But we wanted our status back, and our boyfriend, Sean, is easier to persuade than most -- his happiness depends, to some extent, on our happiness. We found another listing in the paper, this one for something called the Mexican Bus. For $38, we would be driven around the city in a refurbished GMC bus to the best Latin clubs, where we would salsa and merengue until the wee hours of the morning. Needless to say, we can't salsa or merengue, and Sean doesn't shake much of anything. But a Mexican Bus! We would be redeemed!
"There's a dress code?" Sean said. "No way, mamacita."
At 9 p.m. that Saturday night, Sean, sulking in suit pants and a leather jacket, followed us into the Chevys restaurant at Third and Howard. Ricardo Duarte, host of the Mexican Bus, had assured us the night before that we would leave on time.
At 20 past 9, a voice on the intercom summoned us to the lobby. Ricardo, dapper in a houndstooth suit, blue-and-yellow paisley tie, and camel wingtips, stood at the hostess desk. He had a neatly trimmed beard and a lovely, balding brown dome. He said that he did construction during the day and had been the host of the Mexican Bus for eight years.
We milled outside with the other guests. There seemed to be two main groups. First was a 21st-birthday-party crowd, headed by a small, garrulous woman who volunteered that her name was Raquel. Her son was the birthday boy.
"It's been going on since Tuesday," Raquel said, indicating her semi-intoxicated progeny. "You know how it is." A daughter, 24, also was part of the entourage.
"They seem nice," we whispered to Sean.
"They seem drunk," he whispered back.
The other group was a cadre of four bright-eyed, middle-aged white people. Ricardo said they were from Napa and took the Mexican Bus five years ago. "We became very good friends, but I haven't seen them since," he said. "They still call me Carlos."
Sean leaned against the wall, hands deep in his pockets.
"This is fun, huh?" we said, giving him a friendly nudge.
He looked at us, incredulous, and shook his head.
Finally, a 1965 GMC bus, sporting faded blue and red paint and with colored lights flashing, appeared on Third Street. "El Volado" -- "the flyer" (or, as Ricardo translated, "somebody crazy") -- is the flagship of the company's two-bus fleet of "good-time transportation." We piled in. The inside was plastered with stickers of Tweety Bird, Puerto Rican flags, and Jesus, no one icon given better display than another except a large Our Lady of Guadalupe in the front window.
A mass of toy figurines was Super Glued to the dash, red fuzzy dice hung from the side mirror, and baby booties dangled from the rearview. We laughed hysterically from pure pleasure; Sean desperately text-messaged a bartender friend in the Mission, convinced that he had been delivered into a world beyond his control.
Our special guest for the evening was Umberto, who stood at the front of the bus beating the bejeezus out of a ridged noisemaker. Ricardo cranked '80s tunes, and the windows reverberated from the bass. Our crowd rocked out in the aisle. The 30 Stockton pulled up next to us. Its passengers, doused in unflattering fluorescent light, gaped at our unmitigated booty-shaking.
Ricardo pounded on the ceiling to tell us that anyone who had parked in the garage next to Chevys would have to pick up his or her car tomorrow; the garage closed at 2 a.m. and there would be no way Tito, our driver, would get us back before then. A howl of protest went up, and four young men filed out to move their cars to the Fifth and Mission garage. The bus took off after them to park across from Mel's Diner and wait. It was 9:55 p.m.
The tequila toast was postponed. Shakers and other rhythm makers were passed around, and Umberto sang "Happy Birthday" in Spanish as Ricardo flipped through his case of CDs. Everyone tried to maintain the momentum, except Sean, who slunk down in his seat, peeking his head out from time to time to stare at our companions. Finally, the white people started singing "La Bamba" and beating a cowbell. They knew all the words. The rest of the group, mostly Latin, listened uncertainly before screaming along to the lyrics. Next the Napa folk started in on "La Cucaracha." Again, they knew all the words. After that was "Guantanamera."
Sean shaded his eyes, hoping that no one would walk by his window and recognize him.
Ricardo took off his jacket and poured tequila into 30 plastic shot glasses. We were about to do the toast when we spotted our missing celebrants walking up Mission from the garage. They trundled onto the bus and grabbed their shots from Ricardo. Then, as one, we blessed the four corners of the world and pulled out onto Mission Street. Tito cut off a Muni driver, who leaned on her horn, perplexed. We could barely hear it above the music. We were on our way. It was 10:15 p.m.
Raquel's daughter was destroying the cowbell with a drumstick in the seat behind us. "Low Rider" came on, a cowbell-beater's dream. We crashed over a bump on the entrance ramp to the 280 and everyone screamed with delight. We were en route to Potrero Hill. The kids in the back were doing the wave. Sean had his head between his knees.
"Motion sickness," he wailed.