Few riders, but charismatic driver makes the time fly
One recent afternoon, the Pelham Transit bus stopped at the end of its second afternoon run in the parking lot of the Royal Bank in Fenwick. Its driver, Raymond Lee, whose shift began at noon, pulled out a half-smoked cigarette and opened the driver's side door to step outside, letting a few snowflakes float in and fall onto his seat.
"It's getting too cold," he said, puffing smoke away from the bus so that only a faint trace of it was blown in. "I'll have to stop smoking."
Lee, who is 60 and whose immigration to Canada from England was sponsored by his Canadian-born wife four years ago (the two met and married in England), is trim and clean-shaven, and has a head of neatly groomed grey hair. His smile does nothing to dispel the popular conception of English dental health.
"I've had a rough go the past couple of months," he said. "I had most of my teeth pulled out—by choice—and I don't get the dentures until January. They were just all rotten."
Lee speculated that England's younger generations are now better educated on how to take care of their teeth, but said that when he was young there was nothing of the sort.
"I used to have sugar sandwiches. There were five of us, and my mum had to do the best she could. Plus I was never at home much anyway. Always outside, playing football in the streets and in the fields. Mind you, that’s real football.”
Before coming to Canada, Lee was a taxi driver in Hertfordshire, just north of London, and he is clearly comfortable behind the wheel of the bus, even if he feels as though he’s driving on the wrong side of the road.
"I had ten passengers on my first run, and a few on my second. We'll see how many on the third," he said.
The first passenger, a teenage boy, came walking over to the bus.
"Are you new?" Lee asked him. "I don't think that I've seen you on the bus before.”
The boy—whose name was Dakota Dutcher—nodded.
“Do you have a student card then?” Lee asked. Dutcher dug into his backpack and produced a card.
“Oh, I don’t take them,” said Lee cheerily. “Just from the college and the university. I dunno why. It’s the secondary school students who don’t have the money. But that’s the way it is. You’ll have to pay the fare—three dollars in there.”
“That’s all right,” said Dutcher. “I don’t mind.” He pulled out a handful of coins and deposited them into the small cash box at the top of the steps.
"I'm just going into town to Giant Tiger to work," he said. "I usually ride my Harley, but now that there's snow I don't want to take it out."
Dutcher did not look old enough to own a Harley Davidson. Lee expressed his surprise. He pulled out of the bank’s parking lot and curled around the flagpole to continue up Canboro Road. The snowflakes stopped.
"I have two cars, too, though I only have my G1 so I can't drive them alone yet," said Dutcher. "I'm going to sell the pick-up though. It's a great truck—the one that I was named after, but I don't want to put the money into it, and I'm getting a good offer to scrap it."
Dutcher said that he also worked at the Clare's motorcycle dealership in Niagara-on-the-Lake, as a detailer.
"I clean bikes there, but I have my own business for cars, too. I come to you."
Dutcher, who is in Grade 11 at E. L. Crossley, said that he wants to be a mechanic.
"Once I graduate, I want to get an apprenticeship and go right into working at Clare's. I've been working on bikes since I was a kid. I don't trust anyone else to work on my Harley—I know that sounds mean, but I just like to do it."
Lee pulled the bus into Ridgeville. He pointed at the bus stop near the shops.
“There are a few girls who work in those shops who are regulars. I pick them up here and take them to the Seaway Mall, where I think they get a connection to St. Catharines. It’s a long way to go. A job’s a job though.”
He turned left and headed up to Highway 20.
Dutcher said that he'd just finished driver's ed.
"They told us that fifty percent of the room would crash within our first three months driving. I haven't yet. But I was driving home from Cayuga the other day, and some car coming the other way was right up against the yellow line, and even when I gave him more space he just barely missed me," he said.
Lee shook his head. "I think that if they taught everyone defensive driving they'd cut out at least half of the accidents.”
At Lookout Ridge Retirement Home, Lee made a cursory stop outside one of the entrances. Seeing that the vestibule was empty of prospective passengers, he pulled out again onto the road.
“I get some passengers from there, especially on Saturdays. But they’re really spoiled for options. The home has two vans that they can go out in, and the pharmacy and grocery store will do delivery.”
After looping down Haist Street and back up Pelham Street towards Fonthill, Lee dropped Dutcher off in front of Giant Tiger.
“There’s a stop at the library, too,” he said cheerily, “but I’ll let you off right here.”
“Thanks,” said Dutcher. “I’m a bit early for work, so I brought my laptop and I can watch some movies before it’s time to start.”
On another run past Giant Tiger, Lee stopped to pick up a man with four or five full shopping bags draped on his arms, and a cane in one hand. When Lee opened the door, he hobbled up the steps.
The van's radio buzzed. The radio system, which is linked with the rest of the buses operated by Sharpe, the contractor Lee works for, is used for general communication among drivers, though Lee said that he only really used it the one time he broke down. The man who had just boarded the bus nodded, and didn’t dispute that the Pelham bus tends to run on time.
“I like the bus. I just wish it ran more often and for longer hours,” the man said. “I used to have a car. But then I went on disability and couldn’t work.”
He explained that he had worked on crews at film studios in Toronto.
Lee grimaced sympathetically. “I had a regular rider just last week tell me that he'd went and bought himself a car. The insurance on the thing was two-hundred and fifty per month. Unbelievable.” He moved on to the man’s mention of his former occupation.
“I’ve got a friend back in England who does crew work at the BBC,” said Lee. “He tells me it’s just brutal on the body.” The passenger nodded.
“It is,” he said. “My doctor told me that I shouldn’t be lifting anything over ten pounds.” He gestured to the shopping bags lying on the seat next to him. “But you’ve got to buy groceries.”
After the passenger departed, Lee sympathized with his desire to see longer service hours, since the bus ceases to run by six o’clock in the evening, and takes over an hour to go through its route.
“But it’s just so expensive,” he said. “This thing costs one hundred dollars a day in fuel alone. Plus the cost of the drivers—which isn’t much—and maintenance.”
An average day, Lee said, sees only 20 to 25 passengers on the bus, and at three dollars a ride, even the fuel costs are not recovered.
“It’s a trial program right now, so it will be interesting to see what happens when the trial ends,” he said, referring to the funds provided to the Town from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.
At the Seaway Mall, one passenger debarked and two climbed on.
“There’ve been people coming to the mall to do their Christmas shopping,” Lee said, “but since the students are mostly done now, this week has been quiet. And people go away, too.”
Lee and his wife have not themselves been away to England since moving to Canada four years ago, though Lee said that they intend to visit next year. Despite this absence from home, Lee keeps up to speed on the goings on there, and shook his head in dismay when discussing the Brexit vote.
“People were completely misled. And it’s going to cost them a whole lot of money. The main thing people thought they were voting against was immigration. They’re right that the social services are really stretched out, and they can’t support more and more people, but Brexit isn’t going to help that. I think a lot of people really regret their vote.”
In Canada, Lee is not eligible to vote. The path to citizenship is relatively simple for him, but he said that the cost is still a major deterrent.
“They’ve taken away the English test for immigrants from English-speaking countries,” he said. “It was insulting before, to be from England and to have to take a test for your own language. The process still costs six hundred dollars though, and the only thing that you get in return is the ability to vote. Is it worth six hundred dollars to vote? I mean, it’s politicians. The only way that you can beat them is to join them.”
At Niagara College, Lee pulled up to the main entrance and idled there for a minute or two, fulfilling his obligation even though few students were around. As he waited, he poked the dial on the radio, switching from a station playing Christmas songs to one that wasn’t.
“I don’t mind the Christmas music,” he said. “It’s different when it’s on all of the time. All day, every day, for the entire month.”
No one got on the bus, and none of the three passengers got off. Lee put the bus back in gear and drove off. He retraced his route back through downtown Fonthill, going up by the Food Basics and Family Health Pharmacy, Sobeys, the library, and Giant Tiger, picking up nobody and dropping nobody off. At the street corners, Lee waved to the crossing guards, who raised their gloved hands in response.
His phone, which was resting in the cup holder near the radio dial, dinged several times in succession. He glanced at it before realizing that the screen was facing away from him.
“Those’ll be messages,” he said. “I get alerts from the BBC too. I like to keep posted about what’s going on, and the BBC is the best in the world for it.”
Lee said that he’d paid attention to the BBC for all his life, and that when he was in the Royal Navy—a sonar man on a frigate—it was how the crew kept in touch with the world, with little else to do aboard ship.
“We went without football,” Lee said. “We all make sacrifices.”
He brought the bus back up Haist Street, depositing a woman he had picked up at the Seaway Mall at the intersection of Highway 20 before continuing on to make another fruitless, perfunctory stop at Lookout Ridge.
In downtown Ridgeville, his visitor asked Lee if he could take a photograph of him before leaving.
“All right,” said Lee. “But make it fast. The schedule’s tight, and I’m already a little bit late.”