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It's 7 a.m. on a Friday, and sleepy passengers are trickling onto the B8 bus in Northeast Washington. Riders who have never experienced WMATA Bus Operator Derrick Perry have no idea what’s about to happen.
“Alright, ladies and gentlemen, this year is gonna be you all’s year!” Perry tells the crowd. “Everybody on this bus is gonna be successful! You gotta stay focused, though. Stay focused and stay positive.” A woman in the back responds, “Alright!”
Perry’s not your average bus driver. He’s only been operating the bus a couple years, but he already has a bit of a cult following.
As the bus fills up, Perry draws on the crowd’s energy.
“Today is that day we've been waiting all week for, you all. All week.” The passengers respond with scattered applause and laughter. “You all enjoy!” Perry continues, becoming even more enthusiastic as the crowd responds. “This is our day, today!”
A man up front responds, “That’s right, bro!” Perry banters back: “Yeah, you all enjoy it! Have a safe, safe, good weekend!”
Perry’s fans come from all walks of life. Take Mark Funkhouser, who got the Perry experience when Perry drove the 43 line last year.
“Once you've had the Operator Perry experience, you're never going to forget it,” says Funkhouser, who was mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, from 2007-2011. “In all my life, I have never seen a bus driver like Operator Perry. I mean, you can have a nice bus driver, you can have a polite bus driver, but how often do you have a bus driver tell you ‘I love you’?”
Perry tailors his message to the crowd. This particular morning he’s addressing an audience of students on their way to school. “Kids in school, stay focused in school, y’all! You want to try to go to college! College is unbelievable. You're going to love it. I guarantee you, you're going to love it. Gotta get them grades up.”
Perry never went to college. He gives the students advice he wishes he had followed when he was their age.
“You got people around you bringing negativity into your life,” Perry tells his passengers. “You're going to have to distance yourself from them. Because misery loves company, and it can’t bring you down. You got to stay focused.” After a few seconds, Perry adds: “Yeah, it’s gonna be a good day today. Real good day.”
Facing negativity is something Operator Perry knows far too much about. It all began, he says, when he was growing up in Southeast D.C., and showing promise as a football player.
“A lot of guys from the streets would give me money when I score touchdowns, made good plays, and so I started looking up to the hustlers as a role model. And I wanted to dress like them. Beautiful women, I wanted to have them. They have wads of money. And so it just caught my eye. And one thing led to another thing. I got into the streets selling drugs. I did time.”
Perry spent 12 years behind bars, when all was said and done. But at age 40, he decided he was tired of what he calls “a no-ending road.”
“I’m not ashamed to say it. I’m not ashamed," he says. "A lot of people won't even tell you that they used to get high, that they were locked up, that they've been shot. I don’t have no problem, because I know where I'm at now. And I'm at so much peace. I'm at so much peace now.”
Perry believes he was saved for a reason. Now, he says, it’s his mission to change other people’s lives for the better.
“That’s why I can get across to the young adults now. Because I’ve been where they are. And I can see the struggle that they have in front of them. And when I can tell them where I came from, and where I'm at now, it helps out a whole lot when I talk to them," he says.
“A lot of kids are looking for a lot of love,” Perry says. “They are. They are looking for love. And you can see it their face when you start talking about positive things. How their eyes just widen up. And they want that — they want somebody to show that they care. They need that. You can’t give up on them. You never know what you might say to them that might spark them.”
Kids aren't the only ones who find inspiration in Perry’s words. Marine biologist David Guggenheim was on Perry’s route once, on an August trip to the dentist.
“You know, there’s a difference between someone being courteous and friendly, and somebody really exuding warmth from the heart,” Guggenheim says. “I think we know the difference when we see it, and he was all in. Eight months later, I'm still feeling it.”
“I want to thank you all for riding with me this morning,” Perry tells his passengers as the B8 bus nears the end of the line. “You all don’t know it, but you make my mornings every day, and I appreciate it.”
As groups of passengers arrive at their destinations, Perry delivers one last message to get them through whatever the day may hold. “Listen to me, if nobody told you they love you this morning, Operator Perry loves you all. I got you all.”
For Perry, it’s not just idle talk.
“It pleases me to see other people happy, and to know what I'm doing to them,” he says. “With this job, I love this job so much, it’s almost like I have to pinch myself. It’s almost like, do I really get paid for this? They can even pay me half of what I'm getting, and I would still love it.”
Music: "Bus Rider" by John Swihart from Napoleon Dynamite Original Soundtrack