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I’ve always found the dark brown-and-tan MUNI uniforms very aesthetically pleasing, as does Sylvia, who once proposed going to work as a bus driver merely for the ability to wear the uniform. I’ve learned to take these ideas of hers (as she once proposed to join the Longshoreman’s Union merely because she often “longed for the shore, man”) with multiple shakes of salt. We mostly walk everywhere, but when circumstances course out of our control, we take buses too.
Sylvia and I were waiting at the Arguello and California stop for the 33 to swing by and pick us up. The wind was chasing her cowlicks around, and the apartment building behind us was offering us some much-needed shade from a rather sweltering afternoon for these parts. We were passing the time with some irrelevant nonsense, a specialty of ours. She told me, “You don’t need hindsight when you’ve got four sites to choose from for seeing.” I, as is my wont when dealing with such statements, nodded my head and kindly winked at her in approval. There’s really nothing else that will do in these situations of hers. Besides, as she likes to say, “I’m an artist, and I don’t look back.”
The klutzy clank of the 33 steered our way at last, and we both toed the curb in anticipation. Sylvia stood there with hands on her hips and arms akimbo, chin up, mouth snarling: the mightiest girl I’ve ever known. I made sure her dangling purse didn’t spill her belongings onto the sidewalk. The bus pulled up, and the doors clicked open right where Sylvia was standing. She marched up the front steps, belted out a cheery, “Hello, sir!” to the driver, expertly inserted two crisp one-dollar bills into the podium-like fare machine and dropped in two quarters into the coin slot. I followed her lead, less dramatically, nodding a good-day to the driver as I swiped my Clipper Card against the reader.
This line used to be called the 33-Stanyan, but for some insufferable reason the name was recently changed to the 33-Ashbury/18th St. I have little regard for this new moniker, as it says less with more confusion. But I have no say in these decisions and so must hold my tongue and move on. It’s still one of the most glorious bus rides in the city, as it plunges and peeks through crisscrossing and curvy roadways, from the Richmond, around Golden Gate Park, through the Haight, up into Ashbury Heights, winding down to the Castro, and eventually past Dolores Park and into the Mission. It’s quite a scenic journey, and Sylvia and I try to take it all in as much as our specific scenarios will allow.
A fly got trapped on the bus with us as we plunked ourselves down onto those brown-and-white side-by-side plastic seats toward the rear. Only a few other riders were on at this point, and it felt grand to have all this space for just us. Sylvia took the window seat after I put up a mild ado about it, and I put my left arm up over the seat back and tickled her ear a bit. That’s when my arm got stuck between the metal bar above the seat and the seat back, and I almost completely lost my composure, and I thought the Jaws of Life might be necessary to jar it back out again. Luckily, Sylvia remained calm through the whole ordeal, as I howled like a jackal caught in a bear trap and she coaxed the arm back out again with her most generous wiles and ways: soft as a tissue, tough as sandpaper. I relaxed again as the bus scooted on past those wonderful beige bricks of Roosevelt Middle School on Geary, and the fly darted and danced with tiny pinpricks of precision from window to ceiling to seat. All was copacetic again.
More riders joined us at each stop as the bus glided below its trolley poles down to that place where Turk becomes Balboa and we crossed paths with the 31. A few adventurous souls, just let off from an eastbound 31, paying no heed to caution, dashed across the street to catch up with us before the driver could yank the doors closed. They made it, barely, breathing heavily and thanking the driver effusively as they hurried aboard.
Taking up two seats up front was a portly gentleman with a shorn dome in pajama bottoms, an inside-out T-shirt, and sandals. He was sweet as can be and kept referring to a person he called his “caregiver,” said person who apparently has a Jack Russell–Chihuahua mix that is “a real handful.” He was as gregarious as can be and wanted to talk to everyone.
We clanked on down toward Golden Gate Park, the thick, bulbous sidewalk trees spreading their gnarled limbs out over the street on both sides.
At the stop by the park’s entrance, where those cement columns and chalices dominate the landscape by the stone wall above the sidewalk, a dirt-lathered individual entered on a banged-up walker and took a seat across from the pajama-wearer. His face was the texture of a well-worn-in catcher’s mitt, and a charcoal-like substance was all over his hands, which he kept rubbing on his balding head and the stubble erupting from his cheeks.
Of course, these two odd individuals began conversing with each other. They complained of bad backs and hospital bills, and how people just didn’t treat their dogs right anymore. “I saw this lady walking her dog around, and she’s got the collar way too tight around the dog’s neck. What’s the dog going to say, right? I told her to loosen it up, but she don’t listen. People don’t listen to sense anymore.” Eventually they both came to that oft-cited agreeable conclusion: “Well, what’re you going to do?”
The 33 crossed paths with the 5 on Fulton for a bit — wheeling past white, palm-tree-girded estates and an apartment complex converted hotel with narrow entrance hallways that always makes me think of ice machines and shoes by the door — and then hung a demonstrative right onto its former namesake, Stanyan.
Sylvia pointed out a few sights to me as we skirted the park’s eastern edge: a gold and aquamarine apartment building gleaming across the street; a desperate woman in a hoodie gripping a cardboard sign reading, “Broke & Ugly. Even a smile helps,” on the divider at Oak’s giant intersection; a killdeer springing from a weak branch toward a McDonald’s wrapper, and then flapping into a theatrical broken-wing act.
We waffled onward and into the Haight, rounding the Whole Foods corner moodily beside the east end of the park, and pulled up at the stop outside Amoeba Records, where there used to be a bowling alley and where there still resides a bar called Murphy’s Trophy Room—a great little dive in its heyday. The ride slows on the pedestrian-heavy stretch there, and Sylvia and I held hands between the seats, gawking at all the action outside: the shoe stores and vintage clothing shops; the Red Vic movie house; the crepe places and head shops and coffee shops and the upscale and medium-scale restaurants; all the tourists trying to buy a piece of hippie culture to take home; the mangy dogs and twentysomething spangers outside the pot dispensaries and the liquor stores; the shoppers; the tie-dyed; the leather-jacketed crust punks; the fanny-packed tourists; the skaters; and the beat cops sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups.
Up came Ashbury, where the bus gingerly slowed and began inching into a right turn among a large scrum of walkers. Sylvia wanted to join them, but I dissuaded her. We had the best part of the ride ahead of us, and I really didn’t want to let go of her hand just then. So we held on as the bus climbed up into Ashbury Heights, filling with a group of teens and some other Mission-bound folks. Showy, well-groomed Victorians flashed by on both sides: kept-up, freshly painted, tidy relics of another era. Rows of sturdy magnolias and sycamores ogled us like ancient sentinels guarding the palaces of Ashbury Terrace, their branches brushing and scratching at the bus’s top as we went by. We ignored them.
Sylvia leaned in close and started whispering to me: “I want to watch a silent film with subtitles in a language I don’t understand. Just rely on gestures to figure things out. Maybe listen to the Wurlitzer before the show, at the Castro, sit in the balcony, put our feet up on the rails, and eat popcorn sprinkled with yeast.”
I told her that’d be swell by me, and she squeezed my hand, calling me her “only squeeze,” and wrinkled her eyes in that unique and indescribable way she had, and something somersaulted through me, and I was happy in that indescribable way that surrenders any take with all the giving in the world.
A glorious view flashed to the east as we harrumphed up past 17th, and just as I was about to point out the Bay Bridge to Sylvia, it was gone, and the bus began to tilt a bit as it spooned Clayton’s declivitous grade. A long barn of cream and auburn Spanish garages went by on the right as I slid, not so carefully as it were, eastward, and Sylvia feigned to be irked by my sudden closeness, straining to keep me at a safer distance. She put on her best pout and kept her eyes on the scenery. I leaned in and kissed her cheek, smooth as alabaster; and she brushed it off but couldn’t stifle a blush; and slipped and turned her little hand over my fingers and palm, eventually rubbing the back of my hand with a delicate thumb. I was triumphant with an ecstatic peace.
And then, as we most contentedly lapsed into some window gazing, up came that famous Clayton and Market switchback: a turn so sharp that the old streetcars couldn’t handle it, and they used to have to “switch” the backs of the passenger seats here, “switching” the streetcar in the reverse direction to continue on. Back then, at this spot, Market was still called Falcon Street, before they replaced the Market Street Railway trolley coaches and installed electrified buses in the 1930s to handle the hairpin. At present, there is a major tourniquet in the roadway here, with flashing lights and complicated traffic signals to keep things in order. Only the 33 is allowed to make this mad 180, swinging itself all the way around and downward onto Market while all other traffic patiently waits at a red. The Bay Bridge manifests towards the hilltop, just over the bend, and even the bus itself seems to emit a reverential sigh while that phenomenal view spreads below, as this “MUNI ONLY” U-turn reveals why this is one of the most dramatic rides in the city.
Sylvia gasped, just below her breath. It wasn’t much more than a quiet puff of air, but I noticed it, sweet and muffled like some underwater sound. The landscape’s matchbox houses and buildings crowded squares and spots of green and hills and streets interwoven in a patchwork of grids, gentle bumps on the city’s skin rose and fell as the sky’s drippy azure flushed with soft tugs of stringy clouds. The whole rolling shebang of it all, those acres upon acres of filled land, all that history mingled in there, the busy goings-on of almost a million souls seemed so small and insignificant from afar and above it. The perspective that distance gives: a slowing of time’s wheels that gives meaning a new pair of shoes to roam around in while it lasts. We gawked and ahh’ed as the bus arced around the intersection and settled into Market’s awaiting curve. You’ve got to take in the vista quick, as it’s gone before you know it, and often both Sylvia and I have completely missed it due to the fact that we quite possibly were too preoccupied with the vistas in each other’s eyes at the time. Really, though, in our case, we’ve never thought that a very terrible tradeoff.
We coasted down onto 18th on that 40-year-old poles-and-contact system (MUNI is currently in the process of replacing it with an updated version to power the buses), slowly gliding our way into the Castro, suddenly feeling hemmed by the narrow strictures of the straightaway. Sylvia cocked her head to the side as we stopped at Diamond, and sang, “Diamonds in my eyes, nobody’s surprised, when you’ve got diamonds just for me, too, in your eyes.”
They were doing some repair work on the J-Church tracks at the edge of the newly revamped Dolores Park, which was already quite filled with outdoors aficionados. It reminded me of a picture I had from another June back in 1916, when they’d first started laying down those tracks under the watchful eye of city engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy (who, it must be noted, also was responsible for San Francisco’s Hetch-Hetchy water system, though he died of a heart attack just 16 days before the first of Yosemite’s water was delivered to San Francisco reservoirs). In the photo, a mostly barren Dolores is being cut through to avoid a daunting 19 percent grade up to the top of 21st Street, and that famous 19th Street Bridge is in the early stages of construction with wooden crossbeams acting as scaffolding around it. That right-of-way through the park is still a wonderful scenic ride along the J, pretty much exactly as it has been since opening 10 decades ago, and the serpentine curves between 20th and 22nd Streets weave between houses and backyards: a curious, amusement park–like route to the steep hill’s summit.
I noticed a girl in pink cowboy boots — sitting rigid on a facing seat with a tinfoil-covered pie on her lap — slip a pinkie below the tinfoil for a surreptitious taste of some pie guts before exiting to presumably join her companions for a midday picnic. Sylvia proposed a quick stop to partake in some fresh air and sun, but I was bereft of hat and sunglasses and didn’t want to spoil my complexion and be uncomfortable trying to sit on the grass in the overpopulated fray of public space. We watched Mission High go by on the right and hung onto our glasses past the crowds waiting for fancy ice cream outside Bi-Rite.
“You know that was the first high school in the city?”
“Sure. Of course.”
“And Mission Creek still runs under it…”
“I love that golden-age baroque tower, all that ornamentation.”
“Elaborate, yes. Churrigueresque, though, I believe. Designed by the famed John W. Reid in the 1920s.”
Sylvia rolled her eyes at this correction and gave me that look that means, Stop being a know-it-all, Buddy Holly, or you’re going to get a smack in the jaw.
Faye’s Coffee went by, not unnoticed by us.
“They used to have videos and coffee there, right?”
“Yes. It was called Faye’s Coffee & Videos then. You could rent a movie and get a cup of mud to boot. I loved that place.”
“And here we are, still ourselves, out here among all these always-changing things.”
Sylvia smoothed a hand across the window’s smudged glass, scrunched her eyes and peered out at Valencia Street: the brand-new chic shops and restaurants, the hordes of hip yuppies out for a stroll, the dogs being walked, the strollers being pushed, the bike lanes filled with fixie enthusiasts and complicated handlebars, and all those seemingly entrenched places where long memories once dwelled but now had fled east for more affordable quarters and dreams.
“I want something to last, like this bus ride, or just a way to feel, maybe…”
She brushed a lock of a gorgeous auburn cowlick from her brow and curled a corner of her lip up, Elvis-like. I snuck a pair of aviator sunglasses from my coat pocket and smuggled them onto her. She didn’t even flinch as I kissed her behind an ear — a place she likes so well to be kissed — but couldn’t help but hide a tender wriggle and twitched her mouth into a lovely bent smile.
“Well, well. We might as well just go ahead and fall in love. There’s really nothing much better to do today.”
“No can do, My Only Pineapple. I’ve got X-mas shopping to do.”
“But it’s June, lady?”
She just turned up her nose and did her best attempt at a scoff. “Thrift Town’s coming up, kiddo. Cut the chatter and get ready to vamoose.”
It was true. The 33 made a trolley-pole clattering left onto Mission, yawing and spluttering through some mediocre congestion up to the stop at 17th.
“You know this used to be part of the Miracle Mile? Movie theaters and department stores situated up and down the block. Seventeen reasons to buy some new furniture from a guy named Redlick. The New Mission’s been revived, but all the rest of the single-screens are either parking lots or churches now. And there was Hunt’s Doughnuts, open 25 hours a day. Did you know the bars on Mission Street used to play against each other in a pool league? El Farolito versus Naps, bacon-wrapped hot dogs on every corner, an egg sandwich for your thoughts, and Rube Waddell’s tuba music serenading another Friday night. All these faded and long-gone things. Now, where were we?”
“At our stop.” Sylvia yanked the cord above her head like she was starting a lawnmower, and we both did our best imitation of a mild-mannered saunter over to the exit doors.
With a cranky swish the doors folded inward, and we stepped down off the bus and into the awaiting arms of whatever the world had to offer at that particular rare and remarkable junction in our perilous journey through space and time and MUNI rides.