Designated bus drivers are the green light for St. Patrick's Day pub crawls

STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cathy Butler (left) and Nadia Kywkiw are two of the brave bus drivers for the 30-something-year-old Erin Express. The season's second boozy cruise will be Saturday.
STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cathy Butler (left) and Nadia Kywkiw are two of the brave bus drivers for the 30-something-year-old Erin Express. The season's second boozy cruise will be Saturday.
Posted: March 15, 2013

IT'S THAT time of year again. Time for green-shirted, green-socked, green-capped, green-beaded, green-tatted, green-haired and even green-bearded gaggles to ride yellow school buses and drink yellow beer in celebration of an ancient Irish saint who, it's safe to say, never chugged a Miller Lite.

This particular traveling troupe of Philadelphia-based St. Patrick's Day partyers, who favor getting smashed well before the actual holy day March 17, are participants in the city's biggest bar crawls.

Last Saturday, a few thousand partook in the 30-something-year-old Erin Express. On the same day, another thousand or two joined in the Running of the Micks, the Express' 2-year-old rival.

This Saturday is Erin Express, the sequel. The event's planners predict the season's second boozy cruise will be busier than the first, since Drexel and Penn students are now back from spring break. And this is actually the holiday weekend.

The party starts early. Most of the 13 participating pubs, including founding establishment Cavanaugh's, open about 9. Buses run 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. There's no cover charge. No reserving a space.

There are, however, lines for beer. And for restrooms. And for port-a-potties. And for those buses, which circulate nonstop in a citywide loop.

"They drink. We drive," summarized Tom Anton, dispatcher at Bridesburg-based YellowBird, provider of Express charters for more than a decade.

You might think carting hundreds o' intoxicated nippers around heavily trafficked city streets would be a completely thankless chore. In a way, you'd be right. But you'd also be very wrong.

Wheelin' and dealin'

About 10 years ago, Cavanaugh's co-owner Brian Pawliczek inherited the job of running the Express from his dad, William, who established the annual tradition along with a few other bar owners. Pawliczek called the event "kind of like Black Friday," and estimated it draws 2,000 to 3,000 patrons per Saturday to his University City establishment alone.

He figured the drivers worked the event for the pay. "We pay the buses and give the drivers a little extra to show we're thankful that they put up with it."

"It," explained Nadia Sywkiw - a 14-year YellowBird vet who drives for New Foundations Charter School during the week and has worked the Express for six years - could mean a few things. It could mean partyers leaning out bus windows. Or breaking those windows. Or attempting to exceed the vehicle's 48-rider capacity. Or lighting cigarettes, shouting at drivers, showing body parts they really shouldn't, and sneaking in - and spilling - booze.

"Every year, they're doing something crazy," said Cathy Butler, who's worked for YellowBird for nine years, and, like Sywkiw, also does runs for Bridesburg's New Foundations.

Despite the Express' 3-year-old two-bouncers-to-a-bus rule, Expressers still manage to make trouble.

"Last year, I had a fight on my bus," said Sywkiw. "Girls mouthing off at each other, exchanging bad words, and it broke out into a fight."

"I've been cursed at," she added. "After three o'clock, [traffic] starts to get heavy in Center City. [People] yell, 'Move this f-ing bus.'

"I say, 'What do you want me to do? I'm not an airplane!' But that just makes them madder."

Then there's the cleanup.

"A mess," said Sywkiw. "Liquids, sometimes people get sick on the bus . . . Let's say they get sick on the bus at one o'clock in the afternoon. We don't have the option to take the bus back."

The bars do provide trash bags. And sometimes the bouncers bounce passengers before they hurl, or help with the cleanup. But for the most part, it's on the drivers to hose down their rides' insides when they get back to the yard at day's end.

Sywkiw said the pay is a big reason she works the event. "I'm a single parent, so any extra helps. Whatever charter work I can get, I take," she said. She figured each driver stands to make about $110 plus a $50 tip per seven-hour shift.

But there's something else. "It's a big job," she said, "but it's fun to do."

"I always look forward to it," agreed Butler, "Since I've been doing it, it's been the same drivers. They all look forward to it, too."

Both drivers said they enjoy the Expressers' getups - and that they like to get dressed up, too.

"We put green shirts on, shamrock earrings, shamrock headbands. The kids like that," Sywkiw said. "Sometimes we decorate our buses, but we can only decorate the front, because [the passengers] tear it down. A couple years I put shamrocks all over the bus. It was a waste. They pulled everything down."

Both Anton and Sywkiw reported no violence, no big problems last Saturday. And Butler's had a perfect record when it comes to major messes. "Nobody ever got sick on my bus yet, thank God," she said.

Must be the luck of the Irish.


On Twitter: @LaMcCutch


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