“Ooh, I don't really feel like drinking tequila just now,” says Morrie, a member of the Young Adults Division of the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation. “It's good for you,” purrs Karen Seidman, a stunning Latina with flowing, dark, wavy locks. Morrie smiles at the proffered bucket of lime wedges but declines. Karen sidles down the aisle of the Mexican Bus, smiling and chatting with other passengers as she fills their tiny plastic shot glasses with Cuervo Gold. “We will drink together,” Seidman commands upon reaching the head of the vehicle. Raising the thimblelike glass aloft, she shouts “Arriba!” in toast. “L'chaim!” respond several laughing passengers as they knock the booze into the back of their throats and grimace.
The bus is called El Volado, a name with several meanings, according to the group's flier: to be flying or moving fast, chance or a flip of the coin, to be high, to live wildly romantic, to revel in romantic illusions. Salsa music erupts from speakers mounted under a colorful tropical painting by the late Bolivar Cordoba, a Mission muralist with work in plenty of local taquerias. “It's a great honor to have so much of his work in the bus,” explains the vivacious Toni Hafter, who co-founded the Mexican Bus in 1990. As with all of the artwork incorporated into the red, aqua, and purple '65 GMC, the murals were commissioned in an attempt to educate the public about Latino culture in an unusual and hands-on way. The fact that Hafter spent considerable time in Mexico researching the rolling behemoths is evident down to the last details: multicolored bubble-lights; an authentic, hand-painted coin box; a windshield-length mirror etched with the words “God is my co-pilot”; tassled seats reserved for the driver's girlfriends; and specialized hubcaps (before they were stolen). “In Mexico,” says actor/driver Ricardo Talavera, motioning to the ornate dashboard, “drivers basically live on their buses. They make them their own.”
Anyone sick of the usual nightcrawling experience — battling cabs, waiting in long lines, looking for acceptable dance partners — will get off on being driven from club to club, having all of his or her cover charges paid in advance, and dancing in the aisles.
“This is like a field trip for adults,” says a self-described “Jew who likes to rumba” as he wipes steam from his window and waves at gawkers on the street below. “The nice thing is that by the time we get to the first dance spot we're already warmed up. None of that standing-by-the-bar-and-staring-at-your-feet stuff. I'm ready to hit the dance floor now!”
Upon leaving Chevy's, the weekly departure point, the Mexican Bus makes its rough and bouncy way (the condition of San Francisco streets adds a real south-of-the-border feel to the ride) through the Tenderloin and up to the door of Miss Pearl's Jam House.
Inside, an ensemble of drummers and dancers generates sweaty heat under the glow of red lights. With only an hour-and-a-half to spare, the Mexican Bus riders waste no time jumping into the mix when the nearly nude, barefoot, and feathered dancers ask for audience participation during their finale. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the room soon follows suit, dancing and catcalling while a few reckless souls try out the hand-held percussion instruments intended for the following band.
“It seems like most of the nightclubs love us,” Hafter says. “We come in, fill the place up, and get the energy going.”
“They can be a real shot in the arm,” agrees a bartender at the Conga Club, “especially if they come in early. They fill the dance floor and then everyone else starts having a good time. By the time the bus leaves, it doesn't matter.”
The passengers gear themselves up for salsa lessons and beautiful people at 330 Ritch's “Tu Pueblo” and Brazilian music at Bahia Cabana. But, according to Hafter, some people have so much fun on the bus that they stay onboard and party there instead of in the clubs. There's something about the padded seats and crazy ambience that helps forge quick friendships from the most unlikely social gumbo — one recent mix included Chinese students, Latino artists, the Spinsters Club, and Bank of America execs.
“One thing I've learned,” Hafter says seriously, “is that you can never tell about people by how they look. … The bus makes people feel like kids.”
By Silke Tudor