A modern prince saves a damsel in distress

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 09, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Sometimes it feels like a roll of the dice with our children's lives: letting them out of the house each morning, fretting over their vulnerability to the modern American perils, hoping they'll make it back safely at day's end.

And not knowing about the people like Johnny Bell.

"A city full of fears," says Beverly Compton Salaam, who should know.

Her 13-year-old daughter, Nakiya, a seventh-grader at Roland Park Country School, had the day off after the close of midyear exams and wanted to get her hair done.

"She's been a little over-protected, I'm afraid," says her mother. "Private school, car pools. She's a very soft-spoken child, well mannered, loves to sit and read."

When Nakiya asked to go to the hairdresser, her parents had a decision to make. Her mom, a U.S. Postal Service employee, would be working in Washington that day. Her stepfather, Wali, a city K-9 officer, would also be working.

They decided to put their trust in Nakiya, and in the Mass Transit Administration.

And, as it turned out, in the bus driver Johnny Bell.

"Since Nakiya's getting a little older," her mother said, "I decided to let her take the bus to the hairdresser."

Unfortunately, she got on the wrong one. At Dolfield Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, Nakiya boarded a bus she thought would take her to Coldspring Lane and Loch Raven Boulevard in Northeast Baltimore.

But, instead of boarding a No. 33 bus, she got on a No. 51 and put 75 cents in the fare box.

"It's 85 cents," said Johnny Bell, sitting behind the wheel.

"All I have is a $10 bill and a $20 bill," said Nakiya.

"All right," said Bell, 46, a bus driver for the last 25 years. "Just give me the 10 cents the next time you board my bus."

When the bus did not turn onto Coldspring Lane, Nakiya had her first flash of concern but thought the driver would circle back. More turns followed, and she began to see a succession of No. 51 bus signs, and pass familiar places like Mondawmin Shopping Center and the Bethel A.M.E. Church at Druid Hill and Lanvale. She became frightened.

"Where are you going?" Bell asked her.

"Coldspring Lane and Loch Raven Boulevard," she replied.

"Why didn't you get off at the Coldspring Metro stop?" Bell asked.

"I don't have the right change," Nakiya said. "Just the two big bills."

Now another passenger, a man, piped in: "Why don't you get off the bus and catch the No. 22 and then transfer to the No. 3, and take it to. . ."

Nakiya's head began to spin, when she heard Bell say, "No, I'll just keep her with me."

Meanwhile, in Washington, Beverly Compton Salaam looked at her clock, saw that Nakiya was due at the hairdresser and called the shop.

No sign of Nakiya, the mother was told. Next hour, she called again. Still no sign of Nakiya. Fifteen minutes later, same thing.

"At this point," Nakiya's mother was saying yesterday, "I'm breaking out in a sweat. I'm an hour and a half from Baltimore, and my husband's somewhere on the street, and I don't know where Nakiya is."

She was, as it turned out, under Johnny Bell's personal protection. He took her back across town on his bus, comforting a weeping Nakiya and telling each customer who came aboard, "Good morning. Say hello to my little girl here."

When he got her back to the Coldspring Metro Station, he got off his bus and stood with Nakiya. He waited for the right bus to arrive. He handed her a transfer and watched until the bus pulled away.

Now, two hours after her daughter had first left home, Nakiya's mother was on the phone with the hairdresser again, wondering where the teen-ager was.

"No sign of her," Beverly Salaam said yesterday, "and I remember the hairdresser and I were sitting on the phone listening to each other breathe, scared to death."

And then, suddenly, coming up Coldspring Lane, was a girl.

"Does she have on a gold coat?" the hairdresser asked the mother.

She did. And a big smile on her face.

Johnny Bell should have one, too. Yesterday was his day off, and friends said he'd gone bowling. But the Salaams said they had a message for him.

Thank you.

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