Bus driver backs into career, lasts over 30 years

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The morning in late May was breezy, the pink flags of Gesa Power House Theatre billowing briskly at just past 6:30 a.m. For a few coffee-deprived minutes, I second-guessed my decision to be at the Valley Transit transfer station so early in the day.

It was for a good cause, however. I’d heard about bus driver Nick Notaras before, when a reader lauded his dedication to his job and the people he transported. Dick Fondahn, then Valley Transit’s general manager, called to tell me Nick was on the eve of retiring from three decades-plus of driving city buses.

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Valley Transit driver Nick Notaras

Longtime Valley Transit driver Nick Notaras recently retired. Here, he relates a favorite story from his time behind the wheel.

Longtime Valley Transit driver Nick Notaras recently retired. Here, he relates a favorite story from his time behind the wheel.

So here I was on a Thursday, the next-to-last day Nick would drive his routes.

The buses started arriving at Main Street and Fourth Avenue all at once, the bright red vehicles briefly turning the street into a colorful circus. Passengers disembarked, a mix of bookbags, walking canes and briefcases.

There, suddenly, was Nick’s bus, prepared to begin the Mainline Westbound run, and already containing Ron Olson on his way to his job at Walla Walla Foundry and Trent LeClair, riding to a day at Key Technology. Carrie Stock would travel farther to land at Walmart for her job.

They knew Nick was nearing the last day on the job. Ron expressed happy wishes for Nick. “He seems to know everybody, he’s always friendly.”

Trent agreed. “He always has time for me.”

He’s been at it 31 years, the driver said, easing into traffic effortlessly. “I think I’m at over a million miles. Without leaving town.”

He didn’t especially want the job, he told me as I was clinging to the seat for a turn into the graveyard of the Blue Mountain Mall. Dead or not, the area is an important bus stop, Nick explained.

“So people don’t have to cross Rose Street by foot, where there is little, if any, slowing down of traffic.”

No, Nick had been selling carpet before the recession then caused his employer to lay off two people. And he had every intention of getting back to that. Collecting unemployment, however, required applications be submitted.

When the call came, he had never driven anything big, he said. A good training officer took care of that, and Nick’s personality took care of the rest.

It’s his employee’s ability to connect with passengers that has been one the company’s greatest assets, Fondahn said. “Everyone loves Nick.”

A woman boarding his bus at Walmart phrases her thoughts about Nick’s retirement succinctly: “I’m not happy. Everybody likes him, he’s always smiling.”

Declining to give her name, the older woman fills Nick’s ears about being left by the previous driver who came through the Walmart parking lot. As Nick helps her board with her pull-along shopping cart, he tries to jolly her out of the sour mood. “She’s new,” he said of the other driver. “I like to give her the benefit of the doubt.”

The passenger smiles a little, but Nick’s departure is a problem, she assured me. “We’ll get the new ones who don’t know their ass from their elbows.”

Nick definitely knows his elbows. He lands at each stop just when he’s supposed to, knows nearly every face that climbs aboard and even has the stoplights timed in his head to avoid sitting at one longer than necessary. “All the time I’ve spent at stoplights, it’s probably 120 hours a year in a very conservative estimate,” he said. “Multiply that by 31 years.”

Which is the time span he’s had to gather the human condition on bus rides, he noted. “I could tell you 1,000 stories about being a bus driver. You get to know people, hundreds of people on this job. I know their brothers, their sisters, their cats and their dogs.”

Nick knows more. For example, he knows notching up the air conditioning on the really hot days drops everyone’s anxiety level, he said. Or that the next stop is for a young student who can talk his ear off.

“One day I told her she has 300 words she can use a day. Sometimes she asks me how she’s doing (in the count),” he said with a chuckle, watching the girl’s dad navigate his daughter onto the bus.

Once she’s aboard, Nick sends her the kind of smile I can easily imagine bestowed upon his lucky grandchildren, and the youngster returns an equal beam.

By now, the bus has traveled twice to Walmart and crisscrossed College Place this way and that, stopping every few blocks to let riders on. An hour after starting this route, the bus is half filled and will become packed in another 20 minutes or so. Valley Transit’s goal is to connect neighborhoods with the bus system so that no one is far from reaching transportation, Nick said.

“More and more, people can’t afford to own a car. I’ve been without a car before and you can do that, but you can’t do it without public transportation.”

As we began to resemble sardines in a can, it was time for Nick to return to the transfer center to begin the route anew. In the 75 minutes since we were last here, I’ve heard passenger after passenger express best wishes to Nick and a wistfulness at losing his presence in their lives.

He’s going to miss them right back, he said. What Nick terms the “best job in the world” is all about people, he reiterated. “You can change someone’s day with just a smile, bring them from here” — his hand hovers at knee level — “to here,” he said, raising his hand to eye level, before inching up to above his head.

Even at 68, he never gave much thought to retirement before now, Nick noted. “But I’m going to be 70 soon and there are a few things I want to do.”

In addition to learning to sleep past 4 a.m., Nick’s list includes a visit to the Mediterranean, back to his family’s homeland of Greece, he added. “The bad part about that is, I’ll probably fall in love with the place and need another lifetime to enjoy it. My son told me 270,000 Social Security checks get mailed to Greece every month.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at 509-526-8322 or sheilahagar@wwub.com.

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