The boy said, “Hey Mister, did you know there was a man who lived in a school bus at the end of the street?”
“Yes, he was my friend,” I thought.
My route is in an area that has seen steady growth for a while, where old meets new and rich meets poor.
Back around the turn of the century I befriended a fellow bus driver named Johnny. Johnny used to sing in a rock band but he was taking a break from the scene. He wore a custom made black hat that earned him the nickname Black Hat Johnny.
We would sit outside the high school every afternoon playing and singing. Then one day we went inside the school and discovered that the men’s room by the office had the most amazing acoustics and the sweetest natural reverb. So we did what any self-respecting musicians would do. We started jamming out in the men’s room! After a while a man in a suit opened the door and looked in. He said, “I was wondering where that was coming from. Carry on.”
At that time Johnny was my only coworker with whom I had a friendship outside of work.
He lived in a school bus on the edge of town. He had dragged that old bus down from Minnesota and parked it on his little piece of land at the end of the street. He cut the top off and built a higher roof. He cut out the side of the bus and built a living room with a deck. The deck looked out on the hill where Johnny used to hike with his dog. He built a nice little home out of that old bus. Sitting on the deck one day I asked Johnny if the hills would be developed. He said, “Oh yeah. Million-dollar homes.”
He was right, though he never lived to see it. The hills have been filled in. They put up a fence so the McMansions wouldn’t have to see the little old school bus house.
Johnny tried to talk me into buying an old bus and parking it on his land.
He said, “You can build it up and we’ll be neighbors!”
The part about being neighbors sounded good but building a bus into a house was way more work than I was willing to commit to.
Johnny took time off from work because it was getting difficult for him to get around. It was the end of the school year and he figured he had all summer to heal and get back in the saddle when school started in the fall. He had his new route picked out and he was excited about it.
We had our end of the year bus driver party at a local venue. My band Stone Waltz had graciously agreed to perform for the bus drivers free of charge.
During our set I called Johnny up to the stage. He hobbled to the stage leaning on a cane. He grabbed the microphone like a boss and belted out some classic rock tunes. Everyone was blown away including me. I’d only ever heard Johnny sing accompanied by my acoustic guitar. I hadn’t seen him in his element; a rock and roll singer up on the stage. It was to be Johnny’s last stand.
It wasn’t long after that night that Johnny called to tell me he had cancer.
For the next few months I visited Johnny in his school bus home. I would bring my guitar and sing to him when he was too weak to sing.
Johnny left us on Jan 16, 2003. That day I wrote a song called School Bus Driver Man.
Now in 2017, I’m back in the old neighborhood picking up kids on Johnny’s street. There’s a house where the bus once sat. And there’s a legend of a man who lived in that old bus.
Black Hat Johnny
photo by google street view