If you’re among those who feel that the New York City Transit Authority’s surging ridership has contributed to a decline in service, then you haven’t ridden Anthony Palombella’s M79 bus lately. Unlike some bus drivers who exude all the personality of crash dummies, Anthony turns the ride across 79th Street, from Broadway through Central Park to East End Avenue, into a house party as he regales his passengers with tidbits of New York City history, celebrity trivia and one-liners.
“The first New Year’s Eve celebration was 1902 and the first ball to come down in Times Square was 1904,” the driver announced over the loudspeaker during the run that left Broadway at 7:01 on a recent evening, and then paused before delivering the kicker. “Dick Clark was there.”
“The 4-to-6 crowd I had in the palm of my hand,” he told me when I boarded the bus. I’d briefly caught his act a few days earlier but unfortunately reached my destination just as he was launching into a mildly cheeky riff on how Maiden Lane got its name.
“Different neighborhoods have different attitudes,” he continued. “I worked nine years in the Bronx and I still live in the Bronx. I don’t want to say anything bad to offend anybody. Let’s put it this way: The Bronx is a tougher crowd.”
Most people seem to appreciate Anthony’s efforts to alleviate the tedium of public transportation. “You should be on Jeopardy! ,” a lady told him as she got ready to get off the bus at Lexington Avenue.
“I want your name,” a well-dressed matron demanded as she prepared to descend the steps at Park Avenue. “My husband writes letters of commendation.”
“Come back,” Mr. Palombella shouted plaintively at the remaining passengers when the bus reached Broadway, its second-to-last stop. “I need you people.”
New Yorkers being New Yorkers, they’ve been known to challenge some of the bus driver’s information. While nobody disputed Anthony’s contention that Dick Clark was present at the first Times Square ball drop-everybody seemed to understand that was a stab at humor-and while, to my surprise, not a single passenger doubted the bus driver’s subsequent assertion that 1970 marked the year that Times Square hit rock bottom (Anthony claims that’s not a matter of personal opinion but empirical data gleaned from the pages of Reader’s Digest ), one rider refused to accept the driver’s statement that New York City was named in 1664 after Duke James York, brother of Charles II.
In fact, the guy got off the rear of the bus at Madison Avenue, then returned to the front door to argue the point with Anthony, insisting the date had to be wrong since the Dutch owned the colony at the time. (Indeed, the bus driver was right. The British seized New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it.)
Another incredible fact that also appears accurate, and uttered by the driver as the bus barreled through Central Park, is that the elevators at the Dakota once ran on hydraulic power.
“Driving a bus in New York City is like being in a library with so many minds you can exchange information with,” explained Anthony, of whom it can be said that he radiates childlike enthusiasm for the job. He even shocks some passengers by asking, “How are you doing?” and if they fail to respond, “I said, ‘How are you doing?’”
“One guy corrected me on the Dakota. That was built in 1884. I used to say at one time the elevators ran on steam. He used to work there. It was hydraulic.”
Of course, there’s the occasional spoilsport who’d prefer to read the paper or stare mindlessly out the window; Anthony admitted he usually waits for silence to go into his shtick. One rider even lodged a formal protest over the portion of Anthony’s monologue where he launches into something resembling a Henny Youngman routine, rattling off one-liners in rapid-fire succession. “He says to me in a deep voice, ‘I don’t like your jokes.” These include, “What coffee did they serve on the Titanic ? Sanka.” And, “What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t work? A stick.”
“He thought I said ‘spic,’” the bus driver reported.
Perhaps overlooked amid the hoopla is the fact that Mr. Palombella, a 15-year veteran of the Transit Authority also happens to be an excellent bus driver. When he needs to make a 90 degree turn-say, from Amsterdam Avenue onto 81st Street-he nonchalantly waits until the last possible second to go into the turn, convincing you that he’s surely going to hit the curb or a fire hydrant or a double-parked car-but he always manages to squeeze through with room to spare.
“I just received a plaque,” he reported. “You have to go five years without a chargeable accident.”
One would think that driving a city bus would eventually wear on one’s nerves, particularly with the sociopaths behind the wheel of so many vehicles, but Mr. Palombella seems as fresh and unspoiled as the day he took the job. “This is a big city,” he told me. “It has 7.3 million people, yet it’s a small town. What I want to do is bring people together. I turn my job into a lively and rewarding profession.”
If anything, the bus driver seems far less jaded than his passengers, especially when it comes to celebrity sightings. (Anthony admitted that while rushing the stage at a 1973 Elvis Presley concert at the Nassau Coliseum he almost flattened a lady who answered with a punch to the kidneys. “Would you believe I didn’t feel no pain because I wanted to shake the King’s hand!”)
“Woody Allen crossed in front of my bus,” he said of a recent encounter. I jumped. I said, ‘Look, people. It’s Woody Allen.’ But people who live here, it didn’t bother them. They didn’t react.”
The bus driver said he has better luck sharing the city’s magic with tourists, especially female tourists. “Usually with New York City women, it’s hello and goodbye,” lamented Anthony, who’s 45 and single. “I get a lot of numbers of ladies that live outside the U.S. It’s one of those fringe benefits we get on this job. We get into a conversation and I say the next time they’re in New York I’d like to give them a personal tour. I want to give a good image to New York.”
In fact, this summer, Mr. Palombella, who immigrated to the United States from Italy when he was 11, plans to return to Tuscany to visit a woman he met on his bus. On her last visit, he took her and her friends to a karaoke bar at the Park Central Hotel and serenaded them.
Even if the romance doesn’t work out-Anthony hasn’t heard from her in a couple of months-June, July and August promise excitement. That’s when Anthony switches from the M79 to the tourist-rich M50 line, as he does every summer. The route commences at the United Nations and then travels cross-town, terminating at 42nd Street and the Hudson River.
“It’s a treat for me,” the bus driver explained.
But will the references that New Yorkers take for granted-say to the Dakota’s elevators-go over the heads of tourists? Anthony pondered the question for a minute.
“I’ll probably add new material,” he said.