Dear readers, my writing has been stuck lately. I know that my next blog needs to be – no, is going to be – about my great love for San Francisco. But I can’t seem to do the topic justice and I’ve been mentally flogging myself about it for weeks. Basically, I suck and I stink. So I’ve decided to put the grand opus away for a while and concentrate instead on a little ditty about the zaniest commute day I ever had.
It was the winter of 1979, in the waning days of the old green San Francisco streetcars. Fresh out of college, I’d just taken a job at Harper & Row Publishers down on the Embarcadero. Every evening after work I’d catch the 42 bus out near the railroad tracks across from Pier 23, get off at the former Transbay Terminal, and take the N-Judah streetcar outbound to my apartment in the Inner Sunset. The trip was never a short one, and it was rarely without incident. But on this December night in particular, what a long strange trip it was.
In those days, the 42-bus driver had a number of quirks. Most annoyingly, he whistled – continually – “As Time Goes By,” the lovely tune that Sam sings in Casablanca. The problem was that he whistled the first three lines and then stopped, without ever getting to the resolving line. Sans lyrics, what we heard was:
You must remember this:
A kiss is still a kiss.
A sigh is just a sigh . . . .
And then nothing. Crickets. A few seconds later he started over. It drove me absolutely mad.
“The fundamental things apply!” I wanted to scream at him. “As time goes by, you irksome twit! Stop persecuting me!”
This guy also had the well-deserved reputation for driving, well, a tad rapidly. But breakneck speed was really the lesser of his foibles. What was worse was his habit of trying to stop on a dime at every corner, throwing his passengers into a severe panic and into the aisles.
On that particular day I was wearing my platform shoes for the first time ever, no easy challenge for feet accustomed to years of sneakers. I twisted my ankle about 742 times that day. It was in a most crippled state, then, that I hobbled tentatively onto the bus and, unable to find a seat, grabbed the pole directly in front of the sideways seats up front. Big mistake. The driver took off like a madman. I clutched the pole in fear of my life at the first two corners but lost my balance at the third. In a dizzying display of clumsiness I spun 180 degrees around the pole and tumbled backwards across the laps of three teenage boys. They were polite (albeit stunned), but I was mortified – so mortified, in fact, that I became confused, lost my composure, and simply got off the bus then and there.
I made the long walk up Battery Street and across Market to the Transbay Terminal in about half an hour, record time considering that I fell off my shoes every 50 feet. The usual throngs of people were waiting at the streetcar turnaround, and I planted myself in the exact spot where I’d calculated that the doors would open when the N-Judah pulled up. That way, I’d be strategically positioned to shove my way through the front doors and do a swan dive into an empty seat.
But then came disaster. Rain. The old streetcars’ nemesis. For some reason – perhaps wet tracks? – the entire system would often become disabled by the mere suggestion of water. Those stubborn, breakdown-prone streetcars would simply refuse to move in inclement weather. They’d back up along Market Street, about 25 of ’em, and hundreds of pathetic commuters would be stranded. The Municipal Railway (Muni) would then send out its regular buses, after an interminable wait, and because the buses couldn’t go through the Duboce tunnel, they would discharge the hapless commuters at the Van Ness stop to wait again. I’m not sure what good that did at all.
Sure enough, the buses arrived about an hour later and deposited us at Van Ness. By then the system had gotten started again, though, so the next 12 streetcars that came by passed us without slowing down, crammed to the hilt with people they’d picked up all along Market.
After I finally made it onto an N-Judah streetcar with a few inches of available room, and as we were plodding our way through the tunnel, the alarm bells suddenly screamed and we slammed to a halt.
“All right, is someone stuck in the doors or are you just playing around?” our driver yelled, infuriated. “Someone better answer me” (then a pause) “or we’re not moving at all! Is someone stuck in the goddam doors?”
“No,” came the meek response from all of us standing jammed and exhausted in the car. I myself was immobilized with depression at the thought of “not moving at all.”
“You get paid enough!” came one passenger’s rather puzzling retort.
“I don’t get paid enough to take your abuse!”
“Well, turn the heat off then!” (Another frustration-induced non sequitur.)
“The heat’s not on!” yelled the driver. He tried to re-start the streetcar but it wouldn’t budge. “Thanks a lot, buddy!” he shouted at the argumentative passenger, whom he apparently blamed for his constant mechanical trials and never-ending series of breakdowns.
Someone standing behind me told everyone that it had happened to him once, getting stuck in the tunnel. “What a horrible feeling,” he droned, “watching the headlight from another streetcar rush up on you from behind and thinking, ‘We’re gonna be hit. . . . We’re gonna be hit . . . . We’re gonna be hit . . . .’ ”
In unison, everyone anxiously whipped around to size up the situation behind us.
Meanwhile, the driver got out and worked on the door, along with a bunch of Muni men from all the other streetcars who were now stopped as far as the eye could see in both directions.
At one point something fell on the tracks, maybe a huge piece of metal, and it clanged and echoed in the dark.
“What was that?” someone asked, and a droll commuter in the back cracked, “Maybe one of the driver’s eyelashes fell out.”
Once the door was finally fixed they still couldn’t get the car going, so another streetcar came up on the tracks behind us to push us in traditional Muni fashion – by slamming mercilessly into our rear. Wham! (we’d lurch a foot). Whack! (another foot).
Unbelievably enough, when we emerged from the tunnel and the streetcar gained power again and it seemed that we would all get home after all, the back doors suddenly started banging open and closed repeatedly, rapid-fire, as if possessed. The streetcar couldn’t move, of course. We all groaned.
I’d gotten off work three hours earlier and still hadn’t made the 5 miles home across town yet. People all over the city were getting ready for bed and I was still stuck on the N-Judah. I eased my way resignedly towards the front and got out into the chilly December night. And walked home.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
4/23/72 [age 16]:
“God, give us peace here, not simply the superficial absence of war, but genuine unequivocable [sic] harmony and unity. Give Ireland back to the Irish and Vietnam back to the Vietnamese. Let Cubans and Russians and East Germans have their freedom, and, in turn, let Americans come to know and appreciate what freedom is (as yet they do not). Free us from environmental pollution and the curse of overpopulation. Is it possible that the starving can have food, and the naked can have clothes, and the homeless can have shelter? Deprive me – I am too well off for my own good.
“Let the unemployed find work, if they so deserve. Give strength to victims of mental disease and fatal illnesses, like cancer and leukemia, and physical handicaps, and to those who love them. Help the unfortunate victims of broken homes. Let the blind see and the deaf hear and the dumb speak and the lame walk and the ignorant be made wise. Comfort the broken-hearted; they, too, suffer. Enlighten students to the values of education (I know without it I would be totally lost). Let the young take care of the old, and the old appreciate the young. Restore to the populace a real sense of moral value. Keep good people as they are, and convert the bad to good. Let the innocent be safe from the guilty.
“Bless my relatives and friends. Give [my younger sister] Janine the ability to withstand my persecutions, release the clutches of hay fever from [my brother] Marc, help Mom stop smoking, and get that stupid job off Dad’s back. Ease Grampy’s asthma, let Nonna at least remember who she is, and help Auntie Jackie lose weight so she is not so fat.
“And for me – may the coming of college be a ‘finding’ and not a ‘losing,’ may I retain my mental and physical health, and perhaps (can I ask this?) may I gain a little bit of common sense and knowhow? Let me accomplish something while I am here.”
4/19/72 [age 16]: [Ed.’s note: Even after the girls were finally allowed to wear pants at our high school during our senior year, my parents didn’t allow me to wear them except, I think, during finals week. And maybe on Fridays – I can’t remember.]
“On our field trip to San Francisco today, Jeanne and I changed our clothes twice in the course of the day. I snuck a pair of Levi’s out of the house around [my brother] Marc’s waist. When we got to school we rushed to the restroom to change into our Levi’s and barely made it to the bus on time. We ran the 150 in 10 seconds. In SF we went to Golden Gate Park and just sat down on a grassy hill and ate our lunches. Soon we had only 20 minutes left and we still had to change into our dresses [for a play we were about to see]. We were looking for a restroom but they charge admission to get in the museum, we found out. Some guy said the restrooms were way over there behind the pillars. We had four minutes left before the bus took off so we sped over there, changed, in a flash, and sped back. Embarrassment. Everyone was on the bus already. Then we went to the play, ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’ It was well-done, but BORING. I almost fell asleep. Finally, the play ended at 4:35. Joe Turner and Mark Anhier had cut out of the play and weren’t there. Mr. Vierra went on a wild goose chase with the police all over Golden Gate Park but didn’t find them. They eventually got suspended. Anyway, eventually I came home in my dress with no idea how I was going to sneak my Levi’s back into the house. Jeanne said she’d hold them for me and I could smuggle them home with my gym clothes Friday. However, Thursday was Mom’s washing day, and noting the missing pants, she figured the whole thing out.”
4/24/72 [age 16]:
“Joe – as you know, he’s my lab partner in Physiology. (I can’t stand Physiology right now; we’re cutting up the stupid mink and I’ll never be able to memorize all those muscles.) He got suspended Thursday. He’s always talking to me in English. On the bus going to that memorable field trip Jeanne told me she thought he liked me. Would I go to the Senior Ball if he asked me? Ha, I’m sure Mom and Dad would never let me go with that ‘hood.’ ”
4/26/72 [age 16]:
“I MUST relate my bike-riding experiences! First I went to Jeanne’s at 10:15 (my chain slipped off once and my hands got all black; her mother sprayed some stuff on them to take the grease off). She had to take her little brother to Eastridge to pick up a friend, so I drove with her out there. (She’s a good driver – nice and smooth.) Then we came back and her mother wanted her to go water some garden at Noble School, so we bike rode over there and we played tetherball for awhile. Then we rode to the library and then down to the drugstore because I had to pick up some prints. I wanted to eat, but Jeanne wasn’t hungry, so since she wanted to go the Flea Market and had never been there, we went. I wanted to eat there, but she STILL was not hungry. Then we rode back to Jeanne’s to eat lunch; I called home, and Jeanne discovered she had lost her mom’s keys at Noble. So we drove back over there, looked, walked to the library, looked, drove to the drugstore and looked, but they were nowhere to be found. This was after we ate lunch of hot dogs and potato chips and cupcakes and Oreos. We rode back and she suggested we play tennis (I swear, she is a tennis fanatic) and I won, as usual. (It’s just my consistency; she is a better player.) Then she drove me and the bike home. Don’t we do thrilling things?”
5/1/72 [age 16]:
“Jeanne and I had pizza and chicken TV dinners for dinner. Afterwards I sat on the couch and she sat on the steps and played my guitar. (She’s darn good, too.) Then we established the fact that neither of us is arrogant.”
5/8/72 [age 16]:
“Today Nixon made a critical speech about how we were going to back off North Vietnam ports and then withdraw only when they release our American POWs, etc. I don’t know what will come of all this. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be atom-bombed.”
5/18/72 [age 16]:
“I went to the CSF Life Membership Ceremony tonight. They read our names and we had to walk up on stage (I was so afraid I was going to trip) and Mr. Bailey named our college and our major. That was embarrassing – everyone thinks Law Enforcement is so wierd [sic]. Then (I’m such a klutz) the people to the right of me would move down and I’d stand there oblivious, with a big space between us until the girl on my left nudged me. I did that THREE TIMES!! Good grief. How dumb.”
5/23/72 [age 16]:
“Last night I got a really cute blue bodyshirt. It’s not really too tight, but I like it. It makes me look more feminine. I’m changing. I always hated more feminine styles but I’m coming to like them more and more. A new image is what I need; I wish I had done it sooner. I can’t go on being a tomboy forever.”
5/26/72 [age 16]:
“Today was Senior Picnic. Well, Jeanne and Robin and I didn’t want to go. So we got this wild idea to stay in Mr. Healy’s room and we brought food like gobs and we played Risk and talked. Everyone thinks we’re wierd [sic]. We are. I had potato chips and onion dip and a tuna sandwich and an egg salad sandwich and a deviled egg and two chicken legs and about twenty cookies and a big piece of cake.”