Memories from a morning commute
Sometime in 2017 or 2018, I wrote this little chronicle of my daily commute. I thought I might look back on it later and appreciate the forgotten details of the hour-long journey from the Outer Richmond to the Mission. Then I tucked it away in a text editor on my computer and forgot about it. Now it’s five years later and the intended nostalgia has come much sooner than expected. My job went remote in March 2020, and since then I’ve never gone back to the office full-time. And though I like the flexibility of remote work, I find myself missing the mundane familiarity of a commute, traveling through a dozen different neighborhoods every morning and evening, my daily dose of city life. Since I doubt I’ll ever get that back (and if I do, it won’t be this specific commute), I wanted to document it here as a small tribute to the routes my fellow San Franciscans and I once shared.
From outside my apartment building at 29th and Anza, I can see across the entire city. Low clouds hang in the sky, wrapping the hills in a cool embrace, painting the morning landscape in washed out hues. In the distance stand the silhouettes of Downtown: 555 California looking like a monolith, the Transamerica Pyramid poking through a sea of shadowy rooftops, Salesforce Tower presiding over it all. That’s where I’m headed, but it’s not my destination.
I’m wearing my ankle-high boots today, the ones that give me an extra inch of height and make me feel slightly more badass when they click-clack down the sidewalk. Each step cuts through the sleepy morning haze as I descend the hill eastward, past the school kids trudging up to George Washington High School.
I click-clack past apartment buildings on corners and single family homes in between, the Richmond District fog clinging to my black raincoat. As a resident of the avenues, the raincoat is my default outer layer, not because it really rains that much, it just mists.
I time my walk so that I arrive at 25th and Geary just as the 38AX pulls up to the curb. On more frantic days, I might see the bus rolling through the intersection when I’m still halfway down 26th Ave., causing me to go into overdrive, feet pounding down the sidewalk and around the corner of Enchante Cafe, waving a hand in the air so that a boarding passenger might see me and hold the door (usually they do).
Although there are several bus stops closer to my apartment, 25th Ave. is the best option because it’s where all variations of the 38 Geary stop: the regular 38 with its accordion middle and mostly elderly passengers; its slightly faster and more crowded counterpart the 38-R; and the two express buses, the 38AX and 38BX. All of them go downtown, but the express buses pick up their last riders in the suburbs of the Richmond and don’t open their doors again until reaching the heart of the Financial District. The express buses are the commuter’s best option.
The 38AX, one of the older models that’s all 90 degree angles instead of smooth curves like its modern successors, lets out a sigh of exhaust as its doors open. We step on in an orderly fashion, holding our Clipper cards to the machine until it beeps in recognition.
The front rows of the bus face inwards, giving more space to people standing in the aisle during rush hour. Near the back, seats are arranged in twos, facing forward. The very last row seats five across, and this is where I claim my spot, pulling my backpack to my lap and hugging it so I take up the least amount of space possible. From my plastic seat in the center of the last row, I have a direct line of sight to every person on the bus.
There’s a woman near the front putting on mascara, balancing her purse on her lap and a handheld mirror in her other hand. Next to the woman sits a young father with a tiny baby strapped to his chest. His eyes are closed, the baby’s are wide open. A man and woman sit in one of the two-seaters to my right; I’d guess they’re in their mid- to late-30s. She’s wearing low heels and a silk shirt, the way most FiDi-bound women dress. He’s in shorts, a t-shirt, and a “straight out of Lagunitas” hat. They talk like old friends. He scratches his beard and shows her a photo on his phone; she smiles and laughs. The aroma of her hairspray tickles my nose.
Their conversation is rare on a bus mostly full of silent commuters. Almost everyone else is in their own world, headphones plugged in, reading books, playing games on tiny screens.
The bus chugs through 36 more intersections—passing the bakeries and sleepy corner bars, the Geary Parkway Motel and the Taco Bell-KFC, the funeral home and the pet store and the Mattress Firm—until it rounds the corner from Geary to Presidio, revealing a sweeping panoramic view of the city. Sunshine is starting to break through the clouds downtown.
Now that we’re out of the avenues, we’re flying down Bush St., hitting all the green lights. We glide past the dog-walkers and yoga practicers of Lower Pac Heights, the patchwork of Victorian houses and mid-century housing in the Western Addition, before crossing Van Ness Ave., the unofficial gateway between the residential and the commercial. On the streets of Nob Hill, construction workers take their breaks, business owners sweep their doorsteps, cleaners lug their vacuums down stairs…all these people whose day started long ago. A doorman stands statuesque outside a hotel, like the eye of a hurricane.
Just past Grant Ave., the colorful throngs of Chinatown — with its windows full of statues and chandeliers and intricately painted ceramics — give way to the buttoned-up bustle of downtown, where suits and skirts coexist with hoodies and Allbirds.
After the exhilarating rush of Bush Street, the bus driver pumps the brakes as we merge into the flow of downtown traffic, a sea of grey and red Muni buses, delivery trucks, cars, and ride shares, all moving in unison among the shadows of skyscrapers.
The woman in the front of the bus has just finished applying her coral lipstick and tips a small bottle of perfume on each of her wrists, completing a transformation I can tell she has perfected over many commutes. I remember witnessing a similar ritual on the traffic-clogged highways in LA, women leaning into their car mirrors while sweeping eyeliner across their lids, occasionally peering around to see if the cars in front of them had moved. Here we’ve traded traffic for transit, content to paint our faces in the company of strangers, grateful we don’t have to monitor the traffic ahead. We gather our things and prepare to exit our comfortable steel cocoon.
The bus deposits us at Bush and Sansome. I join the crowd of people speed walking down the sidewalk, hardly giving a second glance at the robot barista serving espressos on the corner.
At the intersection of Sansome and Sutter, everyone stands waiting at opposite ends of the crosswalk, hands in coat pockets, staring ahead like warriors about to step into battle. When the light changes, we all step off the sidewalk at exactly the same time, two walls of people meeting in the middle of the street.
Steam rises from manholes, cloaking the surface of Market Street in a pulsating shroud.
The soundscape of Montgomery Station as I step down the stairs: David Byrne’s fall playlist in my ears, synthesizer-heavy pop melting into an accordion version of “Over the Rainbow,” as performed by a busker in the corridor leading to the BART entrance. My boots join the steady rhythm of heels on stained tile, the same floor that people often sleep on, covered in blankets that are too small. An occasional voice pierces above it all, sometimes shouting conspiracy theories to no one in particular, sometimes shouting the day’s schedules into a phone.
In front of me, an old couple shuffles toward the BART turnstile. Instead of continuing at the same pace and cutting around them as I usually find myself doing, I hang back, at some level wanting to make sure they get through ok. He procures a ticket and hands it to her, guiding her to the gate. One by one, they pass through.
The heavy ka-thunk of the turnstile is satisfying as I scan my Clipper card (inevitably there’s always one out of order). As I descend on the escalator, the electric whir of the Muni on the second level crossfades into the harsh screech of a BART train pulling onto the platform.
On the mosaic-inlaid benches on the BART platform sit a potpourri of humans: tech workers on their computers, students reading books, people without a home stretched out next to their belongings.
A wave of commuters shuffle out of the Daly City-bound train, phones in hand. At this point I’m going against the traffic, but the car is still crowded enough to necessitate standing. I wait my turn to enter, then take my place near the rear door. A hand grips the hanging handle in front of me, fingernails painted dark purple.
The Jimmy Carter lookalike is on my train again, reading the paper. He’s wearing a red jacket, white hair piled on top of his head. Does Jimmy Carter wear thick-soled trainers like this man? I assume he must, at his age. The lookalike sits next to the door, calmly turning over the newspaper. He always has this serene look about him.
There’s a woman sitting next to him, looking a little nervous. She clutches a tote bag with the words “Talk curdy to me” printed on it, accompanying a drawing of cows. I want to tell her I like her bag, but I won’t.
A man emerges from the next car over, shuffling down the center aisle in a daze. Out of all the people, he picks me to wander over to. I turn down the music in my headphones in preparation. “You have any change?” he asks gruffly. I stick my hands in my pockets, instinctively clutching my phone and wallet, and shake my head. “Sorry,” I mumble apologetically. He keeps staring at me though — right at me — in silence, until I take my wallet out of my pocket, open it, and show him that it’s empty. He doesn’t say anything, just continues on to the next car.
Jimmy Carter gets off at the 16th Street station. I get off one stop after him, at 24th Street.
The man and woman playing Afro-Cuban music are at the east side of the station again, their congas and tambourine panning in and out as I walk by. They’re always wearing white, always smiling.
In this station there’s a rotating lineup of buskers: the Afro-Cuban musicians, the guy in the baggy sweatshirt playing frantic violin, the blind girl with the shaved head singing a cappella versions of punk rock songs from the mid-2000s. These are usually the people who get my spare change, if I have it.
The escalator is broken. It’s been probably four months. I pull myself up the stairs — 60 to be exact — toward the now-blue sky.
I pass by the man who stands next to the parking meter outside La Mejor bakery with his cane and cigarette every morning. Like clockwork, he smiles from underneath his Fedora and says to me, “Good morning, bonita” and I reply back with a polite “Good morning.”
Past the liquor store, the library, the parking lot painted with birds and depictions of Jesus. Across the intersection where pedestrians and bicyclists and tech shuttles meet, narrowly missing each other every time. Pausing outside the market on the corner of Valencia and 24th, smelling the freshly cut oranges.
I dig for my keys as I approach the parklet outside Arizmendi. If it’s Tuesday, the parklet is deserted. If it’s any other day of the week, it’s packed with moms and dogs and babies in strollers. Today is Tuesday, and the bakery is closed.
I unlock the deadbolt on the door, checking the time. 59 minutes door-to-door, five miles total, eight more hours until it’s time for the same commute in reverse.