School Bus Roulette

For New York special needs children, the school bus is a game of chance.

Brooklyn kids don’t often get the chance to take the schoolbus, as most live within walking (or subway) distance of their school. But many kids with special needs ride schoolbuses because the schools they end up at aren’t always nearby.

My son has been taking a schoolbus since preschool; kindergarten is now year three. A transportation buff, he’s taken to it like a duck to water. He also gets to listen to the morning traffic report on the bus radio, a high point of his day.

I was never worried, and still am not, about him being on the bus. There are always two adults onboard, the driver and the bus matron who actually escorts him to and from the curb to whichever grownup is waiting there. We’ve had our share of drivers and matrons, each with their own little quirks. The first driver was Oren, a thirtyish guy from Jamaica, who always had a swooping “Hello Mister Jack!” every morning. He’d give a thumbs up to anything Yankees that Jack might be sporting that day. The next year’s driver was Max, older and more avuncular than Oren, but cut from the same good-natured cloth. The bus matrons weren’t as affable and thus I don’t remember their names.

At the start of this school year, kindergarten, his driver was Felix and the bus matron was Iris. Felix always called in the afternoons if he couldn’t remember whether Jack needed to be picked up (some days Jack stayed for after-school programs). He was always pleasant on such calls, as he was in person, resting his elbow on the open window. Iris was like a big sister, always with a warm greeting and gentle touch. We loved them, truly.

But the week between Christmas and New Year’s I received what’s come to represent “uh oh” to me in the form of a cheerful yellow business envelope with a line drawing of a smiling schoolbus. The letter is always the same, but different. It tells us that Jack has a new bus route, often through a different bus company subcontracted by the city. We’ve worked mostly with Boro Wide Buses, but we did get the chance to engage for exactly one month with Bobby’s Bus Company.

Who’s Bobby? Dunno. But I’m glad we’re not working with them again. Granted, the month of January was hellacious in terms of weather (ice storms on top of blizzards on top of curbside mountains of snow), but the service we got was shoddy.

The driver, Shirley, was fine. Except that in the four weeks she was assigned to us she twice forgot to pick him up after school and was over an hour late one morning, with no call from her or her dispatcher to alert us.

On the morning of Jan. 3, Jack and I stood out front as his new bus pulled up to our house. We waited patiently for the new bus matron to emerge from the far side of the bus. I don’t know what I was expecting but it sure wasn’t this: Cruella de Ville with a fake-n-bake tan, a sourpuss slicked with pink shiny gloss that matched the frosted tips in her blown-out spiky brown-and-blonde streaked hair. Squared off artificial nails completed her manicured look. There was nothing matronly about her.

I was a little fearful of releasing Jack into Cruella de Ville’s custody. For the next 28 days I kept wanting to ask her if she read the job requirements before she accepted the position: “Must like kids. Physically capable of smiling.” One morning she referred to Jack as “peanuthead.”

Referring to someone as “peanut,” as in, “my little peanut,” is affectionate. Adding “head” renders it insulting. Think: butthead, knucklehead, pinhead. Perhaps it was her attempt at affection, but her tone was so harried, it was more like a “Chop! Chop!” directive, trying to get him to walk faster than he was actually able.

Lucky us, we got another smiling-bus envelope on Jan. 28, informing us of a new bus route. Hallelujah!

At this point Jack thought he’d be getting a new bus every month. Can’t say I blamed him. I called the Office of Pupil Transport (the senders of the yellow smiling-bus envelopes) to ask why we keep getting switched. The person I spoke with said it could be for any number of reasons but that it’s almost always done at the behest of the child’s school. She ran through a list of possible reasons and several of them seemed probable. That was enough to satisfy me.

On the morning the bus was an hour late, we waited outside because we were unaware it was delayed. There was a lot of snow and ice on the ground from the big snowdrop the day before. Restless from the longer-than-usual wait, Jack picked up his little red shovel and went over to where Kosta The Barber was chipping away at ice in front of his place of employment: Dolores Beauty Salon. We live two doors in from the salon.

Jack sort of snuck in there next to Kosta, who must be closing in on 90, if not 100 years of age. His face is made up of tough-leather skin, deep grooves and well-earned wrinkles. His hair is white and, of course, perfectly groomed. He might look ancient, but he’s the hardest working guy I know. He opens the shop at 7:00 a.m., pulling up the heavy gated awning, and is the last one to leave, pulling the armored gate down behind him. Every few months Kosta seats Jack in a plastic booster seat perched atop his black barber’s chair and gives him a most handsome trim.

When he finally saw Jack he said, “Ah, good boy!” in his thick Greek accent, gritty with decades of living. Jack looked up at Kosta and grinned, happily reapplying himself to the same patch of ice he’d been chipping away at for the past few minutes. A couple walked toward Café Regular, the coffee shop next to the salon. As they opened the door to enter, Jack chirped, “Good morning!” One of them turned around and flashed an all-teeth most genuine smile. “Well hello there big fella! Is that your bus?” And lo and behold there was Cruella de Ville, stepping out from the far side of the bus. Jack dropped his shovel and screamed, “Yes!” running toward the bus, his backpack askew and his mittens dangling from the clips on his coat sleeves.  

I’m thankful for the schoolbus and that the city provides it for those of us who need it. But it is a crapshoot after all, just like many things offered free as a public service. I’m thankful for the lucky dice I’ve been dealt, the Felixes, the Orens, the Irises. And now, a few days into our newest team of driver and bus matron, I’m happy to say we’ve got a winning pair.

But they might want to change the job title of “bus matron” as ours, this time, is a young man. Nothing matronly about him, either. He’s nice. Hope we get to keep him.


Kerri February 16, 2011 at 06:56 PM
Great article Julie! Love to read anything you write!
Jayne Feld February 16, 2011 at 11:57 PM
Hey Julie. These are great. Keep them coming about Jack! I've just become a follower.
AJ Grossman March 10, 2011 at 01:40 AM
Why can't Jack just take a train to school? He could drive it himself! Love this. xo AJG


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