San Diego’s Singing Bus Driver Auditions For America’s Got Talent
Monday, March 5, 2018
Photo by Katie Schoolov
Science has shown that music is a powerful tool for sparking memory, even helping people with dementia become more aware of their surroundings. At Jewish Family Service of San Diego, one behind-the-scenes employee has taken this to heart. John Flores, 66, has spent the past year trying to bring music to all of the seniors at the Older Adult Center — one bus ride at a time.
“What usually happens when I take people to events is I’ll do a little song and dance for them,” Flores said.
“They see me and say, ‘Hey, you got a song for us?’ and I say, ‘I just so happen to have a CD!’ And I throw it into the CD player, and the buses have great sound system. I crank it up a little bit, and I sing, and I dance for them.”
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Flores drove a dozen seniors from North County to a show in Balboa Park. Flores helped them climb aboard his bus, smoothly inserted a CD into the sound system, then belted out a rendition of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Quando, Quando, Quando” before he took the wheel. Alma Cash was so enamored with his performance that she grabbed his hand an pulled him in for a kiss on the cheek as he waltzed past in the bus aisle.
“If I sing a song like a Frank Sinatra song, or a Tony Bennett song, instantly it wakes up something inside their system, and they just become animated. Jumping clapping, moving,” Flores said.
“It’s a fantastic feeling. At the end, when I’m done, they come up to me, they shake my hand, they tell me how much they appreciate it. What better reward can you get?”
Originally from Brooklyn, Flores drove buses in the Bay Area for 12 years before moving to San Diego and falling on hard times. Four years ago, Flores spent several months living on the streets. After landing a job driving for Metropolitan Transit System, he started driving for Jewish Family Service. Last year, he started to sing on his bus.
“I never imagined this particular point in my life, doing this. And I’m happy. I’m so happy,” he said.
After several months of singing on his bus, Flores had earned a reputation.
“I always hear them come up to and say, ‘I love your singing,’ and it just makes me feel like a million bucks,” Flores said.
“Before you know it, every time they see me, they ask for a song, and I can’t turn them down. Then before you know it, people ask me my name, and I say, ‘My name is John, and I’m the only singing bus driver.’”
Four days a week, dozens of seniors gather for a lunch and entertainment program at Jewish Family Service’s Balboa Avenue Older Adult Center. Many of the seniors who Flores drives to events also go to the program. They started asking if Flores could perform for them.
“I can relate to them. I am a senior. And my whole thing is: I’m singing for them, I’m representing them as a person in their senior years. I’m no Justin Bieber or those youngsters. My whole thing is singing songs they can relate to,” Flores said.
Jewish Family Services hired him to perform, as a side job to his driving. Now he sings and dances for an hour on Thursdays once a month — and they’ve booked him for every month in 2018.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Flores performed to a packed room at the Older Adult Center. During his second song — a rendition of The Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” — senior Johan Manuel popped out of his chair and shook his behind with so much vigor the whole room erupted in cheers.
“What I want to do is when they come in here, I want to see them laughing. I want to hear them happy, and I even have them singing and all, and clapping, and dancing. It’s a very joyful situation, we’re all celebrating together. We’re like a family. And they start coming out of their shell, they feel alive. It’s better than staying at home," Flores said.
In December, Flores performed in front of his biggest crowd yet: around 200 people who came to the Jewish Family Service holiday party.
“When I did the show, the whole place just erupted with clapping and cheering,” Flores said.
“All of a sudden, I’m very well known. As opposed to a driver, everyone knows me as The Singing Bus Driver."
After the show, his fans encouraged him to take a big step. They wanted him to audition for America’s Got Talent. In January, he submitted a video of his holiday show performance as his audition tape for Season 13. He’s supposed to hear back this spring.
“If they had an America’s Got Senior Talent, I’d feel comfortable with that. Then I can compete with people in my age bracket. But I’m doing it for them, for the people I love the most here,” Flores said.
“They’re all cheering for me. They’re all looking forward to it. Saying, ‘don’t worry you’re going to win!’ Hit or miss, sink or swim, it doesn’t matter to me, as long as I go and do it and make them proud.”
John Flores, 66, has spent the past year trying to bring music to all of the seniors at the Older Adult Center — one bus ride at a time.
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