By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Cars are symbols of freedom, of status, the fast lane and the open road. They promise us speed, mobility, prosperity, sexual virility and the conquest of new lands. Who the hell would ever want to take the bus?” says Kafka, starting to sound suspiciously like Geraldine Chaplin’s “Opal from the BBC” character in Nashville, finding a ready-made metaphor for all things in a lot full of school buses. “But I think there are lessons to be taught by history. Just as, if you stare into it, the whole world is reflected in a drop of water, so it seems to me that buses can be a keyhole, a window, a lens onto the century of the internal-combustion engine, and how it pertains to civic responsibility, the common good and everything from Newton to Einstein. People today, especially kids, live in a virtual world; they don’t even hot-rod cars anymore, they hot-rod computers.”
Kafka and his faithful mechanic Richard Olsen have just returned from Machineryland, a forklift refurbishment lot that has crossed over into an adult theme park for the gearheads and parts foragers who inhabit this industrial backwater, and they’re a little giddy. They are overseeing the transfer of a prewar Art Deco Raymond Loewy–designed Greyhound Silversides Motor Coach to the Smithsonian Institution as part of the “America on the Move” exhibition, the museum’s first transportation exposition since 1962. Engineers are removing the front quarter housing from the fuselage with jackhammers and acetylene torches, and the fountains of sparks and dinosaur screech of metal on metal have the dogs on edge.
Surrounding them is an elephant’s graveyard of public and private transit: city buses, school buses, church buses, tour buses, jitneys, trams, trolleys, Airstream trailers and one lone train car.
There are buses from Disneyland, Hollywood Fantasy Tours, rare Kenworths and Peterbilts (truck makers who dabbled in buses), and a Scenicruiser, which employed two engines simultaneously. There is the bus that took prisoners to Manzanar, the internment camp for Japanese-Americans; a prewar Silversides with three generations of GI graffiti scratched into the back wall, which Kafka can’t bring himself to paint over; one of only three prototypes of a Mobile Hospital Catastrophe Unit, built prior to Pearl Harbor, with a V-8 engine and both incandescent and fluorescent lighting; and the only surviving Fageol Twin Coach “War Bus,” which transported civilian workers (“Rosie the Riveter” types) to defense plants during WWII.
Kafka owns the Graduatebus (in which Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross escape at the end); the I Love Lucy bus (from the William Holden episode in Hollywood); the Partridge Familybus (or at least the one used in the reunion show; the original was scrapped); and Gene Autry’s tour bus. He has a cosmetic duplication ‰ of the Rosa Parks bus that launched the Montgomery bus boycott and which he’s donated for numerous events during Black History Month. He even has dibs on the exact model International Harvester in hopes of someday restoring the original Ken Kesey Merry Prankster bus, currently rusting on the Kesey farm in Oregon with trees growing through it.
In person, Kafka seems like a storybook rendition of the friendly railroad engineer — blue coveralls, red bandanna, a pride in public service — even if, on closer inspection, you notice his Claremont Camera cap obscures a waist-length ponytail fixed in a bullwhip braid, or his rapid-fire delivery suggests a taller, edgier David Hyde Pierce. His speech is flecked with ’60s-style constructions like “grok” and “global village,” and his own “mo’ better mobility.” A recent half-hour documentary by filmmakers Sven Berkemeier and Rich Samuels, aptly titled Kafkaesque, presents Egon Kafka as a garden-variety eccentric, a role he seems to accept willingly as long as it advances his agenda.
“It’s a fine line between being a personality and being a wacko,” he says with a pained expression.
Kafka, the son of a psychiatrist who caught the second-to-last boat out of France in 1938 and an endocrinologist for the National Institutes of Health (his brother is the novelist Paul Kafka), dropped out of college in pursuit of a peripatetic lifestyle. He hopped freights, lived in a tent just below the snow line on Oregon’s Mount Ashland for a year, and trained llamas for Circus Vargas. Living in his VW Microbus in a cousin’s driveway in L.A. in 1981, he met next-door-neighbor Ralph Cantos, a blond surfer and pool boy with a small collection of buses he had picked up at auctions on the cheap (including the actual Big Blue Bus he had ridden to school in as a child in Santa Monica).
Cantos recognized Kafka as a fellow seeker, taught him a skill (pool maintenance) and infused him with an arbitrary yet binding passion for buses. Over time, Kafka became the chief financial patron and ultimately the spiritual steward of the collection (known formally as the Cantos Collection; www.cantoscollection.com).
To subsidize the collection, Kafka rents the buses out for commercials, music videos, and films like Forrest Gump, Pearl Harbor and Ali, and makes a living doing various film jobs, including precision stunt driving (he once rigged up a bus to go 70 mph in reverse through the Second Street tunnel). He estimates that over the past 20 years he has easily spent $1.5 million acquiring, transporting and maintaining his fleet.