Askville: The long way around

Flavius Jackson has been with the city transit system for 30 years, making him the Asheville’s longest-running bus driver. He’s retiring this month, but Jackson is already planning a cross-country drive with his wife to keep his hand in. The 62-year-old is a recognizable face on the Haywood Road bus (Route 1), which he’s driven for the past 10 years. And while Jackson says he’s seen some changes along the way, he maintains that bus driving is mostly about the people you encounter, and people haven’t changed too much.

Photo by Jonathan Welch

Mountain Xpress: How did you get started driving professionally?
Flavius Jackson: I drove a bus three years in high school. Back then, when I was going to school, everything was segregated, so I drove the Black Mountain/Swannanoa bus, and I drove the high-school kids back here to the school, because they didn’t have a high school out there. That was Stevens-Lee High School. I guess I was 15 or 16. I had the biggest bus at the school—an old GMC five-speed.

How much did they pay you?
Not much. Of course it didn’t take much back then. We worked about four or five hours a day. I forget how much the hourly was. It wasn’t as much as they’re making now. They’re making around $10 now, I believe.

Were you up early in the morning?
Oh, early, early. It would take me about 30 minutes to get out there, because the old school bus didn’t get out there that fast. I guess I was up about 6 o’clock, because I had to get them back to school by 8.

Did you keep the bus at your house?
Mmmhmm. Back then you did, yeah.

Where did you live then?
I lived Asheville, in the Shiloh section of town, the south end of town. I’m still there. My parents owned some property out there. I was born in Spartanburg; my father moved up here when I was 12 years old, and I’ve been up here ever since.

My dad, he didn’t have too much education . He came out of school, I think, by third grade, so he couldn’t read well. I mean, he could think. Once you taught him stuff, he could do it. But he came up here and got a job with Biltmore Iron and Metal. He couldn’t find work down there, and he had a lot of children: 13 children (seven boys and six girls). So he had to find some work.

How did you end up driving a city bus?
When I came back from the military [Marine Corps, 1965-68], I worked in a plant, Philips Magnavox, running a molding machine. After that into the outreach program for about a year. Then I left there and went to Gerber Products making baby food out of Skyland, and I worked there for four years. Then I left there. I went to a company named Dynatech, it was a textile-dye place, and worked there for about two years.

Then, round ‘79, I came here. In fact, I came here by way of the employment office. Since I had a background in driving, they sent me here, and I been here ever since. Except for one time, they had layoffs and I got furloughed. And I drove dump trucks for about a year. Then they called me back here.

And you said, “Sure thing”?
Yeah. Goodbye to the dump truck. Because that dump truck, you work from sunup to sundown; I didn’t have much time to spend with my family. I had kids then; this job, I get to spend time with them. Used to, I could bring them on the bus, and they would ride. And now the law’s changed. But that’s all right, because by the time they changed the law, mine were grown.

How many kids you have?
Three. Two girls and a boy.

Do see a lot of the same folks riding the bus that you’ve seen for years?
Yeah, you do. Especially people going back and forth to work, year to year. Then you start missing people. They get old and retire, or they get old or sick or in a nursing home or something. And you start missing them and you start asking about them. Especially the ones you become friends with.

You become friends with a lot of folks, talk to them every day?
Yeah. You know where they stay, where they live. They use a bus driver like a bartender. They have problems, they want to talk about them. You don’t solve them, you just listen. You just listen and they tell you all kinds of problems they have: the boyfriends, the husbands, the children. I don’t have any solutions; I just listen. And that seems to suffice.

You ever have any problem keeping good behavior on your bus?
People are basically, you know, good. You do have that 10 percent, though, that might want to start some trouble from time to time. I haven’t had to put that many people off. Especially when they come to know you and they’re there every day. They don’t cause any problems. I don’t have any problems; if I do have a problem, most of them come to my aid. I don’t have to do any talking. They do the talking, telling them to shut up or get off or whatever.

You work the early morning shift?
When I first started, I worked early morning. Then there was a split, then I had late evenings. And I think late evenings back then was 7 o’clock. Just recently, I guess in the last five years, they put on this late-late shift. I ain’t never had to deal with that too much.

And it might get later, too.
Yeah: 1:30. I couldn’t take that—I couldn’t take it (laughs). By 10 o’clock, I’m done. I train myself to go to bed, because I get up at 4 o’clock every morning to run this shift. By 10 o’clock, my eyes start closing.

If you knew a bus driver that was just getting started, what would you tell him?
What would I tell him? Well, you know. Be open; be kind to people. Don’t take everything that comes your way like they’re picking on you or talking about you. Because people have bad days, and sometimes they may say things they don’t really mean, and it just comes out the wrong way. And you have to pick up on that. If you don’t, you’ll be mad all the time.

If you’re a hothead, everything somebody says is going to affect you. You have to treat it just like water: Let it run off.

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