Where the Crack Dealers Meet the Flaming Commuter Bus

BusPhotos3The first rule in commuting is to survive the ride. This sublime truth is revealed to me as we pull into the park and ride lot in Front Royal just off of Route 66 after 12 hours in the city. My body feels like a wad of gum that has been chewed for several days and stuck on a bedpost overnight. Inert in my seat, I let my mind wander, trying to squeeze in a few more seconds of rest.

As the bus rounds the turn into the lot, I happen to look out the window. There’s no way we’re going to clear the enormous metal dumpsters—those sharp corners are heading our way fast, the turning angle all wrong.

Sure enough, we slam right into them. The impact sounds like a giant can opener ripping through an equally enormous tin can just under my window. I jump 10 feet out of my seat then check to make sure all my body parts are still there. I seem to be intact.

I clamber back into my seat and see that, despite the horrific screech of metal against metal, the bus’s outer shell has not torn all the way through. When I get off, I gawk at the eight-foot gash in the metal skin of the bus. Pink insulation sticks out everywhere like artificial guts. The driver gets off and paces up and down with his cell phone smashed into his ear, talking to the owners no doubt. I hear one of the other passengers say that today was the driver’s final test run—it had gone really well until that last turn, poor guy. The next day the owners can him.

I’ve decided that such incidents are to be expected. The bus service is run by a mom and pop operation that took up the route after a larger company abandoned it. Most of the passengers take the never-ending glitches in stride because it beats dealing with D.C. traffic from directly behind the wheel. Personally, I think Buddha is testing us. Once again, I remember his assertion that life is suffering.

So when the front windshield falls in onto the driver one morning, no one blinks an eye. Somehow he pushes it back up into place for long enough to finish the drive. And when the same driver pulls over and goes around to the back of the bus to check on something, then comes back with his head gashed and bleeding, it hardly causes a stir. He finishes his route with no problem.


Then there’s the morning the bus skids wildly in a pouring rain and the driver almost loses control. We’ve blown tires and had to stop in the dark to change them. We’ve broken down in the middle of city traffic and had to get off so the bus could be towed away. We’ve gotten a jump from a traffic cop in the middle of the summer on a packed route 66. We’ve had no air conditioning on 95 degree days. We’ve joked about scooping water from the Tidal Basin in D.C. to cool the engine off when it overheats.

Oddly, many of these incidents seem to happen on the days when I don’t ride. On the days I do ride, standing with the other passengers at 4:30 a.m. in the park and ride lot, I always start a conversation like this:

“So, what happened yesterday?”

“Oh, yeah,” someone will say, “broke down after Linden,” or “almost hit a bike,” or “bus caught on fire.”

Wait, that last one takes us to a new level.

“Yes,” one of the bus managers tells me, as we wait for the evening bus back from Rosslyn. “One of the new drivers, who obviously doesn’t know what he’s doing, left the break on and it burst into flames. They kept telling him to remember to let out the break but it didn’t make an impression.”

I’m picturing a tiny little fire in the engine when she says, “the bus was barbequed. Lost a bunch of seats. It’s out of commission.”

Okey dokey. “And the passengers?”

“They pulled over and got them off just in time.”

Well, then, no problem. I say a thank you to my higher power right then and there that the drivers on my morning and evening routes seem to be fairly professional. The other two routes are not so lucky.

Then, with an awful sinking feeling, I wonder if the burned up bus is where all of my missing pillows have been hiding. If so, they’re toast now. Goodbye, baby blue satin throw pillow handmade by mom.

It hits me that after two full years riding this bus back and forth to D.C. for 140 miles roundtrip three days a week, I deserve a freakin eagle scout badge or something. Do they make a badge for middle aged moms riding public transportation for three hours a day? If not, then the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Camp Fire Girls need to get their shit together.

The first month I rode, I didn’t have a car and so couldn’t drive myself to the park and ride lot. I had to call a cab every night. Jose could have driven me but I didn’t want him dragging Maggie out of bed at 4 a.m.


Those cab rides motivated me to buy the first car I’ve ever owned on my own. So, in the same year that we got a new house just after my 40th birthday, I also got my first car, a 1998 black Subaru Forester. It’s a sturdy, no-nonsense vehicle—just what I needed. I immediately slapped a bunch of leftie bumper stickers on the back along with a sparkly Tinkerbell decal for Maggie. No point in hiding my political orientation.

My cab rides weren’t so bad really. But something about having to call the cab company every night and then be taken to the park and ride just drove me nuts. I wanted to go under my own power. Since I have never driven much, I practiced the route with Jose a dozen times before I was ready to tackle it on my own.

I was astonished that a 24-hour cab company existed in Front Royal. How could they afford to operate? It seems that there is never a shortage of late night partiers in our little town. Several cabbies told me about drunk passengers throwing up in their cars or being abusive. One guy described how much the town has grown and how quiet it was ten years ago. “There wasn’t nothing here,” he proclaimed. “That’s why I liked it.”

As we glided past downtown churches in the dark at 25 miles an hour, another told me, “You’d be surprised at the bad stuff that goes on here. This ain’t no innocent little town.” That seems true enough. All you have to do is look at the Indictments page of the local newspaper to know that wheeling and dealing just under the surface of this beautiful place are crack peddlers, meth makers, weapons movers, and a slew of sex offenders.

I liked talking with these cabbies. They knew a lot more about my new town than I did. All of them were courteous. And I never got the young one-armed driver who eventually drove into the storefront of a law office on Main because he fell asleep at the wheel.

Often, though, I felt a huge gap between me and the person in the seat in front of me. One woman, who smoked the whole time she was driving, sounded miserably unhappy, resigned to a job that was taking her nowhere. She complained that apartment prices were getting too high.

On the last ride I had, when my car was in the shop, the driver told me he really could write a book about all the crazy people he’s picked up. He preferred the day shift, when folks were nicer, but had agreed to do the graveyard shift that night. I told him I hoped he would write that book because I would definitely buy it.

Now there’s a new smoke-free Yellow Cab company in town. I call them instead of the other company just to avoid the cigarette smoke. It’s a refreshing change. Until my car decides to break down, though, I’ll keep driving myself to meet the “luxury motor coach” that I hope will stay on the road, all in one piece, and away from fires.

Or maybe I should keep a bag of marshmallows, a slab of ribs, and some spicy bourbon-infused BBQ sauce on me just in case.

-Heather Davis


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