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WITH GREAT gusto, the rolling choir of the Elmwood 20-T Thruway bus gives its annual concert on the Wednesday ride home.

Led by Sam Cardino, who works for Erie County's Information and Support Services, the chorus makes its way through "Joy to the World," "Silent Night," "We Three Kings" and other traditional carols.

"Oh, we're definitely amateurs," says Claire LaBelle of the Central Police Services Forensics Lab, "but we have a lot of fun." Attorney Don Dally of the District Attorney's office puts it more bluntly: "We still can't sing for rotten apples."

About 10 riders regularly sit together in the back of the bus and chat as they bounce along. But once a year, they put their voices together in song to spread Christmas cheer. Most get on at Franklin and Church streets. Dally, who is blind, jokes that on caroling night he is the designated driver.

As people file onto the bus, the regulars in the back, others sitting single file next to the windows, Cardino passes out song sheets and explains that they've just wandered into the annual sing-along. Some look around hesitantly, but most take the sheets willingly and add their voices to the effort.

There is a lone holdout among the 20 or so riders. When Cardino tries to hand the man a song sheet with his jovial announcement that he has to sing or get off the bus, the man replies that he'll get off. Instead, he puts his head down and dozes.

Nita Erwin brought two big red bows that Edna Lovegrove ties onto bus poles and Nancy McGee offers cookies.

Susan Robinson, sitting in the front seat and a new rider, says: "I'm stunned. This is my first Christmas (on the bus) and I think it's wonderful."

Even bus driver Jim McGinnis -- "My badge number is 3623" -- becomes a troubadour for a night. Asked if he's a tenor, he says: "I don't know. You tell me after you hear me."

Gail Cherry, also a "new" regular, said: "I'm not surprised. This group is like a family."

As the bus passes City Hall, Cardino breaks into "The First Noel," but things get off to a flat start and even one of his friends threatens to abandon ship and wait for the next bus.

But they are a creative group, undaunted by imperfection.

When "Deck the Halls" comes up, they try to turn it into "Deck the Bus."

It's smooth sailing and singing along the 15-minute Thruway trip and the "We're Not the Mormon Tabernacle Choir" is still going strong as the bus turns onto Elmwood Avenue at Buffalo State College.

Before he gets off in Kenmore, Cardino becomes nostalgic as he introduces "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

"During World War II when I was in the Navy, there was a guy who used to sit next to the juke box and play this over and over with big tears rolling down his face," Cardino says, trying to inspire some emotion in the rowdy group. "It brings back memories."

Leslie Thomas says he's never experienced anything like the bus singing in his native England.

"Only outside the pubs, quite late at night," he says, "but never on buses."

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