Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A bus ride down memory lane

Sunday was the first time in a while that I picked up a print copy of my hometown newspaper. I read it online occasionally, mostly to check out what the anonymous masses of Lafayette aren’t thinking in their comments.

It was there that I noticed that my elementary-school bus driver had died on June 20 at the age of 86. It made me want to cry.

Milton Jolivette Sr. wasn’t my first or last bus driver. But he drove me around more than anyone else did, except for my parents and grandparents. Maybe.

Whispers at the bus stop

From kindergarten through 3rd grade (1985 to 1989), I rode bus 136 (actually one of at least two rotating Superior buses) to Woodvale Elementary School. 

It's still there.
Every morning in that time span, my grandfather would take my older brother Colin and I (and later just me) down the street and down the next block to our bus stop. He’d stand at the telephone pole until the bus came, tacitly watching the other kids as well as us. In the afternoons, he’d be back to greet us with a smile and we’d catch up on the walk back home.

I grew up in an area of downtown Lafayette known as Freetown. It was (and is) a mix of working-class families and college students, which bus 136 reflected. I lived there until I was 19, and my experiences there have everything to do with who I am today.

My bus stop
My bus stop was directly in front of Menard’s Body Shop, which still stands today. Over the years, houses directly across and to the right of our stop were torn down for parking lots. There was also a second, crooked telephone pole next to the one that’s still there.

Reverse angle
Our stop was among our neighborhood’s busiest, with up to a dozen kids at a time. Some of them were bad news, but it was mostly a case of bark being worse than bite. I was (big shock alert) one of the quieter kids, usually standing at the edge of the sewer in anticipation of being the first on the bus when it arrived.

That wasn't a metaphor. It's an actual sewer.
But I could more than hold my own with the crowd when necessary. We often riffed about TV shows, Nintendo, Transformers, wrestling, school, how cool it was to live in the 1980s and/or anything else that came up. (One day Mr. Menard drove up in a DeLorean, and someone insisted it was a Fiero. I knew my Back to the Future and argued otherwise. That got pretty heated.) Sometimes a tough boy would ask if I wanted to fight. I always said no. It’s nice to be able to opt out of an altercation.

Through good times and bad, I always enjoyed being at the bus stop and the anticipation/dread of going to school. And I always looked forward to my daily ritual of stepping onto bus 136.

Get on the bus

Mr. Jolivette’s bus picked up kids in my neighborhood and at the family housing at the then-University of Southwestern Louisiana. As a result, we had an incredibly diverse ridership of black, white, Asian and Middle Eastern students. Many of my closest friends and classmates of the time came from those rides, and the cultural awakening was an education in itself.

When I took this picture, I subconsciously watched for the bus.
Part of the reason I remember Mr. Jolivette so well was because he, and his bus, had personality. Everybody who rode his bus knew him and he knew us. He frequently chatted with us during the ride, and you always felt protected. Even when he got mad, there was still respect, because he’d tell you how to fix the situation.

Mr. Jolivette regularly cranked up the radio, usually to KFXZ (or, as I called it, KLFXE), though sometimes he’d play a pop station such as KSMB. To this day, I can’t hear Run-DMC’s “You Be Illin’” or Kool and the Gang’s “Victory” without picturing myself sitting in bus 136. (True story: A fellow rider sang “Victory” as “A&P,” and I thought that was the correct lyric for years afterward.)

He had a strict seating protocol for the bus, which in four years I never saw anyone break. Girls sat on the left, boys on the right, three to a seat. When you got on the bus, you sat in the next available spot (as a result, kids often jockeyed to sit next to a friend or not sit next to someone). This was so ingrained in us that I was later surprised to be told on another bus that I could sit wherever I wanted.

As a seeming tradeoff, though, he allowed us to eat and drink on the bus. I almost never did, but a lot of riders took him up on that.

Each day, one of the older kids would patrol the aisles throughout the ride. This was an honor, and only a handful of riders ever got to do it. Though the idea was that the older kids would keep order, they never abused the privilege and were almost always friendly. They spread gossip and news. When my brother had an emergency appendectomy, it was the girl on patrol who asked me about him and relayed the news to our concerned friends. When I was 8 and had a brand-new book yanked out of my hands and thrown around, it was the patroller who grabbed back the book for me. They always had my back. I liked the patrollers.

Still, the rides weren’t always smooth sailing. During my very first trip on the bus, on the first day of kindergarten in 1985, I was bullied. Mr. Jolivette had to pick up students for both Woodvale and nearby L.J. Alleman Middle School, which meant all the seats were full and I had to sit in the aisle, in the back. Some of the older kids ribbed me throughout the ride, and I remember saying, “You’re all in sixth grade!” They laughed at that. Hard. When we got to L.J. Alleman, the oldest riders got out. I remember misreading the school sign, thinking it said “Man School.” Hey, they were men to me. When we pulled up at Woodvale, Mr. Jolivette let me off first, along with a future friend who was equally small. I appreciated that gesture.

(Side note: That year, 136 was the “turtle bus” for us kindergartners. Which is precisely the animal you want to associate with a mass-transit vehicle.)

Boarding the bus on my first day of kindergarten. I seem to know what's about to happen on that ride. So do my brother and Mr. Jolivette.
Other times, we’d have to pick up kids from other neighborhoods (or their bus would pick us up). Those were horribly traumatizing days for some of us, because the buses were crowded and we went into these weird neighborhoods with fancy cars and manicured yards. In cases where our bus picked up the weak Ward-riding kids from the suburbs and then detoured back onto our route, some would say, “Uh, I think we’re lost,” with looks on their faces I wouldn’t understand for years. Mostly, though, we’d worry because such double duty would make us late for school. Oh no! (I was too young to appreciate that yet.)

But the good memories far outweigh the bad. I spent many a ride sharpening my reading skills. If I didn’t have a book, I focused my then-strong eyes on the list of rules at the front of the bus. But as I so often did, I misread the part about no glass objects (“except eyeglasses” became “expect eyeglasses”) — so when I got my first pair of glasses in kindergarten, I asked if I could bring them with me. Mr. Jolivette was OK with that. Phew. After all, reading the small print of that sign was probably why I got glasses in the first place.

 Much changed during the Jolivette era, but smiles for the camera never did.
Other things I did to pass the time when I wasn’t socializing with friends or absorbing the fascinating scenery of Johnston Street included trading Garbage Pail Kids cards; making paper airplanes on which I drew elaborate designs but in no way represented any aerodynamic shape; creating folding and/or board games; devouring Hardy Boys books; or, my oddly pointless favorite, counting all the way home. I’d come close to 600 on a good day.

The Horsey Ride

One of our favorite parts of the trip home was what we dubbed “The Horsey Ride.”

Each afternoon, the bus would hit McKinley Street, a row of bars and dorms known to college kids as “The Strip.” Along the campus section of the street at the time was a row of student parking, with a sign that advertised “$100 per semester.” (I thought that represented the total cost of tuition, and thought it was high.) Across the street from that were the fraternity houses, the weird letters of which convinced me they were Satanic mind-control cults.

(Side note: Mom, Colin and I frequently took walks around the neighborhood in those days, and I’d beg her not to walk down this street because I was terrified of looking the frat boys in the eyes. I didn’t want to be indoctrinated into what I called Pi Nalpha Alpha or Tit-Ka.)

Near the beginning of the university block sat a bump. I’m not sure if it was a full-on speed bump, but it acted like one.

The road is repaved and flat now. Lame.
When we saw it coming, we’d brace our hands on the seat in front of us and shift our weight forward, like we were in the saddle. And upon contact, BAM! Those of us holding on would leap several inches off our seats and squeal. If enough people were doing it, you’d see a wave from one set of wheels to the other. Some kids caught pretty impressive air.

Eventually, enough of us did it to where Mr. Jolivette yelled to the back, “Quit doing the Horsey Ride!” But we didn’t.


One kid no one ever wanted to sit next to was Booger. He was called that because he had boogers in his nose. I liked him, though, and had no problem sitting next to him. He signed my yearbook in third grade (not as Booger) and my brother erased it. Booger was the butt of many jokes, even though there was a brother-sister pair on the bus who always had runny noses, and no one ever called them the Snot Siblings. Then again, snot isn’t boogers, is it?

Let it snow

I saw my first-ever snowflakes while riding Mr. Jolivette’s bus, in February 1988. We were about three blocks from my stop when Louisiana’s first snowfall since 1973 descended upon us. “It’s snowing!” some boy exclaimed, and indeed it was. It hit its stride in the hours afterward, blanketing the area in several inches of ballable snow that locals talk about to this day. But I’ll never forget being in bus 136 when it started.

End of the line

At a parade during my kindergarten year, I ran into Mr. Jolivette while walking the streets with two of my great aunts. Not only did he recognize me, but he picked me up high, made a happy face and walked a few feet before putting me down. “Who is that?” one of my aunts asked. “Mr. Jolivette! He’s my bus driver!” I said enthusiastically.

The last time I saw Mr. Jolivette was while walking to another parade in late 1989 or early 1990. I saw him in his bus on a side street, and my brother said he was retiring. “What?” I replied in disbelief. An era would soon be over.

And now, another era is over. Rest in peace, Mr. Jolivette. And thanks for the ride.

1 comment:

GDad said...

That was a very nice narrative, and I love your birthday picture with the foil-wrapped present. You look so "I want to be grown up."