The 38-Geary: Where the Masses Go to Meet the Masses

Davy Carren
Jun 9, 2017 · 20 min read
Photo: Getty

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The accordion-bellows stretch of the 38-Geary careens and slumps through the new Central Subway’s construction chaos at Union Square, thrumming moodily past Macy’s and plopping down at the curb just past Powell’s pullulating mob of pedestrians. The older articulated 38s always remind me of washed-up dragons flung to desuetude, just leisurely going about their business, not concerned with keeping up appearances, bold and bruised, scarcely able to muster the energy to muscle through the Tenderloin without a few pauses to rest their weary limbs. But this is one of MUNI’s new fleet of hybrid “Clean Air” buses: 60-footers that run on a blend of diesel and biodiesel, which is concocted from recycled oil and fat. I have to admit, the scent from the tailpipes is much improved, almost appetite-whetting at times.

Across the street there is still a “Best Deal On The Square” banner below a dirty canvas-covered sign, as Lefty O’Doul’s has recently departed, though the relief molds of green stucco clamshells are still intact on the facade above the closed-down entryway. The horrible bluster of cooing pigeons echoes from above in the ornate fretwork of the St. Francis Hotel’s southern ledges and eaves. I am leaning on the glass window of a wine bar below an awning to make sure my person stays free of dropping guano, and, miraculously, nobody is blowing cigarette smoke in my face. This is very pleasing for the moment, and I take what comfort I can in it.

As the bus bleeps and shifts, its front kneeling to align with the sidewalk to let the senior and disabled passengers step off, people swarm in through the middle and rear doors of the two cabins. The current charges upstream and mad, and it’s difficult to move past people who are standing in the narrow aisles when the bus starts to get crowded. You have to say “excuse me” under your breath and try to squeeze by without putting any of your body parts against the body parts of another person. It takes a good deal of contorting sometimes to negotiate the shrinking area and finagle your way through. The end result is a lot of physical contact with strangers, much getting into other people’s personal space, and usually a pulled muscle or two.

I manage to grab a head-high yellow pole above the facing window seats near the back door while space fills up all around me like the tide from a crashing wave. People scramble to get a seat — these new, more-comfortable blue padded seats being much prized over the older orange bucket variety. Much sneering and ruffling of personal items can be heard over the gargling putter of the bus’s engine. I stand and hold tight against it all as the doors finally manage to clinch closed with a strenuous inhalation.

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On December 30, 1909, following the passage of a bond issue allowing construction of San Francisco’s Municipal Railway to begin, Mayor Edward Robeson Taylor gushed:

“This is great…The Geary Street road will now be built and run by the people and for the people. This marks an epoch. It means civic freedom…Some day our children’s children will look back with wonder at the things we have stood for and suffered. Public utilities run…by the people…will give service to the public.”

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I’m looking back at two grubby men in headbands, carrying overflowing duffel bags on their laps, in the packed back seats. They are in the midst of attempting to light a joint with matches below a window that, for some reason, they haven’t thought to close to reduce the wind that is blowing out every new match they strike.

As the bus wobbles onward past the panhandler-famous Walgreens on Taylor, I get hip-checked by a dour woman in a black dress and matching sun visor, who mumbles a toothless, “Saawwrry,” as she mopes by. I swing forward on the poles and squeeze through the accordion-stretch connector: a rotating circular floor piece that shifts and croaks as the bus negotiates the terrain. After much clutching of yellow poles and pawing forward past the high throne-like seats over the wheel well, I emerge in the standing room of the front’s reserved-for-disabled-and-seniors territory.

Some scrawny guy in desert camouflage fatigues is straddling the yellow line that’s supposed to separate the driver from the hoi polloi. He has wild tufts of dyed-black curls enveloping his dome and keeps referring to the driver as “operator” as he rapidly spews out some hard-to-decipher drivel about getting to the VA at Fort Miley — where this bus is not going, as the destination sign is clearly labeled “Pt. Lobos & 48th Ave” — as his legs spasm and quake under him, and he holds tight with arms wide, scarecrow-like, to the metal grab rails on each side of the aisle. I keep thinking of that Jim Croce song and am singing in my head: “Operator, will you help me make my stop. See, the places in my brain are old and jaded.”

A large sign above the driver’s head proclaims, “Information gladly given but safety requires avoiding unnecessary conversation.” I like how it says, “gladly given.” It’s a very euphonic phrase. We cringe to a stop at Taylor right outside the High Tide, one of the last remaining true dive bars around, and the scrawny camouflaged gent plows forward and into the fare-collector machine, grimaces and utters a few choice curse words as he twirls from a yellow grab rail, and then positions himself back behind the yellow line.

The bus sloshes and flumps. The standing passengers reposition and heave. The driver stalls out a few times, and then whizzes off down another block.

“Leavenworth,” states a mild-mannered male narrator voice as the yellow letters scroll across the ceiling’s digital message board. “Please hold on.”

My ears are bombarded by the blaring chirps of Clippers cards being scanned on the meters. A few seniors on walkers squeeze by the front-standing guy, who — after much ruffling and reconfiguring of his person — decides to exit the bus, as the driver beckons him to “Catch a Fort Miley bus, man. It’ll say it on the destination sign.” He waves thanks and plops down on a plastic three-part bench seat under the stop’s shelter, which is flashing an ad for Hawaiian Airlines.

The disembodied voice tells us, “The doors are now closing,” and soon we are rumbling and sloshing our way off to the next stop.

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This roadway was originally called Point Lobos Avenue, a name that survives as a branch and extension of the current Geary Boulevard, which pays tribute to John W. Geary, the first mayor of San Francisco after California became a U.S. state — not to be confused with Thomas J. Geary, who authored the Geary Act, a terrible U.S. law that extended the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 by adding onerous new requirements. The street began as a right-of-way dirt carriage track to the Cliff House and Ocean Beach, two very popular local attractions. For a time, a flat track where adventurous horsemen raced their mounts on Sundays ran parallel to the road.

38 Geary Muni bus route. Image: sfmta.com

The Geary Street, Park, and Ocean Railway operated cable cars on the street from 1880 to 1912. They initially ran from Market Street to Central (now Presidio), connecting to an extension running steam-powered cars along Geary to First Avenue (now Arguello), whereupon they turned south to approach Golden Gate Park. In 1892, the cable car line was extended to Fifth Avenue, where it turned south to reach Golden Gate Park directly. Despite its name, the Geary Street, Park, and Ocean Railway never actually reached the ocean. One nickel at a time, these street railways made millions for investors.

Starting in 1912, San Francisco’s new Municipal Railway exercised its rights to take over the expiring contracts of all the existing transportation franchises. As the Park and Ocean Railway’s permit expired, The city hired day laborers to dig up the old cable system along Geary’s three-mile route. Overhead trolley wires were installed for the new A-type trolley cars that featured one-side single seating for quick boarding and Eclipse fenders to prevent pedestrians from falling beneath them. The B Geary line eventually reached Playland (the now-defunct Coney Island of the West, featuring a wooden roller coaster called the Big Dipper and gimmicky automatons such as the famous Laffing Sal) and Ocean Beach after turning south at 33rd Avenue and west on Balboa Avenue.

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The Tenderloin’s yeasty reek is steaming in the midday sun: a slight urine-tinged ammonia scent dashed with notes of rotting vegetable and garbage-truck musk. The high transom-type windows are all slid open, and the cool air rushing in when the bus is in motion is a good distraction from the packed and rank proceedings. The fingers of both my hands are slipped through two gray rubber handholds, which hang down like nooses from the top level of the yellow safety-bar framework.

My eyes begin to roam. Tiny letters are etched into the windows: “Acrylic Plexiglas, Polymer Dot Shapes.” And up above the fluorescent tube lights are all these vapid advertisements lining the bent space between the windows and ceiling: those bus-long curved slides that are somewhat similar to bowling-lane gutters. The ads just hook in and kind of bow inward in the middle, like what happens to a playing card when you palm it. I read all the words, as is my wont when gazing absently around, and I say them a few times in my head. Things like, “Text 566 to this number and get free games for your phone!” or “MUNI Forward: Price increase starting July 1, 2017,” which is in four different languages.

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MUNI has been on a steady uptick of fare hikes for about a decade. It had a dollar fare for as far back as your faithful correspondent will admit to remembering, but since some operational budget problems around the turn of this past century—MUNI always has to have a balanced budget, per the voters—the fare has increased pretty much yearly and is now headed up to $2.75 for a single ride.

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I keep reading. It’s hard to stop once you get started with something like this. There are red stickers in the shape of arrows—“Please Move Back”—and above the exits: “Caution! Do Not Stand In Stepwell.” “Thank You for riding MUNI!” I start noticing a lot more of these stickers now that I’m looking for them. Most are red with white letters. One sticker reads, “Emergency Exit. Pull red handle down and hold while pushing window out at bottom.” The red handle is right there beside me, and I find myself desperately wanting to pull it down for some reason. It’s like having an itch you can’t scratch. But I restrain myself. Another sign’s telling me to “PLEASE HOLD ON. Sudden stops are sometimes necessary,” and another at the front of the bus is blue with white letters and reads, “These seats must be vacated when wheelchair users need this space.” It has a white silhouette of a stick-figure person seated over two-thirds of a circle above the words. I like that one a lot. It’s unique.

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Photo: Getty

The 38-Geary is the most heavily used bus line in the city, with a daily ridership of more than 50,000 passengers. I’ve probably taken about 10,000 rides on this line over the years—the old diesel-spewing buses (that were wider and had a lot more standing room); the clunky, always-graffiti-covered, orange-seat fleet; and now, of course, these sparkling new hybrid behemoths. Traffic-snarled, stuck at a light, lifting wheelchairs and strollers up and down on front-loading ramps, scenes of countless screaming matches, cane fights, and other ribald and miscreant activities all the live-long day — the 38-Geary, from the Transbay Terminal (when there was such a thing) all the way to the end of the Avenues, is where the masses go to meet the masses: the too-old and the too-young to drive, the working poor without the means to own a vehicle or a place to park it if they did, the unlicensed, and a covey of other misfits and garden-variety commuters who’d rather not take up space on the city streets with their personal mode of conveyance.

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We drift and slam mightily against the worn curb half a block east of Van Ness. This is a temporary stop for the duration of construction of a new 700,000-square-foot CPMC hospital that’s going up across the street, with a complimentary medical office also taking shape behind block-long wooden-hallway barriers along this side of Geary. I used to frequent a bar called KoKo Cocktails in the building that was razed to make way for the project. In a temporary lull of nostalgia, I miss its always insane and frazzled confines, the bartenders’ screechy wails and overpouring ways, somehow keeping the peace over the boozy miscues of the raucous patrons. Once something’s gone for good…

My sappy romantic reverie is interrupted by a shady individual, pungent with a waft of leftover chili and steamed cauliflower, draped in a thick wool shelter blanket and mumbling as he thrashes by: “I am a promised man, they know my name all throughout this land, a promised man, don’t take no hands, a promised man, I am….” I hold my breath and squirm against the side seats. Soon he’s cleared out a few seats at the back and settles into some small talk with himself.

We moan a few honks up Cathedral Hill, past Tommy’s Joynt with its neon “Hot Corned Beef, Cocktails” sign in the window and the two buffalo fighting over the Buffalo Stew pot painted on the sidewall announcing “Open Until 2.” There used to be two more stories on top of this hofbräuhaus, but they were sliced off around the same time the Geary Street cars were discontinued in 1956, as some automobile-championing city planners got swept up in the freeway mania of the times and decided to make Geary into an expressway linking downtown to the Golden Gate Bridge. They converted Geary’s B Street-Car line into Mack buses, and the section of boulevard between Franklin Street and Masonic Avenue was upgraded to a signalized expressway in 1961. It features between four and eight through-lanes and two grade separations at Masonic and Fillmore, complete with frontage lanes.

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These tunnel-like separations are a major reason that a subway line cannot be built below Geary, as that would require filling in these deep-cut tracts to bore a path under the current street, an extremely costly and awkward task, to say the least. But I’ve long sung the sad tale of what could’ve been with real and extensive subway lines in San Francisco instead of the little, insignificant, and bogus ones we got stuck with.

It goes back to a failed 1937 vote on a city proposition that would have enabled San Francisco to “incur a bonded indebtedness of $49,250,000 for constructing subways and acquiring a Rapid Transit System.” Unfortunately it failed, 42 percent to 58 percent. The Market Street Railway was largely to blame for all this, as the company put signs on all its street cars proclaiming, “STOP THIS FOLLY! Vote ‘NO’ on №1!” They were afraid of losing business and their two-cent transfers. And so instead we got buses and taxis and clogged streets with limited parking. Great work, guys. Really, thanks a lot.

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A 38-R comes along and screams by us on the left. These “rapid” buses make only about every fourth stop and used to be called the 38-L, or “limited” bus, before MUNI got it in its head a few years ago to upgrade the whole 38 line into some sort of semirapid-transport system. MUNI created bright-red “bus only” lanes along both eastbound and westbound one-way stretches of downtown and started referring to any new changes they made to services on the line as “rapid.”

I have found that the bus-only lanes do help speed up the buses, especially during rush hour, but it’s a long way from any sort of BRT system like the one that’s currently being engineered on Van Ness. Again, this has to do with the stupid expressway stretch of Geary that’s really impossible to rebuild in a way that would help or favor public transportation at all. It would be like creating a runway for airplanes in the middle of a freeway. The city is planning on extending some transport-only/center-boarding features of the BRT out into the Avenues, but there are still some powerful business owners out there who oppose even doing this. And so the murky and snail’s-pace crawl of San Francisco politics is on display once again, doing its best to do absolutely nothing as expediently as possible.

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The bus clears out some as we pass the wide expanse of the Catholic Mega Church on Gough and — with the stop-and-go jounces of deliberation — make our way out past Japan Town, and then under the ridiculous pedestrian walkway at Webster that’s supposed to keep jaywalkers from risking death-by-traffic-altercation but instead just makes it more likely, as the long schlep around and over the street takes much longer than simply darting across it, which many do. And the whole setup really saves no time for the cars, as there is still a traffic light at Webster. The bus keeps to the right, paring off from most of the other vehicles that take the center road cut beneath Fillmore, where they get to speed through this amazingly short tunnel and miss one whole light. Such incredible transportation planning, this. Someone should get a damn prize.

These new buses make strange squeaks as the insides rattle over indentations and divots in the road. Sometimes it feels as if the whole monkey-bars apparatus of handholds for standers will just come unhinged from the floors and walls, sending all of us unlucky enough to not find a seat eyeglasses-over-necktie to our unfortunate demise. But it hangs in there, as do we, and the bus carves out a slot for itself in the far right lane.

At Fillmore, a deranged barefooted woman, whom I affectionately refer to as Satan with Whooping Cough, howls her way up the back steps. Her raspy voice sounds like the demon in The Exorcist, and she speaks only in screaming blurts of non sequiturs that are followed by this unholy sound, like she’s trying in vain to clear her throat of the most vicious hairball on the planet. It’s a constant stream of profanity and gibberish that frightens most riders out of her vicinity.

The bus caroms out into traffic on its way up past the library on Scott, and then idles over to the stop on Divisadero: one of the most dangerous intersections for bicyclists in the city. I’ve witnessed or seen the cleanup from so many accidents over the years between these traffic lights that it doesn’t even phase me anymore when I see an ambulance parked in the middle of the street, causing gridlock, while a crumpled bike lies devastated on the concrete. I’m not sure why this one intersection is so deadly for the two-wheelers, but I always advise extreme caution to all who pedal through. Sadly, this world is still filled with drivers who just don’t pay as much attention to the life-and-death consequences of their actions as they should.

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This whole area used to be just sand dunes and chaparral before the humans came along and paved over everything. The sand still rises every time a building is razed out here, creating beachy corners and tiny desert-landscape cutouts if the lot is left alone long enough. I have often been tempted to waste away an afternoon in a beach chair on one of these temporary lots, donning sunglasses and a Panama hat, mint julep by my side, toes in the sand, and perhaps a dry wind tossing Mojave dreams my way.

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Up the hill toward Masonic we go, over another short traffic tunnel. I am using the two-handed technique to grip a couple of rubber nooses so as not to lunge backward into a fellow standee. I am thinking about cemeteries and baseball stadiums—Cavalry and Ewing Field, primarily—long removed and shipped to Colma and McCovey Cove, respectively. Tony’s Cable Car Burgers goes past — that boxy, cramped relic of restaurants opened in old train cars — and soon we’re pulling up by the old MUNI car barn and the massive, misaligned four-way at Masonic across from what used to be the Lucky Penny: a decent, cheap 24-hour diner in its day, now gutted by a kitchen fire, soon to be bulldozed out of existence to make way for overpriced condos. So much gone. So much that’ll never come back.

We skid from the stop and grumble through the intersection’s commodious berth. The music from someone’s headphones is blaring a steady bass beat in a sudden gap of quiet.

Just as I’m settling in for some sappy daydreaming, a bottle clips me on the hip. I glance down at a young couple sitting in the seats below me. They both apologize, very politely, and I tell them it is not a problem at all. His name, it turns out, is Tears Aku, and she’s Millie, and they’ve just been engaged and are sharing a bottle of champagne to celebrate the occasion. “My family’s from Japan, but I’m from here…and now she is, too.” I don’t think Tears is his given name, but I don’t press the matter. I don’t want to pester them too much, as any couple celebrating their engagement by drinking champagne from the bottle on the 38 is just about the most romantic thing I can imagine. Tears tells me they’re going all the way to the end of the line, and then are going to walk down to Ocean Beach and sit in the sand and watch the waves and seagulls and the sky until sunset. Millie — her black, shoulder-length bob sleek and gorgeously wig-perfect — leans her head on his, unable to hide her absolute joy behind a playful smirk, her eyes gone all blurry and lost toward him. I wish them the best and swing my way like some drunk acrobat from handhold to handhold toward the back of the bus, where I plop down in a single seat by the passenger-side windows.

Now, with a brash sneer, the bus’s bumpy traipse enters the Richmond District. The death of the single-screen and independent movie theater is evident along this stretch of Geary. Where once was the Bridge is now a baseball academy; the Coronet and its giant screen have met the wrecking ball to make way for an Institute on Aging; and out at 18th Avenue, the blighted Alexandria is currently being remodeled into an aquatic center. I get nostalgic for simpler times and things, and then realize that nothing’s ever very simple, and then the whole bus shrieks to a stop as the driver misses a light by the Walgreens on 17th.

A surly and irreverent individual enters through the rear and takes a seat across the aisle from me. He’s filled his sweater with bottles of Nivea lotion, possibly lifted from the Walgreens, and is in the process of removing the sweater and placing the bottles on the seats next to him, in an apparent attempt to count and organize them but getting distracted by whatever is menacing his concept of reality. Soon he’s bare-chested and chasing around this seemingly limitless supply of bottles that have fallen on the floor and under seats. Most people are scurrying or leaning away to avoid his aggressive stabs at recovering his loot. Eventually he goes mild, puts his sweater back on, and begins to stuff all the bottles back into it, which is a strange thing to be doing, but at least he’s not bothering the other riders, and, well, to each their own. It takes all kinds—and they all, fortunately or not so, ride the 38-Geary.

We motor through that wide forest-like center divider on Park Presidio, filled with eldritch trees and shrubbery, passing such gems as Gaspare’s Italian, Joe’s Coffee Shop, the European Markets, Tommy’s Mexican, and Martell’s Liquor. We carry on into the Heavy Wet of the outer avenues, which is somewhere between light fog and a drizzle and gets heavier and wetter as the day thins. The windshield wipers make a few sweeping arcs over those immense front windows that offer a superb view of daylight’s fade into the flattening distance. The loud ding of stop requests and the announcement of street names, the stop-and-go from light to light (supposedly, if you maintain the exact speed limit, you’ll make every light, though the buses never do), the banter and empty stares and shifting of body parts and coughs and burps and sneezes and bless-yous and myriad different languages being spoken and the slight staticky garble of a handheld radio — it all merges and melts and coalesces into and out of my thoughts as I contemplate the ramifications of transit culture’s declines and rebirths and survival rate.

I scan the bus and realize that everyone is looking down at their phone. Nobody is gathering notes about scents or scenery or catching tigers in red weather. This is fine. Everything is okay.

More folks disembark at each stop, and fewer and fewer board as Geary thins and wanes into the Forties. The street splits at a brick fire station, and we’re now on Point Lobos: these few blocks are all that’s left of the street’s original name. We troopers who remain probably can’t help but retain at least an inkling that we’ve traversed greater distances than it seems, as the world outside has transmogrified from the bustle and fretting of the city’s pullulating arterial madness.

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These streets are placid rivulets cutting through sleepy vistas of residential homes whose concrete gardens, terra-cotta flourishes, clay roof tiles, iron-trim porches, and stucco fronting are forgotten reminders of a post-1906 building boom that brought waves of earthquake refugees to the open parcels of land out here, as families decided to start afresh and settle in the Richmond. The parcels were subdivided within a few months of the disaster and houses began to pop up all over the district. Classical revival and mission revival detailing abound in these century-old flats and “marina style” single-family homes with basements converted into garages below them.

During the 1920s, the largely Irish American neighborhood gained a large influx of White and Orthodox Russian residents who fled the Russian Revolution. In the ’60s, after the lifting of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants came in droves and now account for nearly half the district’s residents. The area’s incredible array of restaurants, small groceries, Russian bakeries, Polish delis, and niche shops is due in no small part to the diversity of culture — and this humble correspondent’s appetite is very thankful for these gormandizing happenstances.

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The bus eases into its final stop, just up a block up from a great breakfast place called Louis’ that has a spectacular view of the Sutro Bath ruins. The Cliff House is also close by, and I find myself wanting to go sit at a table by a large plate-glass window overlooking the Pacific’s tumultuous edge, where all the land just ends, sip a martini, and watch what’s left of the day’s cobalt fade into the horizon’s darkening clutches. I say farewell to Tears and Millie and wish them great fortune as they ambulate arm-in-arm down the S-curve of the hill toward the beach to the south.

Dropped out here — soaking in the mist of the end-of-land sadness, slipping through the fog’s chubby fingers as the ocean spans all the distance I can take in, snared by the past in this miraculous and carefully layered netting of a here and now that’s always a there and a then too — I have a gritty admiration for the 38-Geary’s long crosstown travails, all 8,760 hours of the year, destroying its shocks over potholes, avoiding collisions, abiding through all the mayhem and rough stuff the commuting world has to offer, and safely delivering passengers from home to away and back, just as it has in one incarnation or another for roughly 100 years.

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