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As soon as the driver of the 32 bus opens the front door at 4th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue SE, a huge man with a red walrus mustache and rat’s-nest hair storms up the stairs. He wears a sweaty flannel shirt and a necklace, and he’s trailed by a second, even huger man in a dirty leather vest. The pair look like bad-tempered bouncers or undercover cops, which in fact is exactly what they are.
Red Mustache barks to the driver: “Open the back. We gotta to take someone out the back.” He flips the necklace around, exposing a gold badge, then rushes down the aisle, pointing at a man cowering in the last bank of seats. The cop unleashes his best Dennis Franz voice: “Step off, man! Step off!” The two officers collar the suspect, grab his backpack, and march him out the back exit. The rear door shuts and the driver pulls away. Less than 15 seconds have elapsed.
The passengers—about a dozen of us—gape. An old woman sitting at the front mutters, “We could have been shot on the bus. We could have been shot on the bus.” Next to her, two German tourists jabber excitedly in their native tongue. They probably didn’t expect this when they boarded a few blocks ago—how many daytime bus arrests occur in downtown Bonn?—and they’re thrilled to be at the center of the action. One of them turns to the driver and asks, “Can zee police do zat on zee bus?” The driver nods, laughs, and keeps driving the 32 up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol.
All the guidebooks agree: The best way to see Washington is to buy a ticket from Tourmobile or Old Town Trolley and go for a spin along the city’s grand avenues. But if you want to really see the District, hop the 32 Metrobus at Shipley Terrace, slide a dollar in the fare machine, plop down in an uncomfortable faux-leather seat, and ride. In 90 minutes, you’ll cross the city from far Southeast to far Northwest, from east of the river to the federal core to west of the park. A public transportation fanatic’s wet dream, the 32 rumbles through the city’s richest and poorest neighborhoods, and carries just about everyone who rides the bus in D.C., from lawyers to senior citizens, from construction workers to, apparently, drug dealers.
It’s 10:04 a.m. when D.W. Bumpass, the awkwardly named driver, warms up Bus 9631’s engine and starts the 32’s trek from Shipley Terrace to Friendship Heights. The route begins at Southern Avenue and 22nd Street SE, along the southeastern boundary of the city. A neighborhood of small, semidetached houses and low-slung apartment complexes, Shipley Terrace sits just across the street from Prince George’s County. But it belongs heart and soul to the District, to Ward 8, and to Marion Barry. Though the mayor-for-life won re-election six long months ago, his green-and-white signs still decorate telephone poles throughout the neighborhood.
About 10 of us climb on Bumpass’ bus. Everyonoe but me is black—hardly a surprise in an area that is about 95 percent African-American. Several riders are senior citizens. The others are young women dressed in professional clothes, bringing up the tail end of the morning commute.
Bumpass steers through Shipley Terrace’s quiet streets to the decidedly unquiet corner of Alabama Avenue and 23rd St., home to the Xpress Foodstore and Jerry’s Carryout. A St. Ides malt liquor truck is unloading in the parking lot, and even though it’s barely past breakfast, several men are lounging on car fenders and drinking from bottles inside brown-paper bags. One young woman in front of me stares out the bus window and talks anxiously to her seatmate about gunfire she heard last night. “My mother got home from her Bible study at 10:40 p.m. The shooting was at about 11. Just think about that,” the woman says. “Nowhere is safe. I wear my running shoes on the bus. As soon as I get off, I run over to my house.”
The 32 meanders through half-a-dozen east-of-the-river neighborhoods. It cruises through Garfield Heights, where Garfield Elementary School’s students are filing onto buses for a field trip, and heads into Naylor Gardens, a hilly area of detached houses and apartment complexes (all of them named “New Something” or “Something Horizons”). It chugs past Charity Baptist Church (which admonishes “Get Sanctified in ’95”), skirts the crime- and poverty-plagued streets around Fort Stanton, and descends into Anacostia and Fairlawn.
The seats gradually fill with passengers: a young mother and her twin daughters; a yin-yang couple—boyfriend all in black, girlfriend all in white; a handful of retirees. Bumpass leaves one elderly gentleman in front of the Sho-‘Nuff Barber Shop on Minnesota Avenue, hangs a quick left onto Pennsylvania Avenue, and deposits a few more seniors in front of the cosmetics store.
The Sousa Bridge, which spans the Anacostia River, is our next landmark. It is the District’s Checkpoint Charlie, where impoverished, ignored east-of-the-river D.C. meets prosperous west-of-the-river D.C.
Until now, we’ve been motoring along at 20-25 mph—not Speed material perhaps, but enough to blow a breeze through the open window. Now construction slows the bus to a walking pace. The pause allows plenty of time to contemplate the bridge’s melodramatic vista. On its southern side lie the verdant fields of Anacostia Park. On its northern side looms the dark tower of D.C. Jail.
Finally the 32 arrives on the west bank, at the eastern edge of Capitol Hill. Bumpass drops a dozen riders at the Potomac Avenue Metro station. (This exodus illuminates why Washingtonians east of the Anacostia complain a lot about bus cuts and those west of it don’t. Metro trains barely cross the river. Many of the 32’s riders take the bus just to get to the train.)
Bus 9631 speeds up Pennsylvania Avenue. A minor panic seizes some riders as the bus approaches Hine Junior High School at Eastern Market. Someone spies a clump of adolescents waiting near the bus stop. “Oh no, schoolchildren! Schoolchildren!” yells a man in the back, as if he had spotted a group of sharks. But it’s a false alarm. The kids are just loitering. Instead we collect the two German tourists, the first whites on the bus besides me.
The bust follows three blocks later. Just as the thrill of the arrest subsides, the 32 undergoes its first major terrain shift. It leaves behind warm red-brick rowhouses for the frosty white stone of federal Washington. Here the bus does a little Tourmobiling of its own, whizzing by the Capitol, the Botanic Gardens, and the Air and Space Museum, crossing the Mall on 7th Street NW (narrowly missing a herd of teen-agers), picking up Pennsylvania Avenue again, and traveling the hypotenuse of the Federal Triangle to the White House.
The ridership changes as dramatically as the landscape. I am the only passenger remaining from the east-of-the-river leg. About 10 black women disembark at the federal office buildings. They are replaced by several confused tourists, a pair of middle-aged men in suits—Department of Justice lawyers?—and a few Latino construction workers who just came off a shift at the incomplete federal building at 13th Street.
Departing the federal playland, the 32 roars into Foggy Bottom. We go by a Starbucks, one of—count ’em—five on the route and run a gauntlet of hideous office buildings between 17th and 22nd Streets, all seemingly built by tasteless plutocrat Oliver Carr.
Bumpass finally loses the tourists on M Street and Wisconsin Avenue. All of them make a beeline for the Georgetown Park Mall (come to Washington: shop in a mall). We pick up a foursome of high school students who’ve either cut school or escaped from a class trip. A right on Wisconsin leads us through the Gap ghetto—Timberland, Britches, and Country Road—and into Milan on the Potomac, a row of men’s clothing stores, each sleazier than the next. All of them permanently advertise “50-70 percent off!” sales and stock $99 Italian suits, the kind worn by mobsters’ loser cousins.
This is Georgetown, so even humble bus riders must endure some bit of unbridled pretension. For Bus 9631, it happens between Q Street and Reservoir Road where orange cones block the right lane. Is it pothole repair? A new sewer line? Not exactly. A backhoe is tearing up the perfectly functional cement sidewalk and a crew is replacing it with charming, photogenic, ankle-twisting brick. (The crew demonstrates D.C.’s legendary efficiency: Three people are laying brick; three are supervising; and three are taking a water break.)
Finally, an hour and 15 minutes after we left Shipley Terrace, the Metrobus hits the home stretch. Bumpass deposits several Latinas in front of the Carlos Rosario Adult Education Center and collects three Chinese women carrying English grammar books, an elderly black woman, and a middle-aged white woman. (Even in white west-of-the-park, the 32 remains a bean-counter’s dream.)
The 32 enters the Twilight (of Life) Zone. Between the National Cathedral and Macomb Street, geriatrics flood the bus. Some tote shopping bags from Murphy’s and Giant. Others, probably Wisconsin Avenue Nursing Home residents, are dressed for an outing in tweed suits that smell of mothballs.
The bus heads north past Sidwell Friends School—lots of teen-age girls in sight, but neither hide nor frizzy hair of Chelsea—past Fannie Mae’s colonial campus, past the Tenleytown Metro Station, and into the swank shopping district around Mazza Gallerie. At 11:34, a couple of minutes behind schedule, Bus 9631 turns right on Western Avenue and docks at the Friendship Heights terminal, exactly 90 minutes, 10 miles as the crow flies, and an entire city away from where it started.