If you polled a sample of my classmates from childhood and asked what the most memorable aspect of their experience in elementary school was they’re likely to recall an important educator, the horrible school lunches, recess, or maybe the first Goosebumps book they read. I, however, will never forget the bus ride to and from school and the important lessons I learned outside the school walls.
The first lesson pertained to the social hierarchy of the world. Unlike the days of Rosa Parks, the most coveted seats were the seats at the back of the bus, I think, in large part because they were the furthest away from the only authority figure, the lowly bus driver. Seating on the bus represented a caste system, and the bus drivers were most definitely the Untouchables, so it was important to distance yourself from these mongrels. Bus drivers are similar to cabdrivers, in the sense, that all that seems to be required to hold the job is an overwhelming body odor and a spastic personality.
Only one bus driver ever had the wherewithal to manage our unruly bus route for more than a year. He was known to us as Charlie. Charlie had coke-bottle glasses, wore a tattered jacket with holes in the sleeves, and had long greasy shoulder-length hair, which he kept covered by wearing a blaze orange winter hat year-round. His hats and his appearance were a constant source of our ridicule and pranks. One classic zinger that was repeated way too often was asking him “Charlie, what were you eating under there?”
“UNDERWEAR?!” He would belt back to us and we’d roar with laughter.
Other jokes weren’t as clean. There was one week when a kid kept bringing in straw to stuff in the holes of Charlie’s jackets giving him the appearance of a not-so-intimidating scarecrow. One way to prove yourself to the rest of the bus was to sneak up to the front seat and pull Charlie’s hat off and throw it to the back. Once there, his hat was used as a form of abuse, by stretching out and forcing it onto some poor, unsuspecting kids head. Charlie would pull over to the side of the road, storm to the back and demand the return of his hat, which he told us he paid $.25 for from Goodwill, only adding to the hilarity of the situation. Beet red, Charlie would scream, then snag his hat and huff and puff his way all the way back to his driver’s seat. If it was a particularly wild day he’d then get on his radio to call the bus garage, “52 to Base,” he’d holler into his radio, “52 to Base, I’m going to need some assistance here!” We’d be in stitches, rolling on the floor laughing at the sound of Charlie calling “Base” like he was some sort of astronaut or army general. When we’d get to school, the superintendent of schools would be waiting to visit our bus, something that happened numerous times every year.
One day we learned Charlie’s last name, and it was such a unique name that there was only one name in the phone book, but the first name wasn’t Charlie, it was Earl. With this new information we made it a point of calling him Earl, until he finally snapped and told us that he lived with his parents, even though he was probably in his late 30s at best. I never saw it necessary to harass Charlie outside of our time together to and from school each day, but others did, and it wouldn’t be long before his phone number went unlisted.
No matter how awful we were, and as a group we were pretty awful, Charlie was always quick to forgive us. We’d get “write ups” for acting up, something that was a last resort, or assigned seats for a couple weeks, but that only meant sitting near the front of the bus, where we could inflict more damage on the bus driver. Usually after a few weeks things would simmer down and the process of misbehaving would start all over again. Charlie would try his best to keep the peace by occasionally bringing in food for us, which only led to more shenanigans on our part. One day he brought us homemade caramels, which he had apparently hand-wrapped in either Kleenex or toilet paper. Not that we would have ever eaten candy from Charlie to begin with, but the fact that he wrapped them in ass wipe was both disturbing and hilarious. The caramels became missiles we launched at kids at the front of the bus, pelting them in the head and back until our arsenal of hand-crafted candy was depleted.
Besides wanting to distance yourself from the bus driver, two factors determined where you sat on the bus: how cool you were, and what time sequentially you were picked up. The first, socially determined factor was more important because coolness superseded everything else. If a popular kid wanted your seat there was little you could do to keep it. You could be beaten out of your seat, tossed about, punched, ass kicked, until you realized your role and moved down a caste (seat). Or they could take your hat, jacket or backpack and throw it so you would have to go fetch it. Perhaps worse than physical torment would be the emotional damage of insults hurdled at you if you refused to move.
The kids on our route were pretty vicious so I learned another lesson in how to avoid beatings, usually by avoiding eye contact all together. A prime example was Bart, a kid who grew up on a farm just down the road from my parents’ house. Bart’s house was notorious for having the mangiest farm dogs that would attack you once you got within 100 yards of their property. Maybe this is why he was so nasty, stealing other kids’ stuff, or throwing the dead batteries from his Walkman at people. When junior high rolled around Bart and his monstrous friends would use the back seats for smoking cigarettes, burning holes in the seats or trading hickies with their skank girlfriends. Two guys that were part of Bart’s posse would later go on to pull off a couple armed robberies around town, but I know where their delinquency really began, in the back seats of Bus 52.
Not everyone was as inhumane as Bart and his friends, some were just really disgusting. There was a group of older boys who organized a “Binaca Challenge,” where they would load their mouth up with as many sprays of breath fresher, (usually about 10-15 sprays) then, eyes watering, spit all over the back windows of the bus. This went on for weeks before anyone noticed, and besides spit, leftover lunch meat, boogers and god knows what else made its way all over the back of our bus. I learned the power of harmful associations that month when a few of those boys were kicked off the bus and somehow, although I had never once hit the Binaca spray and spit all over the bus, I was forced to help clean up the hardened, crusty saliva after a morning bus ride.
By the time I had reached 4th grade, the bus ride also taught me more about sex than I’d ever learn in “Human Growth and Development” class. Through the use of jokes that ended with punch lines like, “Mommy turn on your headlights, there’s a snake in your grass!!” I had a pretty good understanding of how most basic sex acts worked, long before I’d ever try any of them out. Besides the dirty jokes I also learned about different cultures, namely through racist jokes. Blacks, blondes and Poles were the most likely target, the last of which I’ll never really understand because we were all Polish, hailing from a little church community known as Polonia (Polish for Little Poland). I guess the lesson here was that as long as you were laughing at yourself as much as others it was okay to say really awful things; it’s a lesson I still practice to this day laughing at strangers, but needing to look no further than my mirror for the real joke.
In retrospect I’m not sure why we were such a wild group. I know many of the guys I rode the bus with were physically abused throughout their childhood. This was a different time though, when parenting tactics weren’t discussed ad nauseam on every daytime talk show or in magazines. I think part of it was just that feeling of freedom, out of the watchful eye of our parents, but not yet under the supervision of our teachers at school. The only adult responsible for the whole lot of us was Charlie, and he couldn’t even bathe himself regularly, let alone possess the demeanor necessary to supervise 50 frantic kids with one eye in a mirror and one eye on the road. How that bus made it to school each day, free of flames and dead bodies, I’ll never know. I guess that’s a testament to Charlie being qualified to do at least half his job. It wasn’t his fault he got saddled with the bus from Hell. In a way I think he almost liked us, kind of like we liked having him. We were all misfits, learning lessons from one another.