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.
On The Bus With Maya Angelou
Tony Kahn, 4/12/2002
the internationally acclaimed author, civil rights activist and poet
of President Clinton's second inaugural, is getting ready for her
WAKLING INTO ECHOING HALLWAY…WALKING OUTSIDE AND SOUNDS OF THE
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."
Have you seen the bus?
I haven't seen the bus.
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
Well, you haven't really seen it. This whole side slides out about
Oh, my god…
You're in a living room. And then, when you get a chance, maybe
you'll go and see the bedroom.
There's a shower and all that…
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.
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.
as it seems, the bus is a return to earth for Maya Angelou.
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…
RATTLING TRAIN AND TRAIN WHISTLE
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.
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!
bus, like that long gone train, is where she can now extend a welcome
to the people she meets.
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.
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.
Who else have you driven for?
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
Maya Angelou, he's broken his pattern of brief connections and continual
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.
Somehow, you don't strike me as the kind of guy who ever spirals
out of control.
I seldom refuse the food, either.
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.
In terms of good health, or getting to spend time with yourself?
Maya: Both. So that means four.
I'm glad to give you the extra 2 years.
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.
Angelou burned through a lot of solitaire on her latest book.
were major battlegrounds in the civil rights struggle. I asked Maya
Angelou what her own earliest memories of bus rides were.
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.
back of this bus, Maya Angelou now has a queen size bed. But she
rarely uses it to rest.
sits at the table, and lets the images of the wide-screen TV at
the back of the kitchen play against her face.
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.
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!!
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