Whoever said everyone is replaceable never met HSR’s bubbles and chocolate bus operator.
Every Monday morning, Joe Kipp walked over to the Wentworth Street North offices of the Hamilton Street Railway “looking for an opening as an operator”. It was the mid-1970s and Joe was in his mid-20s.
At the time, the HSR would only hire men older than 25 years of age and they had to be married. “That’s just the way things were then”, Joe says.
It took months of showing up before he was hired, even with “two references who did me well”. His references were Norm Keopke, a senior HSR operator, and a Hamilton Police Sergeant.
Joe started training on June 17, 1978.
After nearly 40 years behind the wheel of a HSR bus, Joe retires tomorrow at 11:57 a.m.
“Full training in those days took about a year to complete”, Joe says. At the time, the HSR ran trolleys, “suburban runs”, and inter-city Canada Coach Lines service.
It was the trolleys that “enamoured” Joe with the HSR. He started operating as a “spare board” operator, filling in for vacation and sick days. He first signed work was a late night 2-Barton. A few months later, with enough seniority, Joe signed work on the 1-King and never looked back.
For the next 20 years, with a few exceptions when he did overtime, Joe stuck to the 1-King. Where most operators quickly move to suburban routes with a few years seniority, Joe loved operating the trolley buses on King.
Even now, nearly 40 years later, when Joe volunteers for extra work, he tries to stay to the old trolley routes of 1-King, 2-Barton, and 3-Cannon.
Joe, A People Person
It’s a cold Wednesday morning when I joined Joe Kipp last week for the start of his shift. Joe leaves his house just after 3:45 a.m. Much like the riders he’ll serve later in the morning, Joe takes the HSR to work.
The HSR is truly a 24/7 operation, between end of service at 2:45 a.m. and resumption of service at 4:30 a.m., the HSR operates shuttle buses to get bus operators to and from the Mountain Transit Centre.
It was only in the past two decades that Joe started taking the HSR to work, for his first two decades, Joe walked to work. First to the HSR garage when it was located at Wentworth Street and King Street, the present site of Cathedral High School. When When the HSR moved in 1989 to 330 Wentworth Street North, he continued to walk. It was only in the late 1990s when the HSR moved to its present Mount Hope location on Upper James Street near the airport and Joe started riding the shuttle.
Joe walks 1.5 kilometres from his house to get the pickup bus at Wellington Street and Main Street. The walk is quiet, other than the odd car and one Liquid Air vehicle, Hamilton’s streets are abandoned at this early hour. Even the local Tim Horton’s is closed.
On this morning, Joe’s the first operator waiting for the bus. Shortly after arriving at the stop, other operators emerge from the darkness and join Joe waiting for the bus.
It’s just past 4:15 a.m. when the shuttle bus arrives. “Hey, got any candy for me today!” shouts the shuttle operator with a large smile.
Joe has three signatures he’s known for – a seemingly endless supply of candy is one.
Good nature joking conversation starts immediately among the half-dozen operators on the shuttle. Joe is the centre of attention. Other operators ask who will give out candy when he retires.
Joe’s other signatures are waving at everyone on King, and his bubble machines over the years.
The shuttle travels up the Claremont Access, at Upper James Street and Mohawk Road, more operators board, making about a dozen and a half people on the bus.
Camera shy, nobody sits beside Joe this day, but one of the newly boarded operators asks Joe what candy he has today.
Quickly, like a movie character selling watches on a New York City street, Joe flashes his jacket revealing a cache in his inner pockets. A miniature candy cane is exchanged for a smile.
Candy and Bubbles
One of the guys jokes “Hey Joe, you never have candy for me!”, Joe hands him a candy and with a smile shares a lesson he learned early in his career handing out candy “guys just don’t like getting chocolate from other guys”.
Joe shares another bit of wisdom, “colder weather is better for chocolate”.
“At Main and Ottawa eastbound years ago, there was a young girl on her way to school every morning. She quizzed me once about why she never got candy”, Joe says he told her that he need her parents permission.
“The very next morning”, Joe says with a great deal of emphasis, “the young girl emerged from a car parked near the stop with her mother in tow … the youngling had candy for the rest of grade school”.
Joe says over the years, he’s enjoyed driving generations of Glen Brae students to their East End school, saying they are “always extra polite and friendly”.
[In a playful bit of banter to your reporter’s high school origins, Joe says “I’m not too sure about those Glendale students”]
At 4:30 a.m., the pickup shuttle arrives at the Mountain Transit Centre and a steady stream of operators flows into the building.
Just inside the entrance, two dozen squeeze to swipe in for the day, pick up their transfers books, and maintenance slips for the day ahead.
An ironically placed sign overhead says this is a “Quiet Area”, as “report” operators await an HSR Inspector to assign them buses for the day.
For the next few hours, this zone is organized chaos as dispatchers scramble with the daily operator shortage to figure out which buses will or will not be on the road that morning.
Even among this organized chaos of hustling and bustling, Joe is the centre of attention.
A retired operator on report this day, Ken Goobie, sees Joe. With a giant smile, Ken asks “Where’s your bubble toy Joe?!”
A few others operators join in, joking Joe should launch bubbles in the Quiet Zone. Joe says he’s still searching for a replacement after his most recent one broke about a year ago.
Joe is well known for the bubbles flying out his bus window while stopped at various locations, especially McMaster University.
Joe says he started with the bubbles for kids at the hospital.
The 1A-King end of the line was the front of McMaster Children’s Hospital for nearly 20 years, and Joe would sit there daily. “One day I spotted a bubble machine in a department story, and I had an idea. I’d start blowing bubbles out the front door of the coach”.
“Drum days were replaced with smiles”.
Officially, blowing bubbles out the window is something the HSR frowns upon, but as one HSR mid-manager told me, even they smile seeing Joe’s bubbles flying.
“In hindsight, I should have wrote a book” Joe says sharing stories of the past nearly 40 years.
“I have young passengers today whose parents, and in some cases grandparents, also rode my bus”, Joe notes.
Like many of his passengers, Joe lives in Central Hamilton, and has his entire life. He grew up only a few blocks from his present home near General Hospital, and still regularly walks to visit his mother who continues to live in the house he grew up in.
“There was a time a few decades ago when we were having some ongoing problems at night from certain shaddy characters” Joe tells with a look of reminiscence. “The HSR resorted to hiring off duty policemen to ride the bus”.
One night, an off-duty police office saw a suspect he knew with a warrant and made a gunpoint arrest on Joe’s bus, “I’ve had tense moments on the buses but never really felt for my safety”.
Joe had two buses catch fire on him over the years.
In the early-1990s, he was driving bus #8501 westbound on Queenston Road passing the Zellers Plaza at Nash Road. “Passing cars were blowing their horns at me, trying to get my attention”, Joe says with a smile.
“After stopping one driver yelled out ‘your bus is on fire!’, I didn’t even know”. He got the “seven or so passengers” off the bus and went to the nearest house to call for assistance.
By the time the Fire Department arrived “the fire engulfed the rear of the bus”. Joe explains the floors were made of plywood on this model of bus and the fire spread along the floorboards.
While one fire truck’s crew fought the fire, which Joe describes as causing a thick black smoke that stopped all traffic on Queenston Road, the “young lad” who lived in the house came out “in rubber boots, a red plastic fireman’s hat, and the garden hose” to try to assist the fire department. The engineer of the second pumper on scene gave the child a full tour of the truck.
The bus was a write-off for passenger service, the frame was salvaged and the City’s first Dental Bus was built on it.
“I lost my favourite driving glasses in the blaze”, laments Joe.
Around seven or eight years ago, Joe had his second bus fire.
Driving down the Red Hill around 4:45 a.m., Joe noticed flames in his rear view mirror.
His “0600 series” bus was shooting flames out the rear tire well. Joe suspects the regenerative breaking system was at fault. The back of the bus was a write-off when the fire was finally out.
The Future of The HSR
Joe’s trained hundreds of operators over his career, including the HSR’s first two female operators.
Joe has simple advice for operators: “Never assume anything, treat people with respect, if you are a hurry and pressed for time, bad things may happen — good things never result from hurrying”.
A Day on Joe’s Bus
Back at the garage at 4:30 a.m., Joe continues to get ready for the day.
Officially, his bus pulls out of the garage at 4:55 a.m., but Joe always makes sure to be on his bus no later than 4:40 a.m. to give extra time for checking the bus.
If he finds a problem with his assigned bus, it gives him time to get another and still be on time for his 5:15 a.m. departure as the third 1-King bus out of the GO Centre.
Joe enters the driver’s lounge after swiping in and getting his paperwork and transfers for the day.
As Joe nears retirement, he looks at the current HSR crisis as a “temporary bump for the company”. (The HSR’s full name is The Hamilton Street Railway Company)
He quickly chats with some of the younger operators, including Cindy who recently filled-in on Joe’s work during his summer vacation.
Joe is insistent that your reporter meet the younger operators, “they are the future” he says repeatedly.
“I know Cindy quite well, she has passion and is representative of the upcoming operators who will be here after I and others are long gone”.
“She often covered my work when I’m on vacation, my regular passengers often had nice things to say about her and others”.
While Joe insists he’s replaceable, others (including your reporter) disagree.
Just ask “Friendly Frank, The Singing Bus Driver“. Joe was on medical leave last year and Frank Palin operated Joe’s 1-King bus for the month of May and June.
Frank is one of the HSR’s most popular operators, so much so a GoFundMe campaign organized earlier this year raised over $1000 to thank him for being the friendliness HSR operator.
The campaign was organized by students who regularly ride Frank’s 51-University bus.
On driving Joe’s bus, Frank says “as the weeks go by, passengers would still board each day with either a ‘When’s Joe back’ or ‘Still no Joe?'”.
Frank took it in strive, “It was nice because drivers tend to get a bad rap, to see how beloved Joe is, it restores my faith in the system”.
Frank says Joe was one of the first operators to welcome when he was hired, and he always looks forward to seeing Joe driving through McMaster, bubbles flying out Joe’s window.
“It always made me laugh”, Frank says with a wide smile.
On this day, due to the ongoing Transit Crisis, many retirees are in the lounge on “report” as the HSR scrambles to fulfil scheduled service after Council slashed hiring early in 2017.
Among the those awaiting assignment is former Amalgamated Transit Union Local 107 President Kim Cheeseman who led the union during the lengthy 1997/98 winter transit strike.
“I owe him and those who came before him for the good job I have today, for my kids education”, Joe says of Cheeseman.
“I consider myself fortunate to be able to obtain a good paying job with good benefits that went a long way for me and my family”, Joe says as we hustle out of the lounge to the garage.
Joe is especially proud that he job “enabled my children to get a good education and start on their own careers”.
His eldest son is an aircraft mechanic, his daughter is a child care administration overseeing a large number of Early Year Centres, and his youngest son recently graduated from the physiology program at McMaster University.
It is now 4:40 a.m., most of Joe’s passengers haven’t even awaken for the day, but he’s fully alert as I struggle to keep up. Joe cuts in between a row of buses positioned so tightly together that an extra layer of winter jacket wouldn’t fit.
Moving quickly, as we pass the third column of buses, Joe turns around with a mischievous smile “Watch yourself, I’ve torn many a jacket over the years!”.
The HSR manager trailing us and I exchange glances, and decide to continue at Joe’s pace regardless of the risk to our nice jackets.
At the front of the garage sits the bus Joe will drive on this day.
He manually opens the doors, and starts his routine: positioning his candy on the dashboard first, he starts the bus engine, and starts punching the day’s transfer slips.
Joey Coleman / The Public Record permalink
Joe Kipp walks around his entire bus to complete his circle check. Lights, tires, even the emergency engine cut-off compartment all get checked with his flashlight. Here he checks the tires are properly bolted to the vehicle.