Driven To Madness

Children believe that television's Mr. Rogers is a soft-spoken friend. What I believe is that if the man in the cardigan sweater changed jobs, he'd want to drive a bus for Greyhound.

Such is the faithful, comforting image all of us carry of the drivers who steward the nation's poor, the students, the soldiers, the families on a budget, and the elderly from one bus terminal to another. The man behind the wheel of the Greyhound does not change lanes unless he signals. He does not tailgate. He does not burn rubber. Certainly, he does not flip off the thoughtless motorist.

But last Friday, at four in the morning, someone shot at and hit a Greyhound bus after it left the downtown Phoenix terminal en route to Los Angeles. The company owners said they suspected striking drivers of doing the shooting.

What is real and what is image and who drives the Greyhound bus?

Jim Kelso, lives in Phoenix and almost makes a living driving a Greyhound bus. He is both competent and diffident. You would trust him to get your grandmother from Phoenix to Nashville without incident and you could depend upon his courtesy.

Yet last week, whenever a bus pulled out of the downtown Phoenix station, Jim Kelso exploded with anger, showering the Greyhound with outrage as he carried his picket sign: "Scab! Scab! Remember my face."

What pushes a gentle person to behave like a madman?
There is more to Jim Kelso's story than the simple explanation that he is a workingman out on strike.

From 1973 to 1978, Jim Kelso drove a bus for the City of Los Angeles. The first time he was stabbed occurred when a pair of transvestites told Jim another passenger was harassing them. In the ensuing confusion, he suffered a puncture wound in the left side of his chest. Two years later, three passengers armed with guns and knives robbed everyone on the bus and Jim was slashed during the stickup. He decided to switch careers.

By then he'd met Linda.
During his layovers, Jim would park his city bus in front of a Jack in the Box and get something to eat. His future wife was sixteen and serving double cheeseburgers.

They moved north to Morro Bay, where Jim worked on a boat as a commercial fisherman hauling in rock cod, salmon, crab and albacore tuna. In 1979 their first child, Jeffrey, was born.

"By 1981, the price of fish had dropped to the point that the fellow I worked for couldn't afford to have a second person on the boat," recalled Kelso.

He applied for work as a Greyhound driver, but the only opening they had was for a part-time janitor. Kelso took the job. When they added baggage handling to his cleaning chores, Kelso was up to forty hours a week and making almost $10 an hour.

Two years later, in 1983, Jim Kelso walked the picket line when the union went out on a bitter 47-day strike. By 1987 when Greyhound was sold for $350 million, he'd worked his way up from janitor, to ticket agent, to operations dispatcher to operations manager. He also had a second child, a little girl, Christina.

The new owner of Greyhound, a consortium of leveraged buyout investors fronted by Fred Currey, fired Jim Kelso.

"They weren't doing away with the job, they were just doing away with me. They wanted to hire someone for less money," said Kelso, who at the time made $1,600 a month.

In October 1987, seven months after his dismissal, Jim Kelso was accepted into the Greyhound driver's school. Once again he was driving a bus for a living.

Last July, Jim and Linda moved to Phoenix. They simply could not afford to stay in San Jose, California, on a Greyhound driver's salary. The constant struggle for survival generated stress. The way Jim Kelso explained it sounded like the national anthem of newcomers on their way to the Valley of the Sun. It is a truth so basic to the soul of Arizona that it ought to be embroidered onto samplers and sold at the state fair: "Our marriage was in trouble and we thought we could start over in Phoenix."

It has not been easy. Jim Kelso does not have a regular route. Because he is relatively new he is employed as an "extra board driver." He never knows from one day to the next where he will be sent to drive. He is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

"It's hell," said Kelso. "I have never been home for Christmas. I have never been home for Thanksgiving. I have been home only once for one of my children's birthdays. I average a dinner at home once a week. I don't have weekends."

There are slow periods during the year when there is very little work and therefore not much pay, followed by summers where sixteen-hour days are not uncommon.

Because he is always on call he cannot stray far from the family phone.
"We are not allowed to use beepers or answering machines. You must baby- sit your phone or you'll be written up for not being there when they call. If you get three write-ups in a twelve-month period of time, you are terminated or threatened with suspension. So I don't go to movies or to the kids' activities," said Kelso.

This calls for the support of a unique wife and family.
"A lot of things he should be doing with our son I'm doing," said Linda, who works as a nurse. "I'm an umpire in the Little League because he can't give the time to coach."

Even with the marriage stabilizing, there are ongoing pressures.
"I miss him a lot because he's hardly ever home," explained Linda. "On days when I'm not working, if it's a day trip, I'll ride with him. I can't do it if it's overnight because we can't afford the extra hotel cost."

Last year Jim Kelso earned $20,100. In 1981 as a janitor for Greyhound, he earned more.

Even with Linda's salary they have not been able to save enough for a down payment on a home, so they make do with an apartment.

In fact, making do is a way of life.
They buy their food in bulk to squeeze the most value out of every penny. When Linda needs to have her hair done, she goes to a beauty school where students practice on people too poor to afford a salon. She ripped up the family's credit cards a long time ago. Still, a six-year-old girl and an eleven- year-old boy have needs.

"Our son has to have clothes good enough for school, so he gets new clothes, but everything Jim and I have comes from thrift stores. I look in the magazines and see what the new styles are and hope that I can find something in the thrift shop that can be hemmed or altered to make it passable."

On an official day off when Jim can safely leave his apartment and the phone, he recalls days when he actually had a savings account.

"The most fun I have on a day off is to go window shopping for all those things I can't afford. But I stopped trying things on a long time ago."

In 1983 when Kelso first went out on strike, the union accepted in the end a dramatic reduction in wages and benefits of approximately 20 percent. As part of the settlement, it was also agreed that new drivers--which eventually meant Jim--would have no pension.

In 1987 the new owners demanded and received further salary and benefit reductions of nearly 19 percent. The drivers also gave up one week of paid vacation, five days of sick time and five paid holidays. Although the bus line made close to a million dollars in profits last year, it is not viewed as a robust corporation. Because Currey paid such a high price for Greyhound, $350 million, and because Currey then turned around and bought out his major competitor, Trailways, $80 million, he had interest payments of nearly $40 million last year.

When you look at the corporation's numbers, you wonder how it can survive. When you look at the paychecks of the workers, you know that they cannot go on like this, either. Ridership is down 50 percent over the past few years and airlines are still cutting fares. You have to ask yourself if the Greyhound bus might be a dinosaur.

At a meeting with union leaders, Currey offered the drivers an increase of 2.5 cents per driven mile. Even this meager raise could be lost if the driver had an accident with his bus or if the driver was injured in the terminal or while handling baggage. Currey also wanted to terminate jobs by subcontracting out certain routes to franchise operators who would not have to hire Greyhound drivers. Finally, the owner wanted to eliminate language in the contract that protects employees in disciplinary matters.

When frustrated union spokesmen argued with Currey that this wasn't a fair offer from a company that made a profit last year, that you were bound to have accidents when drivers were asked to work harder, work longer hours for less pay, Currey responded by lecturing them that he needed to make a 20 percent return on his investment.

"We bought it [Greyhound] for some irrational reason," said Currey. "I thought it could be turned around . . . If you're giving me political commentary on hating the economic system of the United States, then philosophically, let's have a beer and I'll tell you how to lobby . . . "If you don't like the capitalistic system and you think everybody that provides that capital . . . is ugly, bad, mean and ought to be hung from the highest yardarm, you better get to the polls. But you're not going to make much gain talking to me 'cause I can't change the system. You can by going to the polls. But I can't. I'm living in it just like you are."

Actually, with a salary of $500,000 and assorted benefits and perks, it is a bit of a stretch to say that Fred Currey is living in the system like Jim Kelso. Although Fred Currey had little to offer, Jim Kelso had even less to give up.

The employees went out on strike.
More than 6,000 drivers and another 3,000 support staff walked out March 2. Greyhound has only been able to hire roughly 700 replacement drivers. The few routes open are functioning on nightmarish schedules that have stranded travelers or left them hours late. In California a Greyhound veteran was crushed to death while picketing by a bus driven by a scab replacement. The substitute driver, only briefly trained before being rushed into service by Greyhound, was discovered to have had five traffic citations in the last few years.

The strikers at the Phoenix terminal have attracted little attention. When a union representative called local talk radio KFYI, he was told he could not go on the air because Greyhound was advertising at the station. The commercials are a call for drivers.

On Sunday, the striking drivers marched at the downtown terminal carrying signs. Their voices, however, were drowned out by the head-splitting roar of multimillion-dollar Formula One cars that raced laps around the Greyhound station. The Phoenix kickoff of the glamorous Grand Prix season focuses on a different kind of driver than the ones carrying picket signs.

Race fans kept their eyes peeled for Paul Newman, and drivers with names like Gerhard Berger, Pierluigi Martin, Jean Alesi, and Ayrton Senna dominated the headlines. Lost in the Euro-glitz were Jim and Linda Kelso and their basset hound, Will Clark, all three of whom march daily to save a job that is almost extinct.

So why does he do it? Why does Jim Kelso still want to drive Greyhound?
"I like to travel. I enjoy seeing America. And I like working with people. When I'm out on the road, there is no boss looking over my shoulder. The camaraderie with the other drivers is hard to explain. I took a vacation and used my pass to ride the bus to see an aunt in Terre Haute, Indiana, that I hadn't seen in 25 years.

"While I was in Indianapolis, I met another driver. I didn't know him but we were both drivers. He took me home to have dinner with his family. Just like that.

"Maybe the thing I enjoy most though is at the end of a trip when a passenger gets off and says to me, `Thanks, it was a good ride.'"

Jim Kelso cannot cash this sort of compliment. After all these years, after all those miles, he still only earned $20,100 and he did that by driving himself to exhaustion. I look at Jim and his wife sitting quietly at the table. I worry that I am looking at an endangered species.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >