The Shuttle People
March 20, 2017
Meet the good folks who get you home when your car won’t.
Something has been leaking under the hood, something else has been squeaking. You need the snow tires off, summer tires on. Your scheduled warranty maintenance visit is embarrassingly overdue. There’s a dent where that pole jumped out at you. Any of these situations can send you off to the car dealership for service. But your crazy-busy life means you can’t just sit there and wait while repairs are completed, no matter how enticing the free bad coffee and well-thumbed People magazines may be.
So you rely on – and likely take for granted – the convenience of the dealership’s complimentary shuttle to take you to and from home, work, daycare or even the doctor’s office. You hop into the shuttle car, and at the wheel is a person with whom you’ll voluntarily spend time, in all kinds of weather, maybe a couple of times a year.
Who are these “shuttle people”? How did they get the job, why do they do it, and why do some people share their most personal stories with these erstwhile strangers?
More often than not, your shuttle person is an older gentleman. (Few shuttle drivers are women.) He has moved on from an earlier career, wanting to keep active, stay connected and help out. Always pleasant and usually interesting, he will be an able conversationalist and a better listener who will go the extra mile, literally and figuratively. Above all, he will ease you through the stress and inconvenience of being carless in the hills on another busy day.
For Caledon village resident John Braaksma driving a shuttle goes well beyond picking up people or dropping them off.
Take this example: “A family was out buying a cut-your-own Christmas tree on Airport Road,” recounts the 61-year-old grandfather of five. “Their car had broken down. I drove out there and they’re way back in a little RAV4, four-wheel drive. I check out the car. No power. His wife and three-month-old baby were in a Quonset hut with the tree guy, his four-year-old was with him by the car, and they had a tree. I get them into the shuttle – car seats, baby all wrapped up – and I say, ‘We’ll take the Christmas tree too! We’ll put it in back.’ I fix it up, drive them home, help them in with the tree. Those things are great.”
After nearly 10 years, John’s job title at Hallmark Toyota, on the Highway 9 dealership strip outside Orangeville, has evolved to “service administrator” – with duties that include cleaning, storing tires and killing spiders. But his principal role is driving the dealership’s 2013 Sienna shuttle van.
He’s the dealership’s only, and well-loved, shuttle driver. As a prank tribute, his signature has been painted on the van’s door frame, just like a NASCAR driver’s. John clocks 800 to 1,000 kilometres a week, driving both complete strangers and loyal repeat customers who know him by name.
In the course of sharing rides with people every day, sometimes all day, John has grown more comfortable and positive in conversation. “You realize there are a lot of similar things going on in people’s lives. You think you have your own problems. Those problems are out there and people will talk.”
And people do talk, so John has learned to listen and respond helpfully. “To a lot of customers who aren’t in the know mechanically, it is stressful taking their car into the garage,” he says. “I try to lessen that. I’m pretty familiar, though I’m not a mechanic. I can explain things, how brakes work – rotors, calipers squeezing, pads getting stuck. I don’t talk a lot of mumbo jumbo. If I sense a customer is pissed off because they just got some bad news about their car, I can usually put them in a better mood by the time I drop them home.”
As shuttle driver and sounding board John learns things about his community and its inhabitants. “Once or twice a week I learn something new,” he says. An engineer might inform him about an extension to the local sewage treatment plant, a contractor may speak about the future of a vacant lot, or a soon-to-be-ex-spouse being dropped at his lawyer’s office might observe, “I don’t know who is going to get more money today: Hallmark Toyota or my lawyer!”
Northwest Lexus, in Brampton, doesn’t employ a shuttle driver. They boast a staff of about eight “valets” who do the job of getting people where they need to go. One valet for the luxury-brand dealership is Mike Babcock, 58, father of two and youthful-looking grandfather of two more. Is he a “luxury kind of guy” himself? “I’d like to think so,” he smiles, glasses perched atop a grey-stubbled head.
At Northwest Lexus, a valet picks up a car for service, leaving a new Lexus behind so customers are never without a vehicle. Less often, valets will shuttle customers. “We call customers ‘guests,’” says Mike. “A year-and-a-half ago, when I started, I wouldn’t. I do now, even in conversation with friends.”
Mike had a career selling materials to builders and developers. He was a face-to-face guy, but when changes to the business altered that, he chose to take early retirement. He didn’t really have to work anymore, but after three weeks at home attending to the “honey-do” list, he thought, “I gotta find something!”
Lexus liked Mike’s people-person résumé. “I know and understand customer service. I get it. First impressions are lasting impressions,” he says. “People think that all we valets do is drive. But we are, in most cases, the guest’s initial contact with the dealership after the sale. It’s critical that we represent ourselves and the dealership in a professional manner. How we conduct ourselves while picking up and returning a guest’s vehicle can be a make-it or break-it scenario that could bring a guest back to the dealership or give them a reason to look elsewhere to service their vehicle.”
Driving anywhere from Bay Street to Mulmur, the longtime Caledon resident, who now lives in Palgrave, particularly appreciates the beauty of the region and the slower pace of life. “There is not the urgency to get from A to B that you get in the city,” he says.
To Mike, the joy of the job, along with driving beautiful cars, is the unknown: “Who knows who I’ll talk to?” He recently drove an executive from a big agricultural concern. “Guess how many chickens we slaughter a day?” the guest asked. “Fifty thousand?” ventured Mike. “A million!” said the man. “A day! Really!”
Mike is a happy man. “I enjoy getting up every day,” he says, “going to work where I drive luxury automobiles, meet some interesting people and have some great conversations.”
As we part company, Mike walks me through the showroom, looks me in the eye and shakes my hand at the door. I had expected nothing less.
Once a month, Orangeville Volkswagen holds a staff barbecue. Most commonly “the Shuttle Guy,” David Montgomery, is the chef. He makes an excellent burger. To what does he attribute this skill? “A special touch. The Orangeville touch.”
David’s Orangeville touch is generations in the making. “My family has always been here,” he says. He can trace his lineage back to Irish immigrant Samuel Montgomery, who immigrated to Upper Canada in 1797 and eventually settled on what is now Blind Line.
As a young man, David worked door-to-door in Orangeville, picking up and delivering dry cleaning. He then forged a 40-year career selling cars all over town, at the local GM, Chrysler, Honda and Volkswagen dealerships. He retains his sales licence and still makes the odd VW sale when he subs for staff on a sick day.
“I got to know a lot of people and a lot of people got to know me,” he says with quiet pride. Now 67, he “retired” three years ago and planned to keep busy woodworking, maintaining a cottage near Parry Sound, and cruising in his 2002 Vette with the Road Hazards Car Club. “I want to be busy all the time,” says David. “I have too much energy to sit at home.” David’s wife Kim is comptroller at Orangeville VW, and the two live a short walk away. He knew all the staff and says they talked him into taking the job.
“It is more fun than I expected. I’ve met a lot of really nice people,” he says. “I thought you just hop into the car [a VW Tiguan] and give someone a ride. No. It’s an adventure. They talk. Tell you all about the cars they’ve owned before, all their secrets. They just let loose. After a few trips, you know their whole life story. Some people, if you’ve driven them three or four times, they’ll jump in and carry on from the last conversation. They remember!”
A shuttle phenomenon that continues to puzzle David is the customers who play human GPSs. Lousy GPSs. “A lot of people won’t tell you their address,” he marvels. “You get out to the highway and ask, ‘Where we going?’ They’ll say, ‘Turn right.’ ‘Where are we going now?’ ‘I’ll tell you,’ they say, ‘turn left.’ They’ll take you the way they want to go. They’ll take you out of the way. I haven’t figured out why they do that. I know how to get there! It’s funny. I don’t say anything. I just keep going.”
And going. Is the end of David’s post-retirement career in sight? “I keep telling myself a couple more years,” he says, “but I keep on saying that.”
At 21, Jonathan Davis is the youngest of the “shuttle people,” and he’s at the other end of the career continuum. He’s working his way up from apprentice technician to full mechanic status, and ahead of him is still three years’ study and hard work. In the meantime, he is often called on to perform shuttle duty. He sees this job as a highlight of his nine-hour workday.
Behind the wheel of the hybrid Honda Insight, Jonathan is scrupulously clean. But now, in the shop late in the day, his hands are dirty, his ball cap is backwards and his face is smudged, though his manner remains personable and direct. He has been with Orangeville Honda on Highway 9 for nearly eight months now. He works on cars – but doesn’t own one. He walks the 45 minutes from town for each shift. In his off time he plays basketball and volleyball and works at computer programming. He sees computers and cars as similar “operating organisms.”
Does he find shuttle duty a distracting detour from his chosen career path? “No. I thought I’d be more in the back, cleaning up, doing whatever was needed. But the more I’ve been working, the more I want to be involved. I get to meet some great people, connect with the community, see what’s going on.”
Goodwill clearly comes naturally to this young man, although he admits it can sometimes take a little effort. If he’s having a bad day, he tries not to let it show. “I’m representing Honda and my personal issues can come after the shift is over.” This sentiment doesn’t always apply in reverse. “On one shuttle, I could tell the customer was having a rough day. They were kind of short with me. That was alright. I let them have their space.”
Silent rides are rare and the worst. “I feel uncomfortable,” he says. “I always introduce myself. Common courtesy. I try to read the situation, determine how the conversation goes.” Women have proved more talkative than men, more prone to the personal, telling him about their day-to-day lives, and in one notable case, in detail about an impending divorce, to which Jonathan tried to “lend an ear,” if not advice. Men tend more to externals such as current events or sports.
His favourite shuttle so far was with a customer dressed in blue and feeling the same way. “In his 30s, single, a high-energy guy having a rough day,” says Jonathan. “He was wearing all Toronto Blue Jays’ gear and I sparked up a good conversation about the Jays for the entire ride. When I dropped him off he had a big smile on his face and said he’d been feeling down and ‘You just picked me up!’ That was a really good day for me.”
Asked to describe himself in five words, Johnnie – never John – Johnston immediately comes up with, “I’m a very happy person.”
He seems so and it’s infectious. Johnnie drives one of two 2014 GMC Terrains (licences TAKUHOME and TAKEUHOM) for MacMaster Buick GMC outside Orangeville. On the side, he is a singer and comedian, telling jokes and singing everything “from Jolson to Jones [Tom]” in community centres and the like. He was a full-time cabaret entertainer in his native Belfast before immigrating to Canada in 1970 to launch a career in the travel business. He has lost neither the brogue nor the jokes.
Now 78, Johnnie lives in the village of Melville south of Orangeville. His white-haired senior status is belied by an au courant Bluetooth device permanently affixed in his ear during our conversation. He’s on duty from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Customers call him “Johnnie,” and they can call him direct.
When he decided to get out of the travel business, the late Peter MacMaster, a man Johnnie knew and liked, suggested he try driving the company’s shuttle for three months. That was 17 years ago. He stays because he loves the social aspect of the work. He can see no downside. “I get on well with people. I know most of them. We end up laughing.”
He plans to stay at the job as long as he can. “When will you retire?” he is regularly asked. His response? “I always tell people, ‘Oh, it’s going to be in the newspaper.’ ‘Is it?’ they’ll say. ‘Oh, yes,’ I’ll say. ‘Keep watching the obituaries column. When my name is in it, come down and get my job!’”
The Bluetooth in his ear interrupts us. “Good afternoon. Johnnie here. Can I help you?” He recognizes the voice at the other end. He nods and smiles, taking in details, then begs my forgiveness. He must go. “There’s a little lady called Catherine wanting me.”
Before we part, Johnnie leans in and fixes his penetrating gaze on me. Impaled like a bug on a pin, I await his final joke, my favourite of several he told. “A priest goes to a psychiatrist …”