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Back to the Back of the Bus | The Nation

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Back to the Back of the Bus

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Stories from DART drivers are worse, and have the rhythm of the job. Check out the morning's schedule: three pickups, 6:10 am. Just try to be in three places at one time. Fourth pickup, 6:13; late before the day begins. Drive along, dispatcher's on the radio: someone just called for a ride; find a way to squeeze her in. Start calculating, How many riders need to be at work by 6:30? How many more on the list? Can't be late but can't speed either. Another stop; another signal from the dispatcher. Got to make time. Beside the road, someone's waving and the rain is pouring down. "Where you going?" Look at the schedule, look at the watch, how many more? "OK get in." (Think, "You'll get there but God knows how you'll get back." Dispatcher says, "They'll have to tough it out.") Someone's asking a question; listen to the passenger, listen to the dispatcher, try to turn a corner; another stop, another pickup; worry about the passengers, worry about traffic. The schedule's always overbooked, and it's almost 6:30...

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JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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Joe Price, a driver thirty-three years, finally had enough and now runs his Friend-Tell-a-Friend grass-cutting business full time. Betty Taylor complained and was demoted to washing buses. Bennie Jackson, president of Amalgamated Transit Workers Local 765, was one of about a dozen union drivers fired over the past two years, and the local has lost almost every time it's gone to arbitration. It's a rare driver who works eight hours; most work only four, and everyone is looking for extra hours. At the end of a run, if a driver comes into the station late, he or she might be sent home or lose all chance for extra time. Ezra Harden, the union's recording secretary, drove the DART last year, and the stress landed him in the hospital. Now he drives one of the 1970s-era fixed-route buses and agrees with Joe Price that "Montgomery shouldn't have to endure this."

Montgomery took one step for change last year. It elected a new mayor, Bobby Bright, a white Democrat who promised racial unity and restored bus service. Bright had support from the Montgomery Transportation Coalition, including Local 765, the Montgomery Improvement Association and other grassroots groups, and it's a mark of how bad things were that the current crazy-quilt service is seen as a step up. Now, DART is to be phased out as fixed routes expand, but there's no timetable or ready money. Discount fares are back, but many people still don't know about that. The most hated transit-service managers were recently replaced--one is under investigation after official files were found in the city dump--and lower-tier managers whom drivers accuse of harassment are feeling the heat.

But at a deeper level the coalition's Jon Broadway wonders, Why does the city of the bus boycott endure this particularly insidious expression of racism? Drivers aren't quiet anymore, but most, according to Harden, "are job-scared; for some of them if they lose their jobs, they can't pay child support and now they could go to jail." Institutionally, the union's history has been one of backdoor deals by leaders who soon after move into management. There's no modern equivalent of E.D. Nixon, whose Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was a major force in the boycott.

The black community is divided. The pastors, historically engines of organization here, have been almost entirely absent from this fight. "They're not concerned about those who have nothing in their pocket," says Price. But the Rev. James Nuckles of Antioch Baptist Church, now a city councilman active on the transit issue, says, "The entire black community watched the bus system go down. If we've got to blame anyone, we've got to blame that term called 'prosperity.'" Until the past few years brought the triple hit of downsizing, welfare reform and mandatory auto insurance, he says, it was easy to be complacent. To people who'd always had a ready ride, the "transit dependent," a k a really poor people, could be invisible. That's changing, Nuckles says, as more people are forced to find what some here call "get-by solutions" to transportation; with elected officials now attentive to the matter, he expects major improvements in the system within a year. Meanwhile, the transportation coalition, with no staff or full-time agitators, strives to gather more support, with mixed results. The Southern Poverty Law Center, for instance, which maintains the Civil Rights Memorial here and is currently assaulting the Capitol area's landscape with a glaring new office building, rejected the coalition's requests for $5,000 and $10,000 grants, hoarding its $120 million endowment to battle a Klan that can only fantasize about hurting people the way transit racism has.

At the Montgomery County Department of Human Resources JOBS Program, Carolyn Rawls says that when welfare-to-work case managers meet with people, "the first question is 'Do you have a car?' Typically, the answer is No." Typically, too, the people in question are young and black and female, with children and little chance of getting a car, even less of getting insurance they could afford. (Nationwide, only 6 percent of people on public assistance have their own vehicle.) The average welfare check here is $194 a month, and to get it almost everyone has to be enrolled in a class, a placement program or some kind of work. The county reimburses up to $150 a month for transport costs, but few women have the cash to lay out in the first place. The state welfare-reform program has never provided transportation money.

"Even though clients have to move from welfare to work, how can they?" Rawls asks. "They have to get children to daycare. They have to get themselves to work or placement. A significant number of them or their children have medical problems. They have to go to school for parent-teacher sessions. By the end of the day they'll be traveling from thirty to eighty miles round trip."

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