Public-Private Partnerships

Public-Private Partnerships   —by Jinny Batterson

I don’t use public transportation very often, but lately, while visiting extended family in a faraway city, I had several occasions when I didn’t have easy access to a car. Busses were a viable alternative.  From the look of it, the other folks riding were a fairly diverse bunch, tending toward the lower end of the economic scale—not people I’d typically have met while car-enabled. I was a bit nervous at first, but it turned out that one of my bus experiences was punctuated by a couple of examples of exemplary public service by one particular bus driver.

As I waited for the second bus ride of my day a week or so ago, I was annoyed by the high-volume conversation being carried on by another potential passenger on her cell phone as a group of us waited at a regional transit mall.  I’m a “digital immigrant,” part of the not-quite-doddering generation who grew up without personal computers or cell phones. I continue to be bemused by the amount of personal information that now gets shared in public airspace. “Miss Garrulous,” who looked about 20, was explaining in great detail to her cell phone conversation partner why she was considering breaking up with her current boyfriend. I tried to tune out her most explicit remarks.

Finally our bus prepared for departure. The driver motioned us onto his bus. A slightly less voluble middle-aged man got on, along with me, Miss Garrulous, and several other passengers. Miss Garrulous interrupted her conversation just long enough to put her bicycle onto the carrying rack attached to the front of the bus. As the bus was beginning to move, the middle-aged man rushed back to the front of the bus and requested that the driver wait for just a minute. Rather than stick to his official schedule, the driver assented. The man made a hurried exit-reentry after retrieving his cell phone, which he’d nearly left on a transit mall bench.

Miss Garrulous continued her non-stop description of past and present boyfriends, trysts, and parties from the back of the bus.  She pulled the “stop request” cord several stops before I planned to get off. Relief!  Shortly after her departure, just as the bus was starting up again, the driver pulled on his brake and flashers and hurriedly exited, yelling “Miss, wait!” very loudly.  It turned out that Miss Garrulous had gotten so involved in her conversation that she’d forgotten to retrieve her bicycle.

Bus drivers don’t get extra pay for shepherding the personal belongings of distracted passengers. I was impressed by the care this driver took of his temporary charges.

My favorite recent example of public service, though, comes from “outside the bus.”  The suburban town where I live hires school crossing guards at some of its elementary schools. Their hours are short; their pay is low; their outdoor working conditions are varied and somewhat unpredictable. One particular school sits beside a busy commuter route where the flow of car traffic is heavy and the number of schoolchildren needing to cross is relatively light. I’ve sometimes needed to go that way about the time school is starting or letting out. After several trips, I began to notice this particular crossing guard, an older, somewhat heavyset man with a grizzled beard. He had created a friendly mini-environment for himself, bringing to his work site a collapsible padded chair for when no children were crossing. Rather than just sitting there beside the crossing markers, though, he’d smile broadly and wave at each passing car. The commuting congestion was much less bothersome along the route past “Mr. Sunny.”

It seems to me that there is no ideal mix of “public” and “private” any more. Perhaps there never has been. Still, I wonder if we would be wise to celebrate more consistently the small extra services that occur in our public sphere.  A slight schedule slip, a “Miss, wait!,” or a smile and a wave, may not appear on any financial balance sheet, but they are still worth plenty.

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