Surfing that Old 55

Davy Carren
May 19, 2017 · 17 min read
San Francisco Geary Line and Former Marin Line, 1961. Image: Flickr/Eric Fischer

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San Francisco MUNI map, 2016. Image: SFMTA

I am waiting at the mouth of Sproule Lane where it trickles out into Sacramento’s long and arduous one-way journey west, across from Huntington Park’s swing sets and The Flood Mansion’s stoic brownstone grandeur. Just over Nob Hill’s eastern slope I can faintly hear the gurgle of a bus approaching as it grumbles and heaves up from the massive unloading and loading of Chinatown’s throngs of passengers. There are no nesting sparrows in the trees above who are intent on attacking my head just now, and this is a small, good thing, and I am thankful for it. Things are not always so pleasant for Yours Truly at this bus stop. I enjoy what remains of my good fortune, watching Old Glory flap and fidget atop the Mark Hopkins, as that singular whine and thump of the 1-California emerges from the abyss and abruptly halts to a “California Stop” where the bell boys crouch and smoke against the reaches of The Fairmont Hotel’s northern embankment.

I stand on the curb to be noticed, as there are always cars parked where they shouldn’t be, blocking the bus from pulling over at the stop. The driver hits the brakes in the middle of the street, shooting out a pistol blast of air from the guts of the weary rig, blocking all traffic on this narrow strip of roadway; and I enter through the rear, somehow feeling as if there is something immodest about it, after letting a few folks make their way down the steps and off the bus. As I get to the top of the steps, while attempting to scan my Clipper Card on the bus’s back meter, the driver decides to gun it up the hill, and I find myself holding onto the metal grab rail for life, completely sideways, my whole upper half now almost completely in the lap of a white-haired 80-ish lady in a leopard-print overcoat who’s sitting in the seat facing me. Her lipstick is very red. Somehow I am able to maintain my equilibrium and rectify the situation with some major coaxing and deft calibration of my person, and soon am sitting quite comfortably in the seat next to this anachronistic lady. In a strange, low voice she says, “San Francisco used to have a county fair.” I’m not sure at first to whom this statement is directed.

I look at her. “…um…what?”

Her teeth are stained with lipstick and her white hair is slicked straight back. The lines of her rugose, pale skin stand out like hundreds of tiny rivulets on her face. “San Francisco used to have a county fair.”


“This bus line was called the 55-Sacramento back then. And they used to have an event called ‘Surfing The 55.’ You would’ve been a star.”


I suddenly feel a lot better about myself than I have in a long, long while.

A high-pitched hum — kind of like a mechanical squeal — and the chattering of the engine sing a duet as the bus purrs onward, hooked to the electric wires above by two white, metal, tapered cylindrical trolley poles. The dual-purpose safety vents are both propped up, letting in a cool breeze that tickles people’s faces and musses the hair of those standing under the vents; and the bus, this line running on only electricity since 1982, is swaying and listing a bit as it dips and wobbles over potholes and other imperfections in the street’s concrete. The people inside are really smashed in: the brown-and-white plastic bucket seats jam packed, mostly with old people who have canes and a few with walkers that are folded up in front of them, and a lot of these elderly folks are sitting on the facing seats at the front of the bus, a few with their feet not even touching the ground, their legs just dangling. People in the facing seats tend to look out of the high transom windows, watching the scenery go by, rather than get into a staring match with somebody sitting across from them. The driver honks a few fast bleats at a scrum gathered at a red-curb stop and passes them by, pointing his thumb back behind him, as they all stare dumbfounded and angrily back at him, some even waving their arms in disgust. There is another bus, which is almost completely empty and only about a block behind ours, that will stop and pick them up. For some reason beyond my comprehension they want to crowd into this already overcrowded bus. It’s mind-boggling.

Our public transportation system, The San Francisco Municipal Railway (affectionately referred to as MUNI by us denizens), was established by voters in 1909, after the public became more than a tad outraged over the monopolistic Market Street Railway Company which had bought up and consolidated all the various competing independent systems that had been in operation around the city, pretty much taking complete control of San Francisco’s public transportation. Ever since, that same public has never stopped showing its outrage (albeit an affectionate one) for its creation. Complaining about MUNI is a San Franciscan’s birthright, but we’ll be damned if anybody else is going to impugn it on our watch. It might be slow and unwieldy and crowded and constantly over-budget, but it’s ours, and we love it, even if we curse its very existence with each breath, stuck in a tunnel, inching and lunging up a steep hill, or waiting too long in the cold at a stop while all the buses just keep going by with their “OUT OF SERVICE” signs lit up.

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San Francisco Municipal Car Lines, 1940. Image: Flickr/Eric Fischer

Hardly a lightweight when it comes to ridership, MUNI averages over 200 million rides per year. Its vast network of transport serves about 46 square miles, consisting of 54 bus lines, 17 trolley bus lines, seven light rail lines that operate above ground and in the city’s lone subway tube (called Muni Metro), three cable car lines, and two heritage streetcar lines: the E Embarcadero and F Market. It is also widely considered one of the slowest public transportation systems in the country.

I take the 1-California to work every day. I’ve been doing so for about ten years now. Before that it was the 22-Fillmore, then it was a combination of the 43-Masonic, the 38-Geary, the N-Judah, the 24-Divisadero, the 31-Balboa and sometimes even the 44-O’Shaughnessy (always makes me think of Dashiell Hammett), all of which have taken me from the various places I’ve lived to the few places I’ve had the sometimes unfortunate and wondrous experience of working at in San Francisco over these last twenty or so years. I’ve seen a lot of odd things happen on those bus rides, sometimes miraculous acts of bravery and courage and human compassion, and many other times acts of degrading, immoral, and downright nauseating depravity, most of which I’d probably just as well not remember.

I’ve been on a bus that suddenly got two flat tires on the same side, sending all of the passengers rolling over and into the side seats and windows, eventually steadying on the sidewalk on Haight Street, the driver beckoning us all off the bus and then promptly walking down the street and into a bar. I’ve been on Owl buses in the wee hours of the night, riding alone with the driver for long stretches without making even one stop. I’ve seen knife fights, and men urinating on the floor and out the back doors when they opened to let people off. And the potpourri of odors I’ve had to hold my breath against: struggling to slide open those high horizontal windows over the putrid stench of three garbage bags of smashed cans and some of the worst B.O. on the planet; people wearing too much perfume; the sudden whiff of KFC; or just your ordinary mildewed, over-mothballed suit. A driver of the 38 once pulled the bus over at Van Ness, stood up and faced the passengers, and announced, “Okay, folks. It seems we’ve got no brakes on the bus anymore. I’m going to hang a left here and try to coast all the way down Van Ness as far as I can. You’re welcome to take the ride with me, or you can get up and wait for the next bus.” I really wanted to stay on the bus with him and see what happened, but was running late for work, of course, so I had to make an exit. Then there was the time on the 44, riding through that winding section of Golden Gate Park, when I caught an old lady in my arms on a sharp curve as the bus lurched and threw her tiny spinning body into me; she thanked me, and, while holding tight to the metal grab rail above me, I sat her down on a seat with my free arm. I’ve seen people smoking crack on the bus, smoking joints, smoking cigarettes; drinking beer, hard liquor, liter bottles of soda, coffee, and even slurping Salsa Con Queso from the jar (all of which would most likely spill on the seats or floor); people eating everything from chili, to chicken, to bowls of salad, to leaky containers of Chinese food, and even one time a steak with a plastic knife; again always leaving some leftover portions on the bus, along with their trash.

The One jostles from stop to stop on Sacramento, getting stuck and laying on the horn behind double-parkers and moving vans only a couple of times while passing through the long-suffering Victorian Stick of Polk Gulch, and then onward to Van Ness’s wide swath where long lines of orange delineator grabber cones flank the street’s middle, as they’re currently demolishing the center divider to make way for San Francisco’s first Bus Rapid Transit lanes. These two transit-only lanes will one day run along two miles of Van Ness and South Van Ness, from Lombard all the way to Mission, physically separated from the street traffic and with transit signal priority for buses. They say it’ll be done in two years; but we MUNI riders have come to doubt such timetables and deadlines. It’s taken them almost ten years just to decide to maybe start doing the same thing on Geary. There are still plenty of decrepit trees sprouting from the spaces where the bulb-outs and platforms will eventually go. I give them two years just to cut the trees down.

My mind drifts to the more antiquated means of comporting The City’s population. I think of Andrew Hallidie, that bastion of wire rope and hero of San Francisco Cable Car lore, whose steam-powered cables put all the horses out of business on Clay Street, as he converted his aerial tramway for mining into The Clay Street Railway for the express purpose of transporting people instead of iron and ore up and down steep slopes. His first run was in 1873 on Clay between Jones and Kearny, where the eastbound version of this very same now-electrified bus line still runs. Personally, I cannot stand those antiquated, overpriced, tourist-filled rattletrap contraptions that still, all these years later, continue to trundle and quake through Nob and Russian Hill, slowing traffic and fouling up the WALK signs at four-ways, and are basically just the bane of my peripatetic existence. They cost MUNI more to operate than any other line in the city, and are rarely used by commuters and locals, but they are so identified with the touristy, romantic image of San Francisco ingrained into the national consciousness that there is no way MUNI will ever let them go; and so, as usual, all my griping’s for naught. Flow your tears, the gripman said. All is vanity, I guess.

The bus thrusts and gasps and flounders up towards Lafayette Park. The dogs and sunbathers are out in full force, enjoying what little’s left of daylight’s shine on the grassy inclines. Around the wending apron, stalks of jasmine and flying-saucer, flattop flowers tremble and lean with the wind. I wonder about the birdwatchers and the picnic-table lunchers and takers in of splendid bay views from park benches. I’m snapped out of my oneiric reverie by a dozen or so people shouting, “STEP DOWN!” at an elderly well-tanned gentleman in a white flannel suit and a porkpie. He does. The doors open, he waves thankyou to all aboard, and steps out and into the sunny arms of the world. There are signs on the doors telling people to step down to open the doors, but, at least in my experience, people rarely ever read signs. The bus huffs, gathers itself, and buzzes onward.

I know the 27-Bryant and the 1-California by heart. I don’t even have to look up to see what stop they’re at; I go on instinct, like a bat. I know what lights they have to make if I’m going to arrive at my destination on time, and I know just what stop will take the longest, where the most people get on and off, and the stops they might just happen to swoosh on by unless somebody pulls the Stop Request Cord. Gough and Franklin can be brutal on The One heading west — the longest light in San Francisco, I do believe. And you can forget about ever making the light at Laguna on the 38; trust me, it’ll never happen. Just sit back and enjoy that Walk sign as it counts down for about 38 seconds I even recognize a lot of the drivers: some kind and jovial, but herky-jerky in their maneuvering, some brutal and sad, but efficient and lightning quick.

I also spot a lot of the same people who, like me, tend to ride these same lines every day. We sometimes give slight hesitant nods to each other, mild signs of acknowledgement and commiseration. Late one night, as I was riding the 27 home across Market, an old man sitting all the way in the back of the bus screamed about a dozen times in a row, “Are you scared to ride the 9-San Bruno at midnight?” I have to admit, after that, I was.

The bus loses its trolley poles at a switch. There is a collective groan from within.

Across the aisle from me a paunchy, middle-aged gentleman with a more-than-slightly-receding hairline, in Bermuda shorts and sporting a cheap pair of emerald sunglasses, pipes up: “See those lines drawn on the street there? That tells the driver where the switches are. He’s supposed to slow down. Guess he forgot.”

The driver swings open the clear plastic door that separates him from the passengers, puts on a yellow safety vest and thick gloves, and climbs down the front steps to go out and put the poles back on. There is nothing to do but wait. Behind us the trailing bus comes up, and then passes us, streaking by with a buzz and a whirr, rattling away on up ahead. Much clanging and clattering and banging around can be heard, as the driver pulls on heavy ropes attached to the poles, trying to realign the slots in the ends with the wires above. He seems a bit like a puppeteer, artfully toying with the slackened bight of rope in his hands, making the poles dance and swing back to the lines. Finally, the interior fluorescent tube lights flicker on and the engine springs back to life, and a slight sigh of relief comes whispering out of the passengers as the driver hops back on board. Motion comes again, and we are off, down past Fillmore. I take in a quick whiff of waffle cones from the new ice-cream parlor on the corner that’s continuously had an obscene line snaking from it since opening up shop this spring; and soon we’re making the sharp left turn onto Steiner, where it always seems as if the bus might tip over, or not make the turn and have to back up and give it another go; but it makes it, and we head down towards the two gas stations across the street from each other at California, one of which is always about 30 cents more a gallon than the other. Then it’s off on the long straightaway west, all the way down to 33rd avenue, a place that seems like another country from where the bus started out downtown among the skyscrapers and rushing crowds, where everything’s waiting for you.

I finally get a window seat to myself, as the bus crowd thins, and I sit there looking out the window, at all the buildings and shops and houses on California, leaning my head on my hand, watching the cloud-riddled sky go by, too, and feeling that little-known comfort that comes every once in a while when you’re riding a not-so-crowded bus, looking out the window, and nobody is bothering you, and you are not worrying about anything at all. It can be downright transcendental. Outside the window’s glazed and scratched rectangles, muted hues of blue stir moodily among the drifting putty-like shrapnel of clouds melting into pumpernickel shades, purpling for now the etched arching edge of sunlight still hanging on by a glittering thread to the way the day is fading. And the day is fading. And the bus rolls on with Matterhorn moans, and a flutter of swift gusty sighs, and a charged clench of fizzling that seems to pop a million imaginary, flea-sized bubbles at once. Suddenly, the window is unhinged. I’ve accidentally, if not absentmindedly, pulled up on the window’s red emergency release lever. The whole frame now swings back and forth freely, connected only at the top. There is no way to reconnect it. The wind gushes at me. I pull the bottom closed, but it is no use. The window does not want to give up its newfound freedom. I sit and try to enjoy the wind.

The spark and wheeze of hydraulics, the spinning chortle of thrust, and then there is the silence of stoplights. There is nothing so quiet as being on an idling electric bus. If nobody on the bus is making any noise, there is no sound, and the moment can be almost beatific in its purity. Though more often than not it will be uncomfortable as hell. Or some idiot will have her headphone’s volume up too loud.

People tend to use their cell phones a lot on buses. Maybe it’s the only time they have in their busy lives to have these conversations. It’s incredible the level of knowledge I can attain about a complete stranger’s private life just by riding with them on the bus while they talk on their phone. And how loudly they talk about these things is absolutely ridiculous as well. I once overheard, as did the whole entire bus, how a girl had been trying on her lingerie for her boyfriend, and the intimate details of what had ensued, as the girl was blasting at the top of her lungs about it over the phone. I swear, her voice was echoing. My ears were ringing when I got off the bus. I have heard about people’s abortions, sex lives, drug preferences, family histories, lost virginities, and one silicon-breasted woman’s job interview for an escort service, in which she calmly and nonchalantly explained in gruesome detail the things she would and would not do, unless a certain larger amount of money was involved, in which case she was game for anything. I have sat there in my plastic bucket seat trying to ignore people screaming, sobbing, laughing, and pounding their hands against the windows while they hold their phone between their shoulder and their ear. There was one guy who was screaming so loud into his Bluetooth that everyone on the bus began giving him dirty looks and shushing him. It’s such an odd thing, on a fairly empty bus, without anybody else making much noise, to have this one guy talking so unbelievably loud, and for him to be completely oblivious of this; and maybe, I don’t know, be embarrassed about it? And maybe hang up or get off at the next stop? It did create a great sense of solidarity among the other riders, as we all were ganging up against him, and probably felt a bit better about ourselves as human beings afterwards. I don’t know. He was still rambling away when I got off the bus, even though an old lady in a neon-green visor had poked her finger at him and hissed. He’d merely slapped her finger away and kept right on with his stentorian gabbing. Some people just don’t get it.

I stare at the floor. I think about how it’s like sparkling grip tape: a black, silver-flecked, sandpaperish material that is usually rubbed smooth in some places, and has traces of worn-in stains peppered here and there — along with at least some wayward streaks of graffiti. It does make standing easier. I scrape my shoes across its grainy surface. I pretend to dig my toes into it. I wonder about the people who make this kind of floor covering, and how much they get paid, if they’re licensed, and if they have kids in college, or pets. Is there a factory that makes only these rough silvery speckled sheets? If so, do they give tours?

California dips and rolls, plunges in shadows and re-emerges draped in sun. There are stretches of stucco houses with tawny paint jobs like taffeta, which seem to glisten at times, each with their own individuality carved out by laboring hands seven or eight decades ago. Hardly any front lawns. And all the storefronts side-by-side in Laurel Heights, the people out walking, going in and out of hardware stores and grocery markets and coffee shops, the dogs tied to parking meters with leashes, the gas stations. The Starbucks that is always open and filled-up with cramming students on the corner at the light you make so often that when you don’t it feels as if the universe is telling you that this, well, this here is just not your day. And then up comes Maple Jordan, the stop by the hospital that sounds like an old, wise woman out sipping sweet tea on a porch, and that is all jammed with traffic during rush hours. The bus stalls and starts and lunges and honks its high-pitched squawks of annoyance, and then rolls on out to Arguello where there’s a bit more wiggle room to roam. The sights transpose from a windy blur to a stilled frame. Instants of trees and parked cars and birds and swerving bicyclists and meter maids writing tickets and fire hydrants and fire escapes strapped onto brick frames, counting my way up to the avenues with the green lights.

Everything spills forwards in a burst of brakes, and I slide out of my seat and into the clear-plastic barrier above the fake-wood paneling by the stairwell. The driver has decided to not make the light at 6th. I decide to pull the Stop Request Cord. The electronic bell dings, and a robotic female voice politely chimes, “6th Avenue,” as the light goes green. The bus sidles over and idles at the curb with a sudden flurry of electronic beeps marking its territory. I make my exit, stepping down to open the doors, and then leaping to the sidewalk, as is my wont at such times. It is great fun, this leaping to the curb, and I wouldn’t stop doing it for anything.

The bus rolls on away, its giant tires rumbling, its trolley poles dragging along, streaming a sag in the wires above, as if a fast-moving funambulist is racing by up there. I watch it go. There is a small cyclone of dust in its wake, a whirl of the detritus people leave behind. And the sky clears, and something is rent above, like a tear in the curtains of heaven, and I watch those damn thick black wires hiccupping around, and the concrete utility pole shakes with short tremors for a spell, and I wonder about figeater beetles and radio waves and the weakness of gravity and the minute adjustments to the clocks of GPS satellites so they stay accurate enough to show me when the next bus is arriving — and I don’t worry or wonder at all about how or when I’ll be getting on back home.

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