Saturday, May 1, 2010
Choosing a seat among the inmates was basically a game of mass transit Russian Roulette. Those of us at stop number one (Runyon and Grove), had it best because when we got on the bus, there were nothing but empty seats to choose from. But there was definitely a seat-selection strategy involved. First of all, you had to make sure that there was at least one kid (preferably two) in the seat behind you. This was important (we're talking "I'll-give-you-my-Twinkie-to-sit-there" important), because Danny Paluccio got on at the SECOND stop. Paluccio was making his second attempt at the fifth grade, was built like an oil drum and had all the charm and compassion of a flea-bitten wombat. There's no way in hell you wanted that goon behind you because the rest of your trip would be festooned with noogies, neck slaps, and wet willies.
After the Paluccio stop, the next order of business was making sure that the seat you were in was full. If you didn't partner up at the original stop, you definitely wanted to recruit a seatmate at stop number two (someone besides Paluccio, obviously), or else you ran the risk of having Patti Ramberg sit next to you when she boarded at stop number three. Patti was a cootie-infested elementary school version of Miss Almira Gulch and everyone from kindergarten to fifth grade knew it. If Ramberg sat next to you, well, you were that morning's cootie-by-association. Chants of "YOU HAD TO SIT BY RAMMMM-BERRRRG" followed you around the rest of the day.
One fateful morning in April, a second grader named Snot Bubble got the double-whammy.
Barry "Snot Bubble" Feldman was a pip-squeak, complete with a do-it-yourself haircut, perpetually runny nose, and a banged-up Flintstones lunchbox. On the morning that the School Bus Gods pointed their collective fingers of misfortune Barry's way, he got on the bus with the rest of us at stop number one and chose the front seat assuming, I suppose, that the bus driver would offer some form of security. Barry was young and a tad naive.
Barry enjoyed his solitude on the first leg of the journey, the only slight mishap occurring when the bus driver hit the Clay Avenue dip at too high a speed, causing Snot Bubble to levitate momentarily from his seat and bang his head against the window during the ensuing descent. He blinked a few times, and shook off the cobwebs just as the bus slammed to a halt at the corner of Bound Brook Road and South Lincoln Avenue.The door hissed open and Paluccio slithered aboard. He paused at the top of the bus steps and surveyed the hunting ground. His beady eyes focused on Snot Bubble, then on the empty seat behind him, and a smirk crept upon the bully's face. With his trusty sidekick Marco Stevens at his side, Paluccio plopped down behind Snot Bubble and opened the day's festivities with a slap to the back of the head.
"What's goin' on wit' you ta-day, Snot Bubble?"
"Weave me awone, Pawuccio."
"Yeah, Danny," mocked Marco, "weave him awone." The two thugs guffawed like a pair of doped-up hyenas.
For the next mile or so, in addition to enduring the usual bone-jarring and teeth-gnashing caused by diabolically placed potholes, Snot Bubble suffered though a litany of taunts, ear lobe-flicking, and other Paluccio-inflicted humiliation.
The bus chugged on to stop number three, where the final group of miscreants slunk aboard. Patti Ramberg was the last one on, and by that point the only choice she was left with was riding shotgun with Snot Bubble, whose morning was immediately downgraded from "miserable" to "tragic".
Paluccio made the official call. "AND THE WINNER OF TODAY'S 'SIT BY THE COOTIE' CONTEST IS . . . "
A rough stretch of road served as a makeshift drum roll . . .
Snot Bubble struggled to fight back the tears. In the seat across the aisle, two first graders were talking about a birthday celebration, complete with chocolate cake, Neapolitan ice cream and Amaze-o the Magician, but there was no party in Barry Feldman's eight year-old heart. Just a bunch of deflated balloons and a busted pinata.
"Hi Barry, are you okay?" asked Ramberg. Cootie rumors aside, Patti was really a very nice girl but her gawky appearance mitigated against any potential popularity. Fair? Of course not, but this was elementary school.
"I'm fine, Wamberg. Don't wowwy about it."
"You know that Danny's just a big ol' bully, right? He's nothing to be afraid of."
"I'm not afwaid of him, Wamberg, I just wish he'd stop fwicking my ears and stuff."
The bus squealed into a sharp left turn, centrifuging Snot Bubble and Ramberg into some unintentional body contact.
"Hey look, Danny," squealed Marco, "She's giving him a hug!"
"Yeah," said Paluccio. "I think they're gonna make out. Snot Bubble, aren't you a little young to have a girlfriend?"
"Quit it, Pawuccio! She's not my goolfwiend! Stop being a buwwy!"
Ramberg did her best to make Snot Bubble feel better, but it was difficult with Paluccio harassing them. Apparently, though, even cooties have their breaking point.
"Danny, knock it off right now!" Ramberg shouted in his face after witnessing the application of a nasty Indian burn to Snot Bubble's left forearm. "He's a little tiny kid, and you're nothing but a left-back, stupid animal! Does it make you feel all big and important to make a little kid cry? Just leave him and everyone else alone, or I'll go right to the principal and make sure that you don't ride another school bus for the rest of your pathetic life!"
This, of course, got the attention of every single passenger on Bus 12.
"OOOH! She got YOU, Paluccio!"
"You tell 'im, Ramberg!"
"Paluccio just got BURNED!"
Danny Paluccio, to the surprise of no one, disregarded the verbal cootie-slapping, and the bus ride home that same day featured the willful destruction of a third grader's eyeglasses. True to her word, Ramberg reported him to the principal the following morning. No fewer than twenty-two additional witnesses subsequently spoke up, detailing a sordid history of prepubescent terror. Paluccio was banished from Bus 12 for the rest of the year, and eventually dropped out of high school in the middle of grade ten. No one missed him, not even Marco.
As he grew older, perhaps Barry Feldman's "Paluccio Experience" helped him develop a knack for avoiding life's less desirable seating options. When he went to the doctor's office, did he choose a solitary chair in the waiting room corner to avoid a phlegm-honking septuagenarian? Was he careful to book the aisle seat on flights so as not to be sandwiched between six hundred pounds of Phoenix-bound Shriners? I'd like to think that he'd learned from his fateful second grade blunder.
Although, given the choice between the Shriners and Danny Paluccio, I might take my chances with the fez-wearing porkers. I've got this thing against wet willies.