Signs at the front of the A-6 Archives and 92 Calvert Street buses plainly admonish riders to observe the usual decorum of mass transportation: No smoking, drinking, eating, littering, or playing radios without earphones. But, one the A-6 and 92, the rules are broken so often drivers hardly bother to police.
Consistent overcrowding and the rowdy, often comical sometimes criminal behavior that shares the ride on the two lines have given them the kind of notoriety that most Metrobus drivers dread.
Understanding the A-6 and 92, at once more vibrant and more dangerous than other routes in the city, means knowing who is doing the riding. For one thing, Metro spokesmen say most of the people who ride the A-6 and the 92, both of which serve far Southeast Washington, do not own cars. To them, the bus is their own personal means of transportation, which they just happen to share with scores of other people from their neighborhood or community. Whether they're traveling from one part of Southeast to another, visiting friends, going to school, home or on their way downtown to work or shop, they feel free to do whatever anyone would do in his own car. That could range from slugging back a bottle a beer, smoking a cigarette -- legal or illegal -- or engaging in loud, perhaps profane conversation.
A-6 driver John Johnson, a bus system veteran, sees both comedy and pathos on his bus. "A lot of the riders are young and they play their music loud and they have loud mouths," he said. "Some of them have a good sense of humor; but most of them are clowns and they can be pretty annoying sometimes.
"Basically, the passengers who break the rules, by smoking cigarettes and doing everything else they feel like doing . . . are just trying to enjoy the ride." But since drivers with the least seniority usually end up being assigned to the A-6 and 92 -- and other similarly bothersome routes -- it seems safe to assume their uninhibited nature makes driving these two lines an experience about as welcome as boxing a polar bear.
Many passengers use the bus as an escape hatch, said Ben Ashton, an eight-year veteran who has driven both. "For the majority of the people who ride these buses, this is their limousine, their hotel on wheels," he says. "I've seen many of them just ride all day. They've got nowwhere to go, nothing to do."
Many of them, he adds, are either unemployed or underemployed, which not only makes for some special pressures on them, but moves some to run some special games on the drivers. "When a passenger gets on the bus and starts disputing a fare charge or when someone tries to get a free ride by crashing the back door of the bus, they might be just trying to stretch their money and their luck," he said.
Many of the disturbances that take place on the A-6, Johnson added, are due to the desperation of a segment of society that lives day to day on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. "One thing about driving the bus," he said, "You see how people who have been poor all their lives are suffering from inflation, (and) how the problems of surviving day to day is getting next to them.
"You can see the frustration in their faces. A lot of the loud talking and rowdiness is just a release for them." The frequent robberty attempts and pickpocketing that occurs on the A-6 and other buses in Southeast Washington are outward signs of desperation, he says. Metro does not break down crime figures for individual routes.
In a sense, that two routes can be said to travel courses that eventually link a world of have-nots with official, professional Washington. The A-6 Archives begins its travels through the District at South Capitol Street and Southern Avenue SE. The 92 Calvert Street starts from the corner of 15th Place and Congress Place SE. The A-6 and the 92 routes push through some 20 miles of urban territory-through Congress Heights, down Martin Luther King Avenue, around the winding streets of the Valley Green public housing development, across the 11th Street Bridge, down Constitution Avenue and across the U Street corridor. Each bus picks up and delivers passengers at sidewalk curbs along some of the city's most densely populated low-income neighborhood streets as well as at some of Washington's federal government thoroughfares.
Regular riders are accustomed to coping with the sometimes bizarre behavior of the back-of-the-bus crowd, a virtual subculture. Mostly young and middle-aged men, they head to the back of the bus to talk amongst themselves, listen to music, flirt with women sitting or standing toward the front of the bus and to smoke and drink on their trip through the city. It's common fare to see these men drinking whiskey, beer, or wine, smoking marijuana or cigarettes, playing loud music and belting out boisterous conversation from their mobile sitting room in the back of the bus.
Last Friday morning, around 8:30 in the morning, it was young men creating a commotion aft of an A-6. A teen-ager smoking a Newport on his way to Ballou High School was sitting between two women near the rear of the crowded bus when a friend boarded the standing-room-only bus and squeezed his way to the back. The two young men greeted each other enthusiastically with a vigorous soul brother handshake. By the time the friend sat down on the rear row, the first rider had already taken a Coca-Cola bottle from one of the large pockets in his beige canvas coat and passed it ot him, leaving a strong scent of alcohol in the air.
"You going to school today, man?," the first young friend asked after taking a swig from the bottle.
"Yeah I'm going, man," the other answered. "But, if it rains, I'm going home." Not atypical.
Usually, by the time the A-6 bus pulls up to the end of the line and parks alongside the U.S. Department of Justice at 10th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and the 92 ends its journey near the Duke Ellington Bridge (the old Calvert Street Bridge) in Northwest, more than 200 passengers will have ridden either bus. On their return trips, the two buses change their respective names -- the 92 become "Garfield" and the A-6 "Livingston."
While the 92 is best known for loud conversation, arguments about sports or other subjects prone to strong personal differences, and the litter passengers leave strewn from their eating and drinking, the A-6 is known for its dangerous encounters with teen-agers. All too often, when the A-6 drives through the Valley Green public housing development or Condon Terrace, another tough, low-income neighborhood, teen-agers stand in bold arrogance in the street blocking traffice and consequently delaying in the bus along its route.
In Condon Terrace, they routinely hurl bricks and rocks against the bus windows. "The brick throwing is such a common occurrence that Condon Terrace is known as 'Brick Alley,'" says Lloyd Smith, superintendent of Metro's Southeastern Garage. "We've had numerous broken bus windows in that area."
Ashton, whose seniority allows him to stick to daylight driving along the routes, said the event-filled lines leave drivers on their own to decide how to handle sensitive situations. "You never know what will happen. Often there's a lot of noise and distraction on the bus, but sometimes (for safety) you've got to tune it out." Most of the time, he said, a driver will ignore passengers causing disturbances in order to keep from aggravating the situation. At other times, when drivers cannot tune out infractions because the entire bus is threatened to erupt, they choose a course.
"A bus driver can either try to reason with a passenger who is smoking marijuana or playing music or making a lot of noise, or he can call the (Metro system) central dispatcher, or he can flag down a police office on the street," Ashton said. "Each driver uses his own discretion in a given situation." But, he adds, most of the time drivers just keep driving.
An instance. On a crowded A-6 racing across the 11th Street Bridge in Southeast heading downtown last week, two men, both about 25, held a few playing cards in their hands and loudly jeered at the passengers to either side of them. "Who feels lucky this morning?" one called loudly. "Take a chance on $5. Pick the right card and you win." Though the men were causing a considerable disturbance, the driver did not ask them to quiet down.
After several minutes of the challenging, the men could see that the crowd was not eager to play their game. "Hey now, come on, I know somebody here feels lucky," one finally urged. "We need $5." At the next stop, they hurriedly got off the bus through the back door, and waited for another load of bus riders to tempt.
Though much of the action on the A-6 and 92 obviously disturbs both the drivers and the other passengers, Sandra Walker, 25, who frequently rides the A-6 Archives to a downtown insurance company where she works, said some of it is quite amusing. And if it's not, well, you go with the flow. "This is just like a traveling comedy show," she said on a recent ride. "People in the back of bus realy just party to keep from being bored. If it bothers you, you just try to keep your cool and live and let live."