Back around 1996 I was fairly new to Austin and I spent many evenings listening to live music. One night I went to the Continental Club to see a blues pianist called Grey Ghost. I squeezed my way through the crowd to the front of the stage, where I stood a few feet from Grey Ghost. I was amazed at this nonagenarian’s energy and the way his fingers danced across the keyboard. I was very fortunate to have seen him play when I did. Roosevelt Thomas “Grey Ghost” Williams died soon after at the age of 92.
Why am I telling a story about seeing a piano player over twenty years ago in a school bus blog? It came to my attention recently that Grey Ghost had worked as a school bus driver in Austin! I googled him (google didn’t exist when he was alive) and read his story. He used to hop freight trains to get to gigs. No one saw him coming but he always showed up for the gig. Then he would disappear as soon as it was over. This earned him the nickname “Grey Ghost.” At some point in his career he grew tired of traveling and went to work driving a school bus.
There’s a boy on my middle school route who plays the French horn. A few days ago he showed up at the bus stop on crutches, and hobbled to his seat in the back of the bus. That afternoon he was taking the horn home with him. At the bus stop his friend, also a french horn player, picked up both horns along with his own backpack, lifted them above the seat line and carried them to the front. I could see the strain on his face but he didn’t complain and he didn’t stop. He hauled those brass horns in their big bulky black cases over head off the bus and to his friend’s house.
Every afternoon as I’m waiting for the elementary kids to get out of school, I sit in the bus and play my little guitar. Things changed this year. In the past I’ve had a few kids ask if they could play it and I always let them. This year I have several kids ask me every day. They get so excited when they get on the bus. They say, “Mr. Bus Driver Man Sir, can I play your guitar today?”
I let them take turns playing a few minutes each. Here’s something interesting I’ve observed. When I hand it to a boy, his friend in the seat with him will say, “Oh, I wanna play it! Can I have it next?”
When I give it to three girls sitting side by side in one seat, they lay the guitar across their laps and all strum together. I love the way they naturally play together! One girl, about 4 years old said, “I’m going to sing my favorite song, Happy Birthday!”
One cold, rainy, and windy morning I dropped off the kids at the middle school. Like any rainy day, many more parents were driving their kids to school, making the usual traffic jam far worse. Through the sea of cars and brake lights emerged a girl of maybe eleven years old on her bicycle, head into the wind, wearing a raincoat, backpack, and bike helmet. She trudged on like a warrior through the weather and past the cars. In the basket was a violin case. I have no idea how well she plays but I want her to play in my band!!!!
In this climate of growing racial disparity, this next story really warmed my heart.
One morning I was picking up my elementary kids. Two 5th grade boys sat together in the front seat. One is African-American and lives in the trailer park. The other is Caucasian and gets on the bus up the hill where the big, new houses are. The boys were singing along to some music they were playing on the phone. They were smiling and having a great time, which means I was smiling and having a great time driving! When the song ended I asked what they were singing and they said it was the Hamilton sound track. The next song came on and they got right back into it with gusto! There was no black, no white, no hill, no trailer park, just two kids singing and laughing together.
It was a beautiful day.