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Driving Richmond: Stories and Portraits of GRTC Operators

A multimedia project— photographic portraits by Michael Lease, text panels based on interviews conducted by Laura Browder, and sound portraits by Benjamin Thorp—that draws on the experiences of Greater Richmond Transit Authority bus operators.

The stories they told us changed the way we looked at the city.

Driving Richmond: Stories and Portraits of GRTC Operators will be on view at the RVA Street Art Festival in Richmond, September 11-15 at the former GRTC depot on Robinson and Cary Streets in the Fan.

This project was curated by Vaughn Garland.

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MARCIA SCHMIEGELOW

I grew up on Long Island, in a small town. I ended up going to college in Los Angeles. From there, I migrated to other areas of the country. I’ve always been one to experience everything.

I had driven a school bus in New York. Not only that, I used to hang on the pants of my father. He was a truck driver, he just drove all sorts of vehicles. I was thirteen, driving in the parking lots of the train stations. I had a lot of road experience, so I felt very confident in coming to GRTC.

I was on the Petersburg run for almost two years. Drove the coach bus. That’s the largest bus we have. It’s a dream ride. Not every operator wants to drive that bus.

I was treated like gold. They adored me and I adored them. We bonded. They spoiled me at every celebration—birthday, Christmas-—it didn’t even have to be a celebration. They just poured out gifts to me, because I got them home in time. So that they can have an evening of whatever they needed to do. I never dragged my feet and we worked as a team.

Every three years, there’s an election that takes place for the officers in the union. In June of 2011, we had an election. I ran for the position of financial secretary, amongst four male members. That was my first time ever running for a position.
So it was very intense for me.

I have my own business. And when the position came around, there were several people that approached me. I hadn’t really thought about it. When you have enough people come to you, you start thinking about it a little bit. I thought with the background that I had already, that this should be okay, I should be able to handle this.

One of the people from the Petersburg run, Derek Mountford, he actually assisted me with the campaign. When I told him that I was getting ready to run for office, he said, ‘oh, that’s wonderful.’ He just wanted to help me. He wanted to see it done right. And I said, ‘I am really new to this. Do you have any ideas?’ He was extremely helpful. He came up with little short banners that described who I was, what kind of person I was, and how I would be good for the union.

The attacks on drivers have increased so much. It’s becoming more and more dangerous out there. Nationwide, passengers are attacking drivers. And that’s why the unions nationwide are fighting to have more convictions on people that attack drivers. There need to be heavier laws on that.

I come from a union family. So we realize the importance of union, and the strength of it. The newcomers come in, we try to get them in training so they understand what the union is about and how important it is.



JULIO VIDAL

I was born in the beautiful Dominican Republic. I stayed there until I was twenty years old. I went to college in Puerto Rico. Then in my first semester, I want to make some more money. I came to the United States, I have all my aunts who live here, and my girlfriend from my country. So I come to United States and I stayed. I never went back to college.

I got a job with the transportation department in New Jersey. I worked in New Jersey Transit from 1973 until 1989. I was a mechanic. Then I came here because I had two brothers here. Soon as I come here, the first thing I did was looking for the transit company, because that’s what I’ve been doing all my life. In October 1990, I apply. That’s the first thing I did. They call me in March 1991, about six months later. I’m here since then. I was excited because I was the first Spanish-speaking driver ever.

An incident happened to me, when I came here. I rent a place downtown, I throw a Spanish party. A guy there, we have a problem, me and him. So he called the police on me while I was in the property. That was in 1990. Police came, pull me outside, ‘give me your ID.’ And he called the dispatcher, give him my information. When she say, ‘it’s a white male.’ I said, ‘excuse me, I’m not white. I’m Spanish.’ You know what she told me? ‘In Richmond, it’s black or white only.’

One of the first things I learned: how treat people. Because that was my first time that I have to be dealing directly with the public. And I find out also, it’s all kind of people. I never experienced that before. With time, I learned. Start liking people, people liked me. Some people, they like my accent, some people like my hair or something.

I’m the vice president of the union. I’m excited about my position. How I help a lot of people, I talk to the people. You know, what they’re supposed to do before they get into trouble. Our members, they can talk to us. When they see somebody do something wrong, instead of going to their company, they come to us.

Compared to New Jersey and New York, the ridership here, they good. I love it. I see people drinking beer on my bus. I say, ‘excuse me, sir, can you please…’ They throw it away. In New York, they don’t do that. They hit you with a bottle.



JENNIE BULLOCK

I grew up in the rural areas of North Carolina. I was one of those PK kids. My father had four churches. He was in great demand. I moved to Richmond when I was sixteen. I got married at sixteen and I came here.

I never thought that I would drive a bus. I never drove anything except a car. My husband and I separated after eighteen years of marriage. So I decided that I needed a job. I had five sons.

I had three jobs at that time, when I was searching. Greater Richmond Transit was the one that paid the most money. So that's where I decided to come. And not knowing that it was such few females, I just decided to change my career.

When I came for my interview at Greater Richmond Transit, they wanted me to start work right away. And they said I scored so high on my test. That test was only for males at that particular time.

I would talk to my mother. I would call her. And I would tell her each day, that I couldn't make it. And she would say, “is anybody else doing this job?” And I would say yes…. She said, “are there other females?” And I would say yes. She said, “well, if they can do it? You can do it.” My third day out with the training operator, I had an accident. And I cried all day. I called my mother and told her I wasn't going back to work, that was it. So she said, “you going back.” She said, “they didn't fire you, did they?” And I said, “no….” I said, “they said I--they'll see me tomorrow.” So she said, “You're going back to work.” So I went back to work and I was there until I retired. Twenty-six-plus years I worked.

Some people didn't want to ride with the women. When you pull in, they would say, “go ahead, I'll wait for the next bus.” They think that you couldn't drive. I was tested a few times out there. But I think word got around that Ms. Bullock was a strong woman and she didn't play.

During the time that I drove, we didn't have phones on the buses. You had to get off and knock on someone's door and ask them, could you use their phone. Sometimes you're in areas that you don't feel that safe. I couldn't get anything but night work when I first came out of training. I would try to get something that I wasn't so isolated on a run.

I'm not a person that gets upset a lot. I go to church and I read the Word and I stay calm. I had five sons and a husband for a while. I guess you have to stay calm when you raising five sons.



MARSHALL AVENT

I grew up on the farm in Pleasant Hill, North Carolina. We didn’t realize that we were poor because we had to work for everything we got. Our father made sure that we had some pretty good standards. He taught us right from wrong.

I’ve been driving since I was about five years old; I used to sit in my father’s lap and drive. When I was nine years old, I was in the field with the tractor, plowing.

When I came here, it was predominantly white and that was the way of the world. I came in ‘73. I’m told that when African Americans first started driving the buses that white folks used to call the police on them. Said they stole the bus.

I went into the union hall as vice president in the year 1996. I stayed in there, working with the president until he retired in 2004. He appointed me president. And then when it came around for re-election, I was re-elected. So I served for another three years.

When I was voted out of the union hall, I came back and I drove for maybe three weeks. I started to remember all of the negative parts of driving. A supervisor position came open and I applied for it and I got it. And then I was out of the union. Management
employees could not belong to the union.

When I went in, the union hall had no computers. We got a computer. I’d try to do a little something on the computer and it seemed like the lines would jump here, there, and everywhere and I couldn’t get them back. So I enrolled in J. Sargeant Reynolds and took a computer course and then I got interested in going back to school. I acquired my associate’s degree and then I enrolled in VCU. During the course of that, my wife and I adopted our little girl, who’s seventeen now.

I wanted to leave more of a legacy for her, so I decided to keep on going to school. I made a promise to my father that I was gonna go to college, but I hadn’t planned to keep that promise. You gotta be careful what you promise. I went to VCU for about a year but my shift started rotating. I withdrew from VCU but I wanted to continue my education so I enrolled in University of Phoenix online. I finished with my bachelor’s degree there, then I decided to keep on going so I went back and I got my MBA.

Public perception of the buses here: there’s a lack of respect for bus operators—and for people who ride the buses. It’s looked at as a social service. A welfare thing. I think with the increase in prices of fuel, and pollution, that the bus transit industry is starting to gain some more notoriety.

I find change to come slowly in Richmond. It’s getting better, but still slow.