San Francisco Chronicle
Veteran Muni operator is driven to go out of her way to help others
Muni driver Linda WilsonAllen starts the last run of her morning shift on the inbound 45-Union at 9:28.
Coming up San Francisco’s Lyon Street, she turns left on Union and looks down the hill to see whether one of her regulars is waiting at the stop on the corner of Baker. If he isn’t, she slows and honks her horn twice. Then she’ll wait 20 seconds max for the regular to run down three flights of stairs, cross the apartment house lobby and bolt out the door, coffee dripping and coat flying as he fumbles for the $2 fare, Dagwood Bumstead-style.
The duet is timed to the second, and the driver wears a smile that can be seen across the street. “Good morning, Sam,” she says to her rider, usually the first passenger aboard.
That rider is this reporter, and in 20 years chasing after the morning bus, there has never been a driver as reliable
“I observe, and when I see that I have a regular passenger, I kind of keep an eye out for them,” explains Wilson-Allen, 58. “I see the time that you arrive, and then I take it from there.”
By the time the bus reaches Van Ness, it is crowded with a combination of regulars, irregulars and first-timers — and Wilson-Allen pampers them all.
Always on time
Despite the full service she offers, Wilson-Allen stays on her schedule to the minute, without incident and without the trolley poles that power her electric bus coming loose of the wire, which would slow everything down. Whatever time she loses helping a customer, giving directors or making change, she will make up along the run.
That’s how she has been named “Operator of the Month” several times and accumulated a file of fan mail sent to Muni headquarters. She has garnered 16 “safe driver” patches and wears some of them on the right sleeve of the sweater she wears on Fridays, the way a football stud wears a letter jacket.
She may be the most beloved bus driver (though she prefers to be called a transit operator) since Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners.” Passengers offer her use of their vacation homes. They take her to lunch during her shift break. They bring her potted plants and floral bouquets. She likes to accessorize her uniform with scarves, so that is what riders give her. One woman upgraded her gift to a rabbit fur collar.
Give that driver a hand
When Wilson-Allen’s shift on the 45 ends, with a driver switch at Stockton and Sutter streets, the passengers have been known to break into applause as she rises from her seat.
“I enjoy my job so that gives me a positive attitude. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t go to supervisor,” she says. “I like being out here with all the people.”
Wilson-Allen has been driving for 26 years, and she remembers the day she was at home in the Bayview, sorting the mail. She had lost her job with Head Start and had six kids to feed, including 4-yearold twins. Her then-husband was also out of work and had applied for a job with Muni.
“What happened was my husband, at the time, received a courtesy card in the mail saying a position was coming open. Well, he wasn’t home, so I took it and I applied for the job,” she recalls.
The grand tour
She started on the 35-Eureka, “a little community line off the top of Market Street,” she says. From that moment on, she has treated every line like a little community line. This includes the five years she spent in the Muni Metro underground and 10 years she spent driving various motor coaches on long crosstown lines.
“I finally decided to try the trolleys because I knew I was getting close to retirement,” she says, referring to the electric trolley coaches that require a subtler skill. That was 11 years ago.
Muni (Municipal Railway) transit operators sign up for routes several times a year. The schedule, determined by seniority, is built to encourage rotation. A driver can be on one route, working the same shift, for as little as three months or as long as 18 months. In her years as an operator, Wilson-Allen has made friends all over the city.
There is Tanya, who Wilson- Allen spotted in a bus shelter trying to get home from City College on the 91-Owl. WilsonAllen could tell Tanya was new in town and lost. “It was close to Thanksgiving,” Wilson-Allen recalls. “I said, ‘You’re out here by yourself? Come over for Thanksgiving and kick it with me and the kids,’ and that’s what she did.”
They’re still friends
Tanya finished her course of study and went home to Georgia but that did not end the friendship. “Now I go to Atlanta and visit her. She comes here,” Wilson-Allen says. “We could be sisters. We look alike.”
She met an elderly woman named Elsie when she limped aboard the 45. Once when Wilson-Allen was instructed to turn back short of the terminal, she took Elsie along so she would not have to walk up the Fillmore Street hill. In return, Elsie offered to teach her how to play Scrabble.
“I’ve always wanted to play it because I’m dyslexic,” Wilson-Allen says. “Numbers and letters screw me up sometimes.”
She met Ivy on the 5-Fulton, and helped her with her bags. Soon enough Ivy, who is in her 80s, was letting other buses pass until Wilson-Allen came along. “Now we’re like mother and daughter,” says WilsonAllen, who takes Ivy grocery shopping once a month, after her shift.
There are two driving forces behind Wilson-Allen’s unusual courtesies toward her passengers. The first came when she had just started as a driver-in-training. One day her elderly mother, Lovy Lorean Porter, boarded the 44- O’Shaughnessy and lost her sense of direction home. The driver wouldn’t help her.
Driven to help
Another day, one of WilsonAllen’s twin boys, the youngest of her six children, lost his pass and the other tried to slip it to him while boarding the 54-Felton. The driver put them off and they had to walk for miles, arriving after dark.
After those two incidents, she promised herself that she would always help the elderly and the young. Helping everybody in between is just an aspect of her nature.
Her mood is set at 2:30 a.m. when she gets down on her knees to pray for 30 minutes. “There is a lot to talk about with the Lord,” says WilsonAllen, a member of Glad Tidings Church in Hayward. Be-
cause she now lives in Walnut Creek, she catches the first inbound BART train, at 4:20 a.m., and transfers to a 38Geary out to the Presidio Division, where she takes charge of her coach.
In January 2012, WilsonAllen arrived on the 45-Union, starting at 6:20 a.m. and right away there was an uptick in consistency. On the morning commute, Union Street is served by both the 45-Union, which ends at the Caltrain station, and the 41-Union, which cuts down Columbus to the Financial District.
The hitch to it is that the 41 makes its last run at 9 a.m., but there is no notice of this on streetlamp markers and bus shelters. Invariably, people let two or three 45s pass while waiting for a 41. Most operators ignore them and drive on, letting the bewildered standers figure it out on their own.
From her first day on, Wilson-Allen would lean out to tell the 41 riders to board her 45 and transfer later.
She makes change
If a person standing at the shelter is studying the Muni map, looking lost, she will ask them where they are going and tell them to get on, assuring passengers she will help them reach their destination. If a first-timer puts a $5 or $10 bill into the fare box, expecting change, she will make the change herself, with a hand-tohand cash transaction that involves the next few paying customers.
“There are a lot of tourists and I love them,” she says. “Transit operators are the eyes and the movers of this city.”
During her stint on the 45, her mother passed away, then her sister — after she was already dealing with the death of a son by gunfire. It all caught up to her, and a year ago Allen announced that she was retiring.
Her passengers instantly started talking her out of it. She said she’d reconsider and would let us know in a week. The tension built, and when she finally announced that she was going to operate the 45 for at least another six months, the mood was the equivalent to free rides for all.
Separation anxiety had barely lifted when she started telling her regular passengers that she would be transferring to the 3-Jackson line. She promised to return someday, but that did not soothe the regulars. Then there were goodbyes to all the people whose names she’s memorized, as many as 20, including two named Danielle, one of whom always brought her flowers.
“I just had a wonderful send-off by Brent,” she says during her last week on the route. “He runs out of the house and he always has to put his tie on and tie his shoes during the ride. We became really close on this line.”