Where I grew up in Southern California, we didn’t call them bodegas, packies, party stores, markets, delis, or deps. We called them liquor stores. The one closest to my house in North Hollywood was on the corner of Laurel Canyon and Burbank Boulevard. When I was younger, the liquor store’s chief draw was candy and video games. When I was older, about fifteen, the proprietor’s adult nephew would leave me cash rolled in tight bills hidden on the sidewalk out front, and in turn I would leave him baggies of marijuana behind the Bazooka Joe display inside the store.
The quickest route to the liquor store was to climb over the six-foot wall in my back yard, drop onto a ledge, and then hang drop about nine feet down to the subterranean parking structure of the massive apartment complex behind my house. Then go through the sunken parking lot, which jogged through a narrow passageway to its sister parking lot, and eventually to the far north end of this hundred-unit monstrosity. From there, walk halfway up an outdoor stairwell, and climb over another wall to a much more modest apartment complex. Cut through the small, street-level parking lot behind this complex onto the strange, jungle-like yard of a house on Laurel Canyon that was probably over an acre in size. This could have been the only actual house on that stretch of Laurel Canyon. It was all dirt driveway and jungle, with smallish living quarters toward the back of the lot, and a natural shortcut on the way to the liquor store. After all this hopping, dropping, and cutting through, you finally emerged onto Laurel Canyon proper, and were halfway to your destination.
I had a friend named Bill, and I don’t remember much about him. If I hadn’t been there when he got hit by a bus, I might not even remember him today. I must have known him from Walter Reed Junior High, but I have almost no memory of him before or after getting hit by the bus. We were at the liquor store because we took the bus home from school together down Laurel Canyon. I disembarked at the Laurel and Burbank stop, and normally Bill would have stayed on the bus for a few more stops. But on this fateful day Bill got off at my stop to play video games. The plan was for him to jump on the next bus that would come twenty or thirty minutes later and not be too late getting home himself. The video game we played was a Donkey Kong knockoff called Crazy Kong.
My memories are notoriously unreliable, especially from the smoke-filled teenage years, but what follows is the best of my limited recollection. Bill and I both loved hard rock and heavy metal, and we had been listening to Live Evil by Black Sabbath on his boom box. And yes, teenagers – myself included – would regularly bring boom boxes to school in the 1980’s. (I realize only a handful of pieces into Police Horse, Black Sabbath already plays a major part in two of them.)
Time got away from us, and I was in the middle of playing Crazy Kong when Bill noticed the next bus arriving. He grabbed his boom box and bolted out of the liquor store, jay-ran across Laurel Canyon IN FRONT OF THE FUCKING BUS trying to catch it, and the bus hit him. I didn’t witness Bill getting hit, but I feel like I did. Just prior, I heard him panic when we both saw and heard the bus coming, I saw him grab his things and bolt out of the door, then I heard screeching and crashing and screaming from the street. So in my mind I can picture the gruesome collision, although there was no way I could have actually seen it.
In an uncharacteristically unselfish move I abandoned my game mid-play, ran outside, and saw Bill across the street laying down in front of the bus. I freaked out of course; I thought he was dead. But when I made it across the street I was relieved to see he was alive and probably not dying. An ambulance came quickly and took Bill to the hospital, while I collected his damaged boom box and his school backpack for safe keeping.
The radio was smashed to pieces, but Black Sabbath’s Live Evil cassette was miraculously unharmed. I played it on my own boom box at home, and Children of the Sea sounded as smoking hot as ever. I chalked it up to the Evil Overlord’s grand plan: The Metal could never be destroyed. I told this story for months, convinced that demonic forces preserved the infamously occultish band’s unholy offering. Years later, I came to realize that audio cassettes were quite durable; the best way to break one was to play it ten thousand times or leave it on the dashboard of a hot car. Other than that, those white or tan plastic pieces of music were pretty well indestructible.
The next time I saw Bill he was hopping around on crutches in a full-leg cast, and I returned his Black Sabbath tape, backpack, and broken boom box. His mom thanked me for being a good friend. Of course I felt guilty for leading him off the bus in the first place, but – you know – not crippling, soul-sucking guilt. He must not have gone to my high school because I had no further memory of him. I don’t know his last name, and I’m not in contact with him on social media. I wonder what his version of this story is? Does he even remember who was there with him, or what tape was in his boom box?
It’s a common expression, getting hit by a bus. Someone at work told me the other day “If you get hit by a bus, we’re screwed.” I thought “YOU’RE screwed? I’m the one who will be screwed!” I assured my colleague no one would be screwed, because I document every fucking thing I do and how all my systems work, but still, we describe losing someone quickly as getting hit by a bus. Like Bill, poor old Bill with the indestructible Black Sabbath cassette.