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Through the eyes of a bus driver

It’s almost midnight, but Larry Demery’s night has just begun.

Demery, 50, is the only one driving the C-5 bus tonight. From 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., he cruises from West Campus to Anderson Street to Ninth Street to Brightleaf Square, a route that neatly encompasses the off-East Campus social scene.

Thursday through Saturday, C-5 buses ferry students from tense academic environments to relaxation and entertainment. When Demery comes to a stop in front of the Chapel, students hop on board with cheers and laughter.

The night shift is challenging for him. He sleeps whenever he can before starting his long night of work.

“You got to do what you need to do,” he said.

C-4 driver John Jackson describes a similar lifestyle. His nights are restless, but he makes the most of daylight hours.

“I got the time to do what I want to do in daytime,” Jackson said.

Demery has worked for Duke for almost a year, and he hopes to hold the job until he retires. Previously, he worked for the Durham Area Transit Agency.

“Students and the general public are quite different,” he said. “The general public works without a day off.”

When the pack of students has boarded the bus, Demery heads to Perry Street, leaving the Chapel in the rearview mirror. Students buzz about the past week, their candor heightened by a social lubricant. Demery does not think his passengers’ drinking is a problem, at least for now.

“All of this is normal to me, I don’t take it personally,” he said. “If you go drink, it’s better to experience it when you’re young. That way you will have nothing to lose. You will not lose your job or family because you don’t have one.”

Jackson doesn’t mind the drunk passengers either.

“Duke students are polite even if they are intoxicated,” he said.

Demery loses most of his passengers when the bus reaches Brightleaf Square. Driving the bus is a job, but Demery says that bringing the students to a place where they can let loose makes him feel like he is taking part in the fun as well.

 “The bus takes students [and] myself to an area where we can unwind and entertain ourselves,” Demery said.

Back on West Campus, Demery hops off the bus so he can stretch his legs before his next ride. A group of students approaches, asking him for a light for their cigarettes. Demery obliges.

“It’s a young thing, you know,” he said.

After all, Demery can remember when he was in their place. The only things that have changed since he was young is that the boys are louder and the girls are more attractive, he says. But Demery can’t reminisce for long. It’s 1 a.m.—time for another ride.

At each stop, Demery’s service is rewarded with a chorus of ‘thank you’s.’ Demery says he has grown to care about his passengers.

“I kind of like you guys. At your age, you could be my children,” he said. “I act like a parental character and take care of you guys.”

And like any parent, Demery says his biggest concern for students is safety.

 “Safety is more important than saying ‘thank you,’” he said. “You got on the car and did not break your ankle, is what I care about.”

Around 2 a.m., he looks up at the clock on the dashboard. One more hour to go. He stops by the Main West Quadrangle for a short rest before the next ride. He has his first yawn of the night. Once he gets home, he will nap until noon to prepare for tomorrow’s late-night shift.

Demery spots a young woman walking alone and stops the bus to pick her up, though no stop is marked.

“Got you,” he says playfully to the student.

But then, he speaks in all seriousness.

“If you’re drunk and alone, we will call SafeRides to get you home,” he noted.

Moments like this—helping students make it through the night—are what make Demery’s job worthwhile.

“Drive the bus safely, don’t slam the passengers around,” he said. “Give them the chance to board the bus and make sure they get out of the bus properly. That makes them feel more safe when driving.”

Demery looks up at the clock again—another hour has passed. It’s 2:40 am, and he has only one more ride to go.

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