Paul Madonna on finding the “Spirits of San Francisco”

Bagging on San Francisco is one of our city’s most time-honored traditions. In a time when negativity might reign especially supreme, two chroniclers of San Francisco got together to create a new book that encourages people to see the familiar in a new way.

This week on the podcast, we chat with artist Paul Madonna, who has just illustrated a new book called Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages through the Unknown City, written by Gary Kamiya. The book features vignettes of the history and topography of 16 different locations in the city. 

Madonna created drawings of San Francisco ranging from a well-known views spanning over the Embarcadero (above), or more obscure corners of the city like Calhoun Terrace in North Beach on Montgomery and Union (see below). You might know Madonna from his series in the San Francisco Chronicle, “All Over Coffee,” which ran for 12 years. As he draws en plein air—from real life rather than photographs—Madonna had to find just the right time of day to depict his subject. Sometimes, he and Kamiya even found themselves in places they weren’t really supposed to be for the good of their project.

We chat with Madonna about bringing San Francisco to life in his art, his choice of depicting city scenes without people, and why he says San Francisco is “never a jealous friend.”

Listen to the conversation with Paul Madonna and Muni Diaries cofounder Tara Ramroop:

Find your own copy of Spirits of San Francisco at your favorite local bookstore. We are bringing you stories of the people and places that make San Francisco the place we call home. Submit your own story to us by emailing us at muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com, or tag us @munidiaries on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram.

Images by Paul Madonna.

Election special: What every transit rider should know about this year’s ballot

With just a few days until the election, we invite San Francisco Examiner transit reporter Carly Graf to talk about this year’s ballot measures that can change the landscape of public transportation as we know it today.

Sure, the pandemic has severely reduced ridership and budget, but public transit’s woes started way before that. With the proliferation of Lyft and Uber, Muni was no longer the only way everyone can reasonably get around town. And on this year’s ballot, Prop 22 stands to change the operations of these ride share companies in a big way. We chat with Graf about how Prop 22 can impact economic disparity, whether Prop B can fix the toxic workplace that was the Department of Public Works, why you should get to know the BART board of directors, and more.

Listen to the interview:

If you haven’t done your early voting, now is the time. And while you’re at it, here’s an idea: Find three people who haven’t voted yet, and help them get to their polling place. Let’s make it happen.

What do you think of their take on the transit-related props on the ballot? We want to hear from you: email us at muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com.

Photo by @krobinsonphotos

Chronicle reporter shares BART busker afterstory

A lot of concerns in the Before Times seems silly now, but one of them stands out in particular: when BART director Deborah Allen tried to ban panhandling on BART, which included busker activity. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Rachel Swan was reporting on the ordinance when she met rapper Tone Oliver, whose story became symbolic of how an anti-panhandling ordinance can impact artists like him.

As commuters ourselves, we know that musicians and performers on public transit often provide us with that surprising and delightful moment from the daily grind. And many buskers have left a lasting impression on their audience, like Jesse Morris who was known as punk rock Johnny Cash, or Ron Kemp, whose gentle voice you know from Powell station. But at the end of the day, the ordinance perhaps wasn’t about buskers at all.

The ordinance didn’t pass (and Allen would go on to make other controversial statements in 2020 about BART police), but Oliver achieved local fame and even garnered the attention of the ACLU. In today’s podcast, Swan describes the aftermath of what happened after her coverage put Oliver in the limelight.

Listen to her story:

Don’t forget to subscribe to the Muni Diaries podcast to keep up with more first-person stories about life in San Francisco. And if you have your own story to contribute, email us at muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com.

Photo by Lea Suzuki, San Francisco Chronicle

Bailing out a rookie Muni driver

Remember in the Before Times when you’d see a way-too-crowded bus followed by a nearly empty bus right behind it, and you’d wonder, why doesn’t anyone get on the empty bus? In today’s podcast, Muni operator Ricardo sheds some light on why this happens, and how he tried to bail out a rookie Muni driver in this predicament.

This story is read by Steve Pepple of VibeMap, who is also a Muni Diaries Live alum and all-around public transit enthusiast.

Listen to today’s episode:

We are always looking for stories about life in San Francisco, on or off the bus. What’s the best thing that happened to you here? Did something or someone in SF change you? We want to hear all about it. Anyone can submit a story to this collective online journal: just email us at muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com. Or if you have a photo or tweet to share, tag us @munidiaries on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Transcript of Ricardo’s story:

Driving north on Mission Street, I came up to this rookie bus driver running a “double-header,” slow and late. The rookie and his bus should have been about 10 blocks ahead of me. As a result, his bus was bursting at the seams, and my bus was almost empty.

We arrived at the 22nd Street bus stop together, him in the lead, me and my bus right on his tail. There were a lot of people waiting, and they looked angry and irritable. As soon as the buses stopped (he in the zone and me double parked behind him) the people waiting ran and jumped on his bus.

Here was this poor sap doing all the work for both of us. And now he was making me late too. Through my rear view mirror, I could see another trolley bus about five blocks back. I blew my horn at the rookie, and when he stuck his head out the side window, I called out to him:

“Hey, man, you’re making everyone late. Skip stops! Don’t stop for anyone in the betweens.”

The rookie made a face at me like he didn’t understand, but then he closed his doors and pulled his bus out into the traffic. He went past the 23rd Street stop and double-parked about half a block before the 24th Street intersection and started unloading passengers in the middle of the street.

Obviously, this goes against all the operating Muni rules, and, it didn’t work. The ten people or so waiting at the 24th Street Zone ran into the street heading for his bus.

Just as they were closing in on the rookie’s bus, the rookie slammed his doors shut and pulled his bus into the second lane, away from the running pedestrians. He left them standing there, in the middle of the street, stunned, confused, and completely pissed off. I wanted to pull my bus into the zone, but I couldn’t, that same group of people was blocking my way.

So I opened my doors. As they started boarding my bus, every one of them had something to say. “Did you see that?” one passenger asked as she went up the steps, “He just took off and left us standing in the middle of the street.”

“That’s what he was supposed to do, lady. That’s why I’m here–to pick you all up.”

But another passenger was not so polite: “What the hell do you mean? Man, you bus drivers are all a bunch of assholes.”

“Yes, sir,” I tried to calm the man down, but he wouldn’t let it go.

“I’m going to report you, you idiots.”

I could have explained, but I knew it wasn’t going to matter. The hype was up, and when the hype is up there’s really nothing you can do to stop it.

At times like this, the only thing a bus driver can do is to just sit tight and take all the shit as best as he or she can take it. Hold your breath until the stink passes by.

“Goddamned government employees!”

“I’m going to report you too, you son-of-a-bitches.”

What could I have said?

“Yes, sir. Yes, man. Have a nice day.”

Playing Muni driver, if only for a few minutes

After a disturbing post-apocalyptic (or was it simply apocalyptic?) week, we’re bringing you a throwback tale of simpler times when the highlight of your year is when the Muni driver let you in on a few secrets. Today’s podcast episode was brought to you by rider Tara, who caught a Muni driver in a bit of a casual mood and fun ensues. Yes, a Muni ride that was actually…fun!

I hurry over to a bus, after seeing it parked at the stop I needed. No need to hurry, though. The driver jogged up behind me, asked where I was headed, and if I wanted a ride. I naturally assume this is driver humor; Haha! A ride, I get it. On the bus that I was trying to get on, that’s going to the very neighborhood I needed? Ha!

I guess it wasn’t really a joke. I walked over to the doors as he unlocked them, and saw the number for a line I totally didn’t want. At this point, Woman Reflex kicked in. Is this the worst kind of Muni Loony, the kind who beat up or killed a real Muni driver and stole his bus and outfit, and is now giving “rides” to women walking around alone? Instead of overreacting, I asked him what line this was. He told me what it was, but said he was just coming off his shift, and was going to be dropping it off at a Muni lot near(ish) where I was going. My intuition is pretty good, it wasn’t an odd hour, and I needed to get to where I was going ASAP. Also, I knew I could deal a pretty hefty kick in the nuts if I needed to, and it was pretty clear that he didn’t have a gun in his Muni outfit.

My intuition served me well, because he was indeed harmless. He strapped himself in the driver’s seat right away, limiting any no-goodnik-mobility, so I relaxed some. Oh, and I got to change the side and front banners to “Not in Service.” That’s right. Did you miss it?

I got to change the banners to say “Not in Service.”

It’s a pretty simple task on the older buses. Unlike the digital ones that can probably be changed with a couple stabs at a button, these signs move if you flick a switch that scrolls through all the different Muni numbers. Indicators from the inside of the bus tell you what it says on the outside, so I stopped once it got to what I wanted. Easy. And awesome.

Listen to the rest of her story, read by reader Amanda Staight:

To be fair, we have had a few stories where Muni drivers surprise the passengers, like this one time when a rider got to briefly drive an N, when the operator gave a rider some timely life advice, or when this driver played some Jedi mind tricks with the line number. Oh, those innocent times!

We’ll keep the stories coming on our podcast all the same, so if you have a story to share about life in San Francisco, pitch us at muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com. And don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast on any of your favorite listening apps.

Photo by @hamster@peter

Painting the pandemic void, one storefront at a time

One of the most sobering moments for me at the beginning of the pandemic was walking by Le Central on Bush and seeing the bistro window covered with plywood. Once the popular lunch spot for Willie Brown (who’d play dice with his pals at the table by the window), the bistro’s board-up was the first time I really sensed the fear and emptiness that would soon permeate downtown.

As plywood boards sprung up all over every neighborhood, though, a couple of San Franciscans created a project that truly made lemonade out of all the lemons that 2020 has thrown at us. Within weeks, pedestrians started seeing beautiful murals on plywood boards that covered closed shops and restaurants, starting in Hayes Valley and extending all over town. The project is called Paint the Void, which matches mural artists with shuttered storefronts. Since April, Paint the Void has matched artists who beautified over 84 shops and restaurants, making walking around in San Francisco a joy again.

In today’s podcast episode, we invite Lisa Vortman, the Co-Founder, Director of Photography, Media and Storytelling of Paint the Void, to share the story of the first mural she photographed for the project. All the photos in this post are also from Lisa and Paint the Void.

Listen to her story:

The beautiful flower mural in Lisa’s story is by Nora Bruhn (@konorebi on Instagram), which covered Chez Maman in Hayes Valley. The restaurant has since re-opened for outdoor dining, but you can scroll down to see photos of the mural and Brunh working on-site this spring.

Seeing these murals on my daily walks has been one of those things that makes me say, “This is why I live here.” You can even make a day of it—follow this map to more murals via the Paint the Void website, where you can also contribute to the nonprofit’s excellent work.

If you know someone who’s doing something great to help San Franciscans get through this terrible year, we want to know! Our submissions inbox is always open: email us at muni.diaries.sf@gmail.com or tag us @munidiaries on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

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