Early in his career as a Transit Information representative, Ben Rajkowski was on the phone with a customer trying to find their way to a Route 64 bus stop so they could get from Maplewood to St. Paul.
After more than 20 minutes, the caller still hadn’t found their way and was at risk of missing what would be the last trip of the day.
That’s when fellow representative James Schlafer tapped Rajkowski on the shoulder and suggested asking the caller if they were standing next to a white picket fence. They were.
With that one simple clue, Schlafer knew he needed to walk 500 feet, cross the street and turn their back toward a blue house – directions that were so specific the caller thought he was being watched.
“To this day, I still don’t have a clue how he figured that out,” Rajkowski said.
It wasn’t a fluke, either. Over his 31-year career as a Transit Information representative, Schlafer developed a reputation for having a rich, visual knowledge of the Twin Cities that rivaled, and often surpassed, available online tools.
That detailed memory, along with his trademark wit, were celebrated last week as Schlafer retired as the Transit Information Center’s longest consecutively-serving representative.
Schlafer helped an estimated 1 million callers plan their trips over the course of his three-decade career. Like Rajkowski, several co-workers had stories that stood out from that impressive collection.
In one case, he guided a visually-impaired customer to a bus stop using sidewalk grass as a guide. In another, he spent two hours and 17 minutes on a marathon call with someone looking for help getting around Burnsville and Eagan, a likely-record for the TIC’s longest call.
“Usually, I try not to be on the phone long enough to have to be patient,” Schlafer said. “But in this case all I could do was humor them for a really long time.”
Schlafer’s knowledge came largely from a life of biking, walking and taking transit around the Twin Cities. Combined with an education in statistics and a knack for geography, he was rarely stumped.
It wasn’t pure intuition, though. Schlafer constantly challenged himself to look for solutions that weren’t immediately evident, mastering the quirks of local address systems and developing personalized mental shortcuts that helped him decipher the vague outlines callers sometimes presented him.
That careful study gave him the ability to place more than 120 routes on an unmarked map by memory. He also drew intricate maps of shopping centers and other destinations so he and other representatives could better guide callers.
The skills proved useful even as the Transit Information Center transitioned from wall maps to an online trip planning system that Schlafer notoriously looked down upon.
“Even if I didn’t have a computer or all these resources I could find out pretty accurately where someone was and still help them,” said Schlafer, known to callers as “Mr. James” throughout his career.
While abundantly patient, Schlafer was also known for having a sense of humor and taking pride in proving the breadth of his knowledge, often telling self-convinced callers they’d owe him a Dr. Pepper if he could persuade them they were mistaken. “There are lot of people out there who owe me Dr. Peppers,” he said.
While he’s taken his last call, Schlafer isn’t going to let his mind rest in retirement. In addition to biking and daily hikes, he plans to become active in Mensa, a high IQ society. He’ll also enjoy knowing that he made an indelible imprint on the organization he left behind.
“They told me I was too smart for this job and that I’d get bored,” Schlafer said. “Well, I proved them wrong.”
> Learn more about Metro Transit retirees with more than 30 years of service
> MinnPost: How Metro Transit uses technology to ensure a smooth ride
> 1 million calls and counting