The Loneliest Route

Davy Carren
Aug 31, 2017 · 9 min read
Photo: Davy Carren

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As the Bus Turns: Part 8

he was riding the 31…alone. Such a long, dull journey from her place on Turk and Jones out to where the breakers and fog and seagulls rule. Nothing to do but look out the window and think. The slowest of times, steeped in the subtleties of neighborhoods’ distinctions. The ruination of poverty to the unfettered climb up society’s more polished rungs.

My hair is just keratin, protein filaments, dead except for the follicles.

It’s just a thought that gropes through time, passes, and then retreats to doze off on a lopsided lawn chair in the shade.

There used to be 60-footers on this line, but now they’ve downsized it to forties. Less frequency, too. It’s just an afterthought route to MUNI — not anything important or pressing. Just a grandfathered-in line that people don’t pay much mind to anymore. Just like me, she thinks. Nobody’s only one.

A way to feel that’s not quite your own, sleepy over the flattest hollows, a song stuck in your head telling you, “You’re just an unlisted number, Baby. A credit card no longer attached to a name.”

Turk’s turning into fancier homes: centenarian Victorians with brooding porches and long front windows—some kept up and lavishly painted; some, well, not so much. She’s forlorn with the crepe myrtles’ purple flowers and the creamy white bracts of the dogwoods in the yards. Another weekday gone. Nothing happening. The world’s at a loss for words again, and so is she.

The skittering doohickeys of eave-and-siding ornamentation hypnotize her as the bus powers through the Western Addition. A stop. A pause. A break to snap her out of it.

There’s a gawky man with a thin, Vincent Price–like mustache sitting across the aisle from her. He’s wearing green socks that show below the high hems of his black slacks.

“This used to be the Vic Streetcar Sticks.” His voice is dirt layered with frosting. “A lot of these here homes are long-lasters. Been around since they extended the city limits west from Larkin all the way down to Divisadero. Late 1800s. Way before most of them homes in other places around.”

She smiles back at him as pleasantly as she knows. This is enough to encourage him further.

“And that old freeway—you know, the one that came all tumbling down in the Loma Prieta in ’89? Well, it used to run all the way to Turk. Traffic’s smog and all that. Things are better now. Slower, if not peaceful, even.” He coughs a phlegmy cough into a fist, shakes his head, and continues. “This whole area used to be such a cultural mecca for all sorts of diverse stripes of folk. That’s before they came and tore it all down, built their ‘housing projects’ and…well, now we’re being forced out again…these, what do you call them, techies? All this gentrifying. Ha. I call it like I see it. Whole families being uprooted so they can build million-dollar condos to sell to people who won’t ever even live in them. Just stash their cash and wait for the property values to go up. It’s a real shame. Just like when they swooped in during World War II and put all the Japanese-Americans in internment camps, left all their homes empty around here. And this used to be called ‘the Harlem of the West.’ Now? We’re just left with crumbs of the way things used to be. But never mind me. I’m an old man. My mind gets to wandering.”

Jacaranda and oak stream by as she blinks hard a few times and tries not to think. Commonalities in the nuanced differentiation of here-versus-there fill the gaps in her moments now. And the bus is revving against all odds as it guzzles down Divisadero for a block and then dives right onto Balboa. A man shakes his fist on the corner, about 15 seconds too late for the bus to take him on. She looks back at him standing there in an impotent rage. Disaffected and ineffectual. Just like me, she thinks. Just like me.

Up past UCSF, some former glory of stately days not diminished up here: manicured lawn, cottonwoods, flowers, and delightful shrubbery. Some dandelion fuzz floats by, and she catches it on a finger.

“That was a pretty deft move, lady.”

It’s a man sitting behind her. He smells faintly of motor oil with a hint of tuna.

“Thanks.” She’s not sure of what else to say.

He puts his arms on the seat to her left and leans forward. “There’s a lot of no-good going on around and out towards these parts.”

She flashes a conflicted smile, lips tucked in: something that says, “Please leave me be, thank you,” in the most polite of terms.

“Ah. Well. I’m just a grouser any old how. Conversation either strikes or it doesn’t. Nothing you can do about that, huh? Balboa Hollow coming up. Well, we’re just flowers without pots here…I guess.”

She doesn’t want to be bothered and slumps her shoulders and rubs her eyes, and she’s not lost at all, and her attention’s gone wandering out the window again.

The man keeps gabbing, a notch above just to himself: “From 1932 to 1949, this line was the last new streetcar line built in the United States. They converted it to buses after that, and I think Boston opened a streetcar line in the sixties, but…anyway, this line was originally owned by the Market Street Railway. They were trying to compete with rival MUNI’s A-Geary-Park route. But, well, MUNI ended up winning that battle, so it was an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em situation, with MUNI taking over the 31 in 1944.”

The bus swoons its way into the Balboa Dip at 23rd. She slips a bit in her seat, shifting forward and back. Looking through the window’s scabbed Lucite at the ratty awning of some down-and-out Irish bar, she thinks, I want to live there…here…in a bar…on a dream’s last drown. Champagne that smells like cat food. Mailed letters, Mark Twain stamps, dates that don’t exist anymore. Faces without names.

She grabs a few strands of her hair and sniffs them as the bus kicks up the Dip’s rise. She thinks of the sound it makes as almost a teakettle whistle, but smoother somehow, more refined.

There is nothing quite as slow and gradual as a 31-Balboa heading west to the beach. A thought to have after breakfast, while the coffee’s still hot, perhaps, and the day has yet to really get going. She smiles through her frizzy black hair that’s pulled down over her face now. She pretends that she still believes in wishes and cowcatchers. There is a richness beyond any bank account in these leisurely rides on the 31. It’s why she does it. And so she smiles now as she tilts her head back and watches a sliver of sky race by through the opened Dual-Purpose Safety Vent that’s acting a bit like a sunroof, and she thinks, Convenience is for dopes.

“Burrrrrr-Ing!” The trolley poles bang around and almost lop off a tree branch as she loosens the fasteners on her proprioception, letting her mind go numb and fuzzy, forgetting about where her body actually is in the midst of residing. Thinking, Left for alive, she smooths her hands across the seat’s indented bottom next to her, its scuffed surface prickly to the touch, almost like snakeskin…almost.

Seems is nothing of what she knows.

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She’s on the 24 now, rocketing down Divisadero, past the gentrified shenanigans of post-yuppie techies, all the ingrained color and nuanced distinctions lost in a blaze of high-class sterility.

I was made for watching things, for the glazed gazes I get lost in. There’s always too much and never enough.

Divisadero, from one intersection to the next: a nice, straight piece of blocks until Haight, and then up and over the Duboce Tunnel, forlorn peeks at where the numbered streets start to flow east toward the Mission. And then you’re up and over and down into the Castro, right across the street from that marvelous Timothy Pflueger–designed movie theater, with its Mexican cathedral–like exterior and the marquee reading “On the Waterfront, Brando.” Off, though, she is a bit, and so she leans back with the incline through quiescent neighborhoods of sidewalk trees and outdoor cats.

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On the 48-Quintara, due east, she overhears things: “I don’t know what it looks like to be out of sorts, on the outside, I mean, but in here, well, it’s a sacrifice I’m never willing to commit to. I came from the land of sand and crows. Now it’s all this, too, and here you find yourself, bottled up or whatever, scabbing through this well-heeled materialistic utopia of such grand and meaningless things. Clean, though, you’ve got to admit. 24th Street, as you bump over towards Mission, all those palm trees and grand center dividers on Dolores and Church, the J’s tracks jutting up against it all, razzled and dazzled and all the hip boweries between. A pie shop? Nah. Get thee to a panaderia, pronto! And don’t call me in the morning.”

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Then the 14 is taking her away down Mission. The day wanes into evening’s deep-blue rabble; seeped wine puddles through slummy hues, nicked, slim and ponderous: all the music murk allows. Standing near the front of the bus, a couple of mariachis in black sombreros wielding acoustic guitars are gabbing at the elderly folks in the facing seats. She is shyly lurking near the middle of it all. The man next to her suavely inserts a snubbed-out cigarette into his vest pocket. Everyone seems a bit gassed and jazzed at the same time, if that’s possible, or, she thinks, Like the soft patter of lilies, if that sensibly makes any nonsense.

Everywhere she ogles, it is past, gone: shipwrecked two-story buildings of waning storefronts and bought-out single-family residences; weekends lost; recherché nights spent canvassing corner bars and taquerias; movie theaters wrecking-balled into parking lots or aesthetically awful condos; cracked and indivisible neon shattered to drab, tame tones; but, also, makeshift churches blaring wondrous horns and voices from the small vacant spaces between liquor stores and avocado-toast paradises.

Something bumps. The long body of the 14 winces, and everyone peels their eyes for something to pass the time on. Her head is on autopilot.

Flattered, the going gets softer, proclivities for voyeurism notwithstanding, and she picks up a few stray strains of conversation:

“She was so drunk, she just fell over. I just heard a splash.”

“Lost at the top? Well, the bottom’s better when there are nothing but a bunch of turds floating around.”

“There used to be a steak palace around here. Cheap steaks. Decent.”

“Cesar Chavez or Army? What a strange confluence of diction and street nomenclature. The flags around here don’t deserve saluting anymore.”

“Worthier bus stops ain’t a comin’ round.”

She rollicks with any sap’s sock, travailing away into the interstices of looming destiny. Hopping off the bus, she thinks, Not my streets anymore — those ones I used to march in and wander and know so well.

The Outer Mission cracks its knuckles and lifts its weary head to be seen. History declawed and painted over, crannies and nooks all taken, and just enough room left to occupy a bar stool at an organ-music-filled bar of knickknacks and old records. And if it’s here that she finds herself, not as lost, for once, sipping at a vermouth-heavy Manhattan crammed with maraschino cherries, darker, not a stranger at all, still here, after all these years, all the bus rides and Metro rides and BART-tunnel journeys and the protests and romances and late nights and later mornings and cab rides and breakups and moves from one stuffy apartment to another cramped place, and her she is, yesterday’s makeup and bad-hair days and all, a name that doesn’t belong to anyone, just being nobody for a bit, another discontinued route, nothing to do but smile and suffer through it, lucky enough, after all, to live this way, from one thought to the next, ready or not, here she doesn’t quite go, just like always…just like she always does.

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