It was 12:30 a.m. when the red and white University van pulled up to the curb to meet two eager students.
“I have good news and bad news,” the driver said, smiling. “The bad news is I am not a shuttle driver,” he said, watching the students’ faces shift toward discomfort.
“The good news is I am the supervisor, and I can take you anywhere you like,” he added, his smile growing as the students climbed aboard.
If you’re coming back to your dorm from studying or who-knows-what-else between the hours of 6:30 p.m. and 3:15 a.m., you may be lucky enough to encounter the driver known as “O,” your express ticket to anywhere within three miles of campus. He keeps his name a secret from students and will therefore remain anonymous, though he does promise “a prize or something” for anyone able to guess his name, he said.
O’s job as supervisor entails keeping track of the almost 400 requests the On-Call shuttles receive each night, ensuring that all shuttles are on time in their 24-minute loop and making sure drivers are aware of any road hazards. But O is only one of the many fascinating people you can meet while climbing aboard shuttles in the late hours of the night.
Enter Luigi Dibiasio, or “Louis,” a 75-year-old Providence native with deep Italian roots and a hearty laugh. Since retiring from his career as a commercial truck driver over 10 years ago, he now works six nights a week as a shuttle driver, split between the Brown and Rhode Island School of Design campuses, he said.
When Dibiasio finishes his eight-hour shift at 3:15 a.m., he heads home to West Providence to sleep for a few hours before picking his two granddaughters up from school and taking them to dance class, all fueled by a single cup of coffee each day.
During reading period, Dibiasio volunteers to pick up the extra shift from 3:15 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., driving “straight through” the night, he said. “I want to make sure that the students get home safe,” Dibiasio added. “I have children of my own.”
Before he began driving shuttles for RISD in 2008, Dibiasio drove 12-hour shifts for Hood Milk in Rhode Island for 45 years, beginning at the age of 18 and continuing through marriage and fatherhood. Before his driving career, Dibiasio set up pins at a bowling alley and shined shoes for 25 cents in barrooms at the age of eight, he said.
When not in the driver’s seat, Dibiasio still dedicates his time to taking care of children. He volunteers the first Wednesday of every month to serve hotdogs that he donates to pre-K students at St. Augustine School, he said.
“I retired, but I have to do something! I don’t want to sit around the house doing nothing,” Dibiasio said. Besides, he likes driving and is a self-proclaimed “car guy.” His pride and joy rests right in his garage: a Daytona Blue Chevrolet Impala Super Sport that he bought brand new in 1965 for $2,800.
New to the job, Jacklyn “Jackie” Wilson also began driving shuttles due to her love of driving, a passion she said stems from her love of adventure.
After a recent back injury and subsequent surgery left her unable to continue her position as a nurse, Wilson decided to study to get her commercial driver’s license. After completing the rigorous shuttle training program, she worked her first shift April 24, she said.
Wilson enjoys her new job because the work schedule allows her to take a month-long vacation in the summer “to go back to my country” in Dominica Guadeloupe, where she plans to move when she eventually retires, she said.
Born in the Dominica Martinique, Wilson lived in Paris for more than nine years before moving to Venezuela, several other islands of Dominica and finally the United States, where she’s city-hopped from New York to Boston to Houston and finally to Providence. “My family always said we were gypsies. I move a lot,” Wilson said.
In addition, her 16 siblings live all around the world — in Germany, France, Switzerland, St. Martin, St. John and the Dominican Republic, a fact she stated proudly, hints of nostalgia visible in her eyes from the rearview mirror above the dashboard.
But she said her favorite place she’s lived was a simple trailer she set up on a piece of land in the woods of Dominica Guadeloupe. There, she “lived a beautiful life” with the companionship of a “little monkey” that her brother named Jackie after her, she said. Eventually, the little home became too small for her big sense of adventure, and she left her small patch of paradise. “There’s so much to see,” Wilson said.
Meet the students
Students rarely ask for the life stories of their shuttle drivers as they bustle in and out of the shuttle doors, flashing ID cards and mumbling greetings. As a result, the adventures of the over 40 University shuttle drivers often remain unspoken, muted by cell phones and self-absorption.
One international student from France joined a conversation with Wilson after overhearing her speak French. “That’s the first time anyone has talked to me — that’s so nice,” Wilson said.
In order to try to connect with students, O has learned how to say hello and goodbye in several different languages, he said, recalling that he had “noticed a lot of very quiet foreign students and asked, ‘how could I make things better for them?’”
Though genuine student interactions are few and far-between, O’s original preconceptions that the students would be a little “spoiled” have been shattered, he said, adding that “99.99 percent have been nice.”
Every once in a while, his signature greeting of “Bonjour, mademoiselle” and a grin are met with the words “I just want a ride home,” he said, but he takes these interactions with a grain of salt, knowing the high-stress lifestyle that students lead.
Besides, as supervisor, he discourages drivers from getting into very long conversations or being too outgoing because of the potential distraction. “It’s imperative that they listen to these two radios,” he said, pointing to the two walkie-talkies on the dashboard of the shuttle, so that the drivers are aware of potential muggings, re-routings and dangers.
Ultimately, safety is the first priority of the colorful characters who serve as University shuttle drivers. It’s why Dibiasio’s favorite part of the job is “getting the students home safe,” the reason O asks anyone he sees walking the streets if they want a ride, the motivation behind Wilson attending school two days a week to get her CDL hazards certification.
It was 12:38 a.m. when the red and white van pulled up to the curb and the two students stood up to leave.
“You can’t leave until you promise me something,” said the man behind the steering wheel.
“You gotta try to have a good night,” O said.
— With additional reporting by Kasturi Pananjady and Baylor Knobloch