Sunday, January 31, 2010

Speaking Frankly

To date, I have refrained from telling bus customer stories in this forum, out of respect for my passengers' privacy. But this story wants to be told.

It was a slow Saturday. The customer who boarded was not one I remembered seeing before...which is mostly to say, I didn't recognize his jacket. I don't remember names and faces, as a rule...too many of them. Clothes, however, cue me in as to whether I've seen the person earlier in the important piece of information in the type of customer service relationships I have both on the bus and at Farmer's Market during the growing season. I mainly need to know whether or not I'm supposed to act as if I remember a 2-minute conversation with them from earlier in the day, or if I'm supposed to greet them as if I haven't seen them for a week.

He boarded quietly enough at one of my layover points, but as we waited for my departure time he began to chat at me a bit. Typical slightly disgruntled out-of-towner stuff about how much better/faster/easier the busses are wherever they come from. I focused, as I should, on driving, while tactfully throwing in enough "Oh?"s to prevent offending him by seeming to ignore him. Years of practice have trained me to do this semi-automatically, based on vocal inflections and pauses, rather than on actually paying much attention to the words. I would far rather get "busted" for distracted listening than distracted driving.

When we arrived downtown, he ceased his monologue and rose to deboard the bus. As he passed by me, he paused, and alarm bells started in my mind. A female driver learns the warning signs--even one who wears a religious covering over evidently gray hair. Sure enough, he started to speak to me again, this time in a strained, nervous voice, as if it were hard to get the words out.

Even though I knew (I thought) what was coming, I am a highly trained professional customer service person. I am never rude to passengers, since that could escalate a situation and place me in danger. Staying calm on the outside, I mentally rehearsed the exact reach for the "panic button" for the video camera, waiting for the appropriate moment to trigger it.

"My name's Frank" he haltingly began. Yep, same line, different face. Normally they smell of alcohol, and I'm prepared for this script. This one caught me off guard because he hadn't seemed "impaired" when he boarded. He continued, turning away from me as he mumbled the next words so I could only make out part of what he said: "I was wondering if you mumble mumble me."

My tactic in this case is to pretend I didn't hear, and ask them to repeat. Either they will be ashamed of what they said, and say "Nothing. Never mind." and quickly flee the scene, or (if sufficiently well along in their celebration of the day) they will repeat it more loudly and clearly, and that's the time to trigger the Drive Cam.

He was halfway down the steps by this point, but he swivelled his head to look me in the eye for an instant (they never do that!) and started over. "Frank. My name's Frank. If you're the praying sort, would you pray for me, please? I'm in a real difficult situation right now."

He took the last step to the curb and walked on down the street without looking back, heading to the homeless shelter.

In case anyone wonders why I persist in wearing my funny rainbow prayer covering day in, day out...THAT is why. Because it told Frank that I was someone he could ask to pray for him. Would you ask that of someone wearing a John Deere cap? Or a cowboy hat? Or a fancy little number with feathers on it? Would you even walk up to someone with a fish on their car, or a cross around their neck, and ask them to pray for you? Probably not. But something about the covering invites people like Frank to take that risk, when they have nothing left to lose.

Yes, Frank, I will pray for you. And I will let others know to pray for you as well, by sharing your story.

1 comment:

Wandering Coyote said...

Wow, Natalya, that is a really great story and I appreciate your sharing of it. I still remember you making that covering and I'm glad you still wear it!