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What's That Bus Doing On the Runway?

In my time with the band we have been through three buses . None have them have inspired me to continue to travel by bus if there is any other choice, including an oxcart, covered wagon or converted Tupelev bomber (been there, done that).

In 1993 Ray Charles Enterprises bought a new bus. It's huge dark blue MCI, and replaced a slightly smaller black model affectionately known as the "Death Star", named after Darth Vader's ship in the Star War movies. From the back, "Big Blue" looks amazingly like a giant blue refrigerator. It has these big air vents and double fans and a drawing of Ray on the back. A big blue rolling refrigerator. It came equipped with a driver named Bruce. Bruce is a very nice man with a somewhat faulty sense of direction and an inability to read a map worth a darn. All in all a perfect bus driver, right? Bruce once asked (of nobody in particular) as we were cruising down the road "Is this Atlanta or Atlantic City?" We really had a lot of confidence in him after that. He was also heard to say while driving through Hartford "Is this downtown Connecticut" At this point the whole band went out and bought road atlases. But I guess it’s all better than what happened one time before I was on the band. The band ended up in Bloomington, Minnesota when the gig was in Bloomington, Indiana. Oops.

Bruce and the bus. Notice the lovely condition of the hotel we were at, and Carl Hunter with a very heavy clothes bag on his back (that bag was his "albatross"

The vice president of Ray Charles Enterprises dislikes the word bus, and calls the bus a “coach“, but it is still a bus. A big fume-spewing monstrosity, which looks much bigger on the outside than it is on the inside, especially when you've been traveling on it for 14 hours, 4 of which were spent going the wrong direction. When Bruce is not going the wrong direction down the highway, he is washing the bus. It's a lot of bus to wash.

It is sometimes difficult to find a place to park the big blue refrigerator. We were in Boston, playing at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival. Due to the fact that there were going to be 100,000 people at the festival, and traffic would be snarled for miles, so the festival people asked us to go to the bar "Cheers" and wait there for a police escort to take us to the festival grounds. No sooner had we arrived at Cheers when an officiously perky Cheers employee told us we couldn't park our bus there. We parked there anyway. After all, it was what we were told to do. Pretty soon several Cheers employees were engaged in a shouting match with our road manager. I must admit that they had a few valid points. They brought up the fact that the exhaust from the bus was asphixiating the people waiting in line to get into Cheers. They really had a bad attitude, though, and so did our road manager, so he refused to let Bruce shut off the engine. Then some of the band tried to go into the bar to get a drink, and were turned away. So much for the place where everybody knows your name. By this time the conflict had escalated to the point of name-calling, and someone even tried to make a racial issue out of it. Talk about stupid! The Cheers people threatened to call the police, to which our road manager replied "PLEASE CALL THEM, PLEASE. THAT'S WHAT WE’RE WAITING FOR ANYWAY!!!" After that episode, the TV show lost most of it's charm for me.

Another problem is backing up. Even though there is a TV camera in the back that feeds a picture to a screen next to the driver, the bus is so long and so wide that backing up is just asking for trouble. The same day as the Cheers incident, Bruce backed up into a brick wall, causing $2,000 worth of damage. Management took that $2,000 dollars out of Bruce's weekly paychecks. I thought that was a really low move, and it made Bruce totally paranoid. We always took the long way around after that.

The bus is so tall that you can't get it under some overpasses, or through many tunnels, including the one that leads you to the Boston airport. So it takes 1 1/2 hours to get to the airport, instead of 20 minutes, just because of 3 extra inches of height.

Which leads me to the ultimate bus story.

We were going to Europe, leaving from Kennedy Airport in New York. We left our hotel in time to get to the airport about 2 hours before the flight, which everyone thought was plenty of time. We got to the airport, and followed the signs that said "Vehicles over 12'6" this way" only to have the road circle the airport and unceremoniously dump us back out onto the highway. It seems that due to some construction at the airport, they just couldn't accommodate a vehicle that tall. But that's not what the sign said. The signs seemed to indicate that there was some route in for hapless blue bus passengers such as ourselves. We took every road at the airport, and always ended up at the same place, back out on the highway. We circled the airport for 2 hours, stopping to ask directions several times. We followed the directions to the letter, and ended up guess where. Yep. Back on that stinking highway leading AWAY from the airport.

We are panicked by this point. Our flight to Europe was due to leave in 30 minutes, and we're no closer to the airport than we were 2 hours ago. We finally stop at the Port Authority Police Station, where our road manager frantically says to the cop in charge "PLEASE HELP US! We're the Ray Charles Orchestra and we have to catch our flight to Europe" After a few minutes thought a brilliant idea was born. A police car lead us to this gate, opened it, and pretty soon the bus was on it's way via the only route possible. We were on the runway tarmac! Ground control had to hold up a line of planes, so that this big blue bus could pass. As we passed the planes we could see the passengers incredulous looks; I imagine that this not too common an occorance. "Big blue bus, you're cleared for takeoff". One of the pilots was almost doubled over with laughter. We did make our flight, by the skin of our teeth.

We watch movies on the bus. Lots and lots of movies. Usually bad ones. This year's movie was Blazing Saddles. We watched it every day for 3 months. I now can watch this movie with the sound down and recite every line. People who can sleep on the bus are envied and admired. The world champion bus sleeper is one of the sax players. He is usually out before we're even moving, and wakes up upon arriving at our next destination. Another sax player (who can never sleep on the bus) swears that Al is narceleptic. He just resents the fact that he can't sleep like that, and his restlessness causes him to stand in the back of the bus and drink heavily.

Bruce hates New York. He has to babysit the bus all the time, otherwise it would be a big blue bus with gang graffiti spraypainted all over it. We once had someone hang onto the back of the bus and ride for several blocks before we discovered his presence, and people consistently try to walk onto the “coach” like it’s just another New York Transit bus. We once stopped (for reasons unknown to me) at a McDonalds in the Bronx. A very rough part of the Bronx. The way several people were eyeing the bus, I thought we would be hijacked any minute. Both the bus and we survived.

We had a fan belt break on the road. As you can probably imagine, fan belts for an MCI bus are not that easily obtainable. We waited for 2 hours for the mechanic to arrive, and watched him wrestle with several different belts for another 2 hours. He was a little annoyed at 25 people watching him work, especially given the fact that he wasn't doing too well. We have a sax player with the worlds loudest laugh, and found something funny when the mechanic had his head in the fan compartment. He let out this big HA!, which startled the repairman so much that he jumped up and hit his head on the top of the compartment. It was just like something from the three stooges. The repairman got really surly after that.

The bus did finally did get fixed, and off we headed to more new and exiting adventures.

Since then the band has been through yet another bus. This one is bigger and heavier and a lot taller, making it even more difficult to get to many places. It is also so top-heavy that it tends to have quite a predominant sway, causing you to feel like you are on a 3 hour cruise rather than a bus trip. Bruce has also left, being replaced with a man from Tennessee named Bud. Bud has more bravado than driving skills, but at least the GPS system causes us to become lost a little less often. That is, until the lovely woman’s voice tells Bud that “You have arrived at your destination” when in actuality we are in the middle of the road somewhere with no “destination” in sight. That’s when we have to depend on Bud’s acute directional sense with the help of 22 tired and cranky musicians shouting advice to him from the back of the bus. I’m sure he loves these moments of bonding with the band.

The Blue Bus

We actually have half a bus. It looks huge from the outside. It is actually a bus on a motor home frame converted by Custom Coach. The problem is that the back third of the bus is reserved as Ray’s private room, which he uses about twice a year, since he flies while we bus most of the time. It’s a nice room, with a bed and a shower and a keyboard and a nice stereo system, none of which we can use in Ray’s absence. We are therefore 26 people crammed into half a bus, and it’s not a comfortable way to travel. The Ray Charles Sardine Band. People stare at the bus from the outside and say “It must be wonderful to travel on that bus”. Occasionally I will let them look inside, thus dissolving their illusions about our glamorous life. But it’s still hard to find a place to park a big blue refrigerator.


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