Highland resident James Plasencia has been a coach operator with Omnitrans for 6 years. Prior to that, he worked for a year at Foothill Transit where he received his training.
“I like driving the bus, then setting it down in the yard at the end of the day and being done. I’ve had a lot of other jobs where you took work home with you and could never really let go of it. And I like being outdoors. Prior to working for Foothill, I was working for an insurance company in a cubicle with piles of files stacked up. As soon as I’d get rid of one stack of files, they would come and drop off another. And I would have to make notes to call people the next day, so I would take work home with me.”
“As a coach operator, the pay is also a lot better. Without a college degree, it’s hard to find a job where you make that kind of money. So I am very appreciative of that. When I’m out there, I see homeless people and other people who aren’t doing as well and I feel really fortunate to have a job like this. Basically if you can follow the rules, drive the bus, don’t have any accidents and treat people politely, you’re good. I say hi to everybody whether they respond or not. And most of the time when passengers leave my bus they say thanks. Your demeanor has a lot to do with how people react to you.”
“I enjoy being an sbX driver, and it’s been great to be part of the first wave of drivers doing this. It’s one of the better routes I’ve had. Everybody who comes in is impressed with the bus itself—they like the whole system. They’re interested in the middle lanes and looking at the lights and the station art. We get a lot of people who are sort of testing it out and want to ride from one end of the corridor and back again. They want to see if it fits their routine.”
His passengers would never suspect that, in his private life, James is also a talented musician and artist.
“Eddie Van Halen was my big inspiration,” he laughs. “I started playing guitar when I was 14. My dad and my uncle are both musicians. My dad would try to show me some chords, but they just weren’t edgy enough, you know? But I learned them. Then I heard Van Halen and I was like ‘That’s guitar?’ That’s that instrument? Okay now I’m interested.’”
That inspired James to take what his dad had taught him, practice and bring it to the next level. Later he attended The Musicians’ Institute in Hollywood to study music.
“I was really serious. I still am serious. I mean I don’t pick it up as much, but I’m always thinking about music and listening to bands. My dream was to be a studio musician. But it’s so hard, you know? There is just so much competition. Now I do mainly acoustic, but I get a lot of good feedback about my playing. I think I’m pretty strong at it.”
Surprisingly, it was actually art that came easiest to James. Adults first noticed his talent when he was around 7-years-old.
“In second or third grade, the teacher wanted us to draw our shoes,” James said. “So we had them up on our desks, and we were drawing them. She was really impressed with mine because it had shadows and all the little scuff marks—there was dimension to it. There was something there that was different. She even told my mom that she needed to think about putting me in art school. But my mom didn’t pursue it. So sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had been able to go to art school. That would have been pretty cool. Imagine what you could do if you had had the right education and been exposed to all those different mediums. It’s harder as an adult because now you’re trying to play catch up. You’re trying to learn it on the fly between work and family.”
“I work a lot with acrylics because I feel I have more control over what I’m doing. Because I’m self-taught, I don’t really know the techniques. I just know what works best for me. If I can see it in my head and use acrylics to paint it, I know I can get close.”
For the longest time I never considered myself an artist. People would always use that word with me and I’d go ‘I’m not an artist. I just like to draw and paint.’ But they would say things like you know art is expressing yourself. So you are an artist. It’s been hard to get comfortable with that. To me artists are great people who do these major works. I’m not like that. But maybe to be an artist is just to create, you know? You don’t have to know all the terms and techniques. I mean I’d still like to go to school and learn more, but I’ve met creative people who haven’t had any training but I like what they do. Just like musicians. I’ve met some fantastic musicians and when I asked them were they studied, they say they learned to play by ear. I think wow, that’s amazing. They are doing things that are so advanced. It’s the same with art.”
James credits his wife for encouraging him to pursue his creative gifts.
“She’s my biggest fan. I told her the other day I should make her my manager because she is always so supportive. She gets on social media and tells everyone about me and gets them to check out my page. Or if I’m doing an art show, she’s promoting that. It helps, and I really appreciate that.”
“When I first met her I was doing the music thing. I told her right off I was going to have to be going to a lot of rehearsals and gigs. She said ‘Oh that’s fine I like music.’ I was like ‘Really? You might have to come with me and help me load stuff.’ She told me ’That’s fine.’ I thought ‘Man, I have to marry this woman!’ And she cooks too! She’s a really good cook.“
James will have some of his art on display at the 5th Annual El Monte Dia de Los Muertos event on Saturday, October 18th from 1:00 p.m. -7:00 p.m. The event takes place at El Monte Valley Mall (along Valley Mall Blvd.) from Lexington Ave to Cleminson St.
You can also view some of James’ art and photos from his studio on his Facebook page.
– Juno Kughler Carlson
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