By Joe Carrel, Buffalo Exchange Tempe
Ah, South by Southwest: The films. The music. The white-knuckle terror of impending doom.
With over 70,000 attendees, many SXSW-goers are unable to stay near the downtown action, so festival buses are constantly shuttling people to and from their hotels across Austin. I am one of the shuttled. And after enduring some rides with puzzling routes and questionable traffic decisions, I surmised that the sudden demand for quality bus drivers had simply outpaced the supply.
I had no idea to what extent.
Day 3 of the festival. It’s 10pm and the bus is completely full. I’m seated directly behind the driver. She mentions that this is her first trip for SXSW and it isn’t the route she thought she’d be driving. I happen to know that this route consists of eleven hotels and that mine is #10 on the list. I’m close enough to hear her talk to herself. “Let’s see, what do I push to close these doors? – hmm…” I should’ve seized that opportunity to scoot off and wait for the 11pm bus. Hindsight.
Our bus careens down the bustling Austin streets, scattering pedicabs like frightened pigeons. We straddle two lanes as we rumble on to our first stop. The bus boldly charges toward the hotel’s covered entrance. That’s when we hear the scraaaaaaaape of the bus roof against that covered entrance. “Aww, now I’ve done it,” mumbles the driver. After getting out and inspecting she declares “Eh, it ain’t too bad.” She retakes her seat. “Now, let’s see, what do I push to put it in reverse? – hmm…”
Once we’re back on the road the driver announces “I don’t quite know where all these hotels are at, so if we’re gettin’ close to yours, give a holler.” A passenger asks if she has GPS. No? How about a smartphone? “I don’t get along with my phone too well – I think it’s mostly the phone’s fault.” So the passengers, none of us Austin residents, mind you, gamely take on the role of collective turn-by-turn navigation.
“It’s right there – that entrance there. Okay you missed it, but we can catch that highway loop there to circle back. No, no – that exit there…”
Eventually a passenger points “That’s the next hotel, there!” Rather than pulling into the parking lot, the driver stops the bus right in its tracks… on Interstate 35. Speeding cars honk and swerve around. I overhear a couple of frantically disembarking passengers whisper, “Aren’t you at another hotel?” “Yeah, but I’ll walk.”
Moments later a wrong turn leads to a spectacle you don’t see every day: a full-size charter bus attempting a 3-point turnaround on a residential dead-end street. And so it went. I won’t force-feed you the entire dish of fear and frustration we were served over the hour that followed; instead, I’ll leave you with my rather surprising lived-to-tell-the-tale takeaway.
I think it was around the time I saw that 11pm bus pass us by that my attitude changed – and I began to empathize with our beleaguered driver. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in her place for all the barbeque in Austin, and I began thinking how frightening it is to feel ill-equipped for the tasks that lie before you. So I determined that, at least in my own job, I would become a better equipper – helping people feel comfortable, knowledgeable, and prepared. This may be pie-in-the-sky thinking, but, who knows, with the right mindset maybe I can help some folks stay in the drivers’ seat – and out of those pesky jaws of death.