Though the city’s charms were sometimes “charms” on the wrong day or in the wrong moment, we knew what we signed up for. For me, anyway, that includes the normalcy of playing standing Twister on a packed bus that only got fuller with every stop. Indeed, in the not-so-distant past, the Muni Metro platform looked like this and manspreading earned you a ticket to hell.
Amanda Staight, stalwart San Franciscan and Muni fan, put her thoughts on the matter into verse for the podcast. Amanda is also a great friend of Muni Diaries, a lover of neighborhoods, communities and casual conversations. Her favorite seat on the bus is next to the rear door, up the little steps in the back—I kinda like that one, too.
Scroll down to see the transcript of this episode.
We’re four-plus months into SIP. How are you keeping your corner of San Francisco alive? Share your San Francisco stories, from on the rails or off, at firstname.lastname@example.org, on the socials @munidiaries on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Over on the Muni Diaries Twitter wire, readers tipped us to Michael’s late-night N-Judah Muni tale, which he captured in his Flickr account. Oh, how we miss the after hours “Temporary Autonomous Zone” on Muni, where you never know who you’ll meet or what will happen.
It was just after closing time at the bar, and two groups of skaters got on the bus along with a host of other characters. Somehow, different strangers on the bus offer our narrator drugs, booze, and a surprisingly thoughtful detail for both. Here’s Michael’s story:
Both of my preferred seats are occupied so I’m sitting in the last row + middle seat. There’s Junkie Guy to my left who is sitting in the corner seat and has turned the seat between us into his living room where all of his worldly possessions are spread out as he frantically rearranges his living space. A bunch of skaters in their 20s get on and sit in front of me and one of them starts playing a country western type song on his phone and they all start singing along to lyrics that are all about a love song to cocaine.
Junkie Guy instantly looks up and starts asking if any of the skaters have cocaine and they’re all, “No, it’s just a song.” Then they further explained that the guy singing on the phone does not have any cocaine to share either. Sorry, Junkie Guy, false alarm.
Then another group of skaters with a case of beer get on the back of the bus. They recognize the first group of skaters and start talking about their night. I get the impression that their paths crossed earlier in the day and now they are crossing again on the Night Owl on the way home.
I really like those moments where everyone’s story comes full circle and these different storylines converge, like the end of Dazed & Confused. I also like getting to know all of my neighbors that keep the same hours that I do but are part of different scenes.
Here we all are, the disco queens, the punk rockers, the junkies, the preppies, it’s the 2AM Breakfast Club. This is where we all End Up. All the people that did not feel like paying money to take an Uber home in a timely fashion, all on the crazy train headed off into The Sunset, all in the No Man’s Land Temporary Autonomous Zone / wretched hive of scum and villainy that is the back of the bus.
What must we do to bring public transit back into our lives? (Not a rhetorical question, please give us a list other than stay the f*ck home.)
In an NPR interview this week, SFMTA head Jeffrey Tumlin shares what he’s learned about how other cities got back on buses and trains, while waxing poetic about the cultural value of life on transit. We knew someday they’d see things our way.
Tumlin says that SFMTA had a Zoom call with the mayor of Taipei to learn about their approach. (Taiwan has been praised internationally for its COVID response). But he says that “fear and exhaustion” remain the biggest challenge in reopening public transit.
Our workforce, all of them are working ridiculous long hours and they are exhausted and our front-line workers in particular have been carrying with them a huge amount of fear. There is an emotional toll to our workforce that is going to take a long time to heal and it’s going to impact our ability to deliver service. That fear is also present amongst members of the public. If Bay Area residents retreat to their cars out of fear, the economy can never recover.
While public transit is essential to our city life and economy, Tumlin also sounds like a fan of the random acts of humanity on Muni—which this comMUNIty knows all about.
Public transportation brings us back to our common humanity. When you get on the bus you have no idea who you’re gonna see. There are the casual flirtations, there’s also the kind of witness of tragedy that kind of breaks your heart, and opens you up to gratitude if we’re lucky. Public transit is not always fun or efficient, but it certainly brings us back to our common humanity.
Listen to his full interview here on Planet Money. We think we’re on the same page about the importance of public transit, but how that takes shape safely remains to be seen. Tumlin says that most Taipei transit riders wear masks; there are temperature probes at subway stations; and importantly, the country has effective contact tracing. It wasn’t clear whether or how the SFMTA might consider similar measures in order to restore transit service.
Sometimes when you see something that really speaks to you—you gotta have it. Rider David G. sent us the story of how he came to own a piece of honest-to-goodness Muni poetry, and we’re convinced it was meant to be. Here’s his story:
In the ’90s, the group Streetfare Journal and bus-advertising company TDI placed literary placards on Muni buses, streetcars, and cable cars. When visiting a friend’s apartment, I saw one of the posters. It featured a poem about fascist leaders and was written by the Serbian poet Aleksandar Ristovic. The last three lines read:
Time of fools is coming,
time of the know-nothing teacher
and the book that can’t be opened at either end.
I loved it and asked where she found it. Were they selling them?
She chuckled and described how she saw the poster while riding the 30-Stockton through the Marina. She was struck by the words and so she asked a random fellow rider to hold her coffee. Then she simply took it down — in a bus full of commuters no less. She said that people stared, but no one uttered a word. “If you’re nonchalant, no one will do anything,” she suggested.
Being less adventurous, I didn’t follow her advice. Of course, one day all the placards were removed.
I was living in a residence hotel and taking the California cable car to work. Months later on my morning commute, to my utter surprise I saw the Ristovic poster. They obviously missed this one. Unfortunately, there was no chance of stealing it: in the closed confines of a cable car, both Muni operators were nearby.
I resolved to go to the cable car barn that evening and see if I could ask someone for it. I believed it was my last chance.
Not knowing what to expect, I walked into the barn and was met with strong welding fumes. I gingerly stepped between rows of vehicles sitting on tracks. A middle-aged mechanic was on duty and he emerged from under the tracks. Nervously, I explained the situation: I’m looking for poetry.
He seemed surprised but he told me to “look around and take whatever you need,” and returned to his tools. My footsteps echoed as I explored the empty carriages. I finally found the poster and tucked it under my arm.
On the way out, I noticed the mechanic in street clothes and cleaning his work area. We nodded to each other as I departed. Not only did I walk out with the Ristovic poem; I also found one with a verse excerpt from Muriel Rukeyser.
Time comes into it.
Say it. Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.
Thank you, David, for submitting this story, especially in the midst of missing Muni—and all semblances of normal life—lots. Fun fact: For Muni’s centennial in 2012, we partnered with SFMTA for a “100 Days, 100 Muni stories” competition, where the most quotable winner earned placement on a placard just like these.
Since the universe is made of stories, we know there are many untold ones in our corner of the world. Indulge us with that tale that’s been burning a hole in your pocket by emailing email@example.com, or by connecting with us @munidiaries on all the socials.
We met Courtney Brousseau at Muni Diaries Live last year, and he was so immediately warm and full of joy that I thought we must have met him somewhere before. He walked right up to us to introduce himself, and it was clear he loved the city so much and wanted to make it better for bus riders.
On Friday, Courtney was shot in the Mission, a bystander caught in what The San Francisco Chronicle says were 50-60 bullets that were fired on that block. This was just minutes after he tweeted that he was enjoying a burrito in Dolores Park and that “for a brief moment everything felt okay.” He died Monday night. He was 22.
We can’t stop thinking about the evening when we first met Courtney. He was wearing a jacket full of transit buttons and had just hosted an afternoon transit pub crawl with Chris Arvin (one of our storytellers that night), which terminated at the show.
Driving Muni is probably one of the most challenging jobs in the city, and a writer-artist pair is working on a book to honor their contributions to our community. Artist Keith Ferris and writer Lia Smith are creating an art book about Muni where Muni operators who participate will get their portrait drawn and participate in an interview to help us get to know the folks getting us from Point A to Point B.
Whether they are doling out life advice or playing Jedi mind tricks with you if you don’t pay attention, Muni operators have been a big part of the storytelling on Muni Diaries. Lia tells us that she and Keith have already interviewed 17 Muni operators, and are looking for eight more participants, particularly drivers who might be new to the job. The pair is also keen to interview Muni mechanics for the project.
If you are interested in participating in this project, or would like more information, you can contact Lia Smith at ljsmith[at]ccsf.edu. Lia and Keith sent us the portraits above, featuring Muni drivers David Chin and Veronica Jackson.