There is a point in any job where you feel it all 'come together' in a way that lets you know that you have reached a level of proficiency in your role and can no longer think of yourself as a novice. For me this happened on a seemingly mundane trip to Seattle.
The Extra Bus
The trip to Seattle left San Francisco at about 7 PM on Thursday. One Thursday afternoon we had more than a full bus wanting to head north, so around 5 PM the owner decided to add a second bus. As the extra driver I scrambled the extra bus to get it ready and pulled up to our stop at the TransBay Terminal right behind the regular coach.
I was driving a bus called Hijo, which was the oldest bus in the fleet at that time, having been built in 1952. It was smaller than the other busses. Where other busses had dinette tables that converted to bunk beds, Hijo just had one big raised platform covered in foam cushions. Where other busses had matching sheets throughout the bus, Hijo had a patchwork of old leftovers. Where other busses had custom built sleeping bunks, Hijo had old Navy bunks that were salvaged from a World War II troop transport ship. Hijo was the homeliest bus in the fleet.
Sitting just ahead of me at our stop was a bus named Sweet Pea. She had only recently been completed and she was the nicest Green Tortoise to date. She was the largest, fastest, smoothest, newest, most comfortable bus the Tortoise had. No one in the crowd that was waiting for us when we arrived knew all that history though, they just saw two busses; one nice and one ugly.
We had just over a bus load and a half of passengers, and we had a bus and a half to take them in, so all we needed to do now was to split up the group with some of the folks in Hijo, most of the folks in Sweet Pea, and we'd be off.
How NOT to Inspire People
I was just getting out of Hijo to talk to the crowd when Phil, the driver of the other bus, called for everyone's attention. He was clearly annoyed at how this trip was going, and he wasn't doing anything to hide it.
"OK people, this is the bus to Seattle and as you can see we're overbooked. We going to need some of you to get onto that old bus over there so that there's enough room...", and with a gesture in my direction to let people know where 'that old bus over there' was he went back into Sweet Pea to start the process of taking money. All 60 people standing on the sidewalk took one look at me and my old bus and immediately started jostling around the door to Sweet Pea so that they wouldn't be stuck with me and Hijo.
I stood on the curb next to Hijo speechless. What I just saw was exactly the wrong way to approach this situation, and I couldn't imagine why anyone would do that. In bus trips the introduction sets the tone for the whole trip, and this trip was looking pretty bad.
Then I got a little pissed off. I drove the Tortoise because I liked it. I wanted passengers to have a good time because they are generally great people who deserve it, and it's what keeps our company in business. Then I realized that I had to do something, because Phil had made it clear to everyone that this trip will not be fun, and I did not want to spend the next 24 hours on a trip that was a drag.
After thinking about all this for about 10 seconds I realized that I had to do something, but wasn't sure how. I figured getting excited was a good start, so I just started talking.
"Hey Campers!!!" I called out in my happiest tone. A couple of the people trying to elbow their way into the line for Sweet Pea turn to look at me. I've gotten a little attention, so I keep going.
"The other driver is right," I say giving Hijo a pat on the shoulder. "This bus is old, small and slow..." and I walk up to Sweet Pea and give her a pat on the tail light. "...and this bus is the newest one that we have. She's fast, comfortable, and good lookin' too!" (I'm stating something really obvious, but as the driver of the ugly bus they are curious what I'm getting at). I walk back to Hijo and stand next to her.
"But let me tell you about this little bus. His name is Hijo and I have driven him all over the Southwest and he's a trooper. He's not much to look at, but he's a sweet ride and he loves to have a good time!"
I'm getting some laughs now by talking about the bus as a person and I get the sense that some of the people are in tune with what I'm saying. They don't want a bad trip either and are willing to play along if there is the promise of something better in the bargain, so I go in for the kill.
Leaning forward I start to close the deal, "Now, if you come on this bus you'll go a little slower and you won't be quite as comfortable, but I'll tell you a secret..." and I lean so far forward that I'm about to fall over. I see a number of people instinctively lean forward as well, and after pausing a moment for effect I say in a loud, conspiratorial whisper...
"This is the FUN BUS!"
My words hang in the air for a second and I see a number of folks looking at each other trying to decide what to do. Then a guy reaches down, grabs his bag and runs over. Before he takes two steps about a third of the people decide not to get left behind and they come running over too, laughing at my invitation and wanting a seat on The Fun Bus. I notice that they have a glint in their eye like they are sharing a secret with me and this feels good.
The rest of the people look relieved that the suckers left and there'd be room for them on Sweet Pea. We loaded up and headed out soon after with the right number of folks on each bus.
Making the Experience Happen
I got done what needed to be done and did it in a fun way, but that's not the main thing I remember about this trip. That happened the next day.
Both busses rolled through the night, Sweet Pea leaving me and Hijo in the dust right out of Berkeley. We caught up to them at the breakfast stop in Cow Creek in Southern Oregon. After breakfast my group got onto the bus first, so we pulled out first on our way up to Eugene.
I was in second gear with Hijo pulling his tired butt up one of the mountain grades just past Cow Creek when Phil passed me driving Sweet Pea. He was hunched over the wheel with that scowl still on his face, but his look turned to surprise as he slowly passed us. I saw his passengers look over at us too with surprised looks. They were stretched out on the new cushions looking comfortable, bored and tired, waiting for the trip to be over, but as they passed us I saw them elbowing each other and pointing at our bus. Looking at the rear view mirror in my bus I could see all my passengers as well, but most of them were dancing. We had put on the Talking Heads the night before and were dancing in the bus. The group couldn't decide whether to keep them music loud or settle down to bed, so I suggested a vote and the sleepers won. They winners said "why not put the tape on in the morning and finish then?". Once we got back onto I-5 the music went up, the dancing resumed, and by the time Phil and Sweet Pea drove past us the whole group was shaking and flailing to the music.
Talking people into getting onto a shabby old bus was a nice bit of salesmanship, but creating an environment where 25 strangers would want to dance on a bus at 10 o'clock in the morning that was impressive. I had promised them that my bus was fun and I had delivered. Rolling up the freeway I realized that I had indeed learned a thing or two about leading groups while driving the Tortoise.