My Pop once said to me, “You have so much talent. You shouldn’t have to drive a bus.”
True enough. Thanks to this man (and my Mom) I had guitar lessons with a great teacher throughout my teens. Pop worked extra hours and refinanced the house so that I could attend The Berklee College of Music in Boston and Musicians Institute in Hollywood. He wanted me to get the most from my education without having to work a part time job. For this I am forever grateful.
My father was once a fine singer. He studied voice with an opera singer and sang in the supper clubs in Manhattan. He was also a talented artist. There’s one surviving painting that I know of that he did in the 1940s. He was young and very good. Unfortunately he did not have support from his family and he was forced to work all through his youth. He chose to do things differently for his own children.
When I turned thirty I decided I needed a day job. Until then I’d worked many odd jobs. I was a jack of all trades. I’d washed windows in Beverly Hills, fixed cars, built playscapes, sold bread, had a food business, delivered lunches, etc., etc. I scoured the paper (pre-craigslist) and circled possibilities. I applied to ten jobs in ten different fields, all of which I was qualified for. I knew what I didn’t want to do. Most of the potential positions fell into that category. The one listing that stood out and got me excited read, “School Bus Drivers Wanted.”
Sign me up!
My first day driving a big bus was a Saturday. My trainer, Doris (also my Mom’s name, pronounced DOOR-iss in TX, DAR-iss in NY – we joked about that often), took me out in a torrential downpour. I drove through flooded roads (I didn’t know any better), up hills and through town. We covered most of Austin. I was having so much fun Doris said, “Keep driving, Jimmy Joe!”
Driving the bus was the easy part. I learned to drive in a full size Chevy van that Pop bought new in 1982. Then I had my own van, a ’69 Ford Econoline known to the world as The Beast. The bus was just a bigger van.
The greatest challenge was waking up for the morning route. It took me years to get used to getting up way before the crack of dawn. More than once I woke up to daylight and I knew I was in trouble. It usually happened on a cold, windy and rainy day. I felt bad for the kids waiting for me in that nasty weather. I thought about my Pop. He always got up around 5. Mom made him breakfast. He went to work and Mom went back to bed. I always assumed he was a morning person. Then Pop retired. Without the burden of a day job, he was staying up to watch the midnight movies and sleeping in until 10 or 11. Pop was a night owl like me!
“If it wasn’t for the kids, traffic and early mornings, this would be a great job!” – (old bus driver proverb)
So how does a night owl musician take on a job that gets him out of bed at 4:37am? One friend said, “Jimmy Joe gets up so early he has to wake up the rooster!”
The answer is… he sleeps in the summer. That system worked for a long time. But back to Pop’s initial comment. After a while he saw that I loved being a musician and school bus driver. His attitude about it changed and he began to ask me about the job.
I started to include School Bus News in my monthly music newsletter. I wrote about the fun, crazy and poignant things the kids said and did on the bus. The newsletter that started around fifteen years ago eventually developed into this blog.
My two worlds began to intertwine. I started writing songs for, inspired by, and sometimes with the kids. I was playing shows at the schools. From early on I’ve had a guitar that lives part time on the bus. I play in the afternoon when the kids are boarding the bus and on field trips. I’ve had young adults say, “You sang the Mango song when I was in 3rd grade!” It’s an awesome feeling. At the end of each school year I have the children sign my guitar. I’m on my second school bus guitar. Each has many layers of signatures. Someone asked if there was anyone famous among them. I replied, “Not yet.”
A silly sense of humor is one of the things I’ve inherited from my father.
When it comes time to take attendance on the bus I say, “Raise your hand if you are NOT here!,” or, “What time did Ellen not show up today?”
I also give quizzes. “What?!? A quiz on a school bus?!”
The questions weren’t difficult.
“How do you spell FBI?”
“What color is an orange?”
“What’s the phone number for 9-1-1?”
Here’s what I mean about Pop passing his humor down to me:
Many years ago my sister Amy called the house very late at night or very early in the morning, WAY past curfew (a story for someone else’s blog.) Pop answered the phone in a groggy voice.
Amy said, “Sorry to wake you, Dad.”
His sleepy voice replied, “That’s okay, I had to get up to answer the phone anyway.”
So, for the sense of humor that makes my wife roll her eyes, I have Dear Ol’ Pop to thank/blame.
Jim “Pop” Natoli
Nov 3, 1928 – Oct 11, 2015