T bus drivers find patience tested

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By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / February 3, 2011

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Driving the MBTA’s Route 11 bus yesterday between City Point and Downtown Crossing, Carolyn Gillis had to slow or stop for the following amid the snow-narrowed streets of South Boston: a home heating-oil truck parked the wrong way, obstructing the road; a Honda CR-V camped in the travel lane with its blinkers on, its owner marking off a space nearby before heading to work; a snow-covered Lexus SUV, parked squarely in the middle of a bus stop.

That was not the sum total of obstacles for the morning, but the tally for a single pass down East 8th Street, less than a mile long. One street, one bus, one route out of nearly 200 plied over and over again by MBTA drivers who carry 400,000 riders a day. It may be the least glamorous but most essential arm of the T and it is rarely more important — or more challenging — than it is in the snow and sleet, when more leave cars at home.

Consider the bus Gillis had for the morning, Number 0472. Built in Colorado in 2004, it is 40 feet long and weighs 42,700 pounds; the width is listed at 8 1/2 feet, but the mirrors make it 10. Now consider East 8th Street, which was laid out in 1873 — modern by Boston standards but hardly designed for the two traffic lanes and two rows of parked cars it would eventually hold.

With snow encroaching on the roadway, with a succession of obstacles, and with freezing rain pelting the windshield, Gillis yesterday traversed East 8th in 12 minutes, 8:29 a.m. to 8:41 a.m., passengers boarding at almost every block. Along the way she rolled her eyes at the illegally parked Lexus (“one of many’’), waved cheerfully when the home-heating oil truck did its best to back away quickly, and smiled at riders as they filed in, clutching coffee mugs and peeking up from hoods and soggy winter hats.

“Nothing you can do about it,’’ Gillis said afterward, shrugging. “Take it slow.’’

She made it through East 8th with nary a side mirror nicked, but the sluggishness on that street contributed to a 25-minute ride from the City Point pull-out to the Broadway stop on the MBTA’s Red Line, 11 minutes longer than the schedule suggested, but Gillis made up 5 minutes on the subsequent leg to the downtown turnaround.

A parking ban and lighter-than-usual traffic on major arteries helped her pick up the time, but so did her decisions. When a young woman attempted repeatedly to insert an invalid CharlieTicket — maybe her own fault, maybe the T’s — at the firebox, Gillis encouraged her to just find a seat, considering the crowd already filling the bus and the half-dozen waiting to board outside.

On the outbound route, the bus now mostly empty, Gillis gave thanks for the sight of bare pavement (“They did a good job plowing the streets.’’) a day after yet another snowfall; for the fact that it was not trash day — the trucks are another obstacle to on-time performance; and for the cold rain that fell yesterday in place of the forecast snow. “I hope it stays rain all day,’’ she said. “Wash it all away.’’

At 49, Gillis has logged 23 years as a T bus driver. She is one of 330 part-timers who drive only during peak hours, to support a full-time crew of 1,252 drivers, according to the T.

Gillis, who lives in Quincy, started yesterday just before 5 a.m. She drove for five hours on the Route 11 — taking momentary breaks at the City Point turnaround, where the drivers have a cinder-block hut, as the schedule allowed — and then had six hours off. She returned in the late afternoon to log a few hours driving the Route 7, another bus that serves South Boston, in the evening rush.

She is nonchalant about winter weather, saying, “it was scary the first snow storm, but as the years go on you get used to it,’’ and about how she became a bus driver in the first place. “It just happened,’’ Gillis said. She was a young homemaker with two children, and she put her name in the T’s jobs lottery.

Donald Souliere, on the other hand, always knew he wanted to drive for the T. He grew up in Dorchester and rode the Red Line and the bus everywhere with his mother, who did not have a car. He always sat up front to watch the bus drivers, and his favorite moment was when an inbound driver would wave to an outbound one, or vice versa. “I want to keep that tradition going,’’ he said yesterday, on one of several laps on Route 9, which runs from City Point to Copley Square and back, via Broadway.

Souliere, at 36, is entering his 15th year with the T. There were some hiccups his rookie year — the power steering gave out as he pulled out of Forest Hills on his first week, blocking traffic and requiring a crew of four to turn the wheel; he fish-tailed on Blue Hill Avenue on his first day in the snow. But he is now an old hand. He has finished as high as 10th in the Bus Roadeo, the annual skills competition for drivers, and relishes the challenge of driving in the winter.

Whenever it was safe to do so yesterday, Souliere slowed the bus or steered it around large puddles, to avoid sending slushy water cascading onto the sidewalk, and he advised riders which exit to use, depending on the terrain.

On West Broadway, he maneuvered to pick up a woman with a red umbrella standing in the street, because two work vehicles — one from Boston Public Works, one marked Mass Pike — occupied the bus stop outside Rondo’s sub shop. On East Berkeley, a vast snow bank completely blotted out the curb and the bus stop; a man with a knit cap and a gray goatee stood astride it like Sir Edmund Hillary, grasping the bus stop sign like a flag planted on Everest.

At St. James Avenue, he anticipated a bakery truck that was about to back out of the one-way street, swinging to avoid it, and at Copley Square he navigated among a quartet of buses collecting and depositing passengers. Back in South Boston, he took note of the space savers, though none were as unusual as the fluorescent fake pig he once saw strapped to cinder blocks in a parking spot.

“It makes me laugh, to this day,’’ he said. “The pig beats everything.’’

When his break came up, 5 1/2 hours into the day, his mind wandered to his driveway in Randolph. “Wish I could go home and shovel,’’ he said, but he could never make it there and back in time to drive again in the afternoon. “Hopefully it won’t ice up until I get home.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at