This bus driver uses songs and stories to help tell tourists about Washington

Meet native Washingtonian William "Smokey" Jackson who guides tourists through the district with song and his own version of history. (Casey Capachi and Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist June 25

The nameplate next to the Old Town Trolley Tour bus’s rearview mirror reads “Smokey.”

“It was supposed to be ‘Pavarotti,’ because I sing,” says William “Smokey” Jackson from the driver’s seat. But he was concerned that the renowned tenor’s name might be hard to spell — a problem, given that customers are invited to fill out comment cards — and so he opted for something easier.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

It’s 7:32 p.m. on a sultry summer night when Smokey pulls away from Union Station, a busload of tourists swiveling their necks behind him. It’s a $39 “Monuments by Moonlight” tour, and Smokey is in charge.

The 23-year-old from Southeast Washington started driving one of Old Town Trolley’s distinctive orange-and-green buses in March, after three months of training. During the day, he does the looping routes through the city. He’s been known to sing on those, too, but since riders can hop on and hop off any bus, he can’t establish the same rapport as when he has a captive audience.

“This is your stage,” he says of the evening tours.

And on Smokey’s stage, Smokey sings.

But not right away. When he points out the National Postal Museum, I think Smokey might launch into “Please, Mr. Postman.” We go past the Jones Day law offices, and I’m hoping for Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” We loop past the Supreme Court. Maybe “Court of Love” by Washington’s own Unifics?

Nope. But while stopped at a traffic light on Independence Avenue SW behind the Arts and Industries Building, Smokey tells the tourists that the Stars and Stripes flies from nearly every building in town. He says over the microphone: “I love seeing the American flag wherever I am. Living in D.C., you can’t help but be patriotic.”

And then, “Ooooh, say can you see . . .

Smokey has what he calls a high baritone, honed in church and at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. He’s done a few things since graduating in 2010: been a busboy, been a children’s music teacher, served as choir director at his church, King Emmanuel Baptist . . .

But now he has the perfect job. He loves to sing, and he always wanted to drive a bus, which his stepfather did for Metro before becoming a station manager.

“I grew up in a house where music was played all the time,” Smokey says. “The Temptations, Madonna, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Frankie Lymon.”

He’d never led a tour of the District before he went to work for Old Town Trolley. He’d never even been on one. But he learned facts and figures about Washington and clothed them in his own exuberant style.

“I guess that’s where the showmanship came in,” he tells me. “I had no idea how fun it could be.”

And Smokey definitely has fun. As we approach the Lincoln Memorial, he sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” He booms out some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as we pass the civil right’s leader’s memorial. He recites the Preamble to the Constitution and then jokes: “I learned that the old-fashioned way: ‘Schoolhouse Rock.’ ”

He does impersonations of actual Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and of fictitious anchorman Ron Burgundy. He mentions that people used to swim in the Tidal Basin. “I have just one word to say about that,” he says. “Ewwww.”

Smokey talks nearly nonstop, with a rhythm that somehow fits with the ebb and flow of traffic. “Part of the job is knowing the traffic lights, when they change, the order,” he says.

After 2½ hours, the bus returns to Union Station. A hat that Smokey has discreetly placed near the exit fills with tips from the departing tourists.

What’s the secret to being a good tour guide in Washington?

“Have fun,” Smokey says. “I have a feeling having fun is the secret to anything you want to do.”

To see video and a photo gallery of Smokey in action, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly. (And e-mail me suggestions of songs that would be appropriate at various D.C. landmarks.)

Send a Kid to Camp

Are we having fun yet? I hope so. And by donating to Camp Moss Hollow you can help at-risk kids from the Washington area have fun. Moss Hollow is the summer camp that readers of The Post have supported for nearly 40 years.

To make a donation, go to www.familymattersdc.org. Or send a check, payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Family Matters of Greater Washington, 1509 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, Attention: Accounting Department.

An anonymous donor is matching gifts up to a total of $100,000. What’s more, our friends at Clyde’s are providing gift certificates to their fine restaurants, including the many Clyde’s locations, the Hamilton, the Tombs and the Old Ebbitt Grill. If you donate between $200 and $299, you’ll receive a $25 gift certificate. Give $300 or more, and you’ll get a $50 gift certificate. (Certificates will be mailed in August.)

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com.

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