If you depend on the Big Blue Bus line No. 9 to travel between Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades weekday mornings, you know Ignacio Romero”even if you don’t know him by name. The mustached bus driver cuts a distinctive presence with his sunglasses, his uniform, the number 7 on the silver pendant pinned to his black vest”all topped with a dark beret that may suggest a hint of military commando. However, front and center are the warm greetings and the avuncular smile Romero offers his riders as they board and depart his bus. ‘Working for the Big Blue Bus is a privilege,’ Romero told the Palisadian-Post last week. Likewise, Santa Monica’s bus company thinks highly of him. On February 2, the City of Santa Monica honored Romero” alongside other municipal service people, such as dedicated employees of the police and fire departments”at a service awards ceremony. The City singled out Romero from among some 300 employees of Big Blue Bus, presenting the veteran driver (or motor coach operator, as he is officially classified by his employer) with a certificate, a ring and a gold watch, to honor his 30 years of service. ‘Everyone is excellent,’ Romero said. ‘I have a good relationship with all of the drivers and with the public.’ Just like the days of the week, no two trips are alike. ‘Every trip is a new adventure, even if it’s a small one,’ said the 60-year-old Palmdale resident, who has been married to wife Ruthie (whom he met at a Venice High School party) for nearly 40 years. The couple has three daughters: Elizabeth, a teacher in Antelope Valley; Serena, who lives in Valencia and gave birth to their first grandchild, Jadon, two years ago; and Gina, a registered nurse in Massachusetts. When he’s not working, Romero sometimes operates a bus of his own”a Winnebago”that he likes to drive up to Lake Elizabeth or Lake Hughes to go fishing. The City of Santa Monica’s bus system, however, is his daily domain. ‘The people on board, we call them ‘precious cargo,” said Romero, whose driving record, after three decades, remains impeccable: not one accident. Ignatio Romero, Jr. (his friends call him ‘Nacho’) was born in Tepatitlan, Mexico, to Ignatio, a construction worker, and Juanita, a homemaker. In a family of five brothers and three sisters, Romero was the baby boy. In the same year the Beatles invaded America, Romero’s family moved to America in 1964. Romero was 14 when they settled in Santa Monica, where he attended John Adams Junior High and Santa Monica High. ‘It was very hard going to school and not knowing the language,’ he said, adding with a laugh, ‘I’m still picking it up!’ After graduating, Romero worked for a few years as a truck driver for the now-defunct Bush Moving and Storage before segueing into the bus-driving profession. Romero originally worked the No. 2 line (Venice/UCLA) and drove various other routes before settling into No. 9 about six years ago. Beginning at Olympic Boulevard and Avenida Mazatlan every weekday at 5:40 a.m., he makes seven round trips daily from downtown Santa Monica to western Marquez Avenue (at Sunset Boulevard) in the Palisades. Each trip takes about an hour to complete. ‘What I like about the 9, it’s the same people,’ Romero said. Citizens such as the 84-year-old doctor who boarded the bus last week in downtown Santa Monica wearing a vintage purplish suit and fedora. Or the 45-year-old woman who talks about her relationship problems. Or the senior citizen at the Mesa Road stop who rides up the hill to go shopping in the Palisades. Or the eccentric property owner who gets on in Santa Monica and blows Romero kisses after exiting the bus at San Vicente and Seventh Street. Years ago, Romero recalled, he used to drive members of the Marquez family into Santa Monica Canyon. One relative even invited him to San Lorenzo Street to visit the Marquez family’s private cemetery (Romero never took her up on it). Romero realizes how crucial his service is. A healthy portion of the domestic workforce coming to the Palisades every day depends on his bus. Often, people who work in the village are recognizable on the 9, such as the employees in their black Caf’ Vida t-shirts and caps. ‘A lot of people in Pacific Palisades come here to work,’ Romero said. ‘It’s a very important line.’ The fact that the friendly, gregarious Romero also speaks Spanish fluently makes his rapport with many daily riders that much smoother and homier. As the Mexican and Central American housekeepers and babysitters get off the bus along Chautauqua and on Sunset, they shower Romero with a bevy of small talk and ‘Gr’cias!’ as they would a friend. Riding the 9 up Chautauqua Boulevard in the morning”with the loud, cheerful bursts of Spanish in the air”can often resemble a moving party. The lively atmosphere suits the friendly driver just fine. ‘They talk about their life, their experiences, the people they work for, their problems,’ Romero said of the Spanish-language workers. ‘They also talk about the world and the economy.’ By now, Romero’s trained ear can often discern four or five conversations at a time without ever looking back. So what’s with the beret, Nacho? Did you once serve a tour in Vietnam? ‘This is part of the uniform,’ Romero said. ‘So is the vest! I love it!’ As it turns out, while some other bus drivers forego the beret, Romero wears his with pride. Of course, the driver has seen the area change across three decades. ‘There’s more traffic, more people than when I started,’ he said. ‘[Santa Monica] was like Pacific Palisades before. Now, it’s a big city. ‘Always show compassion to people,’ he continued. ‘And give the kids respect and they give you respect in return. The kids are not animals. They’re very smart. They know more than I do with the computers and everything. They grow up faster today.’ One woman, a panhandler who picked up the bus on Fourth Street, interrupts a conversation to give Romero an unsolicited endorsement to a reporter. ‘He’s a good guy,’ she said, before departing to occupy a spot on PCH and Chautauqua, where she begs for change. Indeed, the homeless who sometimes congregate along that corner, such as a man regularly seen sweeping outside the restaurants, throw waves at Romero, even though most of them never ride his bus. They’re evidently happy to see his friendly, familiar face. Rich or poor, whatever their background, ‘I treat everyone just the same,’ Romero said. ‘I’m just doing my work.’ After his decades-long connection to the area, Romero is still enchanted by the beautiful scenery along his route and the ocean view at PCH. ‘It’s so nice,’ Romero said. ‘In the summer, you can feel the breeze coming in. I see the beach all the time. It’s very relaxing. That’s why I’m always smiling!’ On a recent afternoon after his shift, Romero was recognized by some of his regulars as he sat to discuss his career over coffee with the Post. A customer named Theresa, on her way into the coffeehouse, came over to the affable driver and asked him, ‘You want me to buy you a cookie?’ She wasn’t making chit-chat; she was serious. Romero politely declined, but he did offer her some warm words and a smile. As he will the next time Theresa boards line No. 9.
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