I use to want to be Billy Ocean.
I remember that day like it was 28 years ago. My medium-size, rusty yellow school bus barreled down Laurel Canyon Blvd, taking the hairpin curves at full speed. The driver’s boom box blared “Carrot You Quit” (it was a few years before I realized the song actually said “Caribbean Queen.”) I sat in the back, above the right tire, so I’d be tossed a foot or so into the air whenever the bus hit a bump. It was always the high-point of my day.
But not that day. That was the day when the entire fourth grade discovered that “Bell” rhymes with “smell.”
That night I plotted revenge. I listed all my classmates’ last names, got out my mom’s thesaurus, shut myself in my room, turned on my desk lamp, and promptly lost interest when my brother told me Robotech was on. Then one thing led to another. I watched He-Man. Then G.I. Joe. Then GoBots. Then Transformers. I meant to get back to my revenge after dinner, but by the time I finished my vegetables I was late for my appointment in the construction site across the street, where I was to pretend I was Luke Skywalker bravely fighting Tusken Raiders (the neighbor kid). After that, I had to watch an episode of Star Trek. The next thing I knew, my mom was tucking me in and everything was fading to black.
It was five o’clock the next morning. I don’t recall why, but my brother didn’t go to school that day. It was just me. It was still dark out, and I waited by a barren stone wall on Valley Boulevard for my bus. I was about to have two hours on the road to consider how I’d failed. I was totally unprepared. The bus creaked to a stop and the door slid open. “Caribbean Queen” again. It was as if the driver had it on a loop.
It was just the driver and me on the bus. It was just us on the road. The city was still asleep. I remember hearing and feeling the rumble of the engines. I remember them cutting out every so often when the driver, bouncing in his seat, stomped on the clutch and shook the three foot long gear shift. The engine-less silence was interrupted by the sound of grinding metal, and then the engine would roar back to life and we’d take off. I could see the back of his afro, and in the rear view mirror I could see his glasses and his mustache. I remember seeing him close his eyes when he started bopping his head to the music. I wondered, if he were about to crash, could I survive a jump from my window if I tucked and rolled?
That’s when he started singing along with Billy Ocean. He wasn’t just singing, though; he was harmonizing. I liked it. It was calming. Before I knew it, I was singing along too. In my head, at least: “Carrot you quit… now we’re sharing the dame beam… At a parts, they beat as one… Norman love on the run…” (it was a few years before I could Google the real lyrics). He stopped a few blocks from the next pickup, ran off the bus into a liquor store, and came back out with a six pack of Pepsi. He gave one to me along with a smile. The sun broke over Chavez Ravine, and the bus rolled on, picking up over forty other kids.
None of them got a Pepsi.
By the time the bus pulled into Wonderland Elementary, I’d decided revenge wasn’t important. Life was bigger than a fourth grade Day From Hell. Besides, I was going to change my name to “Billy Ocean.” As far as I could figure it, nothing bad rhymed with Ocean.
The other day, I awoke to find an email from the publisher, letting me know my copies of the new Candorville book were on their way. I was excited, I’d be able to offer autographed, sketched-on copies to readers as soon as they arrived (you can order them now at the Candorville book store). Over the next couple days, I pasted the tracking number into my FedEx app every hour or so, to watch the progress.
I watched it travel from state to state, finally ending up at my local distribution center in Los Angeles. I went to bed that night knowing I’d wake up to the five sweetest words in the English language, “On FedEx vehicle for delivery.” Instead, I awoke to the two most bitter words in the English language: “Delivery exception.”
Over the next several days, I watched as FedEx tried, repeatedly, to deliver my books to me in Bell, CA. Every morning the tracking information would read “On FedEx vehicle for delivery” to Bell, CA. Every evening, it would read “Customer not available or business closed,” and I would try not to put my fist through my wall. I, Darrin Bell, do not live in Bell, CA. I would try as best I could to laugh about the thought that a company – whose entire reason for existence is to deliver packages – not being able to tell the difference between the recipient’s city and the recipient’s last name. And I would comfort myself with the fact that I never went ahead and changed my last name to “Ocean.”