CHARLESTON, W.VA — From the driver’s seats of their county school buses, longtime friends Paul Black and Paul Cochran have an almost identical view of the struggling community where they have lived nearly all of their lives.
Twenty-four hours before President Trump arrived for a rally in their hometown Tuesday night, Black and Cochran sat with colleagues at a graffiti-specked picnic table behind their bus terminal to commiserate, after what they all agreed was the worst first day of school ever. As always, the conversation was sprinkled with politics.
Both Black, 60, and Cochran, 54, voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Since then their politics have diverged radically.
Black falls asleep most nights watching liberal commentator Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and calls Trump a “con man.”
“He’s only in it for himself,” Black said.
Cochran said he has supported Trump from the moment he rolled down the golden escalator and announced his candidacy in New York City. He said he falls asleep each night feeling safer knowing that Trump is defending the country from foreign enemies such as North Korea and Iran.
He trolls his good friend by writing “Trump, Trump, Trump” in the dust on the back window of Black’s school bus.
What the two men share are an affection for the kids they haul each day and an increasingly dark view of West Virginia and their country.
Their bus yard was starting the year 15 drivers short, which meant they constantly seemed to be running late picking up their kids. The reason for the shortage: Most adults who could pass a drug test did not want the low-wage, high-stress work.
The drug crisis had also hit the kids on their bus routes.
“We lose kids all the time,” Black said, usually when child protective services takes them.
“Mommy’s in jail,” Cochran agreed.
Some drivers have been known to drop a $5 bill on the floor for a hungry child to find. When one of their riders gets teased about body odor, the drivers will sometimes quietly sneak the student a stick of deodorant.
“Dollar General is your best friend,” Cochran said.
“They’re our kids,” Black said. “When they’re on your bus, they’re your kids. You see them grow up.”
“You see them die,” another driver added, stuffing out his cigarette in a plastic-foam cup.
“I’ve had two of them die,” Black said.
Before sunrise the next morning, Trump merchandise vendors peddling “CNN Sucks” T-shirts and “Make America Great Again” hats were setting up their tents near the Charleston Civic Center, where the president would be speaking. A dozen miles away, Black popped the hood on his school bus and, using the light from his cellphone, double-checked his engine belts and fluids.
He arrived about five minutes early to his first pickup spot and pulled his bus off the road. He checked Trump’s Twitter feed to see whether the president was saying anything about his West Virginia trip.
Nothing yet. Black started his engine and rumbled 100 yards to his first stop, at the mouth of a long gravel road that snaked back to a few run-down mobile homes, their windows glowing with light.
“The mom up there cleans rooms at Country Inn and Suites, and the dad is a brain-cancer survivor,” Black said. “He can’t work.” Black waited a few minutes past the pickup time and then leaned forward, looking in his side mirror for headlights rushing down the long dirt road. He didn’t see any, so headed to his next stop.
Black owned a small carpet installation business until 2009, when his knees and back gave out and he started driving buses. “They say that $15 an hour is a living wage,” Black said as his bus sped down a narrow two-lane road. He didn’t hit that rate until 2017. These days he brings home about $30,000 a year, including overtime.
His wife, who works in the court system, makes about $60,000 a year but is planning to retire in January. His four kids are all grown.
His bus rolled to a stop in front of a small white frame house with peeling paint and a carefully tended flower garden. His first rider of the day, a boy with a crew cut, climbed aboard.
“Boom-shocka-locka!” the boy said.
“Did you sleep late and miss the bus yesterday?” Black asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Well,” Black replied, “sometimes that happens.”
These days Black describes himself as a “West Virginia” Democrat. “I got a gun and a gun permit, but I don’t think you need a 30-round clip for your assault rifle,” he said. “I don’t believe in trickle-down economics. We’re the wealthiest country in the world, and I got 15 or 20 kids on this bus that bring home snack packs from school so they don’t go hungry on the weekend.”
When students disappear from his route, Black will ask teachers and the other students where they have gone. “You find that they’ve either been taken away to live with a grandparent or they moved,” he said. “You hope they’ve moved.”
He pulled to a stop. “Will this be your regular pickup time?” asked a well-dressed woman with black plastic glasses and short hair.
“That’s a grandmother,” he said as his bus door closed.
The same was true at the next two houses. “We have a lot of grandparents raising kids these days,” he said, “even though they didn’t do the best job raising their own.”
The children on Black’s route who died both were lost to gun violence. One was an accidental shooting. The other was a 15-year-old girl who had been abandoned by her parents and was killed by her adoptive father of eight years.
On Black’s bus radio, a dispatcher asked whether anyone could break away to cover for a bus that was running behind schedule. But Black was running late as well. A preschooler clambered aboard his bus.
“She’s not crying this morning,” Black said to the girl’s mother. “Ain’t it great!”
The bus was filling with kids and the decibel level was climbing.
On Cochran’s bus, a young girl wearing glasses yelled across the aisle at a classmate: “You’re a pill-head dummy!”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” the girl responded.
The girl with glasses, who is white, tried a new line of attack. “You’re a gorilla head!” she yelled at her black classmate.
Toward the back of the bus, a scuffle broke out.
“Settle!” Cochran bellowed in an attempt to impose order.
His route through a sprawling Charleston housing project is sometimes called the “bus to hell” and has been known to cycle through as many as eight or nine drivers each year. Cochran, who works mostly as a bus mechanic, had agreed to fill in on the route until the county hired more drivers.
Like his friend, Cochran didn’t start out as a bus driver. After high school, he wanted to join the Marines but was turned away because of a heart murmur. He went to work delivering heavy cases of soda, a job that paid well but wrecked his body.
“Six surgeries later, I finally left,” he said.
He has been driving buses for 19 years now. Although he grew up in a Democratic family, Cochran has mostly voted for Republicans. One big exception was 2008, when he was taken by Obama’s eloquence and his promises of hope and change.
“He put you in the mind of JFK,” Cochran said. “But JFK done what he said he would do. I thought that Obama would do it, too.”
In Trump, Cochran found someone who thought like him, sounded like him — ineloquent but sincere — and was willing to admit that the country was screwed up. He liked the idea of giving a businessman a shot.
Sometimes Black and Cochran argued about the true breadth of Trump’s business acumen.
“Don’t forget to mention the six bankruptcies,” Black jabbed.
“Oh, they all go bankrupt,” Cochran replied.
Cochran’s bus continued on its route. Amid the chaos and cacophony, he could be tender with his riders. Between stops he chatted with a young boy about the tooth fairy and rubbed the head of another student who danced his way off the bus. Toward the end of his route, he received a big hug from a little girl.
“I know I look like a monster,” he said, “but I’m a teddy bear.”
Still, midway through his second day it was clear that the “bus to hell” was wearing on him, especially as he struggled to recall the names of two girls involved in a scuffle on his bus.
“You can’t learn these kids’ names,” Cochran said after discussing it with a school official. “Bay-yan-zhay, Ta-mar-zhay, Du-mar-zhay. It’s like their parents were smoking crack and looked on the back of a pack of food and named them. You know what I mean? You can’t learn them.”
His routes finished, Cochran headed back to the bus yard for a staff meeting to discuss what had gone wrong on the first day of school. He moved stiff-legged through the parking lot and up the stairs into the bus drivers’ lounge.
A sign on the wall counseled “Courtesy is contagious.” On a table, the morning newspaper touted Trump’s impending visit and warned that his regulatory changes would not be enough to save coal. “Resurgent industry not coming,” the headline read.
Cochran and Black thumbed through the paper together.
Cochran’s wife, Teresa, the terminal supervisor, called the meeting to order.
She praised the drivers for “working miracles” and told them their terminal had ranked “number one” among the five terminals in the county on the first day of school. The drivers began to cheer, until she broke in and explained that they were “number one” in complaints from parents and principals.
She urged them to focus on the positive: “No one was hurt. No one was injured. No one was lost.”
A couple of the drivers noted that they did actually lose one kid for a frantic 45 minutes.
“Not lost meaning not dead.”
Black and Cochran were finished with their afternoon routes and walking through the bus terminal’s parking lot when they spotted Air Force One streaking across a clear blue sky. Trump was on his way.
They watched for a few seconds before Black broke the silence.
“I’d like to know how much he is blowing a hole in the travel budget,” Black said, thinking of Trump’s regular weekend trips to his properties.
“It don’t matter,” Cochran replied. “Your girl,” he said, meaning Hillary Clinton, “was going to use it for her vacations anyway.”
They grabbed dinner at a Mexican restaurant and continued jawboning like rival sports fans before the big game. Earlier in the day, the president’s former attorney had admitted to eight crimes in a Manhattan courtroom and implicated the president in two of them. On the same day, a jury found Trump’s former campaign manager guilty of tax- and bank-fraud charges. Black saw the news on his phone and told Cochran.
“You see the president’s friend pleaded guilty,” Black said.
“I didn’t say Uncle Donny was perfect,” Cochran replied. “He’s a businessman. But I know for a fact that when I lay my head down tonight, I’ll feel safer.”
Beyond that, the two men barely discussed the news.
They drove to Black’s house and settled into big easy chairs in front of a flat-screen television. Trump was bragging about his West Virginia victory — “We won by 42 points” — and complaining about NFL players who protest during the national anthem. Black and Cochran were talking about West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican turned Democrat turned Republican again whom the president was now introducing to the crowd.
“I tell you what, he’s cool as hell,” said Cochran, who recalled that Justice had once paid for his lunch at Wendy’s.
“He’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” Black agreed. “He still coaches the girls basketball team at Greenbrier High School.”
The two friends speculated on how much the seats directly behind Trump cost and scanned the crowd for familiar faces. “I went to school with that boy right there,” Cochran said. Then he noticed a blond woman who looked like a bus driver they had worked with.
“See her beside that black guy?” he said. “I just can’t remember her name.”
Trump riffed for a bit on coal miners, calling them “great people, brave people,” and Cochran tried to help his friend understand why Trump appealed to him. “He talks to you like you’re a regular guy, a normal person,” Cochran said. “If he’s going to say the hell with it, he’ll say the hell with it.”
Black was more interested in the miners in their black hard hats and whether they would “catch hell” from their union leadership for backing a Republican.
Trump moved to his greatest hits — the Latino gang MS-13, his decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, North Korea, the economy, immigration law and then the “fake news.”
“It took him a while to get there,” Black joked.
The bus drivers were now looking at each other as much as the screen.
Earlier on, Justice invoked “God above” in warning the crowd not to vote for state Sen. Richard Ojeda, a Democrat and Army veteran running for Congress. Ojeda was one of the biggest supporters of teachers and bus drivers when they went on strike last spring, earning the admiration of Black and Cochran.
“He’s a kamikaze, buddy,” Cochran said. “He’ll come at you headfirst.”
“And he’ll tell you exactly how it is,” Black said. “He’s like Trump.”
On the screen, Trump was now promising $6 billion to fight the opioid crisis that was a daily shadow over the two men’s lives. “In West Virginia that’s a big deal, right?” the president said. “That’s a big deal.”
Neither Black nor Cochran had much faith the money would actually make it to the homes along their daily routes: It would be like the federal flood-relief money that was supposed to help West Virginians rebuild after the 2016 floods but never seemed to materialize where it was needed most.
“The politicians hid it,” Cochran said of the funds.
“They just put a bunch of people in charge of it and they never gave it out,” Black agreed.
The more they talked, the less they listened to Trump, who had now been going on for more than an hour.
Black, a school union representative, worried that the Republican state legislature was going to take away seniority protections for bus drivers, making it easier to outsource their jobs.
“I hope we get a blue wave in the West Virginia legislature or we’re screwed,” he said.
“On local politics, I agree,” Cochran replied. “You ought to see us when we tag-team the county on union issues. When they see the two Pauls coming they know the s--- is going to hit the fan.”
When it came to Trump or most national issues, they jousted, like cable-news combatants eased into armchairs.
But on the issues they could influence, the ones that mattered most in their lives, the two were in harmony. Cochran hated the Affordable Care Act and Black backed it. Now, their bodies failing, both men support universal health care.
“I’ll give a little more out of my paycheck for everyone to be covered,” Black had said in an earlier discussion with Cochran.
“Me too,” Cochran had agreed. “We pay more every year to be told no.”
Back at the rally, the crowd was still cheering. The bus drivers had moved on.