Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Peaceable people riding the midnight buses

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At a time of day when normally I would be snuggled safely in my suburban Winnipeg bed watching the Late Show with David Letterman, something compelled me to drive to North Main. And get on a bus through the North End.

What moved me was curiosity.

There was a news story earlier this week about the city looking at using special constables or police cadets to ride along problem routes to protect drivers from drunks and punks.

Which made me wonder.

How dangerous is it, really?

So it was that Thursday I decided to spend Late Night with Transit Tom.

It was just before midnight when I pulled into a parking lot at Main Street and Jefferson Avenue. Before long, I was joined at the stop by a 30-year-old woman wearing a hoodie with the word "Staff" across the back. "Staff," as I'll call her, was on her way home from the group home where she works. I asked what it was like to ride the bus late at night.

"It's creepy sometimes," she said.

She seemed to feel safe enough herself, but she felt sorry for bus drivers, who have to try to manage the abuse from certain passengers who are belligerent when they board or refuse to pay.

"Like, last week," she said, "some bus driver got spit on."

As for Staff, she used to work at the Main Street Project.

"So I have some police training and I've taken the how-to-get-out-of-trouble course."

Staff suggested being stronger than most women also helps. "But I've seen some smaller girls have some trouble around here. It's almost like it's OK at night."

Smaller girls like the one I sat next to when the bus headed downtown finally arrived. She was 22 and called herself Blanch D. Earlier in the evening, on the way home from work, she purposely took a longer route to minimize the possibility of running into a certifiably creepy man who had harassed her a couple of summers ago, to the point she had to involve police. She had met him on the street, not the bus, but now just waiting for a bus downtown frightens her in a way it never did before.

Meanwhile, back on the bus downtown, my attention was drawn to a commotion of sorts two rows ahead.

A young man in a white T-shirt and close-cropped hair was coming on to a young woman in a way that didn't seem to frighten her at all.

They were necking.

I wasn't expecting to be riding the Love Bus on North Main.

Nor was I expecting what I found after arriving across from the downtown Bay. At the stop near the YMCA, a handsome, slightly built young man was sitting by himself at the stop near the Y.

"I'll give you an adult bus ticket for a cigarette," he said with a smile.

He was talking to Blanch D,, who handed him two and told him to keep the bus ticket.

"Thanks," he said gratefully.

Then "Pyro" -- the name I later chose for him -- asked if he could borrow a lighter. That turned out to be a segue into the story of his life so far.

Pyro explained he wasn't allowed to possess a lighter of his own after being arrested for arson. Pyro seemed proud he had set three big fires, and, at age 19, was up on 38 criminal charges.

I asked him what his parents think. Pyro said he didn't have any parents.

"They died when I was young."

He said he had grown up in foster homes. Moments later, he butted out his half-smoked cigarette on a brick wall and got on a bus seemingly going nowhere good.

It was 1:30 a.m. before I transferred to a bus that took me from Main up Mountain Avenue towards the Free Press.

There were only five passengers aboard -- two women, two boys and a middle-aged man who was talking to them in a loud but good-natured way.

One of the women, the mother of the neatly dressed boys, one 11, the other 12, were on their way home from the Red River Exhibition, where they had witnessed the horrific aftermath of a boy being struck by a speeding roller-coaster-style car.

When the man and the other woman got off, the mother put her hand over her chest.

"It just breaks my heart," she said, looking into my eyes. "Think of his family."

Then the back doors opened and she and her boys were gone, too.

The driver of the last bus I rode was a woman, so I asked her what it was like for her, especially so late at night. How do you deal with the drunks and the people who won't pay?

I had put the same question earlier in the evening to a male driver, who said he had been punched twice in the relatively short time he'd been on the job. He said he handles problem passengers by opening the door and hoping they'll take the hint. The woman driver had a different way about her. She's friendly when the door opens. She greets them and asks them about their day.

"I don't judge people," she said. "I treat everyone equally."

Strange how well showing a little respect and caring works. On the bus.

And off.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 B1

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