Metro retirees recall good old days of job

In 1972, Charlie Parker Jr. left his rural home town of King George, Va., and headed to the District, where he got a job at what was then one of the biggest games in town — Metro.

Back then, the privately owned company was called D.C. Transit. It ran bus lines around the region and a specialty sightseeing service. Parker worked as a bus driver and was glad for the job, where he made $4 an hour.

He retired in 2000, and four years later so did his wife, who had a long career with Metro, too. The couple headed back south, this time to Rocky Mount, N.C.

For him, it was a chance to live in an area away from a big city and with cheaper housing costs. He also found what many of his former Metro colleagues did: one another.

Parker is one of dozens of former Metrobus drivers, train operators, mechanics, technicians, custodians and administrative staffers who have left the agency, moved south, and managed to continue and expand the relationships they formed on the job. Once a year, they organize a reunion in North Carolina that draws about 800 former and some current Metro employees from the Washington region as well as from Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina and Florida.

It isn’t an official Metro-sponsored event. But the Metro Retirees of North Carolina have become known for putting on a reunion few want to miss.

“You’re coming not just to see your co-workers but to see people who became your family,” said Melva Colbert, 61, of Windsor Mill, Md., who worked as a bus driver, train operator and station manager for nearly 29 years at Metro.

The reunions began eight years ago, when Parker and Joel Chappelle Jr., 65 — along with his wife, Mattie, 66 — realized that the only time they seemed to get together was at funerals. A few dozen discovered that they lived within an hour’s drive of one another in northeastern North Carolina. Chappelle spent 37 years at Metro, and his wife worked there for 30. The Fredericksburg couple drove buses and retired in 2005.

Now they gather and share stories of their favorite — or least favorite — bus routes. They reminisce about how hard it was to drive with no right-side mirror on a bus and how poorly heated some of the older buses were because of holes in the floorboards.

Some told of operating the now-defunct Metro sightseeing buses. They smiled fondly, recalling the pride they had when a customer gave them a compliment.

“I used to have customers say, ‘I can set my watch by you,’ ” said Maurice E. Lucas, 64, who drove a Metrobus for 32 years and lives in Southwest Washington.

They laughed and called each other their nicknames: Toz’s, for a 6-foot-1-inch retired bus driver and train operator who walks with a limp. Boss Hogg, for a former Metrobus driver in a nod to the TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

‘Looked out for each other’

The most recent reunion was held the weekend of July 19-21, a three-day event that drew nearly 600 Metro retirees and their friends and relatives to a hotel in Greensboro, N.C. About 100 of those in attendance still work for Metro.

(Organizers said attendance was down slightly because Metro’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, was having an informational meeting for its members on a new contract.)

A few rode their motorcycles from the Washington region. About 40 others came on a private bus driven by a Metro retiree.

The weekend began with a Friday-night fish fry. Saturday was set aside for shopping or a few hands of Bid Whist, Spades or Dirty Hearts. The night offered a more formal banquet and awards ceremony to honor retirees who had served as mentors. On Sunday morning, a prayer service was held.

Many of the retirees are part of a wave of African Americans who migrated from the South in search of better jobs and pay and landed at Metro in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most of the men — and a handful of women — had just a high school diploma and were grateful to land work that offered good wages, benefits and a chance to “be your own boss.”

“Coming from a small town, I never thought I’d be in charge of so much equipment and so many people,” said Robert Elliott, 69, of Camp Springs. Elliott, who was called Chico by his co-workers, spent nearly 33 years as a Metrobus driver and train operator.

Over the years, working weekends and holidays, they bonded. Many came from rural towns with sawmills or farms as their only choices for work. They found life in Washington a bit overwhelming in some cases.

“Back then, we got to be like family when we were working there,” Parker, 64, said. “We looked out for each other.”

“We had left our homes, and we had no choice but to bond with each other,” he added. “It put us together and kept us together.”

They shared babysitters, made sure one another’s children got off at the right bus stop. Some met their spouses at Metro. They took up collections when a colleague lost her house. They donated leave when another was sick. They went to children’s weddings and graduation parties. They attended the funerals of colleagues’ relatives.

Those who started in the 1960s, such as Frank Dean, 75, of Beltsville and Muriel Humbles, 76, of Cheltenham, mentored others, reminding them to keep their uniforms pressed and shoes shined and to respect people. The two men, along with Sandra Boone, 69, who retired from Metro after 34 years, were honored at the Saturday-night banquet. Boone, of Upper Marlboro, was recognized for her work as a Metrorail training instructor, helping those who weren’t highly skilled in reading and writing to study for exams.

‘Professionalism is gone’

The retirees lament that the generation that has replaced them might not have the same level of appreciation for the job or one another.

Former Metrobus driver Larry Taylor of Waldorf spoke of the younger generation at Metro to a handful of retirees gathered in the hotel lobby at the reunion. “The mannerism is gone,” he said. “The professionalism is gone.

“All they’re doing is holding the steering wheel,” he said of Metro’s current bus drivers.

Willie Meade of Upper Marlboro, a Metrobus driver and train operator for nearly 33 years, said: “Back in the day, it used to be you were proud to wear your Metro uniform. You could get instant credit at a department store because people knew you were with a company that wasn’t going anywhere.”

Steve Austin, 61, who worked for Metro for 38 years and lives in Upper Marlboro, said that when his generation worked for Metro, “we were just as respected as a police officer or a fireman, but I think that respect has diminished.”

“People see you in uniform, and they want to blame you for everything,” he said. “Their bus ride in traffic, how the escalator didn’t work. It isn’t like it used to be.”

I'm a Washington Post reporter, working an early morning shift that deals with crime, lottery winners, traffic, you name it.
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