In life there are few absolutes, but one is surely this: When someone named Egon Kafka is holding on Line 2, you take the call.
It is not immediately clear what Kafka wants. There is a film screening, of a documentary. "It is about me," he says. "And the buses, of course."
Buses do not seem very dramatic. Kafka disagrees. "They're the iconic transportation artifacts of the 20th century," he explains over the phone. "Relics of the machine age, stuck somewhere in space and time between the horse and fusion-driven starships."
What does Egon Kafka do with these buses? He collects them. Like stamps, only bigger. So we bite: How many buses does Kafka have?
Last count: 112.
The mania to collect is well known, but not clearly understood. James Joyce collected doll lingerie. Balzac, bric-a-brac. Petrarch did coins. In America, there are subcultures within tiny subset cultures collecting Zippo lighters and bad clown paintings, Victorian sex toys and beer cans. Some psychologists see collecting as an attempt to calm an inner anxiety or to overcome a childhood trauma. Of course, isn't everything?
The collection of buses that Kafka and his associates has assembled in the industrial hinterlands east of Los Angeles may actually be one of the largest, strangest and most complete assemblages of how ordinary Americans moved en masse by public wheeled transport in the 20th century.
"Gotta be seen to be believed," wrote one enthusiast with the Motor Coach Society who saw it. The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History has one of Kafka's buses on order for "America on the Move," its first major transportation exhibit since 1964.
It is Kafka's dream to find a home for his buses and help create the American Road Transport Museum somewhere in Southern California, the automotive megalopolis that has largely turned its back on public transport.
But dreams are hard to sustain, especially when they are parked in the desert near Fontana, withering under a pitiless sun.
And that is how we find ourselves with the distant cousin of the author Franz Kafka, bouncing up and down on the springy front seat of a 1952 Trailways bus built by General Motors, the 4103 Parlor Coach, the last model of the art deco series, a rolling breadbox but with alluring moderne lines.
Egon is driving us out to see the collection. His ponytail is fluttering in the breeze. "A kind of weightlessness." That's how Kafka describes the experience of riding in a bus. "Like a voyage, where all your senses are more alert. Elevated. Because you sit up high." Participant and observer. "And everything is . . . more."
The broken speedometer is spinning round and round like in a Road Runner cartoon, and dust motes and paint flecks are pinging around the coach like a swarm of angry bees. But the vintage Trailways is keeping up with the seven lanes of traffic pouring east out of L.A., plowing up the inclines and down the gutters, into the bruised-banana skies of the smoggy Inland Empire.
On the road to the bus yard, we learn some things: that news anchor Jim Lehrer is a bus person and proud of it. Apparently there is a vibrant sect of bus enthusiasts out there. We also learn that Egon's father, John, is a psychoanalyst who escaped from Austria and the Holocaust in 1941. His mother, Marian, was an endocrinologist at NIH before she retired. They still live in Bethesda, where little Egon grew up.
Egon Kafka himself is harder to pin down. His day job, for instance. His printed materials and plea for help in the creation of his ART Museum describe him as a "transportagonist." A biographical insert -- a three-page, single-spaced document -- begins: "There is a Seeker born every minute. Egon Kafka is a passionate manchild, still working hard to fully grow up."
He is 45 and a part-time pool man. But there is more.
We arrive at the chain gates of the bus yard in an unzoned scramble of industrial and residential properties, populated by pest exterminators and loitering young men covered with vibrant tattoos depicting acts of violence and religious themes.
"A real trucky kind of place, isn't it?" Kafka says as he grinds the motor coach to a stop, sets the brake. The junkyard dogs begin to howl, and there it is: The Collection.
It is simply amazing.
An elephant graveyard, acres of gray gravel filled with big metal dinosaurs listing on big cracked tires, slowly desiccating. Many of the buses still sport their destination head-signs -- cities and streets these coaches will likely never see again, and designations like SPECIAL and EXPRESS. But to where?
Because many of the 112 buses have not been restored, a frozen-in-time musk clings to the fleet; it looks as though the drivers simply pulled into a spot and walked away. Trash -- gum wrappers, cigarette butts -- still litters the floors of coaches. In one seat, Kafka found an unwrapped but unused condom. "Imagine the story behind that," he says.
To the untrained eye, a bus looks like a bus. But as the tour progresses, the coaches begin to define themselves.
There is a bus whose coach is made of tin for the World War II Office of Defense Transportation. "It looks like hell," Kafka says. "But they were never meant to last." Manufactured 400 of them. Like Liberty Ships, built quick and dirty, to bring civilian workers to the defense factories. "It's all there, just waiting to be restored, a living piece of history." As he sees it, these wrecks are imbued with their "own reality," not some "pixelated reality, but the real thing." The bus. And we're beginning to have eyes to see.
"Their value," says Kafka, "is self-evident."
A 1932 Indiana with a louvered windshield has a ceiling whose peeling paint Kafka admires as "pretty stalactites." Its seats are child-size, at three-quarters scale. "That's because people were smaller and lighter in the middle of the century," he says. And that somehow seems incredible but comprehensible -- when you're sitting on the seats in 2002. The real bus.
Kafka points to a prewar Yellow Coach that is the same model (if not the same bus; records are sketchy) that Rosa Parks of Montgomery made famous when she refused to take her seat at the back. There's a Crown Supercoach that Lucille Ball rode in an episode of "I Love Lucy" and a 1950s General Motors Transit Coach, the one that Dustin Hoffman escaped in with Katharine Ross at the end of "The Graduate."
Under the dust: tiger-stripe mohair upholstery and cat-eye windows and bug-eye headlamps. Some buses look like farm tractors with seats and others like Vegas spaceships with torpedo-smooth lines. Built or operated by companies long ago bankrupted, merged and absorbed, with names like Flxible, Fageol, Fitzjohn. "This is how our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents got around," Kafka says.
My God, where did all these come from?
Egon and his fellow enthusiasts find the buses and their parts at auctions, junkyards and, mostly, through the grapevine. Many are donated or bought for a few hundred bucks (though hauling them away can cost thousands).
Buses retire from public use and are passed along -- to high school drill teams, then to missionary churches, then to desert rats and junkie freaks. Kafka found one treasure, half burned and abandoned in the Mojave, filled with used hypodermic needles and motorcycle parts.
"There are buses out there, hiding, in farmers' fields and old garages, and you just know they are out there and should be part of the collection," says Kafka. "They're irresistible." But "we're at the breaking point."
In his brief biography, Kafka worries that he has personally expended "more than a million dollars" and "a hundred thousand hours of work" on the collection -- money made over 20 years working on film sets, leasing vintage cars and buses as props to the movies, driving stunts and cleaning his share of swimming pools. All that and, "somewhat uncomfortably," money from his family inheritance.
Many of the older buses hark back to a time when style and design were paramount, when buses attempted to compete with the more luxurious aura of train and then air travel. Egon stands beside a late-1940s Greyhound Silversides, created by the industrial designer Raymond Loewy, a father of the streamlined look who was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1949 and died penniless in 1986. Loewy changed the Greyhound logo from "a fat mongrel" to the sleek, elongated racing hound we recognize today.
"She's a beauty, ain't she?" Kafka purrs as he rubs the anodized aluminum flanks of the coach. This bus ran from Boston to Miami. Club-style chairs. Tropic-Aire by Carrier. An ice chest, pull-down shades and a lavatory (an early use of the onboard toilet; most buses stopped for restroom breaks). Kafka points out a sign on the door. "A Good Driver," it reads, then lists 20 rules. No. 1: "A good driver does not have accidents."
There's another Loewy design, the next generation for Greyhound, the 1950s-era Scenicruiser, which was ground transportation's doomed attempt to compete against the winged buses of the coming jet age. "Driving them is like flying a 747," Kafka says. They're massive beasts, powered by synchronized dual engines. "If everything wasn't just right, they'd shake themselves to death." Passengers sat beneath skylights, attended by stewardesses with drink carts. You can almost hear Frank Sinatra crooning "Come Fly With Me."
If he had his way, Kafka would stop at every bus in the yard.
"This life chose me," Kafka says. He has been working on the collection for two decades. "And it is beginning to take its toll."
Over the years, Kafka has worked as a geologist's assistant, encyclopedia salesman, late-night suicide hotline counselor and longshoreman. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1981 in a VW camper and parked in the driveway of one Ralph Cantos, who befriended Kafka, taught him to drive a bus and initiated him into the world of bus collecting, pool cleaning and vintage vehicular restoration.
Cantos still serves as the guiding light, but it appears the preservation and fate of the collection rest with Egon Kafka. His dream is to preserve, restore and place at least 20 or 30 buses in a museum of transportation history. He is seeking support.
In a 30-minute documentary titled "Kafkaesque," by Sven Berkemeier and Rich Samuels, a couple of L.A.-based filmmakers, the narrator asks: "What can be said about Egon Kafka, a guy who now collects buses . . . eccentric, disturbed, enlightened?"
The subject himself gives an answer in his printed packet of materials: "Egon is in a sort of late internal combustion pregnancy and finds it increasingly difficult to carry so many vehicular children in his belly. These unique historical vehicles are simply being foster parented so that they may be presented to the public for educational and conservational purposes. Please join in the film maker's purpose so that your passions, inputs and ideas can help midwife the birth of a museum."
Welcome aboard! That's what the sign says on the door to the bus.