Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Bully Pulpit

Yesterday morning, I really needed a loaf of bread.

I make toast each and every morning. Slab of bread, some time in the toaster while I splash a little coffee in the mug, then a dollop of peanut butter to melt across the nooks n crannies. It's a simple breakfast. Unless of course, you're out of bread.

So I grabbed my shoes, ignored the fact that I was in PJ bottoms and a wrinkled shirt, and headed over to the grocery store to grab a loaf of bread. Two, actually. Why waste a trip.

As I got to the cash, I realized that in my haste, I had not grabbed my wallet. The bread was already through the scanner, and I was empty handed, without a means of payment. It was clearly time to bargain.

"I forgot my wallet." I said, staring at the bread.
The cashier stared at me.
"I can hold the bread here while you go and get it?" He said.
"I really need the bread. Can I pay you next time?" I replied.
"Um, I'm sorry sir. You'll need to grab your wallet. I can't just let you take it."

There was an air of sarcasm to his response. Especially in the last sentence. I just can't let you take it.

There was going to be a problem with my breakfast.

"It'll be $3.29 when you grab your wallet sir, I'll hold it here for you." He said again, pointing to the cashier's nook beside the register.
"Look, I don't have time to grab my wallet right now. Just let me take the bread home. What's the big deal?"

I was getting angry at this stupid kid's affront.

"I'm a regular customer. I spend hundreds of dollars here every year. It's just small  amount. Does it come out of your pocket?" I stammered.

There were people behind me in line now, and he was actually starting to take this lady's items to the scanner as I stood there!

"Buddy." I started, "I need this bread right now. I've been to other stores that honestly wouldn't give a shit if I walked out with four stupid loaves of bread." I yelled, regretting using the word 'shit', but felt it appropriate.

"I'm going to have to call the manager, sir. I can't let you walk out out with product you have not paid for. Please, get your wallet, pay for the bread, then everyone is happy"

What a pathetic loser.

"Give me the God damned bread right now. What do you make? $10 an hour? Just give me the bag. NOW."

I reached for the bag, and he pulled it behind him. So I grabbed him instead. I grabbed him by the arm, and I punched him, hard, right in the face. Then I walked out the front door.

I showed him.

That's not unreasonable, is it?

If you answered "No." to that question, maybe this blog isn't for you.

We don't sell bread at OC Transpo, yet this is a scenario that plays out on a daily basis on our streets.

Transit drivers are under assault here in North America, and the number one reason for drivers getting assaulted is Fare Dispute. There really isn't much difference between the absurd scenario I just posted and a typical fare dispute with a passenger. It's a small cost transaction, and an unreasonable response from a client.

The industry term for it is even a bit of a joke. Fare Dispute. You have either paid the fare, or you haven't. Where is the dispute in that?

If you saw this scenario playing out at a grocery store, you might even step in to help the cashier deal with this idiot. Mine would be completely and totally unacceptable behaviour.  And yet on a bus? You might think less of the driver who stops his bus and wait for security to remove the offender. Some drivers are cool, right? Tell me you haven't heard that little gem?

We are transit drivers, and we are the bullied. Yes, bullied. Bullies don't just take your lunch money. Bullies use threatening behaviour to demean, intimidate, and influence. Bullies wear you down. Bullies hammer on you until you relent. Bullies make you feel worthless and afraid.

Did you know that we average over 60 full-blown assaults against transit operators here in Ottawa per year? Those are the reported assaults. Fist-hit-face kinda stuff. Spit in mouth kinda stuff. In one case, urine-in-cup-thrown-in-face kinda stuff. We as transit drivers get spit on more often per year than we get YouTubed, by a long shot. You know which one makes the news though.

What is not reported are the hundreds upon hundreds of verbal assaults we endure while trying to keep those two loaves of bread behind the counter. Every single one of these verbal assaults has the potential to get violent. Every single one of us knows this, because every single one of us has been assaulted in some form.  And every single one of those bullies knows that if he or she pushes the envelope just far enough, he or she will find that cashier that thinks its better to just hand the bag of bread over, and hope for the best.

A driver recently refused to work after being assaulted. He was reportedly sucker-punched after asking to see an expired transfer. He spent weeks with headaches, and now has the fun task of seeing an assault hiding behind every tree and shelter as he tries to recover from the trauma of a random and sudden assault. It is a natural reaction to an ambush such as his. It is scary stuff to deal with.

I have no idea what kind of recommendations will come out of an HRSDC investigation, but I can't say that I'm not glad that the issue is making some headway. A private member's bill looking to single out the transit industry had been introduced, and then stalled on prorogation, then was reintroduced recently. It has been a decade long process of seemingly low yield results. Nobody seems to care.

You can guaran-fricken-tee that if council staffers were being assaulted 60 times a year that this issue would be front-burner material.

The city has been talking about cameras on buses forever and a day now. But what will a camera really do? Like private members bills, it won't help me during an assault unless I can grab the thing off the wall and smack the guy with it.

A real deterrent might be to take OC's fleet of Crown Vic's out of service, and make these special constables spend some real time on the buses. I realize that this kind of action might reduce the Lost Tourist On The Transitway Ticketing program, but hey, what's a little sacrifice when it comes to rider and driver safety?

I want to end this posting with a letter I received from an assaulted operator. I will not edit the letter, beyond removing his name.

It is high time we do something about assaults in my profession. Ottawa City Council, OC Transpo management, Transit Law, and ATU 279, it is time we take a leadership role in this country.

This is an opportunity.

 The day that everything changed

    At the time that I was assaulted I had been an OC Transpo driver for almost 4 years. Prior to that for 16 years I had driven people with special needs. For 20 years I had earned my living with my driver's license. Not once in those 20 years was I fearful to go to work. Not once was I worried that my safety or my life could be in jeopardy in the workplace. That all changed on a dark, cold night at an isolated layup in February of 2006. As I exit the washroom facilities at the last stop on my route a man steps out of the darkness and punches me in the face. Then he charges at me swinging. The last thing I expected coming out of the washroom was a blitz attack. As I am struggling with him I trip and fall to my knees on the roadway behind my bus. He jumps on top of me and the next thing I know he is sitting astride my chest and has me pinned down on the road on my back. I was so scared. I thought I was going to die. There was no one who could come to my aid. No other drivers. No other passengers.  Nobody.  I was all alone with this maniac.  He could have killed me and OC Transpo wouldn't have known about it until they realized my bus wasn't on its next trip. I finally managed to fight him off of me. As I got up off the road I grabbed for my cell phone to call for help and he ran off through a hole in the fence into an adjoining neighborhood. He had been a passenger on my bus.  A fare evading passenger.  I knew he had boarded the bus illegally at the previous stop by jumping in the back doors. He thought the bus went further. He thought he was going to get a free ride to the airport. When I told him that it was the last stop he asked me for a free transfer. I refused and he left the bus. I had 7 minutes to use the washroom before I started my next trip and wasn't really thinking about him anymore. It never dawned on me that he could be a threat. The reality is that I was assaulted over a $3.00 transfer, a lousy piece of paper.

    At the time I was a husband, a father and was about to become a grandfather for the 2nd time. I had a good job and I was living comfortably. I had many blessings in my life. I had many reasons to be happy. My life was about to become a nightmare. During the assault I had been bitten and his teeth had punctured the skin where he had bit me. I would need immediate anti hepatitis injections and regular blood tests for the next six months to make sure I had not contracted HIV or hepatitis. For the 1st time in over 20 years my wife and I would need to practice safe sex. I panicked at the thought that my grandson might eat off of my utensils or dishes and come into contact with my saliva. Within three days of the assault I couldn't function. I withdrew from my family. I couldn't work. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't drive my car. I couldn't leave my house. I didn't bathe or shave and I had no fucking idea what was happening to me. It hadn't dawned on me yet that I know knew how it felt to be a victim. My doctor put me on anti-depressants. WSIB sent me to a psychologist. One month after the assault I am diagnosed with Major Depression and PTSD. I didn't think I would ever be able to drive a bus again. After several weeks of therapy I am finally patched up enough to slowly integrate myself back into my job. My finances had suffered while I was off work. My wife was unable to work and my house relied on my income. I was getting overtime before I was assaulted but my WSIB benefits didn't come close to matching what I could earn if I was healthy. As time goes on it gets easier to go to work but it is obvious I am not the same person.  I just keep taking the pills and hope that things get better.

    In December of 2008 the union I belong to goes on strike. Within 3 days my employer cuts off my health benefits. I convince myself that I don't need the medication I am taking anymore. Within 2 months I think I am going insane.  My mind has retreated back into that very dark and scary place that I had gone to after the assault. The strike ends and I go back to work but I can't function and I am missing days sick. I go see my family doctor and tell him I have stopped taking my pills. He asks me how that is working and I guess my answer shocks him. It gets me back on anti-depressants and a referral to a psychiatrist. I have been in therapy ever since and even though it has been 7 years I don't think I will ever fully recover from what happened to me that night. I have missed weeks and months of work because of the mental illness I now suffer from. Every day I have to take anti-depressant and mood stabilizing medications to be able to go to work and effectively do my job. These medications have side effects that nobody wants to talk about. Decrease in libido and other sexual side effects. I can't imagine having to go through this alone. If it wasn't for the love, patience, tolerance, understanding and support of my family and the connection I have with my grandchildren I know without any doubt that I would have killed myself by now.

    Because of a $3 transfer my life was almost ruined. Professionally, financially, physically, emotionally and mentally. I can't even begin to describe the effect it has had on my family. That is a whole other story.

(name removed)

1 comment:

  1. at first I was reading this and about to end it just from the story about the store thinking you have no regard for other people's policy. thank god I kept reading fantastic article and I have seen some of the layover spots you guys are kept at on late night runs ( hunt club, hawthorne, marketplace, millennium ) they don't look safe

    kudos to all oc transpo operators who stand up for whats right in life, pay the fare like everyone else its just a shame your life can be in jeopardy for 3.30