Marla Dashiell, 60, is a sweet grandmother in sweatpants and a smile. For more than three decades, she's driven a Denver school bus. "That's precious cargo to me," she says.
It ain't easy.
Kids throw up, yell and moon the cars behind them.
"Sit down and be quiet!" she'll yell. "Or this bus ain't going anywhere!"
She yells it lovingly. She knows these kids are hopped up on hormones and Ritalin. It's not always their fault.
A few years back, Marla got a new gig, with the innovative nonprofit Bus to Show. It offers affordable rides — about $25 — to and from the most popular shows in Colorado — Red Rocks, the First Bank Center and the Fillmore.
Last year it took people on 35,000 round-trips, sometimes bringing as much as 10 percent of a Red Rocks crowd. This prevented who-knows-how-many DUIs and maybe a few deaths.
Marla knows: these intoxicated riders are usually great. But, because they're drinking, sometimes they yell, throw up, and moon the cars behind them — just like kids.
She knows it's not entirely their fault. Weed is everywhere at concerts now — and mushrooms, nitrous and LSD, too. So Marla's riders occasionally get paranoid, freak out, go catatonic, get in thought loops, and get fixated on an idea. A bad trip can be torture — Marla can see it on their faces. And Marla doesn't know what to do for them.
"I'm just scared of people on drugs," Marla says. "I don't even know what drugs these kids are on. In my day, edibles meant underwear."
Marla's predicament is why Bus to Show started unique program. It's training its drivers on how to deal with passengers whose rides have become bad trips.
Bus to Show partnered with The Nowak Society, a group of about eight volunteers working on the leading edge of the drug culture. They're trying to help people deal with their relationships to drugs in a safe and productive way. The Nowak Society is part of a growing movement sometimes called Harm Reduction. Along with DanceSafe, Zendo, Groove Medical, White Bird Medical and others, they are creating an infrastructure to keep trippers out of the law enforcement and emergency medicine worlds. In other words: they're dealing with the druggies so the cops don't have to.
Most Harm Reduction work happens at festivals and clubs. But many of these groups are working to expand the idea of Harm Reduction to more places, like house parties and cop cars — and party buses.
They're also changing their language, from talking as though drugs only do harm to talking about how they can do good.
The Nowak Society is led by husband and wife team Lauren and Andrea Ciovacco. They and other members of the Nowak Society often call things like marijuana and MDMA "medicines," instead of "drugs," which they can be. They call "bad trips" "difficult trips," knowing that bad trips sometimes end up doing the tripper some good.
This perspective — that drugs aren't ALL bad — is seeping out. Marla, the bus driver, has noticed: not all drugs cause chaos.
"What's the drug that makes everybody be in love with everybody?" Marla asks a friend during the training.
MDMA, the friend says.
"MDMA?" she says. "You're talking over my head."
"Oh," she says. "Yeah, ecstasy. Everyone's in love with you, they wanna hug all over you. Marla, we love you, Marla we love you."
She shakes her head.
"I keep telling the kids, this stuff is driving ya'll crazy," Marla says.
Drugs can cause a person to go temporarily crazy, or revert to a childlike state. So the drivers were taught to deal with the trippers sort of in the way they'd deal with kids.
Part of the day is spent on roleplay. In a Bus to Show bus in the parking lot of Naropa University, Marla pretends to be the bus driver, while other Bus to Show drivers play-act out-of-control partiers.
It is more chaotic than a party bus ever gets, like an insane asylum on wheels. Twenty and thirty-somethings, bouncing off the walls. Stomping the seats. Howling. A guy is kicking the ceiling. A girl is mumbling that she can't find her friend. A guy is curled up in a ball.
(Or, as one driver jokes, "This is our status quo.")
In this role play, Marla does what she often does when the kids are too rowdy. She yells: "You better sit down and behave yourselves or get off my bus!"
But that kind of stern talk doesn't work on adults. So in this novel training day, in a classroom at Naropa, Marla is taught alternatives to just yelling. The Nowak Society presented a few:
Prepare a Trip Kit, a suitcase full of diversions for bad trippers. In an example kit brought by Nowak Society member Rob Colbert, there was Play-Doh, stuffed animals, a rattle. You can distract a bad tripper by handing them an Etch-a-Sketch and a coloring book, he says.
("Things sure have changed," mumbled Andie Pliner, a bus driver who took the training. "It went from 'Let's win the War on Drugs!' to 'if someone's on too much drugs, give 'em a stuffy.'")
Learn CPR, to feel more confident in medical emergencies. Colbert keeps a blood oxygen monitor with him. That way, he can show a tripping person who feels they're dying that their heart is still pumping, their body is still getting oxygen.
Make a playlist with calming music.
Make your bus a comfortable place, maybe with pretty lights.
The training lasted all day. Bus to Show paid the drivers, and provided lunch. And it made a difference. For Marla, at least.
In the past, sometimes when Marla saw a rider too messed up on drugs, she'd point down the row of buses toward one driven by a guy named Kevin, a younger guy who understands drugs.
"Go ride with Kevin," Marla would tell the drugged-out dude.
(Kevin, on hearing Marla's strategy, says: "Now I know why my shifts have been so busy lately.")
But after the full day of training, Marla feels comfortable she can handle the next freakout on her own.
Says Marla to Kevin: "Kevin, you lost your role, I can do it now."