Creative Nonfiction

Disco fever was in full swing in the spring of 1979 at SUNY Cortland when I was an 18 year old freshman. Once a month, the Student Activities Board, of which I was a member, hosted a Disco Bus. The chartered bus would take a group of students to a disco in another city, sometimes to Binghamton, Ithaca, or Syracuse.

On this occasion, the bus would be going to one of the hottest clubs in Syracuse, the Orpheus. Lauren, my then girlfriend, and I had made a date. It was going to be awesome. I’m sure we weren’t the only ones looking forward to a club other than Cortland’s claim to the disco scene, the Shamrock, which was the converted backroom of a local bar.

The Student Activities Board member in charge of the disco bus had an emergency and had to back out a couple of days before the event. She asked me to be in charge since Lauren and I were going anyway. Sure, why not. Everyone was prepaid, so I would just have to take attendance before going and for the return trip. We didn’t want to forget anybody.

Surprise! Lauren, my girlfriend, told me at lunch the day of the trip that she had decided not to go. I should have known, but love is blind, right? How many times had she done this to me? I realized then this was a pattern with her. She would say yes to plans, but always cancel if something else came up. I began to feel like I was only ever her backup plan, as much as I wanted to believe our feelings were mutual. I never would have said I’d be in charge of the Disco Bus if I had thought I’d be going alone on a bus full of people I didn’t really know. I began dreading a night of watching other people have fun while I sat out, being cheerful on the outside, angry and dejected on the inside.

In an unrelated event, Cortland’s award winning dance team was having an exhibition in the Student Union the afternoon of the Disco Bus trip. Since I had to be in front of the Union early to meet the bus, and I wouldn’t have time to go back to my dorm to change, I showed up to watch the dance team all dressed in my disco get-up: tight black polyester pants with a crisp crease, platform shoes with two inch heels, a shiny white dress shirt and slicked hair. Move over, John Travolta!

After the demonstrations of the dance team’s winning routines, the team’s coach asked if anyone wanted to get out on the floor. This could be fun. I looked around. There was a girl, Kerri, from my former dorm who I sort of knew. I asked her if she wanted to dance. We did - in front of a crowd of people. We had never danced together before, but it was the Hustle, so it was easy to lead her. No one else came out on the dance floor, so all eyes were on us. We even got a round of applause after completing the dance.

In an uncharacteristic move of desperation I asked, “What are you doing tonight? The disco bus leaves in less than an hour!” 

She lit up with the biggest smile. “Really? I wanted to go, but didn’t have anyone to go with.”

I explained that I was in charge and had to go, but had no one to go with either. She needed to change clothes back at her dorm, but I couldn’t hold up the bus for her, so I told her she’d have to hurry. She rushed back to her dorm to get changed.   

Luckily people were still arriving when it was time to leave, so I was still taking attendance for the disco travellers when Kerri appeared. Whew. That was close. 

From jeans and a t-shirt to a slinky shimmering salmon-colored dress. Smokin’! I had gone from dreading a long night alone to major excitement. How lucky can I get? 

To answer that question… on our way, the bus broke down about 20 minutes from our destination. There we sat, a bus load of would be disco revelers, on the side of Interstate 81. The driver called for a replacement bus, and let us know that it would be an hour before it arrived. The bus’s yellow warning lights - a flashing tease of the disco lights we should have been enjoying.

The revelers were getting restless - this is not what they paid for. There were a few tense minutes, complaints and curses. I felt responsible, even though I had no idea what to do other than wait. I think I was the youngest person on the bus and knew I had little life experience compared to the upperclassmen on the bus. And, even more awkward, I had a date that I didn’t want to disappoint (or show I was incompetent). 

Somebody had a great idea and asked the driver to turn on the radio. They found a disco station, and people began dancing in the aisles. Somebody had brought along alcohol which got passed around. I figured I had best stay sober. Who knows what else might happen. We hardly noticed when the whole hour had passed. Whew.

The new bus arrived, we switched and took our seats. It was eerily quiet compared to the crazy dance scene that had been going on in bus number one. It now felt like everyone was holding their breath in anticipation, counting down the minutes to our destination.

For me, it was a relief to finally get to the club. It was packed when our crowd added to the masses. Coats were dropped on chairs and barstools. Within seconds everyone was on the lighted, pulsating dance floor. We had arrived.

Kerri and I danced all evening, barely taking a break. The Hustle, the Freak, the Bump and everything in between. Music so loud you could feel it: Sister Sledge, Chic, the Commodores, and the queen of course, Donna Summer. Love to Love You, Baby!

The driver let our group stay at the club longer than the original departure time to make up for the bus issue, so everyone was happy about that and no one seemed to have hard feelings. In fact, the on-the-bus-dancing just added to a great trip. 

We returned so late and so tired, I felt obligated to walk Kerri back to her dorm. At the door, I thanked her for coming along. That’s when she invited me to stay.

A couple of days later I ran into Lauren. She asked how the trip went. I said, “Great!” probably a little too enthusiastically, but provided no details. 

Lauren’s peeved expression made me think she was disappointed that I had had a good time. In the back of my mind I thought could she be that mean? Was she trying to get me to break up with her? Am I that dense? 

Nothing was said, but I think it was then we both knew it was over. I almost wanted to thank her. If it weren’t for her not going, I wouldn’t have started dating Kerri.

Word count: 1200

February 14, 2020 15:57

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Deborah Durkin
18:01 Feb 22, 2020

A poignant story. Describes the frustration and boldness of youth, and the outlandish outfits of the era. I found Mike to be a cautious but brave young man. Raspberries to Lauren. Her loss.


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Elaine Leet
17:07 Feb 21, 2020

I really liked this story. I could see the college students dancing in the aisle of the bus. The music references were perfect for the time period and exuberance of youth came through clear and strong!


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