WATSONVILLE—In November Uriel Mendoza of Watsonville will mark 21 years of being a bus driver for Santa Cruz METRO.
When asked what he liked about his job, he plainly responded, “My job.”
His preferred bus route?
“I like all of them,” he said.
He said his customers are what make his job “special.”
“It feels good, helping people, getting to know them,” he said.
His favorite passengers?
“I like all of my riders,” he said.
Mendoza, who is also a guitarist and a singer, said he has learned to take a calm and compassionate approach to his work “because it’s all about the customers.”
“Marriage and work: These two words I always apply to everything. My mother thinks I invented these words,” he said. “All drivers—we are good because we care. When I’m in METRO—you come and ride my bus—you will see how I treat my customers. It’s all about having fun at work. I’m at a place now that I believe that if I have a 15-minute break I prefer to give it to my customers.”
Mendoza, 63, said he was born in Michoacán, Mexico, in Avillos, a village so small it had only seven houses.
His family moved to Mexicali near the U.S. border when he was 1.
“We came to America in 1972 and I went into the eighth grade at E.A. Hall,” Mendoza said. “In June 1976 I graduated from Watsonville High School. The next day I went straight into the fields and went to work; I was 17. I worked for the next 23 years loading boxes of iceberg lettuce in the field. I probably loaded more than three million boxes. In a way, I was getting paid to work out; I mean, they were 54 to 56 pounds per box.”
Looking back at his days as a field worker, Mendoza said, “Comparing my job now as a driver to that fieldwork, I feel like a thief—it’s that big a difference. One day I was talking to a rider on the bus who used to load iceberg lettuce boxes onto a train. He said they would sometimes load 4-5-6,000 boxes a day.”
Mendoza recalled one bus trip early on in his career where he once helped an elderly man off the bus on a cold night.
“I set the brake, got off the bus and gave him my elbow,” he said. “I walked him all the way inside the senior home there. A few days later a lady gave me a tip in an envelope; she said she saw what I did. I think it was $20. Another time, a person gave me a coin used for public transportation in another country. These things mean a lot to me. A lot of people don’t understand; it depends what kind of work you come from.”
Another time, on what Mendoza calls one of the “toughest routes,” a female rider told him “they don’t see your kindness, they think you’re weak,” referring to other riders.
“She lives in a shelter and she knows the system,” Mendoza said. “I guess she thought people never see my kindness.”
Another customer Mendoza became familiar with who rode the 17 Express from San Jose eventually disappeared and he lost track of her.
“Then one night I saw her get on the bus going to Cabrillo, like the last route 71 where I usually punch out at 1am,” he said. “She recognized me 10 years later. She told me, ‘Oh my god, my favorite bus driver. You haven’t changed, your customer service hasn’t changed.’ It’s a good feeling when you know you have the power to help people. When people ask about my job, I tell them ‘I don’t like it, I love it.’”