Would I like to hop behind the wheel of a city bus and give it a spin?
Is Bill Gates solvent?
Now, I'll be the first to admit my bus-driving qualifications were suspect. My only connection to the bus company, in fact, was a column in which I made fun of the news that 75 Summit County buses will get satellite-controlled computers to automatically announce upcoming stops.
Did the bus honchos recoil in horror at my jabs? Did they consult the spinmeisters to try to discredit me? Nah. They laughed. Then they tossed me their keys.
Is this a great country or what?
The invitation came in the form of a letter from Metro Regional Transit Authority's top kahuna, Robert Pfaff, who offered what he termed "a free bus-driving lesson -- off road, of course."
Off-road bus driving? Now that's the coolest thing I've ever heard! You mean I can drive it up the side of mountains and through rivers and over boulders and -- what? Oh. You just meant off the street?
Well, that's OK, too. For a guy whose idea of a "big rig" is the family minivan, the chance to commandeer a 40-foot-long, 20-ton, $250,000 amalgamation of metal sounds like a little piece of internal-combustion heaven.
Granted, a city bus' zero-to-60 time won't accelerate the heart rate. And those paint jobs wouldn't get you very far in the free-market showroom. But how can you turn down the chance to attach your right foot to a 285-horse engine getting less than 6 miles per gallon?
A female colleague -- in an effort to protect her privacy, we shall refer to her simply as "Sheryl Harris" -- caught wind of this invitation and asked, in an edgy sort of way, if this were a childhood fantasy come true.
The implication, of course, was that this is further evidence of some deep-seated need found only in people with a Y chromosome. A dreaded Guy Thing. Perhaps the ultimate Guy Thing, in which the Tim "Tool Time" Allen mentality is pushed to the edge of the envelope.
Nah. This is not a childhood fantasy. It's an adult fantasy. The older I get, in fact, the more my thoughts turn to gigantic machines.
My ultimate fantasy, since you asked, is -- OK, let me qualify that: My ultimate vehicular fantasy involves a huge, loud, smelly, dirty, dented, smoking, earth-moving machine. Tires the size of Mogadore. Tall and shapely, with a cab so big you could put a refrigerator in it. Big enough to mow down a small mountain with one swipe. Or at least a hill. Maybe Chapel Hill. Yeah! Drive it through Chapel Hill Mall, right down the concourse, ramming through kiosks, terrorizing shoppers, having my way with our arrogant, pointless, consumer-obsessed society.
But we digress.
We were heading to the bus garage near Summit Lake in Akron.
My first impression is not encouraging. At the entrance to the facility is a big sign saying, "11 Days Without An Accident." As if they're talking millennia. Now, rearranging things with earth-moving equipment is one thing. But my impression, as a layman, has always been that one of the chief goals in bus driving is to avoid stuff.
Wrong, crankshaft breath. The primary goal of bus driving, I am told, does not even involve driving.
"You talk about empowerment!" says Andy Ervin, a 22-year Metro veteran. "This is a true job for empowerment! This is a great job!"
Ervin talks like that all the time. He's cheerful, peppy and encouraging. Which he damn well better be, because part of his job involves training new drivers.
He teaches them that the actual driving is just part of the equation. The biggest task is dealing with the public.
Although Ervin is a trusting soul, he is not trusting enough to turn over the controls until we get to the mammoth parking lot of the Akron Baptist Temple, where he sets up a number of plastic pylons.
Then he surrenders my machine -- No. 1011, as I affectionately refer to it. It's a 1997 Nova, manufactured in, believe it or not, Roswell, New Mexico (insert creepy music here).
I quickly absorb the basics, including the odd transmission -- neither on the stick nor the floor, it's a push-button deal to the driver's left. And soon I am privy to the whole secret of driving a bus: developing a close personal relationship with your rearview mirrors. Or, as Ervin puts it: "Trust the Force."
I did, and the Force was with me. Well, most of the time.
Although the Force shorted out momentarily during the later stages, I prefer to look upon the bright side: During my initial slalom run through pylons, I ran over only one "pedestrian." And I actually backed through the entire course without hitting a thing. Finally, the ultimate achievement: Parallel parked the beast on my first try, without so much as a dented fender.
Then I got cocky.
Ervin moved the slalom cones closer together -- 36 feet. Apparently a 40-foot bus doing a quick weave will not successfully clear cones that are 36 feet apart. My wake looked like Hurricane Andrew's. But a second try, with wider sweeps, was successful.
Ervin was relentlessly complimentary. Even after my cavalier slalom run in which the death toll reached 7, he yelled, "Didn't miss by much!"
He said I definitely would have been invited back for more training -- in contrast to the 13 percent who wash out immediately.
Prospective drivers (who, if hired, earn about $16 an hour) are put through a seven-week program, of which driving is just a small part. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the training for prospective bus drivers includes megadoses of stress management, complete with breathing techniques and visualization.
Well, Andy, I've been practicing my visualization. But I've gotta tell you: My visions still seem to involve earth-moving equipment.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org