Missing the Bus.

Posted by jlubans on April 22, 2014

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Missing a bus took me back to a long-ago decision, one I’d think twice about making now.
I was hurrying to catch a bus in Riga so I could get to my class; the bus came to a stop, doors opened, but I was still 30 yards away. I waved my hand to signal the driver. Nope, the doors closed and it pulled away. Not a big deal since my route had busses every five minutes. But, what bothered me was that the driver’s ignoring me was hardly unique. I’d seen it happen multiple times – to the young or old, disabled or enabled, the bus swinging away from the curb with no looking back. Why?
In NYC, on my usual route on Broadway between 59th and 123rd St., I’ve seen bus drivers wait for regular riders. Drivers keep an eye out for regulars and others, including befuddled tourists like me. And, if they see someone mid-block, running to catch their bus, they’ll wait a half-minute. Also, as a tourist, I’ve had the bus driver tell me when my stop was coming up, even on busses bursting with people.
What’s the difference between NYC and Riga busses? In Riga, the drivers are encapsulated, isolated. You can see them through the translucent walls, but otherwise, contact, except to pay a cash fare, is non-existent. If you want to ask a question you need to bend down and talk through the money/ticket slot. In NYC, the driver is pretty much out in the open, only partially shielded from passengers. The drivers do not sell tickets or make change; you get on with exact change or with a ticket. If you do not have change or a ticket, and can’t get someone on the bus to help you out, you get off at the next stop. (That’s not always the case; I’ve witnessed a trio of homeless guys get on and then get off a mile down the road – an act of kindness by the driver is the way I saw it.) You can ask the driver questions. If you are polite with the driver, most of the time she or he will reciprocate with kindness. That was not always the case in NYC; decades ago I experienced some of the vilest customer service imaginable. The incivility stopped after a mandatory training initiative on the heels of the city’s near bankruptcy.
Driving a NYC bus is hard work. Drivers have to put up with some wacked-out – dangerous at times - behaving passengers along with the horn-honking and gesticulating drivers jockeying for scarce road space.
But, as you get on or off the bus, there is a human connection, however brief. It’s a visual and verbal connect between the driver and you – I always greet the driver getting on, and I say thank you when I get off. That human connection is why the NYC driver looks out for you. In Riga, the bus drives off even if you shout or wave within ten yards of the bus. I suspect the physical barrier to any communication between the driver and the passenger creates this rude oblivion, akin to the widespread isolation induced by social media.
OK, what does this have to do with my long ago decision?
Well, as I thought about the bus driver’s behavior, it brought to mind my decision to phase out a library guard position – the man who sat at the exit door and examined bags and satchels as people left the building. We’d gotten an electronic security system that scanned bags and so the guard now appeared, in my mind, redundant and superfluous. I concluded we no longer needed a person to look into bags; instead we’d use the money for another job.
What I’d failed to appreciate was the social function of the guard. When people opened their bags he’d always have a word or two to say to them. Often, there was regular conversation between the guard and library users. Also, the lobby was a pleasant space, well lit with clerestory windows and large glass doors along with a lounge like seating space – decorated with a plant or two. This was, at one time, a smoking space when smoking was socially acceptable, indeed encouraged. On the wall across from the guard, there was a portrait of some campus worthy and underneath the painting was the Suggestion/Answer book - on its own stand, a recycled dictionary table. The Suggestion/Answer book was for students and others to write – yes, write with a pen or pencil – their thoughts on library shortcomings and/or to compliment us about service. We read and answered each of the thousands of comments, even the ones of a college humor variety.
That lobby, as I think about it, was a “third place” - neither home nor work, somewhere in between – a gathering place for some of the library regulars – long before the now ubiquitous java shops. I suspect the guard brightened many students’ days, directed hundreds of lost campus visitors, and counseled dozens of doctoral candidates on their day-in and day-out slog. He was concierge and counselor, all in one. I saw some of this, but figured it was not enough of a benefit to counter creating a new position where the need appeared to be greater.
So, I phased out the position.
Looking back from that bus stop in Riga, I should have kept that guard. This one full time guard (the others were student employees) put a friendly and welcoming face on a vast anonymous research library.
Every now and then a comment would appear about him in the S/A book and how much he was missed. These were usually from alums returning to campus for a visit. There was no incrimination in the comment, more a simple understanding of how things change and how some of the good things get left behind. At least the S/A book remained in place for about a decade after I left. But, it is now no more. Someone decided that in this Twitter age pencil and paper were now déclassé.
Let’s never forget the human factor, lest we become like the Riga bus drivers who – no doubt, decent people, fully capable of courtesy and kindness - are denied human interaction through a misguided workspace design.

Note: Tomorrow, April 23, I lead a Special Libraries Association Webinar: “Freedom at Work”.

Get a copy of “Leading from the Middle” at Barnes & Noble.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

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