School is back in session and it’s time for my annual public service announcement and soapbox rant.
PLEASE STOP FOR SCHOOL BUSES WHEN THEY’RE LOADING OR UNLOADING AND WATCH FOR CHILDREN!!!
I hate using all caps but this is important.
I can’t begin to tally the number of cars that have illegally passed my bus in the past two weeks. The good news is that I don’t have to. The cameras and police do the counting.
It was the first week of school when chaos rules the land and kids often miss their bus stops. I had just dropped off three or four kids at a stop and proceeded on. I immediately pulled over to sooth (silence) a screaming child when a man knocked on my door. I looked up and my brain registered the face as one I had just seen when I was unloading at the corner. I assumed it was a dad looking for his child who missed the stop. The man said, “Did you honk at me?”
Then I realized that he was not waiting at the corner with the other parents, he was in the car that passed my loading lights!
I said, “Yes, I did.”
He said, “I feel like you turned on your red lights at the last minute!”
I said, “Sir, I opened my door and tapped my horn to alert you when I saw that you weren’t going to stop.”
He said, “You can’t just open your door when I’m driving down the road at 30mph!”
I said, “Yes sir, I can. That’s why we have warning lights.”
Some drivers see me coming, make eye contact with me, and give me the stink eye when they pass the bus. One woman raised both hands in a WTF gesture. Not only did she knowingly pass a school bus that was letting students off, she did it with no hands on the steering wheel!!! WTF?!
In the nearly twenty years I’ve been driving a school bus I cannot recall in any of my training where I am required to stop and let traffic pass before I open my door. If it’s in the afternoon and I’m approaching a stop and I see that the oncoming driver has had little time to react, I will wait, as the kids are safely contained in the bus. In the morning it’s a different story. The kids are out there, hopefully waiting at the stop, but sometimes they’re late and running to catch the bus. In the morning, for the safety of the children, I don’t wait to activate my loading lights. They’re on the moment the bus stops. Consider yourselves forewarned!
We’re two weeks into the school year and the temperature has topped out in the hundreds every day until the Labor Day storms rolled in. Austin is experimenting with a few new air-conditioned buses but the vast majority including mine, have the old 24-50 AC. That’s 24 windows at 50mph. According to my dashboard thermometer, it has been 112-115 degrees in the bus every day. It dipped down below 80 Friday morning for the first time since school started. We’re all thankful for the cooling trend and look forward to some crisp 90s this week.
Enough of my rant. I’m probably preaching to the proverbial choir anyway. On to the fun stuff!
On the first day of school, I pulled up to a stop where a mom and her two kids were waiting. She said, “There’s one more hoofing it down the street.”
I waited for the girl and her mom who was trying to keep up with her. When they got to the door I saw that the mom was a musician friend of mine. Her seven year old had never taken the school bus before and my friend was nervous to let her ride until she saw me. Every morning Scarlett says ‘I love you!’ to her mom at least three times as the bus pulls away from the curb.
It’s a great way to start off the day. Scarlett sets a fine example.
A four-year-old girl boarded my bus one afternoon on the second day of school. She was very excited. She said, “I have a new backpack and look, it’s pink! And my shirt has little pom poms. They’re blue and pink!”
She then said, “I was sick but now I’m good and I’m so happy! And this day is lovely and I love this lovely day!”
How can I not love this job?
Every morning I pick up the kids for the elementary school and we get there a few minutes before the school opens. When I stop the bus I say, “Nap time, go to sleep!”
“We already slept!”
“I’m not tired.”
“It’s not nap time, it’s time to go to school.”
Two minutes later when they open the doors I say, “Nap time is over, have a spectabulous day!”
One day I parked the bus and said, “Nap time!”
A seven year old boy named Tyler stood at the line at the front of the aisle and laughed.
I said, “Are you asleep?”
He said, “Yes.”
I said, “Oh, yeah? What are you dreaming about?”
Without missing a beat Tyler said, “Pink fuzzy unicorns farting out rainbows.”
How can I not love this job? What imagery!
My little school bus guitar got a new paint job.
At the end of every school year the kids sign my guitar. The tradition started many years ago around the turn of the century with two first graders named Brianna and Lupe.
Back then I had an old classical guitar that my neighbor found in the trash and gave to me in 1986. It needed a set of tuners and strings. For about $12 I had a decent sounding guitar. It had a few scratches and battle scars so I didn’t mind bringing it to work. In those days the guitar would fit between my seat and the console to my left.
Lupe and Brianna sat in the first seat behind me. One day I heard the muffled sound of someone plucking guitar strings, “plink, plink, plink.”
I said, “Brianna, Lupe, what are you girls doing? Get back in your seat. They giggled like a pair of six year old girls.
Then they were silent for a few minutes so I knew they were up to something. I said, “What are you doing now?!”
Lupe said, “Brianna wrote her name on your guitar!”
I said, “What?! Brianna, did you write your name on my guitar?”
I looked in the mirror and saw her nodding and grinning.
I said, “That’s it! You are in Big Trouble!”
The girls laughed and giggled some more.
I finished the route and couldn’t wait to see what the girls had done to my guitar.
After I had dropped everybody off and walked back to check for sleepers, I picked up my guitar to find a completely unmarked finish. The girls lied, but they gave me a great idea. At the end of that school year (I don’t remember exactly when but it was around the turn of the century) Brianna and Lupe were the first to sign my guitar.
On one of the last days of this school year I pulled my bus up to my parking spot a few feet from the fence that surrounds the school yard. At this point in the year the children were allowed to roam the yard like free range kids. A few of them had gathered around a metal utility cover on the ground close to where I was parked. They were hitting the cover with sticks they had found on the ground. I played a few chords. They banged on the cover to my beat. I played more chords and like a call and response blues, they repeated my rhythm. Then more kids joined in. By now we were all playing together in a tribal-like jam.
After a while a teacher blew a whistle and the kids got up to go. Not a word was spoken the entire time until the last child to get up turned around and said, “Thank You!”
I do love my job
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.
Here are some things that I do on the bus to amuse the children (and myself.)
***To the kids who refuse to wear their seatbelts.
The kids were boarding the bus one afternoon. I waited until one child, a repeat offender, put one foot up on the first step and I said, “Is your seatbelt on yet?”
The kid said, “No.”
I said, “Why not?”
She said, “I’m not even in my seat yet!”
I said, “That’s no excuse, get that seatbelt buckled!”
One day the girl got wise. She put one foot on the first step and said, “Yes, my seat belt is on!”
***When the kids are especially loud
As we’re leaving the school I like to pick up the microphone and say, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?…”
***When we pass a construction site
In Austin there is never a shortage of construction sites.
One route I had 3 or 4 years ago, when I was down to 6 or 7 kids to drop off, we would approach a construction site. I would slow down, look at the site and say something like, “Are they building the moon over there?”
“Are they building a mud factory?”
“Are building a forest?”
“Are they building the Empire State Building?”
“Are they building an alternate universe?”
“Are they building antiques?”
You get the picture. Every day it was different. I would ask and the kids would shout, “NOOOO!”
After a while they would get really quiet as we got closer to the construction site (what is that crazy old bus driver going to say this time?)
I would say, “Are they building Brooklyn circa 1955?”
Then I would shrug and say, “Hmm,” as the kids erupted in a big, “NOOOO!”
***Who Caused the Weather?
One year I had two little boys, brothers, at the first stop in the morning.
One cold morning I stopped and opened the door to let them in. As the cold air rushed in with the boys I said, “Who left the refrigerator door open all night?!”
The older boy said, “Not me!”
His younger brother said, “I did!”
On a rainy morning I said, “Who forgot to turn off the shower this morning?”
Big Brother: “Not me!”
Little brother: “I did!”
Warm, balmy morning:
“Who left the oven on all night?”
Big Brother: “Not me!”
Little brother: “I did!!!”
One windy morning the older brother caught on or gave in:
“Who left the fan on all night?”
Two boys in unison: “I did!!!”
***The Bufepire is near
I have a cat called Bufus. He’s an ankle biter. You have to watch out for your ankles when Bufus is around. He’s like a little vampire cat that bites your ankle because he can’t reach your neck.
I told the kids about Bufus.
Me: Have you seen the Bufepire?
One little boy said, “What’s a Beefpire?”
Me: Not Beefpire, Bufepire! He’s half cat, half bat, half vampire, and half Bufus.
Kid: What’s a Bufus?
Me: That’s his name. I saw him a minute ago. He’s looking for an ankle to bite AND HE’S UNDER YOUR SEAT!!!!!!!
Eighteen kids jumped and pulled their feet up onto the seat.
Mean but fun.
Snow Day in Austin!
The forecast said 40 degrees and rain with a slight chance of freezing rain/sleet/snow. It was raining when we left the elementary school yesterday afternoon. By the time I dropped the last of the kids off and headed to the middle school I began to notice little white flakes mixed in with the rain.
The kids piled into the bus with great enthusiasm over those little white wet flakes. They opened most of the windows and I had to tell them more than once to keep their hands, heads, feet, knee caps, etc., inside. Their excitement was palpable. Some said it was the second time they had seen snow.
Snow is a rare occurrence in Austin, TX, so even a light flurry can cause quite a stir.
As we left the school, more and more white flakes joined the rain drops. I picked up the microphone and said, “In case you didn’t know, it’s snowing!”
A girl behind me said, “That’s not snow.”
Me: Yes, it is.
Girl: No, that’s not snow. It’s rain.
Me: It’s snow and rain.
Girl: No, it’s just rain.
Me: I grew up in New York and I’ve seen my share of snow. That is definitely snow!
Girl: It’s rain.
Me: Do you see those big white flakes?
Girl: Yes, but there’s more rain than flakes.
Me: So you admit that some of it is snow?
Girl: No, it’s rain.
I stopped when I realized I was arguing with a 12-year-old girl. What was I thinking? She might make a good lawyer some day.
I drove to the high school after the last of the middle school kids erupted from the doors of the bus into Winter Wonderland. It was cold and half of the seats were wet so I closed all the windows. Middle school kids don’t mind or even notice that but high school kids do. High school kids rarely open windows.
As the high school students were boarding the bus a girl behind me commented on the snow. The boy next to her said, “That’s not snow.”
Here we go again, I thought.
I said to the boy, “Come up here and look at the hood of the bus.”
He said, “Oh, God!” and sat back down.
End of discussion.
I feel sorry for him if he ever gets into an argument with that 12-year-old girl.
I transported the high school students without incident and drove back to the bus barn. That’s when the snow started coming down in earnest.
I got into my van and set off on my 25-mile drive home. Traffic was heavy as expected but moving for the first half of the trip. Then I saw nothing but snow and brake lights and what appeared to be a large truck sitting diagonally across the road up ahead. I made a ten point turn, being careful not to put my tires in the ditch. I rerouted to find more of the same on the next road. People were crazy and stupid out there on the road, probably because they have little or no experience driving in snow.
When I finally did pull into my snowy driveway, two hours had passed. I was grateful to have gotten home safely.
Usually, in a bad weather situation, I’ll get a recorded message in the wee hours of the morning of the next school day that classes have been delayed two hours. Not this time. That evening I got the call that schools would be closed Friday.
I just got back from a wonderful week in the Pacific northwest. Music conference in WA, three gigs in Portland, one show and an anniversary with my better half at a picturesque Inn on the stunning Oregon coast. Topped it off with a very nice song circle with some musical friends.
I did not want to leave.
I left the wonderfully chilly autumn of the northwest for steamy central Texas. I was sweating the moment I stepped outside at the airport in Austin. It was another 90 degree October day.
Fortunately for me the cold front arrived right on my heels. I woke up Sunday morning to a breezy 70 degrees!
There was a chill in the air when I left for work Monday morning. It was time to shift back to school bus driver mode, a challenge after a lovely trip like the one I just had.
I heard “Welcome back!” from a few coworkers. I clocked in, picked up my route sheet and started to slip into my morning routine.
I got back into the groove as I ran the elementary route. After I dropped them off at school I had a few minutes to stop at a park, stretch, and enjoy the cool morning air.
As I turned the corner I was happy to see that familiar sight. The dozen or so kids at the first stop were playing ball in the street. Every one of them. When they saw the bus a boy threw the ball back onto the front lawn where it belonged. They gathered their things and boarded the bus, all smiling and laughing. One boy said, “I’m so happy you’re back!” and gave me a high five.
I asked the girl in the front seat (as I do most days) who won the sportsball game. She said, “The tree did!”
A few weeks ago while the kids were playing, the ball got stuck way up in the tree. Apparently the tree decided to keep it.
It makes me so happy to see these kids playing ball every morning. Not a single one of them is looking at a screen!
After the middle school kids were safely delivered I went to pick up the high school students. I got another high five. They were happy to see me!
I returned to work in the afternoon and it was still in the seventies and breezy!
It was Bus Driver Appreciation Day. I had no idea until I received a couple of small gifts and some words of thanks. A little girl said, “I missed you!” and melted me with her smile.
It was nice to feel appreciated.
I did have to retrain the kids to sit down. They somehow forgot the rules while I was gone. A teacher said they were out of control crazy when I was away.
I like to speak to my elementary kids in the muted trombone voice of the unseen adults in the old Peanuts animations. I picked up the microphone and said, “Wah, wah wah wah, wah wah wah wah wah wah wahhhhh. Do you all remember what that means?”
They said, “Sit down and put your seat belts on!”
Yes! They have no idea where it comes from but they know what it means!
I have a new middle school student. I asked him if he knew where his stop was. He looked it up on his phone. It was a Blackberry. Brave kid, bringing that dinosaur phone to school. Another boy started to explain how people used Blackberry phones in the old days, like in 1979.
I said, “What?!? We didn’t have cell phones in 1979! Not even Blackberrys! I had a Blackberry and it was not 1979!”
It was a beautiful day.
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
We just made it through the penultimate week of the school year with only three days next week before summer vacation.
Earlier this week I discovered a mess of sunflower seed shells on the floor near the back of the bus. I swept them up, making a mental note to find out who had been eating the seeds. The problem with my mental notes is that they self destruct after a few minutes. By the next day that mental note was a puff of smoke on a distant breeze.
The next day I swept up another pile of sunflower seed husks. I made another mental note. I forgot the mental note until after I drove away from the school with a passel of elementary school kids. I picked up the microphone and said to the group, “Hey people! This is a reminder that you are not allowed to eat in the bus. Especially sunflower seeds! Absolutely no sunflower seeds allowed!!!”
At a bus stop a boy told me that there was a huge mess of sunflower seeds on the floor near the back of the bus.
I secured the bus and marched back to the fifth grader with the purple mohawk. I’ll call him Gus.
Gus had a large open bag of sunflower seeds on the seat next to him. He was playing a game on his ipad.
I said, “Gus, is that your mess?”
Me: Did you hear my announcement about eating sunflower seeds?
Me: And then you ate those sunflower seeds?
Me: And dumped the shells on the floor?
Gus: They fell
I looked at him a moment longer. His attention never wavered from the ipad.
I think I breathed a little fire when I said, “START PICKING THEM UP!” He looked up at me for the first time.
“NOW!!!!” I shouted.
It had never occurred to this child that he might have some responsibility in this mess.
Gus said, “You mean the shells?”
“YES!!! YOU MADE THE MESS, YOU CLEAN IT UP!!!!”
I was surprised when Gus bent over and started picking up shells. By the time I got to his stop he had piled them up on his ipad. On his way out he dumped them on the street. One small victory!
It’s Thursday, the last school day this week. It was a long day. I had my last field trip of the year but it wasn’t the fun kind where I visit animals in the zoo or play songs with the kids in the park. It was the kind where I drop off the kids and drive back to the base along with thirty seven other buses and wait for the call to return. Then we drive back and wait some more.
It was also early release day for the high school. They have early release the last four days of school. It sounds good on the surface but the reality is not so great.
In my daily route I pick up the elementary kids first. They’re a lot of fun in the afternoon but they’re also a lot of work. They don’t want to sit down and they take off their seat belts seconds after you get them to fasten them. And they’re loud. Very LOUD!
Next up is middle school. I just fight to keep my sanity.
By the time I get to the high school my nerves are frayed and I need a break. I get that break from my high school kids. I never have trouble with them. They’re quiet and respectful. I can feel my blood pressure go back to normal. It’s a breath of fresh air at the end of the day.
Then there’s early release. We clock in two hours early to pick up high school first. I’ve blown my breath of fresh air before the madness even starts! I end my day dropping off middle-schoolers! Echhkg!
Today I got an unexpected break. Most of the middle school kids stayed for the carnival. I only had nine students to drive home, about a quarter of my usual load. Traffic wasn’t even that bad. I was getting off easy.
I was getting close to the end of the line when a boy came up to the front with a liter container of coconut water. He said that someone left it on the floor with no cap and it was just spilling all over the place.
So much for smooth sailing and getting done early. It’s not easy getting a mop under all those seats.
Three more days!!!
Spring is in the air, the kids are out of control and the school year is winding down. That also means that the Kerrville Folk Festival is right around the corner. Kerrville is an eighteen day festival that starts the Thursday before Memorial Day. It overlaps with the school year by a week or two but in the good old days (5 or 6 years ago) Kerrville started the day after the last day of school. I would drop off the kids, clean out the bus, race home, pack tent, guitar and cooler, and head for the hills.
Every year is like a family reunion with my adopted musical family. We live for the late night song circles and jams in the campgrounds that often go until dawn.
One spring, around the turn of the century, I drove out to the ranch to kick off my summer vacation with some ’round the clock pickin’ and grinnin’. I pulled into the campground to set up camp when I saw two boys from my elementary route with their dad. Shane and Wyatt (names have been changed, not to protect the innocent, but because it was a long time ago and I don’t remember them) were excited to show me their camp. We all walked to their site. They had one of those big stand up tents with two or three rooms. A Suite. We talked for a bit and I went back to set up my own camp.
That night I grabbed my guitar and strolled from camp to camp. If I liked what I heard I sat down and joined the circle for a while. I stopped and played at several camps until I made my way up the hill to Camp Crow’s Nest.
It was around 3am and the vibe had mellowed out considerably. I may have been dozing when a man stumbled into the camp, breathing hard from the trek up the hill. He said, “Excuse me, sorry to bother y’all. I just got here and I’ve never been here before. I know it’s a long shot but I’m trying to find my brother. He’s camping with his two boys.”
Suddenly I was wide awake.
I said, “What are the boys’ names?”
He said, “Shane and Wyatt.”
I stood up and said, “Come with me. You just happened to find their school bus driver and I know exactly where they’re camped!”
I led him down the hill, into the meadow, through a sea of tents until we arrived at the “suite.”
He called his brother’s name and he emerged from the tent. He did a double take when he saw me. I think we were all equally amazed at the serendipity.
What are the odds?