I'll Have Popcorn, and 36 Hours on a Bus

Going to Tahoe as a matter of performance art

In Sacramento, we stop at a 5,000-square-foot warehouse owned by Allen Denault, said to be the only bastion of art in the region. We are chased by hillbillies with power tools and treated to the ambient sounds of Mixtape From Mars, a man who combines our ranting with drum beats, didjeridoo, and the eerie sounds of wok lids. One of our patrons emerges from the back room, dressed as Carlotta Cox, to do a lipsynch routine of Nancy Sinatra tunes, only to be outdone by a man named Duckie who performs as Britney Spears. Dr. Discount explains his "alcohol reclamation project" and invites us to drink vomit that tastes a lot like chicken noodle soup. Two local girls treat us to office-chair racing while Iain beats on a huge industrial drum with an oversized rubber mallet. We get back on the bus and the drinking resumes, as do the games, and the misuse of Lily Pond's dildo.

In Placerville, we are invited to step off the bus into the icy night air. Half of us are blindfolded and led across a street into what sounds like a restaurant. I am told to duck my head and step down. The floor becomes wet underfoot. There are planks and puddles, but we are perceptibly inside, maybe underground. Sound becomes muffled as the walls seem to close in. I smell dank fungus and rotting wood. Something drips on my head. We pass sources of music as my body is guided through an unseen maze. I am told to sit and remove my blindfold. My location is a narrow, abandoned gold mine tunnel with seeping walls and dim lights anchored in the rock. Zack is playing clarinet at the end of the passageway. This is the back room of the Placerville Coffee House, one of Dr. Discount's childhood haunts. The original building, a soda works, was built around an existing mining tunnel in 1859. Now, a bluegrass band plays upstairs and the cheerful women behind the counter dole out gourmet tea and sandwiches. We admire, then load up and start the long winding stretch toward Tahoe. There are sing-alongs to the Violent Femmes and Styx. Over-saturated folks pass out under sleeping bags in the back of the bus as over-excited folks start a disco-dance party in the front. Dr. Discount points out the stars and the multi-thousand-foot drop to our left.

In Tahoe, Dr. Discount tells us the night, and following day, are ours. He suggests putting laundry detergent in fountains, hitting the blackjack tables with Bronco Betty, or going to karaoke with Mistress Mao. It's past midnight. Some of us opt for hotel rooms, including our driver, who has no faith that the party on the bus will ever stop. Dr. Discount helpfully explains that if the bus is not where we left it, there will be a flier adhered to a nearby pole giving direction. Essentially, we are squatting in the parking lot, and anything could happen.

The following day -- after a bit of harmless trespassing, a snowball fight, and a panoramic view at 10,000 feet -- I return to the bus. Chunks of ice lay shattered in the road leading up to the vehicle, evidence of an early morning icicle-sword fight. Inside, stuffed animals hang from nooses on every bunk. The words "Help Me" are written in frost on the windows. Empty bottles and sleeping bags are strewn in every nook; Lily Pond's sex books lay ruffled.

"The bus has taken on a whole new personality, don't you think?" asks Brynne Cortez, patting her child.

Hungover and gambling-broke, patrons and cast return one by one to tell their tales: Shooting guns in the woods, a mad porno-and-whirlpool party on the top floor of Caesar's, an inadvertent Super Bowl fondling session, and so on. But the winning story is that of Lil' Mike, who, having consumed a number of psychoactive drugs in the night, was still determined in the morning to use the skis he had rented for the trip. Mike went up but he didn't know how to come down. It took all day. Tree by tree. Wipe-out by wipeout.

"You know the gondola ride is great (it would be better if they had drinks on "em, I guess)," says Lil' Mike, limping back to the sleeping quarters, "but then they make you get off.

"I need a new comfort zone for my liver," continues Mike, looking for his rubber proxy. "Where's my liver?"

Mistress Mao and the keyholder of the Caesar's suite are wed, as mistress and submissive, but the audience is sleepy. The sing-alongs descend into showtunes, and backgammon gives way to debates about three-dimensional space. During the boys' underpants contest, only Dr. Blinky and Mao's boy have the moxie to parade their shorts (Blinky's shorts are worth it). But West Sacramento holds a last hurrah: Two credulous teens follow the crew out of a fast food restaurant, hoping to get a tour of the "freak" bus. They make it three steps.

"If I die, it's your fault," says the boy to the girl. The Popcorn crowd roars with laughter. It's the best thing yet.

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