You may have seen it before: a behemoth of a vehicle, rolling at a snail’s pace up Canal Street blasting speaker-smashing beats. Its violet exterior shields its partyers from the outside world — all that can be seen of them are their arms, flailing wildly from every open window. And then there is the noise: a penetrating boom that reverberates off the bordering buildings, shakes the bus and compels riders and bystanders alike to bounce up and down.
This is Club Whatever, one of many party buses around town that has been converted from an old yellow school bus and transformed into a private club on wheels. The seats are stripped out and the inside is decked out with dancing poles, black lights and strobes.
Especially during this spring season of graduations and proms, the party bus business is booming. We caught up with the bus after Jazz Fest last week, when it was transporting a group of recent law school graduates from the Fair Grounds to Uptown. For them the bus service functioned as a customized, affordable stretch limo, making it easy not to drink and drive. But that’s not how it started.
Thirteen years ago, a man who goes by the name of DJ Whatever was DJing a kid’s birthday party in New Orleans East. He rigged up a small, half-length school bus with all his DJ equipment, he explains, “so that the people could all hear when the DJ was coming down the street.” At this particular party, the train scheduled to give the kids a ride around the neighborhood didn’t show, and the birthday boy’s mother suggested that the DJ just give the party-goers a ride in his little bus.
“They were goin’ crazy,” Whatever says. “The following week, I came back with a bigger bus and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Over the course of the past 13 years, DJ Whatever has gained a lot of regular clients who range in age and demographics. He has driven everyone from local public officials, graduate students and 6-year-olds. He hosts a woman from the Desire Housing Development every year on her birthday—she is now well into her 80s.
DJ Whatever started as a DJ and remains one—he DJs while he drives. According to him, it’s an issue of reliability.
“I had a lot of DJs that came under me you know, just one night they didn’t show up and I started DJing myself.” While his commitment to the club is unwavering, he is also a jack-of-all-trades.
When I first came into contact with DJ Whatever, it was under a different alias. The local affordable housing developer that I used to work for owned a handful of empty lots in the Central City area that needed regular mowing. Our construction manager knew a guy –Honeycutt, he called him—who had great rates and a lot of character. Sure enough, every month when he came to cut the grass, Honeycutt would roll up in none other than Club Whatever. For him, landscaping around town was a great way to advertise his primary business and earn a little cash on the side.
“I’m a versatile person,” Whatever told us. “Tell me what you need done and I’ll do it: I play the drums at the church, I’ll DJ a party, I’ll cut the grass, I’ll babysit your house, I’ll clean your dog, I’ll kick your man out—I’ll even clean him up, too!”
One could argue that his flexibility is reflected in his name.
While he’s surely an opportunist, Whatever is committed to doing good business. The law school graduates, many of whom are regular riders on the club, told me that he has without fail returned every lost wallet, I.D. or phone that has ever been left on the bus. One of his partners, a big, quiet man named Hut who rides in the cab, is a former gang member who Whatever describes as mentally disabled.
“This was a kid that I took off the street. A kid that was out there doin’ wrong, a kid that would rob, you jack you and have no feelings for you. He had a talent for dancing, and I took him out of the gang he was in because they had him doing their dirty work. And I took him under my wing and basically, I taught him what was wrong. He’s been with me four years.” Hut doubles as the bus’s handyman and Whatever’s bodyguard — just in case.
This is a businessman who seems to have realized a vision. Whatever described a time when he spent so much time driving, he used to sleep on the bus. Talking about it, he became a little romantic.
“This is the best woman I know,” he declared. “This my girlfriend, I love this girl. I need her and she needs me.”
Nina Feldman writes, makes radio and hosts ladies’ arm wrestling in New Orleans. She is Program Director at the Bard Early College.