It is 25 May, and there is no excuse for rain. Lunch date made infinitely more complicated, or easier, by taking the train all of 1.1 miles to Palo Alto. On the platform, the tracks present their banal secret, an unimpeded vista. Cars, ever smaller, appear at one point, then another and another. The most distant ones are probably crossing the tracks in the next town, Atherton. When the train’s headlight sparks into tiny yellowish life, the locomotive may be in Redwood City. It is on the way, and so is the rain.
The train’s invulnerable mass encourages me. It will roll its steel weight southward, shrugging off what passes for weather in this mild region. The conductor says rain was heavy in San Francisco. No rain will reach us here at all, but only time will reveal that. For now, the next two minutes, I am journeying, even crossing a bridge at a creek, the county line. Tomorrow and tomorrow.
And then it is tomorrow. And damned if I’m not railing minutes before my departure. Virtual railing, that is, buying tickets on the East Coast Railway to Newcastle. It’s all very simple, but I am in something of a quandary concerning my disabled railcard, issued in 2006, and not renewed, owing to a request for my British social security number. Fuck them. Of course, I can always plead ignorance. Say I was confused by the website, which is not entirely untrue. The night before I checked out various possibilities, even first class, noting the remarkable difference in prices between departing Kings Cross Station at 10 AM, versus 10:30 AM. Nor is it clear whether I should indicate two adults with railcards or one with and one without. I slept on it.
Incredibly eight hours later, the fares have changed. Now, if I’m to believe this, every train I looked at the previous evening has soared in cost. In the end, the answer seems clear. Second class will do, especially since all departures cost the same…and choosing the fastest run will make the experience brief. By ‘brief’ I mean that trains cover the 300 miles from London to Newcastle in two hours and fifty minutes. No, they are not TGVs or bullet trains or rocket expresses. Just trains. They go more than 100 mph of course, which is what trains do. Everywhere but here.
And speaking of here, onscreen things have slowed down to a virtual standstill. I am creeping from trains to fares to seating to entering credit card information…at an electronic snail’s pace. Each screen loads slowly, as though secretly conversing with Newcastle, asking if this is okay, that is all right. Finally, it is done, but I am not. Now I dial a remarkably long series of numbers to speak to this Geordie guy about special assistance. Don’t ask why this is required. If I can pass myself off as a up-to-date railcard holder, surely I can reserve my own wheelchair space. But no. The guy in Newcastle does this for me. And what with the phone call, the slowly appearing Internet screens, damned if I’m not pushing it regarding my next Caltrain departure. I’m out the door. Might as well deposit a couple of checks on the way.
After all, I really do have time. Things occur swiftly at my bank. Even so, I am getting a bit nervous as the teller types in one number, then the next. I apologize to him, explaining that I must get to the train. Perhaps I’ll pick up my deposit receipt later, I say. No no, he shakes his head, almost done. Very well. After all, once back on the street, the station is just ahead. Still, I really must resist this habit of charging across busy thoroughfares when the traffic lights are not quite signaling me to do so. El Camino Real, being the current example. Not that I need to worry, for there really are enough cars to keep the signal sufficiently green sufficiently long. And there it is, the station, just one block away, and no need to worry now. Except that clang, clang, clang and hoot, hoot, the train is approaching. Fuck. This can’t be happening.
My wheelchair control is bent as far forward as a joystick can go. There is nothing to do, except not stop, even though my current favorite novel is slipping from my lap. Nothing to do but charge across the tracks, hoping that I’m not too far from the conductors to be overlooked. I roar, at least mentally, up the platform. One of the guards sees me, even waves. Not at me, of course, but to the driver. The train pulls away. The station clock says that my train has departed two minutes early. This can’t be happening. This doesn’t happen. Trains simply do not depart before, well, the time they depart.
Two women are discussing this very matter behind me. Yes, one says, trains are allowed to depart four to seven minutes early. I have never heard of such a thing. But it has the ring of truth, some obscure fact buried in the fine print of the Caltrain website. Fucked. I am fucked. I pull out my phone and leave a message for Leo, my lunch date. He’s not there. At 88 years old, Leo is doing his thrice weekly Pilates. He is a mensch. He is a stud. I am a fool. I have actually missed a train. Because I pushed things, pushed them too hard, trying to push one bank deposit too many into my aimless life. And now I am fucked. Stranded and fucked. An hour, everything will be one hour later than I intended. The two women are still talking, now about the Giants special, the extra baseball train that takes fans to the afternoon’s game. My breathing slows. Reality, a reality that includes trains departing ahead of schedule, reorders itself. In fact, I have fallen for this before, this rushing for an apparently early train that turned out to be a baseball train. My train, it becomes clear, is still en train.
The conductor thinks I’m mad. He’s right, in a manner of speaking, my fight/flight responses still geared. For I have first told him that I am heading for San Francisco, then minutes later, announced my intention to jump train at Milbrae. I have another plan. Actually, this has been in the works for some while. Every time I see Leo, who ceased being my college professor 36 years ago, the same plan occurs to me. Thing is, I am a creature of transit habit and can’t quite make the switch. Never mind. With everything in flux, adrenaline and various fear neuropeptides pumping about my brain, why not? Yes, I roll off at Milbrae and roll directly onto the waiting Bay Area Rapid Transit train. We set out, clattering north, disappearing in and out of concrete tubes, until at last my station. I have to double check the map in the subway car. After all, there is a Glen Park as well as a Balboa Park…and the San Francisco Muni tram system confuses me further by proclaiming the destination Ocean Park on some of its cars. Not to worry. Balboa Park it is. Up the elevator and out to the world.
For all its imperfections, one of the signs that San Francisco clings to civilization, or vice versa, is the city’s transit company, the Municipal Railway. This area around San Francisco City College seems cut off, half forgotten, certainly far from the trendy neighborhoods and tourist haunts. But not forgotten by the Muni, it seems. One of the old tram lines used to stop about two miles away, perhaps even less, so it made sense to extend the rails here. No BART station away from the city’s center is busier than Balboa Park. So, let’s hear it for the Muni. At least such was my thinking as I rolled out into Tram Land.
This is where some of San Francisco’s trams appear
to sleep at night. The Muni has a large yard next door, wrought iron fences arcing into fierce points that hang over the parked trains. I note that each of the trams curves into its parking space in a symmetrical arrangement that reminds me of wires fanning from a cable or bristles from a hairbrush. Most impressive, but what’s just outside the BART station is very much the opposite. A single track curves along one side, derelict looking, like an occasionally used siding for freights. I know better, of course and roll along the side of the BART station looking for a sign. I see one. Small and painted and with an arrow indicating J and K lines. Yes, that would be me.
I stare puzzled up at a waiting tram car. Not only is it not clear how I board this thing in my wheelchair, but whether this is the right thing at all. There are some indications that this is a Muni stop. But the weeds and the crude pavement and the minimal signage do not augur terribly well. Finally, a driver steps from a second tram parked on this siding. He tells me to head for the ramp. I haven’t a clue. He walks me down a sidewalk between the station and the train yard, weeds and rubbish blown gently in the Bay breeze. I still don’t see any ramp. We continue, my doubts growing, the footpath lined by the sort of movable barriers used to control crowds. Until, okay, yes, there it is. Unmarked, in the middle of a post-industrial waste strip, a ramp to a wheelchair boarding platform. I ascend as the driver departs, saying too bad but his tram has already passed this wheelchair launch point. Give it another 20 minutes, he says.
I am now perched on a lonely urban outcropping, staring at parked trams, and realizing that disabled access is something of an afterthought. Then revising my opinion, I decide that human access is an afterthought. BART stations architecturally advance their cause with considerable force, not to mention expense. They are all about decor, with brick concourses and ample platforms, electronic signs and surfaces that indicate where to board. At Balboa Park two rail systems meet, exchange passengers, complement each other. You would never know it. Muni seems inadvertent, giving the station a glancing blow from an alley alongside it.
From my perch high above the tracks, obvious things begin to occur to me. Why doesn’t Muni have a platform, a concrete structure elevated to the height of the trams? With things like ticket machines. Signs that explain interesting details, like what it costs to ride. Even a map or two that might show where you’re going. It is good that such thoughts fill my mind, for the surroundings are struggling hard to empty it. A plastic bag blows through the weeds sprouting between tracks. Everything else is abandoned, still and looking like some existential French film from the 1960s. The end of civilization is at hand.
But not before a tram creeps around the corner. It stops at a switch. Then it starts and, as San Francisco trams do, stops again. Now, finally having achieved some resolve, it rumbles toward me. I roll aboard. The tram advances 50 meters then stops again. The end of the line, the driver announces. Five passengers straggle off. The driver himself grabs a canvas bag and departs. I hear him tell his replacement that the lone rider is heading for 24th Street. Watch out for this guy, he adds. I appear quite benign, that is the joke. He checks to make sure I get it. I smile. Let’s get the fuck on the road, I am thinking, having spent too much of my recent life here in Balboa Park.
When we get under way there are the usual tram-style starts, stops and starts. Ocean Avenue appears. Is this the same one I pass on 19th Ave.? Doubtless. This question might not occur to me if a roaring motorway had not scarred a course through the southern edge of San Francisco decades ago. Too late. The works of man are what they are. Interstate 280 is not going away but for divine intervention. The latter not be ruled out, tectonic forces being what they are. No, I am not wishing for an earthquake, just a selective temblor that would sink 280’s roadway beneath eye level. The tram stops at the outer edge of Glen Park, confusing me utterly. And now the predicted, anticipated straightaway, the run down the center of San Jose Ave. We actually pick up considerable speed in this uninterrupted bit. Except for tunnels, Muni trams rarely have such an opportunity. We cover a long distance in short order, which is intensely gratifying.
We are approaching the final approach. Turning up one of the neighborhood streets that comprise the Outer Mission District, the mixture of wooden Victorian and stucco post-earthquake houses combine pleasantly. A sense of place. A place my own senses are attuned to, recognizing the general feel of this district where I lived in my graduate school youth. I am not surprised to see an espresso café at the corner. On pleasant days like this one, can there be any finer place? I wonder who frequents such a cafe these days. People who make their money from high tech or real estate or investments? Retired or working at home, a certain income level essential to what used to be a working-class neighborhood. Even here, half a mile from the center of neighborhood action, 24th St., I would peg the smallest homes at a million dollars. Everyone wants to live in San Francisco. The good news and the bad. Do I want to live here myself, I ask, turning the problem around in my mind, viewing it from all angles? I am viewing the espresso joint from all angles to, such is the tram’s cornering ability. We seem to be barely rotating, a friendly sign directing the driver to ‘LRV 3 Mph,’ the light rail vehicle speed.
Then, as now, my life in Noe Valley was predicated on a series of landlords. The first was a German-American who kept the place for his mother-in-law. He loathed her, that was obvious. She loved me, that was obvious too. Minnie must have been pushing 80. She was not exactly spry but compensated well enough. When I returned from campus in the late afternoons, Minnie would often lift her window, sash weights rumbling, and offer a selection of freebies. First, there was the advice. Watch out for the boys. The latter referred to roving gangs that Minnie was convinced had it in for her and, by extension, me. In the 1970s, the only boys roaming the neighborhood were gay and looking for each other. But Minnie had long ago retreated into her house and her worldview, so there was nothing to do but thank her for the warning. At which point she would tell me to wait. Moments later, a bag tied to a string would lower from her window. Inside were a collection of sweets, dimestore stuff that was impossible to eat and impossible to refuse. I would thank her profusely and go inside.
Then the owner died. Minnie went to a nursing home. I actually visited her there once, amid all the shrunken options of aging and dying in oddly provincial South San Francisco. As for the house, the buyers were a young couple, more or less my age. I expected a massive rent increase, but no. The monthly charges went up a notch or two. But that was all. The husband and wife upstairs were both from San Francisco, they said, by way of explanation concerning the continuing low rent. Whatever. I was happy enough with the arrangement.
But living conditions changed considerably. Bill, the new landlord, began appearing regularly at my door. A roaring extrovert, h
e liked to chat. The latter was not helping my progress as a creative writing student, but he was oblivious. Weekends were the worst. On one occasion he knocked on my door to offer a bit of humor. Having somehow learned of my origins, he brightly observed ‘oy vey, Mrs. Boinsteen.’ I stared at him with incomprehension while he laughed at this, his favorite Jewish joke, certain I would share in the merriment. I said ha ha and managed an aghast smile. He was, after all, the landlord.
Bill took particular interest in the old garage. It backed on an alley, a wooden clapboard structure low and narrow enough for a Model T. Bill spent every available hour there, hammering and sawing. Soon lights blazed from the lone dirty window. And in no time at all Bill let me in on his secret. Actually, after some discrete probing, we inhaled his secret. Marijuana. A whole garage full of plants grown under lights. I began trundling up the stairs to inhale Bill’s crop along with his very silent wife, Joyce. The conversations were not the most stimulating. Never mind, for Bill’s crop was. When one factored in the pharmaceutical component of my rent, the whole thing penciled out rather positively.
With Bill, Joyce and I in their unimproved, authentically 1920s living room, time and space came alive in characteristic ways. Their home filled with a heavy crystalline quality, occasional lapses in conversation overlooked by the two of them. After a few of these sessions, Joyce seemed borderline catatonic. After a few more she was gone. Bill announced that she had filed for divorce. He was on his own. The grow lights in the garage glowed all the more vigorously now. Bill’s comings and goings remained unaltered, his job being very regular. He worked for one of the big airlines, doing maintenance on jumbo jets. I made a mental note to avoid any plane he might have serviced. Eventually, grad school over and a few jobs under my belt, it was time to move, and just as well. Bill had begun renovating my apartment, a project that progressed in fits and starts. For long stretches I found water turned off in the bathroom or lights out of order in the kitchen. It was time to go.
And now, decades later, it is time to go from this Muni tram. Amazing to have almost four decades of experience in this one neighborhood. And to have the same lengthy history with Leo. I tell him about my morning hours aboard transit. Leo nods. He has heard it all. Our conversation ranges across Pilates and copy editors. And when it’s over, I make a dash for the Muni. It seems possible, just barely, that with a bit of luck I could align my trip with the 2:07 Caltrain southbound. Passing a bus shelter, I glance at the digital sign. It promises a 17-minute wait for the next 48 bus. I am an old and savvy guy now and understand what this means. Gazing up the hill I see the fruits of my life’s experience. Yes, it is the 48 bus, arriving in 17 seconds. The hydraulic lift angles me up and in. We rumble downhill toward the nearest BART station…where miraculously a Milbrae-bound train is due in two minutes. Life, all of it, should be like this. Efficient, devoid of lost time and missed connections, one component smoothly fitting with the next. True, the elevators at Milbrae require the patience of a saint, not exactly my forte, but it doesn’t matter. We are aligned, the 2:07 and I. One wheelchair space is taken, but one remains. I rumble southbound with no margin to spare.