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 always so glad to see you?’" she said.
That flash of inspiration – Benson calls it an "epiphany" – occurred in late 1974. It led the then-student at Macalester 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.
Today, Benson is Metro Transit’s longest-serving operator. "My mom always says I got a degree in Humanities and have been working with humanity ever since," Benson said.
In an interview, 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 from the strong and enduring relationships she has forged with her customers.
Though she has worked more than a dozen routes over her 44-year career, Benson has driven Route 23 for more than 20 years. The longevity 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. "It’s almost like a family. People look out for each other and care for each other – that’s huge."
Barb Kaufman, who rides with her service dog Puzzle, is among those who have grown close to Benson. When the bus stops for its scheduled layover near the Mississippi River, Benson and Kaufman visit and play fetch with Puzzle. "From the first day I started riding, she made sure I knew her name," Kaufman said. "She’s just different in that way."
For Benson, a 34-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 assembled anecdotes from over the years 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.
In previous years, Benson has celebrated her work anniversary by decorating the bus with balloons and inviting family and friends to ride along. And even after she celebrates 44 years on Oct. 11, she still hopes to celebrate a few more.
"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."