Sterling Park's tiny commuter bus line and its estimated 120 or so riders backed into a public relations blitz this past weekend that left its smokers gasping for breath.
It began on Friday when two riders. Stephen Leeds and Jay Dismas, issued a manifesto stating they would not pay their fares until a no-smoking ban is enforced.
Unknown to the commuters on the three-bus line, one of their number. James E. Walters, is a reporter for the Associated Press.
"It's the sort of story you either play one Page One or throw away," said Walters, who immediately filed a 400-word story that ran in the early afternoon on AP's wire to hundreds of newspapers all over the U.S.
The Washington Star spotted it and sent a reporter and photographer to catch the afternoon bus for the bedroom community in eastern Loudoun County. On Saturday, the non-profit Sterling Commuter Bus Line as a Page One story, just as Walters anticipated.
On Monday, this reporter crawled out of bed at 6 a.m. to drive from Washington to Sterling Park in order to catch the bus into Washington. There was the hope of a Scene - smokers battling non-smokers in the aisle, heated discussion, community in turmoil, bus lines in crisis.
Instead, to the credit of the reasonable Sterling Park riders, there was a general bemusement and some wonder about what the shouting was all about. Most read newspapers or magazines. A few smoked on the back seats of the bus.
Leeds, who works for the National Conference on Social Welfare, sat quietly in the front away from the smoke.
Leeds and Dismas in early April had asked the line's board of directors for permission to conduct a poll or vote of the riders to decide if smoking should be allowed.
The tally showed 53 per cent against smoking and bus line president Paul Greeley interpreted it as a directive to ban smaoking.
Greeley issued a ban, which after a few days began to be ignored by the smokers who traditionally have sat in the back four rows on the bus and puffed away.
Board member Warren Geurin, a staff worker on the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee and a smoker, contended that the smoke or no-smoke measurement had been a poll, not a binding vote and that the board had not agreed to ban smoking.
Leeds and Dismas decided that if the smokers could challenge he rule on smoking, they could challenge the rule on paying fares. They had already purchased their $15 card good for 10 rides, but they are refusing to let the volunteer busmeister punch their cards.
"The board is in a quandary," said Leeds. "It's the first time anything like this has happened."
"There is confusion on the board and among the riders," said Geurin a busmeister.
The commuter line has called a meeting of its board and members for Thursday night to settle its policy on smoking.
Smoker-rider Linda McMullen said, "I can go without smoking but we're paying the same as others and I don't think we're bothering anybody." She said she would switch to a car pool out of principle if smoking is banned.
Non-smoking rider Bruce A. Budlong said. "It would be great if they didn't smoke but it doesn't bother me. I think there is plenty of room on the bus."
"I'll be happy to live with the outcome whatever it is," Leeds said. Greeley added, "I don't see it as being all that important. I'm a little concerned we've blown the whole thing out proportion."