October 17, 2019

Travels with TOPS! — when every ride is a new spine-chilling adventure

It was the thrill ride of a lifetime. With the bursts of speed and sharp, unexpected turns, it left me breathless and hanging on for dear life. The only problem was the sharp smell of alcohol that permeated the mini-bus. And the fact that it was late at night, and our driver kept getting lost — despite my explicit directions.

This obvious drunk-driving escapade was but the latest screw-up in a long list of problems (from annoying to life threatening) provided courtesy of my county's paratransit service. In adherence with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and government funding, the county had recently purchased an entire new fleet of mini-buses that sported the optimistic logo, “TOPS!”  Like fleabag hotels overseas named “Grande” and “Moderno,” the quality of their vehicles and service are, laughingly, anything but top-notch. 

Let's start with the 138 shiny new buses. They may look fresh on the outside but I can't, for the life of me, figure who would have approved four boarding steps, the first three at heights far steeper than ordinary bus stairs, for use by people with disabilities. The buses do come equipped with a clunky, somewhat time-consuming mechanized ramp system — essential for travelers confined to wheelchairs. But the majority of riders, like my husband, use canes. And they will, despite the difficulty, slowly pull themselves up these extra-high steps just to save time and not be thought of as troublesome. I've even seen drivers lift heavy walkers up the stairs to avert having to lower the ramp. 

Once you get to your seat, it's time to struggle with your seatbelt — often twisted, at times stretched-open, at times stuck … and generally uncooperative. The new, but obviously cheap, belts are already worn from use. Because they are difficult to pull out sufficiently, and then latch into another wobbly strap (airplane belts are far simpler), many passengers need help strapping in. Not all drivers check (and they really must) that riders are properly secured in their narrow seats sans armrests, before barreling off. Because even belted in, one must maintain a tight grip on the handle atop the seat in front to keep from sliding about at every turn.

I have no idea WHO decided it would be OK to provide a shock-absorber-free suspension system in a vehicle designed to serve the old, sick and infirm. Imagine riding non-stop on speed bumps, and you'll get the idea. This also doesn't help when wheelchair tie-downs are left dangling loose in back and the entire journey becomes one harshly clanging “Toonerville Trolley” (my husband's description; those under 70 might want to Google this popular early comic strip).

Is it any wonder that, upon entering, I always first check for stray wheelchair latches? Twice I've discovered these hefty chunks of steel left out on the floor or, even worse, on the empty seat directly behind my husband! That time, I was forced to argue with the driver who “assured me” no one had forgotten them, as they belonged to the bus. As if that were my concern, and not the fact that they would make perfect projectiles to clunk a passenger on the head, knocking him out, or worse, after a short stop. Duh! (Under my watchful eye, the driver eventually took the two minutes to secure the latches into their proper storage areas.)

I can now understand why my husband, who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and can no longer drive, hated TOPS! so much. And it's not just because the buses often show up late … or not at all. Twice, a few months ago, they'd left him stranded at Cleveland Clinic after “promising” to get him in 20 minutes each time he called. (I finally ended up driving two hours during the evening rush just to bring him home.)

To be fair, the service's reliability factor has improved somewhat — ever since the county switched to a new contractor that hired more drivers. And now that we've been using TOPS! together (the family's new “designated driver” has her arm in a cast — you can read all about it in my earlier blog, “The Broken Wrist Effect”), they have, at least, been showing up. For the most part. Not counting the time we were left standing out in the sun for an hour after seeing a play. When the driver finally arrived, he insisted he'd been there earlier to get us. (To avert being classified as a “No Show” in their “Three strikes and your out” service policy, we lodged a formal complaint. I just received a letter of apology from a project manager, confirming our driver had originally gone to the wrong location.)

Then there was the rude “Speedy Gonzales” driver who wouldn't wait two minutes for me to get back from the restroom at the JCC after senior lunch. I have witnesses! I was out as soon as my husband called, then took off running and shouting (to no avail) after the fleeing bus. Even the woman manning the lobby's front desk was appalled at this driver's attitude. (They are required to wait five minutes, and sensible drivers obviously allow a little more time for their charges to hobble over with their walkers and canes.)

I could go on with my rant about TOPS! drivers, but I've already covered the drunk, the lazy, the careless, the liars, and the impatiently hotfooted … and there are some good ones out there as well. We feel inordinately blessed arriving at our destination after a timely pickup with no complications.

Still we can't help wishing that our bumpy ride could proceed within a more pleasant interior environment. We often resort to asking the driver to please turn on the air conditioner (in typical high-80s Florida temperatures!). But we really don't want to piss off the guy who holds our lives in his hands, so we never mention the volume on his various broadcasts. Ongoing talks between company drivers and TOPS! dispatchers are typically blared at a sound levels suited for the hearing impaired.

Then there are the personal cellphones, set on the front console, that ring loudly nonstop. The drivers don't answer while driving, but I can't see why the same woman, wife? girlfriend? (I could see her face on the phone's screen from my seat) would call non-stop for 20 minutes! And why my non-responding driver couldn't just lower the volume on his ringtone.

But that's nothing compared to being subjected to blaring, redundant sermons and “soul saving” pleas for money from religious charlatans preaching the gospel to some of the saddest and most vulnerable members of society (based on “true stories” from their listeners on the radio). Would you believe my latest “uber religious” driver was the self-same individual who, minutes earlier, had lied to my face about arriving on time to pick us up?

Happily, there are a few drivers with far better taste in radio-listening selections. (Interestingly, not a one has ever asked their passengers if they are pleased with their broadcast choices, or if they'd prefer listening to nothing at all.) Twice, we were greeted by the classical station (it was quite a shock entering the bus to a resounding aria) and so I didn't even mind the constant Creole-jabber in the background. I am also generally glad to hum along to classic rock oldies that remind me of lazy teen summers spent on Far Rockaway beach. But that's just me.  Often as not, we'll be sharing our ride with another passenger.

These ride shares with the handicapped have opened up whole new vistas of South Florida — both literally and figuratively. Although technically we are supposed to accommodate other passengers on our route (much like a city bus), we've also found ourselves corralled into unplanned road trips to off-the-beaten-track corners of the county. My husband hates the delay but I don't mind (anything's worth not having to drive one-handed). And I've discovered new neighborhoods I never knew existed, practically in my own backyard.

One time, our driver got lost in the backroads of Plantation Acres, “an equestrian community” filled with luxury mansions on expansive acres of land. Two more turns, and suddenly we were back on ordinary Broward Boulevard and passing my daughter's former high school. From there it wasn't far to the strip mall where a blind lady and her groceries patiently awaited pick up.

Next ride share had us veering off track to the old and coming-apart-at-the-seams neighborhood of Lauderhill, where even typical Florida condo developments and interconnected town-homes appear cheaply slapped together. The area's minimalistic construction, without a hint of charm, cried out: poor people live here.

But perhaps my biggest surprise came from meeting TOPS! riders — a broad swath of unfortunate, low-income humanity (those with the means for taxis, or family members to drive them, would never choose this form of transportation). One appeared to be “the sweetest little lady” (in the words of the driver who helped her, and her packages, aboard). Until she noticed him taking a detour to drop us off first. You wouldn't believe the foul tongue-lashing this “sweet lady” inflicted upon the poor man who was, after all, simply keeping to his assigned route. Plus it was also only fair, as we'd already traveled many extra miles just to pick her up.

Passengers may suggest alternate, faster ways to reach their destination, and many drivers — despite active GPS screens — are grateful for this type of local knowledge. But we can NEVER tell them whom to pick up … or let off, first. Yet that doesn't stop one aggressive senior with a walker at the JCC from invariably blocking our path to the bus. This, despite the fact that we'd received the standard call alerting us to an imminent bus arrival (and she hadn't). I always check to make sure the driver has our name — for who wants to be dropped off at another customer's address? And that's all the driver knows — pick up names and locations. Nevertheless, this woman won't stop insisting our bus driver take her instead. Not happening, lady. You're just wasting everyone's time. I've tried reasoning with her so she'll at least let us pass … to little effect. I must say I truly admire the patience of TOPS! drivers in this type of recurring situation.

I also sympathize with their tolerance for loud talkers, especially those with strange high-pitched voices that set my teeth on edge. My local Publix supermarket chain runs a wonderful program that provides employment for the mentally challenged as baggers and other forms of unskilled labor. Some of these employees also ride TOPS! daily to and from work. I'm sorry if this is politically incorrect, but it is difficult listening to them break into conversations with the driver at inappropriate intervals and then loudly repeat their single-sentence comment over a dozen times.

Still I'd prefer such chatter to the loud, bigoted boor who simply assumes everyone agrees with his narrow-minded point of view. When I've finally heard enough and say something sarcastic that calls him to task, my expressed outrage never causes an incident. It simply flies right over the idiot's head!

Luckily, we don't end up sharing rides with others that often. Sad to say, I've learned that being handicapped doesn't necessarily make for a kinder, gentler personality. What am I to say to the wheelchair-bound bombast who won't shut up about how the slight detour to our house (which is on the way to downtown) is making him late for work, YET AGAIN! If this is a recurring problem, why doesn't he simply request an earlier arrival time (how   pick ups are scheduled) from the service?

After every stop, drivers must call in with their times and mileage. Their schedules are set the day before. Even if we'd said, “Sure, take him first,” and then double back all the way west to drop us off, there's no way it would have been allowed. But that doesn't stop this passenger from non-stop grousing to the poor driver who needs to concentrate on the road, and is likely not supposed to answer back. Y'know what? At times like this I almost wish for more ear-blasting salsa beats … or the rock 'n roll sounds of Christian salvation!

© 2015 Mindy Leaf

Follow Mindy's essays of biting social commentary at: “>https://askmamaglass.wordpress.com