TRURO — On a sunny Saturday in early October, Kevin Clayton begins driving the Funk Bus at noon and doesn’t quit until 4 a.m. [or 16 hours later]. During the summer, all nine of the brightly painted school-turned-party buses in the fleet might be out on the road at any one time. Now, only Clayton and one other driver are working.
“I love it,” Clayton says. “I really love it so much.”
For his first pickup on this Saturday, a six-hour Orleans-Truro Vineyards round trip that runs just over $1,700, Clayton gets assigned the “large purple bus” — a magenta 30-passenger. Compared to some of the others, which sport animal prints on top of their pink or purple base layers, this bus looks relatively tame.
The fleet is tightly packed into a corner of the Truro Tradesmen’s Park. As Clayton maneuvers out of the Tetris-like parking space, Funk Bus Operations Manager Mike Costa explains that, since the buses aren’t numbered, drivers have to know them by their paint jobs. Costa, who is color blind, says he’s had to train his brain to know the pinks from the purples.
“The Funk Bus came about by chance,” says owner Raphael Richter, who also runs Cape Cab and Mayflower Trolley. Richter bought a single 14-passenger school bus more than a decade ago to deal with an uptick in group reservations. “It was just a yellow bus,” he says, but “people were super enthusiastic.” An employee joked that Richter should paint the bus in pink leopard print and put eyelashes on it. When he bought the next bus, that’s what he did.
Richter gets the buses from an auction house in Pennsylvania that specializes in used school buses. Clayton Ellis, who is also a driver, and Jesse Cartwright trick out the buses with paint, new seats, sound systems, and lights. “You end up spending four to five times as much on the retrofit as on the bus itself,” Richter says.
People sometimes book the buses for gatherings at the beach with friends, but most of the funky rides are for bachelorette and birthday parties.
“I never know what kind of group it’s going to be,” Kevin Clayton says. He could be ferrying a dozen actuaries or 30 members of a bachelorette party. No matter the group, he says, it’s impossible not to have a good time on the bus.
Clayton tries to keep things funky, but not too funky. Before pulling into the pickup area, Clayton cranks the music and flicks on the LED lights lining the ceiling. “You want them to feel like the party’s already going,” he says before he opens the door and hops out to greet the group in Orleans.
Dressed in vests, sweaters, and collared shirts, his passengers this time are mostly couples in their late 20s, celebrating an engagement. One couple, pushing a stroller, announces they’re going to drive separately. There is a momentary lull — is it possible to outgrow the Funk Bus? — before Clayton rallies the rest on board.
Inside, the crowd falls into a school-bus dynamic: the guys congregate in the back of the bus and make rude gestures at their friends in the car, while the women, closer to the front, discuss the engagement. Kiana Brophy, the bride-to-be, is from Eastham, though she now lives in Boston. She shows off her ring.
Her friend Katie Sullivan explains that most of the revelers are from here but have moved their work and social lives off Cape. The bus ride is a chance to catch up.
When the group disembarks in Truro, the bus is spotless — no party to clean up. “Give them a few hours,” Clayton says. “They’ll be feeling looser on the way back.”
He’s right. On the return trip, people are dancing between the bright orange benches. One rider pulls out a traffic cone and puts it on his head. Clayton gets an invite to the group’s barbecue back in Orleans.
As the ride nears its end, a few reveal their thoughts about marriage. “It’s weird being at this point in your life when all your friends are getting married and you’re not,” says Ryan Fitzgerald, a 26-year-old Nauset graduate and one of the younger members of the group.
“You looking for advice?” asks Brendan Gaffney, who looks closer to 30. “Don’t get married. At least, not yet.
“I don’t have a family but I’m free,” he adds. “I could be on this bus until I’m 40.”
After dropping the group off, Clayton remarks, “Believe me, he could be on it well after that.”