Waiting for a city bus in a driving, icy rain, Melanie Benson found her calling.
"When that red bus came over the hill it looked like my savior and I just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a job where everyone’s glad to see you all the time?’" she said remembering the moment recently.
That flash of inspiration – Benson calls it an "epiphany" – occurred in late 1974. It led the then-student at Macalaster College to apply following her graduation two years later for a job as a Metro Transit driver. She started on Oct. 11, 1976, and hasn’t looked back since.
Now among Metro Transit's most senior bus drivers, Benson said being a driver is the "only thing that ever clicked" and that she’s never considered doing anything else. The affinity for the job comes in part because Benson has built such strong and enduring relationships with her customers.
Though she has worked more than a dozen routes over her 37-year career, Benson has driven Route 23 for the last 15 years. The longevity on the south Minneapolis route (which runs primarily on 38th Street) has allowed her to serve multiple generations of the same family and put her on a first-name basis with many of her regular riders.
"I compare it to driving a neighborhood around," Benson said in a recent interview at Nicollet Garage, where she has spent all but a few months of her career. "It’s almost like a family. People look out for each other and care for each other – that’s huge."
Barb Kaufman is among those who have grown close to Benson. Kaufman lives near 38th Street and rides Route 23 several times a week with her service dog Puzzle. When the bus stops for its scheduled layover at the Minnesota Veterans Home near the Mississippi River, Benson and Kaufman will often visit and toss a toy with Puzzle, rewarding the dog with apples and treats before making the return trip to Uptown.
"From the first day I started riding she made sure I knew her name," Kaufman said of her experience with Benson. "She’s just different in that way."
For Benson, a 25-year Safe Operator, such familiarity makes the job more interesting and rewarding. It's also shown her how interwoven the lives of her passengers can be. Through conversations, she helped Kaufman reunite with a long-lost friend who rode another leg of Route 23.
Benson has been assembling such anecdotes in a collection of stories she calls "Magic on 38th Street: The World on the Bus Gets Smaller and Smaller." What will become of the work remains to be seen. But Benson has already shared stories about her passengers with her family so they better understand her vocation.
On her 35th anniversary, the bus decorated with balloons and ribbons, her mom, brother and friends rode the bus with her to meet some of the customers she had told them so much about.
"My mom always says I got a degree in Humanities and have been working with humanity ever since," Benson said.
Though she has been on the job for nearly four decades, Benson isn’t ready to give up the driver’s seat, either. She said she enjoys the job too much to retire and would like to reach the 50-year mark, a milestone achieved by only one other Metro Transit employee.
"I just don’t see the point of leaving something I love," Benson said. "This is very much a part of me. Driving is something that just gets into your system -- and I would miss my passengers."
Operator at a Glance
Name: Melanie Benson
Hired: Oct. 11, 1976
Routes: Benson has driven multiple routes including 2, 4, 6, 9, 10, 17, 18, 21 and 23. At the beginning of her career, she drove express buses to suburbs including Apple Valley and Chaska. For the last 15 years, she has driven Route 23, which runs between the Uptown Transit Center and the Minnesota Veterans’ Home or Highland Village.
Favorite memories: Benson says no single story stands above the rest but rather that she has a "cumulative awe and admiration" for the people who have ridden her bus. But there is a moment that stands out from early in her career when, in a crippling snow storm, she was concerned about her ability to get her passengers home safely to Apple Valley. She looked in her rearview mirror and saw that they were doing crosswords, napping, just chatting. "I thought, ‘If these people trust me, then I trust me,’" she said. "It was an awakening that I could do this job whatever the difficulties."
Hobbies: Benson enjoys photography, especially of clouds and wildlife found near the Mississippi River. A fan of the theater, she has seen Kevin Kling’s play, "21A", about life on the bus, five times. Benson is also the editor of The 1005 Line, the bi-monthly newsletter for the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005.
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