Being There

The 8:39 from Menlo Park pulls into the San Francisco Caltrain station amid a flurry of apologies from the conductor for the morning train’s ten-minute tardiness.  I have barely noticed, delighting more in the sense of flying along, more or less nonstop up the Peninsula.  Leaving Burlingame speechless and San Carlos stunned as the northbound rush-hour passengers flash by on the way to more important places.  At San Francisco my personal bladder conditions are so favorable that I head directly for the city trams.  Naturally, the electronic display is promulgating lies about which tram will appear on which platform.  The ‘Center of King Street’ is supposed to have an M-line tram in seven minutes, but damned if one doesn’t slide into place after I have hustled to the ‘Center of Fourth Street’ for the T line…where after another minute-long wait I am on board and rolling.  The driver refuses to take my fare.  I point out that I need a transfer, evidence of my bona fides.  He hands me one.  We are rolling.

It is the J Church tram that I need, of course, which means getting off at Embarcadero.  Where, seeing an M-line car departing with the same destination as the J line’s, I drift into a mild panic.  Certainly, I shall be late for my dental appointment.  Hardly surprising, for I have been late for dental appointments in San Francisco’s Noe Valley for decades.  Everyone there knows that I am journeying from the southern suburbs, at the mercy of trains and trams.  Thing is, both the J and the M are bound for Balboa Park, and I am fearing that being old and clueless, the ravages of time have left me in the transit dust, that if I had boarded the M I would get to my dentist that much faster.  But, no, as the driver explains, the trams take very different routes.  I want to know that at the juncture of my existence and Medicare, that I have not completely lost it.  Admittedly, I lost part of it long ago.  Even the middle-aged likes of overwhelms me with popular singers and popular culture and popular everything about which I know nothing.

Aboard the J car an obese girl, a twentysomething with studs and bracelets, the whole enhanced body spilling out of her blue jeans, is carrying on somewhat grossly on the opposite bench.  She accuses the girl next to her of crapping in her pants, a discussion broadcast to half the car.  She rocks back and forth on the bench, does the fat girl, overcompensating, one suspects, for not being part of the svelte American dream.  Above us is Market Street, far away from the dark tunnel and the fluorescent islands that open periodically to display people and shiny marble floors, all in transit.  Somewhere past Van Ness station, the tram struggles to the terrestrial surface and the girl, the obese one, tells her friend that we are about to experience a very neat turn.  

I want to tell her, yes, the quaint 90° curve into Church Street is something to love.  Nothing big in terms of world records, just in terms of personal preference.  It is something to behold, man and his pleasantly comprehensible mechanisms, nothing virtual or pixel-based, but a steel-wheel-screeching curve that points us toward Noe Valley.  Right on, big girl.  But I say nothing.

The real curves, the ones I have been rounding for almost 40 years, come at the top of Dolores Park, where the steep climb levels off and the J Church line follows the serpentine contour of the hillside.  The tracks abandon the streets and maneuver through a rail channel of S turns, 19th century wooden houses no more than an arm’s length away, flowers from neighboring gardens trailing over the walls even at this time of year.  It seems so toylike this tram route, slow and winding like something out of an old neighborhood of Naples.  Unchanged.  Both memorable and stable enough to allow one human life to orbit around it, me now, to me then, and the changing world itself.  All a puzzle, an intriguing puzzle, and somehow I am still here.  And I will not be forever, but the J Church could be, it seems…forever defined by that which follows me.

I do not linger in Noe Valley.  Too bad, for on the way to the tram all I see is interesting places for lunch.  It is a center of Interesting Places, 24th St.  But today is all about the journey.  One knows this the way one knows anything.  And sure enough, arriving at the tram stop at Church & 24th Streets, damned if a J car isn’t pulling up.  Miraculously it has just loaded its ambulatory passenger load and needs to roll only another couple of meters to the wheelchair ramp.  I wait while the mechanical steps retract, then I bounce aboard.  A good transit day.

An hour later, rolling southbound in one of the more modern Caltrain cars, I am positioned out of easy sight of a window, which is all for the good.  With my concentration pleasantly narrowed, I am seeing how it is with the most creative humorists…whatever a humorist is…in Gerald Nachman’s Seriously Funny, a look at the likes of Mort Saul and Woody Allen and Ernie Kovacs and so on.  I am of two minds, how the author can grasp the ambiguities of human character and the general zeitgeist, rendering both and interweaving them in a most trenchant way.  And the sheer work involved, for Nachman has details and anecdotes and perspectives that must represent hundreds of hours of interviews…the labor hidden, of course.  Only the completeness and the breadth visible to the reader.  Which makes the hidden Peninsula pleasantly forgettable and the hour-long ride easy and swift.

At Redwood City, the conductor asks me to move so that he can load another wheelchair.  In these more modern cars all it takes is a sort of simple folding metal surface to bridge the platform’s wheelchair ramp and the train car.  I stare idly, wondering who is boarding, watching the metal bridge deployed, the unseen wheelchair advancing…then, crash, the bridge slips out of place, the visible legs of the disabled passenger suddenly inclined downward…then the whole disastrous scenario miraculously rewound.  I can hear that the two conductors have gotten the wheelchair back on the platform.  I can also hear them asking the passenger if he wants an ambulance.  This, I have to assume, is part of the drill, something more lawyerly than useful.  Some passerby is chanting ‘lawsuit, lawsuit,’ making the gratuitous ambulance offer sound wise and prescient.

Who knows where this incident will lead, I am thinking, so suffice it to say that the situation tests my loyalties.  And the answer is simple enough, that I have two, both to the rider and the ridership, as it were.  And I feel torn.  No sense in covering up for Caltrain.  Though, I would say, there is nothing to cover up.  The metal bridge slipped, and if anyone wants to know, I have some ideas about why.  Sad that the passenger was frightened, as I certainly would have been, doubtless angry at the next stage.  Such incidents should not happen, but they do, and this one deserves attention…as does the remarkable commuter train line, patronage up 10% in just the last two years, an historically all time high.  And at this point, all I can judiciously say is: I was there.

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