In 23 years of driving a Baltimore bus, Kenneth L. Adkins has worked every route and shift, but he says he finds something new every day.
The Richmond, Va., native joined the former Baltimore Transit Co. when a friend suggested that bus driving offered a better future than pumping gas at his father's service station. The private transit company was soon acquired by the Mass Transit Administration, the state agency that now runs Baltimore's bus, Metro and light rail systems.
Mr. Adkins, 45, an Arbutus resident, is one of 1,097 full-time MTA bus operators. He receives $15.66 an hour, the standard for a driver with at least 42 months of experience, and he supports a wife and 3-year-old son.
With seniority, he has chosen an early-morning shift -- rising at 3 a.m. to work the 4 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. shift from Bush Division in Southwest Baltimore, one of four MTA bus terminals. Mondays through Fridays, Mr. Adkins drives a No. 10 from Dundalk to State Center.
Q: Driving a bus seems to some like being a bartender. Are you always hearing people's problems?
A: Oh, yeah, all day long. It's a lot like a bartender. There was this young lady who got on downtown and she had some problem with her husband not paying the bills. She wanted to sit up front and tell me about it.
What could I do? You go through stuff like that. Something happens differently every day.
Q: How much of your job involves steering a bus and how much involves handling the people on board?
A: I guess you could say 90 percent is about driving a bus.
But all day you're constantly dealing with passengers. You can't stay out there all day long and just worry about one thing. You have to watch everyone and everything, cars, traffic, people.
Q: What's the worst thing to happen to you on a bus?
A: I guess it was the time the little old lady threatened to hit me with an umbrella. This happened years ago. I told her, 'Miss, I hope you don't do that, because I might forget you're a little old lady if you hit me with that umbrella.'
I think I was a couple minutes late to her stop.
Q: What do you fear most during your shift?
A: Nothing really. I'm on the street very early in the morning. There're rarely many people out there. But you do see some unusual people. I call them vampires. When the sun comes up, you don't see them anymore.
Q: When the light rail system opened, a lot of the senior bus operators chose to become light rail operators. Why didn't you transfer?
A: Because after 23 years, I can pick what shift I want, and I can get a weekend if I want. The people over there are forced to work weekends. They only went over there so they don't have to come in contact with the public. They're in a cage by themselves.
Q: How has driving a bus changed in 23 years?
A: Before, you didn't have any air conditioning or power steering, and no way to keep in contact with the dispatcher.
If someone got up there and smacked you upside the head, you couldn't call on the radio. You had to jump off and call on a phone or flag down a policeman.
Now, all you have to do is hit a button. It's a better job today.
L Q: What's the most frequently asked question by your riders?
A: Do you go to . . . blank? We mostly get the same passengers every day, and the people who ask are the same ones every day. I'm serious.
Q: How do other drivers on the street react to a bus?
A: You have some who you can actually see mash on the accelerator to keep from letting you out when you signal.
Some people just don't like to see a big vehicle -- a bus or a tractor-trailer -- get in front of them.
Q: What's the appeal of bus driving?
A: I enjoy being outdoors, but not being outdoors and doing any hard labor.
Q: You hear more complaints or compliments?
A: A little bit of both -- compliments when there's snow or bad ZTC weather. But you hear complaints because people can't get where they want. They go back and mumble. I heard from a lot of people during the last fare increase. Passengers think . . . the fare increase goes in our pocket.
Q: Are there any misconceptions about bus drivers?
A: Yes. Some people think we're lovers. A lot of guys are actually jealous of you. They think every operator wants their wife or girl.
Years ago, I was on the No. 20. It was a big, wide bus that didn't have a partition behind the driver's seat. A lady got on and sat directly behind me. I was sitting at a light with maybe 20 passengers on the bus.
And she reaches across me and nibbles on my shoulder.
I was stunned. I felt it, and thought, 'This lady didn't do that.' I just sat there and everybody busted out laughing. This might have been 15 years ago. You get a lot of propositions, phone numbers rolled up in transfers.
A: Yes, indeed. You'd be surprised. Sometimes, it can be a hassle.