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Writer and poet Maya Angelou travels only by personal bus after giving up on dealing with airplanes and air travel. In her souped-up bus, Angelou's travels have helped her gain deeper understanding of the country, as well as of herself. Traveler-at-Large Tony Kahn was given a special invitation to climb aboard the decked-out Angelou bus and see what the fuss was about.

Postcard: On The Bus With Maya Angelou

By Tony Kahn, 4/12/2002

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Maya Angelou, the internationally acclaimed author, civil rights activist and poet of President Clinton's second inaugural, is getting ready for her next trip.

SFX: WAKLING INTO ECHOING HALLWAY…WALKING OUTSIDE AND SOUNDS OF THE BUS

A relentless schedule of lectures and public appearances takes her regularly across the country. Starting this week, she will also be promoting the latest volume in her life story, "A Song Flung up to Heaven."

Maya: Have you seen the bus?

Adrian: I haven't seen the bus.

Maya: Oh, please.

Tonight's run, from her home in New York to a speaking engagement in Stamford, Conn., is a hop of a hundred miles -- just enough time to appreciate the décors.

Maya: Well, you haven't really seen it. This whole side slides out about 5 feet.

Tony: Oh, my god…

Maya: You're in a living room. And then, when you get a chance, maybe you'll go and see the bedroom.

Tony: Sure.

Maya: There's a shower and all that…

Her personal assistant, Lydia Stuckey, gives me a tour of the 56,000 lb. vehicle that has been Dr. Angelou's private home and open house on wheels for the last 3 years.

Lydia: And we have a DVD and a VCR, and CD's. We get gourmet meals and smothered chicken, and we've had wonderful steaks and pastas, like you wouldn't believe -- angel hair pastas with all kinds of toppings, and mushrooms and wonderful spare ribs. We have an electric top stove, we have a convection oven, baking facilities, and we have the microwave, so, yes, we do cook as we go.

Fancy as it seems, the bus is a return to earth for Maya Angelou.

Maya: I had over 2 million miles on Delta, over 2 million miles on US Air, but it was just too hard, and I found myself with my fists balled up sitting on a plane -- and I'd never had that before. When I go into an airport, it's a minor explosion -- people who've never read one page of a book of mine will start to shout, "It's Maya Angelou!" And people come up and ask me for autographs or photographs because they once saw me on the "Today Show" or on Oprah. In fact, they ask about Miss Stuckey, or anyone else, "Is she anybody?" you know, that is so off-putting. And yet I have to get to the next destination, so I pay for it between getting out of the car in front of the airport and negotiating the airport. So the bus affords me the privacy and I really can arrive at a destination from a departure place without being picked to pieces, so there is that…

SFX; RATTLING TRAIN AND TRAIN WHISTLE

Maya Angelou's latest book is the end of a journey that began, seven volumes ago, with "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," and the story of her and her brother Bailey's arrival at the home of her grandmother, in Stamps, Ark.

Maya: When I was three and my brother was five, my mother and father agreed to separate. And they were living in Long Beach, Calif. They put me and my brother on a train, without any companionship, without any adult, put tags on our arms, and said, "This child should be delivered to Miss Annie Henderson in Stamps, Ark." And this child. I thought it was terrible for years and years, but then I found out that Bailey and I were just part of a legion of black children who had been brought by their parents up North, or East or West, thinking that those roads and highways, streets and avenues would just be replete with milk and honey -- only to find that that was not so. So the parents sent the kids back home, back to the South, to grandma and grandpa. Well, the Pullman car porters and dining car waiters were used to it, and so they looked after us and they took us off trains and put us on trains, and sometimes they took us to their homes in Texas, or their homes here, and then put us on the next train -- and we actually arrived in Stamps, Ark. Amazing!

Her bus, like that long gone train, is where she can now extend a welcome to the people she meets.

Maya: I know this -- I know that everybody is shy. The most bodacious, loudmouth braggart is shy. So, when a person gets up the nerve to come to me, it's all right. I will never be short, unless I'm running for something. I'll say, "You have to excuse me, give me a hug and let me go. Please." And they will. So, when a person on a plane starts to talk to me, I always say, wherever anybody is, "Come to me, let me see your face, talk to me." And people respond. And I take my time. Always.

Maya Angelou's driver is Brian Dagle, or "Big Bird" for short. Actually, for long. He's six-foot-six and a legend on his own in the world of tour bus drivers.

Tony: Who else have you driven for?

Bird: Bette Midler, Gloria Estefan, Metallica, Dooby Brothers -- just, just 15 years of one after another. It's 3 months, 6 months -- as soon as one finishes, you have two or 3 days to get ready for another one.

With Maya Angelou, he's broken his pattern of brief connections and continual farewells.

Bird: We've driven about, a little better than a half a million miles together, and it's just a, just a great experience. With Dr. Angelou, I'm definitely going to be an overweight man because she's always cooking back there, and I'm just spiraling out of control.

Tony: Somehow, you don't strike me as the kind of guy who ever spirals out of control.

Bird: I seldom refuse the food, either.

Tony: (laughing)

Maya: We try to get off the highway as often as we can and take two lane roads. That's where the flavor of the country is. I don't sleep much, and Bird will call my attention to sunrise. And sometimes we stop the bus and get out and let sunrise happen to us; just to be alive and be on the side of the road in Iowa or Illinois, or Mississippi, and see the sunrise. It's very nice. I believe the bus has given me at least two more years of life.

Tony: In terms of good health, or getting to spend time with yourself?

Maya: Both. So that means four.

Tony: I'm glad to give you the extra 2 years.

Maya: Thank you. But just life itself and then the time to cogitate to meditate, and then the time to do absolutely nothing -- play solitaire, which is to me like having a cool dip in a cool pool on a hot day. Nothing. My grandmother raised me, and she was so profound. Mama used to say, "Sister, you know, that's not even on my little mind." And somewhere in those pre-teen years, I decided there was a small mind and a large mind. I use solitaire to occupy my small mind, so it does not intrude when I begin to go down deep into the big mind. In the course of writing a book, I will use up three or four decks of Bicycle cards in a month. Sometimes I don't even finish the game. I'm really satisfying the fritter and the small concerns, the small nerves, so that when I hear that I've plumbed to something, I turn it off and I start to write.

Maya Angelou burned through a lot of solitaire on her latest book.

Busses were major battlegrounds in the civil rights struggle. I asked Maya Angelou what her own earliest memories of bus rides were.

Maya: I was maybe about nine, and my grandmother took me to a white dentist, and we went up the back steps, 'cause it wouldn't be right for us to go up the front steps. And the man hardly would see us, so she talked to him and said, "This is my grandbaby" and he said, in effect, he'd rather put his hand in a dog's mouth than in a nigger's mouth, so we took a bus from Stamps over to Texarkana, to a black dentist. It was a most hateful trip. It was my first trip on a bus I remember, and I was still in pain.

In back of this bus, Maya Angelou now has a queen size bed. But she rarely uses it to rest.

She sits at the table, and lets the images of the wide-screen TV at the back of the kitchen play against her face.

With over 700 satellite channels to choose from, she picks Country and Western music -- songs that couldn't further removed from the blues of her past or, you'd think, the rhythms of her heart. Then again, maybe it's just there for the small mind, while the big one listens for the next chapter in her story.

Maya: In all my work, I try to say you may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. So, if I'm able to say, here we are, human being, we stumble we fumble and we fall, and then, amazingly, we rise -- amazingly! From pain and fear and embarrassment and loss, how do we dare to rise? From insults and dependencies and addictions, self-loathing, and yet somehow we do. And knowing that, knowing that, just knowing that…knowing that human beings, here we are. That's amazing!!

Savvy Resources:

Maya Angelou's Official Site
http://www.mayaangelou.com/

"A Song Flung Up To Heaven" by Maya Angelou
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0375507477/



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