The huge, 11-ton Greyhound Americruiser pulled into Lane 8 at the District's downtown bus terminal, air brakes hissing as it came to a stop at 8:20 p.m. sharp.
Just another New York-to-Washington run for the red-white-blue and silver V8 hydromatic bus, another 227 miles in 4 hours, 20 minutes. The 328-horsepower engine purred, unwound. When the 16 passengers had gotten off, Al Spedden climbed back up the tiled steps and lingered for a moment in the four-way adjustable driver's seat.
Wednesday night was Spedden's last ride, the end of 38 years, 55,000 hours, 3.2 million miles. Countless thousands had left the driving to him, and he, a gently wrinkled man of 63 with gray, center-parted hair and eyes as blue as the vinyl seats in his bus, was darn glad to oblige.
"This is it," he said, his words running smooth and fast as if he, like his bus, had a toggle switch for fast idle. "I'm going down the road smiling."
The other drivers came to say goodbye, the "young fellers" as Spedden calls them--40-year-olds like Doug Andrews, an on-call driver with the gray dog for seven years, and younger ones like Bill Green, with only three years of service. They remembered how Dick Robinson retired after 45 years and, Andrews said, "Nobody even met him to shake his hand."
So they came to the steps to shake the hand of a good driver and a good man, one who carried, on his left hip, a puncher that made heart-shaped holes in his passenger's tickets.
"Happy holidays, happy motoring, happy retirement," said one blue-capped driver.
"Christ, it's going to be lonely without you," said another.
"Hell," said Spedden, "I practically raised you fellers."
"Hey, Al, enjoyed working with you, guy," one said.
"Tell my wife about it," joked Spedden. "She's just about ready to get rid of me."
Spedden took his briefcase to the office, filled out his last log and presented it to Dana Workman, the dispatcher. As Workman signed him off, Spedden opened the briefcase and took out an apple, an orange and a sack of potato chips.
"Here you go, Workman," he said. "I brought these back from New York for you. I know how you get hungry at night."
That is Spedden's style, a philosophy he saw crystallized late one night driving down the turnpike in words on a bumper sticker on the back of an 18-wheeler: "Smile and the whole world smiles with you. Cry and you cry alone."
His riders always appreciated the attitude. He remembers the one-legged woman from Bloomsburg, Pa., who rode with her crutches every day to Wilkes-Barre.
"She could curse a blue streak," Spedden said, but she brought doughnuts and coffee every morning, gave him a sterling silver tie bar one Christmas and two packs of cigarettes another.
One cold, snowy day, he got off the bus to help her on. "What the hell you doing?" she cried. "Here I am with three legs and you got only two."
And the two old ladies who rode with him to New York every three months or so for the last five years. "One day they said, 'Mr. Driver, you been so nice to us we want to give you a kiss,' " Spedden said. "I told them, 'Ladies, just help yourself.' "
There was the time a woman going to Scranton, Pa., started bleeding from the nose while the bus was on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Spedden pulled his bus down to the emergency ramp at University Hospital in Baltimore with a full load of passengers and saw that she was attended.
Heading past Cockeysville, Md., once, heavy winds from Hurricane Agnes blew a tree onto the top of his bus and cracked open the roof. Spedden drove all the way to York, Pa., with passengers bundled in raincoats. "Not a soul complained," Spedden said. "And when they got off they all shook my hand.
"Looking back, I think I done all right."
Spedden started driving a Greyhound for $2,800 a year and ended up earning $34,000. He was late to work once, in 1952, when his car had a flat. He was charged with responsibility for only one accident.
In 1980, he got a gold-plated watch with his name inscribed on the back and a greyhound on the front, a reward for 30 years of driving without a chargeable accident.
Now the man with an eighth-grade education, a former mechanic and street sweeper who came to Washington with his family from California in a Model T touring car when he was 3, is ready to lie back.
His kids are grown, one an Arlington police officer, one the manager of an Irving's sports shop in Virginia, one "a top secretary someplace in Crystal City."
"It's time the wife and I paddled out and relaxed a little, started life on our own," said Spedden. "I want to take her to Florida, to Disneyworld, maybe out West. Something new, something to break the monotony."
Naturally, they will travel Greyhound.