Have you taken a CTA ride with 'the world's best bus driver'?

When you're having a day that's stressful and unpleasant, it's an added bummer when you board a CTA bus or train with an operator who has a bad attitude. For me, even a little bit of quality customer service can go a long way on the days I wish I could crawl under a rock.

But I've been reminded recently that there ARE people who will go out of their way to put a smile on your face whether they know you or not.

Described by one of her riders as "the world’s best bus driver," Darlene Coleman, a 48-year-old CTA bus operator of eight years, is the epitome of excellent customer service.

Though I've not been lucky enough to catch a bus she's been driving, a 10-minute phone interview with her left me in the highest spirits and with a smile from ear to ear. Yeah, she's that awesome.

Tim Brooks, a 35-year-old Pilsen resident, emailed me about the first time he met Coleman and the lasting impact it had on him.

"Mid- to late autumn of last year, I caught the 18 bus home with one of my co-workers. When you get on the bus and you see a woman with a platinum blonde mohawk and brightly made up eyes smiling back at you, you remember," Brooks wrote.

"'How are you doing today, baby?'"

"'Pretty good. Just on my way home.'"

"'All right, that's awesome. Hang on tight. Here we go!'"

"I turned to my co-worker. 'Oh, she's fantastic,' I remarked. And she didn't even know me. On my short commute home, I watched as she picked up regulars, strangers, and treated them all as if it was her party and she was driving the bus," Brooks wrote.

Coleman said she loves being a bus operator and sees every day as a new adventure. When asked what drives her to deliver great customer service, she said she wants to give people a reason to be happy every time they get on her bus.

"I bring you who I am every day to work—and I'm a people person," Coleman said. "I want to provide a caring, loving, positive environment for my passengers by always giving them my best self. Making their day makes MY day.

"I always tell my passengers that they're the greatest passengers ever because they really are," she added. "No matter who they are, I have love for them."

Brooks isn't the only passenger who notices Coleman's sparkling personality and big heart. CTA spokesman Jeff Tolman said she has been commended for her service on several occasions based on customer feedback about her helpfulness, professionalism and polite, friendly demeanor.

"Commendations are sent to the employee's supervisor, which are then passed along to the operator," Tolman said. "CTA's success is a direct result of our skilled and dedicated work force."

The CTA generally receives more complaints than compliments when it comes to bus operators, Tolman said. The complaints cover a range of issues, a majority of which are related to service delays on buses. Tolman said a large portion of negative feedback can be attributed to external conditions affecting CTA service, such as traffic congestion and street construction.

"All feedback, both positive and negative, is appreciated," he said. "All complaints that are specific and actionable are directed to the correct department to be addressed."

Coleman seemed to have a fix for both operators and passengers who may not be as outwardly friendly as they should be.

"It’s like feeding the honey with honey. If you’re nice to passengers, they can’t do anything but be nice to you," Coleman said with a laugh. "I can guarantee that if someone's having a bad day, they can't ride my bus without getting cheered up."

So where can you find Coleman? You can catch her driving the No. 18-16th-18th bus on Saturdays and Sundays. During the week, you might find her driving the No. 126-Jackson, No. 143-Stockton/Michigan Express or the No. 151-Sheridan bus. And from what I can tell, when you meet her, you'll know.

"There are so many ways that people you see in passing can often be overlooked, but the memorable ones make it a point to make you take notice," Brooks wrote. "Often, it is their kindness that I appreciate, and even if it's a small interaction in an otherwise uneventful day, [Coleman's] presence gives validity and meaning to a nice 10-minute snippet, bookending the day of every passenger she greets—always with a smile."

@RianneCoale | rcoale@redeyechicago.com

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