The Writing Wombat

An American Marsupial in Fiction Land

Month: April, 2016

…on a Spring Break Afternoon

Last week I started my “What I did on Spring Break” de-brief by recounting a couple of the characters I met on my Booze Cruise to Mexico (Is that a Jimmy Buffett song?). Head back there if you want to read about the tour guide in Ensenada or the Piano Bar singer. They were each entertaining in their own regard.

But I held back on describing the biggest character of the trip. Because the Mexican diplomat and the singing copyright lawyer paled in comparison to a certain bus driver on the island of Catalina.

To say this guy was a cross between Richard Pryor and the Cryptkeeper would be insulting. Not sure to whom. My money’s on the Cryptkeeper.

The bus driver looked to be in his late fifties, but he easily could’ve been thirty-three with a steady dose of cocaine. His hair was ratty and continuously above/behind his head, as if he was being electrocuted in a windstorm. Or discussing gigawatts with Marty McFly.

I think maybe he put some Jheri Curl in his hair in 1999 and hasn’t washed it out since.

My first impression of the bus driver was not the first impression he was aiming for. I watched out the bus window as he interacted with the cruise personnel who were informing him he would have to wait for a few more people to get off the boat. He was pissed, and I can’t blame him. How hard is it to follow the “be at the tender by x time to be on shore by y time to give yourself z minutes leeway before the tourbus arrives.” And you know the cruise people were now telling the bus driver that, even though there would be people on his bus who couldn’t bother being on time, he still had to get us all back by <insert Sanskrit letter> time, or else they weren’t going to use his company any more. Who cares if he has to drive seventy miles per hour in a bus that tops out at forty on dirt roads designed for twenty?

So he was pissed, and his body language showed it. His jaw was set, lower lip out. His hands were on his hips when they weren’t running through his hair. He paced back and forth along the lawn, looking at the tender boats as if he could will them to go faster. I’m sure there was some “motherfucking kidding me”s escaping his mouth.

He looked like Pedro Martinez cooling himself off behind the mound after strike three was called a ball. Or Lionel Richie the day “Dancin’ on the Ceiling” dropped to number two. Like Richard Pryor after he set himself on fire. Or the two jive guys on “Airplane!” when they… hold up, they had afros, not Jheri Curl. Never mind.

After we finally had the missing cruisers in the bus, he gave us what he had intended to be his “first impression.” He closed the door, trapping (oops I mean “securing”) us inside, put on his microphone headset, and introduced himself as he pulled out into what counted as traffic on the only street in town.

“Welcome aboard,” he said in an obviously-affected, meek falsetto. I think he was aiming for Michael Jackson, but came across as Laverne from Police Academy instead. “I’d like to thank you all for putting your trust in me. Don’t worry. I’ve done this a… couple of times before. You’re… um… safe.”

I’ll give the guy credit. He kept the ruse on for a full minute or longer. I knew it was fake from the start, but still reached the point where I cast a skeptical, nervous side-glance at my wife before the bus driver broke character.

“Hahahaha,” he couldn’t contain himself any longer. “I love seeing all your reactions in the rear view mirror. You’re looking at each other like are we gonna have to listen to this for the next six hours? Like do I have to be polite?”

But here’s the thing. His voice hadn’t dropped that much. Sure, it’d grown in gravitas, but it’s not like his Michael Jackson had morphed all the way to James Earl Jones. He seemed to have settled somewhere in the Chris Tucker range. Or Dudley Moore. In fact, his voice and general disposition might have been part of his audition for a remake of Arthur. In this remake, though,  spends his time in the front of a bus instead of the back of a limousine.

And the bus was a character of its own. To call it a Muppet Movie or Partridge Family bus would make it about two decades too modern. This bus, a refurbished bus from the 1950s, would have called my 1985 school bus “luxurious.”  Think it harkened back to the Freedom Riders movement. And I don’t mean from that era. I mean actual bus might have physically been a burned out husk in 1961 that had been retrofitted.

And, really, what do you do with a bus that’s been fire-bombed by segregationists? Hey, I know! Sell it to a company that drives a bunch of drunk tourists around an island! I imagine the sales pitch went something like:

“Want a ride that’s as comfortable as a youth hostel cot?”

“No thanks, I live on an island with one town.”

“It corners like a tank!”

“I’m listening…”

“It gets two miles to the gallon.”

“Where do I sign? Is the bus here right now?”

So the guy drives us up the winding road into the mountains surrounding the town. I was on the right side of the bus, so I was only able to see how close he was coming to the mountain, not the cliff on the left side of the road.

But at one point, even from my vantage point, I could tell that was going straight when the road and, more importantly the mountain, were curving around to the right. This is it, I thought. It’s been a nice life but now it’s going to end in a fiery heap of asbestos-filled steel at the base of a mountain, the smoldering form of a still-cackling wraith spewing puns to my corpse.

Tomorrow, my undead corpse will be driving a new set of tourists off the cliff.

Wait, did they put asbestos in busses back then?

But he didn’t drive us off the cliff. At least not right away. What would be the fun in that? Killing your victims at the first chance is a strictly zombie move. Why do that when you can drag it out? When you can spend the whole time looking at the fear in their faces in the rear-view window?

Because it’s not like he was using said mirror to watch the road.

Instead, he brought our attention to the beautiful view of Avalon, the Pacific Ocean, and Southern California beyond as the bus hung precipitously from the cliff.  Or we were safely positioned in a turnout that I couldn’t see. But I assume the former.

“Where’s your Michael Jackson now, bitches?” I imagined Monsieur Keeper de Crypts cackling.

And then, after the pheromone level of his passengers dropped, our Dementor started up the bus again and drove us forward. I mean forward on the road, not forward off the cliff. Farther up the mountains and out of Avalon. There’s actually a barrier gate to get out of the “urban” area outside of the city. You have to be authorized to drive on the meager dirt paths that count for roads on the island. The golf carts that dominate the city are not allowed outside.

But a bus with no power steering driven by somebody whose head can spin around? What better definition of “authorized” can there be?

And for the rest of the trip, it was relatively painless. We were told we would visit a bald eagle sanctuary, and we did. Although there was nobody there, and it was pretty much just a netted enclosure that happened to have an eagle inside. I assume the driver’s buddy had just trapped an eagle and now it was a tourist trap. Although we didn’t pay to see it, so it’s a pretty shitty business plan for a tourist trap.

We drove to the east side of the island. At one point, he just randomly stopped the bus in the and told us we could get out to look at the view. It was indeed a beautiful view, if a bit marred by the bus sitting in the middle of the road, blocking any chance to escape. At least he hadn’t repeated his driving-off-the-road feat from earlier.

We ended up at the airport. I think that was the original purpose of the tour, but by this point in the day, I had forgotten. I half expected the driver to beeline it to the bar there before getting back behind the wheel with a foofy umbrella drink. But instead he told us that we were running low on time, so we had to take a couple pictures and run. Any food would have to be scarfed down. I guess all of that traffic we ran into had put us behind schedule. There were maybe two or three cars we encountered all day.

Or maybe he could have told one or two fewer puns. Or seventy-five fewer.

If you missed my earlier post, here are a few of his “highlights:”

  • “Love isn’t compromise, love is surrender. That’s why they call it a French Kiss.”
  • “The bumpy drive isn’t my fault. It isn’t the bus’s fault. It’s the asphalt.”
  • “Why don’t they play poker in the jungle? Too many cheetahs. If he says he’s not a cheetah, he’s probably a lion.”

On the way back to the ship, we were on to him, so he had to go a little farther for each zinger. “A crow has five wing feathers, called pinions. A raven only has four pinions. So the difference between a crow and a raven is all a matter of a pinion.”

His last zinger was quite electrifying. While stopped to watch the zip lines, he told us not to try to zip down the OTHER lines that were right there. Those were power lines.

“I zipped down those lines once. It was an electrifying experience. I used to be blond haired, blue eyed, and six feet tall.”

Nice one. And were you alive back then, too?

But what can I say? The guy was a professional. He safely drove a behemoth around on shaky infrastructure, kept us entertained and still had us back to the ship in time to depart. Quite the professional.

But even so, I still find myself questioning whether he was an employee of the company at all. Or if he was just some random dude who had escaped from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with the bus.

Cruisin’…

“Love isn’t compromise, love is surrender. That’s why they call it a French Kiss.”

“Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all of the week.”

Actually, that zinger wasn’t mine. It, and many others, came from a tour guide on Catalina Island, driving his 1950s-style bus around hairpin turns on a dirt road like he’s Doctor Teeth in The Muppet Movie.

Here are a few others.

“The bumpy drive isn’t my fault. It isn’t the bus’s fault. It’s the asphalt.”

“Why don’t they play poker in the jungle? Too many cheetahs. If he says he’s not a cheetah, he’s probably a lion.”

“A crow has five wing feathers, called pinions. A raven only has four pinions. So the difference between a crow and a raven is all a matter of a pinion.”

Whoo!  I’ll give you a second to catch your breath.

After a year of weddings and campings and vasectomies (oh, my!), I decided to spend my Spring Break with Ye Olde Booze Cruise. You know the type. Less-than-exotic destinations amongst the not-quite-splendor of a floating quasi-resort amongst nearly-tangential American territorial waters. On the East coast, there are a few different destinations for these short benders. But on the left coast, there is only one such Inebriation Itinerary: Ensenada.

Ensenada: the Poor Man’s Cabo! Ensenada: Fewer Donkey Shows than Tijuana!

(Ensenada people, I’m available for advertising and am waiting by the phone for your call.)

I was far from the only teacher on board. I know the stereotype is that Spring Break is full of  college students, but it turns out educators have the same time off as those college students. We also have the benefit of (a little) more money in our pockets, and twelve-dollar pina coladas might be the great equalizer. On this particular Booze Cruise, I couldn’t swing a passed-out frat boy without hitting a teacher, counselor, or principal.

And, my goodness, teachers are annoying.

But instead of devolving into my distaste for most others in my profession, I would instead like to highlight three people I actually enjoyed on the trip. All three were in some sort of official capacity. Because I don’t go out of my way to talk to too many other teachers.

In Ensenada, we decided to avoid “La Bufadora,” aka The Blowhole, aka a place where the ocean waves break against a rock. Most of the people in my group had done this Booze Cruise before, and pretty much every first timer gets roped into La Bufadora. You pay $70 to sit on a bus for an hour, then be amazed by waves for about 15 minutes, then spend two hours as a captive audience with a bunch of booths selling shitty wares before the bus takes you back to the ship, loaded down with ten-cent sunglasses, 50-cent ponchos, and a year-supply of Chiclets.

Ninety percent of Ensenda shore excursions go to the blowhole. It’s “Bufadora plus downtown shopping” or “Downtown shopping plus Bufadora” (Yay, variety!). You can also do “Bufadora plus winery” or “Bufadora with kayaking” or “donkey show with a blowhole.”  Although I don’t think the last one includes La Bufadora.

“Hey, a jeep excursion. This is different.” I remember reading to my wife as we shopped for excursions. “Let’s see, it says ‘Ride in jeeps along the beautiful coast to La Bufa…’ oh, for fuck’s sake!”

We wanted to try something different, and fortunately found a cheese cellar tour. Instead of going south along the coast, it actually (Gasp!) went inland, up into the hills to a dairy farm. We sampled cheeses at various stages of aging, which was very interesting, tasted some of the same wine we would have tasted on the winery tour, and had an excellent lunch featuring, naturally, quesadillas.

Our tour guide was new, because the tour was new. What was even more impressive was the fact that he hadn’t known any English prior to being hired. For speaking the language less than a year, he was impressive. Hell, I had six of German between high school and college and I still can’t even understand the lyrics of 99 Luftballons.

The tour guide said he had grown up thinking Americans are uptight. Not sure how, given he lived in a city’s whose main economy is drunk Americans at Papas y Beers. But regardless, he said he had always heard we were uptight and had learned over the past year, as he had met more of inebriated Yanks, that Americans aren’t always uptight. We don’t all build border fences. Some of us do body shots.

He started to get past his preconceptions when he started to learn English. He felt that a lot of the differences, the misunderstandings, between our two nations might come down to just that – misunderstanding. Literally, we can’t understand each other. If the average American and the average Mexican were better able to communicate with each other, both countries might be better off.  I nodded along, knowing that this guy was right, I should be more conversant in Spanish.

I resolve to get Rosetta Stone when I get home.

Then somebody asked him if it was always this hot in Ensenada.  He responded that the temperature was usually around 25.

What? You’ve learned English, met a bunch of Americans, and don’t know the proper way to tell temperature is Fahrenheit? I mean, what point is there in learning each other’s language if you’re going to use that heathen Celsius? You almost had me, dude. A minute ago, I was marveling at the potential future between our glorious civilizations as we strode toward the future together. Now I’m signing up to build the wall. And the dimensions of Trump’s “door” better be measured in goddamned feet and inches!

The second person who caught my attention worked in the piano bar on the ship. Actually, I shouldn’t say he worked in the piano bar, he was the piano bar. Some of those fancy-schmancy boats have dueling pianos, but when the entire cruise costs less than a week of daycare, you take what you get.

He did the usual fare of Billy Joel and Elton John with a smattering of Jimmy Buffett, what with us being on a boat and all. Fewer sing-alongs than a usual piano bar, but again, you probably need a second musician or, I don’t know, a cocktail server to work the crowd into sing-along mode. And when the poor guy needed to rest his vocal chords or take a leak, the bar emptied out and he had to start from scratch.

At one point he busted out an original song. In a piano bar? When I go to Denny’s, I expect the waitress to bring me my Grand Slam Breakfast, not recite her Hamlet soliloquy for next week’s audition. And, Mr. Piano Man, in a piano bar, I expect you to perform “Piano Man.”

The kicker is that in this original song, which he swore he had recorded the day before getting on the boat, he wanted us to sing along. Except that we weren’t privy to the iPhone he had taken into Sam Goody to record on. Nor the radio station, K-RAZY, broadcasting it in his head.

But he assured us we could sing along. He taught us a bunch of “la-la-la” notes and told us to sing when he played those notes on the piano. This meant we were constantly late, but we eventually figured it out, because half the song was nothing but “la-la-la.”

I guess Elton John doesn’t write any lyrics, either.

I’m not being harsh on the guy, he was actually pretty nice. After one of his breaks emptied the room, he chatted with us between songs. Jokes about the Sam Smith/Tom Petty lawsuit led to a general discussion about the legalities of the music profession. Turns out you can’t copyright a chord progression, hence songs like “La Bamba” and “Twist and Shout” being indistinguishable on rhythm guitar. Note progressions can be protected, but they are notoriously hard to prove. How many notes in a row constitutes copying?

Piano Man mentioned one of the few successful lawsuits, prior to Sam Smith, was between Huey Lewis and Ray Parker, Jr. At this point, he played the bass line from “I Want a New Drug,” and although I had never noticed it before, sure enough, when he got to the end, I wanted to shout, “Ghostbusters!”

But Huey Lewis’s song had been playing on the radio a lot when Ray Parker, Jr. wrote his song, so the copying was pretty obvious. It becomes a little more difficult for some random Italian dude to prove that Michael Jackson had ever even heard his song, much less copied it.

“For instance, my new song,” Piano Man segued. “Were you in here earlier when I played it?”

We assured him we had been, but it was no use, he started playing it again anyway.

“This melody, for instance?” he continued. “It just came to me one day. Can I swear I’ve never heard it before? No. I’m pretty sure I made it up, but it’s very catchy, so maybe I’m not the first person to string it together. It would be hard to prove.”

Uh huh, buddy. Just like my book about a haunted hotel in Colo… I mean, Wyoming, and its caretaker, um, Zack Borrance.

But the Mexican diplomat and the singing copyright lawyer paled in comparison to the star of the trip, someone who I will write about next time.

You’ll have to return next week. The Blog experts call that a teaser.