The Ballad of the Singing Shuttle Bus Driver

Ellen Trevathan finds her own brand of salvation driving people to and from the city economy lot at the airport


It's just before Christmas and nobody wants to be at the airport. Most especially the people in the city economy lot. These are the thrifty people. The ones who are willing to spend only $5 a day even if it means waiting for a shuttle that has to drive them for almost ten minutes to drop them off at the terminal. Today it is too cold, even for Houston. The lot is half under construction, and no one is quite sure where to find the shuttle.

There is a group of them, waiting patiently: a family with a toddler and an infant, a young couple, some single folks. They all have their bags. They keep checking their watches. They say nothing to one another.

Ellen thinks her singing is a special kind of ministry.
Deron Neblett
Ellen thinks her singing is a special kind of ministry.

There, up around the bend, comes the city economy lot shuttle.

It couldn't be a more boring-looking shuttle. It's just plain white, with "City Economy Lot" stamped out in black letters across the side. But the people waiting don't care what it looks like. They don't care who drives it. They just want to get on it and get to the airport on time.

They climb up on the shuttle. Being Texans, they're mostly polite. They let the family with the baby on first. They fill all the maroon fabric seats. They are quiet.

There, up in front, is their shuttle driver. She looks to be in her fifties. She has a big round helmet of gray hair and lots of makeup. The people on the bus are not really looking at her, though. They're not paying her any attention.

"Folks!" the lady shouts suddenly. "This is your lucky day!"

All at once everyone on the shuttle jumps a little. The mother holding the infant looks up from her baby and stares.

"My name is Ellen! I'm known as the singing bus driver! I've written a little jingle so you remember me for next time! I don't want to be forgotten!"

The woman is absolutely hollering. The people on the bus shift uncomfortably and glance at each other the way trapped strangers do when weird things happen to them.

Then the bus driver starts singing in a loud but lovely voice:

When you're driving out from here
And you don't know where to park
City economy lot is the place for you!
Just bring your cars and your pickup trucks
And your vans can stay here too
City economy lot is the place for you!
For just five bucks a day
That's all you have to pay
And when you get back there's a bus here waiting for you!
So grab your luggage and your shoes
And don't forget those credit cards too
City economy lot is the place for you!

As she sings, the driver beats the tune out on her steering wheel with her palm, pausing once in a while to wave a hand in the air. The "you" of the last line of the song is held out long and loud, so it sounds like "ewwwwwwwe." When she's finished, everyone claps politely. Suddenly there's a mood change in the audience, so strong you can feel it. Heck, they're thinking, she's pretty good. And this isn't bad for a trip to the airport.

But that's not the end of the program. Ellen the bus driver mentions all the different local media outlets that have covered her. The Chronicle, 104 KRBE, Debra Duncan, Channel 12. Then she holds up a clipping from Woman's World ("a national magazine!" she boasts). She's had the tiny story blown up nice and large so everyone on the bus can see it. The bus riders ooh in polite appreciation.

She nods and adds, "And next I have a spread in Playboy magazine!"

The people on the bus laugh at the joke. But Ellen is not finished.

"I've been known to sing country songs for cowboys! Gambling songs for gamblers! Love songs for honeymooners! Gospel songs for preachers!" she shouts. She looks over her shoulder to glance at her audience.

"Do I have any gamblers on the bus?"

Dead silence.

"Any ex-gamblers? Any Gamblers Anonymous?"

Still, nothing.

Ellen is undaunted. She breaks into Kenny Rogers's "You Gotta Know When to Hold 'Em." When's she's all done, the crowd claps again. Ellen sings one or two more songs, tells one or two more jokes and drops off her charges at the airport. As people climb off the bus, they stop to thank her. They tell her she was very good. Ellen thanks them in her thick, sweet Texas drawl.

"Thank you, darlin'," she says over and over as people make their way down the shuttle steps. "Thank you, darlin'."

Then it's off to pick up another group.

Ellen Trevathan has been picking them up and dropping them off for almost 13 years now, even though most airport shuttle drivers don't last half that long. She works Monday through Friday from 2:30 p.m. until 11:30 p.m. On an average day she makes 17 round-trips from the city economy lot to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, but on holidays it might be more. She usually gets in four songs a ride if she times it right.

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