I first met Debra Westenskow while climbing into the trunk of an overloaded car on East Campus. Her bus stopped behind me with a sigh, and she got out. My experience with bus drivers made me fear the reprimand I knew was about to come, but I couldn’t push the piles of junk out of the way fast enough—Westenskow was upon me before the trunk even closed.

“Can I see that map?” she asked.

Confused, I looked down at what I had just picked up from the trunk to move aside, and sure enough, it was a folded map of Durham. I handed it over. Westenskow thanked me, and told the driver of my car, sophomore Rachel Anderson, that she’d give it back the next time they saw each other.

As I would later find out, Westenskow and Anderson are good friends—and their’s is not at all an uncommon relationship. Duke Parking and Transportation operates a fleet of more than 30 buses, servicing 113 stops, moved by 46 drivers. As Duke students, we see these men and women every day, and when the parties abound, every night. Oftentimes we just walk past them and find the first empty seat on the bus, preferably a bit separated from another passenger, or just where we think that cute girl will notice us. But each of these drivers has a story. And if we look up from our phones and ask them how their day has been, most of these drivers will gladly share their tales.

Kasper Kubica

Westenskow holds a dual degree in accounting and business management. Her career runs broader than a freeway, and includes boutiques, elementary school classrooms, bars and construction sites. And despite the far more prestigious positions that her education and experience allow her, Westenskow has chosen to work as a Duke bus driver for the past 10 years. When I asked her why, she replied with a smile that matched the sharp twang of her voice.

“I love it. This is the best job I ever had,” she said, “because of the people.”

For Westenskow, it’s the human side of being a bus driver that keeps her happy—from helping out a struggling drunk to forming lasting friendships with students. She’s met many students in her time at Duke; some know her just enough to say, “Hi, Debra,” as they get on the bus, some talk with her as they ride and some grow so close with her that they remain friends even after graduation.

“Some of the kids still call me at Christmas to this day,” she said.

These friendships seem unsurprising after one has spent even a few minutes on Westenskow’s bus. Her caring grin seems to never fade, as she wishes every disembarking passenger a good night, and greets anybody who so much as glances her way. At one point during my ride with her, Westenskow pulled away from a stop, brought the bus to an immediate halt, and reopened the front door. A winded Tony Lopez stepped onto the bus 10 seconds later.

“You don’t know if they’ll go off without you,” the sophomore began.
Westenskow cut him off.

“I’m not going off without you, you know better than that,” she laughed.

The friendship of Lopez and Westenskow became clear as the two continued to tease. When I asked, both agreed that they talk extensively at least twice a week. Lopez added that he shares this relationship only with Westenskow and a driver he called ‘Big Mike.’

“It really puts things in perspective, because you’re busy and you get to talk to them,” Lopez explained. “Someone outside of school is a relief.”

Westenskow told me that though she knows hundreds of students by name, there are about 30 like Lopez, with whom she has formed a strong bond.

“They introduce me to their girlfriends when they first get a girlfriend,” she said. “Just like I’m mom.”

With her warm smile and caring nature, Westenskow truly comes off as a mom—not just of her adult children, and her oft-mentioned granddaughter, but of all the students that step on her bus. It’s this attitude that leads to her most captivating trait—a seemingly infinite stream of stories. There’s the time a blitzed student stayed on her bus for four cycles, constantly trying to give her his address, until she convinced Duke police to take him home, or the time on the Robertson Express when she drove a lost and confused elderly woman back to her retirement home in Chapel Hill, or the time she crept her bus alongside a girl staggering home until other riders convinced the student to get on....

As my audio recorder ran from the minutes into the hours, I realized just how bottomless this well of stories was. Talking to her passengers every day for 10 years, Westenskow has heard and experienced enough to fill a quite fascinating book, one that many of her students urge her to write. But for now, Westenskow declines authorship just as she has declined higher-paying dispatcher positions in the past.

“You couldn’t ask for a better job than what I got right here,” she said. “It suits me perfect.”

Kasper Kubica

Angela Reaves seemed a bit wary when I stepped onto her bus asking for an interview. She’s a friendly lady by any measure, but coming from a background of city bus driving, Reaves is the definition of tough professionalism.

“Certain drivers will enforce rules,” she told me. “Other drivers just don’t care.”

Reaves explained that most students know her as the driver who doesn’t allow drinks on the bus, and it’s a reputation that she stands by. Drivers are responsible for maintaining their bus from night to night, and avoiding spills becomes important when a cleaning crew only sees the vehicle once a week. Because of this, Reaves doesn’t allow obviously drunk students onto her bus.

“If you can’t walk on here, then you’re not supposed to be on here,” she laughed.

It’s a rule that comes straight from the city bus. But when I asked Westenskow, also a former city bus driver, about her attitude on the issue, her response was markedly different.

“I don’t turn none of ‘em away,” she said. “Never have. Never will. I will help you get on my bus if you can’t step up on there…. I would rather them throw up on my bus than them go home and throw up in their bed and possibly die from [choking].”

This view reflects Westenskow’s general attitude toward students.

“I think of you guys as my kids, and I treat you guys like I would treat mine,” she said.

But Reaves, for all her adherence to procedure and the rules of driving in a tough city, also shared Westenskow’s view.

“I look at [students] as my kids,” she told me.

***

As soon as I stepped into the bus of Michael Eubanks, Sr., I realized I had made a mistake—the cabin was empty, and, looking up at the route LED screen, I saw the too-common “Out of Service” message. Before I could even apologize, “Big Mike,” as he introduced himself, was striking up a conversation with me.

I’d heard many things about “Big Mike,” but the main thing that struck me as big about Eubanks was his energy. Westenskow would seem reserved next to this man, who’s been driving at Duke for the past five years. As I spoke with him, Eubanks bustled around the bus, getting ready to head back out for his final loop of the day, and didn’t miss a beat in the conversation. As he told me, he thrives on this busy energy.

“I’m one of the more talkative drivers,” he said. “I tell anybody that this driver seat right here is called the ‘hot seat,’ because it encompasses a lot of multitasking… you have to monitor your gauges… watch out for low-hanging tree limbs that may fall at any given time, low-hanging wires, pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, animals, deer, any type of obstacle that’s gonna cause the bus to get a flat—and still be able to carry on a conversation of substance at the same time.”

Comparing himself to an ever-ready fireman, Eubanks radiated an excited pride about his job, and it was clear that, like Westenskow, he had found his calling in the transit loops of Duke.

“I just love the job,” he told me. “I’ve been well-received by this University…. I look forward to coming to work.”

Eubanks spoke eagerly about his life outside Duke as well—he recently celebrated his three-year anniversary of marriage to a woman who he told me he chased for nearly 20 years. And he cares deeply for his family. Two decades ago, Eubanks moved to Philadelphia to take care of his mother after she suffered a series of massive strokes. When she was still going strong 18 years later, Eubanks moved back to Durham and took up the job of Duke bus driver. His experiences have made him passionate about encouraging students to value what they have.

“You only get one mommy. If you are blessed to have both parents, then you are truly, truly blessed,” he said. “Never ever ever take it for granted. Ever. I tell all the kids that if you ever think you’re having a bad day… go to the children’s hospital, and interact with those kids one time, and it will change your whole life.”

And this was three minutes into our conversation. Speaking with Eubanks, things got deep fast—but as many students told me, this isn’t uncommon.

Anderson said her conversations with the bus driver often delve into surprisingly abstract and philosophical topics, occasionally brushing on subjects like ghosts and exorcisms.

“It’s refreshing to talk to someone who isn’t constantly as busy as you are,” she told me. “Someone who’s… down to earth, and connected to the big picture.”

The bus drivers of Duke have a responsibility and a vantage point paralleled by few people on campus. They’ve seen more stories than they could tell in a year of conversation, and lived through more experiences than could fill the books that some students encourage them to write.

“I wish more people would take the time to get to know [them],” Anderson told me.

As I eventually learned, Westenskow needed the map in my hand for a reason. There was a student on her bus who couldn’t figure out where in Durham she needed to go, and Westenskow would not continue her route without helping. And she’s not the only one with this attitude. Each of these drivers has a story. Many of them are fascinating. And we can become a part of these stories if we put away our phones, look up from our laps and ask them how things look from the driver’s seat.