San Jose Mercury News (CA)


November 27, 2000
Section: Arts & Entertainment
Edition: Morning Final
Page: 1C
Illustration: Photos (5)

''Rina the quina'' Natkin rides on top of the Cyberbuss during a San Francisco street festival tour.
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: A doll's head on the bus sets a tone. ''We're a disorganization. There are no rules. No leader. We just make the Buss happen,'' a member says.
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Mabel Hooper, right, and ''Rina the quina'' Natkin ride with friends on the Cyberbuss during September's Fourth Annual Art Car Fest in San Francisco.
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CyberSam, alias Sam Frangiamore of San Francisco and the world, is a 33-year-old Web site designer who set out to create a virtual community to inspire people break out of their beige boxes.
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The wired bus rolls along University Avenue in Berkeley during the How Berkeley Can You Be Parade earlier this year, carrying a load of artists, drummers, dancers and Web designers.
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When Cathy Goerz moved to San Francisco in 1996, she had never heard of CyberSam and his band of technomads.

She had no inkling she'd soon hop aboard the CyberBuss bound for parts heretofore unknown to a youth fresh out of Colorado State University.
''Up until then, I knew San Francisco was full of freaky people, but I hadn't yet met them,'' says Goerz -- now 28, working for a high-tech firm and nicknamed ''Sgt. Sauce'' by Cyberbuss adventurers.

Then she met Web site designer Sam Frangiamore, 33 -- alias CyberSam.

His mission: Free cubicle workers from window-less offices, away from over-bright fluorescent lights, out into Nature's glow. Remember sunlight?

''I take the Cyberbuss to schools and tell kids: 'If you don't like reality -- then create a reality you do like.' The Cyberbuss,'' he says, ''is a created reality.''

The Cyberbuss story began in 1996 with an idea, a road trip and destination cyberspace.

''A bunch of us were happy with our work,'' he says, ''but we didn't like being stuck inside four walls. We liked what we were doing. We just didn't know why we had to do it there.''

Frangiamore was designing an online research department for a marketing firm and thinking subversive thoughts. ''When the Internet came around, it seemed like so much was possible. But companies were still making workers work the old way.''

Telecommuting was the new way.

Frangiamore took it one step further. ''If you can work from home -- then why not work from the Grand Canyon? This became my primary motivation.''

He saw his beam of enlightenment in the headlights of an old yellow school bus.

The bus had carried its previous owner to the Burning Man Festival and died in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. It was rebuilt and for sale. Frangiamore and afriend bought it for $5,500 and renovated it with bed, sofa, sink, shelves, and 10 golf-cart batteries to run computers, light bulbs and anything else that needed plugging in.

The Cyberbuss was born -- and along with it, CyberSam. The first road taken was the one back to the Burning Man Festival. And those who couldn't make it in reality could make it virtually.

A satellite modem, Web cam, radio transmitter and global positioning system in the Buss would allow e-workers still shackled to their little beige desks in their little beige world to hop aboard the magic Buss through the Net.

''Virtually speaking,'' says CyberSam -- who often begins sentences this way -- ''people travel with us through the Internet.''

Each trip is digitized through audio clips, photos and animation, with minimal captions.

''We don't tell people too much about our trips,'' he says, ''so it's their own imaginations that fill in their virtual reality.'' In other words, too much real information clogs cyber-consciousness.

Computer tripping

''We create a cyber-culture made up of people on the Buss and people tripping with us through their computers.''

Just log on, he adds, to

''Sam is usually loath to verbalize what the Cyberbuss is,'' Goerz says. ''He likes the Buss to just to be the Buss. You're either on the Buss or you're off the Buss.''

Goerz decided to get on the Buss in 1997.

''I felt I'd come home. For so long, I'd craved knowing a supportive group of people who were free and expressive. I fell in love with the art of thought and with CyberSam's vision of putting dreams into action.''

Adventures varied, among the 50 or so Cyberbuss-ers, from festivals and parades to desert camping and street fairs.

They'd hang out on an ordinary Sunday in the Haight -- and transform it into an extraordinary day with music, face-painting, free-form dancing, blowing bubbles, singing, drumming and play.

''Kids love us because we play like kids do,'' Goerz says. ''We'll paint kids' faces, then say to their mom, 'You're next.' She blushes, and her husband sees the flowers painted on her face and says, 'Hey, you look pretty.'

''The Buss has a magical way of attracting people of all ages. You feel pulled in. You feel a part of something, with no questions asked.''

Of course, people do ask questions of the cyber-folks.

''People think we're drifters,'' she says. ''That we don't work, that we're flower children, that we live on the bus and party. But everyone of us is a professional, everyone of us is educated and works a job.

''People ask: 'Who's in charge? How do I become a member? What are the rules? What kind of an organization is this?'

''We're a disorganization,'' she says. ''There are no rules. No leader. We just make the Buss happen.''

Goerz understands the confusion. ''We're simply merging the potential of the computer industry with life as art, and we're using computers as the means to advance artistic expression.

''Everyone belongs on the Cyberbuss. That's what's so beautiful. We're all the same. The Buss is the vehicle. But the real action is what takes place in our hearts and minds.''

It's a spiritual-digital connection -- thus the connective, rather than vehicular, spelling of ''buss.'' Tele-workers sit at their laptops inside a silver-painted mobile unit called the Cyberbuss. They check in with their bosses off-site from outtasight places -- like the woman who writes horoscopes for a Web site and dials them in.

The Buss has traveled along the West Coast, visiting hot springs and coastal cliffs, from the Pacific Northwest to Baja California, from Las Vegas to Death Valley. There are plans to explore Montana and Canada. The annual springtime Cyberbuss Costume Ball at Hunter's Point helps raise funds. Next year, the ball will take place in Seattle.

For CyberSam and Sgt. Sauce, the Cyberbuss could only have been conceived in San Francisco.

''Back East, you're rewarded for being like everyone else,'' saysFrangiamore, who grew up in Connecticut and studied business. ''In California -- especially San Francisco -- you're rewarded for being an individual.''

Goerz feels the same. ''The Cyberbuss has been about trying to keep the spirit of San Francisco alive as a mystical city. It's a very high place, full of progressive thinkers.''

Changing San Francisco

And yet, the city is changing. The dot-commers are the same wired workers who are changing the city's ambience.

Goerz considers these changes ''a mini-earthquake. The battle between these two forces is an illusion. We just need to try harder to keep the magic alive.''

CyberSam agrees -- but, nevertheless, he's moving on. His bags are packed and the Buss is gassed.

''For the first time in 10 years, I don't feel like San Francisco is home anymore. Rents are too high. And I'm at the point where space is more valuable to me than location.''

Part of the problem is that daily annoyance of city living: parking.

''If you own a bus, there's no place for you here. Finding a place to park the Buss is like trying to find silver in a gold mine. I need to find a place that's raw and cheap and spacious.''

Until Frangiamore finds that place, he's heading up to Point Arena to stay with friends. ''I'll set up a Cyberbuss headquarters somewhere else. I can always come down to the city and stay in my home with its six wheels.''

Frangiamore isn't leaving his heart in San Francisco -- he's just stretching its boundaries.

''San Francisco is a state of mind. Just like the Cyberbuss.''

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