The Short Bus A Journey Beyond Normal

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2008-05-27
  • Publisher: Holt Paperbacks

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'What makes this journey so inspiring is Mooney's transcendent humor; the self he has become does not turn away from old pain but can laugh at it, make fun of it, make it into something beautiful.'-Los Angeles TimesLabeled 'dyslexic and profoundly learning disabled,' Jonathan Mooney was a short-bus rider-a derogatory term used for kids in special education. To learn how others had moved beyond labels, he bought his own short bus and set out cross-country, looking for kids who had dreamed up magical, beautiful ways to overcome the obstacles that separated them from the so-called normal world.The Short Bus is his irreverent and poignant record of that odyssey, meeting thirteen people in thirteen states who taught Mooney that there's no such thing as normal-and that to really live, every person must find their own special way of keeping on.The Short Bus is a unique gem, propelled by Mooney's heart, humor, and outrageous rebellions.

Author Biography

Jonathan Mooney graduated from Brown University with an honors degree in English. A recipient of the Truman Fellowship for graduate study in creative writing and disability studies, he is also the co-author of Learning Outside the Lines.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Short-Bus Storyp. 1
Everyone in Their Right Place
You Are Responsible for the Safe Operation and Cleanliness of This Vehiclep. 15
The Lightning Fieldp. 30
The Hole in the Doorp. 42
Steel Boxes, Crushed Carsp. 57
The Sound of One Hand Clappingp. 68
Welcome Pest Controllers Associationp. 91
How to Curse in Sign Languagep. 106
I Don't Know, I Don't Remember, It Doesn't Seem to Matter Anymorep. 123
Burning Man
I Can't Remember to Forget Youp. 133
The Turnaround Dancep. 146
Big Things, Little Thingsp. 167
Katie's Book of Lifep. 180
Black Rock City's Bell Treep. 201
The Eccentrics
Driftwood Beachp. 221
Things Not to Share-at Firstp. 233
What Is Left, After What One Isn't Is Taken Away, Is What One Isp. 258
Author's Notep. 269
Acknowledgmentsp. 271
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.


Chapter One

You Are Responsible for the Safe Operation and Cleanliness of This Vehicle

On June 3, 2003, I was standing out in front of Margo’s house, chilling with Conor, my four-year-old nephew, and my mom. We were waiting for my mom’s pal Margo, a dyslexic ex-stripper who had transformed herself into a mover and shaker in the L.A. world of social services. Margo had grown up in Indiana Catholic schools and still had small scars on her knuckles from where she was smacked with the thin metal edge of the Catholic reading remediation program known as "the ruler."

Among Margo’s many other business ventures was a bus company. The previous December, over coffee at her home in the "Black Beverly Hills," she had offered to find me a short school bus to live out of for the next four months. "I get shit done," Margo had said as my mom chimed in with an inspired "uh huh." As we left, I was told to ask no more questions. Margo would take care of the bus. Five months and eighteen thousand dollars later, she had lived up to her promise, and the proof was sitting in front of her house: one hell of a short school bus.

Margo had the keys, however, and as was often the case, she was well over an hour late. So Conor and I stared at the bus. Newly painted, it looked slightly unstable, parked on the hill, its weight leaning in a way that seemed somewhat precarious. But it was what had wanted, a short bus, yellow and black, twenty feet long, and ten feet tall.

Drawing his face up like he had just eaten a lemon, Conor asked, "What is your bus’s name, Jonny?"

"I have no idea, man," I said.

"Well, Jonny," Conor said in his adult voice, "you know, things need a name."

He was right. So as we waited I thought of all the names kids have for these vehicles: the tard cart, the cheese box, the short bus. None of them fit anymore, but I had no idea what did.

"That’s OK, Jonny," Conor said. "You can name it later."

A more pressing problem: My trip was in complete disarray. I was supposed to depart in three weeks but had no idea where I was going or how to get there. I’m one of those folks for whom large things (like driving around the country in a short school bus) seem easy. But now my optimism seemed ephemeral, flimsy. As the sun broke through the L.A. mix of the marine layer, smoke, and stale air, Conor turned to me and said, "Jonny, why do you have to go live in that bus?"

I had been diagnosed as dyslexic at the end of third grade. I had faked reading most of my life and had actually dropped out of school for a time in sixth grade. In high school a guidance counselor gave me a fifty-fifty chance of graduating. I slipped into my first university, Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, as a soccer player on scholarship. And yet "miraculously" I managed to graduate in 2000 from Brown University with a 4.0 GPA in English literature, despite having the phonic awareness and reading rate of a seventh grader and being a third-grade level speller. In most people’s minds and, in all honesty, mine as well, I had overcome. What the hell was I doing waiting for an ex-stripper to bring me the keys to a short school bus?

On the most obvious level, the bus represented a path set in motion when I was eight years old and labeled learning disabled. I was drawn to the short bus because it was a public symbol of disability and special education. The bus emerged out of federal legislation, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975, which mandated that children with disabilities be educated in a public school setting. It was a historic moment for my tribe, but there were problems: Schools were not required to fully integrate students with disabilities, and a segregated system of special education programs was created. Then along came segregated transportation: the short bus. Thrown together under the rubric of special education, these passengers included kids with physical disabilities, Down syndrome, learning disabilities, autism, as well as emotional problems. Special education and the short bus grouped together all these different students, expanding our culture’s definition of disabled. The short bus as a symbol of special education says as much (or more) about that culture—its values, beliefs, fears, aspirations, and injustices—as it ever did about people with disabilities.

Conor and I stood at a respectful distance from the bus. As I eyed it, the magnitude of the situation struck me: This would be my home for the next four months. This vehicle was supposed to transport me from

L.A., through the southern states, up to Maine, across the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains, to the shores of the Pacific Northwest, down the coast riding Highway 101 and then Highway 1 back home.

Conor tapped my leg and said, "Jonny, I don’t think I would want to live in that thing if I was you."

"No shit," I said, taking a seat on the pavement. Conor, talking to himself, flew Buzz Lightyear around the universe in his mind. Sometimes I think of Conor as the kid that I lost in special ed. He reminds me of the full-of-life version of me who was obsessed with the show Roots and who used to run around the house yelling, "Kunta Kinte!" He’s like the three-year-old me who had tapped on the window of a doughnut shop until a young woman came up to him, and then demanded, "Give me a fucking jelly doughnut, you bitch." I looked at Conor and then at the short bus, and I knew that buried somewhere in that yellow siding was the kid I wanted back.

When Margo’s car finally pulled up, Conor pointed Buzz Light year at her and said, "It doesn’t matter if you’re black, Margo, because I’m green."

"Really. OK, green man," Margo said. "Here comes Wes’s black ass right now with them keys."

Wes was the man Margo had put in charge of finalizing our transaction. After parking his car, he walked up and I shook his hand. "Let’s go see your bus," he said. So we stood there, staring at the thing.

Conor said, "Jonny, you can’t drive that. You have no license. The cops took Jonny’s license for driving like a drunk."

The little man was right. In part because of a 1996 DUI, I hadn’t had a license for more than five years. But in 2003, I had passed my road test and been issued a temporary license. I was still smarting from the experience. When I had confused a right from a left turn, the DMV evaluator insulted me by asking if I was "retarded." On my temporary license were disparaging comments such as driver is "distracted" and "shows poor decision-making in traffic."

"Here you go, "Wes said, handing over the key. "You got yourself one short school bus." I stepped inside and sat down in the driver’s seat. The air conditioner, for which I had paid an extra $1,500, hummed. The bus was cool and smelled like rubber and disinfectant. But, more than anything else, it smelled like school, and I felt a mixture of fear and shame. I looked at the speedometer—it read 150,000 miles, not 15,000 as promised.

But at that moment none of that mattered. Two years of work had led me here, and now I was sitting in the bus, in the driver’s seat, alone. I waited for my mom to pull out in front of me. Here it was, the first mile, to Raintree, my family’s apartment complex. I put the bus in drive, took my foot off the brake, and felt the bus jerk forward with a force that sent me back into my seat. It was out of control. I turned the wheel both ways, and the bus didn’t respond. It felt like I was driving a boat speeding down La Cienega Boulevard. I was going only thirty-five miles per hour, but it sounded and felt like I was going eighty.

I couldn’t see out of the side mirrors. I kept thinking thirty thousand miles, thirty thousand miles, thirty thousand miles. A long way to go. Pulling into the apartment complex, past the guard gates, toward the guest parking, I spotted a parking space and turned the bus toward the curb, crashing into a tree. Conor got out of my mom’s car, pointed Buzz up over his head, and said, "Maybe they shouldn’t have given Jonny a new license after all."

I woke up the next morning, my first full day in L.A., to my dog, Max, pissing in the corner of my makeshift bedroom in the middle of my parents’ den. Running over to my futon, he licked my face. Max was not a youthful creature, though my mom had insisted that he was nine years old for the past six or seven years. At one point, we were told that he was a fifty-fifty mix of golden retriever and yellow Lab. But after my mom got a dog calendar for Christmas featuring different exotic breeds every month, she became convinced that Max was really a Rhodesian ridgeback—our family’s last hope for a pedigree.

I wasn’t mad that Max had almost pissed on me. No one really got angry at any of our insane dogs. My family’s carpets always reeked of urine. It wasn’t until I went to Brown and visited my college friends’ houses that I realized it was not the norm to have the carpets smell like a zoo. I quickly learned that there are two types of people in this world: those whose carpets reek and those whose carpets do not. I accept the fact that my family falls into the first category, and I’m more comfortable around people who know this sort of secret shame.

I grabbed a cup of joe and prepared to face my first full day in L.A. My plan was to drive to my former school, Penny Camp Elementary, and get my old records if they hadn’t been discarded or buried at some storage facility. I wasn’t in the best of moods that morning. The night before, when I arrived, my pops had already started on the Jack Daniel’s. My dad waits all day for that designated time to drink. Then he sits alone in his cheap faux-leather chair, listening to a rotating selection of classical music. He’s always had this kind of chair. Families like mine buy this stuff to look respectable. My dad’s chair has shiny synthetic leather and fake wood arms, and it faces armies of Conor’s toy robots and soldiers, battalions ready to fight off an invisible sadness. I had breakfast with my sister Kelly and this put me in a better mood. Kelly was ten years older than me, my best friend, and someone I admired more than words. Kelly was in a time of transition in her life. She had quit her job at my mom’s nonprofit, sold her apartment, and moved in with my folks. Kelly’s plan was to go into the Peace Corps. But first she was going to ride the bus with me for a month, in August. Kelly has always been the wild one, the freak. Though she was labeled "gifted" and is the smartest among us, she missed almost a year of high school because of depression. After weaving in and out of college (she started at the University of California, San Diego, and transferred to UCLA), she ultimately graduated with a theater degree and committed herself to becoming an actor and a writer.

Like many actors and artists, Kelly had a difficult road but she devoted all of herself to her work. Kelly produced her own plays that dealt honestly with complicated issues such as child abuse. She never made it, though. Kelly didn’t care about this material success—what I admired most was my sister’s commitment to staying true to herself. Without her, I would not be the person I am today.

After breakfast, I headed out, not in my fucked-up bus but in my mom’s more compact Subaru, pointing the car south on Sepulveda Boulevard toward Manhattan Beach, where my family had moved in 1978 from San Francisco. We had arrived in an old station wagon named The Incredible Hulk in search of a new life. My mom had raised my half brother, Billy, and my two half sisters, Kelly and Michelle, on welfare, in the Squares, a housing project, in San Francisco. Then, in the mid-1970s, she met my father, an upwardly mobile attorney. I was born in San Francisco, but an old beach house on Seventeenth Street in Manhattan Beach is what I recall as my first home. It sat on the crest of the last hill before the world rushed down into the Pacific Ocean.

On that June day in 2003, I found Manhattan Beach more rich, more white, more gated than I remembered. The only people of color were maids. My house was gone. But that didn’t stop me from remembering being in a rubber swimming pool with my mom’s dress floating in the water like a drifting flower. She was young and strong. I recalled being maybe three, watching my mom stir tuna fish in a big bowl with a wooden spoon. The sky was shaking by like a mirage outside our big bay window. Fog was rolling in for the night. Pinocchio was on the TV. I felt OK, stable, safe, and permanent like a stone. These images matter to me because they represent brief moments of safety, with my place in the universe secure. It was later, in school, that I developed suffocating anxiety. I still recall feeling seized by that beast crawling up my stomach and into my lungs and my head. By third grade, I had developed a series of nervous tics.

After Seventeenth Street I made my way to my family’s second house on Nelson. Our house there was like the one from Grey Gardens, a documentary about two old ladies living in a decaying mansion in the Hamptons. Our place wasn’t a mansion. It didn’t have a doorknob, and through the hole where the knob should have been, a visitor could have glimpsed a world of chaos—some bad, some good.

This visitor might have glimpsed my primal scenes. At four years old, I’m sprinting down the long hallway naked but for my socks. Running as fast as I can, I jump on the slick tile and launch myself sliding—and suddenly I’m in sixth grade, labeled learning disabled. I can hardly read, and special ed is my territory. I’m depressed, I have an eating disorder, and I’m wearing checkered pants, checkered shirt, checkered hat. I remember heading down the long stretch of Nelson from Peck Street to our yellow house on the end of the block on my checkered bike, trying to find a way out, wishing I was flying away.

I headed to Penny Camp Elementary as the sun broke through the marine layer. I could still feel the approaching-school terror, even after all these years, in the tips of my fingers. As I walked up the tarred ramp into an old hallway covered with concrete, I remembered one of my last days here. I don’t know what grade I was in, but in my vision the sky is large, huge and open. The sun is out, and I feel like an old man, but I’m singing to myself, No more schoolbooks, no more teachers’ dirty looks, and I’m filled with relief, utter relief spreading through my body like warm water. Shame and anxiety had filled my life, were my life, for so long.

My struggles in school started the first day in kindergarten. At recess there were these small metal bikes that I had never seen before, and I loved them. The rules were that you had to ride them in a practical pattern traced on the concrete; I couldn’t follow the lines, so I was banned from all the bikes. I also couldn’t tell time. One day, when it was my turn in the time-telling circle, I guessed ten o’clock. I was right. From that day on, no matter what time it actually was on the toy clock the teacher held up, I blurted out, "Ten o’clock." All the kids laughed. I learned quickly that it was better to be the funny kid than the stupid one.

In second grade we all had desks lined up in a row, like work stations in a factory. I tried to sit still, but I couldn’t. Five seconds into class my whole body was moving—hands, feet, and arms—and then I was pointed at, ordered to stop moving, to control myself. Miss C., my teacher, yelled, "Jon, what is wrong with you?" The rest of my day was spent out in the hallway, my spirit evaporating into the thin air.

I was the bad kid, the stupid one with terrible handwriting, spelling, and reading. Everyone knew that I was in the slow reading group. The black birds, the blue birds, and the sparrows; why do we bother? My reading group might as well have been named after a bird that did not fly: an ostrich trying hard just to keep up. By second grade I was reading See Spot Run while the rest of the kids tackled real books. By the end of that year, I was asking my mom, "Why am I stupid?"

Toward the end of third grade, my mom was called in to a meeting with a team of professionals: my teacher, an aide, and a third person who would now be known as a learning or LD specialist. They were lined up behind a desk like a jury of inquisitors. My mom sat across from them in a small child’s chair, the kind used during story time. They looked down on my mom as they talked in educational jargon about my learning disabilities and attention problems. After about fifteen minutes, my mom said, "Excuse me, but perhaps he is not the problem—he was fine in kindergarten and preschool."

She was right; in any environment where I did not have to sit still and read, my learning problem disappeared. "Mrs. Mooney, perhaps you should take a parenting class" is what my mom was told. "We are experts; we know how your son learns." Upon hearing that statement, my mom, a woman who had struggled in school and wanted nothing more than to be accepted, grew silent. It was recommended that I be taken for weeklong psycho-educational testing. And so, with that week of testing, the machinery of disability was set in motion in my life.

On Monday of the first day of testing, I slept in, and my mom and I went out for breakfast. I had French toast, and we didn’t really talk. My mom had hated school, as an institution of power and conformity, and she knew that it was the environment, more than my mind, that was broken. She had learned to work the system in her own way, rising from a volunteer to executive director of a nonprofit organization. She was faced with the fact that I did not fit into the school’s notions of intelligence (pinned to reading and writing) or good character, which it linked to compliance and obedience. Accepting the label LD, however, was a deal with the devil, and my mom knew it. But she had no idea how to get out of it. That morning at breakfast she ranted against school, explaining that we had to learn to "play the game."

After breakfast we drove down Sepulveda in the fog past Redondo Beach to Torrance, and we sat in a musty office waiting for the educational shrink, a kind woman who put her arm around me. She told me that for the next week I would take some tests, without any right answers. This was bullshit; she knew it and I knew it. Every test has right answers, and all the questions and answers and exams have consequences. During the testing I stared at the blue wall behind the quiet lady holding up ink blots and imagined it was the sky underneath the heavy smog and smoke of L.A.

A week later, my world changed. I found myself in the heart of special ed, spending most of my day in a different classroom, bearing the pseudo-scientific medical label of learning disabled with attention problems. My experience is a textbook case of a medical model being used to understand the experience of disability. My parents and I were told I was broken, and that my deficits should be diagnosed, treated, and cured. But the medical model gives the doctor all the power and dehumanizes the "patient."

My mom understood that what was happening was an injustice, and she instilled this idea in me every day. After school, I would sit and listen to her—a five-foot-tall Irish woman—giving my teachers hell. I struggled horribly with spelling and dreaded the weekly exam every Friday. For a while, I got my words on Monday and spent hours drawing the words in the sand, building the words with blocks, and even doing interpretive dance to learn. But I always failed the test.

For most of one year, my mom and I ditched school on Fridays, and we went to the zoo. Before school every morning she read to me a book called Leo the Late Bloomer, a work demonized in hard-core LD professional circles for telling parents of "different" kids that life could go on without professional intervention. When my mom finished, I would turn to her and say, "Leo would have been fucked if he was in Miss C.’s class." The words in that book, those moments with my mom when she helped me understand that the system was broken, saved my life . . . but just barely. By the time I was in sixth grade I was being held together by a thin thread, which finally broke one day, about halfway through the school year, in the principal’s office. I dropped out of school that day. But something more happened in the principal’s office, something that I never truly understood.

I had come back to Penny Camp to try to figure out why I dropped out of sixth grade. I walked into the office and was greeted by a harried-looking secretary. "How can I help you, sir?" the secretary asked. She must have been in her late thirties, not the fleshy old secretary I remembered, but nice enough.

"I’m here to see about some of my old school records," I told her. "I was a student here a long time ago."

"Let me ask someone in the administration," she said. When I sat down I realized I was sitting in almost the same seat that I had sat in on a life-altering day in sixth grade halfway through the year. I had a new teacher, who had given our class an assignment to write a story. But I couldn’t write. Literally. I had a hard time putting pen to paper, couldn’t spell, and the process of writing made me so nervous that all my ideas got jumbled. So I decided to dictate a story to my mom. This was the first time that I had ever done anything like that. Two days after I turned in my story I was called to the principal’s office. I foolishly believed that I was going to receive an award, and I could feel my chest swell with pride for the first time in my life. I walked to the office, sat in the chair next to the secretary, and waited. But I was not being awarded Penny Camp’s declarative prose plaque. I was being accused of plagiarism. My mom had been called in, too. I held her sweating hand in mine as the teacher said, "People like you, Jonathan, can’t have ideas like this."

We left school that afternoon and never went back. Something fundamental changed. I folded in on myself, ashamed. I disappeared and would not come out for quite some time.

The secretary came back into the room. "I’m sorry, but those records, if they exist, are at the district office. I can give you the phone number." I thanked her and took down the information, but the records weren’t a real concern of mine. I thought of the bus, sitting unnamed out on the sidewalk, and I felt as if I were about to set off on that bike again down Nelson Street, moving between what was lost and what is to come. When I got home, I spent some time with my dad. We got drunk on wine and watched sports in our cheap chairs, which we’ve never managed to get rid of, no matter how many times we’ve moved, no matter how hard we’ve tried.

The next morning, I drove to my mom’s organization, the South Bay Center for Counseling, where I would spend a week mapping out the route for this trip. It felt good to be back in the center. I grew up there, really; the space was as much a part of me as my family home. It still felt the same: musty, a little dirty, the hallways filled with the smell of bad coffee. I found a room and locked myself in for the next week, going through all of the stories that I had collected over the past year and figuring out where the hell I was going on this bus.

After dropping out of Penny Camp in sixth grade, I went to the center every day with my mom for the rest of the school year. I was so embarrassed that I wasn’t in school that I made fake conversations about school holidays with the people who worked with my mom. They knew me and knew that I was lying, but they were kind and played along. I loved movies, and the center had three rooms with VCRs. I could watch films all afternoon. I dodged different therapy sessions, moving from therapy room to therapy room, surrounded by old cheap pillows and stained couches where people talked about their lives. The old furniture felt soft and warm to me as I lay there and watched old movies about knights. I loved King Arthur, about a group of outcasts, searching for something to save themselves. A hero’s quest for this little sad boy. But I was determined to make a new plan, something to chase, like the Knights of the Round Table, a new myth for myself. I had to overcome all that was wrong with me.

Now I was back at the center, trying to get ready for my trip. Over the next week, I wrote down on large note cards selected information about the people I would visit on my travels. I spread the cards over an old map of the United States that I had purchased at a yard sale. The map was brightly colored, with reds and yellows and blues, and most U.S cities and interstates weren’t even on it. This seemed appropriate. Here was a blank slate, on which I’d create a new map of a minority community that was connected by the shared experience of oppression, discrimination, and marginalization. I would be mapping not only a community but also a culture: the values, beliefs, and unique forms of knowledge that arise not despite disability but from the experience of being disabled in America.

With five days until I shoved off, it was time to stop screwing around. My bus had to be transformed into an RV, though recreational vehicle wasn’t exactly an apt description. "TV is more like it," I told Kelly the morning I decided to tackle the task of construction: "tard vehicle." But behind the jokes, I was in a panic. All of it—the bus, the idea of driving around the country in the bus, living out of the bus— terrified me. There was also the minor problem that I was not handy at all. So I called Christopher Klonecke, Kelly’s friend, a man whom I barely knew. Christopher was a full-time filmmaker who had spent time building sets. I needed help and we struck a deal. "Just come on down," I said over the phone. "It will take an afternoon, tops."

For the next five days, twenty hours a day, Christopher and I lived in the Home Depot parking lot, arriving with migrant workers in the early morning and leaving after midnight. Christopher had elaborate plans requiring complicated structural modifications. Soon, it was clear that Christopher was a card-carrying member of the freak club. He wanted to build two desks, a loft bed, attach solar-powered showers, and install a full-scale generator. By the end of our work, we were sleep-deprived, dirty, and I had spent more than two thousand dollars, the last of my savings. We had installed one desk, not two as planned, and two shower bags that ripped after the first mile of the trip. On the last day, after twenty hours of construction, we sat on the bumper, exhausted, drinking beers. Christopher got up. "I’ll be right back," he said, but before walking away he turned to me and said, "So what are you going to name this thing, man?" I still didn’t know.

Later, I was standing alone by the bus when someone tapped me on the shoulder. Turning around, I saw this huge head of dreadlocks floating behind purple glasses.

"What you got here, man?" the man said. He was a somewhat deranged-looking black man who spoke quickly and moved in a jagged and angular way like an untrained boxer. He was smeared with paint; it covered his hands, his purple pants, his face.

"Shorty, man?" he said.

"Yeah," I said. "It is a short bus."

He looked at me and turned his head toward the other side of the parking lot. "I got me one," he said, pointing across the concrete to a purple short bus sitting out in the distance. "I’m Bob Henry," he said as he extended his smeared hand. I reached out and felt his calluses, scars, and cuts.

"I live in that bus, man. You know what that bus means?" he paused and looked at me intensely.

"I think I do," I said. "It is a special ed bus."

"That’s right, man," he said. "I rode one, I grew up in that, you know—and now I live in mine. I’m a handyman, fix things, got all my shit and tools and life in there."

"Do you know what that bus means, man?" Bob Henry repeated. I could see now that he was pointing to the sign above the driver’s seat. "That bus is the police, man. The police." Then he left. I walked around the bus and read the sign above the driver’s seat that Bob Henry had pointed to: You are responsible for the safe operation and cleanliness of this vehicle.

I realized what the short bus is all about: It serves a social function. Our myth of who we are, who we should be, is actually created by categorizing people with disabilities. Disability is inherently a negation. In our culture, people with disabilities stand more for what they are not than what they are—not normal, not whole—a negation that calls into being its opposite: the normal. The normal looms over all of our lives, an impossible goal that we are told is possible if: if we sit still, if we buy certain consumer goods, if we exercise, if we fix our teeth, if we . . . The short bus polices that terrain; it patrols a fabricated social boundary demarcating what is healthy and sick, acceptable and broken, enforcing normalcy in all of us. What had I lost in trying to belong to the other side? The night before I departed, I drove up to a bluff that overlooked the city of L.A. The horizon was a flattened-out plane, and the city lights were fragmented and disconnected: balls of light radiating like halogen lamps, exploding sideways and backward. A new story of myself was unfolding in the fog and scattered lights, in the short bus below me. I looked out one last time on L.A., out on my past, took a breath, and prepared to hurl myself somewhere new. I left the next day, on June 24, well over a month behind schedule. Becky, my girlfriend of five years, arrived in the morning, and we packed. My dad was home, and when he saw Becky he rushed over to her, hugged her. He knew I was hoping to get engaged on this trip. I always thought my dad was ashamed of me, that somehow I let him down because I couldn’t read well and because I wasn’t good enough at soccer. As I watched him standing there, bent over and looking weepy, I saw an old man whose life must have been profoundly shaped by the same struggles I had. I’ve seen pictures of him. He was a sad kid with big ears and coal-black hair. When he was little his mom taped his ears behind his head because they stuck out too much.

And then, before I could get too sentimental, we were off. Just like that. Nothing fancy, nothing big, just the quiet turn of the key, and something new was set in motion. The goal was to get out into the desert, somewhere in Arizona, and spend the night. We picked up sandwiches for lunch and found I-10, heading east, suffocating with traffic. After an hour or so, my hands were sweating and the bus felt tenuous, unstable. When we hit the grapevine, a mountainous pass outside of L.A., to take us up into the high desert, the bus slowed to a near stop. I pulled over to the slow lane and the bus limped along. People honked. The bus spewed white smoke out its tailpipe and shook.

I thought about the past month, about how much the trip had already changed in me. This was my bus, a part of my life and who I was and who I was going to become. "Let’s call the bus Bob Henry," I said.

Excepted from The Short Bus by Jonathan Mooney

Copyright @ 2007 by Jonathan Mooney

Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Excerpted from The Short Bus: A Journey Beyond Normal by Jonathan Mooney
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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