For most people, Monday was Columbus or Indigenous People's Day, but for Metro Transit bus driver Melanie Benson, Monday was "Melanie's Day."
When Benson pulled out of the Uptown transit station in morning darkness, it marked her 45th anniversary of shuttling passengers around the city. And there is one reason bus driver No. 854 has stayed so long.
"It's the people," she said. Passengers. Her managers. Janitors. "It's one big family. I wish people enjoyed joy on the job. Driving a bus has been so rewarding."
Benson decorated the inside of her bus with balloons and passed out Tootsie Roll treats to her riders to celebrate. In turn, several friends, neighbors and longtime riders who boarded Monday gave Benson hugs, including former Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb.
"Keep up the good work," he said while handing Benson a card.
For four decades she's piloted the 20-ton vehicles through Minnesota's most brutal winters with barely a scratch on her record, and along the way has gained the trust and friendship of multiple generations of families who know the chatty bus driver on Route 23 by name, and vice versa.
"She makes sure she knows everybody's name," said longtime rider Barb Kaufman, who boarded Benson's bus Monday with her service dog, Puzzles, to mark the occasion. "She goes the extra mile for everybody."
The two became close friends over the years, and Benson has even played fetch with Puzzles during layovers.
Benson, 66, is currently Metro Transit's longest-tenured driver and believed to be the second longest in the agency's history. Only Martin Ruter, with 47½ years, has driven longer. A bus garage in Brooklyn Center is named in his honor.
For Benson, it all started rather innocently. She was a Macalester College student studying humanities when she took the bus to work and to downtown Minneapolis. One day, she recalled standing in a cold rain chilled to the bone when one of the old red buses showed up.
"It was my savior," she said. It also was an epiphany. "I thought maybe I could be that for a person."
Benson started driving for Metro Transit on Oct. 11, 1976, earning $5.25 and hour. In the early days, she drove the old rickety red buses that had no power steering on Route 21 along Selby and Lake streets and a variety of local routes based out of the Nicollet garage in south Minneapolis. A harrowing day came early in her career while driving an express route from Minneapolis to Apple Valley. A snowstorm crippled traffic and Benson's bus got stuck on the Minnesota River bridge on Cedar Avenue. A passenger was wiping condensation off the windshield just so Benson could see, she said.
"I was terrified as a new driver," Benson said. "I had visions of sliding off the road and not getting people home. I looked back and people were reading, chatting, doing crossword puzzles. I thought, 'They trust me. And if they trust me, I trust me.' "
Benson never looked back. She's spent more than half her career driving Route 23 from Uptown to St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood. In the process, she's befriended scores of adults who brought their children on board. Those preschoolers, now adults, now bring their children on the bus. In other cases, Benson has connected people who had lost contact with each other, people who worked together but lost touch when they went separate ways or those who didn't know a friend was living on the other end of the line.
Bud Schulte was working at Iowa Pork and met Benson in the 1980s when the two were active in the union. He turned out Monday to celebrate her accomplishment.
"She has had quite a career," he said.
Roosevelt High School senior Rhiannon Wagoner said seeing Benson in the mornings is a good way to start the day.
"She's so nice," Wagoner said Monday as she went to school. "She always says good morning. She's great with people."
Never at a loss for words, Benson has gleaned snippets of people's lives, and in turn connected the dots. It helped that the old buses had a seat right next to the driver, which allowed for robust conversation. On Benson's bus, the seat was rarely empty.
"You would find something that connected them," she said. Benson assembled anecdotes from over the years in a collection of stories she calls "Magic on 38th Street: The World on the Bus Gets Smaller and Smaller." It has not been published.
It's those interactions that keep the job interesting and fresh, Benson said, putting in a plug for anybody who may be contemplating a career change or looking to enter the workforce. Metro Transit is looking to hire 100 bus drivers to counteract a shortage. The next hiring fair is 9 to noon Nov. 13 at Metro Transit Instruction Center, 725 N. 7th Street, Minneapolis.
"This job is new and different and interesting every day — the people, weather, roads, the sky," she said. "It never gets boring."
"She's a great ambassador for the company," said her manager, Anthony Harris. "We are quite proud of her."
As Benson completed her morning run, Metro Transit managers hopped on for a photo opportunity and gave her a 45-year Service Award.
Asked if she is nearing the end of the line, Benson said she has plenty more trips to make.
"I don't acknowledge the R-word," Benson said. "I love my job. I don't want to leave it. It gets me up and motivated and out in the world."
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768