Sunday, 1 January 2012

The Art of Saying No

This is a republish of an article from last year, before this blog was vandalized. I'm reprinting in as an email request from a reader. 


It was nearing 4:30 on a Friday afternoon as I pulled into the northbound stop on St. Laurent at Innes road. There was a standing load on my (what was then) 85 route, and the end of the line couldn't come fast enough for me... only three stops to the freedom of a well earned weekend.

Standing at the stop were two women, one a young version of the other. The young lady stepped on, placed two tickets in the fare box, grabbed a transfer, and looked back at her mother who had two Pizza Hut boxes in her hand. That is when the argument began.

"Sir, I'm just two tickets short."

These are the words that cause more stress to transit drivers than any other words a passenger could utter. Rationally, my job is pretty clear in this regard. Collect proper fare, provide timely service. It's not exactly rocket science. This must be the only industry in North America where a customer would argue over whether a service should be provided to them for free, so long as they are nice about asking. I have never been to a movie theater and overheard a customer try and finesse his/her way into a movie by stating "I am just a ticket short". Ditto the grocery store. Bread is cheaper than bus fare, but would anyone really expect the cashier to let it slide out the door for free?

"I'm really sorry, but I have to ask everyone to pay."

That is my standard response. It doesn't matter how old you are, what you look like, what you are carrying, that is always my first response.

"Do they take it out of your pay cheque?"

I could see that this had taken a turn for the worse. Understand that at this point, all I had said was one phrase. I didn't ask her to get off the bus, I didn't say it in a rude manner, I didn't judge her. I only toed the company line. Collect proper fare, provide timely service.

Years have passed since this incident, and a bit of revisionist history may be present as this incident is not an isolated one. Years of having similar conversations may have jaded my memory a bit, but the rest of the lecture I received went as follows:

"Do they take it out of your pay cheque? Seriously. I am ONLY two tickets short."

I replied that I have to ask everyone to pay, and two tickets really is the entire fare.

"They must take it out of your pay cheque then right?"

I replied "No, they don't. But they ask me to ask everyone to pay."

"What is it to you anyway? It's not like they count this stuff you know. You just want to be an asshole. A big power tripping asshole. Oooooh. 'I drive a bus!'. You know some drivers are cool. They would give someone a break. You could use your discretion. You could let me on."

She stepped off the bus at this point, and I looked back at (who I had assumed to be) her daughter to see if she was going to follow. She did follow, looking a little embarrassed at the situation.

At this point with both of them off the bus, I looked back at the front seats to try and gauge what the other passengers thought of the situation. I couldn't get a good read, but in my moment of distraction the woman yelled at me that I was "The Biggest Asshole In The World".

I beat out Bin Laden, Saddam, and child molesters alike. It's me. What a prize.

I've done a bit of soul searching over the years as I deal with the public. I've come to the realization that treating people well is a great feeling. It makes my job better, and it makes my life better. The concept of 'paying it forward' is such a happy place to live. The more I do it, the better I feel. Having said that, I still use the same phrase "I'm really sorry, but I have to ask everyone to pay." when faced with someone who asks to board for free. Paying it forward does not mean I need to be a doormat.

Using discretion is a funny concept in the eyes of the general public. What exactly is discretion? In this driver's opinion, discretion is reserved for situations that passenger cannot reasonably be expected to pay. It's midnight, last bus, I lost my wallet. Or, you're a regular customer who forgot your pass... I know you have one. The big blackout a few years back... no one could use ATMs.

But standing on the corner of St. Laurent and Innes, two pizza boxes in hand from across the street at 4:30 in the afternoon? You want to pay by finessing you way onto the bus? Maybe you just have a good story, and you'll hope I'll buy it? Maybe you're a really pretty woman who will smile at me? Two weeks ago I had a woman stand beside me chatting flirtfully for 15 minutes, only to work herself into asking me for a free day pass. "I wouldn't normally ask this, but..." The whole conversation was tailored to convince me to 'use my discretion' and give her a free pass. So the next few people who ask to board for free... would I then revert to my standard response?

Believing a good story, or giving in to a friendly flirt, and then telling someone else that they need to pay...I wouldn't be using discretion there. 

That would be better defined as "discrimination". 

And who, really, wants us to use that?

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