Willis Rose Jr. is the best bus driver in Boston.
Recently, Rose, 54, won his fourth – third consecutive – MBTA Bus “Roadeo,” beating out 37 other drivers representing various bus garages in the system. Rose operates out of Cabot Garage, in South Boston.
This year’s 37th annual “Roadeo,” held on Sunday, November 3, at the Charlestown Bus Garage, presented drivers – as it always has – with a series of obstacle courses. “Whoever has the highest score at the end wins,” Rose will tell me during our nearly hour-long interview.
The Roadeo, Rose will later explain, tests a driver’s speed and, most importantly, his or her attention to detail. Each driver starts with 700 points. And has seven minutes to complete the course. Every time a driver bumps an obstacle – cones and tennis balls, not cars and pedestrians – points are deducted; for every second a driver exceeds the allotted time, point totals suffer.
Rose will tell me that the competition is hardly the toughest part: “Just to compete in the Roadeo, you have to have a perfect driving record, for the year, you have to have good attendance, no discipline, just to compete here in Boston.”
In May, Rose will head to Kansas City, Missouri, to compete in the American Public Transportation Association International Bus Roadeo. He’s never finished higher than 16th at the APTA International. The international courses are smaller, the buses aren’t as familiar. But he will try. He’s a competitor to the bone.
Rose is always looking for a way to win; a way to please a customer; a way to make a living; and above all, a way to get home at the end of the day to his family.
He “sees the light at the end of the tunnel” approaching. His retirement, maybe five or six years away, his ultimate destination; the end of a long, grinding road.
It’s just after 10 a.m. on Friday morning, November 15, when Willis Rose Jr. appears outside the Dunkin Donuts in the heart of Kenmore Square. It’s not his normal spot; Rose prefers Doughboy Donuts on Dorchester Avenue, in South Boston.
Dressed in a navy blue MBTA bus driver uniform, baggy from wear and tear, and a black transit agency hat, decorated with six pins – three on either side – the words “Bus Rodeo” stitched in white lettering across the velcro strap in the back, Rose enters Dunkin Donuts, looking surprised to see me.
Just yesterday, I called him to set up the time and place of this interview. He agreed, graciously, with a “Thank you very much, sir,” suggesting casually that I buy him a cup of coffee. I agreed.
Rose is broad shouldered, 6 feet 3 inches tall, and over 250 pounds. His size becomes more apparent when I shake his hand. His smothers mine.
I quickly learn Rose is more brains than brawn. The cup of coffee I promised him yesterday becomes a medium hot tea, with one cream and three sugars, and a toasted English muffin, with grape jelly on the side. I don’t mind paying. But the timing of his additional request suggests he knows all to well that he’s doing me a service.
Rose hasn’t been treated too often to meals on the job by strangers. For the last 17, going on 18 years, Rose has been an MBTA bus driver. Currently, he’s the operator of the 57 Bus, known to many for its trips up and down Commonwealth Avenue, steps away from where we stand, deep in Kenmore Square.
I finish paying for my small coffee, his tea and English muffin, while Rose waits, patiently, unsure where to sit.
I sit, my back against a long mirror in a small nook along the side wall. Rose is sitting on the opposite side of our two-person table, inside the Dunk. He unwraps his English muffin and begins to coat it with grape jelly, spreading it roughly with a plastic knife.
The glasses, running down the tip of his nose, paired with the gray beard he sports, gives him a scholarly look. The uniform and lack of front teeth – a gap along his bottom row, stretching from both corners of his mouth, distinctly noticeable when he speaks – however, suggest hardships, rather than a life spent in the cozy confines of an academic study.
Rose, allowing his tea to cool, devouring his English muffin, tells me casually that remembering to use both his mirrors and his constant attention to detail has allowed him to take home Roadeo victories four of the last five years.
It’s apparent he understands that the Roadeo, itself, isn’t as prestigious as the Olympics, for example. But competing, in general, is what Rose likes the most. Everything is a contest.
Rose is beginning to explain the prerequisites – good attendance, no accidents and no demerits – to compete in the Roadeo when I notice him showing signs of what is common knowledge to so many: MBTA employees are, for one reason or another, deserved or not, targets for disgruntled riders, looking to blame someone for their commuting misery. I laugh, nervously, realizing – Rose surely suspects this – that I’ve been, am, one of those disgruntled riders.
“Driving for the T can be interesting, you know,” Rose tells me, slapping his hands together, wiping off the leftover crumbs from the English muffin he’s finished.
“I’ve seen a lot of things out there.”
First, the good.
In Rose’s experience, the most common complaint he hears pertains to fare costs. But, for those lucky enough to hop on the 57, if you politely explain why you don’t have a “fare bucks,” Rose might give you a break.
Rose, just now beginning to sip his tea out of the lid, tells me about a fare-evader he gave a ride to because the explanation was thoughtful. “No problem, I’ll give you a ride today,” Rose says.
“I’ll give anybody a break, if they know how to ask,” Rose assures me. Just don’t bullshit him – he knows when someone is telling the truth. Again, he’s seen and heard it all.
He tells me a story about a man he picked up who he let ride without paying. It was a longwinded story, Rose says, but seemed genuine enough.
“About an hour later, coming up back the other way, he gives me the same story,” Rose tells me, in humorous disbelief, rather than frustration. “Get off the bus, man. At least change your story.”
He’s built like a former defensive end – the position he played during his Malden High School football days – but he’s a gentle giant. It’s his attitude and emotional intelligence that allows him to make it through the everyday grind.
“Sometimes, the tone in your voice can set people off,” Rose says, taking the plastic lid off his tea. “I just speak to people, man.”
“I try to talk to them in a monotone voice,” Rose says. Keeping a level head, he feels, is the best way to guarantee he’ll return home at the end of the day, to “chill out” with his wife and three daughters, to continue drumming in his band, NuRythm.
I offer that people bitch and moan daily, prefacing my question as to how he is able to maintain this cool, laid-back approach, for nearly 18 years.
“I know I’m getting paid at the end of the day,” Rose sighs, before taking a long sip of his tea.
“What’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to you?” I ask, as Rose puts his tea down.
When he places the quickly emptying cup of tea back on the table, the answers he gives me are vague. I can tell he’s looking for the right words. This process, of course, is an answer in itself.
Finally, he tells me a “Good morning” from a customer – just one, maybe two – makes his day.
Now, the bad.
“What’s the worst thing anyone has ever said to you?” I ask, as a follow up. Rose’s eyebrows perk up instantly. His left hand, the one that had been grasping his cup of tea, begins to loosen, then comes off the cup.
“Said or done?” Rose asks.
I tell him either works. Unfortunately, he appears more comfortable, now.
“Spit in my face,” Rose says, instantaneously.
I pause, asking him to elaborate. And he does.
A passenger spit in his face about a year ago, he says.
Now, he’s not looking around the room, racking his brain for the right answer to a question; everything just comes out automatically.
“I thought I was the best driver, man,” Rose says, shaking his head, both hands on his knees, his back against the chair.
Last winter, Rose explains, the incident happened after he refused to let a passenger exit through the back door at a Route 19 stop, along Geneva Avenue. Frustrated that Rose would only allow riders to exit through the front because heavy snow banks against the back door were a safety hazard, the passenger took out his frustration on Rose.
“He’s about to go out the font door, then he turns around, he spat in my face,” Rose recalls. “The bus was still in drive. I was so shook.”
Bad knees and the fact that he knew better than to take measures into his own hands caused him to flag down police officers, Rose says. The police eventually got the man, he adds, starting to stare blanking around the room, perhaps regretting how his knees prevented him from chasing the spitter down himself.
Rose and I have been talking for close to 40 minutes inside the chain coffee joint. His break is over at 11 a.m.; it’s nearly time for us to part ways. The 57 is parked just out of sight, on the other side of the window. I don’t need any more information, but Rose still has half a cup of tea.
Rose lives in Brockton, but I ask him about his Malden days, just to pass the time. He tells me about his time as a two-sport athlete – he ran indoor and outdoor track and played football. With ease, he tells me he’s in the Malden High School Hall of Fame.
It appears, for a moment, that his total recall doesn’t just apply to the bad times. I’m happy to hear him brag. But it’s just a reminder of what could have been.
Before graduating in 1978 from Malden High, “A few said I was heading to the Olympics, you know,” Rose tells me, in a casual, oh-by-the-way manner, swirling the last dregs of the cold, creamy, sugary substance remaining in his cup.
Rose elaborates, telling me that he was a Greater Boston and State track champion, competing in the 60-meter high hurdles and high jump events. He came to find, however, that he was a big fish in a small pond.
In 1977, Rose says, during a meet at Princeton University, he met his match: former World Record holder Renaldo Skeets Nehemiah.
“We thought we were bad, until we met him, man,” Rose recalls, as we share a laugh. “He was quick.”
Nehemiah, some may remember, set the World Record for the 110-meter high hurdles, before playing in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers, in the early 80s.
While Nehemiah was enjoying his short stint in the NFL, Rose fell on tough times, dropping out of Fitchburg State, where he attended college on a partial scholarship, in 1980.
I notice my watch seems to be ticking faster, now. Rose’s break is almost over. But I ask him to share more.
He tells me he should have died in 1980. I don’t ask him to explain.
There’s a moment of awkwardness between us before I haphazardly attempt to end the conservation on a positive note, asking him about the six pins attached to the sides of his hat.
Rose takes his hat off, showing me Washington state, Texas Metro, Houston, Honolulu, Boston MBTA, and Route 66 pins, given to him by different bus drivers he’s met at the APTA International Bus Roadeo during “big swap meets.”
He shows them off like Olympic medals, except for the Route 66 pin.
“Where is Route 66, Oklahoma?” Rose asks. I tell him I’m not sure.
I just know it by name. But Rose is throwing away his trash, exchanging small talk with a young woman, dressed in her Dunkin’ uniform, and I’m packing up my materials. There’s no time to discuss a long road neither one of us knows too much about.
It’s cold – about 35 degrees in the sun – when we step outside into Kenmore Square, just before 11 a.m. The rush along the 57 route is about to start. Rose shakes my hand, then walks to his bus, ready to travel a more familiar road.