The just-risen sun threw a checker-board of shadows among the gravestones in Rock Creek Cemetery at the Allison Road bus stop where Neil Woodcock was about to start another morning run. Right on time.
"Driver of the year? That little thin white man?" exclaimed Minnie King, a black woman waiting at the stop. She works at a downtown dry cleaners. "Good, I sent in a card for him. He sees you coming, he'll never drive off and leave you standing in the cold."
Some riders, like Minnie King, don't know his name. Some call him "Woody." In any case, Woodcock's passengers mailed in 1,483 cards in 1976 telling Metrobus what a courteous, helpful, punctual bus driver he is. A couple even wrote poems.
That made Woodcock, soon to be 61, the top winner out of around 2,000 bus drivers who participated in the annual courtesy program. They all handed out preaddressed cards to their passengers to be filled in with comments and signed.
Woodcock's prize is an April trip to Yugoslavia, to "D-u-b-r-o-v-n-i-k." He spells out the name of the city. "I can't pronounce it," he cluckled, "but I talked to some old soldiers who say it's one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I don't know about that, but anyway they they tell me all the expenses will be paid." (The trip is courtesy of WRC Radio, according to a Metrobus spokeswoman.)
Woodcock begins his work day early - at 5:23 a.m., but his route is "an easy one," he says, even during the morning rush hour. Designated H-4, it runs through narrow streets of row houses and a few shops and businesses, between the cemetery, just off North Capitol Street, and 19th Street NW. east of the zoo, in the geographical heart of the city. The riders are a mix of working people, students, shoppers and elderly people. Most of them are black.
Getting his choice of an easy route is one of Woodcock's rewards for being third from the toop in seniority at his garage, with 36 years on the job. He has had this route for five years.
"I spent a lot of time downtown (on the tough routes)," he said, his accent still marked by his childhood years in Pender County, N.C. "Plenty of time downtown."
What Woodcock dreads most of a run, he said, is "to see a drunk getting on the bus with an old beat-up transfer in his hand, two or three days old, and trying to get the fare out of him," Woodcock chuckled. "But don't get much of that on H4."
The worst thing that has ever happened to him as a bus driver, he said, was the time he got shot in the face at the end of the line of Pennsylvania Avenue. "This guy just turned around with a gun in his hand and shot me as he was getting off. It wasn't a robbery. We never did find out why he did it. Never caught him," Woodcock said. Fortunately, the gun was a tear gas gun, and his injury was from the wadding, not a bullet. The little white scar on his right jaw is still visible.
Generally, Woodcock said, "bus driving has been pretty good to me over the years. Some people, it gets on their nerves after a while and they have to get another job. But it's been good to me."
What Woodcock likes most about the job, he said, is "meeting people, pleasant people: and the paychecks, and the five or six weeks of vacation a year." He also enjoys the special charter work he does for Metro. The week of President Carter's inauguration, for example, he had the Idaho State Bank. "All week, Took Them to Ford's Theater, sighseeing, everywhere. Nice kids."
On his regular route Woodcock has a trick he uses to neutralize grumpy passengers. "If I see a person waiting at the stop, shivering with the cold or something, and I can just tell they're going to give me a hard time, I speak first, before they can say anything. I smile and say, 'Good mornin', how you been doin' this cold morning . . . ' And they usually smile back.But if you look like an old sourpuss; they'll complain about something."
Woodcock attributes his good relationship with passengers to two things: a simple belief in the Golden Rule, and his wife Naoma. "She gets gets me up every morning at 4 a.m. and she fixes me a hot breakfast. A lot of the other boys come to work without a hot breakfast. She deserves a lot of credit."
As the bus approached Adams Mill Road, a thin gray-haired rider on his way to senior citizens center discovered he had gotten his directions mixed up. Woodcock and some of the other passengers put their heads together and figured out where the man wanted to go. Woodcock let him off at a stop where he could transfer to the right bus.
At the end of the line, on Kenyon Street. Woodcock pressed a button that switched the bus's destination-sign from "19th St. Loop" to "Rock Creek Cemetery" and headed back eastward.The most difficult parts of his route are a left turn onto New Hampshire in heavy traffic, and a couple of hairpin turns on narrow residential streets.
For most bus drivers, he said probably the worst traffic problems are "cars getting between the bus and the curb when the bus is trying to turn right, and bicycles. I guess bicycles aggravate bus drivers more than anything. Just as you're about to pull up to the curb, you look in your mirror and see a bike coming. They slip in and out so you can hardly see them. I guess they don't like buses either.
In his youth, Woodcock worked on his father's farm, sawmill and strawberry crate factory, around Atkinson, N.C. Later, he and one of his brothers tried the pulp wood and trucking business together, but that didn't pay well.
In 1940, he moved to Washington to look for a job that was more profitable and not such back breaking work, he said, "something with a cargot that got on and off by itself."
He got a job a street car operator with Capital Transit, a forerunner of Metrobus. Except for a 2 1/2 year stint in the Army, he ran street cars from 1940 until they were taken off the streets in 1958. Woodcock then became a bus driver. He notes, proudly, that he has never "missed" or been late for work.
Woodcock and his wife, who works for the General Services Administration, live in a row house on Perry Place NE., near Catholic University. They are active in their church, Calvary Baptist, and other community organizations.
Back at the garage at about 1:30 p.m. his black lunch pail empty and his work day over. Woodcock inspected his dark-smudged hands and headed for the men's room to wash up. "I do believe the mechanics grease those steering wheels," he grinned, answering the greetings of other drivers.
He would go home to putter in his workshop, where he recently made an automatic door opener for his dog, and to dream of April in Dubrovnik."