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Local... The Herebouts of Technology
Wired Wheels
Workers trade their cubicles for a Buss

Joyce Slaton, Special to SF Gate
  Wednesday, April 14, 1999

San Francisco, California, USA -- The job wasn't the problem, it was where Sam had to do it.

He resented being tied to an office with only two weeks of vacation time each year, a lumpy chair and a view of a SoMa vacant lot complete with junkies in action. Wouldn't if be great, he thought, if he could exchange the view for the rolling scenery of a permanent road trip?

One silver-painted bus, satellite modem and a laptop later, he did. Cubicle-dwellers beware -- the Cyberbuss is on the road, and you're invited along.

If you live in San Francisco, or Baja or Gerlach, Nevada you may have seen the Cyberbuss passing -- a retired school bus on its second life as a silver-painted road vessel for the Cyberbuss crew, who know a thing or two about enjoying a journey. Painted silver, clad in pirate costumes (or angel wings or the freakiest of San Francisco freakwear), the Cyberbuss fhREaKs are wired and ready to bring you on the trip -- in virtual form, if that's the only way you can make it.

Like so many oddball San Francisco happenings, the Cyberbuss was born of lucky happenstance wedded with cockeyed wacky inspiration. Back in 1996, Sam Frangiamore was marveling at the technology that enabled the wired to work from anywhere in the world, when inspiration struck. It was clear as a martini: find a bus, install the necessary hardware and get rolling.

"I'd read enough Kesey," grinned Sam, invoking the name of the famous road-tripper and his spiked-Koolaid-drinking Merry Pranksters, "and I knew we needed a bus. All of us love our jobs but we all had the frustration of being stuck between the same four walls 50 to 52 weeks a year. We wanted more."

That's exactly what they got. Sam and buddy Jim Merry paid $5,500 for a school bus they found in a classified ad. They painted it silver and outfitted it with sink, sofa, laptops and a satellite modem. And the Cyberbuss was ready to roll.

As C y b e r sAM says, "We all love to travel, and the Internet has enabled anyone to take their office and put in on the road." Well, almost anyone. Some are tied to real-world offices and old-school clients who prefer to see faces instead of email. Some aren't C y b e r sAM-lucky enough to have a friend who donates an expensive satellite modem to the Buss. And others just aren't aware of their options.

It's the latter group the Cyberbuss wants to claim and free, says Jim Merry, who's ridden the Buss from Vegas to Burning Man and on many trips in between. Jim is gainfully employed as a software engineer, but he makes it his business to escape when he can and, like Sam, can work on the road. They have laptops to take care of the offline work, and even though the wireless modem connection is a painfully slow 2800 baud at a pricy buck a minute, it works anywhere in the world. Trips on the Buss are limited only by finances -- and imagination.

"The Buss is a vehicle for going out and challenging people's lives, to spread the news about the Internet and what it makes possible," Merry said. "We want to have an adventure. We're not complete. We don't know everything. The Buss is a vehicle to go out and explore."

In over two years, the Buss' headlights have illuminated highways in the Bay Area, Mount Shasta, Death Valley, Los Angeles and scores of other spots, all the while encouraging virtual trippers to send email encouragement in response to the stories and photos from Cyberbuss fhREaKs in transit .

Excerpts from the site say it all.

"9:41 pm Baja time, all is dark except for the stars and my laptop, and I'm on top of The Buss listening to the surf. There's lights from the small coastal town Punta San Isidro about a half mile down the beach, and nothing else. Even the ocean sounds a little different down here, and I'm disoriented to just the right degree," writes Hugh Mann.

He couldn't have written these words from a cubicle in Multimedia Gulch, or even a corner office in some high-tech high rise. But Mann's meanderings from some star-drenched Mexican burg could be a siren's call for some pinched, pained, overworked Silicon Valley type, who's as welcome as any on the Buss.

"There are no passengers on the Buss, only crew," intoned Yanick the Volume King, who has been part of the Cyberbuss since the first flash of inspiration. "The Buss started as a crazy idea but now it's an energy source which draws in anyone who wants to come onboard and become a participant."

The Buss is the nucleus that holds together a loose group of fhREaKs, each with his or her own unique talent to contribute. You say you can sew? Get cracking on those costumes! You're employed as a corporate events planner? There's an upcoming trip that needs your skills. Artists and software engineers, office managers and circus geeks, fire-eaters and accountants; all have something to contribute to the Buss' continually evolving vision.

"Anyone can fit in here," Sam said. "If there's something you can do I can find a way you can do it on the Cyberbuss."

"If you can't make it down here in person you can participate from a virtual standpoint, too," Yanick said. "We're plugged into the virtual community so that anyone can participate, even as a passive viewer who can't go away on a trip. It's like a serial soap opera you can participate in on some weird level."

C y b e r sAM is frankly amazed by the way people respond to the Buss, either online or in all its rolling, metallic glory. "They do a double take, they stare at us for a while but then they end up coming over and finding out from us who we are and what they're all about," he says.

"When people hear about us and what we're doing it kind of opens their minds," he continued. "The possibilities are endless. People in San Francisco in the 60s tried to change the world. People of the 90s are into changing their own reality because they know the best way to change the world is to change yourself."

So, the next time you spy the Cyberbuss ambling along underneath your office window, why not flag it down and hitch a ride? This muse stops for passengers.


 
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