He is not behind the wheel of a Metrobus or on the platform of a Metrorail station, but Aurelio Bello’s work touches every corner of Washington’s transit system.
At Metro’s printing plant in Northeast Washington, Bello ensures a ready supply of Metro’s pocket guides, running the machines that print the pamphlets and then packing them for distribution to Metro’s 86 stations and 1,500 buses.
Even in the age of smartphones, the pamphlets remain a vital source of information for many Metro users, including the tourists who visit the nation’s capital.
And for decades, Bello, who at 87 is almost certainly Metro’s oldest employee, has been instrumental in ensuring that travelers have the information they need at their fingertips.
The monotony of the job might have long ago driven off someone else. But not Bello, who fills his days with verse, singing songs and writing poetry.
“The inspiration comes at unexpected times,” Bello said in Spanish. “When I am working, I often think of a nice verse, so I pick a piece of paper and write it down.”
When the machines take a break and silence returns to the warehouse, he often pulls one of those songs he has written.
“Voy a cantar.”
He is going to sing.
First in Spanish, then in English, and again in Spanish.
By 10 a.m., amid the occasional singing and writing, Bello has already packed a few thousand pocket guides. In his more than 30 years at the printing plant, Bello has folded and packed at least 100 million of them, co-worker Mike Schulz estimates.
“And that’s a conservative number,” said Schulz, 53, who has worked with Bello for more than two decades. “At his age, he outworks everybody in the shop.”
After three decades, Bello knows how to operate each piece of equipment in the bindery. And to the amazement of his colleagues, he still works like a man in his 30s, supervisor Tim McGowan said.
He walks slower and is not the strong 54-year-old who started as a bindery helper in 1979, just a couple of months after he emigrated from Cuba. But his productivity has not decreased, McGowan said.
“Not too many people are irreplaceable, but . . . he is irreplaceable,” said McGowan, 53, who has also worked at the print shop since 1979. “The younger generation just doesn’t work as long and hard as that man does.”
Colleagues describe Bello as tireless, hardworking and frugal. When a machine jams, they said, he removes the paper then flattens and reuses it. When an order of pocket guides is done — usually half a million — he works on bus schedules. On holidays, if no one reminds him not to show up at work, chances are he will.
Ask Bello whether he wants to retire and he gives no hint of such a plan.
“I plan to be here as long as my body is strong and I can do the job,” he said, wearing the transit system’s navy blue uniform and a Metro cap on his hairless head.
Before he came to the United States, Bello worked in a print shop in Havana.
He moved to Washington on Sept. 23, 1979, reuniting with his wife, Oria, and their only daughter, Ana Maria, who had left the island 11 years earlier.
Nearly 33 years later, though, the memories of Cuba move him. Its government gets him upset. Its people make him happy.
When he and his wife visited their homeland last month, his views of the government didn’t change, but he came back with stories about the people.
“Cuba’s beauty is not the beautiful beaches and nature,” he said tearfully as he lamented the regime of Fidel Castro, who led the country for 50 years. “It’s the people. They are living a life you can’t wish to anyone, and they still retain a sense of humor. They are not bitter.”
At the shop, colleagues welcomed Bello back from Cuba and were eager to hear about the trip. They have heard many stories about Cuba over the years, they said. Some co-workers who started at the print shop after Bello have already retired.
“Everyone tells me, ‘Why don’t you retire, muchacho?’ ” he said. “I tell them I am not working for the money. I am working because I feel useful. And not only that — at my age I need to exercise my muscles and my mind. I can’t sit in a chair at home, waiting for death.”
The ones that remain and have known him for years have started to believe the words they posted on a wall near Bello’s folding machine: “the secret to life is: pocket guides.”
But Bello said there’s no secret.
A typical day starts with him having a café con leche and ends with him watching a Nationals game. He reads and follows Cuban affairs closely; he questions why Marion Barry still wins elections; and he says he is voting for President Obama in November.
“He is up at 5 and in a hurry because he doesn’t want to get to work late,” said Oria, 81, his wife of 54 years, who drives Bello to work every morning.
During his lunch break at 11 a.m., Bello sits near the folding machines with his homemade sandwich, two bananas, and a pen and paper. He writes about love, women and life.
At work, he writes and performs a song at Christmas or for special occasions such as a retirement.
“Don’t judge my voice, just listen to the lyrics,” he often says apologetically. He closes his eyes to sing one of the more than 70 songs he has written. The songs are stamped in wrinkled pieces of paper, all sizes and colors, that he happened to grab when inspired.
The song “Tiempo,” or “Time,” describes Bello, his age, his aches, his gratitude:
“Tiempo, se que no somos eternos, pero gracias yo le doy al cielo, por al fin seguir viviendo. Seguir viviendo.”
“Time, I know we are not immortal, but I thank heaven because I’m still living. I’m still living.”