I was lounging at the corner of Fifth and Mish', minding anybody's business, when along came Ken Kesey, the successful author ('One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion), who has opted out of the big money machine and is trying to fly free. He rolled up in his famous bus, the one painted all those psychedelic colors — "the Rolling Rorschach," he calls it — and he reached out his hand to this square and said, "Climb aboard!" His friend, Babbs, was behind the wheel wearing captain's bars on his jacket and marksmanship medals on his chest. There was a blonde young man named Ramrod and another named John and a bright looking kid wearing thick glasses. Mrs. Kesey and her three small children. And a pretty, thin girl named Susie.
They had driven over from Fairfax where they lived aboard the bus (officially named "Further"), to show me San Francisco. As we drove down Mission toward the Ferry building, Babbs and Ramrod spoke to the people on the streets via amplifier. "It's a beautiful day!" Babbs called out in a voice that carried for a block. The people looked startled. "The sun is out! Let's all enjoy ourselves!" Pedestrians looked at the bus with hostility.
We rolled back up Market, Babbs keeping up a constant stream of good-natured chatter, Kesey playing reflectively on a harmonica. From my vantage point inside the crazy-wonderful bus, the square world never looked squarer or more ridiculous. Men in hats and little dark suits, striding along. "On your way to the topless and bottomless?" heckled Babbs. They scowled. Women shoppers in drab clothes stared deadpan, compressing their lips. Only the young people were able to summon a grin in return for a smile.
As we headed for Golden Gate Park, Kesey perched on a box in the middle of the aisle. He was wearing a red, white and blue striped shirt tucked into tight gold striped pants stuffed into scuffed cowboy boots. As has been remarked before, he looks like Marlon Brando, despite his tonsure of curly blonde hair, and he has the same sad, sweet smile. His capped right front tooth looks red from a distance, but actually it is a tiny American flag. He is a man of charm, sympathy and, obviously, talent.
"I've got to get away from the Bay Area," he said. "There's too much going on here, it reaches out and encircled you. I've got to get back to the high country." He glanced around the bus. "I'm sorry it's such a mess today. We're going to fix this old bus up and travel. This is our home. Wonderful things have happened here — two babies born on it in Mexico. We're going to install a navigator's bubble in the roof, revolving, so we can really observe."
The famous bus inched through the crowded Haight-Ashbury. Now we were surrounded by beaming, bearded faces: everybody knew it was in Kesey. He lit a stick of pungent incense — "to cover up the other smells around here," he said, grinning. At a street corner he impulsively jumped out and handed the incense to an old man waiting for a bus. The oldster refused it, growling, "I don't use dope." "A real clean old man," said Babbs.
We went through the Park toward the ocean. "Some professors at the University of Texas want to put me in for a Rockefeller grant, hoping to get me to write again," he said, shaking his head slowly. "But I don't think I could ever write another big chunk of a book, like a telephone directory. Still, its $14,000 and I could go to Europe. Cuckoo's Nest still sells — it's in its fourth or fifth printing. A royalty check always seems to arrive just in time to keep me going."
A motorcycle officer pulled alongside the bus, eyed it curiously, and moved away. Kesey followed him with his eyes. "San Francisco cops are okay — they leave us alone," he said. "Soon as we get outside the city, some cop has to stop us and come aboard and look around." He was arrested once on a marijuana charge and the jury hung 8-4 for for conviction. "I know the jury liked me," he said. "But then the prosecutor told them, 'Don't let emotions sway you,' like if they didn't convict me they wouldn't be doing their duty."
"My parents made a breakthrough the other day," he said. "They live in Oregon, very proper people, and they hate this bus — they think it's responsible for my decline and fall. But they finally came aboard, which was a very hard thing for them to do. I think they feel better about it now."
At Pacific and Fillmore, the bus stop to let me off, back in squaresville. We waved goodbye and I watched it roll away, riding high above the Cadillacs and Lincolns, looking grave and defiant. And quite a bit poignant.