Stretch RUN The riders are old. The jokes are older. But on the bus to Laurel Park, there's a new story every day.

November 17, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

One slop of a morning. One diesel iron-lady of a bus. One God-fearing cheerleader of a driver.

"I don't drive until I pray," says Larry Diggs, placing a crucifix on the steering wheel of this empty Greyhound bus. The bus driver delivers a Hail Mary and an Our Father, and may the boys have a good day at Laurel Park. Amen.

Lawrence Diggs, retired city bus driver, today will drive 23 retirees 23 miles to Laurel Park for Opening Day. A crusty herd of old guys on an old bus will listen to "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," and hope to get home with a little track money. They will bring the usual nicknames and dog-eared stories. Everything, everybody has a lot of miles on them.

Miss Martha will have her $8 fare tangled in her hand. "Pick 3 Al" might talk about striking out Joe DiMaggio. When Kelly boards, everyone will yell, "Don't Get Old," to honor the man's signature phrase. And "Chick" Bowlin will be here. He needs a day out of the house.

Claude "Chick" Bowlin's wife of 49 years died in September. A day at the track is a day out of his empty Essex house and tuna-for-dinner-again. A day watching horses beats watching his son haul Dorothy Bowlin's clothes to Goodwill. "No use in letting someone come in and pick them over," Chick says.

It's 10: 30 on the nose, time to pick up Chick and the rest of the gang. "The only thing they live to do is go to the track," Larry says, easing his blessed bus out of East Baltimore.

Handicappers, have your fare ready. Bring on Laurel's slop and bring an umbrella.

Above all, don't get old.

Get on the bus

"I call everyone my brother," Larry says. That's fine and good, but it's the way he says it: bra-THUR, and drag the THUR when you say it. The Sandtown native has logged many miles with his crucifix. Larry motored a Baltimore city bus for 30 years. He's been driving Mr. Bell's for the past three.

"Hello, my bra-THUR," Larry says at the first stop. Chick Bowlin, 72, boards and gets $2 back from a ten. A good price for the round-trip to Laurel plus admission. "Chick is the nicest guy in the world," Larry says. Everybody is the nicest guy in the world to Larry, who is a very nice guy himself.

Looks like Chick scored at Office Depot. He unfurls a banner that reads, in 6-inch letters, RACETRACK. "Now hold the goddamn sign," Chick cackles. The sight of grown men trying to tape a sign to a slippery windshield ... well, we could be here all day. We need duct tape is what we need. Need to move on.

Larry kicks off the musical portion of today's excursion with "Rocky Top Tennessee." All the while, the Scotch tape struggles to keep its end up. "Pick 3 Al" boards: "I'm happy to be here. Good bus driver, good music -- and good sign, Chick. Makes a rainy day sunny."

Chick, sitting right behind the driver, is the bus tour's unofficial greeter. He introduces Al as the man who struck out Joe DiMaggio in 1947. "He was old and arthritic," says Al, dropping the subject dead. He doesn't want to go down that road now, which is his business.

Al turns to his bus mate. "Chick, why didn't you didn't raise tomatoes this year?" No doubt about it, Al says. Chick raises the best tomatoes, real beasts.

But Chick gave up his garden. This fall has been lousy and busy. Maybe you saw the obituary. Chick keeps a laminated copy in his shirt pocket, along with his racing forms:

"Dorothy C. Bowlin, a homemaker and retired Western Electric worker, died Tuesday of a stroke. She was 73. The lifelong Essex resident worked for 25 years as an assembly line worker. In 1947, she married Claude M. Bowlin, now a retired Baltimore County building inspector."

Chick tucks the obit away, as the bus squeals to another stop. Collecting this crew takes longer than the actual trip to Laurel. If this bus was any more accommodating, it would be a blessed taxi. How many stops have there been? Seven, eight? Larry, why not just pick up the men at their front doors?

"GOOD MORNING, MISS MARTHA," Larry bellows. Miss Martha doesn't hear too well on account she's nearly 90. She's the lone female passenger, the designated "Queen of the Bus." Her wonderfully lined face must be a story in itself.

"Oh, my goodness, it's a nice morning," Miss Martha says. It's raining now and forever today, but she's talking about something bigger than weather. She's talking about going to the track.

"Don't Get Old" boards, then Ed and Gabby and a man named Griff, who doesn't say anything. "Broadway" scales the bus steps and says, "You got a 48-year loser on board now." The last stop is downtown; all 23 passengers are now on board. "Sit back, enjoy the ride," the bus driver announces.

"It's a beautiful day for mudders!"

Off to the races

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