STREETS OF SANTA MONICA — It’s 12:31 p.m. and Ken Johnson’s 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’s going to do next, but he kept taking all the conversations back to the early driving days.
Since March 11, 1968, Johnson’s first day on the job (he’d never driven a bus before), a lot has changed in Santa Monica:
“Well, the buses have air conditioning now,” he said.
Johnson doesn’t get into the politics of how Santa Monica has changed, but he has a lot of opinions on how the buses have changed.
“It’s 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’d drive with your knees,” he said. “You’d 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’t have outside, right mirrors.
“Once you get to the point where you can’t 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’s 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’s back to laughing about some of the crazy passengers he’s 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’re leaving, going to another town, and leaving your family behind, but you know you’re going to back to see them.”