SAN FRANCISCO -- Move over, Ralph Kramden. The San Francisco Municipal Railway is teaching drivers charm with an annual etiquette class.
Operators are taught about such delicate issues as rebuffing the advances of amorous passengers, coping with racial or sexual slurs and telling off troublemakers carrying blaring radios.
Television's most famous bus driver, the excitable Mr. Kramden, might have ridiculed the course to his wife, Alice, on "The Honeymooners," but San Francisco transit officials insist the charm class is a necessity.
The objective is to make drivers aware of passengers' moods and comportment. "A key component in our job is being courteous," said Dan Rosen, director of safety and training. "We are giving operators suggestions on how to respect our passengers."
Mr. Rosen points out that San Francisco's so-called Muni is the most heavily used transit system in the nation on a per capita basis. Passengers board the system 756,000 times a day, almost 40,000 more boardings than there are residents in San Francisco.
Driving San Francisco's 965 diesel buses, electric trolleys, cable cars, or light rail vehicles through such a compact urban setting with myriad ethnic groups requires alacrity and deftness -- and that's why Muni requires the charm session.
Started in 1985 just for new drivers, the class became mandatory last July for all of Muni's 2,000 operators, who earn about $17.50 per hour.
The Department of Motor Vehicles last year required municipal transit operators to take eight hours of driver education annually, but San Francisco is one of a handful of California cities to also require the etiquette class of all drivers.
The centerpiece of the three-hour class is an interactive video that asks drivers how to respond to more than a dozen situations, some ticklish, others dangerous.
During a recent class, 10 veteran drivers viewed video scenarios that included how women operators should react to two different kinds of male passengers: those who grumble at women drivers and those who try to flirt with them.
One tactic to deflect grumblers is for the woman operator to respond, "Gosh, you noticed [that I'm a woman]!" The operator then comically puffs up her hair, and says loudly, "Next!" The video suggests that the best way to cope with would-be Lotharios is not to make eye contact.
"You've got to be able to interact with all kinds of people," instructor Ken Price told the drivers. "Some are rude, childish or emotional. They are rarely held accountable for your actions."
San Francisco's ethnic diversity can throw drivers a curveball. The drivers enrolled in the class said they have learned key words in Chinese, Spanish, Russian and Tagalog to communicate with passengers. When that fails, the drivers said, they resort to sign language.
Another problem is slurs and put-downs. On the video, an Asian driver is called a derogatory term by a passenger. A bald operator is labeled "Curly." A driver who welcomes a boarding passenger is told, "Drive the bus. That's what they pay you for."
Mr. Price, a 24-year Muni veteran, cautions that the most important aspect of maintaining control is "keeping your cool even though you're in the hot seat."
San Francisco's dizzy geography makes its transit system unique for other reasons.
The Muni is the nation's only system to use four different kinds of vehicles: cable cars, diesel buses, electric trolleys and electric rail cars. It also is one of a handful that allow passengers to use free transfers twice in any direction. And it is the nation's oldest major publicly owned mass transit system, founded in 1912.
The drivers seem to enjoy the class. It offers an opportunity to trade transit war stories and provides a one-day respite from the roads.
One driver talked of "pole hangers," women passengers who gravitate to male bus operators.
Another talked of appeasing angry gang members by "not challenging them, but throwing a compliment their way." If they are carrying a loud radio, the driver suggested, "tell them you like the music first, then ask them to turn down the volume."
Several drivers said they have had passengers spit in their faces.
"What can you do? You have to turn around the situation. Try saying, 'And good morning to you!' That catches them off guard fast," said driver Ted Holliday.