20 minutes on the 27-Bryant

27 Bryant
Photo by Troy Holden

We don’t know how to characterize Devin’s ride on the 27 except to say that it contains the best of “just another day in San Francisco.” Lend him your eyes.

The 27 arrives so late that I’ve walked backwards along its route half a dozen stops, past the tourist/convention hotels and up where things start getting hilly. It’s the hottest evening in recent memory, at least 85^F and no real breeze. When it arrives, almost empty, the 27’s air conditioner is running full blast, but instead of producing cold air it instead produces a smell of burning plastic with which the rows of open windows aren’t really keeping up.

The stop at Market & 5th is always an adventuresome one. There must be a clinic or city medical service facility nearby, because the folks who get on are often poor or homeless, run down and with bits of fresh gauze and bandages sticking to them. Back-door fare evasion is so common on this route that the driver barks “front door exit only” repeatedly at a couple about to get off. The only would-be evader tonight, though, is an irritable man with bulging plastic bags and an unlit cigarette dangling from his lip, who tries to talk the driver into a free ride. When that fails and the driver orders him off, he departs with a modicum of obscenity, gesture and as an afterthought, the statement “I’ve got a transfer here somewhere.” Rhetorically, I think that statement’s meant to be used somewhat earlier in the argument.

Our regular customers include a frail middle-aged woman who has great difficulty climbing the stairs and reaching the first seat; a nondescript man in a suit, one or two teenagers and a slightly elderly man carrying a bucket full of water and small gray fish, into which he peers occasionally with a look of slight concern. He’s also hooked up a battery-operated air pump to it which hums and bubbles away to itself.

One stop later and we acquire a polite man in a wheelchair (the 27 is a busy route for wheelchairs, having only one on this stretch is actually a bit unusual). The man in the suit vacates the wheelchair bench and folds it up for him, for which the polite man in the wheelchair thanks him. Everyone seems cheered by this exchange and an air of happy anonymous conviviality ensues for a few blocks.

Somewhere around Folsom, we pick up a burly man in a jean jacket with the sleeves ripped off and an airbrushed wolf on the back. The airbrushed feathers dangle from the seams on his shoulders just above the wolf’s head. He plonks down on the seat in front of me, and I brace for the wave of B/O that I associate with the wearers of sleeveless garments during heat waves. It doesn’t come — in fact, he smells fairly nice, like he’d been taking refuge from the heat in an air-conditioned shop that mostly sold herbs and had a small line in incense. He even somewhat displaces the smell of burning plastic from the malfunctioning air conditioner, and the sense of relief afforded by this lasts several blocks, or roughly up until the moment when the polite man in the wheelchair abruptly and vigorously shits himself.

At this point everyone physically able to do so hastily relocates to more distant regions of the bus. The frail woman at the front, being unable to escape, adopts a look of horror and turns away. The man with the bucket of fish stays put but looks into his bucket with greater frequency and more concern than before. The polite man in the wheelchair gets an apologetic look on his face and flicks his lighter around himself in a conciliatory fashion. This does nothing to abate the stench, because (a) his lighter doesn’t work, and (b) to abate a smell of this proportion would require something more along the lines of a flamethrower.

The polite man in the wheelchair gets off at the next stop, which was hopefully the one he originally intended. I make my own escape a couple of stops later; the unexpectedly pleasant-smelling man is now working his small magic on the back row of seats; the man with the bucket of fish is still looking worriedly in at them, and the bus once again smells mostly like burning plastic.

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