Florida Stories, Volume III: Bussing


Step right up, son! Image Source: Jacksonville Business Journal

This week I will be returning to northern Florida for the first time since September 12, 1986, my 14th birthday and the day we moved back home to Maine. What do I remember over the last quarter century? What is going through my mind? Let’s find out…

In 1984, in Jacksonville, FL, USA, I was bussed. After two years at Beauclerc Elementary, which was in my neighborhood, I was bussed completely across Jacksonville, largest city in the country in terms of square mileage, to a predominantly black school in a predominantly black neighborhood.

I walked into this situation without a hint of prejudice, and today I tell the tale without a hint of prejudice. Race has nothing to do with my thoughts then or now, and if I bandy about keywords that are racially charged in 2012, well, that was just what we knew in 1984.

But Goddamn, it was a weird situation.

I mean, bussing happened in Boston in the ‘70s, right? We were over that shit by ’84, right?

I’m not sure why I was bussed. Maybe some pencil-pusher in the Duval County School District dropped a cigarette ash on a demographic report and missed a figure. Maybe they just threw a dart or played eenie-meenie. Who knows how bureaucracy really works? But so it was determined that I would be bussed, 45 minutes each way, for sixth grade.

I was joined by a few friends from Beauclerc, so I had some solidarity. And the bus ride, if long, was pleasurable. The driver always played the radio loud, so my commute was filled with Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You” and Diana Ross’s “I’m Missing You” and Don Henley’s “Sunset Grill” and U.T.F.O.’s “The Real Roxanne” (yes, it was played on commercial radio).

Crossing the Mathews Bridge and taking the Arlington Expressway meant plenty of bumps, and I always sat in the back hoping to hit the ceiling. I think it actually happened once, although I don’t quite remember (maybe there is a correlation here).

And when we finally arrived, the school had its moments. I remember getting together an air-band performance of Def Leppard’s “Rock of Ages” for a talent show. I had warning track power at recess, and I pulled off a few nifty doubles. And at some point the school day ended every day.

But I remember “my man” Cedric and my “friend” Chad most.

I often “loaned” Cedric my lunch money, and once loaned him my new Casio computer watch. I would get that one back in pieces and – you won’t believe this – I would never get my lunch loans back. But Cedric had a way of smoothing things over. “We tight!” he would say, and I would believe it. “You mah man!” Cedric would tell me, and I’d buy it. I heard him call me a “dumbass honky motherfucker” behind my back a few times, but no matter: we tight! Right?

Chad was a pure St. John’s River redneck, well-versed in Hank Jr. and Charlie Daniels lyrics and the content of Guns & Ammo and Field & Stream. We were never all that tight, and even less so after the day he produced a pair of handcuffs on the bus, hooked my right arm up to a seat and punched me until my arm was completely numb and lifeless. Why did he do that? Who the hell knows. The bus driver actually saw this attack and let Chad off the bus early – somewhere in ghetto downtown Jacksonville. I have no idea what happened to him from there, but the way my arm was feeling, I didn’t much care.

1984 was the year of George Orwell, Reagan’s trouncing of Mondale, Ethiopian famine, Maine Girl Joan Benoit ruling the LA Olympics, Bhopal, Bernie Goetz, the launch of the CD player, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid, the last Van Halen album, the rise of Mötley Crüe and hints and intimations from major underground bands such as The Dead Kennedys and R.E.M. It was also the year I was bussed, and the year I really learned all about what it meant to trust another human, no matter their color.

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19 comments
  1. I remember bussing but it was in the 70’s and equally weird for some of my friends. If nothing else it forces you to grow-up and quick. The helicopter parents of today would NEVER allow their children to experience that life lesson…sadly.
    Let me just tell you that R.E.M. is my number one favorite band….I love Michael Stipe and was hooked at Loosing My Religion.
    I wonder what Chad’s doing these days….prison or tea party or both.

    • Prison or tea party or both. This line has had me chortling all day, thank you profusely.

  2. freshhell said:

    I was bussed in the late 70’s here in Virginia in middle school. One of a smattering of white kids into a formerly all-black school. Starting middle school was scary enough, being bussed into a situation where I was a glaring minority was….well, certainly educational. And like you, I came into it with no prejudice. My elementary school was a mix of colors, classes, religious backgrounds. Middle school…was a battle ground. Security guards and knives and pot smoking. The bathroom stalls had no doors. It was like a prison only I didn’t know what my crime was.

    • Man, what a GREAT confidence boost, innit? Solidarity.

  3. I voluntarily bused in the 70’s in Seattle. The school I wanted had an excellent Arts school including Drama and Dance. It was in what Seattle considered the ‘ghetto’, a predominately Black area of town though at the time I don’t think any of us really noticed. I had to come in from across the lake to attend and most considered those of us from Bellevue ‘rich’ kids. But since we were all ‘Art’ students pretty much no one cared, we were all weird.

    As always you do a marvelous job.

    • Hah! My wife is from Burien, sometimes hopefully referred to as “South Bellevue.” That hasn’t officially stuck yet…

      What a story, thanks for commiserating!

  4. I was bussed back in the 60’s. I had no idea what was going on. Up until 4th grade when we moved to Chappaqua, New York, I was the minority. Kids that age don’t know prejudice unless they’re hearing it at home. I loved my fiends. I was born in South Africa and spent the first 2 years of my life bonding with a Zulu woman named, Violet. When we returned to the states I would get excited whenever I saw a black face – it’s sort of sad in a way. To this day I feel very connected and bonded to the black experience – it’s on some deep sub-conscious level. I get very emotional.

    Once again you make it easy to feel your memory here because you capture/write it so well. As kids we have no reference for things – we just bumble along and observe. I love that you couple this memory with all the pop-culture stuff. I get it.

    • Thank you so much for your kindness as always. I can’t believe all the bussing refugees showing up here! Strength in numbers!

  5. Please, tell me Cedric is now mayor.

    • Or Superintendent…

      • or The Entertainer.

  6. You’re my Rock Star with a pen. I’m so glad your arm got better.

    • Hah! Too awesome, thanks.

  7. If you’d just said “Vibrator” on the bus, everything would have gone differently. You might have to read my most recent post to have any clue what that means. Damn! I hated the bus.

    • That’s my next move, darlin’. ;) Good to be in the same state as you tonite.

      • Are you still in Florida? Too bad Jax is so far away. I’d have you and your wife over for dinner in a minute.

      • aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!! Would LOVE that! St. Augustine Beach, actually, but close enough. Yeah, got into Orlando this morning and drove up. Back on Sunday. Meh on missing you!

  8. I enjoyed reading this, it’s very visual. I walked to school myself but took a bus often enough growing up in Connecticut. I hope you have a great time and continue to write while you’re away.

    • Thank you so much! Yes, I’m back at the scene of the crime, armed with my notebook. More to come!

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