Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sneaking into Outside Lands

“Most of them flicks I can’t recommend, but back then half the fun was sneaking in”
--Boots Riley


"Are you a construction worker or something?"  The guy was asking too many questions, and I was eyeballing a sharp pair of pliers and yellow reflector jacket.  I pass on the pliers but take the jacket.
"No, I'm a writer.  I need this stuff for a project."
"I need to ask you one question."
Oh boy.
"Should I keep taking Creative Writing classes?"
Should I come clean?  Explain that I’m not a “real” writer, but a chronically underemployed circus performer with a blog?  No, that will only lead to more questions.  I’ll have to tell him about the SF Circus Center, why I don’t do acrobatics anymore, and will fail to explain the difference between juggling and object manipulation.  If it goes on long enough he’ll ask if I've ever done it with any "hot contortionist girls."  I hate that conversation--sometimes I stay home just to avoid it.

Still, his Creative Writing aspirations lingered in the air--like a piece of dust waiting to clog up my hard drive.  He looked like a younger me, wondering if I should really go to Circus School.
“Yes, of course,” I tell him. “Why not?”

                                  __________          __________          __________

The idea of sneaking into Outside Lands came--like so many bad ideas--from shooting the bull in a coffeeshop.  I often toss out writing ideas to my friend Russell, and if his ears perk up, I elaborate.  I didn’t want to go all Commando over the fence, so I started staking out the park when the signs went up, thinking of an old Escapologist motto, "You're not going to escape by being stronger than the ropes, you're going to escape by knowing more about what's going on than they do."  

I would go on foot, or take late night drives through the park-- assessing entrances, exits, and weak spots.  Security was out on my first trip, almost a week before the show.  They were friendly guys, wearing yellow, orange, or red windbreakers.
“We’re here so people know we’re not stealing their park, we’re just borrowing it for a while,” one of them told me.  
“Are you guys hiring?”
“The company, -------- is always hiring, and they’ll take just about anybody.”  Hmm.

On Thursday, I set some rules for myself:  No property damage, no wrestling if I got caught, and definitely no resisting arrest.  I would sneak in on wit, brains, and shadows--or not at all.  I left the house around 6:30pm for a recon mission, but  I packed a bag with the essentials--just in case.  I took my yellow reflector jacket, my red security-ish windbreaker, 2 bottles of water, a blanket, a sandwich, and a pen and paper.  I forgot my toothbrush.


I walked into the park alone with my bag feeling like a secret agent.  I was Chuck Norris rescuing POW’s, Denzel taking on kidnappers, or Mark Whalberg bringing down a government conspiracy.  I walked slowly around the fence, surveying each entrance.  The show wouldn’t start until Friday at noon, but the gates were already regulated by people wearing purple Event Staff shirts.  There were 3-4 fences in some places.  At the VIP entrance I crossed the street and watched from a bench.  Everyone going into the park was flagged down by a guy with long blond hair.  He looked friendly, so I went to check it out, was flagged down, and told the park was closed.  He was less friendly up close.

The VIP entrance was the last of three, and on the Fulton side of the park.  Walking away, I felt dejected.  Who am I kidding? I thought, this is never going to work.  I continued along the road by the fence, moving away from the festival, towards the Lincoln side, and home.

On the way back I found an opening in the fence at Anglers Lodge and walked in.  There was a small parking lot with some trucks and a few trailers, but no one was around.  I found a stairway that led up to a cabin, and behind the cabin was a fly fishing pond.  I recognized the pond immediately from my walks inside.  I was directly behind the main stage, on the other side of the fence.

I walked to the other side of the pond and went into the woods.  The trails took me in a few circles, but eventually, I found a weak spot.  The fence was at the top of a very steep 20 ft. hill, and it wasn’t fastened to the ground.  With a little effort, I could probably squeeze under it.  The plan was to hide in the woods until 3 or 4 in the morning, wait for a good moment to climb under the fence, and walk not run to the port-o-potty that was 20 to 40 ft. away.  I would pray that it was unlocked (and clean), lock myself inside, and wait for the music to start.  8 hours in a port-o-potty will make a great a facebook status, I thought with a chuckle.

With 2 hours of daylight left, I decided to look around some more; you never know what you’ll find in a park with 1,017 acres.  I was trying to follow the fence towards 19th ave. when I found a small paved road--too small for a car, but just right for a bike, golf cart, or pedestrian.  I followed the road uphill on a hunch.  A woman in a red windbreaker came walking down towards me and said hello with a smile as we passed each other.  At the end of the road was an open gate, and beyond the gate, was the backstage section of Outside Lands.  

I forced myself not to stop, stare, or look guilty.  Security and staff were everywhere, but no one was watching the gate.  I walked in with my bag slung over my shoulder and my heart pounding in my chest.  On my left was the fence, and beyond it, I could see the pond.  On my right was the back of the main stage and the polo fields.  In between were several trailers and a thin row of small trees.  Each trailer was outfitted with three cans with colorful labels that read: Trash, Recycling, Compost--even rock stars recycle in San Francisco.

The trees gave me a little shelter from the hubbub, but soon I had to choose between walking directly through the festival grounds, or the delivery area.  I chose the delivery area, hoping it would be mostly vendors.  Any time I passed someone I would give them “the nod.”  The “what’s up / I know where I’m going” nod.  At the end of the delivery area I found a new fence.  Shit.  The path I was expecting was blocked.

I turned right, and went into a food vendors tent which, mercifully, was empty.  To get to the woods, and the hiding place I had scoped out, I was going to have to walk to the other side of the festival.  But at the moment, there were several staff with walkie talkies and a golf cart outside of the tent.  If I went back to the delivery area I would look lost, but if I stayed in the tent and the vendor showed up, I was busted for sure.  There was nothing to do but wait.

Thankfully, after a couple of minutes, the golf cart drove away.  I stepped out of the tent and turned left, walking out in the open, and then passing through the VIP area.  It was nice, with a soft padded floor, lots of tables, and a long bar in an enclosed space.  This is probably as close as I’ll ever get to VIP, I thought.  At the end of the VIP area there was a man in a red windbreaker hanging something up.  I gave him the nod, but I did it too fast.  It was a nervous nod, a nod from someone who isn’t supposed to be here.  Would he notice?  I would have noticed.  I kept walking, passing back into the open, and towards the woods at Choco Lands.

Just before I reached the entrance to Choco Lands, a man in a bright orange shirt on a 4-wheeler drove in front of me, turned the 4-wheeler around, and stared right at me.  A giant yellow arrow came down from the sky and pointed at my head, illuminating a sign on my chest that read “This guy snuck in you need to kick him out!”  I could feel the man’s eyes behind his sunglasses.  He knew what I was up to.  He was coming for me, he... turned right again on the 4-wheeler.  He was making a u-turn.

I walked up the path between the trees into Choco Lands.  When I saw a good spot, I darted off into the woods.  I crawled on all fours, and then on my stomach, into a small opening under the trees; the foliage was so thick I could barely sit up.  I opened my bag, unrolled my blanket, and ate my sandwich.  This would be my home for the next 14 hours.

The stillness of my enclave amplified the sounds around me.  I could hear hammers clanging, voices laughing, and trucks beeping.  Several times my head popped up, convinced a truck was about to run me over in the dark.  Later, in the distance, I could hear someone sound checking on a harmonica--Amazing Grace. Surprisingly, I slept well.

In the morning I hid in the woods until I knew the doors were open and bands were playing.  This was the moment of truth--if I get caught now I spent the night in the park for nothing, I thought.  I crawled on my stomach again and came out covered in brush; just another concert goer at Outside Lands.   

                                    __________          __________          __________

The Festival

The first thing I did was look for coffee--at $4.50 a cup, even sneaking in wasn’t going to be cheap.  After coffee and some lost ipod drama, I was ready to survey my new digs.  I was also starving.  I walked from McLaren Pass towards the Barbary, bought a $10 burrito, and sat down at an empty picnic table to enjoy breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  A group of teenage girls joined me at the table.  They were excited to be at Outside Lands, with tickets for the whole weekend.

The kids were friendly, offering to share dried mangos, almonds, and rum hidden in shampoo bottles.  I declined all three, too focused on my burrito.  We were debating the question of the day--Justice or Neil Young?--when a police officer walked up and gave me the stare.  My heart stopped beating.  How did he know?
“Are you hiding any booze over here?” he asked me.
“I don’t drink.”
“You don’t drink?  Can I look in your jacket?  We got some information that you guys were hiding some liquor over here.”
It occurred to me that I was, sans wristband, at a table with three 19 year old girls who are hiding booze.  After a quick glance through my hoodie he turned to face the girls.
“Do you have any liquor in shampoo bottles or anything?”

Lucky for me, these were good kids, or rather, bad kids that knew to play it cool.  The girls handed over their purses with innocent eyes, adding for good measure, “we have some actual shampoo and stuff, if you wanna look.”  The cop opened a purse, pulled out a melted ice tray looking thing and stared at me.
“What is this?”
“Um, I’m not actually associated with these people.”
“Yeah, we don’t know him, we just sat down here to eat.”
The policeman decided we were ok, and apologized for the disturbance.  “I understand.  You’re just doing your job,” the leader said to a chorus of yeahs.
“We better go,” she told her friends.  I decided to avoid cops and teenagers for the rest of the day.  Maybe the rest of my life.

                              __________          __________          __________

It was time for some music.  I went to the Land’s End stage and caught the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.  These guys were amazing--fun, funky, and excellent performers. Unfortunately, no one told them that SF crowds are too cool to sing along, and the audience participation stuff did not go well. Regardless, I left their set ready to grab my bag, ditch Outside Lands, and hitchhike to New Orleans.  Who dat say dey gonna beat dem saints?

Next I went to the Twin Peaks stage, where Wallpaper was playing.  I had never heard of them, but this is a group to watch.  Clearly channeling early Beastie Boys, they borrow from pop, 70’s funk, and Oakland swag.  Singer Ricky Reed was thrilled to be at Outside Lands proclaiming, “I’ve been sneaking copious amounts of psychedelics into this bitch for years--but this is our first time playing here,” before launching into a crowd favorite.  As if on cue, someone offered me “doses” during their set.

Wallpaper was sneaking in music if I’ve ever heard it, and sure enough, I saw 4 or 5 guys run down the hill and jump over the last fence into the crowd.  Hot on their heels came another group of baseball capped, T-shirt wearing youngsters, who were thwarted by the orange shirted Event Staff and SFPD.  The Event Staff were outside of the fence, SFPD was inside, and big mean looking guys drove golf carts back and forth on both sides.  It was like a game of Whack-a-Mole in reverse.

According to Josio--an orange shirter from Pittsburg--“as soon as they get over this fence, it’s over.”  He said if the Event Staff catches you trying to climb over they’ll just walk you out, but if SFPD catches you on the inside, then you’re in trouble.  I asked how many people he thought make it over per night. “Probably at least 50.”  Josio gets paid $10.24 an hour (SF minimum wage) to patrol the fence--he likes the job.

                                  __________          __________          __________

My Stepmom used to say, “If you would spend half as much time doing what you’re supposed to do, instead of trying to get out of it, you would be a lot better off.”  As usual, she was right.  Between reconnaissance, shopping trips, and execution, it took 35 hours to sneak in.  Even at $10.24 an hour, I could have earned enough for a ticket with those hours, and at $15 an hour, I could have bought a VIP ticket.  So my advice to fellow sneakers?  Get a job.

Another Planet fares better than most promoters, but I’m not a big fan of these mega-festivals.  Setting up even one band is a lot of work, so a hundred of them on temporary stages is bound to be messy.  And, you can never control the weather, which was awful--even for the Sunset; I could see my breath by 6pm.   Freezing winds, rancid port-o-potties, and an hour long wait for coffee (single cup brew at an event with 65,000 people?), had me ready to go home before Neil Young and Crazy Horse began their headline set.  I stayed out of pure stubbornness, determined to get my money’s worth.  I’m glad I did, so I could hear these immortal words in person:

“hey hey, my my,
Rock and Roll will never die,
hey, hey, my my”

Let’s hope so, Mr. Young.  Let’s hope so.
Thanks for reading,

p.s. Did you like this?  Then please, re-blog it, re-tweet it, facebook it, give it to a carrier pigeon, or do whatever you like to do with stuff that you like.  Thizzanx!  

Friday, June 22, 2012

24 Hours on Muni Part 2

If you haven't done so already, you may wish to read 24 Hours on Muni Part 1 first.  The link can be found in the box to your right.  Or, if you just want to know what happens on Muni in the wee hours, read on.  When we left off, I was making my way towards the Cable Car.

7:03pm T Platform 3rd/Paul  13 lines ridden, 14 rides.  “Whoa, no brakes!”...
A raspy voices echoes around the platform, a woman--40ish--with a limp and a lean, discusses the joys of being stoned with a couple of teenagers.  When the train comes it reeks like weed.  I wonder who that could be?  At each stop, more orange and black jackets appear--gameday at AT&T Park.  Tonight the City will be full of drunk sports fans.

The T pulls in to Powell at 7:45 pm--halfway. I toss the Turfers a dollar and take my place in line at the Cable Car turnaround. The Cable Car is a blast! I hang on the outside, clinging for dear life when we go up and down the hills, yucking it up like a tourist. The conductors enjoy themselves, often yelling "Whoa, no brakes!" Occasionally, they're jovial moods turn serious. “Do not lean out, I said DO NOT LEAN OUT!”  When 2 Cable Cars pass each other, we’re so close you could reach out and touch someone.  If you want to steal an Iphone, this is the spot.

The Cable Car drops me off outside of Kennedy’s Irish Pub/Indian Curry House in North Beach.  I know this place well--an old after work hang out.  I used to rule the air hockey table with an iron fist.  The drunker the challengers got, the easier I could depose them.  Eventually, my boss got tired of my boasting and crushed me--in front of the whole office.  I peruse the menu and order Palak Paneer.  Kennedy’s has the type of service where the waiter stomps away as the last syllable slips out of your mouth.

After 12 hours of Muni, I’m starting to look rough.  The bar patrons cast nervous glances in my direction, and the servers bring me the bill quickly.  On my way out the door, I notice the Giants are losing, 0-4.  Make that angry drunk sports fans.  I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I need coffee.  One cool thing about staying up all night--you can have as much coffee as you want.

9pm  Stockton/Columbus  14 lines ridden, 16 rides.  whothehellknows thirty...
I see the 30 in front of Bimbo’s.  It’s a long shot, but I make a break for it--success--and a seat in the back.  Next to me, Alfonso and an ex-wrestler discuss prison self defense strategies.  In prison, they had a method called G.U.N.  Grab, Undo, Neutralize.  So, if someone tries to stab you, grab the wrist, make them release the knife, and then, um, neutralize their arm.  When I tell them about my project, a man from Queens in the back raises his eyebrows and joins our conversation.  We ride through Chinatown, debating SF vs. NY, Wrestling vs. Jiujitsu, and why on earth someone would ride Muni for 24 hours. “Once that blog drops, you’re gonna get a million hits,” Queens tells me.  Let’s hope so, Queens.  Let’s hope so.

In between phone calls, Alfonso regales us with tales of prison gangs, breaking his hand in a brawl, and fights over table space in the prison cafeteria.  Our party splits up at 5th/Market.  Queens stays on the 30 towards Caltrain, the Wrestler goes into the Bart station, Alfonso towards San Jose, and I walk to Starbucks.  Four new friends, who feel like old friends, shaking hands and scattering into the night.

After my coffee fix, I take the 38 to the new Temporary Transbay Terminal--which is pretty light on the terminal.  It’s only here until the California High Speed Rail project is done; currently scheduled for whothehellknows thirty.  I miss the old bus depot, with its ratty Greyhound station and seedy characters milling around.  It reminded me of all those times I got fed up with SF, buying a ticket out of town, only to come crawling back to that grimey bus station.

I break one of my rules, and pass on a 71.  I’m holding out for the Treasure Island bus.  I break another rule and look at the digital GPS board--Treasure Island: 36 minutes.  Great.  I watch five 38’s, two or three 5’s, and another 71 pass.  The GPS board spits out a new arrival time every few minutes: 9min, 2min, 36 again.  I’m ready to give up, when the 108 rounds the corner, and soon I’m on the Bay Bridge, riding towards Treasure Island.  I’ve always found Treasure Island creepy.  It’s just too quiet, too dark, and too spacious to be in the City.  The gated military-style checkpoint at the entrance doesn’t help.  The outpost doubling as a corner store/coffee shop--the only business I see on Treasure Island.

Riding the 108 feels like hunting for ghosts in an abandoned suburb.  Scattered streetlights give a dim glow to the foggy gloom.  The dark obscuring my memory of empty buildings and KEEP OUT TOXIC WASTE signs.  Like many ex-military bases, Treasure Island is a Superfund site.  The bus travels in a circle around the island, eventually passing through residential sections--some people will live anywhere for easy parking.  

Tonight, I find the spookiness intoxicating.  On our way back towards the bridge the entire SF skyline is an easy glance; the lights are still on at AT&T Park.  When the bus pulls back in, I think about staying on and riding around Treasure Island all night, like a needle stuck in the groove.

11:05pm  Temporary Transbay Terminal  16 lines ridden, 19 rides.  An addendum to the Golden Rule...  
I find the 71 driver on the bus and ask him, “Are you going out?”
He shakes his head No.  So, I say “Are you done?”
He shakes his head Yes. Then, he turns on the lights, starts the bus, and drives away, along the bus route.  I chase the bus to the next stop and enter through the back door.  It’s tempting to give him a piece of my mind--but why argue when you have no place to go?

When we get to Market st., the bus fills up with Friday night.  Outside, the Bucket Man drums on his buckets, and inside, hot girls and ugly dudes mingle with the homeless, the drunk, and the simply confused.  Close to Fillmore some idiots shake and kick the back door, yelling to be let out when we’re not at a stop.  They laugh amongst themselves and pound on the door until it finally opens; a crew of “bros” convinced of their own hilarity.

The 71 continues its climb up Haight st., passing Buena Vista Park into Upper Haight, of Haight Ashbury fame.  This the Haight st. of the Grateful Dead and the Summer of Love, the Haight st. of tapped payphones where “have you seen the ghost out?” means are there undercover cops around?  The Haight st. where I learned an addendum to the Golden Rule.

Way back when, I knew this hippie kid named Mooky.  Skinny, long dreadlocks, and what we used to call a wingnut: crazy.  I was grubbing some Chinese takeout on the sidewalk, and down the way, this fratboy type was picking a fight with Mooky.  He shoved him over, and was kicking him on the ground, while Mooky was yelling and trying to cover his face.  I looked away for a second, and heard a smash.  When I looked back, Mooky had a broken bottle, and was on top of Fratboy, beating him with it--I thought he was going to kill him.  Then, a guy in sweats and a t-shirt pulled out a gun and yelled “Police!” pointing the gun at Mooky.  Soon, Mooky was in handcuffs, Fratboy was on a stretcher, and I had an addendum to the Golden Rule: Don’t pick fights with crazy people.

Haight st. runs into Stanyan, and the 71 turns on to Frederick.  Soon, we’ll pass my stop at 23rd and Judah.  I’m running out of water, my hand is cramping from writing, and this whole thing seems silly.  If I hadn’t told so many people about it, I would just go home.  At 23rd ave., no one pulls the string, and visions of my bed recede through the back window.

Midnight at the beach.  17 lines ridden, 20 rides.  lost at home...
I walk down La Playa towards Taraval.  It’s a long walk, but I know the L runs all night, and it starts somewhere by the SF Zoo.  This is the same zoo where, a few years ago, a tiger escaped and ate someone at a coffee shop.  Imagine that, you’re just chilling outside, drinking coffee by the beach, and a tiger comes up and chomps your arm off.  Maybe I’ll walk a few blocks up, instead of waiting by the zoo.

It’s cold and windy, so when the L comes, I’m happy to see Muni again.  I ride downtown, through West Portal, Forest Hill, and the Castro, in what feels like a holding pattern.  I’m getting sleepy, and the lines are running together into a mishmash of directions, route maps, and irate passengers.  I spend the next few hours this way, somewhere between conscious and asleep.  I go into downtown, I come out of downtown, the lines and the people run together; they go up, they go down, from east to west and north to south, from rich to poor and beginning to end.

I slip in and out of conversations about weed, hicks, and pornographic Santa Claus parties in Northern California. A man on a cellphone searches desperately for a cellphone, “It’s only because it’s the second one,” he yells before getting off.
“The next L will be the last service of the evening. The J is next,” comes over the speakers in a downtown subway station--the man’s voice clipped and practiced, like a human imitating a computer.  I slump in my seat and nod off.  Out here, floating around in the corners of the City, too tired to care--there is no loneliness, no anxiety, no where to go or to be.  I run out of water, and energy.  Finally, I am lost at home.

At 19th and Taraval I wait thirty minutes for the 91 Owl.  The wind wakes me up.  I pace back and forth on the corner, shivering and seething.  Staring at the fancy new “wave” bus shelters, I decide they’re tyranny by experts.  They were probably designed by consultants--people with six figure salaries that don’t ride the bus.  How did I guess?  Because no one who has to wait in the rain for half an hour would design a bus shelter with a giant hole in the back!  The Tyranny of Experts--coming to a town near you.
When the 91 finally arrives the driver is auditioning for Go Speed Racer; I can only steal a glance at the Golden Gates and the Palace of Fine Arts, before we’re on Lombard where the stoplights slow us down.  Mel’s Diner and IHOP call out to me, they’re insides bursting with the young and the wasted.

Soon the bus fills up, a local has latched on to a group of young foreigners.  “You know what gave ya’ll away?  You wearin’ shorts nigga!  So I know you can’t be from Frisco.”  
His logic is undeniable, they’re small t-shirts and knee high shorts are hopelessly out of tune. One of them knows how to beatbox, so the man busts a freestyle for the late night crowd on Muni.  He neezys and beezys, shizzles and thizzles--a red ballcap worn sideways and a cigarette under one ear--his raps peppered with “West Coast” and “bitches,” finishing up with  “Stop the tape, cause I’m fixin’ to make this grape!”

The foreigners look like runaway prep school boys, thrilled to be hanging with Snoop Dog in the big city--the rapper just seems glad to have an audience.  He causes a huge commotion when they leave, yelling “hold up, hold up, stop the bus!” so everyone can exchange numbers.  5 new friends scatter into the night.  I transfer to the 38.

The 38 is bumping too--women in short skirts that can’t walk in heels cling on to each other.  Every stop brings a conglomeration of stumbles, missteps, and curses.  Two rows in front of me a tall, lanky, blond haired boy with a thick Irish accent sways back and forth yelling “Are you from America?  Is anyone from America?”
When he finds a friendly face, he leans down “Do you know where I can get any,” and here he tries to drop his voice to a whisper, but fails, “Asian pussy?”
His new friends snicker and laugh.  Instead of helping, they ask about Ireland.  
“I’m from a little village, when I come here, I’m like--look at all the tall buildings, ohmygosh.  In Ireland, when you see a drink for 99 cents, that’s all you pay, 99 cents.  It’s a simpler nation.”
“How are the Ireland girls?”
He pauses, “They’re not nice.”

At the beach the driver pulls up to a small outpost, walks off the bus, opens a locked door, and goes inside.  Quiet slips over the cabin, broken only by one man’s snoring in the back.  After a minute, a man in a black leather jacket, red baseball cap and blue jeans walks to the door, which is still open.
“I’m watching out in case somebody tries to come in here,” he explains, standing upright.
“I’m not trying to get my ass shot, I’m watching out that door in case somebody trying to come in here with a gun to kill someone.”
When the driver comes back, they slip into an impromptu conversation that feels like a jazz riff.
“I just got back from Atlanta man, man they killin’ people left and right in that city!”
“They doin’ that here too.”
“Yah well, I’m gonna do what I gotta do, ‘cause if they gotta gun, I will run.”
“The one who runs fast, is the one whose life lasts,” calls back the driver.

3:35am  Pinecrest Diner  19 lines ridden, 23 rides.  happy birthday...
Coffee.  Bad coffee.  Putrid, foul tasting coffee--but it’s warm, and doesn’t move.  The Bucket Drummer is outside on the corner.  The Rapper from the 91 is too--his arm around tonight’s prize.  I can’t come to Pinecrest without getting philosophical.  Before I moved here, I spent a night in the Pinecrest; coffee filling in for a hotel.  Then, I ended up living a few blocks away and would come here to clear my head.  Later, Dian--my girlfriend--worked at Ruby Skye across the street, and I would meet her here every weekend, around 3am.  We would take the N Owl to her place in the Sunset--it was like a mental asylum on wheels.  

After Pinecrest, I trace our old root back to Market st.  I miss the N Owl by 45 seconds.  I wanted to ride it for old times sake--instead, I’m reminded of our 30 minute waits in the cold.  Of how we would stand there and shiver, huddling like penguins.  I’m reminded of her birthday, when we gave up and took the L, traipsing across the Sunset instead--happy birthday.

A guy with blond dreadlocks, holding his pants up with one hand, and a small object in the other, waddles up to me.  “Hey bro, can I give you a piece of hash for a phone call so I can find my car?”  I just shake my head.  He leaves without a word, taking a cloud of stink with him.  Across the street a man sleeps on the curb, his head 2 inches from the street.  Two departing passengers step over him, and the bus goes by without a glance.  I take the K Owl up to Church and Market, where I wait for the 22.

I ride the 22 past Fillmore, Japantown, and into the Marina.  I can never take the 22 without thinking of a quote I read in the SF Bay Guardian: “If you can’t get laid on the 22, then you have a problem.”   Do people actually get laid ON the 22?  Or do they meet on the 22, and then get laid?  Either way, it’s never happened to me.  The driver calls “last stop” at Fillmore and Chestnut.  I climb off, pee in the bushes, and cross the street to wait for the 22 to come back.  It takes half an hour.

In the cold quiet of daybreak, I stop caring.  I don’t care about getting stories from drivers, how many lines I ride, or if anyone ever reads this.  I just want to go home.  When the 22 comes back, the driver says nothing; he doesn’t recognize me.  I step up and tag my Clipper card--beep.  The 22 ends where 3rd st., and 20th st., intersect. (How is that possible?)  I catch the 48, and meet the nicest bus driver so far.

Juyanni explains to me that bus drivers, especially at night, avoid talking to passengers.  If they get too friendly, “they could put themselves at risk.”  Her voice has an easy tone, which she uses to coax our struggling 48 up Potrero Hill.  This bus is acting like it’s not gonna go up this hill” she says, so calm that I don’t stop to wonder what happens if it doesn’t.  We pass through the views--and the projects--from yesterday, then down to the Mission, taking 24th st. all the way through Noe Valley.  In some places, the hills are so steep and cramped, that if another bus is coming, one of them has to wait.  Juyanni never breaks a sweat, or looks the least bit nervous, steering an exhausted Muni bus through an obstacle course at 5am.

The 48 ends at West Portal on the weekends, where I take the K Outbound.  I’m checking out the huge houses and exclusive subdivision look of Ingleside, when I hear a familiar voice, talking about airplanes, and Atlanta, to the driver.  For some reason, this excites me.  I mean, here we are, two guys riding the bus around all night.  How can we not be friends?  When he gets up to walk around the car, I tell him I saw him on the 38, but he gives me a suspicious glare, and walks back towards the driver--who is clearly ignoring him.

The K ends at Balboa Park, where the J begins.  I get off the train, walk a few steps, and wait.  One last ride from start to finish.  The J is a nice ride to go out with.  It passes through neighborhoods that are cute, without being pretentious, and up hills that have good views, but aren’t too steep.  It’s like a Disney ride for old people.  After 2 or 3 stops, who should pop in, but our pal Atlanta?
“I thought my cousin was in here,” he states matter of factly, with a “Hey Padna!” to the driver, taking a seat up front.  Atlanta only seems to like Muni drivers.

Close to downtown, Atlanta gets antsy.  He stands up, and starts dancing in the aisle--no music, no headphones.  Then he walks towards me and says “You following me?” I shake my head No. “I’ve seen you 3 or 4 times,” he tells me.  “That’s too many times.  I’m gonna have to have my people check you out.  Make sure you ain’t five-O.”  This worries me.  He doesn’t look tough, but he does look crazy.

Atlanta goes to the front of the car and yells at the driver “I need to get to BART!”  At Van Ness, he gets off and gives me an I know you’re following me stare.  It’s tempting to yell “There is no BART here!” but it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie, and walking wingnuts walk.

7:45am  Embarcadero station  24 lines ridden, 29 rides.  24 hours on Muni...
The J pulls into Embarcadero station at 7:43am.  I walk across the platform to wait for the N; after 24 hours on Muni, I still have to take Muni home.  I ride to 9th and Irving, where I stop for breakfast, at Howard’s Cafe. When I'm done with my pancakes, I pull out my Iphone, hit the Nextmuni icon, and survey my options.  Best bet: the 71.  I hustle down to 9th and Lincoln just in time, but I get off before my stop.  I think I feel like walking.

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

24 Hours on Muni Part 1

On Friday, June 8th, I left my house with the goal of riding Muni for 24 hours straight.  I wanted to get lost at home, to find hidden pockets of the City, and to take my mind off the daily drudge.
Before leaving, I laid out some goals and guidelines:

1. To ride as many lines as possible from start to finish.
2. To use only maps posted at stops, or free ones from a visitors center--no Nextbus and no Google maps.
3. When I’m at a crossroads, I’ll take the next bus that comes.
I took some notes along the way.

7:45am 27th/Judah   People with jobs...

From my apartment it’s two blocks to the the Inbound N Judah stop.  The train comes right away, like it’s waiting for me.  I find a seat, settle in, and finish my breakfast--a banana.  People on the train are quiet, they wear heavy sunglasses and stare at the floor, or their phone.  Eyes are glazed over, ties hang untied--sniffles and coughs ripple through the crowd.  These are people with jobs, people with 401k’s and babies on the way; these are people with paychecks.

By Van Ness the train is packed, but still no one speaks--it’s like a rolling library.  We’re underground now and the computerized female voice begins calling out the stops.
“Next stop: Van Ness Station.” The words come out soulless and sanitized, but still familiar.  After all these years, I feel like I know her.  Like one day I’ll be riding the train, and the computer voice lady will be sitting next to me.
“Civic Center Station.”

Most passengers exit at Montgomery or Embarcadero--one last day at the office before the weekend.  Once cherished seats are now plentiful, and I sprawl out, putting my feet up as the train comes back above ground into daylight.  For once, the fog has lifted; the sky and the bay reflect a cool blue off of each other, and the train passes under the Bay Bridge.  A thin mist of smog floats over the industrial parts of Oakland, and I notice a few clouds.  65 degrees and partly cloudy.  Who would have thought?

   8:45am T Platform 
4th/King 1 line ridden. “That was Billy...”

When I had this idea, I didn’t think about the bathroom situation, but when the N stops, bathroom thoughts are flowing like a river.  I hurry across the street into the Caltrain station and handle my business.  Relieved, I walk back across the street, pass Panera and Phil’s coffee, and step onto the T platform, where I board the Southbound T.  First, we pass through the Mission Rock area and the City’s “Biotech Zone.”  Construction projects are already buzzing with activity, men in hardhats are surrounded by tall fences with PRIVATE PROPERTY and KEEP OUT--NO TRESPASSING signs.  When I moved here this neighborhood was empty space and old warehouses, but now it’s filling up with fancy condos and tech offices.  No more room for starving artists, or lazy bloggers.

On the way into Bayview I hear “garble, garble, static, mechanical problem, static, garble, garble, thank you for your patience,” out of the train speakers and everyone laughs. A man in the back yells “In other words, were late as usual!” Up front, an adorable puppy named Fellows is a hit; people stop to pet him as they board the train, and several greet the driver by name. Yelling out of the doors is popular on the T--“Hey man, where you goin? Haha.”

We pass vacant lots, KFC’s, gas stations, and barbecue joints.  Bayview is known to most San Franciscans for Candlestick Park, crime, and (slightly) cheaper housing, but no part of the City is untouched by market forces.  Occasional luxury condos cast shadows over single family homes and the Ebony Beauty Supply shop.  In San Francisco, when you see condos popping up, you can expect rents to skyrocket--pushing out families, and long term residents.  Looking out the window at stunning views of the Bay, I realize it was only a matter of time.

Around Candlestick, an older man with a leather jacket and graying black hair gets on.  He leans into the drivers cubby for 2 or 3 stops and they discuss the day’s news.  “That was Billy that got shot yesterday” he tells the driver before stepping off.  I ride the T all the way to the end, at Bayshore and Sunnydale, on the border of Daly City.  Just a few more steps, and I would be out of San Francisco.

9:25am Bayshore/Visitacion 2 lines ridden. “Oh lord!”

I take the first bus that comes--the 8x.  It’s a double decker, packed to the gills, and I wrestle my way to the very back, where I find one open seat.  These streets haven’t been paved in years, so the bus shakes violently going up and down the hills.  The riders are quiet, mostly Chinese, and carry a stoic, work another day look on their faces.  The man next to me stares at my notebook, so I try to strike up a conversation.  He smiles, and shakes his head--no English.  I don’t know where we are, or where we’re going.  Salvadorian restaurants, Catholic Churches, Round Table Pizza, and Chinese Herbal Medicine stores peek in through the window.  Now I’ve got it--Portola.  A young girl with short black hair bangs on her thighs.  “This is boring,” her eyes say.  The 8x pulls onto the freeway, 280 or 101 going north.  It is pretty boring.

We pull off the freeway into downtown at the Hall of Justice.  A few people shuffle and rearrange like slow popcorn trying to get out.  The bus lumbers along--if it was a race, we would be Christmas.  Downtown gives way to the Financial District, which gives way to Chinatown.  The worst ringtone in history blares out of the quiet.  “Hola” she answers and begins a rapid fire conversation, like a spanish machine gun talking.  Most of the Chinese passengers get off in Chinatown.  They’re off to sell knick knacks to tourists, play mah jong in the park, or work in the many, many restaurants in Chinatown.

When we pass into North Beach, I feel the City waking up.  Tourists are drinking coffee at sidewalk cafes, Chinese residents practice Tai Chi in Washington Square, a black lab chases a tennis ball, and a homeless white woman with frazzled blond hair and a huge black sweatshirt mopes from one garbage can to the next.  The 8x disposes us at Kearny and Embarcadero.  When I ask the driver if it’s the last stop, she is friendly.
“Where you tryin’ to go?”
“I’m not trying to go anywhere, I’m riding Muni all over the City for 24 hours and writing about it.”
“Oh lord!” she says with a mild shake of her head.  Her purple fingernails and her focus return to texting.

It’s a beautiful day, probably 70 degrees, with a very mild breeze.  I stroll down the Embarcadero towards Fisherman’s Wharf--where the smell of tourists replaced the smell of fish long ago--looking for a bathroom.  On the way, I run into an “Only in San Francisco” character--Occupy Guy.  Actually, I hear him first, because disco grooves come bouncing out of his backpack.

10:45am Beach/Jones 3 lines ridden. 19 hours to go. We lounge in the back with our feet up...

The F is waiting when I walk up, and pulls out as soon as I board.  These are the historic street cars, modeled after street cars all over the world.  This one is the Newark, NJ, version, it’s yellow and green, with soft upright seats, and one center isle.  The problem with riding anything “historic” is that it moves at the speed of history.  I’ve waited 30 minutes and given up on this thing before--come to think of it, I could probably walk downtown faster than this.  I look out the window for Occupy Guy, but he must have skated on.   The driver kicks us out with a “last stop” at the Ferry Building--not the last stop, or even close.  Some people protest, but not me.  Why argue when you have nowhere to go?

I walk across Justin Herman Plaza to Market st., and find a bus sitting with the door open and engine running--no driver, or passengers.  The 2 Clement.  I get on and tag my Clipper card--beep--then head to the back.  I sit alone in the bus for about 5 minutes before the driver and a few passengers enter.  As we start to move, a balding Asian man with a mullet comes running towards the bus out of nowhere, for a second I think he’s trying to catch the bus, but he’s on a different mission.  He points at the driver and begins screaming.  He has a sandwich in one hand, and points with the other.  He gesticulates wildly and screams gibberish at the top of his lungs--chunks of food come flying out of his mouth, the bits of sandwich match his khaki pants as they fall towards the sidewalk.  He follows us for as long as he can keep up with the bus, his shirt flapping in the wind, his mullet swinging back and forth with his head, and his chewed up food jumping in different directions--pointing his free hand at the driver the whole time.

I share a laugh and a head shake with a fellow passenger--just another day on Muni in San Francisco.  The bus turns on Sutter and we lounge in the back with our feet up.  Some Australian tourists discuss what to do next, and a teenage girl towards the front has her headphones blasting so loud I can hear the music--it sounds like cats in a blender.  It’s my first time on the 2, but I can see it’s one of those mellow, meandering bus lines.  We mosy past Polk, Larkin, and Van Ness like we have nothing better to do than ride around all day.  Which, of course, I don’t.

When the 2 finally reaches Clement, I see what used to be a rare beast in SF--vacant storefronts.  The absurd cost of real estate in San Francisco bumping up against The Great Recession.  Clement st. is small and cramped--we pass so close to the double parked trucks that I lean back from the window.  Like many SF neighborhoods, Clement st. is a mix of Asian restaurants, coffee shops, and the occasional Russian or European grocery store.  The driver calls “last stop” at Sunset Boulevard.  I don’t see any bus stops, so I walk down Sunset; I’m so off in space that I almost get run over by a truck.

I walk one block to Geary and take the 38, ride to Masonic, and transfer to the 43.  It’s almost lunchtime and my friend Russell lives around here.  I get off near his house and call 3 times--no answer, so I go bang on his door.  I want coffee, and I have to pee.

1:22pm Divisadero/Fulton 7 lines ridden. “You might need it if you’re ever on Jeopardy...”

Lunch took a while--ok, I dithered.  Russell decides to tag along, and we catch the 24 going north.  We're soon caught up in a deep discussion with a fellow passenger about the Full House house.  Apparently, the house they showed the close ups of, is not the house from the intro (The Painted Ladies), that everyone remembers.  Our new friend is an older white lady, with bushy, ash blond hair.  She carries a cane, and a lean.  The whole time she talks, one eye is half closed, which emphasizes her lean.  She says she used to work in the Full House house, and that “they used to call prostitutes Painted Ladies.  That’s a little trivia for ya.  You might need it if you’re ever on Jeopardy.”  She decides we’re tourists, and gives us the rundown of SF celebrities who lived nearby, Herb Caen, Robin Williams, and a famous “Madam” from Marin--she likes to talk about prostitutes, and does so with a wide grin.

We leave our new friend and the 24 at Fillmore and Jackson to board the 10.  The bus is empty, so I ask the driver about the route.
“Where do you want to go?” he asks.
I don’t want to go anywhere, and this is a hard concept for a bus driver.  Russell has a knack for talking to strangers though--him and the bus driver discuss which lines run all night, and some guy from the Examiner.  Apparently, there is a column in the Examiner where the guy sets out walking along a bus route, at the same time as the bus, and then walks the whole route, trying to beat the bus to the end.  The fact that this is even vaguely possible says more about our public transportation system than any newspaper article.

The 10 travels up and down the hills of the Marina, then slows to a crawl through Chinatown and North Beach, where we pass several porn shops and strip clubs--the hour too early for any trade there.  Russell gets bored and bails out downtown, transferring to the 5, so he can go home.  The 10 continues to crawl through the Financial District, and the reality of this project sinks in.  24 hours on Muni means 24 hours of hard seats, slow rides, and bumpy hills.  24 hours of “back door” and “do you go to blah, blah, blah?”

We turn right, onto Townsend, and cross 3rd st.  On this corner, I can’t help but think of my girlfriend--away on a long performance contract.  The dance studio where she used to work is close by.  I would come wait for her at the Borders bookstore, reading until she finished her lessons.  But Borders went bankrupt, and the dance studio moved--if I get off the bus and walk to her studio, it will be empty.  Her memory and her scent will linger on the building, but there will be no sign of her, just like at home.  No matter how long I stare at the bed, I can’t conjure her out of thin air.  It’s like waiting for an important email; you can hit refresh as often as you like, but it won’t come until it is sent.

The bus rattles and shakes going up, up, up to the top of Potrero Hill--snapping me out of my daydreams.  We zig and zag all over Potrero Hill, and then wind through rundown public housing, with excellent views of the bay.  The residents here--almost exclusively African American--hang their laundry out to dry, while the young girls lounge around on steps or corners, sucking on lollipops.  The boys strut back and forth, with baseball caps pulled down over their faces.  At 23rd and Kansas we pass over the 280 freeway, a line of cars building up on their way into the City.  The 10 has it’s last stop at 24th and Potrero--my old neighborhood.  This was my bus stop for 3 years.

3:05pm 24th/Potrero 9 lines ridden.
“A low growling noise...”

I turn the corner onto Potrero and the 33 is waiting.  A blast from the past, and one of my favorite lines in the City.  It starts at 25th st. and Potrero, travelling through the Mission on 16th, and the Castro on 18th (omg, honey would you look at that?) and up to Twin Peaks.  In Twin Peaks, it makes a hair raising U-turn, that shouldn’t be possible in a bus, and travels down Ashbury into the Haight.  When friends come to visit, I always try and take them on the 33.  Today, it’s full of children, many of them wearing tie dyed shirts.

The voices of so many children bounce around the bus, like enthusiastic echoes.  It’s punctuated by the occasional shout from their adult chaperones “It’s too loud!” or “If you can’t play the game quietly, you can’t play at all!”  Their excitement is infectious, or nauseating--depending on your point of view.  We go 2 stops to SF General Hospital and a white man with a scraggly beard and a thick black hoody punches the back door from outside.  The wollop is loud enough to travel through the entire bus, and strong enough to crack the glass on the door.  The children take turns crowding around to survey the damage.  “Whoa! Look he broke it!”

At the end of Haight st., where Golden Gate Park begins, the 33 turns right, onto Stanyan.  Somewhere on Stanyan, it starts to make a low growling noise--like a dog with its paw caught in a lawnmower.  Each time we speed up, the pitch of the noise goes up, and as we slow down, the pitch comes down, but the volume increases.  Only 16 hours and 45 minutes to go...

At the end of the line, I try to chat with the driver.  When I tell him what I’m up to, he looks confused. “Are you?”
I try to get some stories out of him, but that’s as far as it goes--he makes like a man on a short break, and walks away.

Next, I walk to California and Spruce, where I catch the 1.  It’s packed, and for the first time all day, I have to stand.  People bump me trying to get around, sometimes yelling “back door, back door! Coming out please!”  Another woman answers her phone with “Yah, I’m on the bus and it sucks, but I’ll be there soon.”  We creep like a slug, all the way downtown, past the Jewish Community Center, Chinatown and the Financial District to finish at California and Drumm, in front of the Hyatt.  I look for a map; I want to take the N Judah express.

To find the N express, I had to go down into the subway (where the real N Judah is) and ask the booth attendant.  Total fool’s errand, but I was determined to ride it--it’s a new line, and I’ve seen them around my neighborhood.  When I find the stop, there is a long line of people waiting.  The N judah is the longest train line in the City, and carries the most riders.  It’s also famous for broken doors, perpetual delays, and a bizarre failure to understand that a Giant’s game at AT&T Park means there will be more people than usual.  The N Express is a rush hour only bus service, meant to ease the overcrowding on the N Judah.

“The express is better than the train,” according to Ivonne, a data entry worker from the Financial District.  “It’s usually on time” she says.  Ivonne is well versed in the trials and tribulations of the N Judah, explaining that the express is a “trial run,” although a driver told her they “probably” wouldn’t cancel it.  When I tell her what I’m doing, she gives me a piece of advice I heard over and over.
“You should probably avoid certain lines at night.”
Each time I hear this I shrug it off--but deep down--I’m a little nervous.

After boarding the N Express, my money is on cancellation.  It’s too comfortable, convenient, and sensible for the City to keep.  I find a seat with no problem, and ride out towards the beach with the TGIF crowd.  Most people stare into space, or into their phone, like it’s a slot machine with a prize.  One woman crochets, pausing every five minutes to cough, and a few people read magazines.  Everyone looks trampled, like they waited all week for the weekend, but are too tired to enjoy it.  The N Express doesn’t stop until 19th ave, but we make up for it by being stuck in traffic.  To distract myself I turn to my book, being sure to look down at the page when we pass my house--otherwise, I will go home, crawl in bed, and make up the rest.

5:55pm Ocean Beach 12 lines ridden.
I want to ride the Cable Car...

Shivering, in the harsh wind and fog of a once pleasant day, I see the problem with my ride it to the end strategy--I’m stuck at the beach, with only one option--the N.  Riding back downtown seems lame, so I go a few stops up to Sunset Boulevard, and wait for the 29.  In one direction is Bayview, and in the other, is the Golden Gate Bridge.  Bayview comes first, so I board the Southbound 29.

The 29 takes a series of twists and turns designed to nauseate and confuse even the most seasoned Muni rider.  I write them all down carefully, so my readers can be confused and nauseated as well: After Sunset Boulevard it goes down Lake Merced drive, then wiggles through some back streets to come out at Stonetown, takes 19th ave to SF State, drives around a random circle at Park Merced, pulls back out onto 19th ave, turns on Holloway to Juniperro Serra (real yards!) gets lost in the hills, goes back to Holloway, turns on Plymouth, turns on Ocean, turns on Geneva, turns on Mission, turns on Persia, which snakes through McLaren Park and becomes Mansell, bounces up and down like a VW bug with loose wheels for five minutes, turns on San Bruno, turns on Paul, and then at 3rd st., it squeezes two turns out of one intersection, landing at Fitzgerald and Keith, where--for no apparent reason--it sits still for five minutes.  I see my chance, and bail out the back door to get on the Inbound T.  It’s getting late, and I want to ride the Cable Car, before it stops for the night.
To be continued...

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