Cold rain splattered streetcar 802 as it rolled south on Main Street.
We are approaching Union Station, an electronic voice said. Passengers must depart; thank you for taking the KC streetcar. This is the end of the line.
But not for Sandy Dubroc it wasn’t.
The 52-year-old streetcar operator — no “drivers” here; there’s no steering wheel on a streetcar — leaned close to the microphone as she pulled back on the car’s joystick and glided to a stop.
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Passengers got up, gathered their umbrellas.
“Since it’s raining outside,” Dubroc said, “you guys can sit tight. Just make room for the ones getting on, all right?”
Make room for her, too.
“A joy. A breath of fresh air,” her boss, Ruben Montenegro, has called Dubroc.
She swiveled in her seat, left the locked operator’s compartment and, in her orange, reflective vest, wove her way down the aisle toward the second operator’s perch on the other end, high-fiving passengers as she went.
“How you doing?! Come on,” she said, prompting passengers to raise their hands. She bent down to fist-bump a little kid. “How you doing today? Good day? Nice bright sunny day?”
“Sunny?” a passenger questioned.
“Sun shines somewhere,” Dubroc replied.
For Dubroc, it’s shining right now on this streetcar. One of three women among the line’s 16 operators, her goal is as simple as it is deeply personal and straightforward: to make life happier for others, as she works to make life better for herself.
This new streetcar line for Kansas City is also a new life for Dubroc.
“A fresh start,” she had called it on a prior day. Her voice caught in her throat and she wiped away tears as she said it. She was sitting in a parked streetcar inside the garage at the line’s central office, 600 E. 3rd St., explaining all the buttons, lights and controls.
She was also explaining her life.
How she’s going through a divorce after more than 20 years of marriage, and the financial devastation that has caused, even forcing her to live with friends. How her sister was fighting cancer for the fourth time. How the job at Missouri Public Service that she had held for 23 years was taken away as she moved up in seniority.
Years ago, her mom died of multiple sclerosis and Dubroc’s sister was paralyzed in a farming accident. Yet Dubroc insists she feels blessed by God — “He’s got my back” — to have two wonderful kids: Hollie, 26, a nurse, and Tyler, 24, who’s gotten on with the Postal Service. There are two terrific grandchildren.
Now, after being forced to make ends meet in a half-dozen ways — she has delivered ice cream; dug ditches “with a shovel!”; turned off the water of people delinquent on their bills; and worked overnight shifts for a streetcar line subcontractor putting up the electrical poles — she landed this job.
Her colleagues include a former gym teacher, a retired firefighter and a social worker. Operators are hired by the subcontractor Herzog Transit Services Inc., out of St. Joseph, at a starting wage just over $20 an hour.
Training was on the job, no professional driving experience needed, although Dubroc had driven everything from tractors to buses to semis.
“I’ve lived through a lot,” she said, her voice choking with emotion. “I’ve gone through a lot. But I’m getting through that.”
She wiped her eyes.
“I’m sorry to cry,” she said.
In the streetcar, she took her seat at the other end of 802. Time to head through downtown to the River Market. Dubroc rolled the car north. Wipers sliced away the rain. Trucks and cars pulled in and out of traffic. Dubroc waved to waiting passengers as she drew close to the various platforms.
Soon, she was leaning toward the microphone again.
“Good afternoon,” Dubroc chimed. “Welcome to the Kansas City streetcar! You guys having a good time?”
A muted cheer rose.
“Come on,” she coaxed. Dubroc, from Blue Springs, was a stellar Missouri athlete once. Maiden name, Sandy Wilson. She was a three-sport star, class of 1982, in basketball, softball and track, and a 2003 inductee into the Nixa High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
“You guys can do better than that in KC!” she urged the passengers.
The yell increased slightly in volume. Passengers, half quizzical, half bemused, broke into smiles.
“One, two, three. Let’s hear it,” Dubroc said.
The sound grew to its loudest. Her smirk turned into a grin.
“That’s a lot better,” Dubroc said. “You all have a nice afternoon. Stay dry.”
The way she figures it, there’s tons of sorrows in the world that can bring a person down. She has refused to give in to her own self-pity. Working construction, she always brought extra sandwiches for the homeless. She has a soft spot for struggling people.
“That could be someone’s dad,” she said of homeless men. “That could be someone’s uncle, someone’s brother, someone’s son. Some of them can help it. But some of them can’t.”
On the streetcar, she frequently sees or picks up people with physical and other challenges that might upend people of less fortitude. So, she figures, what complaints does she have in comparison? Why shouldn’t she do her best to bring smiles to other people’s faces?
“This is a great opportunity,” she said.
That’s not only because she has this job which, like all jobs, has its challenges. Crazy, unsafe drivers and pedestrians are the biggest. During her training, one lady ran smack in front of the streetcar, forcing a quick stop. Distractions are kept to a minimum. Operators aren’t allowed to eat in their cabs. Cell phones are forbidden.
“This job, every day is a different day,” Dubroc said. “Every hour is a different hour. Every minute is a different minute. You have to be aware at all times.”
Many years back she experienced a relevant and life-altering fright. While Dubroc was driving along, a 6-year-old girl, not much older than her son was back then, dashed out in front of her Jeep Cherokee.
“I hit her,” Dubroc said. “She flew like 30 yards. I thought she had to be dead.”
Instead, the child got up. Her knees were scratched, but otherwise she was uninjured.
“I believe in angels,” Dubroc said, “because I believe there was an angel at the scene that day. That changed my life. Change anybody’s life.”
In part it also reinforced her notion that no matter what the job, even if the job is operating Kansas City’s new streetcars, there is a higher purpose, a plan. Sixteen stops every trip, around the loop and around again.
“God’s used me in a lot of ways,” Dubroc said. “Getting this job, I can reach a lot of people. Put smiles are on their faces. … It wasn’t an accident that I got this job. It wasn’t an accident.”
About 30 minutes from the time she left Union Station, she was back. She turned in her chair, left the operator’s cab and made her way to the other end of the streetcar, high-fiving as she went.