New York City bus operators Tyrone Hampton and Frank de Jesus have witnessed a crushing loss in their field. As of Wednesday, 83 Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers have died from COVID-19, 30 of them also bus operators.
Hampton, 50, and de Jesus, 30, spoke for a remote StoryCorps conversation about how the outbreak is putting their love for the job to the test.
Earlier this month, both operators decided to stay home from work in an effort to protect themselves and their loved ones. De Jesus’ returned to work this week.
De Jesus is following in the footsteps of his father, who was a bus operator. When his dad didn’t have a babysitter, de Jesus would join him on the bus
“I would sit there right by his feet and he would give me the microphone, and he would tell me to say, ‘Lexington and 96 Street, coming up next,’ de Jesus said. “So you would hear me in my little baby voice, ‘Lexington and 96 Street, up next!’ ”
“I loved it, I thought it was the best job in the world as a kid. So, I’m here because I love the job.”
Even in the absence of a pandemic, it’s not a job for the faint-hearted, Hampton said.
“We take a chance everyday with snowstorms, traffic, people running in front your bus,” he said.
Hampton said he and his colleague have a “driver’s heart.”
“But now our heart is being tested — and it’s one hell of a test,” he added.
“Every day that we step foot on that bus we come home with the possibility of not infecting ourselves only, but our loved ones,” de Jesus said.
It’s been painful, Hampton said, to watch fellow bus operators risk their lives behind the wheel.
“We’ve seen a lot of brothers die, a lot of coworkers lose their life behind this attack,” he said.
De Jesus is inspired by the actions bus operators have taken to help protect each other. He recalled a good friend who took steps to help operators stay socially distanced.
“I see him with a roll of caution tape, and every bus that passes by he’s running in and taping off the seat right behind the bus operators, making sure nobody sits there,” he said. “I helped him do it faster and every bus that came on, we did it.”
That was in March, before the policy for rear-door boarding was implemented.
De Jesus said the health crisis has solidified his bond with Hampton.
“I want you to know that you got a brother in me for life now,” he told his friend. “I mean, if I didn’t know it before, I know it now for sure.”
“We gonna make it through this, man,” Hampton said. “We gonna make it through.”
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Camila Kerwin.
Recently, StoryCorps developed a new way to bring people together that makes it possible to record interviews remotely. Go to storycorpsconnect.org to try it out.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.