(The author 'gets it')
Those of us who ride the bus on a regular basis take it for granted that the man – or woman – behind the wheel is going to get us where we’re going safely. But few of us give much thought to the driver and what he or she does, aside from stopping the bus, opening the doors, and accepting fares.
It turns out that there’s a lot more to it. And Bill Locher can speak to almost all of it.
He started driving a bus for Milwaukee County Transit more than 30 years ago and more recently, has helped oversee the training of new drivers.
Locher says driving a bus is an education in human behavior. A UWM sociology graduate, Locher says he's seen students on his bus reading the same the same texts he studied.
"I remember telling a young guy, you could put that book away and just take notes on what you see on the bus and I guarantee you could pass your professors tests and quizzes, because all that's (on the bus)," he says.
Locher has worked for the Milwaukee County Transit System since 1979 – originally as bus driver and more recently as a trainer.
He remembers the vintage model buses, complete with bifold doors, a hand brake and small windows.
"Those buses didn't have power steering, so you really had to yank that wheel to make it turn," he says.
As a kid, Locher remembers the signs his uncle used to install on buses, including one urging folks to take their favorite bus driver out for a steak. So, Locher says, maybe that has colored his attitude toward being a bus driver, which he says has overall been a positive experience.
Of course, not everyone is as friendly in return. As a young driver, he remembers getting read the riot act by a woman after he missed a connection on 76th Street. He was so shellshocked by the names she called him, another passenger, an elderly woman, put her hand on his shoulder.
"She says, 'Driver, did you know that lady?' And I said no. And she says, 'Then I guess it doesn't matter, does it?'
"And it really hit me," he says. "That lady wasn't talking to me, she doesn't know Bill Locher. She's not my friend, she's not my relative. She was talking to the uniform. She was upset because she missed the bus."
From that he learned not to take the job so personally. But sometimes, he says, he couldn't help but be moved by his passengers.
One day Locher says he was just about to take his lunch break, when what he described as a street person knocked on the window to be let on the bus. Locher had hoped to finish eating, but the man started talking about his bad day.
So Locher put away his newspaper and sandwich to listen as the man told him about the hard luck he'd had. His break was soon over and Locher had to start up the bus. The man then stood up to get off the bus.
"He didn't even want a ride," Locher says. "He just wanted to talk to somebody. He says to me, 'Thanks for making a better day for me.' And he takes his hand and he wipes his nose, which is dripping, and he holds out his hand and he says, 'My name's Steve.' And I thought, 'Oh my goodness.' I just took my driving glove off and I said, 'Hey, my name's Bill.' Because I thought again, I mean if that's all it takes to make somebody's day a better day, I got to do it. And that's kind of the way it is out there."
It's a lesson Locher's carried with him throughout his 30 years on the bus.
Locher's son is also a driver – and the MCTS staff cartoonist for the employee publication - some of his work accompanies this interview.