When it wasn’t in use, it served as a playhouse for her daughter and all us cousins. We’d have sleepovers in it, with plenty of room for everybody. In many ways, school buses serve as a very practical family car and recreation facility.
Given her penchant for regrettable altruism, her access to a vehicle which could hold 60 people, and the fact that said vehicle came with an attached stop sign which could stop traffic absolutely anywhere she pleased, Gail had a real weakness for hitchhikers. She had absolutely no standards; nobody was too creepy or too filthy.
If she saw a need, she’d slam on the brakes and invite them aboard. If they seemed potentially violent or otherwise untrustworthy, she would tell her passenger to sit in the back and tell them she had a gun. Which she did. On a school bus.
Sometimes I think you really have to be from Mississippi to fully appreciate my childhood memories.
When I was 10, my parents hosted Thanksgiving, and Gail arrived in the big yellow bus with three Australians who were biking across America. They had not been actively seeking a ride, but she’d seen them on the drive to our house and had chased them down, honking the horn until she ran them off the road and offered them some turkey. One can only imagine what the scenario had been like from their perspective.
I’d never encountered Australians before — the only time I’d met anyone from another country was when we hosted an Up With People performer from Canada. A Canadian guest wouldn’t have been all that exotic, except that her name was Venus, she had hair extensions, and she was black. Our family had black friends, but none of them had ever used our shower, and I had a lot of questions about how she washed and dried her hair.
The Australians didn’t have hair extensions, but they did all talk like Sandy from “Grease,” which just happened to be my favorite film, so I was able to speak to them in what I considered to be a very close approximation of their native accent until I was instructed by my sister to “Stop that right now before I choke you to death.”
As far as I know, Gail never had a bad experience picking up hitchers in the magic school bus. She met her fair share of drunks, a legion of young families who didn’t speak English but were quite grateful, and a category I’d never considered: grumpy old men in overalls whose families wouldn’t let them drive anymore. In collecting their stories, she likely learned more about the human condition than I’ll never know.
Just last week, a couple driving to a Dave Matthews Band concert discovered the hitcher they stopped for was Dave Matthews. Superman even hitchhikes in “Man of Steel,” meaning it’s his preferred mode of transportation, and that dude can fly. So if you want to meet a celebrity or a superhero, it’s a good way to do it.
I am the owner of a broken automobile without the funds to repair it, living in a city not designed for pedestrians. There are no sidewalks in my part of Decatur. MARTA scaled back our neighborhood service due to budget cuts, and my husband’s job requires consistent access to his car. We’re doing the best we can for the moment.
But as cars fly past me on Memorial Drive, I can’t help but think how nice it’d be to see a magic school bus come along.
Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at www.topherpayne.com