Donald E. Holtzclaw has been a bus driver for eleven years and a night driver for two. He loves it. "There are no hassles at night," he explains. "Sure, sometimes people don't want to pay their fares. Usually they've just come from parties. I can handle them.
"Nothing really frightening ever happens. But during the day there's all that traffic, and there's plenty of people who get on at the same spot every day and ask you for the exact same directions. They do it just to irritate you, to get back at the world.
"It'll drive you crazy."
Holtzclaw has a friend who drove at night for twenty years and was then switched to day driving. He nearly had a nervous breakdown.
At 3 a.m., the bus floats through the city, the streets empty of traffic, the corners blessed with blinking yellow lights. Distances are shrunk and the sense of community is enhanced: Chevy Chase lies only a few minutes from Capitol Hill. For night bus drivers, the big danger is running ahead of schedule. They must continually hold back or "drag the line."
"I usually pick a lady at this corner," Holtzclaw says. "I wonder where she is." Another passenger tells him that the lady took a cab this morning, and he moves back onto Pennsylvania Avenue.
By daytime standards, such exchanges are extraordinary. The people really care about each other. Holtzclaw worries about this passengers, looks up the block for them if they are late, waits for them if he is early, and sometimes teases them by pretending to pull away with cool indifferences of a daytime driver.
Someone is sleeping a few rows back. "That's just a stranger," he explains softly. Fifteen minutes later he stops the bus and shakes the stranger gently awake. "This is where you get off, buddy," he says, "this is where you wanted to go." The man rolls over like Dagwood Bumstead on a bad morning. Holtzclaw is patient. He whistles and stomps his feet. "This fellow was on the bus when I got it," he explains, "and the last driver didn't even notice him until they got to the end of the line."
Holtzclaw is typical of the approximately two dozen bus drivers on duty at 3 a.m. He makes unscheduled stops to pick up passengers or to give directions to hitchhiking GIs. He knows which bars along his route hold gay beauty contests and which office houses a physician who maintains a middle-of-the-night practice.
All this changes as the sun rises. At 5:05, Holtzclaw's bus is suddenly filled nearly to capacity with early morning workers, and day makes its forcible entry into the quiet world of the night driver.