If you’ve ever ridden Bus 18 from the N.J. Transit shuttle to University Hall, chances are you’ve met Yvonne Bell — and if you’ve ever exchanged more than a few words with Bell, chances are you haven’t forgotten her.
Distinguishable from the other drivers by her striped, knee-high leg warmers which make their appearance on cold January days, the Newark native stands out from the crowd like her coat of white eyeshadow that sparkles against an otherwise bare face. A similar sparkle lights her eyes when she tells stories about the students who she shuttles around campus every day. “I think I inspired her,” Bell recalled as muffled sounds resonated from the mechanics in the garage outside the office walls.
She was remembering a girl she used to see regularly, back when Montclair State housed students in La Quinta Hotel on Route 46 and Bell drove the shuttle route there and back. This frequent passenger was noticeably depressed and Bellmade it her personal mission to help this young woman find joy. “She was, you know, oversized,” she said as she gestured widely with her hands. “She wore a lot of black.”
Bell remembered asking the girl, “Why you always wearin’ black? You’re not a mortician, ya know. Change the colors a little bit.” In addition to sharing unsolicited fashion advice, Bell would always call the girl beautiful and give her lessons on forgiveness. The impact of this consistent encouragement on the young girl’s life is best described in Bell’s own words, “I just saw the life come out. She was like — you know, a flower. It gets wimpy and then, when you put the water on it, it blooms. She started blooming.”
The daily life of a shuttle driver at Montclair State isn’t all as inspiring as that story might make it sound. As a 51-year-old single mother of three now-grown children, Bell is well-acquainted with the concept of hard work. Each day she reports to the Transportation Office on Clove Road at 7 a.m., starts her route at 7:30 and spends the majority of her 8-hour shift hauling around a bus full of college students — everyone from the rowdy and gossipy cliques to the scattered introverts glued to their phones and oblivious to all surroundings. Often, the only conversation exchanged between driver and passenger is a passing “thank you” spouted by a student rushing off to class, moving far too quickly to hear the faint “you’re welcome” muttered in reply.
However, sometimes those short passenger-to-driver interactions are far less pleasant than this standard courtesy. Bell shared one such story: “One student — a couple of semesters ago,” she glanced away, trailing off while she recalled the details of the event. “At transit, this particular student got so upset. She was very irate because — they do get irate,” she let off a few affirmative grunts resembling that of the congregation of a southern gospel church during a powerful sermon. “I couldn’t pick her up, so she called me the B-I-T-C-H word.”
During “peak times,” as Bell calls the busiest periods of the day, the shuttle stops become overcrowded with students and she can’t fit all the waiting students into her small bus, which was made to accommodate 24 seated passengers and seven standees. “Sometimes we might go over the capacity — you know, because we get a lot of students. I’m already putting my job in jeopardy.” Bell continued the story with a sigh of resignation, “she couldn’t understand, so I just drove off.”
“Once you reach a certain age or maturity, you learn to overlook people because you have to,” she said, echoing the same lessons of forgiveness that she taught. “And you pray for them — that’s the key — you pray for them.” She also mentioned occasionally receiving such courteous gestures as the middle finger, her casual smile all the while evidencing the way she lets those things roll of her shoulders.
Along with dodging offensive behavior, Bell’s daily routine includes maneuvering through tight turns, avoiding traffic jams and battling the various mechanical issues within the shuttles. “I don’t think that they’re designed for here,” gesturing to the two large red and white models parked in the garage bays. She explained that each Friday, the shuttles are filled with special fuel and taken out to Route 80 because driving them faster boosts performance. Apparently, the 25 mph streets on campus take a toll on the engines.
With all the difficulties aside, being a shuttle driver has provided Bell with the fulfilling opportunity to have an impact on students’ lives, even if it’s just a small one. She mentioned running into a student she knew earlier that day: “She was talking to me about her experience and what she’s going through,” Bell said,“and how she’s going to Paris, London, Denmark—” she paused and furrowed her brow, determined to remember every detail. “And Ireland? Yes, Ireland.” She takes pride in knowing her passengers and loves being known in return. On her way out the door and back to work, she called, “I’m the driver that pulls all the way up. Look for Yvonne, Bus 18.”