New York City bus operators Tyrone Hampton and Frank de Jesus have witnessed a crushing loss in their field of work. As of Wednesday, 83 Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers have died from COVID-19, 30 of them also bus operators.
Hampton, 50, and de Jesus, 30, spoke for a remote StoryCorps conversation about how the outbreak is putting their love for the job to the test.
Earlier this month, both operators decided to stay home from work in an effort to protect themselves and their loved ones. De Jesus returned to work this week.
De Jesus is following in the footsteps of his father, who was a bus operator. When his dad didn't have a babysitter, de Jesus would join him on the bus.
"I would sit there right by his feet and he would give me the microphone, and he would tell me to say, 'Lexington and 96 Street, coming up next,' " de Jesus said. "So you would hear me in my little baby voice, 'Lexington and 96 Street, up next!' "
"I loved it. I thought it was the best job in the world as a kid. So, I'm here because I love the job."
Even in the absence of a pandemic, it's not a job for the fainthearted, Hampton said.
"We take a chance every day with snowstorms, traffic, people running in front your bus," he said.
Hampton said he and his colleague have a "driver's heart."
"But now our heart is being tested — and it's one hell of a test," he added.
"Every day that we step foot on that bus we come home with the possibility of not only infecting ourselves, but our loved ones," de Jesus said.
It's been painful, Hampton said, to watch fellow bus operators risk their lives behind the wheel.
"We've seen a lot of brothers die, a lot of co-workers lose their life behind this attack," he said.
De Jesus is inspired by the actions bus operators have taken to protect each other. He recalled a good friend who took steps to help operators stay socially distanced.
"I see him with a roll of caution tape, and every bus that passes by he's running in and taping off the seat right behind the bus operators, making sure nobody sits there," he said. "I helped him do it faster, and every bus that came on, we did it."
That was in March, before a policy for rear-door boarding was implemented.
De Jesus said the health crisis has solidified his bond with Hampton.
"I want you to know that you got a brother in me for life now," he told his friend. "I mean, if I didn't know it before, I know it now for sure."
"We gonna make it through this, man," Hampton said. "We gonna make it through."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Camila Kerwin.
Recently, StoryCorps developed a new way to bring people together that makes it possible to record interviews remotely. Go to storycorpsconnect.org to try it out.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And it is time now for StoryCorps on this Friday. Tyrone Hampton and Frank de Jesus are New York City bus operators. To date, they've lost at least 30 fellow bus workers to COVID-19. In all, more than 80 New York City transit workers have died in this pandemic. Tyrone and Frank had a remote conversation using StoryCorps Connect. Frank begins.
FRANK DE JESUS: My father was a bus driver, and he would take me to work with him on days that he had no babysitter. And I just remember that I would sit there right by his feet and he would give me the microphone. And he would tell me to say, Lexington and 96th Street coming up next. So you would hear me and my little baby voice - Lexington and 96th Street, up next. And I loved it. I thought it was the best job in the world as a kid. So I'm here because I love the job.
TYRONE HAMPTON: You know, we take a chance every day with snowstorms, traffic, you know, people running in front your bus.
DE JESUS: Through all the trials and tribulations, we do like doing what we do for New York City.
HAMPTON: We do. We have a driver's heart.
DE JESUS: Yeah.
HAMPTON: But now our heart is being tested. And it's one hell of a test.
DE JESUS: Every day that we step foot on that bus, we come home with the possibility of not infecting ourselves only, but our loved ones.
HAMPTON: You know, we've seen a lot of brothers die, a lot of co-workers lose their life behind this attack.
DE JESUS: What gives me the most hope right now - I have a good friend, and I see him with a roll of caution tape. And every bus that passes by, he's running in and taping off the seat right behind the bus driver, making sure nobody sits there. So the next bus, I got on with him and I helped him do it faster. And every bus that came on, we did it. You know, once you are against the wall, the only way you can go is forward.
I want you to know that you got a brother in me for life now. You know, I mean, if I didn't know it before, I know it now for sure.
HAMPTON: We're going to make it through this, man. We going to make it through.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRYAN COPELAND'S "ELEGIAC MIX")
GREENE: Tyrone Hampton speaking with his friend and fellow New York City bus driver Frank de Jesus. Tyrone, who has underlying health conditions, recently stopped driving. They recorded their conversation using StoryCorps Connect, which allows loved ones to record interviews while maintaining social distancing. That conversation will be archived at the Library of Congress. And to find out how to record your own StoryCorps interview, you can go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.