- By Ben Wear American-Statesman Staff
It is 3:30 a.m. Wednesday in Round Rock, and once again bus driver Juan Rodriguez has awakened without the assistance of his alarm clock.
He thinks of Elaine while getting ready for work. His late wife would arise with him in the pre-dawn to pack a sandwich, chips, a dessert and a drink in his canvas cooler for the long day ahead on Austin streets, and she would iron his Capital Metro uniforms. His wife of 39 years suffered a heart attack this spring in Cozumel, just as they were finishing a cruise celebrating his retirement from the Air Force Reserve.
“I just lost her in May,” he will tell me later. “It is a little tough to go on. But I have to, for my children and our grandchildren.”
By 5:15 a.m. — 20 minutes before his call time — Rodriguez has made the drive into the city and is in the Cap Metro ready room, getting his “paddle” listing his time points for the No. 20 route. Those are the target times for him to be at seven precise intersections along the way. Being on-time to those mileposts, he says, is a matter of pride for him.
Rodriguez will be the seventh driver out on that route Wednesday. Aside from the lunch bag, he carries his canvas military knapsack, a large thermos filled with water and a foam-rubber seat cushion to hedge the effect of sitting for eight hours.
Rodriguez is still trim at age 60, with military posture and crisp, purposeful movements. He greets me, his journalistic shadow for the day, with warmth and a disarming openness. Before the bus pulls out of the enormous Cap Metro bus yard at East Fifth Street and Pleasant Valley Road at about 5:50 a.m., deadheading to his first stop on Manor Road near U.S. 183, Rodriguez will feel like an old friend I had somehow misplaced.
At the bus, parked among dozens of vehicles dimly lit by distant spotlights, he walks around the New Flyer model, a 2009-vintage 40-footer, checking out the tires and lights as it idles. Then he tests the seat belts and retractable seats in the wheelchair section inside. He pulls out paper towels and spray soap, washing each mirror and the front windshield.
Unbidden, he pauses to show me pictures of Elaine and his daughters, Christina, 38, and Veronica, 36, and their children. Christina, he says, is a registrar at the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas and used to work at the LBJ Presidential Library. He shows me a photo of the letter of condolence that the former president and former first lady Laura Bush sent him after learning of Elaine Rodriguez’s death. He and his wife met in the Air Force, he said, and both left the service as technical sergeants.
“She’s the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says.
Rodriguez tells me his career began in newspapers, in a way. He peddled the Houston Chronicle on the street at age 8, and later sold subscriptions door to door through his high school years. He has always worked.
It’s time to head out.
Rodriguez, a native of North Houston, has been driving Cap Metro buses for 19½ years. With his seniority at RATP Dev USA, the contractor that supplies bus operators and mechanics for most of the agency’s regular bus service, Rodriguez probably could drive the same route every day, perhaps even one of the choice express routes. But he prefers to work off the “hold-down” board, filling in on various routes a week at a time.
This week, it’s the No. 20, a “frequent” route (buses come by every 15 minutes weekdays and evenings) that carves a huge “C” from LBJ High School in Northeast Austin, down Manor Road, past the University of Texas on the Drag and through downtown on Guadalupe and Lavaca streets, then out to the airport on East Riverside Drive and Texas 71. A one-way trip is about 19 miles.
He will drive it five and a half times Wednesday, covering more than 100 miles in the guts of Austin traffic. We will have only one close call, when a silver sedan turns left in front of us on East Riverside and leaves half the car jutting into our lane. With a horn toot, a pump on the brakes and a slight swerve, Rodriguez avoids a collision.
We make it to the first time point, a designated end-of-the-line spot just west of U.S. 183 on Manor, and wait for the bus behind to arrive. He will take on passengers from that vehicle so they don’t have to wait. Seven or eight file aboard, and Rodriguez greets each of them. Some return the greeting, but most don’t. Then we take off in the darkness.
A few minutes in, an addled man boards, seemingly drunk at 6:23 in the morning. Rodriguez is patient with him. Perhaps the man ends up paying all of the fare. It’s not clear. But we move on down Manor until, a few stops later, that same man yells angrily, “Will you stop?” He lurches off the bus, and peace returns.
“Some days are more fun than others,” Rodriguez says. “Some are very, very tough.”
This will not be one of those. There’s no rain, and only one more time during the shift will some questionable characters get on board, a group of boisterous 20-somethings on East Riverside who leave a mile or so later without incident. Rodriguez’ military background is obvious: There’s a constant stream of “sirs” and “ma’ams,” and everyone is treated with respect. He will give directions for connecting buses to at least a dozen people and advise a couple of people to get off the bus, cross the street and take a No. 20 bus going the other way.
The clientele is a cross-section, but leans toward riders under 30 and people of color. Only a few passengers go all the way to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and just a couple carrying luggage. The others appear to work at the airport.
Rodriguez helps people figure out the fares, including those using their phones to pay. He asks at least a couple of people with thorny fare problems to take a seat while he lets others board. They seemingly end up riding for free, but it keeps the bus moving and gets people where they’re going. Everyone who steps off the bus gets a “Have a great day” from him.
Lunch for Rodriguez is 20 or so minutes, still sitting in the driver’s seat, at that same Manor Road point where we began, after we’ve completed the second round trip to the airport.
There are no scheduled bathroom breaks — or Cap Metro facilities along this route. Twice, Rodriguez and his new reporter buddy will jump off at a bus stop at the UT Law School on Dean Keeton Street for quick pit stops in a first-floor bathroom just 75 feet or so from the curb. He quickly explains the brief pause to the people on board each time, and again when we are forced to pause at some of the time points because he arrived a minute or two early.
On our third trip back into downtown from the airport, Ken Jackson, his relief driver, is waiting at 10th Street and Lavaca to take over. It is 1:32 p.m., two minutes before what the paddle predicted. Perhaps because of my presence, a Cap Metro sedan and driver are there to take us back to our cars in East Austin.
Fourteen hours until it’s time to get ready for the next shift.