Interview with a Jitney Driver


By Weenta Girmay

My quest to ride a jitney for the first time and what I discovered after talking to a driver just trying to get back on his feet. (Audio featured)

I had arrived at a corner bus stop, a stop you only know about if you live in the neighborhood. The construction on the main street had caused a detour, and though there was no sign that marked this as an alternative stop, people just knew to wait here and the bus just stopped here. This is what I think of when I think of Pittsburgh public transit. It doesn’t quite make sense but you just go with it.

As I approached, there was an Asian woman waiting behind the imaginary bus stop, under the awning of a building. I asked if she was waiting for a bus to which she replied, “ I called a cop.”

“What? Why?”

“The bus didn’t come and I had to walk and walk.”

“So a cop is coming to pick you up?”

She corrected me. Her accent was thick–she was waiting not for a “cop” but for a “cab.”

“So now I have two rides,” she said.

“You know, cab service in Pittsburgh isn’t that reliable,” I started to say, and before I could elaborate she corrected me again.

“Well,” she said lowering her voice, “I use a jitney.”

She told me she lived just up the street and she used the guy all the time. He was reliable, and a ride to a neighborhood close by would go for around $8. Sometimes she would need a ride back from somewhere far out like Monroeville, that would cost her $20.

It was maybe 5 more minutes before she said she saw her “cab.” Her calling it a cab made me instinctually scan the street for yellow and as I scanned, she started walking away, drifting further and further, while still looking back at me, saying “it’s here,” me not knowing where or what car she meant. I walked back to the bus stop, peeking around the corner a few seconds later out of curiosity, but she was gone.

I’d never used a jitney before, but I’d heard about them often, even been solicited by one without knowing. I was waiting for a bus and he was stopped at the light. He’d asked, “need a car?” a typical phrase drivers use to introduce themselves. I’d said no then, but today I would seek one out, my first jitney ride.

The woman at the imaginary bus stop had given me the number of her guy, but when I called him from the grocery store, he said he wasn’t available.

I chose this particular grocery store, the Giant Eagle in East Liberty, because it had a parking lot commonly filled with jitney drivers, or so I’d heard, but I couldn’t spot a single one. The lot was peppered with guys sitting parked in cars, but people wait outside store parking lots all the time, I thought.  I saw a guy walk up to meet a shopper out front, carting the shopper’s groceries to their car, but this also seemed normal. That guy could be a husband, a cousin, a friend. I couldn’t assume just anyone was a jitney driver—I’d look a fool. So I asked a few women waiting behind the store’s front doors whether they knew where I could get a jitney. They said they were out there, usually around the side, but that there were a lot of people waiting for them. Again, I walked out, this time further around the building, only to be met by a loading dock and some dumpsters, no cars idling, no people waiting. I was ready to give up, making my way over to the closest bus stop, but it was freezing. The “polar vortex” was in full force and it was the coldest day Pittsburgh’s had. So I asked again at the bus stop, “Do you know where I can get a jitney?”

A woman there assured me that if I just went back to the grocery store, or even the store next to it, holding my bags and looking like I needed a ride, someone would come up to me and ask, “need a car?” So I went back and scanned the parking lot again, until finally I saw three young people, teenagers maybe, hands full of groceries, being led by a guy to his car. “Need a car?” I’d heard him say, and I ran towards them. Turned out there were too many of them to fit—the driver had low bucket seats in the front that didn’t easily accommodate more than two, so I asked him “How much?” and he said “Seven” and I paused for a bit, until he said, “c’mon baby, it’s cold out, get in the car,” and he was right, it was cold, painfully cold, so I got in.

“Have you had much business today?” I asked.

“I’m a movie dude.” He replied, but I didn’t quite get it.

“How many rides have you given today?”

“I’m a movie dude,” he said again. “I sell movies. The movies are selling today. You’re probably… ride number 3.”

“You sell movies? From where?”

“Outta the back,” he said motioning towards the trunk of his car. “DVD’s, CD, I’ve got it all.”

Driving a jitney was more of his thing on the side. He drove me maybe a mile and a half up the road and dropped me off at my house. I said I might want to take a jitney again, so he shuffled around his car to give me his information.

“I can write it down,” I say.

“Naw, I don’t like writing,” and then he pulled out a stamp, which he pressed against a piece of scrap paper he’d rustled from the compartment between us, holding the scrap paper up against the steering wheel, pressing the stamp against it, making me an instant, if unofficial, business card. I shook his hand and we parted ways.

Movie Dude had been an intriguing first jitney ride, but I wanted to talk to a driver who made driving his true livelihood. So I went back to the same grocery store parking lot looking for another ride.

This time I brought a friend along, hoping to look more noticeable, and it worked. Almost the second we passed through the automatic doors into the cold, there was Lou,* asking us if we needed a ride. He walked us eagerly to his car, smiling, with a spring to his step.

In the car, he told us he had driven years ago and was just now back at it after losing his job. He was in school for civil engineering at a community college and he’d just gotten a D in his Philosophy course.

“I will never take a Philosophy course again,” he said, explaining that he had studied the wrong text for the final, which made up the entirety of his final grade. I liked this guy. He had personality.

He charged us $10 for a shorter ride than Movie Dude, but after interviewing him about his current circumstance, I wouldn’t blame him for it.

He’d been let go from a housekeeping job at a hospital for veterans. “I know I’m cleaning up feces and urine, but I’m proud to serve those people, they fought for our country,” he said. He was wearing an official United States Veteran hat when we sat down for an interview about jitney driving and his struggle to find employment. I am excerpting parts of the interview here because I believe too few people ever hear these drivers’ voices.

Part 1: “I says ok, this gonna be my new next time job.”

How Lou got his start and what driving was like over 20 years ago.

Part 2: “They called the police on me.”

Competition amongst jitney drivers.

Part 3: “Do you see the position I’m in right now?”

Why Lou just can’t get a break.

Part 4: “No one wants to go in the hood and get robbed and all that…”

Are jitneys a good thing? Lou’s opinion.

What intrigued me about Lou was that although he himself had never been robbed, he recounted the days when drivers, usually younger men in their teens or twenties, were robbing jitneys, or passengers were getting in jitneys to rob drivers, though he said generally, drivers and passengers trust each other. I asked him if he ever thought about the threat of violence, as in the past, jitney drivers have been shot and killed and recently a female passenger reported an attempted rape.

Lou’s only protection against violence is his street smarts, and it’s merely a preventative measure at that. “You got instinct. I’m not gonna put no 2 or 3 dudes in the back looking real quiet. You read it from being in the streets,” he said.

The threat of violence is overtaken by the need to make a living. “It’s something I’m not thinking about being that I’m desperate right now to make it,” he said.

Soon after I met Lou, I rode the 89 bus through Garfield for the first time. I met a woman on that bus who had just moved from Garfield to Homewood. I told her about this blog and asked what changes she would like to see in her neighborhood.

The one thing she mentioned: she would like the 74 bus to Homewood to run later.

The 74 bus that runs from Squirrel Hill to Homewood out to East Liberty stops service at about 10:58pm, with no service on a Sunday.

The 89 has similarly bad service. It’s the only bus that runs through the Garfield neighborhood and it’s an extremely short route—I rode its entirety within 15 minutes. Its service runs until 10:45pm at the latest, with no service on Saturday or Sunday.

Homewood and Garfield are both neighborhoods with frequent jitney drivers and jitney customers.

I was surprised to find however, that unlike Garfield, there are 4 buses besides the 74 that go through Homewood. The 71D gets you to Homewood outbound from Oakland or Downtown. The 86 will get you to Homewood on the way from East Liberty through Bloomfield to Wilkinsburg. The 71D and 86 have service going as late as 1:30am and 1:45am.

The 77 goes right by the East Liberty Giant Eagle and through Homewood by way of Frankstown Ave, but like the 74, its service is poor: on a Saturday and Sunday when you might be doing your shopping, it comes once every hour.

The P1 Busway is also right by the Giant Eagle in East Liberty. Its service is fast, frequent, goes late, and can take you from the Homewood Busway Station directly to the Giant Eagle in East Liberty or Shadyside. Homewood Station is central, but with bags in your hands, it may not be close enough.

Shopping poses a particular quandary: there are those who are elderly and can’t carry their groceries on the bus. There are those who can’t afford a bus pass and multiple bus trips to the grocery store instead of one big trip. There are those who have kids to bring along with their shopping bags.

Then I’m reminded of something that is all too often assumed: that people would have to travel outside their neighborhood for amenities–that there isn’t a grocery store in Homewood and there isn’t a grocery store in Garfield, and there isn’t one in the Hill District, where jitneys are also popular.

Still, I found my mind wandering back to those 3 young teenagers who almost got in Movie Dude’s jitney. They were young and able-bodied. They had only a few bags in their hands. They could have easily gotten on the bus. So why didn’t they?

I asked a young man from Homewood, who has a long list of jitneys he used to use before he got a car, why someone like him or someone like those teenagers would choose a jitney over the bus. He simply said, “It’s convenient. Why pay $3.50 on the bus, when you can pay someone $6 to get you to your door?”

Our bus system is one of the highest priced compared to other cities in the country, high-priced enough that jitneys can compete.

Jitneys might have started because “Yellow Cab wouldn’t go into the ghetto,” as Lou said but they’ve become much more than that. They are a service that has become casual because it’s affordable and convenient, two markers of great transit. They’re a service created and managed by these communities to serve their own people’s pressing needs, and that they endure is remarkable. Maybe this is why, when I asked Lou in part 4 of our interview if there was a better solution to how people from these communities get around, he couldn’t come up with one.

In the words of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. “… There’s a niche and people have filled that niche. I don’t know that it’s a good thing, but people have to get around.”

*This name has been changed to protect my source.

Public Safety: Vacancy as Vortex

By Helen Gerhardt

This past Sunday, I bundled up in many layers against the cold of the polar vortex and walked over to Larimer, from my row house rental on Borland St., down East Liberty Blvd, left on Frankstown, left on Lowell. I didn’t take a bus to where I was going. I wanted to walk alone through streets that are riddled with vacancies, empty houses, empty churches, empty businesses, empty lots. I needed to walk on foot through the larger scene of two deadly crimes, one last year, one last week.

Window 2I needed to look at this window, again, after a full cycle of seasons. Very early last year, in the first few days of January of 2013, I stood on the other side of that glass, inside the apartment. I stood and looked at a pool of dried blood under the Christmas tree that had not been taken down. I looked at the larger pool of blood near the window, where a few nights before, the police had briefly spoken to man who was not quite yet a murderer through the thick panes of glass.

Further inside, farther back, away from the window, unseen, a woman waited for the help she had called for.

But before I write about that night, about the many years of choices and layers of systems that helped set the stage for that particular shooting of a friend I loved, as I consider the particular reasons for the murder of Hosea Davis by assault rifle just a little over a week ago, just around the corner from this spot, I think it is important to listen to Hosea’s cousin, Michelle Gilmore, as directly quoted in these two new stories I’ve linked to.

“People don’t understand the struggle we deal with every day, living in the inner city, hearing gunshots every night. There’s not an easy night that somebody can sleep,” Gilmore said. “Different gunshots, like, every hour. We just want the violence to stop. You’re tired of burying your kids, you’re tired of violence every day, you’re tired of murders being unsolved…Till you live in our area and know how we feel, can’t nobody walk in our shoes. People have no respect for human life these days. It’s got to stop somewhere. We need to take back our streets. We need to stand up and take our kids back.”


Empty lots everywhere.

It was important for me to walk through the physical streets where Michelle Gilmore said those words. I needed to pull back and look at those physical vacancies that reflect a larger vortex of choices and consequences, a deeper poverty of root and branch, a long-time corrosion and corruption, not only of the Pittsburgh Police Bureau, but of the very fabric of what we sometimes too lightly call “community” in this city.

In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote about some of the causes of corrosion and vacancy, I see all around me here in Larimer, the combination of fear and detachment that I hear in the voices of the neighbors along this block when I ask about the murders, of my friend, last year, and of Hosea last week.

Abandoned home, former owner deceased.

Abandoned home, former owner deceased.

….Today barbarism has taken over many city streets…It does not take many incidents of violence on a city street, or in a city district, to make people fear the streets. And as they fear them, they use them less, which makes the street still more unsafe…

…The barbarism and the real, not imagined, insecurity that gives rise to such fears cannot be tagged a problem of the slums. Nor is it illuminating to tag minority groups or the poor, or the outcast with responsibility for city danger. There are immense variations in the degree of civilization and safety found among such groups and among the city areas where they live. Some of the safest sidewalks in New York City…at any time of day or night, are those along which poor people or minority groups live….the public peace – the sidewalk and street peace – of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as the police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, an enforced by the people themselves….the problem of insecurity cannot be solved by spreading people out more thinly…

Blind eyes painted on the walls of abandoned church.

Blind eyes painted on the walls of abandoned church in Larimer.

…A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted street is apt to be unsafe….there must eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to ensure the residents of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs of blank sides on it and leave it blind.

“The basic requisite for such surveillance is a substantial quantity of stores and other public places sprinkled along the sidewalks of a district; enterprises and public places that are used by evening and night must be among them especially. Stores, bars and restaurants, as the chief examples, work in several different and complex ways to abet sidewalk safety.067

“First, they give people — both residents and strangers — concrete reasons for using the sidewalks on which the enterprises face. 

“Second, they draw people along the sidewalks past places which have no attractions to public use in themselves… Moreover, there should be many different kinds of enterprises, to give people reasons for crisscrossing paths.

“Third, storekeepers and other small businessmen are typically strong proponents of peace and order themselves; … they are great street watchers and sidewalk guardians if present in sufficient numbers.

“Fourth, the activity generated by people on errands, or people aiming for food or drink, is itself an attraction to still other people. (Jacobs, 30-37)

I can’t know if a thriving neighborhood with watchfully engaged neighbors and regular small business traffic would have made the difference in the continued life of my friend, or of Hosea Davis. But as I considered the well-being of other friends, neighbors, and co-workers in other neighborhoods facing similar challenges of vacant, abandoned, and blighted properties which are tied up so closely with overall public safety, I resolved to pay close attention to the recently introduced legislation for a land bank proposed by City Councilwoman for District 7, Deb Gross, evidently partly informed by Transition Team recommendations which assess such legislation as one of the best chances for bringing such properties back into circulation, and back to shared life.

I was tired after looking at that window from where the police stood and talked to Anthony Brown through the glass, far more tired than my short walk through the snow would have explained. I decided to take the bus back home. As I caught the 82 Larimer, the bus driver spoke to me with notable concern and welcome: “Take your time, now, and be careful,” she said as I stepped through the thick snow at the curb, out of the bitterly cold vortex into the warmth of the bus. I stood with her a moment, told her I was writing about the needs for change in Pittsburgh, traveling across the city by bus to hear people’s concerns, ideas, hopes.

I didn’t tell her about my current focus on this general Transition Team topic of Public Safety, but her response met the weight of my own memories and concerns halfway. “Here on this bus,” she said, “I try to do whatever I can to make people feel safe. I want them to feel safe on here, wherever they’re coming from, wherever they’re going.” As she took me back home, again and again she spoke with people she’d come to know over many, many days of taking them to work, to school, to shop, to church, to all the necessities and pleasures of life and back home again. She asked about what was going on with them, how their families were doing, how their jobs were going. She watched and responded to what was happening on the streets she was driving through, commented to the passengers standing at the front of the bus. Again and again, as they got off, she said, “Take your time, stay warm, be careful now.”

When I got off the bus, I felt safer.


Vanessa German: Making a Space for Love Against the Polar Vortex

By Helen Gerhardt

Two weeks ago, on January 6th, artist Vanessa German stepped onto the stage and charged all the men and women and children who had crowded out of the bitter cold into Heinz Hall for the Inauguration of our new Mayor Bill Peduto. She charged out a poem that still speaks loud and clear here on the day that we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., the man that spoke out for peace and died by violence.

Vanessa on Inauguration Day

The City is ours today….We rise and claim the reins of change with both hands. We aim ourselves to the stars…
For we are champions. And the City is ours today
We claim it singing it against the steel mill foothills that still call our grandfathers’ names.
We rise with the horizon of numinous high rises and river shine.
For the future is bright and it is getting brighter. We know this, for the City is ours today.
Let us say so and sing its praises, out loud.
From Homewood and Brushton down the street to Penn Avenue
To the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Busway to Point Breeze,
Across the Birmingham Bridge, up Sarah Street, up the Southside Slopes to crest upon the rooftops of Carrick…
These avenues, alleyways and old staircases are our places.
These elementary schools, these rising church spires, these river banks,
these store fronts are the places that we have to make our mark.
Each and every day there are countless opportunities to make of our old world a new world.
Dr. King said that we hold within us the healing and transformative power of love
and with this power we will be able to make of our world a new world…

The warmth of Vanessa’s words somehow burned brighter because the polar vortex gripped our city. The power of her vision of our City’s future glowed more bravely because spoken against a backdrop of too many of our own cold memories of inequity, poverty, racism, corrupt power, and the violence of Pittsburgher against Pittsburgher.

As she spoke, Vanessa’s own memories of violence in her neighborhood in Homewood were very fresh. She had woken to gunfire right in front of her house, had to work to make herself move, to make herself get dressed, to make her face move as she spoke with the sign language interpreter who would be translating her poem. She recognized the symptoms of trauma and later wrote that she sometimes she wished she had the training of a soldier

Vanessa knew I had been a soldier and during the conversation recorded below asked me about that training – but I never experienced the level of violence in Iraq that Vanessa has survived here in the States, that she must live with all around her, in her own neighborhood. I spoke about the Novocaine numbness and emotional detachment that all too often passes for courage. Vanessa spoke of coming back from the trauma of the shooting that morning of the Inauguration when she saw young people she knew in the Westinghouse Marching Band on the stage, children she’d seen grown into teens, vulnerable young adults that she knew could act as drum majors of justice if we could work for their hope, their safety, their spirit. Her concern and emotional connection to them charged her own spirit to speak her poem with power.

…We will be able to make one another better.
So let us move forth, from Lawrenceville to Larimer, carrying our legacy close.
Let us rise to become change agents of a six-block radius.
Let us become drum majors of justice on our own front porches
Bearing forth hope in the form of simply saying, “hello.”
Let it begin with Bryant St. over to the New Bohemian,
Cross the Roberto Clemente Bridge, up the Hill into August Wilson’s stomping ground.
This is our challenge, our moment, our charge to stand together, to band together, hand and hand
To rise with the human commitment and the political will
to fill the fields and hills and valleys and alleyways of our Pittsburgh
with the healing and transformative power of love
of human beings rising for each other, moving from apathy to action,
and it may not always be easy, it may not come to be simple, or fun,—–
or come as quick as we would want it to
But this is our call to courage…

Bus to the Art House in HomewoodI traveled by bus to the Art House in Homewood, the space where Vanessa hosts her neighbors, both adults and children, just a few doors down from her own home. She doesn’t teach – her fellow change agents make art together, share food, juice boxes, art materials, stories. That space is charged with their very visible will to create, to speak out for healing, to make a space for love.

Looking down stairs

Vanessa painting at the Art House







You’re invited to listen to the audio conversation (and the sound of Vanessa’s paint brush) as Vanessa spoke about the backdrop of that creativity: her experiences of violence in Homewood, the divisions between community members and the police who are sworn to protect and serve all Pittsburghers, who have too often turned on her and others she cares for when they reached out for help. She also talked about ways of moving forward during this new transition time, her hopes that we will voice our concerns, our challenges, our ideas and our own desired plans for change, to our new Mayor, to his Administration, and to each other.

Vanessa German made it very clear that she does not want to be either heroized or dehumanized, but spoke about the need for her fellow Pittsburghers to work with each other to better know each other, to communicate with greater respect, and to work to build a safer and more livable City together. You’re invited to listen to her concerns and respond with your own- she’s a woman who knows how to speak her mind, and to listen.

Posted by Helen Gerhardt, excerpts from conversation with Vanessa German:

Hands up

War Zone Control vs. Community Policing

Posted by Helen Gerhardt

Conversation with Law Professor David Harris on community policing and his recommendations for reforms in Pittsburgh policing and public safety – Mr. Harris served on the Public Safety Transition Team subcommittee, Community Policing.

Stay tuned for more primary source interviews for my first long article on needed Public Safety reforms in Pittsburgh – I’m still editing the audio from my interview with artist and Homewood resident Vanessa German and the Citizen Police Review Board hearing on police misconduct in the Dennis Henderson case.

Citizen Police Review Board: Meant to Transcend Populism and Politics

Posted by Helen Gerhardt

As I work on longer bi-monthly narratives and essays, I’ll regularly post my primary and secondary source research, sometimes along with commentary, but often as stand-alone documentation or background for current stories, concerns and recommendations for change by community members.

Yesterday, I mepittingert with Beth Pittinger, Executive Director of the Citizen Police Review Board to discuss her own central concerns and recommendations for needed changes in policing in Pittsburgh. She forthrightly addressed several of the most controversial topics to heat up our local presses in the last year:

She expressed hopes for the greater transparency, maturity and professionalism of the new Peduto Administration, but strongly asserted the responsibility of citizens to be far better informed and engaged in pressuring their elected officials to decisively restructure the system. She urges Pittsburghers to hold all leadership accountable, rather than to ever dehumanize the police who protect our public safety, or to accept corruption as the price for amicable relations with power.

Audio of interview with Beth Pittinger:

Inauguration Day: launching the blueprint for transition in Pittsburgh

Introduction to our blog, from Helen Gerhardt and Weenta Girmay

On December 30th, 2013, Mayor-elect Bill Peduto had to use some muscle to lift a thick binder above his head – 1100 pages thick. A month earlier, he had invited almost 1100 volunteers to join eight Transition Teams to consider the current state of Pittsburgh and to work together to recommend needed changes. Those volunteers had divided themselves into 47 subcommittees and diligently composed reports and proposals that addressed a vast array of past concerns and new hopes.

Mr. Peduto hefted all that weighty thought with both hands and declared those volunteer recommendations to be his “blueprint” for change in Pittsburgh.

“When I saw the names of the people that were a part of this, they come from every walk of life in this city…We are the administrative branch. We make sure stuff gets done,” Peduto said. “Your job is to make sure the people have a voice.”

How can we be sure that the work of the Transition Teams will truly represent the people of Pittsburgh? Where can we Pittsburghers hear each other’s voices directly?

Our answer: public transit. People from all walks of life share space, news, personal stories, concerns, and reflections on the buses and at their bus stops.  Public transit connects every neighborhood of Pittsburgh. We will travel across our city by bus to ask Pittsburghers how the Transition Team recommendations reflect and address the needs of their diverse communities. We will follow the Mayor and his staff as they work with community members to address those needs in the following areas laid out by the Peduto Administration.

Starting on the Inauguration Day of Mayor Bill Peduto, this blog will map the progress of that Transition blueprint as it moves into action.

Our project will rely principally on responding to your stories, your concerns, your ideas. What concerns do you think the new Mayor and his team should prioritize? What concerns  do you think were left out of the Transition Team reports? What recommendations would you add? Whose voices should also be included in the public planning process?

The stories we present will reflect the divides and the connections between Pittsburgh neighborhoods and their diverse populations. They will demonstrate the spans between planning and action, policy and practice, means and ends, as this new Transition history unfolds in real time. Because buses are bridges – if we choose to speak and to listen to our neighbors.

If you would like to contribute, please browse our Contact page to directly speak with us about sharing your stories and reflections.

Weenta Girmay and Helen Gerhardt