Think of it as the Oscars for transit operators. Just voted the No. 1 wheelman by his peers, PORTER MATHIS III has got to be the nicest, friendliest sight a weary commuter could see while clambering aboard his bus. (He's presently posted on routes 168 and 190; he rotates to new lines every four months.) During our interview at Metro's supersecret surprise ceremony two weeks ago, our conversation was interrupted by a constant series of hugs from his fellow drivers. Forget diesel or electricity—you get the feeling the guy could power his coach with love.
"I've seen everything," says the 29-year veteran, who grew up and spent most of his life in the Rainier Valley. "The city's changed so much. The Kingdome's gone down. You see so many more skyscrapers." He's driven 200-plus routes in his career, taking in every view, admiring every vista, driving every road, and dealing with all kinds of passengers—good and bad.
"People talked more" in the old days before headphones and cell phones, he notes. For him, the challenge is to get to know regular riders on a first-name basis after starting a new route. "In the first week or so, people are hesitant to say 'Hello' or 'Good morning.' When I come to work, I intend to be fun. I intend to make them laugh or to make them smile. I try to just open them up and get their attention. Eye contact and a smile. You'd be surprised—after a week or so, they respond. There's always something positive to say to anybody." Even on late-night shifts, he's learned to occupy the bartender-psychotherapist role as booze hounds pour out their problems to him. "They've had a few, and they say what they wanna say. Everybody gets on the bus and they just talk." And speaking of talking, what about cell phone etiquette? "Everybody's talking on the cell phones at once. Some people won't turn down their cell phones or headsets. I've had to break up a few arguments over that."
Then there are the things Mathis can't control outside the bus—motorists. "A lot of people now have too many things on their mind. I think drivers have gotten worse. They're not as cautious. Everybody's in a hurry. And nobody likes to be in back of the bus. Everybody has to pass the bus." What's the best advice he'd give those same impatient, distracted drivers? "Stay off the cell phones and keep the coffee cups out of your hands. Make sure you always try to think ahead before you proceed." In other words, know your route in advance—use the same sort of anticipation a Metro driver does to foresee potential snarls.
One reason for Mathis' status are the letters Metro receives from his passengers. Perhaps the ultimate accolade, though, is the question a driver assuming one of his old routes inevitably hears from passengers: "Where's Porter?" www.metrokc.gov
Porter Mathis' Picks
BEST BUS ROUTE: He likes 'em all, but singles out the views from No. 118 to Vashon Island: "The ferry boat ride's good, too. That was refreshing."
BEST URBAN WALK: The 2.3-mile loop around Seward Park.
BEST COFFEE STOP: Starbucks—because there are so many scattered on his different routes. But he's especially fond of the in-store variety at Safeway and QFC, for more efficient snacking.
BEST QUICK-STOP LUNCH JOINT: The Des Moines QFC for the chicken and buffalo wings. Plus more java, of course—"I like coffee, period!"
BEST SEAFOOD DATE WITH HIS WIFE: McCormick's Fish House on Fourth Avenue.
BEST PLACE TO GO OUT FOR BARBECUE: Jones Barbeque in Columbia City, run by an old pal from Garfield High.
BEST PERK FROM RIDERS: First is a smile. Then a conversation. "I'd just like you to speak to me. I'm not just a machine." But he also fondly recalls the home-baked cookies and banana bread from a woman on the No. 51 line in West Seattle.
BEST WAY TO RELAX FROM DRIVING THE BUS ALL DAY: Window shopping and test-driving sports cars like a Viper or Corvette—anything small and sporty as opposed to big and lumbering.
BEST ADVICE TO POTENTIAL METRO DRIVERS: (And riders do regularly ask him about the gig.) "You have to be a people person."
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