"How you been?" asked the bus driver, as he wheeled away from the curb. "Ain't seen you in a while."
"Professor, you'd better get your glasses checked," I said, as I dropped three quarters down the hatch and slid into the seat behind his left shoulder. "Been back from vacation for a month. How can you forget a face as beautiful as this one?"
"Listen," said the busie, "there are lots of faces I'd like to forget. People get on here all day long and all they do is give me lip."
"What kind of lip?"
"Mister, I'm talking about stuff you'd never hear in church. Like this lady yesterday. I pick her up at Wisconsin and Macomb and she wants to know if I go past Union Station. I tell her, 'Get on and I'll get you there.' But that's not good enough for her. Oooooh, no. She says, 'Do you go there?' I say, 'No, lady, I don't go there, but I go to where you can get a bus that does go there.' And all this time there's a whole bus full of people trying to get to work on time. Finally, the lady says she isn't going to get on the bus because she doesn't like my attitude. And then she insults my parentage, if you know what I mean."
"I know exactly what you mean. I've used that word a few times myself. But hey, isn't your skin getting a little thin? That's just one lady. You think you're the only person in Washington who has to deal with a person now and then who's a pain in the hindquarters?"
"Who said she was the only one? Mister, I haven't told you the half of it. I get people who ask me to let them out in the middle of the block and then curse me out when I tell them I can't. I tell some guy his transfer isn't any good and he threatens to punch me out. I get people who want to get on with dogs and they threaten to have the dog chew on my leg when I tell them no. I'm telling you, this job is dangerous."
"Lot of people would trade with you, my man. Sitting in air conditioning all day. Plenty of coffee breaks. Nice pension. Eighteen grand a year to start."
"I'm glad you think it's so wonderful. You ever try to steer one of these? You ever sniff gas fumes for eight straight hours? You ever get a bus in the morning where the air conditioning doesn't work and they tell you, sorry, Charlie? This is physical work, my friend. And it's public relations, too. If anything ever breaks, they blame me, not some maintenance man back in the garage."
"So why don't you quit? The Sunday paper's full of jobs. The president says things are getting better."
The busie snorted. "The president? Air conditioning never breaks on the president."
"OK, maybe not," I conceded. "But are you seriously going to tell me you have a tougher job than, say, a cop? Or a fireman? Or a fourth-grade teacher with a classroom full of monsters?"
"At least they know what to expect," said the busie, as he zoomed around Dupont Circle. "I never know what I'm going to get. Right up there, at the next stop, a drunk might get on. Or a kid with a gun. Back when I started, there was respect for the bus driver, same as there was for the cop and the fireman, like you mentioned. But not now."
"You ever heard of the expression, 'Kill 'em with kindness?' " I asked, as he turned down K Street and into the thickest part of a morning rush hour. "Why don't you just decide that you're going to be the one bus driver in Washington who smiles and wishes everyone a good morning?"
"I tried that once," said the busie. "For one week, I decided to say hello to everyone who got on, to call out all the stops and to say goodbye to everyone as they got off."
"The first morning, some lady says, 'Driver, could you please cut out all that talking? I like to read the paper on the bus and it's distracting.' So I said the heck with it."
Fifteenth Street loomed. I gathered up my jacket and started for the front door. "You paint a pretty grim picture," I told the busie, as he veered toward the curb.
"My mother always told me to tell the truth," he replied. "I wish it wasn't the truth, but I know it is, and so does every bus driver in this whole town."