In D.C., tourists come and tourists go -- often thanks only to the Bus Doctor

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2010

The buses are upon us. The height of summer is the height of bus season; they come in droves, beasts of chrome and reclining plush seats, swarming the city streets like some 11th biblical plague, whatever would come after locusts and frogs. During peak months, as many as a thousand tourist buses are in Washington on a given day, says the American Bus Association, which tracks this sort of thing.

The buses break down. There are a million and one things that can go wrong with a bus. You got your dead batteries, busted water hoses, busted belts, busted starters. Tires go. Alternators go. Air conditioners go, and that's a bigger problem than it once was.

"Yes, ma'am. Twenty years ago the buses had windows that opened. But now they don't. You take a bus and you set it outside in the heat, it's going to hit 140 degrees inside within an hour."

Here is a man of great wisdom. Here is a trim man with a prickly mustache, graying buzz cut and a pleasant twang. He wears navy work pants. He has a shirt with an embroidered name tag. On a recent sizzling morning, he pilots his repair truck across the 14th Street Bridge, bumper-to-bumper traffic, a cinnamon-scented air freshener and a box of toothpicks on the dash.

This man knows about what can go wrong with buses, and why, and how long it's going to take to get them fixed. He knows the migratory patterns of the nation's tourists -- how June means school kids in matching T-shirts, how August is Canadians, how seniors roll through in September, and October brings the Southerners passing through on their way to Vermont foliage.

He knows the companies: Spirit Tours, Wagon Tours, Superior Tours, Executive Coach, Martz, Quick's, Conestoga, Scene America -- and where you're likely to find the coaches parked.

He knows this because he is sometimes the only thing that stands between tourists and a ruined vacation spent stranded by the road instead of strolling through the Smithsonian thinking that the Hope Diamond is less impressive than they thought it would be.

He is Bryan Cebula, Bus Doctor.

A one-man operation

What happened was that the high school students from California were out here on their East Coast class trip, the kind that includes presidential memorials and snow-globe souvenirs, and irritable chaperones placing strips of Scotch tape on hotel room doors, determining who snuck out in the night by which seals got broken.

Today was Manassas. The driver of the charter bus, Thaddeus Hargrove, had taken the passengers there and dropped them off. He planned to set off to Wal-Mart to pick up a few things while the kids were seeing the battlefield.

Only the bus wouldn't start. Forty-five minutes later when the group came back, the chaperone said, "You're back from Wal-Mart already?" and Hargrove said, "Man, I never left."

Hargrove got another bus to come pick up the kids -- they still had to hit Washington National Cathedral -- then rustled up a phone number that he'd kept on hand for an occasion such as this, a phone number passed between bus drivers throughout the Washington region.

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