Theresa Tobin lives her life on what she calls “the wire,” the overhead line that powers King County Metro’s downtown fleet of electrified trolleybuses. In fact, she’s been running those routes for so long—most of her 18 years with Metro—she’s sure she could drive them with her eyes closed. “Not literally, though,” she adds quickly. Metro could use a few steady hands right now: After an effort to raise funds for the cash-strapped agency failed at the ballot box in April, the county’s biggest public transit system will institute the first of four cost-saving cuts this September. Tobin seems unfazed, though, always with her eyes on the road ahead. —Matthew Halverson
People say to me, “You can handle this bus, even being as little as you are?” And I say, “Well I’m not carrying it. I’m sitting in the seat, driving it.”
I was in the military for eight years and I drove five-ton trucks. I was five-foot-two and all of 99 pounds, but I got used to driving with a big ole steering wheel and a stick shift. I loved it.
My number one concern is out the front window, because that’s where people are, cars, whatever. And secondary is back behind me—unless I hear something, some commotion. My own mother can get on the bus, and sometimes I’m so much in the zone that she’d have to say my name to get me to notice her.
Route 2 is my favorite. It has nice scenery: You go up to Queen Anne, and then you go down to Madrona and the lake, so you’ve got the water to look at. But the best thing about the 2 is that it has a bathroom at every terminal. And down at the lake we have our own private—what they call—comfort station. You have to have a key to use it.
My least favorite are the 3 and the 4. They go by Harborview, but we call it Harbor Zoo. There’s some people out there that need help, but you deal with it. Actually, sometimes when I haven’t done ‘em in a while, I’m like, “Dang, I haven’t done 3 and 4 for a while; I need to get that.” Because it keeps you on your toes.
Being on the trolley, we deal with a lot of inner-city people. We’re dealing with unruly passengers. We’re dealing with people who don’t pay. I let that go. They’re not getting over on me. They’re getting over on the system.
Policy states you may—not shall—ask for the fare one time. Me, I don’t even do that. Sometimes they may have just forgot, because they’ll come back and pay. But I’m not going to challenge anyone. I’m not trying to be hurt today.
In the military I learned how to make people believe I’m on their side. I really don’t have any authority on the bus, so I’m a peacekeeper. If I’m looking through the mirror and I see something going on, I’ll say, “Okay, hold on. Why don’t you come sit next to me? And you, you stay back there. Let’s separate you guys, because otherwise we’re not going to go anywhere.”
Oh man, my friends and family, they think I know all the bus routes, the schedule. It’s like, “You guys, call Metro!” I mean, I know I’ve been here awhile, but I don’t know everything.
You find phones all the time. That’s nothing big. But one time—I was fairly new—I found a brand new camcorder. That tripped me out.
I am a people person. How can you not be when you’re sitting there dealing with people all day? I guess some drivers can do that. Me? It makes for a nicer day to interact with people. Smile. Say, “How you doing?” It don’t cost nothing to smile at someone.
Please take showers and don’t be getting on here stinky. Oh my god. If everybody would do that, it would be so nice. The human body is the worst thing when it stinks—worse than an animal. And I’m not trying to be funny. That’s the honest-to-god truth.
It’s peaceful when I get to drive my own car, alone. We can’t have music on the bus, so I put my jazz in and it’s just…ahh. But I did stop for a passenger one time—we’ve all done it. I’m on my way home in my van, and I see somebody at a bus stop. I put my blinker on and started to move over, and then I realized what I was doing. I went, “Oh, sorry!” and I kept it moving. I don’t know what they thought because I didn’t stay long.
One time I picked up Gary Locke. He wasn’t the governor anymore, but I was sitting at the light and I saw him. He motioned at me like, Can I get on? And I’m like, Yes! He was very nice. I forget where he was going, but it was exciting. And it was in a zone, but I’ll be honest, even if I wasn’t in a zone and he asked to get on, I’d let him on. Oh yes, I’m going to let Mr. Gary Locke on.
This job is an awesome responsibility. You feel pretty good about it because these people are relying on you to get them to work or school or whatever. And my number one job is to get them there safe. If they’re a little late, oh well. I’m getting them there.
This article appeared in the September 2014 issue of Seattle Met.