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Monday, August 10, 2020

The Feels on the Bus

Donna Klix attempts to untangle half of a decorative witch on Saturday, Oct. 29. // Photo by Harrison Amelang
Donna Klix attempts to untangle half of a decorative witch on Saturday, Oct. 29. // Photo by Harrison Amelang

Spiderwebs, snowflakes and the Seahawks.

As they step out of the consistently questionable Washington weather, Whatcom Transportation Authority riders have been treated to buses decked out in festive gear for every Halloween, Christmas and Seahawks postseason. WTA Transit Operators Cathy Holland and Kay Van Diest have been the masterminds behind the decor for the past decade.

“One of the things that inspired me to do it is our passengers stand out in the rain,” Holland said. “[So, when they] ride transit when it’s cold and wet, they have something special for them for that time of year.”

Holland began decorating her bus as a memorial for Shirley Petty, a former WTA transit operator. Petty would decorate the windows of the paratransit bus she drove for every holiday, much to the delight of her passengers, Holland said. Holland’s bus was initially outfitted with wreaths and garlands during Christmas time, she said.

“We work all year to get all the decorations and get everything ready. And we come up with a theme.”

Kay Van Diest

Holland’s relationship with WTA began in 1998. After catching a bus home from the library because her car wouldn’t start, Holland began a conversation with the driver, Carmen Jackson, who informed Holland of part time work at WTA. Holland soon found herself splitting her time as a student at Whatcom Community College and being a transit operator.

Margaret Anaya (left) and Kay Van Diest fit a sword into the hand of one of many skeletons to be put in the bus. // Photo by Harrison Amelang
Margaret Anaya (left) and Kay Van Diest fit a sword into the hand of one of many skeletons to be put in the bus. // Photo by Harrison Amelang

Despite Holland’s good intentions, she quickly discovered the challenges of decorating a moving vehicle. Stronger duct tape and command hooks soon followed.

“We found out what worked in buses and what didn’t,” Holland said. “How you put things up in a bus is very different than how you would a Christmas tree. Everything has to be really on there well.”

The following Halloween, Holland continued the tradition by throwing on some platform shoes and an afro wig, playing disco music and setting up a disco ball in the middle of the bus.  The decorating tradition has been in effect ever since.

It’s now been over 10 years since Holland’s initial holiday bus that doubled as a memorial for Petty. In the years since, passengers have come to love the decorations.

“I was really hoping it would kind of become iconic,” Holland said.

The decorations stick out in the minds of students like junior Quinn Michael.

While decorating the bus each holiday can be a lot of work, Margaret Anaya (left), Wayne Van Diest and Kay Van Diest enjoy the extra time they give the community to add to the holiday spirit. // Photo by Harrison Amelang
While decorating the bus each holiday can be a lot of work, Margaret Anaya (left), Wayne Van Diest and Kay Van Diest enjoy the extra time they give the community to add to the holiday spirit. // Photo by Harrison Amelang

“People look forward to seeing the buses decked out,” Michael said. “I would say the Halloween [bus], in particular, is a staple of Western life.”

Until four years ago, Holland did most of the legwork herself. Kay Van Diest joined the WTA family in 2012 and, after a chance encounter with Holland, asked if she could help her with the holiday bus, Van Diest said.

Van Diest and Holland have partnered up since, and even after four years of coordinating the decorations, the work still requires quite a bit of preparation for each holiday.

“It takes one, or now two people, who are really willing to be thinking about it months in advance,” said Maureen McCarthy, marketing and community relations manager for WTA.

In order to comply with safety regulations, how and where decorations are placed depends on the location of cameras, poles, windows and emergency exits, Holland said. Also, batteries for the lights have to constantly be changed because there’s no plug-ins on the bus, Van Diest said.

The Whatcom Transportation Authority has been decorating busses for the last 10 years. Supplies are stored beside the bus as it undergoes it's transformation on Saturday, Oct. 29 // Photo by Harrison Amelang
The Whatcom Transportation Authority has been decorating busses for the last 10 years. Supplies are stored beside the bus as it undergoes it’s transformation on Saturday, Oct. 29 // Photo by Harrison Amelang

“We work all year to get all the decorations and get everything ready. And we come up with a theme,” Van Diest said.

Past holiday themes include snowflakes, candy canes and wreaths. For one holiday theme, there was a wreath decorated by WTA staff on every bus window. This year’s theme is expected to be “winter wonderland,” in which blue lights and wrapping paper will cover the bus, Van Diest said.

The holiday bus usually runs for two weeks, Van Diest said. One week before Christmas and one week after. However, the haunted bus can only be seen one day per year: Halloween. Past Halloween themes include disco, lighted-wire spiderwebs and blacklight.

The Downtown Bellingham Partnership throws a trick-or-treat event every Halloween, which WTA helps sponsor, McCarthy said. While parked downtown, kids are able to tour the decorated bus and receive candy, Van Diest said.

This year’s Halloween theme was supposed to be “killer clowns from outer space,” but the idea was scrapped due to the recent clown-sighting reports, Van Diest said.

Margaret Anaya sticks cockroaches on the roof of the bus. // Photo by Harrison Amelang
Margaret Anaya sticks cockroaches on the roof of the bus. // Photo by Harrison Amelang

The 12th man bus, which only runs if the Seahawks make it to the playoffs, came about after members of the fantasy football league at WTA pitched the idea, Holland said. Not knowing much about football, she agreed to the idea only if the rest of the staff donated the decorations, to which the rabid Seahawks fans crew happily complied, Holland said.

Seahawks-colored skittles and blown up pictures of every player, with their name and position, were some of the decorations used on the 12th man bus, Holland said.

The response from customers, per usual, was positive, Holland said.

“It’s really hard and it’s sometimes frustrating, but the people enjoy it so much,” Van Diest said. “When you hear all of that feedback, it makes it all worth it.”

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