Terri Furia, a bus driver with Greater Portland Metro since 1999, leaves her home in Sabattus every day at 4:45 a.m. and works in Portland until 6 at night. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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During her 21 years driving buses for Greater Portland Metro, Terri Furia has acquired a surprising nickname: “Monkey Lady.”

The nickname began more than a decade ago when a passenger gave Furia a green stuffed monkey for her birthday. The next year, someone else gave her another.

“If you have two of anything you have a collection,” Furia said last week. “I probably have about 100 monkeys from all the different riders.”

For a time, her furry friends lived on her dashboard, before Metro managers gave Furia a “two monkey limit” for inside the bus. Now, she stores them at her home in Sabattus.

As the monkey story suggests, Furia’s personality sets her apart at work. With her long white hair and lively personality, it’s easy to see why her presence puts riders at ease. She’s quick to share fun details about herself, like the fact that she found two frogs in her backyard and named them “Frogger” and “Felicia.”

Metro Transportation Manager Tom Ridge said while “it’s not always a pleasant situation” for Portland bus drivers, Furia rarely has an issue, regardless of who gets on her bus. As the regional transportation system’s longest-serving bus driver, she’s found a way to deal with most situations.

Metro Transportation Manager Tom Ridge said it’s Terri Furia’s connection with people that sets her apart. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

“She just does her thing and goes along and goes home,” Ridge said. “It’s the connection with the people though, with Terri, that makes a difference.”

Furia is originally from New Jersey, and her father also worked as a bus driver. She began driving school buses part-time in college, where she majored in accounting.

After meeting her husband, Furia decided to move with him to Maine, first to Old Orchard Beach before settling in Sabattus where they’ve lived for 19 years. Every weekday morning, she leaves home at 4:45 a.m. to make the 45-minute drive to Portland, where she works until 6 at night.

Despite those long days, Furia said she has never considered switching careers, because she loves her job – even though much has changed since she started in May 1999, including the installation of onboard air conditioning when the bus line switched to natural gas vehicles in 2005. 

Furia now mostly covers other drivers’ routes, which allows her to drive less and spend more time working in Metro’s Valley Street office. Spring is still her favorite season to drive, however, because she doesn’t like the weather to be too hot.

With only 2 1/2 years left until she can retire, Furia said what she’ll miss most is the people. She has formed close friendships with her co-workers; one of them, for instance, lets her stay at his house during snowstorms so she doesn’t have to commute home. 

When she’s not at work, Furia loves to garden and make crafts. After she retires, she said, she plans to sell her art full time. 

Connecting with passengers is also a priority for her; sometimes it means talking with them about their problems, or just waving hello if she sees them out and about. The Iris Network, a Portland nonprofit that advocates for the blind, once recognized her for going “beyond the call of duty” to assist visually impaired passengers.

People in the community told the organization about Furia, describing how she sometimes helps walk blind passengers across the street or beeps her horn to help guide them in the right direction after they get off.

Ridge said it was a “pretty big deal” that Furia was recognized, considering all the people in the community who support The Iris Network’s mission.

But Furia said she just tries to treat each of her passengers equally, whether they are homeless, or a commuter, or a doctor at Maine Medical Center.

“I try to make it as easy as possible for people to ride the bus,” she said.

Making Portland Work is an occasional series about people who do their jobs, day in and day out, in good times and bad. They’re the unsung heroes we see and depend on every day. Do you know someone we should include? Let us know at news@portlandphoenix.me.