In an area known for policy-makers, millennium-thinkers and guys with clip-on ties who spend 40 hours a week projecting the trade deficit, snowstorms may be the only confetti a regular workingman can get. It's a time when the ones who get up before the "C" in "crack of dawn" show up because they know: Snow has a way of reconfiguring our ideas about who constitutes essential personnel.
Besides, snow days are for schoolkids.
Take the man who rides the C-22 Metrobus from Bowie. He doesn't know from liberal leave. He's got to get to work or he doesn't get paid. So he's counting on Rudolph Gardner, the bus driver who picks him up, greets him with a nod and navigates the road with a steady hand.
"You know you are expected to be at work," says Gardner, 44, who's been driving buses for the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority for 15 years, "and by knowing that, I have no problem getting there." Even when that means getting up an hour or two earlier than usual to start his 5:56 a.m. shift.
An early-morning bus ride, from Hall Road in Bowie to the Addison Road Metro Station in Seat Pleasant the day after an unexpected storm, finds Gardner where he always is: behind the wheel of a 45-seat commuter bus.
Rush-hour ridership peaks at about 13 on this day. People who gotta get to work or Safeway or just out of the house. Some board with a confidence born of familiarity. They are the ones who know it's okay to sit in one of the front seats and let others pass while they count out $1.10. Others stand awkwardly at the fare box, rummaging through pockets and purses and holding up the show.
"Those are the folks I call my bad-weather riders," Gardner says.
Folks like Laura Mayo, a customer service representative for a Washington bank.
"I haven't taken a bus since I was in college," Mayo says. "I didn't even know where the bus stop was, so I just started walking."
Gardner welcomes his new passenger with a bus schedule. Because the more drivers he can get off the road, the safer it is for him and his buddies in Teamsters Local 922, of which he's vice president. And because he believes in the idea of a daily mobile community.
From Addison Road he heads north on Central Avenue, where he points out shops and stops and the faces of regular riders. "There's a lady that works down there at the cleaner's. There are some folks who work at Wendy's, the Food Lion, some [Prince George's Community] College workers. I know all of them by face, where everybody is supposed to be and when they are supposed to be there."
Which is why, even though a snow emergency route change is in effect and bus drivers are supposed to stick to the main thoroughfares, Gardner ventures soberly down unplowed side streets, looking out for stalled cars. Not everybody knows about the route change, and he's not the type to leave people hanging.
Gardner is plain-spoken, a true believer in the economy of words. He grew up in Prince George's County, where he still lives with his wife of 17 years and their 12-year-old son. He drives with a self-assurance that insulates the bus cabin. The kind that provides shelter from the reckless rush of showy SUVs.
The 40-foot coach hits patches of snow with a steady rumble that jiggles the loose skin on the cheeks of commuters and makes conversation difficult. Which is fine for people who seem quite comfortable keeping company with their thoughts.
Nick Marshall, who is headed to his doctor's office near the Silver Hill Road Metro stop, busies himself scratching "Highroller" lottery tickets.
Gladys Stevens, who gets on at Kettering Place, sits just in front of the back doors and stares out at the snow. She is headed to her job at the World Bank, she says, because "I just don't want to stay home. Since the buses are running and the roads are plowed, I might as well head out."
Metrobus is one of two Prince George's bus services. The other, The Bus, is contracted by the county government and maintains routes in smaller, more residential areas.
Both are running emergency routes, but hazards are everywhere, like the slippery drift that meets Gardner as he is turning onto Largo Road from Campus Way South. For a minute, a spin-out looks inevitable. For a minute, it seems like the cold reality of snow and sleet and a job that won't wait is going to land right in Gardner's lap.
Then he quietly makes a hard left with the 27-inch steering wheel, then a hard right, and what seemed like the inevitable skid barely registers.
"You got it, buddy. Handle it!" comes the whoop from the back, but Gardner's eyes are locked on the road.
Eventually he finishes his route, switches on the NOT IN SERVICE sign, and plans to "deadhead" back down Central Avenue to Addison Road, but he spies passengers he knows have been waiting for a while. He stops to pick them up.
"You've gotta have a heart out here," he says, then spares another few words to request that his good deed go unreported.
It's the kind of everyday, non-celebrated heroism that shows up most starkly against nature's white canvas.
It's the kind of thing that makes you think, "Even though I can't get out of my driveway, all is right with the world."
As long as the buses are running.
CAPTION: "I know all of them by face," Rudolph Gardner says of his riders.
CAPTION: Rudolph Gardner's bus makes a U-turn because of heavy snow and abandoned cars on the C-22 route in Bowie. Bad-weather rider Laura Mayo inspects the bus schedule.