MTA bus driver Vernon Franklin, 67, speaks with a customer at a bus stop along his route. Franklin has been driving a bus for MTA for almost 16 years.

MTA bus driver Vernon Franklin, 67, speaks with a customer at a bus stop along his route. Franklin has been driving a bus for MTA for almost 16 years.

Credit: Jason Vorhees/The Telegraph

Macon bus driver Vernon Franklin sat in the cold, predawn darkness. His bus, its engine warming for another day on the road, sat in a staging area at the city transit barn off Broadway while Franklin went over his pre-route safety check. Soon he took the wheel, stepped on the gas and steered Bus No. 537 out into Macon. It was just past 5 a.m.

“Another day at the office,” he said to himself on a recent Friday.

By early afternoon at shift’s end, he would, over the course of multiple 20-mile loops, wend his way across 100 miles of the city. From downtown to the west side beyond Interstate 475 and Middle Georgia State University all the way back to Terminal Station at the foot of Cherry Street.

Franklin, 67, is Macon’s most-tenured bus driver. He has ferried locals to work and on shopping trips and pretty much anywhere from here to there for the past 15 years. He was once a long-haul trucker.

“I call my passengers ‘precious cargo,’” he said. “Because they’re somebody’s child, mother, grandmother, father, sister.”

For what might seem and often is a stressful vocation, Franklin looks at ease maneuvering through traffic, navigating sharp turns, piloting a vehicle more than half the length of a tennis court.

When other motorists aren’t paying attention or when they whip in front of him — because, as he points out, no one wants to ride behind a bus — he takes it in stride.

“You never know what people have got on their minds,” Franklin said. “So I don’t take it personally. People got a lot of stuff going on, and sometimes driving is the last thing on their minds.”

Back in 2009, when a man’s car broke down in east Macon, Franklin stopped his bus, let the man aboard and drove him to a convenience store along his route. Franklin even loaned the fellow his cellphone to call for help.

Franklin considers his work a public service.

“Police and fire department and EMT workers, not just anybody can do it,” he said. “You can perform it, but when you do the job, you do everything connected to it. It’s more than me just sitting behind this wheel and driving.”

It includes its share of public relations. Which is perfect for Franklin, who is a natural conversationalist.

At 7:20 a.m., a woman boarded from a stop on Telfair Street south of downtown. Franklin greeted her with a “good afternoon!”

Then he smiled.

Later when a rider he recognized, a young woman headed to work at Mercer University, boarded in downtown, Franklin hinted to her about some baked goods she had given him some time ago.

“What we need,” he said to her, “are some more homemade cookies.”

“It’s almost Christmas,” the woman said. “I’m still working on my grocery list.”

Most regulars know Franklin by name, but one passenger a while back kept referring to him as “Alfred.”

Franklin couldn’t figure out why. So one day he asked her. The woman pointed to the front of his bus, which bears white letters that read “Alfred.”

Then it hit Franklin.

“That,” he told the woman, “is the name of the bus.”

It is named for Alfred T. Fellheimer, the architect who designed Macon’s Terminal Station and Grand Central Terminal in New York.

Franklin, slender with a close-cropped beard and mustache, barks out major cross streets to let riders know where they are. “Pio Nono at Eisenhower Parkway!”

The other day when a passenger kidded him about his driving, Franklin grinned and said, “But she keeps getting on this bus.”

Staying on schedule is vital. But Franklin is careful not to get in a hurry.

“I’m not always on time,” he said, “but I ain’t always late.”

There are no restrooms on the buses. For a driver, nature’s call can present a predicament. How do they go?

“Quickly,” Franklin said.

Often enough relief comes on a quick pop in at a gas mart or a jaunt into Terminal Station.

Either way, he knows riders depend on him to be where he is supposed to be. He and his patrons are a community on wheels, rolling just about everywhere and back.

The work may seem monotonous, doing lap upon lap, a merry-go-round of the mundane. But not for Franklin.

“It’ll be as good as you make it,” he said. “Each trip that I do, somebody different is gonna get on that I know. And maybe somebody that I don’t know.”

When he was a trucker, a longtime driver offered some advice Franklin has never forgotten: “When you start approaching each day like yesterday, you’re setting yourself up for failure, for an accident. Because each day is not the same. Conditions change. Weather changes. People change.”

The job, too, has opened his eyes to the city and those whose paths he crosses.

“A lot of times, I’ll be the only bright face that a lot of people will see. You know, with a ‘good morning’ or a smile,” Franklin said.

“I never know, but if I take it and look at it like that every day, I’ve accomplished something. I’ve done something. If I just gave somebody a smile or breath of hope.”

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with The Telegraph.

Tags: Georgia  Macon  bus  profiles