Sunday, December 8, 2013

Every Day I'm Shuttlin'

As many of you know, one of my jobs is as a shuttle driver for Heartbeat Theatre. Recently, I have been lucky enough to start working as a House Manager and Box Office Associate, but, as one of only three people who passed the insurance test to drive the shuttle, I am still primarily a shuttle driver. This job typically consists of driving the shuttle (which is actually just a minivan so none of us had to get a commercial drivers license) from Heartbeat Theatre to a parking lot about six blocks away. Once there, the shuttle driver sits in the van anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half. Your job is to wait until a patron parks in the lot and then you drive them to Heartbeat (or one of the other two theaters in the Rogers Park neighbourhood that we help out). During the performance the shuttle driver hangs out inside Heartbeat Theatre and once the show is over you drive the patrons back to the lot.

Pretty simple, right? You're probably thinking, "How do you not get bored with the same routine night after night?" The answer is: yes, there are nights when I am so bored with shuttle driving that I literally just stare at my cellphone and watch the minutes go by. Back when the sun stayed up until 8pm I would sit in the van and read. I use some of my shifts to catch up on phone calls from the week and recently I have started bringing my laptop and working on various personal essays. However, there are those nights when the act of shuttle driving is more active than it should be...

Blame It on the Maintenance

The shuttle van is old. For the past year I have been telling people that the van is from the 90s, but I recently learned that that was incorrect (which I will get to later). The back door has a button on the handle that passengers inside the van must press before they can pull the door shut. This constantly confuses people and they will tug with all their might at the door, totally disregarding me in the front seat saying, "You have to push the button. No -- the button. It won't release until you -- oh I'll just do it." Then there are those who press the button and, because the parking lot is not a flat surface, the door starts to slide shut on its own. Most people will turn to me triumphantly and beam as the door takes about two minutes to slide shut. When the patron realizes the light inside the van is still on they will look from the door, to the light, to me like a dejected puppy. I get out, open and shut the door, and then explain that the van is too old and was not made during the time of automatic doors.

The middle seat in the van has also given each shuttle driver a fun experience from time to time. I believe the minivans that are created now have seats that fold down and create a flat surface. The shuttle van, however, still has good ol' seats that click into tracks on the van floor. When you want to take the seats out you have to somehow lift, pull, and slide the seats through the hatchback. Putting them back in is equally as complicated and tedious and sometimes you think the seats are securely in their track, but they're not. No worries, though! The shuttle driver will realize this error while driving patrons around. If only one person is sitting in the middle seat and is sitting on the end of the seat rather than in the middle -- well then that person is in for a treat when the van hits even the most minor of bumps and WHOOPS! The seat has flipped sideways, trapping the more-often-than-not very old person between the now perpendicular seat and one of the van doors. This also happens when someone is trying to slide out of the van and the flipping seat acts almost like a springboard and launches the person out. I now keep one hand pressed down on the seat when people slide out so that it happens less often. There's sadly nothing I can do when the seat flips while I am actively driving. Usually I just say, "Welcome to nonprofit theatre!"

Perhaps the biggest maintenance issue of all has been the windshield wipers. Last December, I drove the van from Heartbeat to the lot for a special event we were having that night (an interactive stage reading). The performance was sold-out and we even offered dinner service an hour and a half before the show. It was snowing, but the kind of snow that actually sticks to your windshield, so as I drove up Morse Avenue I turned on the wipers. It was obvious that the wipers were on their last legs because they dragged heavily across the glass and made an obnoxious squeak as they moved, but, like I said, Heartbeat is a nonprofit theatre so you basically have to use something until you literally cannot use it anymore (or, rather, you cannot gaffe/duct tape it anymore).

I was halfway between the theatre and the lot when the windshield wiper on the driver's side flew off. One moment is was there and the next it was just gone. I immediately pulled over and retrieved the wiper from the road. The black blade had snapped clean off, while the metal rod that keeps the blade in place was still attached to the van. I called the theatre, explained what happened, and was at a loss as to what I should do. Water was collecting pretty significantly on the windshield and the metal bar was bent so much that I didn't think the blade could snap back into place. "Just make it work," the Box Office Manager told me. "Just pick up the people in the lot, come back here and we will gaffe tape it."

Now, I will admit that this is the one time I have ever been unhappy with Heartbeat Theatre. I mean, there I was, driving a van that would be full of people very soon, it was snowing, the sun was setting, I was holding a windshield wiper in my hands, and the solution was to tape it back on?

I arrived at the lot and people immediately began walking towards the van. I got out, holding the blade in the air. "Can anyone fix this?" I asked. "It flew off on Morse and I don't know how to get it back on." One of our regular patrons helped me snap the blade back onto the metal bar, but warned that it was in no way a permanent fix. I told him that the Box Office Manager would be meeting me outside with some tape to secure the blade into place. He gave me an incredulous look. I smiled. "Welcome to nonprofit theatre!"

Flash forward to October of this year -- ten months after the windshield wiper blade flew off on Morse Avenue. Now, both blades have been gaffe taped onto the van. The blade on the driver's side has started to bend dramatically and it leaves 1.5 inch-wide streaks of water in places where the blade no longer touches the windshield. The other blade is missing a piece of rubber and makes an excruciating metal-scraping-glass sound as it moves pathetically across the windshield. All three shuttle drivers have expressed concern over the dilapidated wipers, but to no avail. "We don't have the money," is the main explanation we are given. While this excuse is annoying and made most of us think to ourselves, "Well then you drive the van when it's dark and raining and tell us how safe you feel," it did not really upset me until one night when it began to pour.

It was one of the last days of sold-out show. I had shuttled so many people to and from the lot and the theatre that I knew it was going to take at least two trips to get everyone back to their parked cars (and there was a second evening performance that night). My first group squeezed in and as I pulled away from the theatre it was immediately clear that the wipers had finally given up on the van. The wiper in front of the driver (me) only cleared away water at the very top and bottom of the windshield. The other one took water off in random patches and continued to damage everyone's eardrum with its piercing scrape. The rain fell harder and harder. After just two blocks I apologized to everyone, pulled over at a gas station and wiped the windshield off with my sleeve.

As the van continued down the road I kept my eyes glued to the windshield. I have always known that windshield wipers are useful because they enable you to see more clearly in the rain and snow, but never before had I realized how detrimental they are to actually being able to see. In my mind I always thought, "Water is clear. You can probably see through it well enough." I was wrong - so so so wrong. Lights and shapes blended into each other and the entire van was eerily silent as all the passengers realized just how little I could see. I kept my eyes peeled for pedestrians who may decide to cross the street without regard for moving cars (which happens often). In the six blocks between the theatre and the lot I pulled over three times to clear the windshield with my sleeve. There was one narrow road that I had driven on so many times that day that I drove down it through pure memory.

When I finally reached the lot, you could physically feel the tension in the van release. Everyone thanked me profusely and two couples got out to inspect the windshield wipers. A young man removed the driver's side windshield and replaced it with the noisy one -- it made a horrible sound, but at least it cleared some water off. He handed me $10 and his girlfriend told me that it wasn't safe for me to have to drive like that. Another man handed me $20 and said, "Get new windshield wiper blades." I called the theatre from the lot, explained the situation and said that we were now down to one blade and a man gave us $20 to get new ones. There was no excuse now. During the second show that night I drove to Auto Zone with the man's donation and the company credit card. I bought new wiper blades and found, to my utter disbelief, that the van was actually a 2000. Who knew! (Although this does mean it is almost fourteen years old now...)

Blame It on the Passengers

Again, you would think that driving a minivan in between a theatre and a parking lot that is only six blocks away would leave little room for people to demonstrate any sort of eccentricities, but sometimes that seven minute car ride can feel like a half hour.

First of all, Heartbeat has children's shows during the day on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes, the kids who go to see these shows are not thrilled about life in general (this usually happens when the adult that is with them makes the child leave their Gameboy in the car) and they throw temper-tantrums during the entire ride. Then there are the kids who openly fight with the adults in the car, or bicker with their siblings and for some reason feel the need to drag me into the fight. 

My favourite child passenger, however, was a little boy who climbed into the backseat with his mother. I usually take a back alley to get out of the parking lot, but since it was under construction (due to an four foot wide hole in the ground -- an actual hole that went down about six feet) I had to take a right out of the lot, a right onto the next road, and then one more right after that. As I pulled onto the third street, the little boy sat very straight and narrowed his eyes at me in the rear-view mirror.

"We just made a U-turn," he said.

"Because we just made three rights? Yes, we did."

His voice was stern. "I know where we are."


"Yeah. You just made three turns and now we're back on Clark..." He continued to stare at me.

"Honey," his mother said, putting an arm around him, "I think she knows what she's doing."

"I know where we are," he repeated.

"We're headed to the theatre," I assured him. "It's all one-way streets so I have to make all those rights to turn around."

"We're on Morse now," he said, still not breaking eye contact.

"Yes. We are. You're very good."

"I just want you to know that I know."

My next group of paranoid passengers came about two weeks later. Two men pulled into the lot, parked, and got into the van. Since I was shuttling for both Heartbeat Theatre and another theatre in Rogers Park, Steinbeck Cabaret, I asked which show they were going to. Before either man could answer, a cellphone began to play the theme song from The Twilight Zone.

"One moment," the taller of the two men said, "it's my wife. Hello?"

His earpiece was turned up so high that I could hear everything his wife said. "There is no shuttle," she said. "There is no shuttle!" I looked around the parking lot to see if I could see another car. Every now and then an unobservant patron will park in the lot and immediately call the theatre to say that the shuttle is not there. Usually I will be looking at these people and waving at them while they talk on their phones, totally oblivious to the van that says "HEARTBEAT THEATRE" in giant red letters.

"There is a shuttle," the husband responded.

"What?" the wife snapped. "No there is not. What do you mean there is a shuttle?"

"There is a shuttle."


"Right on the corner of Morse and Ravenswood. Just like the map said."

"There is no shuttle."

"What theatre are you going to?" I asked.

"Heartland," the shorter man responded.

"Heartland?" there was no Heartland Theatre in Rogers Park, but there was a cafe by that name. "You mean the restaurant? You're going to go there before the show?"

"No, we're going to the Heartland Theatre."

"Hmmm...there's no theatre by that name. What's the show?" He gave the name of a show. I hadn't heard of it.

"What's happening?" the wife demanded.

"We're trying to figure out where we're going," the husband responded.

"Where are you?!"

"We're in the shuttle."


"Honey, there is. We are in a van."

"Hello!" I called. The wife didn't respond. "What do you mean you're in a van?" she asked.

"Are you going to the Kentwood?" I asked. There is a third theatre in Rogers Park that Heartbeat sometimes shuttles for. Kentwood is not a typical theatre with a regular season, but instead just a theatre space that companies can rent. I was unaware that there was a show going on at Kentwood, but assumed that I had just not looked closely at the Shuttle Schedule, which normally lists all of the theaters we are driving for.

"Yes!" the shorter man responded. "The Kentwood."

"Huh. I didn't realize they had a show."

"What did she say?" Miss Paranoid chirped. "She hasn't heard of the theatre?"

"I've heard of it. I just wasn't aware that there was a show going on right now."

"Do you drive there?" the husband asked.

"Yes." I began to reverse out of my parking spot.

"Where are you? Are you by the Metra tracks?"

"Yes, dear, we are by the Metra tracks, on the northeast corner of Morse and Ravenswood. Just like the map said."

"What kind of car are you in?"

"It''s just a van. It's a shuttle."

"I promise I am taking you to the theatre," I said.

"See, honey? The nice young lady promised that she is taking us to the theatre."

The wife was silent. "That's not funny," she said.

We began driving down Morse. As we did, the wife asked for street-by-street updates of where we were. It was then that I realized she legitimately believed I was trying to kidnap or in someway harm her husband and his friend. The husband tried to joke around and say that we were suddenly entering Evanston or jumped onto Lake Shore Drive, but it was clear that the wife was having none of his tomfoolery. The shorter man kept handing me one dollar bills each time the wife snapped about wanting to know why they weren't at the theatre yet.

When we finally arrived at Kentwood, two older women immediately walked to the van and greeted the men. They did not even glance at me. A young girl came out of the theatre and I rolled down the passenger window. She introduced herself as the House Manager. "So...who are you?" she asked. Finally all the puzzle pieces clicked into place.

As I said before, Kentwood is not a regular theatre. Therefore, each time a show is put on at that space, it is an entirely new theatre troupe. Sometimes the theatre troupe contacts Heartbeat and asks for us to shuttle for them. They have to pay us for this service. The current theatre troupe at Kentwood did not know anything about the shuttle service and therefore did not pay for it. When the two couples researched the parking situation at Kentwood, they were directed to Heartbeat's shuttle site because Kentwood had not updated their website since their last show (which Heartbeat did shuttle for). Therefore, when the two women were dropped off at the theatre and mentioned the shuttle, the current theatre troupe must have told them that they did not offer that service. Then, when the wife called her husband and learned that he was in a van -- well it is easy to see why she freaked out. She knew there was not supposed to be any van and yet there he was, being driven around by some crazy young girl.

The House Manager told me to refuse anyone else who showed up at the parking lot since they were not paying for the shuttle service. Luckily, no one else arrived for Kentwood and when I picked up the two couples they were talking excitedly about the show they had just seen. As the four passengers left the shuttle van, the shorter man gave me a few more dollars since he knew I did not have to pick them up and the wife of the taller man turned to me before she shut the door. "I am sorry I thought you were a kidnapper," she said in complete sincerity. "It happens to the best of us," I responded.

So there you have it! Just a little taste of the surprisingly eventful world of a shuttle driver. I have left out other fun tidbits such as drunk people throwing glass bottles from third-story windows at the van, crazy people who try to come up to me in the parking lot and make conversation, patrons who thought I was actually a taxi, and a near-miss T-boning by a CTA bus. Needless to say, this job has given me a whole new appreciation for the people who make their living as a shuttle driver. Always remembers, dear readers: tip your shuttle driver! They have to put up with a lot of shit.

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