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?
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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p.s. The original draft of 24 hours on Muni was handwritten (yes, on Muni) with a custom made pen from ZZBob’s Etsy shop. Check them out here: zzbob.etsy.com