"So the Hieronymous Bosch bus headed out of Kesey's place with the destination sign in front reading, "Further" and a sign in the back saying, "Caution: Wierd Load. It was weird, all right, but it was euphoria on board . . . Besides, the joints were going around, and it was nice and high out here on the road in America. So Tom Wolfe wrote in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."
hey don't make hippie buses like they used to, you know. That's what Cookie was saying that Saturday afternoon while standing in front of his old blue and white bus in Berkeley, surveying his 14 passengers, each with a backpack and a load of luggage, one with five musical instruments stacked under her arms.
Cookie did another quick count and for a moment his face froze in a pose that spelled heavy calculation, crumbling walls, financial ruin.
"You guys got to come, Dirk," Cookie said. "We need you." No, Dirk said, he and Carmen would catch a Greyhound instead. They heard Greyhound was a lot cheaper, and they were only going to Albuquerque anyway.
"Albuquerque, Dirky, huh?" Cookie said. "Hey - the bus is fine. Don't let the outside fool you."
The fine bus has a 1948 GM body. Half of the rear bumper is missing. The windows are lined with duct tape to help cut the cold. But it does have a good 1977 engine. And the body is tough.
"I saw one of these mothers roll over eight times once," Cookie said.
"Didn't even get a dent in it."
Cookie calls his the American Gypsy. He charges $69 from Berkeley to New York, with scenic breakfast, dinner, bathroom and telephone stops at points in between. His Gypsy is one of five or so buses left shuttle passengers cross-country on the alternative bus system, whose granddaddy is the Grey Rabbit.
It all started five years ago when Lester, a former insurance man from Oregon, started theGrey Rabbit. Grey Rabbit packed them in - 25 to 40 passengers per trip; two buses leaving twice a week [reservations] from each side of the country. The company pulled in $40,000 one summer. Then came the complaints: Buses were too crowded; they were breaking down, sometimes being held up for a day or more. Gypsy passengers Albuquerque Dirky and Carmen came out west on a Rabbit whose driver handed Carmen a tin coffee cup when she asked him to make a bathroom stop.
Cookie used to be a Grey Rabbit driver but quit last spring - "money hassles and head trips" - to start his own company. Nobody knows about his company yet, he says. They think he's still a Grey Rabbit driver. And what's worse, he says, is that he's a victim of the nice-guys-finish-last syndrome: "Even if we had more than 25 people booked, which is unlikely these days. I wouldn't want to try to squish 'em all in.
"The handwriting's on the wall," Cookie said. "The lowered Greyhound fares [from $142 to $55 one way]. The-lowered airfares [Supersaver airfare is $244 round trip]. We all lost money this year, and if a miracle doesn't happen, we'll all be out of business by summer. But I believe in miracles." Pharmaceuticals
At 1:30 p.m. the 14 passengers, including Carmen and Albuquerque Dirky, boarded the bus - smokers and road watchers to the four sets of front seats; congregators to the hanging mid-bus bunks; readers and sleepers to the upper bunks in back.
Jeannie the musician brought her guitar, mandola, psalstery, violin and flute. Dirky (whose asthma was bothering him) and Carmen sank into a lower bunk and smooched under thier jackets. Aaron, a Princeton graduate student with an organic chemistry book and two reliable road maps sat in front to watch the road.
The others, including a French dancer, a Hungarian political dissident, a freelance photographer on his way to Kenya, four undergrads returning to school, and an unemployed Long Island electrician, went mid-bus to talk and eat their lunches. "Hey - You wanna roll some of that Hawaiian pretty soon?"
The bus moved out of Berkeley then on down Highway 5 toward L.A. at a clip that belied its looks.
"Holy s . . ., Cookie - what's that noise?"
"Not to worry - it's just the fanbelt going haywire again. Always sounds like she's going to blow up."
First stop, Los Angeles. End of the line for one. Dinner in a Mexican cafe off Sunset. Two more get on, including Randy, whose mother tells Cookie, "Be careful. That's our son."
"I know how to handle anxious parents," Cookie told Randy later. He was moving across the desert now, and most of the other passengers were asleep. "I usually tell 'em I'm an ex-driver and an ex-teacher, and that usually sets their minds at ease, but it's all I can do to stop from yelling, 'Hey you guys, the acid's up here in front here.
"'If you really want to get into some heavy pharmaceuticals, it's all there in the back, and why don't you le tme tank up myself, here, before we get rolling?"
Cookie used to work as a psychologist's assistant at a mental health clinic in his home state, Maine. He's small and wiry and his knee-length down jacket, baggy blue jeans and unbuckled work boots fit him like borrowed clothes. He has shoulder-length hair and a thin, curly beard that hangs down to his chest, making his small, thin face framed by wire-rim glasses look gnostic. Dressed in anything other than the bus gear, Cookie, 27, could pass for a middle-aged Russian Rabbi.
He's a part-time writer and a part-time mechanic and his favorite part of the southerly route east is the Painted Desert, because, as he says, it always looks like a John Wayne movie. Irish Jigs
The Gypsy crew woke up when the bus made a stretch-and-breakfast stop in Flagstaff, Ariz. ". . . Damn cold, huh?" . . . "You guys ain't seen nothin' yet - this trip is like the goddam circles of Hell. Wait'll we get to Ohio" . . . "See, it has something to do with the relationship between you muscles and your nervous system. . ."
"Can you imagine doing a trip like this on acid?"
Everyone fed, the passengers reboarded, and Jeannie played Irish jigs on her psalstery through Arizona. Tucumcari
Almost dinnertime, outside Albuquerque, the Gypsy pulled up behind a Trailways coach with a bumper sign reading: "$55 ANYWHERE IN THE U.S. $39 MOST OUT-OF-STATE TRIPS."
Hey Cookie - how come you're so expensive?"
"Expensive!" Cookie flashed his red warning lights and passed the Trailways coach sans effort.
"Anyway, look at all those bored people in there having a boring old-lady time."
In Albuquerque, Carmen and Dirky got off - "See you in another life, maybe" - and sally and her Doberman pinscher got on, the Doberman, free. The dog found its home for the night in Charles the Hungarian's sleeping bag and Cookie talked for the rest of the night about his previous bus trips (300,000 miles worth) and how the business is changing.
". . . and then vandals mysteriously burned our bus in New York right after I started the American Gypsy, but I went home to Maine and took my life savings and bought a new engine, and you should've seen it - hauling that engine in a trailer all the way to Boise where the other bus body was . . ."
And then there was the woman, three children, two dogs and their living room furniture he towed to Columbus in a U-Haul, no charge.
"See, I'm not a very good businessman," Cookie said. "I mean if the ICC (Interstate Commerce Commission) ever told me to stop making runs, I'd probably stop making runs. Cookie doesn't have an ICC license.
"Next bathroom stop, Tucumcari, so if you want to stop now, we'll stop - speak now or forever hold your P-- . . ."
"Hey Cookie - will ya turn off the lights back here?"
"Can't. Gotta keep it on for a while to see how it affects the generator, which I think is going to need some work pretty soon . . ."
(To make any kind of profit, much of which goes into bus repairs, Cookie needs at least 20 passengers. The 14 he towed barely covered the fuel cost.)
The generator worried Cookie even more now, because Sally, who boarded with her Doberman in Albuquerque, needed to get to Boston, and if the bus wasn't in shape, he'dhave to put her on Amtrak, and he did't know whether Amtrak would take the dog. (Under a new federally regulated pet-travel policy, Amtrak only allows seeing-dogs.)
"See, the only way I can rationalize still doing a thing like this," Cookie said, "is looking in the rear-view mirror and seeing everybody having such a good time."
It was outside of Tucumcari, 11 p.m., and a group of five congregrated midbus watching Jeannie play "The Green, Green of Home" on her guitar.Tony the electrician was rolling a joint on the Anwar Sadat issue of Time magazine.
"I love these names - Tucumacari," Cookie said.
Tucumcari. Three-go-bus-sy. Tucumcari. Ha. Ha. Ha."
"Hey, let me know when we get to Texas," a voice shouted out. "We got to have a joint in every state."
An hour later the Gypsy grossed the Taxas border and most of the passengers, including the voice, were asleep again. Foot Massage
Next morning, breakfast in Oklahoma City. The brakes stick again. "Somebody stole the damn hydraulic jack." Twenty minutes later Cookie has the Gypsy ready to go. "It's effin' freezin' in here - turn the heater on!" . . . "It's Elizabeth Kubler Ross. I couldn't imagine anyone who was into Jesus being into foot massage." . . . "Hey - you got another?" Next TIme?
"I'm glad you guys are such good sports about the brakes," Cookie was saying to no one in particular. "With the generator and the brakes, this is the worst trip I've ever had.
"In 300,000 miles I've had no one major breakdown. HEY AARON! Will you come up here for a sec and figure out a way for me to avoid St. Louis - thanks to Aaron's crumpled road map. Breakfast outside of Columbus. Snow storm. Thirty below. Bus gets stuck in a rut. Passengers get out to push it free. Anna and Charles do a polka in the snow before reboarding. Cookie clips up through Ohio and across Pennsylvania at 70 mph in the left lane passing every trucker on the road, shouting, "Ain't you guys never seen snow before?"
"Hey Cookie! What time are we getting to NEw York? . . . " "Are we getting to New York . . . ?" "Gotta have another joint before we get to the Lincoln Tunnel. . ."
Midnight on Tuesday, 83 hours after the Gypsy left Berkeley, the passengers deboarded in New York City.A feeble, thankful chorus of "We love you, Cookie" broke out when the blue and white diesel pulled into Port Authority. Cookie was just explaining that he had a lot of plans to upgrade the bus - "make it a real comfort cruiser." He wanted to put in a stereo sound system, he said, and the duct tape gave him this great idea for plastic storm windows. In the back he wanted to redo the bunks, fix them so they'd fold out to make a comfortable sleeping platform. He was even thinking of putting in a toilet. Big plans, he said, takes money, you know.
"Wow - thanks a lot, Cookie. Maybe we'll meet under happier circumstances like a funeral. Ha. Ha."
Cookie handed out American gypsy business cards, which read across the top: "Guaranteed Travel Through Time and Space."
"Hey Cook - I'll remember to ask for your bus next time.
"Sure," Cookie said. "That is, if there is a next time."