Westfield Avenue still looks bleary, but aboard NJ Transit's 404 bus, the sun is most definitely up.

"Good morning!" driver Evelyn Holley exclaims - or rather, proclaims - welcoming passengers and expertly wielding the wheel through the obstacle course of another South Jersey rush hour.

I'm along for the ride on Holley's 6:52 a.m. weekday run from Cherry Hill Mall through Merchantville and Pennsauken, into downtown Camden, and, finally, to Center City. She makes four 90-minute roundtrips a day, each including dozens of stops and a hundred or more riders.

On this recent trip, winter is palpable, Christmas is coming, and people have a lot to do, a lot on their minds. You can see it on their faces as they watch the bus roll up, its robo-voice calling out the stop.

But for a few seconds after they get on, Holley's riders are offered the singular pleasure of a friendly face and a bit of banter. She not only has a gift for gab, but the sort of laugh that makes you join in even when you have no idea what the joke's about.

"Personality plus," explains longtime rider Sheila Sims, a retiree from Pennsauken.

"I don't drink coffee," adds Philadelphia resident and musician A.J. DeLong. "So she's the next best thing."

Holley, 47, excels at the sort of person-to-person exchange that can reboot a day.

"You can tell when someone gets on in a bad mood," she says. "But when they get off, they might not be."

Jaywalkers? Vehicles whose drivers seem not merely insane, but possessed? A Benjamin Franklin Bridge congealed with cars?

No problem.

Road rage? Never had it, never will.

"I have a lot of patience," Holley says. "I've been doing this for almost 19 years, and I love it."

A personal trainer and a former boxer (with the arms to prove it), Holley grew up in Philadelphia, Palmyra, and Camden, and now lives in Pennsauken. She's got six children and six grandchildren, enjoys all sorts of music, and has been known to take a trip or two to the casinos.

But what she particularly loves is getting people where they need to go while getting to know them. She greets many passengers like old friends - which, in a sense, many are.

Such as security guard John Orr, who's been promising to bring her flowers - for six years. Or Edward Stotts, a Pennsauken resident who will let a 404 pass by and wait for the next just so he can commute with Holley.

Like these two Pennsauken residents, most passengers on the 6:52 are working-class and of working age; not too many kids or seniors at this hour.

Make no mistake, the 404 is not a party bus, and Holley is a driver, not a hostess. Some riders neither say hello nor goodbye; others sit silently, encased in their own music or lost in their own thoughts, as they roll through a lively stretch of urban New Jersey.

Which, as we all know, can be a bit rough in spots. But anyone hoping Holley is a pushover should be forewarned: She knows all the tricks, including the perennial quick-passing of bus passes between riders.

"Sometimes they'll try to pass it out the window," she says, laughing.

Only once has she been held up. It was in Philly a couple of years ago; the guy used a hoodie to obscure his face.

"He said, 'I'm sorry, sister,' and showed me the gun," Holley recalls. "I was so calm. I wasn't fearful. I have faith in God."

Faith, and follow-up: The guy with the gun was not only arrested, but sentenced to jail. Holley did everything necessary to make sure that happened, thank you.

She plays by the rules - you have to when you're entrusted with the welfare of all those passengers - but if someone is rushing and still has a block to go before the corner, she'll wait.

She'll make a "courtesy stop" for a senior citizen, too.

DeLong, the musician from Philly, says "it's nice to have a driver who treats us like human beings, rather than cattle."

Holley puts it another way.

"I go that extra mile."

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.