Bonus web content: Read Busse’s original story here.
By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — When Paul Busse retired from his job as a J.C. Penney merchandising manager, he didn’t have his heart set on a second career.
It happened by accident. He was just looking for something to do.
Busse’s friend, a police officer in Schenectady, noticed he was looking for something to fill his now-empty days. He suggested a new career as a school bus driver.
“Well, who the heck wants to do that?” Busse said he asked himself. But he couldn’t deny he needed something to occupy his time. So the longtime Niskayuna resident, who lives in a quaint house on Dean Street, set out to drive buses for the Niskayuna Central School District. It actually made sense given his last name, although that is pronounced “BYOO-see,” not “bus.”
“I only expected to be there two or three years, but I really enjoyed it,” he said.
He stayed for 20.
When he retired at the end of the 2012-2013 school year, he presented his colleagues and the Board of Education with a token of appreciation for the adventure he found in a job he never knew he wanted: a piece of Halloween-themed fiction, dedicated to the first bus he drove for the district.
Busse’s first bus, number 97, was a chilly, temperamental beast with a couple of odd wooden seats where wheelchair restraints used to be. The doors leaked a steady breeze, the heater barely worked, and the radio would only flicker on occasionally, when no one was actually on the bus. The barely functional air conditioner was known to drip directly onto passengers’ heads.
There was the screeching, too.
“The wheelchair door was very sensitive,” Busse said. “If you hit the smallest bump the alarm would go off.”
Sometimes there was nowhere safe to pull over and fix the problem, so he had to drive on and tolerate the grating sound.
There were newer, more comfortable buses, but they were assigned to drivers by seniority. Instead of rejecting his new ride, Busse embraced its ornery nature and gave it a name for good measure: the Golden Zephyr.
“It had a personality,” he said, and not necessarily a friendly one. Other drivers had a habit of mysteriously getting sick when they had to drive it.
Once, during training, a fellow driver told Busse the bus had factored into a nightmare he’d had. The true details of the bus’s aging mechanics, along with what Busse’s friend told him about the dream, were blended in the spooky, rhyming fiction he later composed.
It was his first foray into creative writing.
“I think it was in defense of my mind,” Busse said.
He also simply has a creative streak and an interest in language. When he was driving buses, he used to use the intercom system to broadcast a “word of the day” that the dispatcher, drivers, and even some students came to look forward to.
“I did this for a number of years,” he said. “School kids would wait for it.”
His friendly coworkers and the students he interacted with each day gave Busse a reason to keep the job he had, at first, been so skeptical of.
One memory he holds especially dear is of a bus full of students who, he noticed, worked especially hard. In the morning, on the bus, they studied. In the afternoon, again, they had their heads bent over their books.
He soon learned that they had to get their homework all finished because of a schoolwide production of the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“They were really proud of it,” he said.
Busse often had to park the bus outside the school for a few minutes before the doors to the school opened, and one day he asked his charges if they would sing a little of the music from their upcoming play. They were happy to oblige.
“It was beautiful,” he said.
One girl did even more than sing: She would practice her dancing up and down the aisle of the bus when it was parked.
“It’s kind of a surprise,” said Busse, who is 82 years old now.
Now, he fills his days with gardening, golfing and playing with his Lhasa apso, Murphy. His wife gardens, too, when she’s not volunteering around town. And in the quiet moments between hobbies, he thinks he might just return to creative writing.
But no matter what he takes on next, Busse will always cherish the experiences he had as a bus driver, from the unusual to the heartwarming.
“When you drive a school bus, you drive the most important person in that family’s life,” he said. “It’s not just driving kids. It’s driving the family future.”