It’s tricky standing in the aisle as our bus rolls through the dark Lowcountry.
A man in a black Outback T-shirt stood behind me, hanging onto the overhead bins for balance during the 2 1/2-hour ride from Allendale to his job in Bluffton.
As dawn slowly lit the sea of sleeping faces around us, he said quietly:
“This is something you can put in your newspaper.”
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Yes, it is.
And so is this:
The hospitality and service-industry workers who board the bus at 5 a.m. with $3.25 in exact change are rock stars.
Their feet hit the floor when the people they will serve are cuddling pillows. They have every reason not to work, but they do. And their work is the keystone of the Lowcountry economy. Yet the keystone is largely unseen.
We’d rather talk about the great Lowcountry visionaries who saw elegance where others saw swamp. We’d rather talk about the Prince of Morocco visiting Sea Pines last week and dining at Charlie’s L’Etoile Verte with an entourage of 17 than the people who washed the dishes and vacuumed the floor.
But from the beginning of the tourism/real estate economy that now pays for our roads and schools and parks and enviable personal lifestyles — the backbone has been the unseen.
They put up with jobs that disappear in winter, hours that get taken away so corporations won’t have to pay benefits, rude and entitled customers, and the long, relentless slog to work in pouring rain and blistering heat.
Now that the service economy faces a critical shortage in this workforce, maybe they’ll be seen.
They were seen in 1989, when Hilton Head Island’s only female mayor so far had the gumption and the class to do something special for the workers.
Martha Baumberger, our own version of the “Iron Lady,” saw to it that bus shelters were built along William Hilton Parkway on Hilton Head so workers could get out of the sun and rain and not have to stand or sit on a curb to wait on the bus for home.
She made sure everyone had a decent seat.
But the mayor did not do it alone. And it is that sense of community and giving and caring that is needed more than ever as workers can now find jobs closer to home.
It wasn’t an easy job. People worried about loitering. They wondered why the buses couldn’t just swing down a side street and pick up workers in a parking lot. And there were setback requirements and right of way issues that had to be resolved.
But it happened, even though you can barely see it today. You won’t find the shelters in a list of Hilton Head amenities or the town’s achievements, but you should.
The wooden shelters designed by architect Fred Minson, a couple of tiny ones and a couple of larger ones, blend into the environment as they should, with brown stain and wood shake shingles.
The first one to open was at Northridge Plaza. It was donated by the VanLandingham Rotary Club at a cost of $15,000. Member Lamar Acuff built it and a handful of volunteers from the club painted it.
A plaque in the shelter lists additional contributors as Damon’s Restaurant, the Westin Resort, Fogelman Resorts, Hudson’s Seafood Corporation, Modern Classic Motors and the Leadership Hilton Head Forum.
Right after it came the big shelter at McDonald’s near Sea Pines Circle. It was donated by the Hilton Head Island Rotary Club. Additional contributors listed on its plaque were the Bargain Box, Lowcountry Property Managers Association, Marriott’s Hilton Head Resort, the Zonta Club, Sea Pines Garden Club, Hardee’s, and The Seabrook.
An editorial expressing thanks in the newspaper said, “It happened very quietly. It happened with no fanfare. In fact, it happened before it was supposed to. What happened was remarkable, however.
“What happened was the opening of the island’s first public bus shelter. Island workers now have a decent place to rest their weary bones as they wait to catch a bus home.”
So we know what to do. We must respect the workforce.
Put that in your newspaper.