By Robert Samuels
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; B01
L.T. Hawkins's bus was sweltering, with the air conditioning out on one of the summer's hottest days. So at the end of her route, she was relieved to sit outside and sip iced tea from a jumbo plastic cup.
Sitting at the final stop on the 70 line, at Maine Avenue and Ninth Street SW, the Metrobus driver noticed two men staring at her. One was 5 foot 9, about 145 pounds and wearing a Washington Nationals baseball cap. The other was 6 foot 3, about 310 pounds and wearing a flat-tip black cap. He had a booming low voice.
"Excuse me, miss," the larger one said, holding a Marlboro in his hand.
"What!" she said, jumping. "Are you talking to me?"
"My name's Justin McNeil. This is my friend John," he said. "We are founders of the DreamCity Theater Group. We're producing a play about the 70 bus."
"Bah!" Hawkins laughed, bowling over. "Ain't nothing like the 70."
The 70 runs between the waterfront in Southwest Washington and the plaza in downtown Silver Spring. No other route mixes so many types of people, she told them. Along the D.C. waterfront, the passengers are apt to wear fancy suits and have fancy federal jobs. They pay with SmarTrip passes. They rarely talk to one another.
The mix changes as the bus heads north, through Chinatown, Shaw and Petworth. Some people climb aboard in dirty clothes, carrying plastic bags. Now the regulars are more likely to talk to one another. Hustlers might be peddling bootleg copies of movies such as "Superman Returns." If the bus gets too crowded, people can get testy. Fights might even break out.
It can be unpredictable, this ride, as it makes its way along Seventh Street and then Georgia Avenue. Gazes out the window reveal neighborhoods, their politics and sparks of change within them.
McNeil and John Muller, both 22 and best friends since high school, adapted what they've witnessed on the bus for their play, "The 70." It premiers at 6:45 tonight at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and is the first play produced by their theater company.
The inspiration came last summer when McNeil and Muller were working the late shift at a CVS pharmacy on Van Buren Street NW, near one of the route's stops. They took the bus to work, and they watched episodes of everyday life unfold. With 18,000 passengers daily, the 70 is rich with opportunities.
One day, missionaries tried to convert a homeless man, who in turn taught them a lesson about the hardships on the street.
The playwrights also were drawn to a Washington Post story in September about "Mr. Wonderful," a driver on the 70 who let homeless people sleep on his bus at night. McNeil recalled meeting Mr. Wonderful, Floyd Thurston, who still works for Metro.
The play has its own version of a "Mr. Wonderful," and the story covers the character's last day driving the route. It's more a comedy than a drama, with characters aplenty.
Last week, even amid rehearsals, McNeil and Muller kept tinkering with the story line. So they rode the bus to grab some last-minute material. They compared the experience to Mark Twain's traveling the Mississippi and writing "Huckleberry Finn." That's how they wound up at the bus stop with Hawkins, who was about to get back to work and head north. They joined her for the ride.
"Do you have any interesting stories?" Muller asked.
"I have lots," she told them, slapping her hand on her knee. "You should have been on the ride I just ended. On my bus, I just had an altercation."
It happened at Georgia Avenue and Peabody Street NW, she said. A woman got on with some bags from a thrift store and was shocked at how crowded the bus was. She started yelling, "Move! Move!" Another woman didn't like the attitude and started calling the noisy woman names.
"I thought it was going to go to blows," Hawkins said. "People get irritated when its hot."
The bus grumbled into Chinatown. A frowning man -- in a long blond wig -- circled the bus at Seventh and H streets NW. He didn't get on. But a scruffy-looking, bearded man in a black shirt did get aboard with a cellphone-shaped object attached to his ankle. He walked toward the back, announcing to everyone that he hadn't used marijuana in three days because he had to take a urine test at Walter Reed Army Medical Center that day.
McNeil and Muller didn't react. They had a similar scene in the play already. Not getting much material, they soon decided to call it a day.
"That was one of the most boring rides I've had in my life," Muller griped as he and McNeil walked into downtown Silver Spring. "That's not the 70."
As it turned out, McNeil and Muller might have given up too soon. They could have switched buses and caught another troop of riders in Silver Spring. A woman in a green business suit and high heels boarded the bus. A man smelling like alcohol, with ripped jeans and no shoes, followed her.
Another passenger, Cassandra Frazier, an office manager with tightly pulled back black hair, boarded the bus, sweat gleaming on her face.
"Yes, I'm on the 70," Frazier said, talking on her cellphone. "I know. I just got off this nice, plush Montgomery County bus, and now I'm on this. It was freezing cold on that bus. Now I'm on a place where there's no air conditioning."
Riders have a love-hate relationship with the 70, perhaps because of the strange goings-on.
"Oh, let me tell you about yesterday," one bus driver, S. J. Wilkes, said in an interview. "A man who was six feet tall came on with a miniskirt. And he was wearing no underwear. The man sitting across from him said, 'Oh, hell no,' and walked off. Another woman, she just sat there staring. She couldn't believe what she was seeing."
Two nights after their unproductive trip, McNeil and Muller tried again. They boarded in Chinatown, heading north. This time, a teenager was singing an out-of-tune version of "Love," a popular R&B song by Keyshia Cole. Three men in dark shades were playing a dice game in the back.
"No, man!" one yelled. "You're cheatin'!"
Some obscenities followed.
The alleged cheater ran out the back door with a pair of New Balance shoes in his hand.
Near Howard University, about three miles away from Chinatown, McNeil saw a familiar face -- the man in the blond wig. Once again the guy circled the bus. Once again he didn't get on.
"What is up with that dude?" McNeil asked. That man probably has a good story, he said.
Most people on the 70 have stories, Muller said. Even though you might not want to talk to some of them because they smell or look odd, Muller said, they all have something interesting to say.
"Why are you talking about me?" asked passenger Peter Whyte, who had appeared to be sleeping. "I've been listening to you two since I got on. Man, you two are so condescending."
"We're not talking about you, sir," McNeil said.
"But you're right," Whyte said. "Everybody has highs; everybody has lows. . . . You shouldn't judge people."
He stood up at Randolph Street and Georgia Avenue NW. "I have to go now. This is my stop," he said. "I need to do some research."
Muller asked: "What are you studying?"
"Astrology," the man yelled as he came off the bus.
McNeil shook his head.
"That's the 70," he said.
"The 70" will be performed at the MLK Library, 901 G St. NW, at 6:45 pm. Tuesdays through Thursdays through Aug. 10, with no performance Aug. 1., and at 3:30 p.m. Saturdays through Aug. 12. Admission is free. The playwrights say the material is suitable for anyone 13 or older. The library is a short walk from the 70 bus's stop at Seventh and H streets NW.