TTC bus driver Neil Hermes slows down at McCowan at Eglinton: “Next stop, Home Depot, where it’s always Hammertime.”
“Yo! What’d he say?” blurts out a young guy at the back. He thanks Hermes as he leaves, saying the city needs more drivers like him.
Hermes might be Toronto’s cheeriest bus driver. He cracks jokes over the speaker system and chats directly with riders. I contacted him on Reddit after he answered the online community’s questions about what he’s seen and heard on the job with surprising candour.
On Monday evening, as he drove three cycles of the Bellamy 9, a usually peaceful route from Warden Station to Scarborough Centre Station, Hermes tells me how he stays positive in a job he believes turns many of his colleagues into a stereotypical grump.
Sights, sounds and smells
His routes aren’t always peaceful, and the people aren’t always nice. He’s encountered drunken vomiters, a few masturbators, a pile of feces and, inexplicably, many used tampons.
As we talk, he pauses to thank everyone who gets on and off and to announce the stops with some witty banter — though it’s not necessary with the automated announcements.
He says he’s never been spat on, unlike so many of his colleagues, though a man once threatened to “spit blood” on him after he’d asked him not to lie across three seats.
“Times like that, no matter how nice you are, things can go south,” he says.
Trauma on the TTC
Hermes begins to talk about mentally ill people on his bus, and I realize drivers are often the first to deal with someone in a crisis.
“If they start screaming or start yelling, it’s a fine line between calling it in or just waiting for them to get off the bus. It unnerves everyone on the bus, but if they have a fare, and most of them do, they can ride,” he says.
He recalls a rider on his Jane Street route one night. “This cat gets on, runs right by me and doesn’t show me a fare.”
When the man didn’t get off at the end of the line, Hermes noticed he was wearing a hospital wristband, but no shoes. “He was gripping the back of the seat with all his might and he gets this look in his eyes like he’s a caged, cornered animal.”
He called for help, and a police officer took the man away. Hermes’ supervisor told him that every time the man is released from hospital, he ends up on the TTC and the process repeats itself.
Meeting mentally ill people in distress makes him believe there are not enough services to help them in Toronto.
Drinks, drunks and drama
Later, Hermes tells the riders the beer store is still open if they need it. If he were off duty, he tells them, that might be where he’d go.
Joking aside, the trouble he encounters is often alcohol-related.
Hermes says he averted a violent confrontation one night when a “hammered” young man was yelling racial slurs and Hermes had to physically pull him off the bus.
“This old man comes up to the front and goes, ‘You know, I think you just saved that white boy’s life,’” he recalls.
The last man smiling
After sunset, Hermes tells me the guys he went to TTC training with were all happy then, but he knows many become stressed and grouchy as time goes on. The job takes a toll.
For him, the only way to cope is to engage with his riders, opening up instead of shutting them out.
Take, for example, the laughs he got earlier in the evening: “For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, this is what a happy bus driver sounds like.”
Are bus drivers worth $30/hr?
Complaining about how much TTC drivers make is “a blood sport” in Toronto, says Hermes.
He believes $30 an hour is appropriate for what he does, because the job is difficult and drivers must do it well to keep people safe.
He suggests people who question his pay should try the job first — he’s sure they’ll find it isn’t as easy as it looks.
And while he understands that people get upset to see TTC drivers on the Sunshine List, he says that drivers who make more than $100,000 are “killing themselves” with overtime.