(note to readers: this is from a column i had many years ago in the sanjuanislander) memory for today: "it's a free concert from now on, man..."
“i don't want to cause no fuss, but can i buy your magic bus?" if you have attained midlife or better, you remember "magic bus" by the who. a number of years ago, i bought my own. it wasn't magic when i bought it, of course. magic is not purchased. "bus magic" is like a tattoo. my favorite tattoo artist once said "you don't buy a tattoo, you earn it." i think he was referring to the discomfort. over time i have learned that the bus, like the tattoo, becomes a part of your story. in explaining the weird relationship you have developed with this object that makes very little sense in any practical way, you come to develop a deeper bond. in habitually defending your choice, you gain at least one devout believer: yourself. my bus is not a status symbol, at least not in the way that a bentley or a maserati might hope to be. but it does say something about my status. the first thing it says is that i have developed patience. i no longer endure traversing snoqualmie summit at 35 miles per hour, i actually enjoy it. i am finally free of a lifelong compulsion to be in the fast lane, determined to get anywhere at least as quickly as anyone else. my inability to participate in the bizarre, competitive-lane-changing, slow-race of the commuter, where the victory goes to the person who arrives at their exit two car lengths ahead of another, has given me the opportunity to observe this insanity from a comfortable and safe distance, calmly grooving along at 50-something in the slow lane. i know that even the winners are losers, as the wopr computer in war games learned when studying myriad variations on the game "global thermo-nuclear war." i have reached the same conclusion: "strange game. the only way to win is not to play." freedom from freeway competition gives one time to focus on other things, like whatever thom hartmann is saying on the radio, or rocking out with some classic music on the bus's updated sound system, or even (wonder of wonders!) spending some time in contemplation of thoughts that only occur in relative silence. the bus also provides other information about my status, including that i am sturdy enough to do without luxuries like a functional heater or defroster. the list of things one does without in the bus could also be continued with items including power anything, air conditioning, cruise control, reclining seats, lumbar support, headrests, corinthian leathers fine or otherwise, gps, abs, awd and well, you get the idea. the bus in winter provides its occupants with the same sort of cheerful preparation required of those bound for a sleigh ride: bundle up, folks, cause it's gonna be cold in there! gloves and hats and scarves do not have to be put back on when we arrive because we don't take them off! the inside of the windows remain pretty clean, because any interior humidity (such as a couple of rain- or snow-soaked dogs, typically panting) creates a need for near constant vigilant fog-wiping. we carried paper towels for years until we became a bit more "green" and switched to microfiber cloths. my bus also serves as a soap box, since tradition dictates that the back of a vw bus is the perfect billboard for delivering your views to those misfortunates caught behind you on two lane roads. the back of the bus is fairly plastered with stickers which run a gamut from automotive self-awareness, as in "lagwagen" and "never get behind a vw bus!", to personal travelogues like "dive belize", "stp 2002-4", or "vault of heaven 2004", and the traditionally political "obama!", to the angst of the frustrated liberal: "we are creating enemies faster than we can kill them!", or "i love my country, but i think we should start seeing other people." we also touch on theology, pets, and mental health with "dog is my co-pilot" and "i don't suffer from insanity, i enjoy every minute of it!" it might be just me, but these messages just wouldn't have the same punch on the back of a late-model lexus. when you see me hoist my middle-aged, balding body out of my bus, you might suspect that i have held these beliefs for 35 or 40 years, and you would be right. iraq or vietnam, bush or nixon, barack obama or bobby kennedy. the more things change, the more they stay the same. or as pete said, "meet the new boss – same as the old boss." but maybe not this time, eh? (note: optimistic obama reference). the magic bus also provides a range of on-the-road existential possibilities that just don't seem to present themselves when i drive my "anacortes car" my dad's old taurus. turning down a road i have never been on seems like a natural thing to do in the bus, but it feels like a waste of time or a mistake in the taurus. in the bus, i am much more likely to find an interesting connection down that road. or a great place to open the side door and let the dogs out for a run on a beach. the odds of encountering someone who will come up to me and start a conversation about my car that ends up in an extended interaction, or a shared pint, or even a dinner invitation are astronomically higher in the bus than in the taurus. in fact, the bus leads this competition by a score of "quite a few" to "none." should you be so fortunate as to have that most precious of commodities at your disposal - unstructured time – you can load it into the bus along with a bag of fruit, some cheese and crackers, and a beverage or two, and know that you don't have to catch any particular ferry. if you find yourself between places as it gets dark or as you get tired, you can just find a place to park in a park or a rest stop or in a safeway parking lot and crawl in the back for a snooze. in the morning you "shower" with baby wipes, get some coffee and a scone and meet some more people while fueling up your body and/or the bus, and adventure number two is already underway with no fanfare, reservations, or advance planning required. you might meet someone who agrees with your politics and who wants to celebrate a victory. or you may meet a staunch conservative who takes exception to your stickers, and then actually makes a valid point. it happens! once in a very great while you could run into someone with a gorgeous 1960 vw twin cab pickup and then it's your turn to smile from ear to ear and paw over the thing and feel the love that went into its resurrection and get a sense of its awesome and continuing mobile history. yes, in a very simple way, the bus is magic. it works some of its magic on the people inside it, and some of it on the people outside it. some people see it and remember woodstock, or some old bus that a friend had years ago. you can see the years fall from their faces as they remember and tell their stories. young people who were not born when hippies roamed the earth toss peace signs from the sidewalks, lumbering along in their big saggy jeans and schlepping their backpacks to or from school. inside, you feel as if you may be caught in a play, and you are anyway. that which you once were, you can be again. if you never were, and wished you had been, then now is your chance. if you didn't understand the first time, maybe you will now that you are less sure of everything. the bus is still the same. the bus is still able to teach. patience. humility. kindness. humanity. long-suffering. generosity. joy. sure it's really just a car. but then again, no. it's a vehicle for a man who makes potions in a travelling show, if you want it to be. it's spicolli and five of his friends out for pizza and really out to lunch. it's hauling home a bunch of stuff from costco or the saturday market for your neighbors. it's a ski trip to baker and sure, we'll make it. eventually. it's two people and their dogs spilling out the doors to tear up the smooth, flat, just-tide-washed sand at a local beach. it's the only really appropriate way to get to burning man, and it makes a relatively comfy home while there. it's more smiles per mile than almost any other affordable car on the road, and that's very good mileage indeed. in fact, that has to be some kind of magic.