Looking like a large, chrome bug, the bus lumbered to a stop, its air brakes hissing and its folding doors smacking back against their frames.
From inside, the weary bus driver cautiously looked over the small group of people, wearing rumpled coats and standing in the cold night drizzle, waiting to offer their crinkled paper transfers as payments for the fare.
With a patient nod and the tinkle of change in the farebox. Ricardo White, 25, a Metro bus driver for three years, welcomed his passengers on what the worst bus route in the city, day and night.
It is known as the "92" route, and its two-hour, round trip takes it through some of the city's most economically blighted areas. Along the way, there have been periodic assaults on the bus drivers by passengers, assults on passengers by passengers, larcenies, and incidents of unruliness by teen-agers and drunks. The route starts at the Duke Ellington Bridge in northwest, runs along U Street with its miles of crime statistics, and ends at 15th Street and Congress Place in southeast Washington.
"It's pretty rough out here - people snatch transfers and purses! curse the drivers: drunks act crazy, and teen-agers throw rocks and things at the bus," said White, a McKinley High School graduate who grew up near 8th and H Streets NE.
"Sometime ago, a dude got on the bus and said he was going to cut my throat. The guy sat a couple of seats in back of me with one of his hands in his pocket, but he never did anthing - I was lucky," he said.
"A female operator was knocked out cold once when someone threw a sweet potato through the window of the bus. If you tell another driver that you're going down into the jungle or downin the flats, another term for this route, he will know exactly what you mean," White said.
Martin Arthur, a driver for six years before becoming a Metro dispatcher, said drivers have been propositioned, threatened, beaten and robbed while driving the "92."
"If I could write a book about that line, people would laugh and say that's not true," he said. "All kinds of things happen. An elderly woman once smacked me upside the head with her umbrella a couple of years ago because the fares were raised," Arthur said."She couldn't get the company representative, so she got me.
"One time I picked up a guy - he must have been high - and he sat behind me, pulled out a long barrel 136 (caliber gun) and started waving it. Somebody had offended him at one of the pool halls, and he was waving the gun, saying he was going to shot the SOB. I was afraid it (the gun) would go off," Arthur said.
"Another time, in 1971, a fight that started in a club near 8th and H Streets NE continued when the people got on the buses," Arthur said. "There must have been about eight buses (on different routes) in the area that night and all the drivers stopped the buses and got out. The police came, but until everything cleared, we just sat in a park and watched them go at it."
So far this year, the "92" route has accounted for more incidents - six to date - than any other route in the city, Metro bus security officials said.
"Unfortunately, we know that not all incidents are reported to us or to the Police," said Charles Sine Jr., an inspector in Metro's bureau of security operations.
"When some personal item is missing, for example, was it misplaced, lost or stolen? Who knows? That's going to be even more of a problem in the next couple of weeks with the Christmas shoppers who ride the bus," Sine said.
Because of the 92's reputation, drivers make it their last choice when, on a seniority basis, they bid for routes two or three times a year.
What usually happens, drivers said, is that troublesome routes such as 92 go to new drivers and almost always to black drivers.
White, who was filling in recently for the regular driver who was on vocation, works the "night board," which means he substitutes on late-night routes. He said he's come to kinow the "92" as one of the worst, especially on weekends.
"It gets to you after a while and messes with your nerves," he said.
The route begins on Calvert Street at Connecticut Avenue NW, curves down 18th Street past a carryout once known as Eddie Leonard's. Route 92 then turns sharply onto U Street, which eventually joins Florida Avenue at 7th Street. The bus crosses seven major bus routes and passes fast food chicken restaurants, storefront churches, liquor stores and boarded buildings. It travels littered streets and passes the Success Cafe, just east of 14th and U Streets - the cafe's boldly lettered sign a rude reminder of unfilled promises in one of the poorest areas of the city.
The route turns south at Gallaudet College and heads down 8th Street NE to the Washington Navy Yard at M Street before crossing the 11th Street Bridge into Anacostia.
Once across the bridge, the route turns left on Good Hope Road, then right on Alabama Avenue to its final stop at 15th Stret and Congress Place in a quiet, deserted, poorly lit neighborhood.
Regular passengers on the 92 and its drivers complain about inadequate street lighting and security in some of the southeast residential neighborhoods.
"The lighting is bad, and I never see the police out here," said Reva Borwen, a domestic worker who rides the bus late at night when she leaves her job in downtown Washington.
"This is one of the worst routes in the city, and the trouble is at the end of line, I don't blame the drivers for not wanting to drive out here," she said.
"I didn't like the way things were out here 30 years ago and I don't like it now, but what can I do? Ain't no use t be afraid anymore," she said, as she gathered her shopping bags and a pocketbook before she got off the bus.
"I can't catch a cab out here, and I have to go to work to support myself, not don't I?"
John Robertson, a night security guard who normally rides the 92 bus to work at midnight, said that groups of restless teen-agers give the route its bad reputation.
"It's an upset to grown people who have to get back and forth to work, and we have to depend on ths bus," he said.
White said problems with some teen-agers have reached the point that he has seen other operators on the 92 change the bus route sign to "Not in Service" just before they reach the stop at 18th Street and Kalorama Road about midnight, when the National Roller Skating Rink at 17th and Kalorama Road NW closes.
"You know that a lot those kids are going to southeast (Washington) and they go wild, climbing in the windows, banging on the back door, and some just walk bodly in, refusing to pay," White said.
"We don't have any protection, and it's hard to find a cop," White said later. "I just try to protect myself, and when people get too rowdy I ask them to get off. The passengers are sometimes in danger because if anything happens to me, they may get hurt as well."
Angus MacLean, a spokesman for Metro's security division, said, "Periodically (the police) ride these buses . . . but we never have enough police to go around."
Instead, bus drivers can communicate directly by radio with Metro dispatchers who can call police. But the radio does not always offer immediate help and drivers offer immediate help and drivers complain that the radio is not a deterrent against crime.
"It's often that a getaway man from a crime will catch a U Street bus and the police have had to stop the bus sometimes to get him," said Mamie Williams, a dispatcher.
Later she teased a reporter about to ride the 92 route, asking him if he had taken out a life insurance policy and made out a will. "It can be really rough out there," said Williams, a drive for four years before she became a dispatcher.
As White drove the bus along the circular driveway at the Ellington Bridge rest station after one trip to Anacostia and back, he said, "You see all types of people on this route, many of them good decent people, but it only takes a couple of bad ones of spoil things."
He stopped the empty bus, its inside lights still glaring after the two-hour trip. The lights inside are so bright, White said, that he can see only straight ahead outside the bus at night.
He walked to the rear of the bus where teen-agers usually sit at night, picking up empty fist-smashed cans and larger clumps of trash.
"You can always tell when the bus has been on the U Street run. It seems like there has been a party back here," White said.
He returned to the front and sat down for what he said was his normal but too short seven-minute respite, before resuming the late-night run.
This night, White, a divorced father of two, has no time to call Chris, his fiancee, to tell her he is all right.
"She worries about me driving the bus and she likes for me to call when I get to the Calvert Street bridge," White said. "She knows how I am.
"I used to be really quick tempered and get all uptight, but not anymore," he said. "I just ignore the people." He sighed and turned on the ignition to start the return trip.
"I hope that I don't have to work this again tomorrow night," he said. "But I made the choice (to drive late night routes) when I picked the night board."