As a little boy growing up south of South Street, Joe Wilson first drove a car, a 1942 Packard, at age 6 with his stepfather. That's right, 6. At age 11, he took the wheel of a '56 Fairlane, alone.
But Joe dreamed big, SEPTA-bus big.
"The No. 50 went right by my house, and all I ever wanted," he said, "was the honor of driving a bus."
It took him almost a decade before he landed his dream job, in 1978. But it was worth the effort. Rare is a man so suited to a job.
Every weeknight, Wilson's trips on the No. 2 bus resemble a movable watering hole without the drink. On his eight-mile route from Pulaski and Hunting Park to 20th and Johnston, which swings through Center City, Wilson hugs and chats with passengers and listens to their troubles.
"My son says I should have been a counselor or a bartender," he told me.
Adama Kouriba, who is in a wheelchair, has been known to pass up an earlier bus to wait for Wilson. "He thanks you for coming on his bus," Kouriba said. "On Joe's bus, we're all like family."
And this is during rush hour on pinched Center City streets when no one is happy driving.
Legislators in Harrisburg have branded SEPTA "just more welfare." They opposed more state funding to "heavily taxpayer-subsidized, irresponsible, reckless-spending government monopolies" and criticized the salaries of drivers. They should listen to Wilson's story.
Not once, not twice, but three times, Wilson rushed into burning buildings to save occupants. In 1982, there was a murder on his Broad Street bus. Wilson managed to push a little girl out of the way, and believes he saved her life. He took a bullet in his right thigh.
A year earlier, his bus was hijacked and his arm slashed. In 1984, he was shot in the left thigh when a bullet crashed through his side window. Six years later, he was shot in the arm when he walked out of the bus depot and someone fired from a moving car.
On Saturday, at 2:11 a.m. to be precise, Wilson will complete his final route. After 35 years of service, he will hang up the crisp-creased shirts that he alone irons with homemade starch.
Wilson is sad but ready. "Times have changed. A lot of people are angry," said Wilson, 60, sitting in his immaculate Eastwick home, which he shares with his wife, Esther Williams, his hair the same low fade he sported when he started as a bus operator. "The violence in the streets, the traffic, the attitudes. Drivers are not as united as we used to be."
Wilson earns $26 an hour working a stressful job that has only gotten harder. He figures there are three times as many cars on the street. Road rage has spiked.
Mr. Joe doesn't do road rage.
He told me he hasn't caused an accident in 35 years. Wilson addresses virtually everyone as Mr. or Ms. He referred to the assailants who shot him as "gentlemen." Distressed about gun violence, a mission he plans to fight in retirement, he became pen pals with former Council President Anna Verna and District Attorney Lynne Abraham, who noted, "Joe might just be an exemplar that SEPTA employees everywhere might want to emulate."
Wilson did not start that way, back when drivers shivered in the winter, wilted in the summer, and operated a gear stick so cumbersome and uncooperative that "once you got it in gear, you left it there." Early in the job, a passenger told him: " 'You are an ugly man. Look at your attitude. You're always frowning.' From that day, I changed."
It was an honor, he said, to safely take passengers from work to home.
"My grandfather once reminded me that a black man wasn't allowed to drive public transportation," he said. Now, at a time when commuters expect very little, Wilson made his bus a refuge of civility and kindness.
After Saturday morning, he has few plans. He will march and fight against violence, and work in the garage he owns with a friend.
Passengers will have a harder time adjusting. "Joe's someone you can depend on with any aspect of your life," said commuter and friend Amy Simeo. "When people don't see him on the bus, you can feel his absence. After he retires, it's going to be a lonely ride."