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Bus Driver's Rough Ride on the O.C. Bankruptcy Express

April 21, 1996|Dana Parsons

Mind you, Lucinda Murphy is not complaining. In fact, she loves her job. It's just that she's a 45-year-old bus driver who has been with the county for 9 1/2 years, and her eyes are wide open about life along the route. Sometimes, what she sees and hears ain't pretty.

"Every day there's something new," she says, and you're not sure if she's about ready to laugh or cry. She's sitting inside her mobile home in Westminster, trying to describe what it's like to drive a bus, about the days that start at 4:52 in the morning with someone screaming in your face. It doesn't take long for me to decide it's a job I wouldn't want.

"OK, typical example yesterday," she says. "I'm doing Westminster Avenue, and there's a lot of construction going on, and as I'm approaching Brookhurst, I make an announcement that there's a temporary stop on the west side of Brookhurst and this is the stop for Brookhurst and everybody who wants Brookhurst, this is your stop. As I get across Brookhurst, the guy goes, 'I want off.' I said, 'I already made the announcement,' and he says, 'You effing bitch, I couldn't hear you.' "

As a public servant, Murphy says, she's willing to accept helpful comments from the public. It's just that she'd like her superiors to come ride a couple routes with her and see what it's like.

"They are oblivious to what we really go through," she says, "because they've never ridden a bus. The Board of Supervisors or our Board of Directors have never ridden a bus, so how do they know what we go through? What I'd love to do is to take the supervisors and the directors with me for five days. I want them to see if I deserve to be called an effing bitch."

I don't know if those board members have ever ridden a bus or not, but Murphy doesn't make it sound like much fun.

I ask for another story. "A couple weeks ago, I was doing Brookhurst, and there was an 18-year-old in what we call the shotgun seat. We'd been talking and he rings the bell to get off. He hits the curb and starts out in front of my bus and, guess what? He's six feet under. A car nailed him. That was quite an experience, to watch an 18-year-old lose his life."

There is a context to these stories, and that is that bus drivers are in a labor dispute with management. The drivers are taking a strike vote Saturday because management wants to reduce their pay and benefits to help offset the impending loss of state revenue that's being rerouted to county government for bankruptcy relief.

"They negotiated very well with the mechanics, but they won't give the drivers what we deserve," Murphy says. "We're the backbone of the company. We're out there on the front lines. We take the crap that people say, and some of it is not pleasant for females."

Experienced drivers make about $17 an hour, and the union thinks the Orange County Transportation Authority would love to privatize the operation. "We're sacrificial lambs for the bankruptcy" Murphy says. "They didn't ask the mechanics to take a cut in pay. They call us unskilled labor. Anybody can be taught to drive a bus, and that's the way they put it."

But isn't that true? I ask. "Theoretically," she says, "but can everyone be taught empathy for the passengers? I handle 300 to 500 people from all cultures, and I have to know how to communicate with them."

In addition, she says, drivers have to be sensitive to needs of disabled riders, including those with wheelchairs.

But all that is cake, compared to the passengers who seem to delight in tormenting drivers. There's the guy who boards with a $20 bill, not bothering to get change. There's the guy who swears his buddy is meeting him at the end of the ride and will pay the fare then. There's the person with the invalid transfer insisting to be taken aboard. There's the drunk with the foul breath and attitude. There's the guy who subtly shows the gun in his waistband.

And that doesn't begin to take into account what the job is supposed to be about--driving a bus safely.

Are you sure you like your job, I ask Murphy.

"Yes, I do," she says. "I love it. I thrive on my job. I'm just telling you what is happening out there and the abuse we go through for what the company wants to squeeze us over. It's wrong what the company is doing. But this is my job and I love it, or else I wouldn't be driving."

I ask what will happen if there's a strike.

"I've already told my colleagues I will cross the picket line," she says. "I care for my passengers."

* Dana Parsons' columns appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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