August 30, 2011

Bus Driver Handles Narrow Streets, Stumbling Students

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This is the first article of a series profiling the oft-unrecognized personalities of Cornell and Ithaca.

TCAT bus driver Andrew Gallegos said that dusk attracts a very different group of Cornellians than the morning rush hour. One evening, while driving a route 92 bus, a group of freshmen clambered onto the bus expecting him to drive to North Campus rather than his usual stop at East Hill Plaza.

“I turned over to Uris and they said, ‘Whoever wants to go to North, raise your hand!’ I tell you, they were serious about it,” Gallegos said. “Well, I said, ‘I guess if we’re doing this democratically, I’m the President, and you’ve just been vetoed!’”

Gallegos, who hails from Denver, Colorado, has driven countless Ithacans and Cornellians to their destinations for the past seven years. Now, with more than two decades of bus operation experience under his belt, he drives TCAT routes 83 and 43 around Cornell’s campus.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Did you always want to be a bus driver?’” Gallegos said. “Well, no, not really — you sort of just go through life and fall into certain things.”

In fact, it was family that brought Gallegos to Tompkins County. He moved to Ithaca with his wife and two children to take care of his father-in-law in neighboring Salamanca, New York. At the time, he had “no idea about Cornell” or its surrounding area. Gallegos said he was particularly taken aback when he learned about the city’s sophisticated transit system and vibrant diversity.

“What’s surprising about Ithaca is the diversity of [its] people … it’s unbelievable, incredible. Gosh, I meet people from all over the world,” he said.

Each day is long and busy. With shifts from 7 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. — or “bus rider bank hours” — Gallegos attends to commuters bound for work and students trying to make class, “all while traffic is going on and lights are changing.” He described bus driving as, at worst, a frustrating job.

“Between handling traffic, answering questions, being professional and being on time, it can be pretty stressful, because I like to give everyone the attention they want,” Gallegos said, adding that he is often asked the same question as much as 15 times a day. His job becomes particularly difficult when he must negotiate narrow streets like College Avenue, find places to stop where passengers can safely get off in the winter, or make sure commuters can make their next transfer in time.

To de-stress, Gallegos said he spends time with his family, goes on walks with his dog, sings and plays the bass and guitar.

“I take my laptop, record music and pretend I’m a rock star,” Gallegos said. “We even once had a TCAT rock band, until one driver moved.”

Despite its challenges, Gallegos said he enjoys driving the TCAT around campus because he gets to interact with students. Laughing, he recalled one particularly memorable incident when a student, bending down to pick up his ID, fell under the weight of his textbook-laden backpack, causing multiple people to bump into each other.

“They all fell over on the floor like turtles backed up on the ground,” Gallegos said. “I just had to start laughing … and then they all laughed, too.”

On another occasion, students returning from a trip to the Hot Truck came onto his bus with cheese slides.

“My arteries were hurting just smelling it,” he said.

Gallegos noted that these interactions with Cornell students would be different without the support of the people behind the scenes: bus handlers, maintenance crew and TCAT staff, among others.

“Being around so many different personalities on campus, I feel that it’s not about me, but more about us,” he said. “Interacting with students every day is always considered ‘the flow’ because every trip is always different.”

Though driving the TCAT is demanding with passengers hurrying from place to place, Gallegos said he hopes people know he tries to be the best that he can be at what he does.

“I wish people would know that I really care about humanity in general and that I treat people how I like to be treated,” Gallegos said. “I know everybody’s busy doing their own thing every day … I hope they figure that I understand.”

Original Author: Akane Otani