Hey, man, where you been?" asked my friend the bus driver, as I galumphed up the steps. "I figured you'd given us up and started taking cabs."

"Would I do that?" I asked, as I took my usual seat directly behind him. "First of all, you're cheaper. Second of all, you believe in shock absorbers. Third of all, you know where you're going."

"And fourth of all, we're better looking," said the bussie, as he pulled away from the curb.

"Modest as usual, I see."

"Hey, man, you don't stress your good side, ain't nobody going to do it for you," the bussie declared. "My Mama told me that years ago down in North Carolina."

"Well, she was right about the stressing and wrong about the looks," I replied.

The bussie chuckled. "So what do you want to bend my ear about this morning?" he wondered.

"I was hoping you'd bend mine, with a little inside information," I said. "Is Metro ever going to make up its mind on bus routes and schedules in this town? I swear, every time I get on a bus I see one of those huge posters advertising about half a million teeny-weeny little route or schedule changes. If you read the fine print, you see that every change has to go through a public hearing. Then they've got to reprint the timetables. Then they've got to hope that you guys remember to leave the Pentagon at 6:02 instead of 6:04. It's crazy."

"You don't know the half of it," said the bussie. "They've got these inspectors who drive around and check on us. If a guy drives the old route instead of the new route, they can suspend him. It's like the rest of the world can take weeks to get used to a change in their routine, but we've got to get it right the first time, even though we might have been driving a route the old way for years."

"But the part I can't figure out is why all these itsy-bitsy changes. Either save up a bunch of them and do them all at once, or don't do them at all. But don't drive the customers and the drivers crazy."

"Absolutely right," said the man behind the wheel. "I'll give you an example. I used to drive the T6 out to Rockville. They changed that route about 20 times in 10 years. Little stuff, too, like a different stop during rush hour in downtown Rockville than we'd use during nonrush hours. One time, I passed a lady who was standing at the wrong stop. She came running after me, so I stopped. 'Didn't you see me?' she said. 'I saw you, ma'am, but I'm not allowed to stop there during rush hour,' I told her. She said something I'll never forget. She said, 'I know it's not your fault. But there's something awful wrong with the rules if a half-full bus goes right past somebody who's waiting at a bus stop.' "

"It bothers me from a business point of view, too," I said. "Here's Metro moaning and groaning about keeping riders. But the same Metro does everything it can to confuse passengers. Rush-hour this. Saturday schedules that. I say that running the bus system is like running McDonald's. You put together a good reliable product and put it out where people get used to finding it -- rain, shine, Saturday, rush hour, full moon, anytime. If it's good, they'll show up. If it isn't, you'll deserve to fail."

"I don't know, man," said the bussie. "Lot of us old-timers don't think it's ever going to change. We're just counting the days till retirement."

"Hey, don't retire until you answer this one: Why can't we have route maps at every bus stop? Right on the bus stop sign itself. They've got them in just about every other city I've ever been in."

"Probably because they're afraid of vandalism," the bussie guessed as he deftly avoided a cab that was making an illegal left turn.

"But isn't it worse to lose a rider forever? Or not to attract and keep a new rider? How hard can this be? Not very -- and not very expensive, either. Besides, it would pay for itself in a second. Some lady would be walking her dog, and for the first time in 11 years in the neighborhood, she'll notice that the X7 actually goes past her hairdresser's. Maybe she'll try it. Maybe she'll become a regular. That's what marketing's all about."

"I'd like it for another reason," the bus driver said. "I'd only have to answer about half as many questions about where my bus goes. People could see for themselves that I do go past the White House but I don't go anywhere near Union Station."

"Tell you what," I said as the bus cruised to a stop at Dupont Circle. "Instead of retiring, why don't you become the Metrobus marketing manager?"

"No way," said the bussie as he hissed the emergency brake into place. "I'd rather deal with the nuts out here than the ones downtown. Besides . . . ."

"Besides what?"

"I figure I'm too handsome not to be out here on the streets."

"You know," I said, "your Mom would be awfully proud of you."