A hard day’s night: Saturday in the shuttle
April 21, 2017
Levi Wark starts and ends his shifts in the Stowe Inn parking lot with his two vans: the Chevy camper he drives to work and Bowdoin Shuttle BSS1 where he will spend the next 10 hours. He drives the College’s white minivan over to the Office for Safety and Security on Bath Road, where he swipes his time card and exchanges paperwork at the communications desk. He gets back to his car and cracks open a can of coconut water for the night ahead.
Today is Saturday, Wark’s last night of a three-day work week, and his lumbar support cushion rests comfortably in his seat. Wark smiles when he talks, and it’s not just because his weekend starts tonight. He is a chipper kind of dude. He is 35 years old and wears a baseball hat branded “Tidal Transit Company,” the sea kayak outfitter in Boothbay Harbor where he works during the summer on the days he isn’t farming his land in Phippsburg.
“This is my winter job,” he said.
During the school year, Wark works as a full-time Bowdoin Shuttle Driver, from 5:30 p.m.—3:30 a.m., Thursday through Saturday. Each night he drives over 100 miles, all within a one-mile radius of campus. He picks up around 100 students each night, and many more if it is raining.
“I see people coming home from science labs or just a quick break for dinner. I’ve even seen people coding with their laptops in the backseat,” said Wark.
“I see this despite my weekend schedule,” he added.
As a shuttle driver, Wark bears witness to students’ weekend behavior. He knows where all of the off-campus parties are and when they have died. He politely ignores a litany of boorish backseat “bro talk” and was likely the person left waiting the last time you ditched the shuttle for a Brunswick Taxi. He is the Michael Jordan of chitchat.
The first few hours of his shift are slow and mostly service dinner plans on Maine Street. His pickups during this period show up incrementally more intoxicated, from the women on a date to Little Tokyo who ask Wark about his favorite roll (Garden—his wife is vegan) to the full van of soccer players chanting “Sake! Bomb! Sake! Bomb!” and extolling the merits of hibachi.
It’s during this slower time that he can take a quick break at Gelato Fiasco with his wife, Amanda. He doesn’t drink coffee during the week, but at the start of his shift Amanda buys him an affogato—espresso poured over gelato. He prefers Fiasco’s cardamom flavor.
He gets back in his van and cranks up the radio. REWIND 100.9—Hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s—gets a lot of compliments from students, but Wark likes WBOR—Bowdoin’s student radio station—for its eclecticism and lack of commercials.
“I also like public radio,” he said, pressing a programmed button. “This is the Thistle and Shamrock Celtic Music Hour.”
His job requires endurance, and music helps. He also takes brief breaks every few hours in the Office of Safety and Security, filling up his empty can with water from the break room and using their tiny bathroom. At odd hours, when there aren’t any students waiting, he parks the van in front of Coles Tower and stretches in the traffic circle.
There are no breaks between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. “Round time,” he called it. “It’s round time, time to drive round in circles.” This route is most often between Joshua’s—the consolidated pickup for Maine Street—and the various off-campus houses.
“Stowe Inn to the Polar Bear is also a popular route,” he said. The shuttle only stops at five on-campus locations—the Polar Bear is the station closest to the College Houses and science buildings.
“10-2, eight at Joshua’s,” radioed in the dispatcher, Gardenia Pimentel ’19. Wark explained that the “10” is just filler, to accommodate for the lag time over the walkie talkies.
“10-4, just cleared Stowe,” replied Wark.
“10-2, there’s now 13 at Joshua’s,” added Pimentel.
“The competition gets fierce sometimes,” he said jovially.
His demeanor belies the taxing pressures of his job. “About a year ago, when [another full-time driver] passed away, it was just me for Thursday through Saturday. It was hard. It was so hard I thought about quitting,” he said. “I could do it, I did do it, but it was a lot.”
“It was exhausting, and wait times were really long, so I would see students who weren’t so thankful anymore. They were disgruntled and tired. I would have hundreds of kids waiting for me.”
Despite occasional impatience, students are typically thankful for Wark’s service. Students can sometimes be rowdy—hopping in the front seat and hijacking the radio—but they are usually appreciative, saying “thank you” and calling Wark “sir.” If students are rude or distracting, Wark sometimes pulls over and stops the car until things calm down.
“Worst comes to worst, I shut my mouth and get them where they need to be and try to move on,” he laughed.
“I find peace in myself,” he said.
Time passes in a different way on the streets, in the darkness. Outside of the College’s bright lights, the sky shows its stars and moonlight reflects off the roofs of family homes. This is the territory where Wark spends most of his time “driving donuts.”
Wark is familiar with each off-campus house and its residents. He is on a nickname basis with John-Alexander “Kirk” Kourkoulis ’17, the Canadian hockey player who lives in 310 Maine Street, and knows the reputation of his house.
“310 Maine Street is the new hockey house,” Wark said. He remembered a period of time when he had to navigate the shuttle around someone’s Mercedes that had gotten stuck in the mud before a cold night. “It froze up to the bottom of the doors, and they couldn’t get it out,” he said.
Wark knows that wintertime is full of birthday parties at Red Brick House, and misses the sculptures he used to see from the windows of the Bowker barn last year. He differentiates between “Girl Potter” at 5 Potter Street, and “Guy Potter”—number eight. He considers 33 Garrison to be the new Crack House.
He knows where all of the parties are happening, even quieter gatherings. Over the course of last Saturday, two different groups asked him to not mention their parties to later riders.
He also knows that these parties are a point of contention in the Brunswick community.
“I was talking the other night to a security officer about how to negotiate a balance between off-campus housing, Security and BPD,” he said. “It takes us all to work together, but it’s worth it.”
For his part, Wark avoids honking at off-campus houses. When a pickup is running late, he instead flashes his lights or uses the van’s reverse noise. He even goes up to the pickup, if he can see them on their phone from his van. He doesn’t want to disturb the neighborhood.
He usually has to leave after five minutes so other rides don’t get backed up, but during slower times he doesn’t mind waiting. He once spent closer to 10 minutes waiting for a pickup at Garrison, staring at the empty beer cans and crushed solo cups littering the front yard.
“This happens pretty frequently with Garrison,” he said. “If I honked my horn, I would be honking my horn at least four times a night. I doubt their neighbors would appreciate it.”
Despite his patience, the closest he got to a complaint over his 10-hour shift was about Garrison. “They just called again,” he said with a feverish look in his eyes.
These boys often pack his van to capacity. “You’re lucky you sit in the front seat, so no one will sit on you.”
At 1 a.m., round time was over. His shuttle was more often empty than full. “Three more hours until the weekend,” he cheered.
The slow pace and darkness make the space in the van feel intimate, philosophical. There is more time for breaks in the Coles traffic circle.
“I really like how quiet it is. I love the quiet—quiet and the open spaces,” he said about Maine during an intermission.
“I love walking, personally. If I went to Bowdoin, I wouldn’t even take the shuttle.”
Wark went to Unity College in the town that hosts the Common Ground Fair.
“Adjacent to Unity was what we called a woodlot, a forest next to Unity campus, Unity property. We’d go out to the low ropes course, go on walks with a couple beers. We had a favorite tree to climb—this giant hemlock—and hang out in the branches,” he said.
Wark is taking the Saturday of Ivies off to attend a college friend’s wedding in New Jersey.
“I haven’t seen him in a long time, but sometimes he calls me at 2 a.m. when he’s drunk.”
“I’ve really embraced the home life,” he said. “Now I have all the nice midlife stuff: Where did all my friends go? They’re committed to their jobs and have these lives.”
“I keep waiting for a good friend, someone I’ll hang out with outside of work. A lot of jobs, places where you interact with people a lot, you make friends. I sometimes hear a thing or two about students, sometimes about their families, but I’m looking to make a friend.”
“But, I’m 35. So, not everyone who’s 20 wants to hang out with a 35-year-old. At least, not 35-year-olds who want to go skiing on weekdays or even weekends. I’m always looking for adventure buddies.”
“Ha,” he laughs. “There’s an empty solo cup blowing down the road.”
The last hour of his shift is quiet, until 2:45 a.m. when the stragglers call to get their rides in before the shuttle service ends at 3 a.m. This gives him time to clean the van in a cement-walled garage behind the security office and fill it up with gas from a private pump turned on by the dispatcher.
The dispatcher, always a student, is the last ride he takes home before returning paperwork and clocking out at the Office of Safety and Security. He then drives the van back to its home in the Stowe Inn parking lot and trades out the keys for those of his Chevy camper van.
He drives home to his family, often listening to the only CD that doesn’t skip in his deck—Led Zeppelin. He might stop by Rusty Lantern, a convenience store where a friend of his works and the first place to receive Frosty’s Donuts at 2 a.m.
Late in the semester the sun nearly rises at four, when he gets off his shift. He then sometimes passes his home in Phippsburg and drives straight to Popham Beach, where he waits in the quiet to see the first rays over the Atlantic.
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I love this!
An interesting slice of life, with the bonus of being very well told.