The school bus had been gutted, seats replaced by plywood that would make a table and then a bed platform and then a bathroom stall. My stepfather was always coming up with creative ways to use cheap things he’d acquired, a forerunner of the reuse and recycle crowd before it became trendy. The school bus into a camper was the most odd, and where we’d end up living for a time while he turned an old gas station into a house.
Our first vacation in the bus was to a lake and campground in Iowa. As a child, it all seemed a grand adventure to me, unaware of the incongruity of a school bus parked amidst RVs and tent campers. I think my mother and stepdad were heady with accomplishment, even as my mother snapped at us to sit down and stop making so much racket, a common refrain in the early years.
It must have been an adventure to my parents, too – lit with the possibilities that if a school bus could be a camper, then all the other things could be something else, too. Every dream was fraught with danger, though. The gas station cum family home became a prison to us and we had to leave him and it. For years the school bus camper sat, incapacitated, off to the side, a centerpiece in a garden of weeds.
This year, my husband, daughter, and I decided to rent a cabin a few hours north, where we’d been many years ago, when my daughter wasn’t yet afraid of spiders or boredom. The cabin is primitive by Minnesota standards, where cabins have quickly taken on the size and cost of a second home.
It’s early in the morning. I ended up sleeping on the couch to spare my husband the jet engine snoring that has become a hallmark of my middle-aged years. It suits me fine, since I can get up at 4, make coffee and write without waking anyone. There’s a chill in the air this morning, but I sit outside comforted by the rustle of birch leaves and rat-a-tat-tat of a yellow-bellied sapsucker that has chosen a metal sign to announce his presence.
On our way to the cabin, we stopped at a restaurant to get a late lunch. We’ve had this habit over the years of avoiding ubiquitous Subways in favor of the local habitats – diners that are also collectibles dealers and bus stations and post offices and, in the past, the only Wi-Fi connection in town.
This particular diner had a bar downstairs. At two in the afternoon, patrons slid past the diner counter mumbling “Is the bar open?” as if it were the password to a speakeasy. We sat at the counter instead of a table, something I insist on, having seen too many 1950s movies and knowing in my writer brain, that it’s where we witness more.
Small town diners remind me forever and always of a diner I worked in as a teenager. Almost every small town diner has the taped-up, yellowing handwritten signs letting you know that they don’t take checks or that you can buy whole pies for a very hopeful price. There’s the shelf of mugs for the coffee club, handmade goods at the front counter, embroidered framed pictures about your biblical blessings and others that bless the meat you are about to eat, by covering the surrounding walls with dead animal heads, watching over you as you eat their progeny.
Part of me takes a mocking view, but it is the mentality of an escapee. The bad outweighed the good in the small town I went to high school in – I only associate it with the times the police were called to our house, the very public way in which a family disintegrates. Everyone knows, which is just about as horrifying as it gets for a self-conscious teenager, mortified when kind teachers or employers offer her a place to stay.
The diner I worked in was a refuge of sorts. The owners were terrible business people, but kind and generous to a fault. I was allowed to stay after closing time, playing Ms. Pac-Man on a gigantic arcade machine in the corner with the boss and eating free pie. As in most diners, there was an elderly woman who came in and baked pies every week – hand-rolled crusts lovingly worked at for hours, only to be filled with canned fruit. Best pies I ever had.
When the waitress comes, my husband and I get the meager salad bar. My vegetarian daughter tries to order their breakfast croissant without the meat and egg, with just cheese. The order confuses the waitress and she launches into a long discussion with the cook. They hesitantly deliver what looks like a fried croissant, no cheese. We fare no better. The tomatoes taste as if they’re going south and there is fish next to them – pickled herring, which my Scandinavian husband says is a thing for putting on salads. The pie in the jewel case that taunted us throughout the meal tastes like an under-cooked, soggy Pop Tart.
We cannot revisit the nostalgic comforts of youth, due to either flawed memories or absent any context. Maybe the pie of my teenage days was exactly the same, but in the context of the constant anxiety I had about what was happening at home, it was something of sweet, predictable comfort.
It makes me think how we rarely understand other people’s attachments and are so quick to condemn them. It is only now that I see the optimism in that old school bus, the reason that I’m drawn to diners, the sundry ways we lean this way or that. It means we must tread lightly in our criticisms and mockery, for what we see as frivolous or cloyingly sentimental, could be something else entirely.