Eric's Heroes: The singing, joking bus driver is a man in love with his job
SEATTLE -- The first thing you notice about Walid Underwood is the grin. It's not the kind that's flashed for an instant when cameras come out. It is a natural, genuine smile that seems always to be plastered on his face. It is the smile of a man who is comfortable in his skin.
He's standing next to a Metro bus, wearing a safari hat with sunglasses perched on top, and he says to me through the smile, "I dreamed about this when I was 10 years old. And 45 years later, I'm here."
And when Walid says he "dreamed," he means he had an actual dream. When he was 10 years old.
The way he tells the story of the dream reveals to a careful listener that he has summoned it in his mind many times, that he loves the dream.
"I was driving a bus," he says, using his hands to punctuate along the way, "a big bus, more like a a tour bus, and I'm driving down the street and people are waving, amazed to see this kid driving the bus, like, 'Wow!'"
He's more excited now telling about the dream, as if he's seeing it again in his mind.
"And someone said, 'Keep your eyes on the road!' and I look around and I see somebody, and a car stopped in front of me so I slammed on the breaks... urch! And I woke up. And I'm like, 'Wow, I think I'm going to be a bus driver.'"
For some people, dreams really do come true. Walid Underwood is one of those people.
He walks towards his bus a few minutes later, smiling, and says, "Time to go to work!"
He must have liked the way it sounded, because he said it again. "Time to go to work!" And he climbed aboard the Rapid Ride D-Line bus and sat down in the driver's seat to spend another day living his dream.
Walid doesn't just drive a bus. He's a singing, laughing, joke-telling tour guide, throwing out old-school references and corny one-liners and off-the-wall observations.
"Welcome aboard Flight 106", he says, as a handful of riders climb aboard.
"What's your vector, Victor?" he says to one lady.
There's a microphone on the bus that he positions in front of his mouth as he drives. And once he gets going, there's no stopping him.
One minute he's a Top-40 DJ from the '70s, exaggerating his vowels with a rapid-fire cadence, "From downtown to uptown... and interesting places along the way..."
The next he's every Motown hit maker rolled into one. He sings a line from "My Girl" by the Temptations, followed by "ABC" from the Jackson-5, and then slides into Stevie Wonder's "Superstition".
Sometimes he rhymes. "If you're looking for a king or your looking for a queen, you might just find 'em at 116."
It's not exactly Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip, but it's lively and fun. Walid Underwood is a one-man show.
I ask him to explain his bus driving persona, and he replied, still smiling, "I'm just a happy guy. This is what I do."
Now, if you've ever been a passenger on a Metro bus you know that as comedy crowds go, this is about as tough as it gets.
Some people listen and smile as Walid is up there pouring his guts and his happiness into that microphone.
Others have headphones on. Some shake their heads in disgust. Some chuckle softly. Some look out the window with a thousand-yard stare that reminds everyone around them that life can be hard.
I see a young woman smiling as she rides along. I ask her about Walid.
"I think he's wonderful," she enthuses, "he's putting a little brightness and cheer in our day."
Right then the speaker booms out, "No need to be leery of our next destination, it's Leary Way."
Someone laughs. Someone else groans. Nobody said being funny was easy.
A tall guy with headphones and a hat says, "I feel better going to work after my coffee, hearing a bus driver like this. This guy's AWESOME!"
But not everybody appreciates being part of a captive audience in Walid's World.
As he launches into a rendition of "Take Me Home, Country Roads," a woman lashes out at the top of her lungs, "Bus driver, spare us your singing!"
Walid doesn't miss a beat, "West Virginia, mountain momma... take me home, country roads..."
I went back to investigate the heckler, and met a woman I shall not soon forget. Her name was Judy, and she was not a happy camper.
"Don't you think he has a lovely voice?" I asked her.
"No he doesn't," she said flatly.
"You don't think he's funny?" I countered.
"No, I don't," she said with a pained look on her face.
As Walid launched into some Nat King Cole, she volunteered conspiratorially in a voice saturated with disgust, "He can't sing! I don't like his singing! And I shouldn't have to listen to it on the bus!"
She was The World's Harshest Critic.
Just then, the universe sent me a little gift. An elderly guy climbed on the bus wearing a blue Gilligan hat and plastic rimmed glasses.
He held up his bus pass and announced, "I'm old! Heh Hehe Heh!" and Walid laughed with him.
He turned and saw our TV camera and held his arms up like it was a gun. "Whoa! What's up?" he said. "Heh Heh Heh."
He looked around the bus and said, loud enough for the entire bus to hear, "Yep, best transit system in the United States of America!"
He was The World's Most Positive Commuter.
And do you know what he did? He plopped down right next to The World's Harshest Critic!
Thank you, Universe!
I asked him what he thought of our bus-driving tour guide, and he didn't hesitate. 'I like him! I told him I was old and he laughed."
Judy had a sneer on her lip and she piped in, "He cannot do that! He's driving! Not when he's driving the bus..."
It was like Dudley Do-Right doing battle with Snidely Whiplash.
"Well, I don't know about that," said The World's Most Positive Commuter.
"Well, I'm going to make a complaint," muttered The World's Harshest Critic.
"They have to interact with the passengers. That's what America's about.."
"No it isn't. America's gone to hell!"
The guy in the Gilligan hat was having none of it.
'Well, I don't know about that..."
All the while, Walid kept driving the bus and working the crowd, singing whatever song popped into his head.
One guy sitting across from me smiled knowingly, "If he's happy to sing, let him sing," he said. "More power to him."
We approached Armour Boulevard.
Walid sang into the microphone, "Hot dogs... Armour hot dogs..."
And on we went, with the man behind the wheel singing his little heart out, trying his hardest to make people smile.
And as I sat there bouncing over the potholes along with everybody else, I thought to myself, "I'm not watching a bus driver singing as he drives, dammit, I'm watching a grown man live his dream!"
Keep singing, Walid Underwood. Keep singing.
Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.