The Ballad of the Singing Shuttle Bus Driver
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.
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?"
"Any ex-gamblers? Any Gamblers Anonymous?"
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.
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.
It is not what 54-year-old Ellen always did, of course. In another time and place, Ellen was a Pentecostal minister's wife. For years and years she used to drive with him all over the United States, preaching and singing the word of God as she knew it and believed it to be true. She and her husband pastored churches and sang gospel songs to enormous crowds. They had babies together, three of them. Ellen was so in love. And so happy.
But then one day his eyes went wandering. And not soon after that he left her all alone. And Ellen fell into a depression so dark and deep she began to live not by days or even hours, but by seconds. For four years she hurt so bad she couldn't work a job for long periods of time and family had to help her out. She couldn't be happy, couldn't look forward, couldn't do much but think about killing herself.
Then, one day, a friend told her about a job driving an airport shuttle for the All-Right Parking company. Ellen hadn't worked in so long, but she figured she had to do something. So she applied. And she got the job. And then, Ellen says, something started to boil in her. She wrote an All-Right Parking jingle and started singing it on the bus. The passengers liked it. They made her happy, and that made her want to keep coming back to work. And the fact that she wanted to come to work made her want to wake up in the morning instead of die.
"I'm sure this job has saved my sanity, what little I have left," she says.
Once upon a time Ellen Trevathan sang songs to save souls for Jesus. Then she started singing songs to save herself.
She always loved driving. When Ellen was growing up in Humble, her older brother Roy taught her how to drive in a 1932 Ford Coupe he and his friends had souped up. Inside that Ford Coupe lived a gorgeous 1956 Corvette engine. Roy would put Ellen in the driver's seat and show her how to peel out and push it up to 140 miles per hour. This was back when U.S. 59 spanned just two lanes, one going north and one going south. Ellen loved the feel of speeding up and down the road all day.
The first time she tried it she was only 11 years old. But she never got caught.
"Back then there was only one cop in Humble," says Ellen. "He couldn't watch all of us."
By the time she was old enough to drive legally, Ellen practiced in her parents' turquoise-and-white 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. Her whole family loved to drive. Her mother was one of the first women in the Houston area to get a chauffeur's license. Her father converted a bus to drive workmen to Port Arthur, where he had a job in the pipe yards. As Ellen got older, her father became a bit of an entrepreneur, making money converting old trucks and buses.
It was a good American childhood, says Ellen. The fourth of five children, she spent the early 1960s swimming in the city-owned pool or playing miniature golf or shopping with girlfriends. Her first date was to the junior prom. She was raised in the Pentecostal church, so things were a bit strict. But on Friday nights Ellen looked forward to the time she and her friend Enid and other kids from all over East Texas would pile into buses and drive to different churches for youth rallies. There, Ellen and Enid would get up in front of over 100 teenagers and sing gospel songs all night. Ellen liked to fantasize about singing at the old Music Hall downtown. She'd been singing in the church since she was a young girl and she never got nervous, she says.
There was only one time she was hit with stage fright. In her 11th-grade year at Humble High School she was in a play called Headin' for the Hills. Backstage, her heart started fluttering in her chest, she says.
"It just seemed there was a whole audience out there full of those who were cuter and thinner than I was," she remembers.
The thinner part always got to her. Ellen says if there's just one thing that has always troubled her in her childhood and all the years that followed, it was her "battle of the bulge." She always seemed to have the unfortunate luck of being friends with very skinny people, she says. But she has always tried not to get too down about it.
"I'll tell you what," says Ellen, gearing up for the joke. "Between the sheets they don't need to Velcro a sign saying what's front and what's back!" She puts a hand to her chest and giggles out loud at herself.
Her father was the one who taught her to laugh, she says. At herself and just about anything.
"My father always used to say, 'Where there ain't no fool, there ain't no fun,' " says Ellen. She says that's one of her dearest philosophies.
Ellen has two other favorite philosophies. First, "If life gives you lemons, go make lemonade." Second, "Every cloud has a silver lining."
Ellen got married at 19 to a man she had met at church. Sixteen years later she started putting those philosophies to the test.
"The other day they had me working the A terminal all day," says Ellen, pulling in near the airport. "But I got to see all of my boyfriends, and I get sugar from all three of them!"
A lady in the back of the bus hollers, "You can't turn that down!"
Ellen laughs. She confesses her "boyfriends" are just friends, really. Two are airport workers, and one is a married pilot. But they're always sweet to her, she says. They always take the time to say hello. She wouldn't mind a boyfriend, she says. "A steady," as she calls it. Someone extroverted and smart to take her to the rodeo and cook turkey with her on Thanksgiving. Someone like that would be nice.
Today Ellen is working all four terminals. After dropping off those who are catching flights that day, she picks up a young couple that has arrived and is heading back to the parking lot. The boy has olive skin and dark hair, and he's tough-looking, like he always makes time to lift weights. The girl has long hair and is wearing one of those fake white-leopard fur coats that stops just above her waist. Both look to be barely 20. It is mid-afternoon on a Wednesday, and airport traffic is still light. They are the only people on Ellen's shuttle.
She starts up her program, shows off her Woman's World magazine clip and does her Playboy joke.
"All right!" hoots the boy.
The girl in the fake fur coat can't stop giggling and clapping, as if instead of just singing Ellen were promising them free ice cream or dollar bills or something.
Ellen peeks over her shoulder at the two of them.
"Are y'all honeymooners?" she asks.
The boy laughs and says no.
"Maybe next time," says the girl, glancing sideways at her boyfriend.
Maybe next time, agrees Ellen, and she starts into one of her favorite numbers, the Billy Jack Wills song that Patsy Cline made famous, "Faded Love."
I miss you, darlin', more and more each day
As heaven would miss the stars above
With every heartbeat, I still think of you
And remember our faded love
And remember our faded love
Her voice aches at all the right parts. When she finishes, the girl in the fake leopard coat can't stop grinning.
Ellen adored her new husband. He was handsome and wanted to be a minister and she found herself "so in love, so in love, so in love." They wed and went to Bible college together and then spent almost ten years driving the roads of America, visiting 24 states and preaching in 13 of them. He taught Ellen how to play the organ. She learned the accordion too. One night she stood up in front of 7,000 people in Wyoming and belted out gospel songs all night, just like she had in high school, only this time with many more people in front of her. Still, she didn't get nervous. How could she? These were songs about Jesus and salvation and grace and God. It was Ellen's job to preach those messages through her music, and she couldn't think of anything she'd rather be doing.
Their first son, Wayne, was born when Ellen was 22, and he rode along with his parents as they traveled and preached. The young family stayed in the homes of other church folk and saw all the different parts of the country. Over the years they wore out three Oldsmobiles, two Fords and an Opel Kadett. It was, says Ellen, a wonderful life.
But then it wasn't. It had come to the part Ellen doesn't like to talk about. Partly because it pains her so much, but mostly because the pain was so hard and brutal she says it has eaten away at her memory of that time. But she remembers this much: They were pastoring a church in Louisiana, and Ellen's third child, Renee, had just been born. Ellen was in the car with her husband heading north for a religious conference. There, in the car, he told her maybe he didn't love her, and maybe he never even had. He told her he had been tempted. Ellen knew what he meant. It was with a lady Ellen had thought was a woman of God.
Ellen came home to Humble with the children. Soon he was gone. He left her and the ministry too. Ellen sank deep inside of herself. It ached to do anything. It was a depression more oppressive than a thick wool coat in the middle of an East Texas summer. She gave herself little tasks, like living for the next 30 seconds. But that was too difficult, so she tried to make it through the next 15. Soon she was living by five-second intervals.
"It was a bad time for all of us," remembers her daughter, Renee, now 22. "She was hurting, so we were hurting. We block a lot of that out."
Sometimes there was not enough money for bills, says Renee. Family helped out, and Ellen tried selling cemetery plots for money, but her relatives thought the door-to-door job was too dangerous. Besides, she had her children to mother at home. In fact, her kids were most of what kept her together. Her 24-year-old son Derek knows, "If she hadn't known God and Jesus and had us kids, she would have killed herself."
But where was God? He had been there before, in every note of every song Ellen had ever sung to crowded audiences all over the country. Now she still sang, sometimes over the sink while she was doing the dishes. Derek remembers how she would cry as she scrubbed.
But still, Ellen was not sure where God was.
"I said, 'God, have you forgotten all about me?' " she remembers. "I said, 'God, where are you? Do you know where I am?' " She prayed desperately to have her memories of the previous years erased from her mind. For four years she cried.
During that time a preacher from a local church in Humble came knocking on her door. He wanted Ellen to play the organ at his church. No, Ellen answered. She didn't think she could. Besides, she says, the organ reminded her of him, the one who had left. The preacher came again the following month. Would Ellen please come play the organ? No, Ellen said. She was sorry, but she was not worthy. Over and over he came to see her, until finally she agreed to it, and she began to play on Sundays at the Apostolic Bible Center, a tiny little church in a storefront in Humble.
At about that time a girlfriend of hers told Ellen about a job she had heard of at a Park 'N Fly parking lot near the airport. Ellen thought about applying, but it turned out they weren't hiring. All-Right Parking, on the other hand, was. She had always liked driving, hadn't she? It couldn't be that difficult. And a job might give her something to get up for, get cleaned for, get dressed for.
So she applied, and they hired her. She remembers the date of her first day on the job like a repentant sinner remembers the day he found the Lord: March 7, 1988. Salvation day.
Ellen's passengers are a man who looks to be in his forties and his young teenage son. When Ellen starts her program, the father interrupts.
"Wait!" he says, his eyes lighting with recognition. "We've heard you before, the last time we were here." He pauses and adds, "So this time we should sing for you."
Well, Ellen asks him, why don't you?
The man laughs and looks at his son to see if he's game. The boy rolls his eyes, sinks deep into his seat, pulls out a portable CD player and slips the headphones on. Ellen doesn't care if the boy isn't listening or the father has heard her before. She does her program anyway.
On the next trip around Ellen feels like gospel.
"Do I have any preachers on the bus?" she asks. "Any preacher's kids? Any ushers? Any Baptist deacons? Any Sunday school teachers?"
"I'm a Sunday school teacher!" yells one woman in the back, like she's just won a round of bingo.
"All right!" says Ellen, and she breaks out Hank Williams.
I saw the light, I saw the light
No more in darkness, no more in night
Now I'm so happy, no sorrow in sight
Praise the Lord, I saw the light
At the terminal, as the passengers clamber off the bus, the Sunday school teacher pauses by Ellen's shoulder.
"I really enjoyed it," she says.
"Thank you, darlin'," says Ellen.
The first few months on the job, Ellen wasn't singing on the bus. She just felt relieved to have a place to go when she woke up. Getting up and getting cleaned and dressed was enough at first. But then, as she began to feel better, she thought about penning the tune about All-Right. She had written music before, sort of. Each of her children had their own song set to a popular tune (Renee's was sung to "Bicycle Built for Two." Her brother Wayne, now 31, had two songs, because he was the oldest.) Ellen thought it might be kind of neat to write a new song. So she did. It was called "The Eyes of All-Right Are Upon You," and it was a smash hit. People who flew out of IAH on a regular basis started requesting her shuttle. One of Ellen's co-workers told her about the time a mother got off the shuttle with a young child who yelled out in disappointment, "I wanted to see the fat lady that sings!" She was eventually promoted to the city economy lot, with heavier traffic, and she wrote the city economy lot song.
"I wrote that three years ago, and it just flourished," says Ellen.
She began to get some media attention. Newspapers, local radio, Debra Duncan. She made up her own little business cards. They were just tiny photographs of herself glued to the back of a piece of paper with her name written out in script. But she was proud of them. She sent off a tape to The Rosie O'Donnell Show and Oprah. She never heard anything back, but she will probably try again. You never know what gets lost in the mail room, she says.
Other drivers at All-Right don't last as long as Ellen has. Ellen wonders if the repetition of always driving the same shuttle in the same circle over and over each day bores the younger employees. Ellen says she doesn't mind it. She celebrates her anniversary with All-Right each year, bringing in cake and cookies or candy for the other drivers and employees.
"I just give them out and say, 'Happy anniversary to me!' " she says.
Her supervisors rave about her. Her customers like her. Her kids are proud of her.
"It's such an insignificant job she has, but she has made something out of it," says her son Derek. "I don't know anyone else who has made something out of something so simple." His mother is so extroverted, jokes Derek, "it's like a disease."
The job helped. And church. Ellen still sings and plays the organ at the tiny Apostolic Bible Center. The pastor who insisted she come play died a few years back, and Ellen sang at his funeral. But although he is gone, Ellen still comes to services. Even now, the small congregation of about 30 people waits for her to show up before they even get started, and when she plays the organ, her old high school friend Enid from the youth-rally days sits next to her and plays the piano.
The Apostolic Bible Center is different from the days when Ellen stood in front of 7,000 people in Wyoming. But she likes it that way. It's more intimate. More real. Ellen says when religion isn't done right it can smother you. She says she'd rather be open, like a flower, to flourish into whatever God wants. At church when Ellen plays the organ, her rich, throaty voice carries farther than it needs to in the tiny one-room storefront. Almost louder than when she sings on the bus.
The church and All-Right Parking merged like melody and harmony to form a song of grace. It's not much, Ellen knows, to drive a shuttle bus around an airport each day. There isn't a lot necessarily to that. But it's been something for her. And sure, she's played in places lots bigger than her tiny church. And maybe once she dreamed of playing in someplace even bigger, like the Music Hall. But for right now, at this time, it's enough for Ellen. More than enough, really.
"I have come through the valley of the shadow of death," says Ellen. "When you come through a real bad experience, every day is wonderful. Even when my knees hurt or my head's hurting, it's just a privilege to be out in it."
It's been raining hard all day like it's never going to stop. The sky is the color of a bad bruise, and the bus smells like the inside of a pair of old galoshes. The doors keep sticking whenever Ellen stops to open them. But she's the only one who doesn't seem cranky.
"How you doin', ma'am?" Ellen asks a brunette who's trying to board with too much luggage.
"Terrible!" spits the woman, dragging a suitcase behind her.
"I know," Ellen says, shaking her head.
A man gets on and comments about the rain.
"This ain't bad," he says to no one in particular. "In Atlanta they got a joke that if a pigeon flies over Hartsfield Airport and pees on the runway, they shut it down for two hours." Another man who hears the joke laughs. Ellen just keeps driving.
On one trip back to the parking lot, she's got only two passengers. They're both middle-aged women with short auburn hair. They complain about the rain. But when Ellen starts her singing program, they chuckle out loud.
"Do I have any cowboys? Any cowgirls?" Ellen hollers, as if she were asking a crowded arena instead of just two women on an airport bus. One of the ladies says she grew up in Abilene and does that count? Yes, Ellen says, and she breaks into Patsy Cline's signature song, "Crazy." She sings loud and hard so the ladies can hear her over the hee-haw of the windshield wipers. When she's finished the women clap.
Ellen pulls into the city economy lot and asks where they're parked.
"It's the ruby-red Buick over there," says the cowgirl from Abilene, pointing.
Ellen pulls as close to the car as she can. One of the women says thank you and gets out. But the cowgirl from Abilene just stops and stands in the stairwell of the shuttle. She looks at Ellen like she doesn't know how to put what she wants to say. So she just says it.
"We've just come back from a funeral."
Ellen immediately brings her hand to her chest. "Mercy!" she says. "Was it your mama?"
No, the woman answers. It was a niece out in Las Vegas. She was only 42 years old.
"We buried her yesterday," she adds, standing on the steps shifting her weight. "And you brought me home with a smile on my face instead of tears."
Ellen smiles. She thanks the woman in a gracious voice. Then she watches her turn and get off the bus to dart through the rain to the Buick. Ellen shuts her bus doors and shakes her fist triumphantly.
"See?" she says. "It makes a difference!" She goes on about how her job is a ministry. How people just need something to cling to once in a while. Salvation can be as simple as a word, really. Or maybe a song.
Ellen radios the dispatcher and starts pulling the bus out of the lot. Sometimes she sees hundreds of people a day on that shuttle, and they won't all remember her. Maybe some don't even care if she sings or not. But most do, so it's all right. Besides, planes are always landing at the airport, and Ellen Trevathan drives all night.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.