It must have been just a few weeks into my Senior year of high school. I was working at an arts & crafts store called Old America at the time. The Bus was still consistently running out of gas at inconvenient times, but I added a CD player for proper rockin’ out. Then at some point the horn would sometimes blare when I tried to signal a left turn. Then it became unable to signal for a right turn. Then, the turn signal stick1 just fell out. By that time, I was tired of turning to my “Idiot’s Guide” for every little thing and I just started using hand signals to turn. Another “fun” aspect of The Bus was that the speedometer started acting up. It would consistently show about 15 MPH over what I was actually driving, until around 55 MPH and then it would never show me going faster than 50 MPH. Since I’m one who tends to light candles rather than curse the darkness, I just took into account all these fucked up mishaps while driving and carried on like everything was going swimmingly.
My friend Ray was between vehicles at the time of this story. He’d previously driven around in a beat-ass primer grey muscle car, but the “steal of a deal” he got on that baby turned into, about a year later, a nightmare of trips to the shop and many hours of his own spent trying to get it to just fucking behave while tinkering around with it in the parking lot of his apartment complex. He had a cousin in Nogales, AZ with a motorbike he’d sell to Ray for the low price of $200. He just needed to come out and pick it up. That’s where I and, more importantly, The Bus came into the equation.
Ray figured (and I agreed) we could just haul ass over to Nogales – a scant 180 mile drive – pick up the bike, toss it into the back of The Bus and haul ass back home. If we did it after about 7pm, the round trip would only take, theoretically, about 5-6 hours. I didn’t really want to do this, but I didn’t have any good reason not to do it. I just kept putting it off, hoping he’d eventually get frustrated and find someone else. Alas, no one else had a vehicle capable of hauling a motorcycle for 180 miles and 6 hours of their life to spare.
One night, while working at Old America, Ray showed up and asked when I’d be getting off work. I told him it’d be around 10pm. He said he just got paid from his job and he’d not only pay for all the gas to get to Nogales and back, but he’d throw in $50 for my troubles. He said that night would be “the perfect time to go”, because there’d be no traffic. We could just cruise out, crash at his cousin’s pad, load up the bike in the morning, and be back before 10am the next day.
I was out of excuses. He knew I didn’t have anything planned that night. He knew we could make it. He had the money to get us there and back. I relented and said “okay, be here at 10pm sharp. We’ll do it”. Much to my chagrin, he had someone drop him off at Old America around 9:45pm and stood outside smoking cigarettes until I finished cleaning the store.
We hopped in The Bus, and off we went to Nogales. If you’ve ever heard of Nogales, it’s probably for only one reason : it’s the southern-most part of AZ and one of the “battlegrounds” of immigration, since it borders some of the shittiest areas of Mexico. There’s fucking nothing in Nogales, and it’s one of those cities that I look at and think “who in their right fucking mind would ever choose to live here?”. The drive from Phoenix to Nogales is a tour of endless shithole towns that fit that same line of thinking. It’s just barren desert, rust, turquoise salesmen along the side of the road, and despair.
Driving along in the wee hours of the night, Ray had crashed out. I was struggling to stay awake, and I hallucinated a few times about seeing things in the road when we got into the rocky areas. I’d even scream just to keep myself awake. It’s funny now, when I think about it, but I literally have no idea how Ray knew how to get to his cousin’s place. I don’t think we used MapQuest (it first launched in Feb 1996, which is only about 6 months before this story takes place), and it’s not like roadside maps have markers for “Ray’s weird cousin in Nogales”. But, we pressed on, and finally pulled up to some shithole split-level housing complex around 1am. We were beat tired, and slept on the floor. In the morning, I kicked Ray awake and said “let’s get that bike and get the fuck out of here”. I had to be at work at noon, which gave us about 4 hours to make the 2.5 hour drive.
We hauled the bike into the back, and headed on home. Barreling along in The Bus, with an inaccurate speedometer, a frozen odometer, a fucked-up fuel gauge, no turn signals, and using open windows instead of A/C, I looked down at the speedometer and it started lowering from it’s max 50 MPH reading. Slowly towards 40. Then 30. Then 20. The bus wasn’t accelerating, no matter what I did. We figured it’d ran out of gas, but we just filled the tank a half-hour prior, so that seemed unlikely. I tried to fill up the tank with one of the cans, but it overflowed. I jumped back in The Bus, got her fired up, and went about 10 feet before it died again. Now there was smoke coming out the back. Ray guessed it might need oil. The nearest gas station was 3 miles up the road. So, I walked for 3 miles in the sweltering heat of no-fucking-where AZ to grab a few bottles of oil, and walked back to The Bus to get her back on the road. After putting in the oil, I put some tunes on the CD player2 and we drove about 2 miles before it crapped out again. Thankfully, we were able to push it into the gas station this time.
I called my stepdad (Chuck) and told him what happened. He, and everyone who knew something about cars, had a theory of what went wrong. They all had a different theory, and I’m still not sure who was right. What I know, and I know doesn’t make sense, is that while I waited for Chuck to pick us up, I fired up The Bus again and drove it up and down the block surrounding the gas station for 20 minutes without issue. When I turned it off, it never started up again.
We got picked up, Chuck hitched The Bus to his SUV, and we drove home. He didn’t believe me that The Bus had a final run for a few minutes in the time I spent waiting for him to arrive. “steal doesn’t heal” he said, while laughing.
After enough research and calling around to various shops, it came to be that The Bus needed a new engine. The quote I got was $500 for parts and labor. For the next month, I worked overtime, and cut back on any unnecessary spending, putting every dollar I could into getting The Bus back. When I finally had the $500, about a month later, I called the shop to ask about towing services to get The Bus into the shop. They went through the process, and all sounded kosher. I said “okay, so it’s $40 for the towing and $500 parts & labor for the engine?”, and heard “no, no, $500? No, for a 1974 VW Bus engine – parts and labor – we’re talking about $700”. Chuck even got on the phone and tried to sound all “official” with “so you’re not going to honor your original quote?” — which did, as you can imagine, fuck-all.
Though I offered to pay Chuck back, since he could see that I was good for it3, he said we should sell it back to Darryl for $400 and call it a day.
And that’s how The Bus died. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. When Darryl picked it up, he said “I’ll take good care of her”, and I never saw The Bus again.
or whatever you call the stick you push up/down to signal a turn is called ↩
I’ll never forget – I chose Marilyn Manson’s “Dogma” ↩
unlike his useless cunt daughter that he dropped $2500 for her to have a perfectly-working vehicle, despite never having to do anything like, say, get good grades or even just stay off drugs for a week — but that’s another story ↩