. I was a shuttle-bus driver carrying mail and films and stuff like that from one campus to another, between the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.”

While Yost is speaking, I realize I have no idea where I am. This is San Diego’s terra incognita to me. It might as well be the outskirts of Timbuktu — and, as it turns out, with about as much English spoken.

Eight people get off at E and Fifth, mostly Hispanic, Asian, or both, maybe Filipino. One Japanese-looking youth with a backpack and a crew cut smiles at me as we each make an after-you gesture as he disembarks from the #705. Later, Yost will tell me he is deaf and mute and occasionally depends on Yost’s visual cues for his stop. While listening to Yost, I had peripherally registered the young Asian. He seemed delighted by people around him and fascinated with animated conversations he could not hear. Possibly he lip-reads.

I ask Yost how it is he came to drive buses in San Diego. “When I retired from the Navy, I worked as a security guard for a while and I worked as a counselor for a while and I worked as a cabdriver. Things didn’t work out as a cabdriver. I wanted to be an hourly employee and they wanted me to work on commission. So we split our ways. I went down here to the career center, and I didn’t know what 1 wanted to do. A guy there said, ‘Either shit or get off the pot. Make up your mind.’ So I decided I wanted to be a driver. I applied as a bus driver and I got it.” After a month of training, Yost was driving solo on the road. He became something of a personal chauffeur for hundreds who are unlikely to see the inside of a limousine in their lifetimes and has become friend, big brother, entertainer, and pilot, ferrying tons of flesh, metal, and rubber down the drags of the extreme American southwest.

Yost makes eight dollars an hour with medical and dental benefits. What he likes most about the job is “the people. Seeing the different people every day, or the same ones, interacting with them. That’s what I like.” What he likes least? “The monotonous routine. Never covering new ground. I know every bump on the road. I could almost close my eyes and let the bus drive itself, but it demands your attention.” As to distracting passengers, he says, “After a while you learn how to deal with it so it doesn’t cause you a lot of anxiety or frustration. See, you know when somebody gets on that bus they’re probably only gonna be on there maybe 15 minutes. I can pretty much put up with anything for 15 minutes.

“If people are loud or obnoxious, I don’t focus on it. I don’t take it personally. I let ’em do their thing as long as they’re not threatening anybody or harming anybody.” But Yost has had some hairy incidents. “One time, I had a kid, a gang-banger. He got on the bus at Plaza Bonita and the kid had a confrontation with some other gang members and he sort of hid on my bus. I closed the door so the others [gang members] couldn’t get on. When I left, headed back to Bayfront Trolley, I stopped at a light at Bonita Road and 805 and these guys pulled up in a car, jumped out, and hit the window of the bus with a tire iron. Cracked the window and scared the hell out of people. The kid was sittin’ right next to the window they smashed. They did it so fast and I was so stunned, I didn’t even get their license number. Apparently the kid had sucker punched one of them and they wanted to even up the score.

“Another guy, he was, like, in his 20s or early 30s, got mad at me once because I wasn’t leaving [the bus yard at Bayfront] when he thought I should be leavin’. He said, ‘Let’s move this fuckin’ bus now.’ I said, ‘I’ll move it when I’m ready.’ He didn’t like that response and said, ‘You better move it, old man, or I’m gonna kill you.’ So I called in to my supervisor, who happened to be a female. She came over and said to the kid, ‘What’s your problem.’ The kid said, ‘There’s no problem, lady. But if you don’t get off this bus, there will be a problem.’ So she backed off the bus. When she got off, I got off. I didn’t turn around to see what he was doin’ and he got off the bus and hit me from behind, in the ear. He knocked me down and broke one of the lenses of my glasses. Hurt my knee, hurt my elbow. When he got me down and started kickin’ at me, other people jumped in between and the guy took off. But he came back to the same place at the same time the next night. This time there was a male supervisor who chased him down and arrested him. But in the process, the guy threw a brick and hit a trolley cop. I guess they dropped or dismissed the charges of assault against me, ’cause I never heard anything about it. So they probably nailed him for assaulting a police officer.

“It was a case where I let my alligator mouth overload my hummingbird ass. Now what I do is, I tell people I have to stay here till a certain time. Or I have to wait until the trolley from downtown comes before I leave. I announce it. I don’t just turn around and come back with a smart reply when people want to know what’s going on. When people don’t know what’s going on, they get excited and it creates tension. You gotta know how to not let things escalate and how to defuse things. If you don’t, you become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

“On the 701 bus that I drive sometimes, kids like to throw rocks at the bus. For shits and giggles. You drive a certain area down there. Melrose? And Main? They either throw rocks or fruit, eggs, anything. The bus is a favorite target. I can understand throwing eggs and tomatoes and stuff, but rocks... You could hurt somebody sittin’ in the bus. Somebody you don’t intend to hurt.”

We are still headed inland on E Street. You couldn’t quite throw a rock (or an egg) and hit Yost’s home, a trailer in Imperial Beach, but it’s only 15 minutes away. Aside from the radio to the dispatcher or supervisor, Yost carries a cell phone and often takes calls from people he sponsors in a 12-step program. Yost has been clean and sober for 18 years and strikes me as one of the most genuinely happy people you could point at. I once heard him tell a sponsee who relapsed into chemical abuse, “That’s okay. You made a mistake. You went out and did a little more research and development. But you don’t have to do that anymore.” He spoke with the same lazy Midwest-via-Texas drawl with which he announces street names. No “You idiot! What’s wrong with you? You loser!,” no judgmental reprimand or even a note of disappointment.

Moving down E, stopping at nearly every block, Dale Yost is greeted by passengers for the most part with smiles and some brief exchange, often in Spanish. Yost has a repertoire of espanol, but picture John Wayne speaking Mexican and you’ve got Yost’s accent.

A young woman I’ll call Shawanda gets on near the shopping center. She is in her late 20s or early 30s, wears a Chicago Bulls jacket, and clutches a Bible bound in red leather. She stands at the top of the few steps at the front door and strikes up a conversation with Yost, whom she seems to know well. Shawanda is a fry cook at McDonald’s and is being offered a manager’s position for another 25 cents an hour. “I don’t think you want to do that,” Yost advises. He suggests Denny’s or a cafeteria job at San Diego State, which he hears is hiring. “The wages and benefits are better,” he tells her. They discuss this for some time. From my seat (for the elderly or disabled) behind the driver, I catch only part of the exchange. In the aural foreground are street noises, the bus engine, and loud conversation vying with the squeals and laughter of kids from Bonita Vista Middle School. One thing is clear, Shawanda is listening to Yost’s advice, asking him questions, laughing when he teases her, and then frowning, weighing her future options.

When she takes a seat behind me, I introduce myself and ask her if she knows Dale well. She says she sees him often and has known him for a few months. “Yeah, we’re friends, you know.”

Interviewing Shawanda about Yost is preempted when she begins interviewing me. “So how do you get published?” she asks. “I’ve got chapters of a book about my life and overcoming drugs and I think it would help others.” I write down Literary Marketplace, Writer’s Market, and tell her to look at agents’ listings and that the Chula Vista library is sure to have these books. What I am trying not to say is that asking writers for advice on publishing is like asking a degenerate gambler at the track for racing tips. Instead, I ask her what books she reads and enjoys and she holds up her Bible. “That’s a good one,” I agree. Presently, she gets up and says good-bye to me and to Yost, who says something to her that makes her laugh.

Down the road a piece, the middle-school kids start yelling at Yost, “Hey! You missed our stop!”

“I did?” Yost sounds apologetic. “You guys want to get off here?” We are not at an authorized bus stop, but in the middle of nowhere, with stretches of grassy hill to either side of Otay Lakes Road. Still, Yost begins to pull over. Something he is normally unwilling to do is to stop anywhere other than designated areas, but if he was distracted and missed the kids’ stop, it was his fault, maybe, so...

“Nah, we’re just kidding,” one of the kids shouts from the back, laughing. Four others, around 12 years of age, join him. It is apparent that they, too, know Yost, and this is their way of interacting with him, saying, in effect, “You’re okay. We’re gonna mess with you. It’s our way of showing we like you.”

“Oh, I see,”Yost grins at them in the rearview mirror and pulls back into the right lane. A girl with pigtails and glasses, gangly limbs and unlikely grace, strides up the length of the bus and begins laughing and talking with Yost. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but it looks like a teasing contest and they are both holding their own.

At Bonita Vista High School, slightly older kids get on board and the noise level rises. Some will get off a stop later and change for the #704, #709, or #711; others will continue on, turn around at Southwestern college with Yost and the #705 to disembark along E Street. In a way, Yost’s route, passing a parochial grade school, middle school, high school, and college, is a tour of a good portion of South Bay’s educational facilities.

Other sections of the route, such as stretches along Otay Lakes Road and Bonita Road, are rural, scenic, and charming, with only occasional clusters of homogenous condominiums. This contrasts sharply with the franchise row of E Street: stucco-and-neon fast-food eateries, shoe chains, and less gaudy small businesses: flower shops, plumbing supplies, and fabric stores with the look of plucky but exhausted enterprises treading upstream against corporate predators. Without the punctuation of transplanted palm trees, it could be Anywhere, USA. Chula Vista from the windows of the #705 transit bus is populated with Mexican, Filipino, and Asian immigrants. A goodly scattering of black families is woven among white retirees on their way to or from a trailer or RV or maybe a small family home on a side street with an American flag jutting from the porch.

The fare box is broken and everyone rides for free today. With each passenger, Yost presses a switch marked FREE or PASS, but he will not give out transfers. This suits most riders just fine. One middle-school kid grins at the news like an eighth grader from the Midwest told school is closed for a snow day. Others sway down the aisle with attitude and satisfaction: they just put one over on the system. One man, however, isn’t quite satisfied and wants to press his luck. He has the air of a homeless transient, but his clothes are clean, if old, his shoes match, and his face is shaved, except for a white mustache. He has been carrying on a dialogue with the driver for ten minutes or so, complaining, from what I gather, about harassment from the cops. Yost says, “That’s what I call the high cost of low living.”

“Give me a transfer, man.”

“No. I’m not givin’ out transfers. You’re ridin’ for free.”

“That’s not fair.” “Sure it is.” Yost laughs. “It couldn’t be more fair.” The mustached man shrugs, resigned; the world is full of inequities directed against him personally. The Veterans Administration, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the IRS, and now Chula Vista Transit is on his list. Had Yost been less disarming, less quick to laugh or listen to the man’s tales of his life, the exchange might have been a very different one. The man is quick to be contentious — probably not a favorite with bartenders or policemen — but Yost’s attitude conveys a lightness that suggests the lack of a bus transfer is hardly cancer. The driver’s sense of perspective seems contagious. His equanimity seems to set a tone for the duration of the ride.


In the next few days I take note of other bus drivers on other bus routes around town. My limited survey — about a half-dozen buses and drivers — confirms my impression that Yost is not your average urban cattle-car jockey.

One driver, a woman behind the wheel of a bus whose route will take you between Kensington and downtown, seemed to enjoy gossip with her regulars about another bus driver — presumably on that same route, though that is uncertain. I must re-create the conversation from memory. No names, no route numbers, no guaranteed accuracy and, one hopes, nothing actionable.

“Well, he used to work with mentally disabled and the elderly.” the bus driver says. “He was like a nurse or something, then he wanted to become a professional boxer.”

Passenger: “He’s got a lot of anger. You can tell by the way he drives. My stomach gets all upset on that bus. I don’t take that bus anymore.”

Driver: “Anyway, I guess he didn’t make it as a boxer.”

Passenger: “He’s frustrated.”

Driver: “I guess. The other drivers don’t like him. He’s nasty to women. Got a dirty mind.”

Passenger: “He’s always tellin’ me I look fine. But 1 don’t like the way he says it. He’s good lookin’, though. There’s just somethin’ wrong with him, I think.”

Driver: “He hasn’t done anything actually bad.”

Passenger: “One day, though...”

Driver: “Maybe...”

I wonder if the bus driver under discussion is one I encountered in Hillcrest some weeks ago. As to being good-looking, I never know what women mean by that. Brad Pitt? Denzel Washington?

This guy’s greeting to me when I boarded his bus and said “Hi” was “That transfer’s expired.” I looked at it. It was issued at 12:36 p.m. My watch told me it was just before 2:00. He waved me to a seat. “Next time you gotta pay. Transfer is good for two hours.”

“Yeah, well, actually it’s only been, like, an hour and a half.” I felt the need to point out that I wasn’t trying to pull a fast one.

He ignored me and lowered the ramp for a very heavy man in a wheelchair. The bus heeled sharply to starboard as the chair lumbered onto the platform. The driver got up and checked the straps impatiently. Once at a level with the aisle, the driver pushed the wheelchair as if it were a hand truck stacked with boxes of cantaloupe. The driver then wrested the handicapped seat straps away from the man and wrenched them tight with a few angry yanks. “Hey!” the seated man started to complain. He, too, was ignored. The driver turned right on University against a yellow light and hit the brakes behind a car double-parked in front of a newsstand. Packages and passengers were whipped forward, then back. A few things rolled down the aisle and riders tried to retrieve them.

“Remain seated!” the driver called out, “I got a situation here.” He then proceeded to lean on the horn as traffic passed him to the left and a young woman with a cell phone and an armful of magazines emerged from the shop, got leisurely back into her car, and unhurriedly pulled away. The bus driver did not let up on the horn until the woman turned on Tenth Avenue.

I was on my way to get my eyeglasses repaired (the result of two kids at a bus stop, by the way, who swung at the bridge of my nose, one after the other, and snapped the glasses in two; I had stepped on one of their feet and my apology was unacceptable, apparently — bus drivers do have a lot to put up with, you must admit) and Pro-Mec Optical was only 20 blocks away. I could walk it. I stayed on the bus, however, and arrived in one piece.

Dale Yost is a consistent exception to the rule of caprice in the behavior and attitudes of transit drivers. I conducted a brief and informal survey of passengers at the Transit Store on Broadway. A woman of a certain age named Ruth, while waiting for the #11, had this to say: “Most of them are very nice. The 7, to the zoo, for some reason, unless you’re standing in the exact spot you’re supposed to, will pass you by. Some drive very jerkily. But the women are terrific Invariably, when you miss it [he #7 ], you wait a long time and then two will come at the same time. That seems to be freaky.”

A younger woman, Cindy, has no complaints and compliments her usual early-morning route driver for waiting for her if she’s “a touch late.” She adds, “I’ve only been taking the bus since July, but my experience has been positive so far.”

Another young woman, Walkman clamped to her head, shouts, “Some are nice, some are mean,” and shrugs. “San Diego does not have the best transit system.”

“Have you ever taken the bus in Los Angeles?” I ask, possibly a little too loud. But she is back under both headphones, lost in what sounds like Yanni. She smiles and nods.

Doug, 36, and Steve, 50, take the bus every day, “for five, six years now. You can be there on time [at the bus stop],” Doug says, “but if the bus is early, it just leaves early too. They don’t seem to wait. In general, the women are all right. It’s the male bus drivers that are surly. But not all of them. The surly bus drivers are mainly, like, on the 7 and the 11, the 3 and 4, the 1 and the 25.”

Steve adds, “They don’t care. It’s like they would rather be doin’ somethin’ else.”

“The buses that will really help you out are the 5 and the 16, the 9 bus..." Doug is ticking them off on his fingers in an effort at fairness. “The buses that go toward Clairemont “Where does the 7 go?” I ask, since this is the second complaint about that one. But Doug doesn’t seem to hear me. “One particular bus driver on the 27 we don’t like. It’s at about 3:30 in the afternoon, on the way to Pacific Beach. He will stop practically ten feet away from the bus stop and little old * ladies have to walk the ten feet. Also, when you’re getting off the bus, he’ll start going before you even get off the bus. Someone’s going to get hurt one day.” Doug and Steve seem happy for the opportunity to vent. Later, phoning San Diego Transit, I learn that the possibly problematic route #7 weaves in and out of University Avenue from La Mesa to Park Boulevard and downtown Broadway. I have taken that bus and recall no atrocities.


On Saturdays, Yost pilots the #706A from the trolley station through the Chula Vista Marina and RV park, doglegs around H Street, I Street, Fifth Avenue, J Street, a long stretch down Third, then D, Second, the KOA campground, C, Fourth, E, and then back to Woodlawn and the Bayfront Trolley Station. It is a chill, gray Saturday, in the late afternoon. Yost isn’t ferrying many passengers in his burgundy-colored bus. The sky threatens rain and the windshield is occasionally spattered, but

Yost’s spirits aren’t dampened. On the contrary, he’s luxuriating in the fact that he’s got a bus with working windshield wipers and radio. You don’t see these wine purple transit vehicles in the metro area. The disabled favor them because the rear side entrance is exclusively for wheelchairs. The seats seem roomier and, at least on this one, there are no advertisements clustered above eye level.

“You just missed this guy,” Yost tells me.“He’s a fisherman and he doesn’t like to bathe. Man!” “Smells like fish?” “He smells worse than that. Dead fish. Four-day-old dead fish. He doesn’t visit the rain locker very much. Doesn’t believe in showers. He gets on the bus down there at the marina and he rides to C Street. I just can’t wait to drop him off. It’s, like, ‘Oh, please.’ If he didn’t stink so bad, I’d talk to him. Somebody told me he’s kind of an interesting guy to talk to, and I thought, well, I guess — if you can get past his stench. I’d have to speak to him from afar. I could appreciate him more. I mean, we all stink at times, but this guy makes a career out of it.”

It is, in a perverse way, good to know that humanity can offend Yost too. Too much saintly tolerance can be intimidating. For example, Yost’s passing comment on being “a counselor for a while” involved a yearlong commitment at the Volunteers of America at 1111 Island Street downtown, the central detox station and three- to ten-day dry-out program for alcoholics and drug addicts. The idea of a year at this taxes my altruistic imaginings.

“Yeah, I facilitated these alcohol-recovery classes,” he elaborates. “They were regular classes on a day-to-day basis. I would show movies and there were lectures on the 12 steps and relapse prevention, how to get along better with people. Just little things that help people that are new in recovery. I volunteered for six months, and then I was a paid employee for another six months.”

Remembering the golf clubs in the back of Yost’s Blazer, I try to catch him, draw out the Ralph Kram-den in him he is surely hiding. Golf may be the key. “You seem pretty unflappable,” I say. “What about golf? I’m not a golfer, but I know some and I know it can bring out the hostility in people. Do you ever lose it on the golf course?”

“Well, I did a long, long time ago. Ten years ago, maybe. I remember throwin’ golf clubs and gettin’ mad ’cause people were hittin’ their balls near us. But usually what happens for me is, when I get angry like that, later I feel foolish. It makes me feel ‘less than’ to lose control of myself. At one point, I decided not to take things so personally and enjoy myself when 1 play. It’s a game. Why beat yourself up? I had a friend who would get so uptight he would quit before we were done playin’ the game.

He’d go home, like a little kid We’d all laugh about it. He’d have a temper tantrum.” Yost imitates a child crying, rubbing tears from his eyes. He thinks this is hilarious.

I notice Yost is carrying a John Grisham novel and we talk about bestsellers for a while as we pass the Butcher Shop, Oriental buffet joints, JCPenney, Burger King, International House of Pancakes, Furniture Depot, Walgreens, and Sunny Donuts. Along Fifth Avenue, residential Chula Vista, we’re on the subject of Stephen King and his beer-and-cocaine habit. It is then that God decides to join the conversation. We are passing a Lutheran church and on the marquee (or whatever the churchly equivalent would be called) are the words in black plastic letters: “HAVE YOU READ MY #1 BESTSELLER? — GOD”

I comment on this and Yost just says, “Oh, yeah.”

When I ask Yost about any road-faring mishaps, he mentions a couple. “I was pulling away from a stop and this guy cut in front of me. I had to stop suddenly and this lady, who was standing, fell.” “Did she sue?”

“I don’t know. Probably. I still see her once in a while. Now I always try to make sure people are seated before I move or stop the bus, especially the elderly. All it takes is one incident like that and you get more cautious. Another time I was rear-ended. I was lettin* people off at a stop and this girl in a van behind me wasn’t payin’ attention and ran right into me. Did a hell of a lot more damage to her car than it did to the bus.” As he speaks, Yost’s eyes are automatically moving from the road to the mirrors. “Yeah,” he repeats, almost to himself. “All it takes is once...to really, really get your attention. Like when that lady fell, I went,‘God, I never want to do that again.’ Or slam-min’ the door on somebody...” He looks as if he is remembering another incident, but he doesn’t elaborate. I wonder if he dreams about driving buses. Before I can ask him, he says, “Those are preventable accidents. Like, if there isn’t room for an older person to sit, then you ask a younger person to get up and let them sit down.” I have never seen a bus driver do this to my recollection. “I don’t want them to fall,” he says and abandons the subject for more lighthearted conversational fare.

He comments on some skateboarders moving through an intersection. He admires their skill but puzzles over them, “You ever watch them? That is so incredible. These kids bang their head into a post, have to have stitches, then they’ll get back up and do it again.” He looks at me in the mirror and smiles widely.

Driving through the KOA campground, we talk about fishing and how there isn’t much to catch around here except maybe carp. “I prefer freshwater fish. The only place 1 really enjoyed fishing was Minnesota. I liked to catch walleye and northern pike and perch. They’re really good eating. You don’t have to be a genius to cook perch.” After a brief, head-scratching examination of the incomprehensible but remarkable phenomenon of ice fishing in the Midwest, Yost is laughing about frozen lakes, whiskey, and hypothermia as he pulls back into the bus yard at the trolley station. His laughter is infectious and articulate in itself.

The first passenger to board as Saturday afternoon becomes Saturday evening is Mike Crossley. He has long, curly, wheat-colored hair and a wispy beard. He looks like a young apostle in a motorized wheelchair. He has a “lighter form” of cerebral palsy. “Any complaints today?” Yost asks him. Crossley doesn’t like the old buses. He prefers these purple jobs because “their wheelchair access is better; it’s flush with the street.” Crossley just smiles at Yost as the driver opens the disabled door and lowers the ramp. Yost takes his time strapping Cross-ley in comfortably and raising the platform.

“You guys know each other, eh?” I am remembering the driver in Hillcrest who strapped in the disabled guy like he was securing a hostage.

Crossley nods, “A really nice gentleman.” — John Brizzolara

John Brizzolara’s novels include Wirecutter and Empire's Horizon. In 1997 he received the National Conference Media Award for Journalism.

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