It’s stressful to be a bus driver in the Bay Area. There’s the obvious challenge: navigating a 45-foot bus through plodding traffic on Hwy. 101. Then there are the customers, whose moods determine whether a ride will be a pleasant commute or an episode of Jerry Springer. Plus, there’s the monotony of following the same path, day after day, hour after hour. What’s a driver to do for decompression during their precious break time?
Some drivers read or watch TV. But for Golden Gate Transit bus driver Sherman Caviness, the answer was simple: music.
“I just could not watch Judge Judy,” he recalls. In 2004, Caviness, a driver since 1996, started bringing a guitar to work. On his hour-long breaks between shifts, he’d grab the guitar from his bus’s overhead compartment and start noodling.
“It was such a wonderful stress reliever,” Caviness says. “You drove a commute in the morning, the other cars flipping you off, [and] you could come in for an hour, play music. All that other stuff just dissolved.”
Soon, another driver approached Caviness. He played guitar too, he said -- they should jam sometime. Another driver hadn’t sang since high school, but thought it might be fun to start again -- could she join in? Yet another driver didn’t know how to play drums, but was willing to learn if someone could teach him.
They quickly amassed a small group, and commandeered a back room of Golden Gate Transit's San Francisco office. Some members built a stage. Someone else brought in amps and a PA system. Another contingent came in over a weekend to soundproof the room.
It was a cheerful, supportive collaboration. If one driver wanted to play funk, or a certain gospel song, they dug around their memories and did the best they could. Caviness drew on his experiences playing with local country group Amarillo in the '80s and '90s (for a few years, the house band at Fremont’s Saddle Rack) and started writing songs to showcase the group’s hodgepodge talents. At one point, they had 50 drivers participating in the informal group.
While their direct bosses were supportive, Caviness says higher-up administrators soon grew nervous: was all this music bad for the drivers? One day, some of these supervisors made a surprise visit to one of the group’s boisterous rehearsals, looking for evidence of misbehavior. Instead, they came across a talented, diverse crowd of coworkers -- black, white, Latino, Asian, gay and straight -- bonding in a way HR managers usually only dream of.
“Most of the people there, I would have had nothing else in common with,” says Caviness. “Music was the way all of our lives intersected.”
(The top brass also contacted the driver’s union. Turns out that drivers in the band also had higher attendance rates and lower accident rates than the department average.)
By 2008, the group coalesced into a core group of 18 drivers, and started going by the name Bad Transfer. Golden Gate Transit started booking them for gigs (“Calling them 'shows' might be giving them more credit than they [deserve],” says Caviness), events like retirement parties and the Roadeo, an annual obstacle course for transit drivers.
This July, Bad Transfer released a self-titled album, a mix of original classic rock, country, reggae and gospel songs. To save money, the now-retired Caviness transformed his backyard shed into a studio, and taught himself to use recording software. The musicians' talents are spread throughout the album, with four to six members playing on each song.
Most of the 14 tracks, all written or co-written by Caviness, have transit themes: jazzy torch song “Sausalito Rain” describes a man with with “Eyes that sparkled like sunlight on the bay/When you smiled, the dreary day felt warm/Buses came and buses went, but you and I remained,” while propulsive country tune “I Was Born To Drive” serves as an ode to group’s chosen career: “Just give me a four-lane and clear blue sky, and you can keep your 9 to 5/Maybe you were born to run, but I was born to drive.”
One of the most memorable tracks is the funky “I Can’t Find My Car,” which relays the true story of a Golden Gate Transit supervisor who liked to cook for the drivers. One day, someone stole the company car he was using. Little did the thief know that something remained in the truck: “I can’t find my car, and it’s got me in a funk,” driver Patrick White sings. “It’s got 30 pounds of chicken in the ice chest/Marinating in the trunk.”
After nearly eight years as a band, Bad Transfer has morphed and changed from its original form. While some members still drive, many have retired. Some drivers have moved, or are traveling. But there’s still a core group of members playing occasional shows -- this month, they’ll play a fundraiser for the Sonoma State University’s Women’s basketball team. There’s talk of a reunion, a chance to play their old songs. But for many members, in the end, it's about more than the music.
“This group brought us closer together as drivers," says Ronnie Small, one of the band’s bass players. "It intertwined into our personal lives -- when we’re going through something, we can sit down, chat about it. We trust each other.
“The job and the music were just something that brought us together and from there, it’s grown. And it’s still growing.”