Happily rattled by old buses, he tries to save them

JACQUES KELLY

July 06, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

When Bryan Cooper was 8 years old, he got a phone call while riding an MTA bus.

The driver's emergency phone rang. The voice on the receiver was the boy's annoyed mother. "Is there anybody on there named Bryan Cooper?" she inquired. It was 11 o'clock on a Sunday night.

Some 19 years later, Bryan Cooper now earns a living driving a shuttle bus at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. For as long as he can remember, he's been crazy about buses, transit buses, charter coaches, Greyhounds. If it seats 50 people and has an internal combustion engine, he likes it.

He's the founder of East Coast Bus & Streetcar Enthusiasts, a small group dedicated to the preservation of backfiring mass transit workhorses. His club is trying to salvage a representative collection of coaches before they wind up stripped for parts in some New Jersey scrap yard.

Mr. Cooper grew up on Auchentoroly Terrace in the Parkview neighborhood adjacent to Druid Hill Park. As local mass transit buffs know, the community is crisscrossed by bus lines. The old Retreat Street bus barn, a relic of 19th century transit history, stood a few blocks from his front door.

As a child, he used any excuse he could muster to ride and ride a city transit bus, uptown, downtown, the more circuitous the route the better. The MTA's routes 1, 5 and 28 coursed through the streets within walking distance of his home.

The No. 1, which still travels from Druid Hill Park to Fort McHenry, was a favorite. So when he was riding that line long past bedtime on that late Sunday night, his mother knew where to find him. A cooperative transit dispatcher used the radio telephone to get the message across, "Get home now!"

He's the type of person who loves standing on a corner and boarding the oldest, most battered bus that comes along. It's probably the most historic.

He had the opportunity as a student at Booker T. Washington School. For a number of years, that school was being renovated and classes were being held at what is now the North Avenue headquarters of the city's Department of Education.

The MTA provided "tripper" service for students and usually supplied its most elderly coaches, vehicles that were running on empty as far as the transit system was concerned. Thus Mr. Cooper had the dubious distinction of riding the oldest non-air-conditioned clunkers in the system. He savored the experience.

As an adult, he volunteered at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum on Falls Road, which primarily is dedicated to the preservation of electric trolley cars, most of which are much older than the buses he feels need preserving. There he met other bus fans. His bus-booster association now numbers some 28 members from California to Connecticut.

"I know we are small, but you've got to start somewhere," he says.

"It's not hard to get a bus. Trying to find a safe place to store and maintain it is what's difficult."

"No old bus parts in my backyard!" exclaims his wife, Vera, who is herself a school bus driver. They met when both had bus-driving jobs at BWI.

"The rules said no fraternizing among the employees," she says.

"But that didn't say you couldn't get married."

Today, they live with their three children in the 500 block of Crosby Road in Catonsville. The Coopers work together on a publication that microscopically details mass transit history in the 1940s through the '80s. Past articles have detailed Bronx motor coaches, streetcars in Toronto and trackless trolleys in Philadelphia. Anything that moves and has a fare box seems to be fair game for this little magazine.

The group is now trying to preserve a 1947 Mack bus that saw service in St. Louis and a 1952 General Motors Greyhound, among other coaches. They have no museum, only their dedication and passion. The local nucleus of his group seems to be centered at BWI Airport, where many of his board members work.

East Coast Bus & Streetcar Enthusiasts may be reached at P.O. Box 8701, Baltimore 21240-0701.

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