When his mother became ill, Robert “RG” Williams was desperate to help get his family out of poverty. He dreamed of becoming a bus driver – to him, the bus represented a way out of the “hood”. The only problem, as he explains here, was that he was still a child.
I was eight years old when I started taking the bus to school. We really depended on public transport. My dad left when I was a young boy, so my mum took care of me and my nine older brothers and sisters. She did laundry and worked as a cook but her health was failing, so she struggled. We had to pull our weight from a young age, and I was always thinking of ways I could help my family.
Out of the bus window I would see drug addicts and homeless people, alcoholics buying liquor and smokes for their day ahead – but what I looked forward to every day was talking to the bus driver. Her name was Louise Garnett and she was a very motherly type. We came from the same community in the West End of Louisville, Kentucky, and she knew my family.
I would sit in the front, near her, and she’d say: “Hey, have you eaten today? How are your grades? Did you do your homework?” At that time I was trying to get into the arts and had a gift for writing and she knew about that.
I’d go the library and study Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King. I was quite ahead of my years and saw education as a way out. I spoke to Ms Louise about all of those feelings in that 30-minute bus ride to school and I looked forward to it every day.
Before meeting Ms Louise I was always thinking about what I could do for a living. In my neighbourhood there were some police officers and firefighters but not a lot of them looked like me, none of them were of colour – and while I personally felt that what they were doing was admirable and honourable, they didn’t have a great reputation in my community.
I didn’t connect with teachers or police officers the way I did with Ms Louise, she came from where I came from and she was doing something that was honourable. I thought this could be the way to help my family.
I first had the idea when I was 11 years old and after two years of watching Ms Louise and reading and researching, I finally believed that I could do it.
All of the bus drivers wear a nice little navy uniform with a badge and my mum and grandma had taught me at an early age how to stitch, so I took some of my church clothes and stitched them to make it look like the uniforms the drivers wear. I knew I had to look the part, so I took one of my dad’s caps that he left behind. I then took some foil from the kitchen and got some cardboard and made myself a badge and stitched it to my little uniform.
I got on the bus, the 19 that takes you to 28th and Broadway, got off and walked into the bus depot. I threw my hand up at the security guard, he thought I was a driver, so I got into a bus, started it up and pulled it off the property.
After two years of preparation I really felt I had enough confidence to do this, though of course there was some angst there.
My heart was beating fast as I sat in the driver’s seat and started the engine. I was awestruck at how large it was. I had a fleeting moment of doubt but then set off, telling myself: “I need to do this for my family.”
When I pulled out of the bus depot, there was a maintenance truck parked on Broadway – I misjudged my first turn and the back of the bus caught the mirror of the truck.
The security guard took notice and came towards the bus, I thought he wanted to tell me about the back mirror, still thinking I was a real driver. I panicked and I just floored the bus, going about 45 to 50 miles an hour down Broadway.
Then they rang the phone that was on the bus. I picked it up and I think they quickly realised that I wasn’t a bus driver so they contacted the other buses down on the street to look for me.
Every time I passed another bus I’d I hear the drivers call in and say: “Hey you know, that bus just drove past me on 45th on Broadway and I looked over there and it looks like a kid!”
The only route I knew was the 19 bus route out of the ‘hood so I went back to my neighbourhood, and the idea was that I’d park, go home and run like heck! But I told myself that I wanted to finish this thing, so I drove the 19 route which leads from West Louisville, where I’m from, into the East side, and that’s where my joyride ended.
They had set up a couple of buses to block me in then a police officer came up by my driver’s side, put a 9mm gun to my face and told me to get out of the seat.
They took me to the youth centre and called my mum, and that felt worse than having a gun in my face. I was so young and had never experienced anything like that before but I’d gotten my tail busted by mum and dad before. I was expecting a whooping but my dad just told me how disappointed he was and that I’d brought shame to the family and that was a crushing blow to me.
We also had to go to court. I was there in front of the judge and when they asked me why I did this, I told them everything.
I told them about our situation, about my mum’s health and about my dad leaving us and that I just really wanted to help out because we didn’t eat much and I wore my brother’s and sister’s old clothes and most of all, I just really wanted to be a bus driver.
The TARC representative was there in the courtroom – TARC is the bus company here in Louisville, the Transit Authority of River City. He stood with his lawyer making a statement, saying that if I kept my nose clean, I could come back for a job when I was 25. At 13, I was thinking: “There is hope!” There was an open door out of this desperate situation and it felt like when Barack Obama became president.
And I said: “You’ll never hear another peep out of me! I will do all of my studies, I’ll go to school every day, I’ll pay attention, I’ll do whatever you want me to just as long as I get a job and help my family out!”
The judge was in favour. He said: “This kid sounds like he’s got a good head on his shoulders, he’s 13, his motivations were to help his mum and he went about it the wrong way.” I had to go on probation afterwards but at that point all I knew was that I was going to be a bus driver.
I held on to the dream as I grew up. I was always at the head of my class and graduated with a full university scholarship, but went into the Navy to train as a cryptologist. I left when I turned 25, the age when the bus company said I could go and ask for a job.
When I got back to Louisville, I contacted TARC but my first application was turned down because I didn’t have enough experience.
I told them: “Well, I’m 25 years old and I’ve been in the Navy for eight years, so if you do the maths that takes you back to 17. How much work experience do you expect a 17-year-old to have?
“I’ve been away defending my country for the past eight years, that should count for something.”
Agreeing with me, the director of HR allowed me to come back in and when I did, I sat down and told him my story and who I was. He was working there in 1990, back when I was 13, and he remembered who I was! So he hired me and that was a very, very happy moment in my life.
I had to complete training and I saw Ms Louise and gave her a big hug and I thanked her so much, because she really had no idea what she was doing for me in those moments, taking me under her wing. She told me: “I’m so happy for you, I’m so proud of you! You’ve done so many great things!”
I had lost my mum by that time and I just cried because Ms Louise was like a second mum to me. It was just awesome.
She stayed for a couple more years and then retired, and she and I still keep in contact till this day.
I’m a supervisor at TARC now and have been here for 15 years. I drove a bus for about 10 years and I love what I do and I love the community I serve.
Louisville is a great city and I didn’t know that as a kid – I didn’t get to see the other side of the tracks. Now I live there. Once you know better, you can do better. It’s OK to do better but it is also important to go back to the other side and try to remove the tracks. That’s what we want to do – we want to remove the tracks.
Listen to RG William’s full interview on Outlook on the BBC World Service