Stalled on Stockton (With Just a Touch of Ecstasy)

Davy Carren
Aug 17, 2017 · 14 min read
Photo: Davy Carren

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As the Bus Turns: Part 7

ith cratered chassis and sulking shocks, long-suffering creatures of a valve-pump gulp, the 30s and 45s line up from tunnel to Columbus in Stockton’s parade-slow march of traffic. Heaving moans and extended hinge-squeak decrescendos (distinguishable from construction’s crass groundbreaking pulses by the discerning ear) rip and ricochet through the brick-and-cement terrain, along with the peppered tonal yaps and bartered cries of the markets, the recess screams of schoolkids, and the thunderous flaps of a band of pigeons swarming gutter-splattered spilled noodles. We are all here, common or not, getting by, waiting or busy, folding up the reed organ of our personality to fill the creases in the anonymity of the crowd, pressing firm our demands into the soul-sapping workweek, just trying to catch a bus to go from one place to another.

The Bank of America ATM screen is smeared with some Crisco-like substance, and I’m squinting through it, attempting to guess what its instructions are telling me to do. The place down a few doors is selling dress suits for 75 percent off, as they always seem to be, those “imported” brands that are sold only here in North Beach, as far as I can tell. I keep smelling rancid-dumpster rot mixed with sewer gas and a hint of burnt coffee. Behind me, the bus stop is full of milling and circling individuals, phone talkers, and shopped-out grocery-bag toters. There’s not exactly what one would call “space” for pedestrians to get by, as people are also lining up to use one of the two Bank of America ATMs, making it hard to figure who is actually in line and who is just loitering about waiting for the bus.

North Beach is teeming with midday walkers and stop-and-stop traffic. The ragged muffled coughs of the buses imbue the scene with a congested snorting essence. All movement feels restricted, caught, and boxed in. Green, Columbus, Stockton — these three warring thoroughfares all ram right into each other here in the solar plexus of this noisy purlieu. Green’s Golden Boy has a line for the best pizza going, and there’s a five-piece ragtag band playing classic soul hits on the intersection’s construction-riddled northeast corner. Eventually, I am able to squint and guess my way through the ATM’s blurry prompts, and it ejects my withdrawal in the form of four crisp $20 bills. Wind-blown trash is scuttling by all over. A mailbox-blue sky, cloudlessly tranquil and high, settles over it all with a distant embrace.

An old man with a wispy white goatee sits in the window of Vieni Vieni, a bottle of beer and a quarter-filled glass on the ledge in front of him as he sips and stares and stares at the traffic going by. The famed barman Specs Simmons used to frequent this place; some say he even preferred it to his own bar, Specs, a few blocks down Columbus, just past Broadway on Saroyan Alley. I pace a few storefronts down and watch Little City Market’s commotion as the stampedes scramble all ways at Vallejo. Such sad and pretty neon that’s flickered and buzzed through the decades on that corner, red with white cursive and block letters denoting that lost working-class, delicatessen aura of other eras.

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Photo: Davy Carren

There’s a large brick circle embedded in the intersection’s midsection marking where water is stored beneath the street. After the 1906 fire ravaged these parts and many others, San Francisco decided it would be a good idea to have these water troves throughout the city in case of another similar disaster. The circle of bricks marks the spot where, supposedly, this water still waits down below, undisturbed for more than a century, for its chance to make a splash on the Big Time.

Three bus routes run down this patch of Stockton — the 8, the 30, and the 45. Madness and chaos don’t do justice to the confluence of sidewalk-and-street hysteria that overflows on this carotid artery of Chinatown. Hong Kong–style open-front shops and markets cram both sides of the streets, their tawdry awnings colored diverse shades of red, yellow, blue, and green wedged tightly against each other. On any given afternoon, these sidewalks will be jammed full with locals who are out bargain hunting for supper among stuff as varied as sea cucumbers, bird’s nest tea, dried ginseng, canned eel, live poultry, and tank-scooped fish. The trolley-pole wires above form a matted skyscape to go along with the general soot-stained and tarnished atmosphere as the buses clumsily plow ahead through Stockton’s bumper-to-bumper stall.

Tipsy daisies curl up like cats on windowsills beside the furled clutch of torn curtains. So many dispirit and scraping-by lives lived in the tenement rooms up above the bustle: Hidden places where people rarely look, and if they do, it is not to marvel at the courage and patience it takes to exist below the poverty line, nor to take in the richness of these simple lives of quiet desperation, but to just quickly glance at a street name or stretch their neck muscles, not a care to who resides in these small spaces. Whole families bunched together on bunkbeds, with clothes pinned to fire escapes and dangling between buildings on lines, newspaper taped up in the window to block out the glow of blazing signs and streetlights. Those who survive on so little and take forever less than they ever get. Always rooms to be shared for new arrivals to the Land of the Free inside the pocked and weathered bricks of these tenements: charcoal shadings of pastel-colored surfaces. The lungs of the city coated with layers upon layers of exhaust and smoky redolence, their scaly skin shows their years: the wear, the rust, the scars, and the whole rife weltschmerz of it all. And only one bathroom on each floor.

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Photo: Davy Carren

I spit at it all and sip it all in, hunching my way back to the stop. A 45-Stockton suddenly appears around the corner from Columbus, where people have been huddled around watching their phones to pass the time. And then it’s onto the bus we all go.

Space, as always, is at a minimum. I feel the squeeze and pressure of packed bodies. Pink plastic “Thank You” bags dangling in fours and fives from arms, filled with strange tubers and vegetables, leaves and stems overflowing from the thin handles like bouquets; stoic faces and pushy elbows measuring out room to stand in; I get hip-checked by a small woman with dual ponytails carrying a canvas bag stuffed with bitter melon and lettuce and some sad, dented yams. It’s okay. I let her by. These things are to be expected under conditions of duress and competition for standing room.

With a stumble and a stagger, this rolling concussed caterpillar barrels ahead. I artfully snare a handhold between strange coils of arms, attain a good pivot-foot position, and steady myself for the ride.

There are more people corralled around the next stop than could possibly fit on even two of these double-cabined articulated 45s. Everyone inside who’s staying on sucks in their gut and clings closer to their belongings as the doors crick open and the boarders pounce through. The few brave stragglers who got a late jump getting off at the stop are having extreme difficulties sawing their way through this mass of new riders. Much panicky flopping about and garment-grabbing ensues, but eventually they are able to spear their way through and exit.

The driver waits and waits, the doors remaining open, as the now-hustling dawdlers attempt to slim sideways and writhe through scads of jumbled limbs and torsos. Finally, after a few unsuccessful door-closing tries, the driver is able to secure everyone in and get this disorganized sloppy show on the road once again.

I read all the names on the multicolored awnings going by: the Hing Lung Co. (which has a rooster facing off with a duck on either side of the name), Ho Kee Market, Sun Sun Trading Co., the Asia Mall (the green M peeled off against the white background), the Tang Fat Hotel next to the Walgreens across the street. And soon we’re almost up to a decent walking speed passing Sun Sang and Hop Hing markets, Gum Gune Jewelry, Hop Hung, New Louie’s Inc., and New Moon Restaurant north of Pacific.

I think back to the Barbary Coast days, when Pacific was called Terrific by the shore-leave sailors who carried on and got raucous there, when Portsmouth Square was still the center of all the carousing, even before the landfill buried all the abandoned clipper ships and extended the shoreline out to its current location. The Chinese history of these streets goes back just as far, back to when the Hop Sings and the Suey Sings ran things and engaged in their violent, turf-defending tong wars. The whole territory was almost lost after the 1906 disaster burned everything but the brick Old St. Mary’s Cathedral to the ground. But the displaced immigrants quickly rallied to rebuild it, putting their own fanciful Chinese-influenced flourishes on the Edwardian style of the times. San Francisco’s Chinatown is now the country’s most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan, with 15,000 residents living within a 20-square-block area. Though heavily tromped through and overrun by tourists along Grant Street, it is still very much a thriving community.

My eyes keep reading as we roll through Pacific and head up to Jackson and Washington: Liang’s Food, Tan Tan Trading Co., Gourmet Kitchen, Tian Tian Market, Wing Sing Dim Sum, Duk Hing Chinese Deli & Meat Inc., Tan Guard, SF Poultry #2, Kwong Cheong Tai.

A newly refurbished Chinese Hospital has recently arrived all shiny and clean on Jackson, a nice upgrade for the neighborhood and still the only Chinese hospital in the country. It provides service to the community through the Chinese Community Health Plan (CCHP), which is operated by a nonprofit association of physicians. An eight-story tower now keeps watch over the narrow Chinatown alleys that don’t line up with each other from block to block, most of their pavement and sidewalks fractured and upended and bump-riddled. No more opium dens or brothels in their subterranean dwellings, just rooms for card games, dance classes, neighborhood meetings, and the cymbals, gongs, and bowed strings of traditional bands practicing.

Up on a power line is a hard-to-believe queue of at least two dozen pigeons. They don’t care about hospitals or even what day of the week it is, minding their own uncomplicated business, scouring the streets for scraps of food to pounce on.

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Photo: Davy Carren

At the temporarily blocked-off end of Washington, the new subway station is still in the primordial stages of construction, as it seems to have been for at least the past five years. It’s still more of a storage space for massive drills and cranes than anything resembling an actual building project. Now the opening has been delayed another 10 months due to bureaucratic red tape and internecine warring between the city and the company hired to do all the tunneling and station buildings. December 2020 is now the agreed-upon goal for the first passenger rides. Many small business owners around these parts (and there are many, since Chinatown is pretty much nothing except small, family-owned businesses) have no confidence in this new timeline, as they’ve already been promised a plethora of other sooner opening dates over the course of the past 10 years, only to have those dates moved back time and time again. All the noise and vehicle storage has already cost them countless revenue, as the tourist trade has slimmed around these cordoned-off hard-hat zones. They’ve been promised a huge uptick in profits when the new subway opens, bringing in shopping dollars from all over the city, but this promised “flush time” never seems like it’s going come soon enough.

A thin gold-and-purple cross painted on the cracked camouflage-browns of a church’s tile wall next to the site’s fence seems somehow an ominous sign for the whole undertaking. During the project’s early stages, I’d had my picture taken under that cross to mark the spot in case it was all demolished, as they’d already razed one of my favorite brick-and-mortar buildings to make an empty lot to build the station on. It had housed a great, shabby, one-room, counter-style dim sum place called You’s, and I still miss it, even though it’s since moved to new digs over on Broadway. It’s just not the same anymore. Nothing ever is. Magic like that never lasts.

There is not only little room to move on the bus, but there’s also hardly air to breathe, especially when that air’s anything but fresh, sticky with all manner of odoriferous scents. Luckily the windows and vents have all been opened, so there’s at least a thin layer of oxygen barely circulating through. A woman sitting below me has two red-flower-patterned white plastic to-go bags of leftovers on her lap, reeking of chow mein and beef.

Just across the street, a parked CAT digger sits inside a chain-linked square marked off by blackout canvas and signs reading “DANGER. Do Not Enter.” Lining the gap over the nearby storefronts are the scruffy awnings of the Golden Way Trading Company, Tai Sang Co., Golden House Produce, and the Mii Dii Hair Salon. The windows of the rooms above are dull slots punched in the industrial surface of a white slab tenement, and I wonder about them, their occupants, the newspaper shades, the T-shirts and jeans and underthings hanging from the fire escape. Privacy is a commodity, too, out of reach for some, still. Like all of us MUNI riders, slamming into each other and trying not to stare too long at one place or tip over as the bus brakes sharp and hard to avoid a bicyclist who is dangerously weaving around parked cars near the temporary pedestrian pathway next to the construction site.

Sacramento’s the last stop before all the buses shoot through the Stockton Tunnel. More than 900 feet long and just 13 feet high, constructed during Mayor Rolph’s tenure in 1914, it has three lanes (two south, one north) and a lighted, guardrail-lined walkway on each side. A blue neon sign above each end reads “Quiet Through Tunnel” over the archway. The curved walls and ceiling are covered in smog-smothered tiles, which echo voices something wonderful late at night when the tunnel is traffic-less, though the reverberation of buses storming by echoes nightmarishly awful during the day. Two cement stairways on each side lead up to California, where there’s a tremendous view north looking over all of Stockton’s convolution and out to the bay.

The stop’s right outside the New Fortune Dim Sum & Café: a small, grease-pit of a place, yet a tasty spot to get some cheap snacks or a dim sum lunch. I highly recommend it to any pressed-for-time lunch goer. The ha gow is not to be missed. A less-massive heaving of bodies ensues here (more push than slam), but I’m still hard up for breathing room. With some stealthy shoulder circumduction, I refinance my position and crane my neck over to an ajar window for some air. There isn’t much — and everything smells like ammonia and ketoacidosis breath for some reason — but I am able to inhale enough to sustain me. The doors fold closed with a whomp. There’s no going back now. Like cannon fodder, we are smooshed in here, waiting to be fired through the tunnel. I hold onto the head-level grab bar with both hands, steady and firm.

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Photo: Davy Carren

A clump of wires and slots over Sacramento thrashes the trolley poles, but they hang tight to their guides, and soon we’re picking up speed through that dark cavity bored through Nob Hill’s schist and shale. This “open door to North Beach” was primarily built by miners with oil-lamp hats and was used by old F-Stockton streetcars until 1944, when it was replaced by the current trolley buses of the 30 and 45 lines. The slick and freeway-routed 8-Bayshore also uses the tunnel now. Stockton Street was lowered on the south side during the original tunneling, as is readily apparent in the second-story windows of the Mystic Hotel, which before 1914 were the main entrance to the lobby. The former basement was converted into the first floor after the tunnel was complete, and still is so today.

It feels like we’re doing 60 through spotlights and smog, the tile walls and cement ceiling thick with tailpipe residue. The indoor bus fluorescents flicker off, plunging us into a weird darkness that’s hazy and calming. It’s like peering through a convex lens as the scattered lights of the outside world pan by. I gape at the wavy sight lines and those deeper nooks and cavities of the side walls, some containing what look to be strange metal doors. The walkway’s high guardrails snugly edge us in as we pick up speed. All is motionless inside the bus — everyone standing still or sitting down — yet here we are, hurling madly through murky oblivion toward the light.

It’s only a matter of 10 or 15 seconds that we spend in the tunnel, but the bus’s roaring charge plus the indoor darkness make our exit seem monumental, as if we’ve been prisoners of an elapsed absence from reality. Soon we’re pulling over at the stop by the Mystic close to Sutter. The bus’s motor shuts off.

It seems this driver’s shift has come to an end, and he unloads his backpack from the stow space beside his seat, slams open the side safety door next to him, and rambles off down the front steps. An awaiting driver, small duffel bag in hand, just starting his shift, patiently stands and chats with him a bit as he prepares to take his place in the driver’s seat. After some minor adjustments to the seat and mirrors, the new driver restarts the engine and settles in for the trip: through detours around Union Square and down Mason, eventually crossing Market and getting on with it, all the way up to Townsend and 4th, and then back again, through the crush and snarl and crowds and traffic and stalls and detours, and through the tunnel to Chinatown again, and then through North Beach and down oriel-windowed Union Street into the Marina. He’s yapping at people, saying, “Hey! Hello! How are you?” a lot and smiling, and he looks genuinely excited to get going. Sure has a lot of gusto, this guy, at least to start with—and, well, he’s going to need it.

My trip is done. I step off through the back doors, patting myself down as I do so for my wallet, phone, and keys. Everything is where it should be. All my trinkets are intact.

High above, close to the Tunnel Top bar on Bush, where the tunnel’s southern stairs lead, hangs the Green Door’s sign: “A Touch of Ecstacy. Massage. Sauna. Whirlpool.” The other side of the sign, visible from Bush, is identical, except they decided to spell “ecstasy” properly. I love this side’s misspelling. For some reason it comforts me. It’s always just been that way. In this world of fading and undependable things, it’s something I can count on: ecstacy.

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