Juggling, hula-hooping bus driver hears birds calling


Union pay and vacation benefits make it possible for members to pursue their passions. For Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 member Cindy Kassab, that’s travel and wildlife photography, like this 2015 meeting with penguins on South Georgia Island, 1,000 miles east of Tierra del Fuego. Kassab retired in April from a 47-year career driving buses for TriMet — the longest in TriMet history.


Cindy Kassab, TriMet’s longest-serving bus driver, started working at the public transportation agency by chance.

Kassab applied in April 1976 on the recommendation of her own bus driver, who she often chatted with on her way to her “odd job” as a guard with Lawrence Security. She followed his advice because the job paid $6.35 an hour — more than double the $2.60 wage she was making.

“To be honest with you, at first it was for the money,” said Kassab, a member of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757.

Kassab ended up liking the job so much that she stayed 47 years. When she retired this April at age 70, Kassab set the agency record for number of years behind the wheel. The next closest driver trails her tenure by six years.

“If I would have gone to the back of the bus and never talked to the bus driver,” Kassab said, “I would have never thought to drive the bus.”

Her coworkers say Kassab was the rare type of worker who shows up every shift with a smile on her face and a willingness to help. She crossed paths with hundreds of other Local 757 members during her career, and won their admiration with her friendly personality and enthusiasm for her hobbies.

“She’s just very personable, really down to earth, really sweet and funny. She just got along with everybody,” said Betsy Welter, a station agent at Merlo Garage in Beaverton, where Kassab spent the majority of her career. Kassab was a feature of most of Welter’s 34-year career at TriMet.

“She’s going to be missed, not only by her coworkers but by her passengers, because her passengers dearly love their Cindy,” said Local 757 President Shirley Block.

Kassab knew how to balance work and play, and often traveled for wildlife photography workshops so she could build the portfolio for a personal venture she called “Capturing God’s Wonders.” She took early morning ski trips to Mount Hood and would hit the slopes for a few hours before driving back to Portland for her 1:15 p.m. afternoon shift. And on breaks at work, she would juggle, tie balloon animals, or hula hoop. 

“The ceilings in our garage are really high, so she’d come in and practice juggling,” Welter said. “And hula-hoop, too! She had a hula-hoop stashed in the ladies room at the Merlo Garage.”

Kassab appreciated that her union-represented job gave her enough time off to foster her hobbies. Her seniority made it easy to tailor a work schedule to allow for skiing and photography outings. She also credits the union for securing a living wage that, for Kassab, financed photography workshops in Alaska, Costa Rica, Antarctica, and the Falkland Islands.

“I’ve always believed that if it weren’t for the union we’d probably get $12 an hour,” Kassab said.

Her favorite part of the job was talking with passengers. She loved getting to know her regulars, because chatting with them made her shift feel shorter. One rider would accompany her on the usually empty last run of the day from Southwest Portland to Washington Square Mall and back. When they’d arrive at the shopping center, Kassab would buy her a Jamba Juice fruit bowl.

“We became good friends,” Kassab said. “She was at my retirement party.”

Welter said that it’s unusual for passengers to form full-fledged friendships with their bus drivers, but people can’t help but love Kassab. Even if she didn’t know a passenger, she treated them with respect and compassion. Whenever Block rode Kassab’s bus, the union president noticed that she greeted every passenger as they got on and off.

“Even if they were getting off by the back door, she’d raise her hand and shout back, ‘Have a good evening!’” Block said.

Kassab especially enjoyed sharing her hobbies. She brought in her photo portfolio to share stories from her international travels and show off her images of Alaskan grizzly bears, sandhill cranes, or the Portland Japanese Garden. It tickled her to hear passengers whisper about the “juggling lady” when they saw her tossing beanbags on a layover at the transit station.

That sort of driver-passenger interaction doesn’t happen as much as it used to, Kassab said. It’s one of the biggest changes she’d noticed over the years, and part of why she felt ready to retire.

“Back in the day, I would juggle and a lot of people noticed,” Kassab said. “It’s so different now. People are looking down at their phones. They don’t know what’s going on outside of them.”

In retirement, Kassab plans to attend more photography workshops and hit the slopes. She already has back-to-back trips planned this month to photograph bears and eagles in Alaska.

“I think I retired at the right time,” Kassab said. “I think I was ready. The birds are calling my name.”


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