STREETS OF SANTA MONICA ‚Äî It‚Äôs 12:31 p.m. and Ken Johnson‚Äôs last stop of his 45 year career is right on time.
Johnson rolled up to the corner of Sixth Street and Broadway, gathered his things, and stepped off the Big Blue Bus, his hands in the air, looking up at the sky. Johnson, previously the most tenured driver, called the “number one,” retired last week.
As he made his walk back to the bus depot, BBB workers stopped him left and right, congratulating him on retirement. They asked him what he‚Äôs going to do next, but he kept taking all the conversations back to the early driving days.
Since March 11, 1968, Johnson‚Äôs first day on the job (he‚Äôd never driven a bus before), a lot has changed in Santa Monica:
“Well, the buses have air conditioning now,” he said.
Johnson doesn‚Äôt get into the politics of how Santa Monica has changed, but he has a lot of opinions on how the buses have changed.
“It‚Äôs easier today for sure!” he said. “Everything that they have people in the office doing, we used to do from the seat.”
The way Johnson describes it, it sounds like he was both a bus driver and the entire Transit Store.
“You‚Äôd drive with your knees,” he said. “You‚Äôd count out change, sell tokens, sell school cards.”
He remembers the year (1971) that he had to stop counting change, but before that he could feel the exact change in his hands without looking. He could grasp a different paper transfer ticket between each of his fingers, tear them out with one swipe of the hand, and serve four riders at once. For the first eight years of his career he drove the 2 line, the hardest route, with the most turns. Before all the automation and digital technology that guides the buses today, there were only two machines: the bus and Ken Johnson.
At the front door of the bus depot, his colleagues beckoned him inside for a celebration, but Johnson wanted to keep talking about the days when he didn‚Äôt have outside, right mirrors.
“Once you get to the point where you can‚Äôt see the top of the car, you put your blinker on and you start to go over and if you hear a horn, then you go back over,” he said.
What was his hardest day?
“Oh man, I’ve got so many,” he said, laughing.
His eyes glaze over talking about the 10 line, when there‚Äôs an accident and the freeway is blocked. His hands raise up momentarily to an imaginary wheel as he explains the feeling of helplessness. Then he‚Äôs back to laughing about some of the crazy passengers he‚Äôs had.
He did not choke up on his route during his last day.
“It’s just time for me to go,” he said. “It’s not a thing of happy or sad. It’s just like you‚Äôre leaving, going to another town, and leaving your family behind, but you know you‚Äôre going to back to see them.”