A love letter to VTA drivers


It’s an early morning in fall. The bus is at the end of the line — sitting at the top of the Aquinnah Circle, almost empty. The driver stands up and stretches and notes the passenger asleep in the back. The passenger is a young man with shoulder length black hair, wearing a good-quality (although soiled) jacket and pants. A backpack sits on the seat next to him. The young man is snoring quietly. He has probably been on the bus since it started its first run of the day back in Vineyard Haven. I don’t know if he’s homeless, or stoned. It’s clear that he is exhausted.

I watch as the driver walks back to him, and I dread what will happen next. Will the driver roughly rouse the guy, or provoke some kind of violent response? Instead, the driver stands above him and quietly says, “Hey, Buddy. Hey. Buddy. Where do you want to go? Did you miss your stop?” No response. Again, the driver, very gently queries, “Do you know where you want to be?”

The young man stirs, rubs his jaw and peers sleepily up at the driver. I hold my breath. He responds, voice thick: “Oh, man. Sorry. Can I go back to Vineyard Haven?” The driver nods and walks back to the front of the bus. The young man, who obviously knows the drill, stumbles behind the driver and runs his pass through the fee box, understanding that he has to pay for another trip. I exhale, relieved and impressed with the kindness and clarity of the driver, and watch the young man sink back into his seat, clutching his backpack.

It’s a hot summer afternoon. The streets are jam-packed, crawling slowly with cars and trucks and mopeds and bikes. The sidewalks are filled with weary optimists from afar, here to be with their families, hoping for a cooling sea breeze, looking for fun and connection and good food. Each group lugs bags of snacks and water bottles, sun-protecting lotions, changes of clothes for the toddlers, and towels. Some have heavy backpacks or big suitcases. Each of them has a destination in mind, even if they aren’t quite clear about how to get there. They come off the ferry with eyes darting from here to there, trying to figure out exactly how to begin, where to go.

Many walk to the bus circle by the ferry landing. They approach the buses with wide eyes and polite smiles. “Is this the bus to Oak Bluffs?” “How do we get to Aquinnah?” “Do you know how long it will be before the bus to Edgartown arrives?” They hush their wiggly children, wipe their sweaty brows. They hope for a friendly welcome and some guidance. Certainly they hope for a seat on the mostly non-air-conditioned bus.

They will almost certainly get a bus driver who knows the Vineyard well, and who understands how important vacation days can be to a family. This driver probably gives them cheerful guidance on how to get from here to there, and regales them with stories about the island (“The Wampanoag are the original people of this island …”) and calls their attention to points of interest along the way (“My favorite view is just over this hill on the right”). The driver keeps track and reminds the passengers when their stop approaches. The visitors feel relief and gratitude.

February now and, finally, we have had a good snow. I need to go to the store for groceries. I’m a good driver, but I’ve gotten older, and feel uneasy about facing icy roads with my slightly slowed reflexes. I check the schedule and realize that I can hop on a bus in about 20 minutes and that it will be the bus driver who will have to cope. I know that she will get me there safely. Figuring that I can grab a bite to eat in town before heading back, I bundle up, grab my shopping bags, and trudge up our driveway, hoping that the bus will not be late. It isn’t late. It comes right on time. The bus is warm and has only a few passengers on it —– mostly young people going to work. A girl combs her hair, expertly pulling it into a bun on the back of her head, inserting pins. A boy scrolls through the messages on his phone, while another plays an onscreen game that flashes white light every once in a while. A few people greet the driver as they get on, and most thank her when they get off. She smiles politely at each, concentrating on her main task — keeping us all safe. Which she does.

These are our bus drivers. The public face of our Island that so many hundreds of visitors see. The people upon whom we rely to get us to work, or shopping, or to school. The people who keep us safe on crowded roads. They cope with people who are confused, or psychotic, or simply lost. They respond to excited children, and querulous adults. They deal with drivers who park in the road, or pass on curves, or suddenly stop to take pictures. They have to be patient with bikers who amble along, oblivious about the hot and crowded group of people on the bus behind them.

I think they are heroes, these men and women. They deserve to be treated with respect and gratitude. They should be able to support their families, have job security, get a reliable break. They’ve said they want a union. They’ve demanded good-faith negotiation from the VTA owner, Transit Connection Inc. (TCI). They’ve been ignored, or pushed aside, for three years. It isn’t right.

Even if you have never taken a VTA ride (and if you haven’t, get on board!), if you care about this Island — if you want people to think of us kindly; if you have ever been a bewildered tourist yourself — you should join the chorus of people telling TCI to do the right thing and give the drivers the recognition they earn daily. We are a special place; our drivers are a major part of our public face — give them the scheduling and wages and security that they should have.


Kathie Olsen is a resident of Aquinnah who uses the VTA service a couple of times a month, and appreciates the service.