Go to Sleep; For Homeless Riders on Mr. Wonderful’s Bus, The Final Destination Is Slumber
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Originally Published September 11, 2005
Text Word Count: 3338
See that lady on the bus, back there. The lady with the long black-brown braids, with red wine lipstick and feet so swollen they seem to melt into puddles, spilling over her black shoes.
See her backpack, her home on her lap. She is wearing a jacket, despite a heat index of 106.
Don‟t stare. But notice that after the bus made its last stop, the lady is still riding, curled up in that blue plastic seat, her head tucked beneath her arms, like the folded wings of a sleeping bird.
And if you rode all night, you would notice that when the bus gets to the end of the line and turns around for its next run, she does not get off, but keeps riding.
On that bus going down Georgia Avenue, you notice another woman sitting with dignity, and then you look at her feet, and notice although they are covered by red fishnet stockings, they, too, are melting into puddles.
There is a man up front with a lump on his head. He is afraid to go back to the alley where teenagers kicked him and stole his last dollar. His feet have become puddles, too.
They are riding this bus, a nocturnal bed, a shelter of suspension, where they sit in different states of nyctitropism, in one position by day and in another by night. Traveling to whatever distant land sleep brings; but also going nowhere, as this bus rocks and swings, cutting the night as it cuts across the city.
And here is Mr. Wonderful, the bus driver. They call him that because he allows them the peace of this sleep, does not shout at them. He just lets them ride all night, undisturbed until he ends his shift at 3 a.m.
When Mr. Wonderful gets to his final stop, the final motion of the bus gently wakes the woman with her head folded beneath her broken wings, and she steps off on her swollen feet, sinking into the dark. She shuffles to the brightest-lighted bench at the Metro station, where she passes the woman with the gray wig who is sleeping standing up. On her regular bench, she will sit for an hour, wide awake for fear that if she closed her eyes, predators who lurk here would come out of the darkness and get her.
So she sits from 3 to 4, the frightening hour, when no city bus runs. And when 4:13 a.m. arrives, she climbs aboard another bus and it rocks her back to sleep.
In this city with little affordable housing and not enough space in shelters, advocates for the homeless say there are people out here waiting at dark corners and well-lighted places, waiting for the next bus. Waiting to climb aboard, pay the fare, curl up and go under in sleep.
But one wonders how they sleep such trusting sleeps, when strangers sit around them fighting their own sleepless demons.
They say all living things need sleep. Anyone deprived of sleep can become irritable, may hallucinate. So you pose the question: If the homeless don‟t really get good sleep, how can they gain relief from the oppression and torture of the day?
Angela Warrick, who has been homeless more than two years, boards the bus at 10:13 on a midsummer night, and gets a transfer, a thin film of paper. It‟s like a hotel room key. “You can pay $1.25, get a transfer and ride all night,” she says.
“If Mr. Wonderful is here, he would be right on time.”
But Warrick just got word from another homeless person who rides his bus that Mr. Wonderful‟s route has been switched.
This poses a problem. Other drivers might not let her sleep. There is no formal policy on homeless people sleeping on moving buses, say Metro officials. But drivers are supposed to empty their buses when they get to the end of the line. “If somebody on board is sleeping, the bus operator may ask the person to get off the bus because it is no longer in revenue service,” says Candace Smith, a Metro spokeswoman. Would drivers get in trouble if they let people sleep? “If there was a complaint, we would investigate the complaint. But there is no law against sleeping on a bus,” Smith says. “Generally, we do
not encourage people to sleep on a bus for security reasons. We want them to be aware of their surroundings.”
If Warrick cannot find Mr. Wonderful tonight, she wonders how she is supposed to get a good night‟s sleep. Other drivers can be rude.
“This is the end of the line, baby,” one driver says. “I‟m out of service.”
“I don‟t care whether you go home, but y‟all got to get the hell up out of here,” another driver says.
“Sir! Sir! Sir!” the driver shouts, stirring a man who won‟t wake up. “I‟m trying to go home.”
Warrick never meant to be out here “in this situation,” on this street searching for Mr. Wonderful. She had a “normal life,” as normal as life can be. She went to Howard University, studied business administration. Got married. Became a mother. Got divorced. Had a job in the D.C. government. Then Mayor Anthony Williams RIFfed the office and she got laid off. She found one temp job but that ended when funding ran out. She applied for several office jobs, but couldn‟t get hired. Her age, she suspects. She fell
behind on the rent for her Southwest Washington townhouse, and when the landlord found out she didn‟t have a job . . . well, business is business, and she and her teenage son were out on the street.
Warrick, who has Lena Horne skin, like those women pictured on jars of cold cream, talks with a charming Carolina accent. When she was young, her mother died and she moved to Baltimore to live with her older sister. Now, Warrick is 60 and both her parents are dead. Her sister is 80 and living off Social Security out of town.
“And all my brothers are dead. The issue is, where would I go?” Her ex-husband has
disappeared. “If we knew where he was, we could have gone after him for child support, but we don‟t.” He hasn‟t seen his son, she says, “since the child was little.”
She refuses to go to shelters because she says they are dangerous. How can she sleep in a room full of strangers? “I spent one night in John Young Center at Second and D. The people in there fought all night. I wasn‟t sure I‟d make it to morning.”
She and her son, then 16, started boarding buses and subway trains for sleep. Sometimes they would take the Red Line. Her son would sleep, and she would watch
over him, so that he could get enough rest to work an overnight job and attend high school. He never told anyone at his school that he and his mom were homeless. Although he often fell asleep in class, he graduated this past spring. She said he plans to attend Howard University.
He‟s now 18, and didn‟t want to be a part of this article. “He can‟t take this situation,” Warrick says. Still he is polite, the kind of kid who gives his mother a hug to say goodbye.
During the day, she and her son both work. He‟s a waiter at a downtown restaurant.
She‟s a greeter at a nearby multiplex, where she smiles and stands on her one good foot for seven hours, at least 30 hours a week, for minimum wage, greeting moviegoers, tearing their ticket stubs. “Across the lobby and to your left.”
Together, she says, she and her son are trying to save enough to find a place to put their feet up.
“Between my little minimum wage and his, we should be able to find something,” she says. “But places in Washington are so expensive. To get help from the government, they tell you you have to be mentally challenged or on alcohol or on drugs. If you are not any of that, they look at you like you crazy, like, „Why are you out here?‟ “
But for a good night‟s sleep, we could all go crazy, lose some grip on the world. How much sleep is enough? How much is too little? Warrick says she has heard people say that if you‟re not crazy when you land on the street, you will be when you come off it.
Above all else, as Warrick roams the street in search of Mr. Wonderful, she is trying to maintain her sanity. To be out here too long can break you. Something snaps, and you don‟t know where it went, and you can‟t get it back and then you are gone.
And you won‟t know where to look to find you.
Chronology doesn‟t exist here, in the night: This bus is a flying bed, bumping
through the city with strange companions.
There is a man in the fourth row back. Beads of sweat are popping from his forehead as if he were on a treadmill, but he is sitting still. He spits on the floor. He punches the air, an invisible enemy.
A woman with wine-colored hair dodges the jab: “Y‟all need to put him off the bus before he get his [butt] whupped,” she says loud enough, but to no one in particular.
Below the bright lights and the billboards, and above the screech of the tires and the ding of bells to request stops, faces are frozen in thought, staring out the window on Georgia Avenue as the fried chicken places, and all-night Chinese food joints, and car dealerships and houses with For Sale signs growing in their front yards flash by. And what if you need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night? Where do you go, if your bed is flying? Try all- night drugstores, copy centers, restaurants.
On this bus, lines of intimacy are crossed, people are squeezed together, as you sit on a seat warmed by the previous passenger. A man in an olive shirt with his zipper undone and mucus coming from his nose sits in the first seat, wraps his arms around himself. Then rocks and cries; deep sorrowful cries with no sound. A little girl with two braids tied by white beads stares at the man. Little girls out at this time of night riding a city bus have an innate sense about them: They know when it is time to get up and move. The girl moves to a seat behind a white woman.
A skinny woman gets on the bus and a young man follows her. The woman shouts:
“Sit down here, Eddie!” And Eddie sits and you notice his face is swollen.
And the woman starts: “Y‟all been friends for a long time. Let me see your face. I don‟t raise no kids like that. I‟m going to put his [butt] out of the house. Let [him] go to jail. You think I‟m going to get him out?”
And nobody answers her question because nobody but Eddie knows what she is talking about.
“Let me see your eye. Y‟all been arguing?”
Eddie says no.
The woman continues. “I got to go to work tomorrow, and ain‟t this some [expletive] …. Were y‟all fighting in the house?”
You figure she is talking about her son who got the best of Eddie, but you don‟t know the full story because the bus lurches to a stop and she and Eddie get off at the Safeway.
The woman with the wine-colored hair turns to the man who is now swatting at flies that are not on this bus. “Y‟all ought to get his [butt] off the bus, spitting … you have one time to grab my hair.” Pause. “One time!” Squinting eyes: “You ain‟t that damned crazy.”
The man looks at her and mouths words that don‟t come out quite right. Then he wraps his arms around himself and cries like an 8- year-old boy. His face all screwed up. Except no tears.
Warrick steps off the bus where Georgia meets Florida Avenue. She heard that Mr. Wonderful was driving the 96. Word on the street is often more accurate than the 6 o‟clock news.
“The worst thing Mr. Wonderful could have done was let them switch him,” she says. Bus after bus pulls up. But none is driven by Mr. Wonderful. The night is hot and musty.
She does not remember the exact night she found Mr. Wonderful, but it was glorious. “I got on the bus one night and saw that this particular bus driver didn‟t say to get off. I
saw the other people so I just stayed on.”
And that‟s how her time with Mr. Wonderful began. One night they met. He was nice. He treated her with a kind respect. He wasn‟t mean. Treated her better than she had been treated before. He let her ride. The best sleep she had in a long while. And when it was over, he did not ask her to leave. Did not shout at her or push her out the door. So she kept coming back.
“He could just roll through there, and it would be just as pleasant as can be,” she says. “They upset the apple cart when they switched him. He‟s such a nice man. He doesn‟t give anybody any trouble.”
She thinks she saw his bus pass, but she was on the wrong side of the street. And by the time she crossed the street to chase him down, the bus was already gone, heading into the thick of Adams Morgan on a Friday night.
That was just before the storm.
A peal of thunder hits the avenue. A blue line splits the sky.
The streets can tear sanity to shreds, leave you like the woman who sleeps standing up.
Leave you swatting at invisible flies.
Leave you in the fourth row of the bus, screaming at a man who has lost his mind, as
though your screaming will make a difference. Leave you wondering whether the man who seems to appear at every bus stop is following you.
Warrick has just signed out a peace order against a man who is following her, hit her in the back when she was on another bus, threatened her. She displays a copy.
She wants more than anything not to go crazy.
Earlier, at a program for homeless women in a church basement where she goes to shower, she encountered the others. While women waited for hot-dog dinners, they played bingo. A white woman in a denim jacket poured two cups of coffee into an orange water bottle. She poured a little into a cup and swirled it, then poured it back into the bottle. She did this five more times before she drank the coffee.
A woman behind her walked by. “I was one number from winning . . . and she bingoed. And we supposed to be cousins. [Expletive] her.”
Warrick whispered: “These are shelter people.”
Someone delivered her a bologna sandwich in a plastic bag. The organizer promised a week of events: Lawyers on Tuesday, a game on Wednesday and a movie on Thursday, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” The women cheered.
Warrick asked a woman with eyes painted hot pink whether she stays in a shelter.
“You have to get up and leave,” Warrick said, “otherwise you will go crazy in there.”
“I‟m already a little crazy,” whispered Christi, the woman with pink eye shadow and
She said this sincerely.
Warrick was not sure how to react. Christi did not laugh. “Crazy, how?” Warrick asked.
The workers served yellow cake with chocolate icing.
“Like people tell me things happened,” Christi said. “Like they say I did things. I
don‟t believe it. It kind of messes with my mind. It‟s not me. But it‟s other people that make me crazy.”
Another night comes and another goes and Warrick gets off work. She is in a black Gucci knockoff hat. Fresh lipstick. Fingernails painted. Hair brushed. But her feet are so swollen she can barely walk. And she is sitting at another bus stop, right next to a Dove firming cream poster of an imperfect model. Warrick is hoping Mr. Wonderful will appear.
Just then a bus brakes, beyond the stop. And before seeing the man in the seat, you know that driver has to be kind.
Mr. Wonderful has arrived.
“Where have you been?” Warrick says as she puts her money in the box. “You don‟t know how long I‟ve been looking for you.”
And glancing at him from behind as he drives, you start to believe he really is Mr. Wonderful. His golden brown skin gleams and his salt-and-pepper hair is trimmed. And his smile is comforting.
There is a comfort on his bus. Nobody is cussing.
Warrick sits in the first seat on the right: “I‟m telling you, you will never meet a man
like that. They do not make them like that anymore.”
Mr. Wonderful is Floyd Thurston and has been driving Metro buses since 1979. He is 60, but it doesn‟t show. He runs every day. Doesn‟t eat that junk. Has four grown
children. Never been married. Says he likes the title Mr. Wonderful because among the other drivers, nobody really knows who Mr. Wonderful is and he thinks other drivers might assume the title and the role, which would spread the kindness. Mr. Wonderful says the reason he smiles and listens to people who bend his ear is he was raised right.
“When they raise you, they raise you to be kind. You see people in need, you try to help and if you can‟t help, you do the best you can. When I was coming up, people
around me always were doing for each other. People were just different. The strong should help the weak.”
A girl in a green tank top rises for her stop. Mr. Wonderful asks: “You want to get off at the bus stop or a little past? Just say when.”
The girl says she wants to get off a little closer to home. He stops and she disembarks.
Mr. Wonderful continues: He doesn‟t mind people sleeping on his bus. “I do not bother them. They are not bothering anybody. They are resting and sleeping. They feel more safe on the bus than in those homes. The peace they get on the bus might help them out.”
A man with a black do-rag gets on and sits behind Mr. Wonderful and for the next 10 minutes the man talks about his life, about his brother, about how he doesn‟t like
sleeping out there in Lincoln Park because people play their music all night long. And all the while Mr. Wonderful drives and he checks the rearview mirror, opens and shuts the doors and nods and laughs at just the right places in the story.
He wishes the last run would never arrive and that he could drive them till morning, letting them sleep, long as they need.
Warrick wakes up: “Where are we?”
The bus has stopped at the Duke Ellington Bridge.
But it isn‟t the last stop, so she folds her wings again, sleeping under Mr.
Wonderful‟s gaze in the rearview mirror.
Mr. Wonderful remembers when she first began riding his bus. “I remember looking at her skin and saying this is a woman who has been taken care of.” Within months, he says, her edges became frayed. “That happens when they are out here living like this.”
It‟s nearly 3 a.m. and the bus is pulling into the lot. The final stop. Warrick wakes, steps off, finds her bench. It is wet with rain. She digs in her bag, finds some napkins from McDonald‟s and wipes it off.
There, she waits another hour until the buses begin to run again.
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