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Do You Know This Chapel Hill Bus Driver? Man Wants To Say Thanks

Chapel Hill bus
Flickr/Creative Commons (Image cropped)

David Ellis Dickerson is a writer, a storyteller and a teacher. He might be best known for the stories he's told on "This American Life." He also has a book about greeting cards, and an online series of video shorts called "Greeting Card Emergency."

One of his latest video stories takes place in Chapel Hill, NC. It features a town bus driver, and a random act of kindness. We can't really do the story justice, we recommend that you watch it here:

The story takes place in 2012, in May.

"I was in Chapel Hill, NC walking along the sidewalk," Dickerson says.

It was a hot day, and Dickerson was carrying a suitcase which contained everything he owned. He had $60 in his wallet.

He'd been living in New York City and had received a big advance for a book. He wrote the book, but it came out in 2008 just as the economy was tanking. The book failed, and his money was gone.

"I should have quit NY when I had $20,000 left, but I left when I had $500."

Dickerson lived with friends for a while while he figured out what he could do. He had a Ph.D., had written a failed book, had been a college Teaching Assistant, and had gotten fired from a job editing crossword puzzles. He wasn't sure what he could do to make money. And then he had an idea. He did a Kickstarter campaign which gave him enough money to buy a cross country bus pass. He figured he'd write a book about the experience. But the writing wasn't going well.

And so on the day in question, Dickerson landed in Chapel Hill. He was drained, exhausted.

When the bus pulled up, Dickerson asked the driver how much the fare was. "This angel-faced guy said 'It's free, friend.'"

For some reason, Dickerson says, he stood next to the driver with his suitcase.  The driver said "Where you from?" and out popped the truth. Dickerson replied "Actually, I'm homeless."

He'd never actually said those words out loud before. He did not have a place of his own. He'd been living with friends for ten months. He told himself he was couch surfing, vagabonding, anything but the truth.

Dickerson thought, "Why did I say this to this total stranger?"

Turns out, the man could relate. The bus driver himself had been homeless. He told Dickerson that he was 30 years old when he got divorced and lost everything.

Then the bus turned a corner and passed some buildings at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The driver pointed and said 'I used to sleep right on top of that building.'

The driver pointed and said, "I used to sleep right on top of that building."

He had a tarp to cover his things when it rained, and that was his base as he looked for jobs. The man told Dickerson that things turned around when he landed his current job as a bus driver.

And then he pulled a card from his pocket and offered it to Dickerson, suggesting that he apply for a job.

"They will train you," he said.

And then, as the bus continued along the route, the driver would point out different places where Dickerson might get a job. He suggested things Dickerson could do for cash.

"Pizza Hut, I bet they're hiring."

"Can you drive? I bet that flower shop could use a driver," the man said. The bus driver even offered to put in a word for Dickerson at a restaurant where he had a contact.

David Ellis Dickerson was overwhelmed by the man's kindness. At one moment during the trip, the driver grabbed his arm and said, "You're gonna be OK.'

'I didn't want to be the man crying on the bus, I ran off the bus and became the man crying on the street with his luggage in the middle of Chapel Hill.'

And that's when Dickerson lost it. He realized he needed to hear those words not just from anyone, but from someone who'd been there.

He said, "I didn't want to be the man crying on the bus, I ran off the bus and became the man crying on the street with his luggage in the middle of Chapel Hill."

Dickerson didn't try for a job as a bus driver. He didn't apply at Pizza Hut, or the flower shop. He left the state. But the memory of that bus driver's kindness stayed with him for the past year or so.

David Ellis Dickerson
Credit Dave Halley
David Ellis Dickerson

Dickerson has indeed gotten on his feet. He's had success as a writer and performer. That cross-country trip led him to Tucson, and out of the blue he got a call to be a writer for a game show based on the Bible. That show was really successful.

And so David Ellis Dickerson came back to North Carolina recently, to try and find that bus driver in order to say "thank you." He couldn't find him, though. (He says that the bus driver resembles the angel Clarence Odbody from "It's a Wonderful Life." Yeah, he knows what you think about that.)

So David Ellis Dickerson did what he knows how to do. He turned to words, pen and paper. He made a card. What kind of card will suffice for such a situation? You'll have to watch the video to find out.

>> Watch more installments in David Ellis Dickerson's Greeting Card Emergency series.

Carol Jackson has been with WUNC since 2006. As Digital News Editor, she writes stories for, and helps reporters and hosts make digital versions of their radio stories. She is also responsible for sharing stories on social media. Previously, Carol spent eight years with WUNC's nationally syndicated show The Story with Dick Gordon, serving as Managing Editor and Interim Senior Producer.
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