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There’s plenty of room on Metro’s new magic bus.

At 7:30 a.m. on Friday morning, Charlie Richardson sits behind the steering wheel of an idling No. 5A bus. As I step out of the December cold onto the bus, which will take me from L’Enfant Plaza to Dulles International Airport, Richardson welcomes me aboard with a genuine smile. I pay the modest $1.10 one-way fare and take a seat in the middle of the bus.

Since Dec. 4, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority—that’s Metro to you and me—has been offering what it calls a “first-of-its-kind” reverse-commuter service. The bus makes one trip an hour each way from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, with a more limited schedule on weekends. Metro officials hype this new service as “a tremendous opportunity” that “will give District residents the opportunity to access the growing job market in Northern Virginia,” including companies such as United Parcel Service (UPS), Argenbright Security, and Marriott.

Almost a year ago, Gladys Mack and D.C. Councilmember David Catania, District representatives on Metro’s board of directors, expressed an interest in providing D.C. residents with affordable public transportation to thousands of unfilled jobs in the Northern Virginia area. Since then, Metro has been working in conjunction with the District’s Department of Employment Services and the Department of Mass Transit to make reverse-commute express-bus service a reality.

And though I haven’t decided to give up my lucrative Washington City Paper post to deliver packages for UPS quite yet, I’m giving the 5A a try this morning to see what all the hoopla’s about. I’m wearing my spiffy Washington City Paper T-shirt underneath my jacket, and I’ve got my official-looking tape recorder in hand, so when the time comes for investigative journalism at its finest, everyone on board will know I’m for real.

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However, until I decide to blow my cover, I’m operating under my clever disguise as John Q. Busrider, taking the bus to my computer-oriented job at Gizmo Technologies Inc.

Across the aisle from me sits the only other passenger so far—a woman reading a book. As I inconspicuously take out my notebook and pen to make a diagram of the seating arrangements, a professionally dressed man steps on board. On his way down the aisle, he greets me with a personable hello, and I mark him down as “Friendly Guy.” Wondering if I’ve been made, I follow him as he takes a seat at the back of the bus. An older man, whom I mark down as “Other Guy,” pays his fare and sits down across from Friendly Guy.

I direct my eyes back up to the front, ready to document the next passenger. Much to my surprise, and with only four seats of more than 50 filled, Richardson throws the behemoth into gear. We’re off. After a quick stop at the Rosslyn Metro station, where we pick up a grand total of zero people, it’s “Next stop, Dulles.”

Once we’re comfortably on the road, I decide to settle back and take in some scenery. I slowly come to realize that the bleak landscape the Dulles Toll Road has to offer isn’t quite as breathtaking as I was hoping. The monotony of the ride makes me more restless with each passing moment, and soon I feel as if the barren trees are closing in on me. I break out in a sweat in the hyperheated vehicle and start squirming in my seat, as cabin fever sets in with half an hour yet to go in the advertised “55-minute” ride.

With a shake of my head, I force myself back into the warm, comforting reality that is the No. 5A bus. Deciding it’s in my best interest to make my move now, I scope out the scene for my first interview. Book Lady’s morphed into Sleeping Lady, making herself “unavailable for comment,” so I casually make my way to the back to get the scoop from the two passengers not visiting Slumber Land.

Enter Michael Thomas (aka Friendly Guy), a 32-year-old contractor working for Shugoll Market Research. I ask him if he’s “totally super-pumped” about this “first-of-its-kind” reverse-commuting bus, and after considering my thought-provoking question for a moment, he replies with a definite “Yes.” Thomas explains that he has never worked in the Dulles Corridor before, but now that the 5A provides him access to new and exciting job opportunities in the area, he can look forward to expanding his business.

Prodding even further, I ask if he thinks Richardson’s doing a kickass job in the hot seat. “Yes, he is,” Thomas responds. “The ride is very smooth.” And indeed it is. We take a moment to discuss Richardson’s driving prowess, and we both agree that we have a true ace behind the wheel.

As I interrogate Michael Thomas, Other Guy starts looking at me through frightened eyes. I turn my attention to him, and in only a few minutes, he opens up. Other Guy’s name is Cecil Thomas (no relation to Michael Thomas), and he’s a 52-year-old food

preparer for the airport. What does Cecil Thomas love most about the 5A? “It’s only $1.10!” he exclaims. “That’s cheaper than gas.”

Cecil Thomas tells me how he used to drive to work from D.C.—which took him at least an hour. The 5A, however, magically gets him to work in—get this!—about 45 minutes each morning. Do the math, and you’ve got 15 more minutes of precious sleep per day. Three cheers for Team Metro!

With the interview portion of my trip concluded, I return to my original seat. At the airport, I say goodbye to my two new pals. Sleeping Lady passes me without a word, and, despite her earlier standoffishness, I get the impression that she’s miffed I didn’t ask her any questions.

Once the bus is empty, I move up front to talk to Richardson. As if his good-natured disposition hadn’t won me over already, he tells me I can ride for free on the way back. Meanwhile, seven passengers on their way to D.C. shuffle on, clearly not all that excited about riding the 5A. I guess to these normal-flow-of-traffic folks, Richardson’s reverse-commuting bus isn’t all that impressive.

The ride back is quiet and uneventful. While I’m lost in the brilliance that is the new Radiohead album on my portable CD player, Richardson waves for me to come up front. I obediently follow his command, hoping he’ll ask me if I want to drive the bus. Instead, Richardson motions back toward the passengers.

“You want to know how good a driver I am?” Richardson asks, nodding to the rear of the bus. “Take a look back there.” So I do. And while Richardson’s getting cut off left and right in the middle of rush-hour traffic, everyone on board is resting soundly.

“They’re all asleep,” I whisper in disbelief. With a detectable amount of pride, Richardson responds, “That’s right.”

I retreat back into my own thoughts as Richardson takes us back to Rosslyn and thence to L’Enfant Plaza, where our time together comes to an end. The passengers file out, and I gear myself up for the final goodbye. I thank Richardson for the pleasant trip and promise that by the next week, I’ll have made him the star he deserves to be.

At which point, he asks me for the first time what paper I’m with, and I proudly display my fabulously fashionable City Paper T-shirt.

“The Washington City Paper?” he asks. “I’ve never heard of it.” CP