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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | VENTURA COUNTY LIFE

Road to Top Has Been Stop and Go

November 03, 2000|Steve Chawkins

The fourth-best bus driver in the U.S. and Canada eased away from the Pacific View Mall and into the traffic of Telegraph Road.

"OK then," Lester Wilson announces, "we're off and running."

A relaxed, affable man with a gold earring and a Texan lilt, Wilson won his personal best earlier this fall at the American Public Transit Assn.'s International Bus Road-eo in San Francisco.

Wait till next year, he says: The gold ring, the plaque, the $1,000 check--all will be claimed by the continent's top driver, and there's no reason this year's No. 4 can't be, Lord willing, next year's No. 1.

An accomplished softball player in his prime, Wilson takes competition to heart. In seven of the 12 years that he entered South Coast Area Transit's local Road-eo, he placed first. For years, he'd steel himself for the fray by jogging and visiting the gym. But a 1995 accident--not his fault, he quickly points out--knocked him out of the driver's seat for eight months and left him with a bad back.

So, at 58, he doesn't run, but he walks and mows his lawn and tries to keep up with the 3-year-old nephew he and his wife, Joyce, recently took in.

Sometimes the boy says: "Uncle, are you going to work now?"

Yep, Wilson says. "I've got to make some money."

"Some money for me?" asks the boy.

"Yes, money for you," Wilson says.

Four mornings a week, he gets up at 3:40 a.m. Wilson would never describe that as a-quarter-to-four or three-thirty-ish; he's driven a bus for 22 years and has developed an exquisite consciousness of time.

"I'd rather run a little late than a little early," he says; that way, he gets to pick up passengers who are running a little late themselves.

"How you doing today?" he asks. "Good morning! How are you? Good to see you . . . "

As he noses back into traffic, he sums up his driving credo:

"You've got to be all eyes and all ears," he says, adding that road rage is real and getting worse.

"DMV!" he calls out at one stop.

"PSSA," he calls out at the next. "Welfare office!"

Many of his passengers are old, disabled, poor. A young mother boards outside a clinic, carrying a tired toddler in each arm. Some passengers don't make it up the steps very quickly; others are picky about needing to be dropped two inches from the curb, and not two feet.

"I hate it when we get replacement drivers," moans Suzie, one of Wilson's frequent passengers. "They don't know that I'm not the fastest walker and can't get to the door right away."

As passengers leave, Wilson offers a good word. When a man stops to let him know that he plays guitar in an Oxnard church, Wilson says: "Well, that's just fine. You can't go wrong playing for the church."

Occasionally, he has to warn riders not to guzzle booze. Some are as foul on his bus as they would be raging down the freeway in their own cars.

"Oh, they curse me out," he says. "I've heard it all. I've been called everything but a child of God."

Wilson does more than haul human cargo from point A to point B.

He once ran off his bus to stop a beating in downtown Ventura.

Kids cutting class get the Wilson treatment.

"You should be in school," he told a 13-year-old girl.

"What for? I'm smart right now."

"No," Wilson said. "You don't even know about the beginning of what it is to be smart."

Wilson's regulars sometimes give him Christmas cards with a little cash tucked in. A woman named Hilda notes his successes in the bus competitions, the subject of near-annual blurbs in local newspapers.

At this year's, he beat out three dozen drivers in his class. The drivers--"operators," in bus lingo--vied for the tightest turns, the smoothest stops, the quickest maneuvering through a serpentine course.

"Driving is all a matter of knowing when to, and when not to," Wilson explains. Turn the wheel of your 17-ton, 35-foot monster two seconds too soon, and you lose; delay turning for two seconds, and you also lose.

Wilson's downfall: the right-hand reverse--a trick Ralph Kramden never could have mastered and no working bus driver would ever need.

"'If you're a professional, you don't complain that it wasn't your usual bus," Wilson says. "You deal with what you've got. But I couldn't get that bus to do right. I just couldn't."

At the Oxnard Transportation Center, this ride's last stop, the fourth-best bus driver in the U.S. and Canada shook my hand and told me to have a great day. He headed home to eat lunch, play with his nephew, and take his midday nap--to dream, perhaps, of next year.

*

Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

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