Standing on the bus on Monday night, Joaquin is close enough to the man in front of him to smell the detergent from his recently washed sweatshirt. He is close enough to spot the tiny mole on the furrowed face of the woman beside him. For him, such proximity is normal.
Nearly every night after 9 p.m., Joaquin and hundreds of other students taking night classes at City College of San Francisco’s Mission Campus perform the same routine. They push open the doors that let out onto the 22nd Street patio and walk past the hipsters at the Revolution Café and the mariachis at Cava 22 to Mission Street, where they stand on the corner.
There, beneath the dim streetlight and a towering Sketchers sign, they wait for the 14 Mission bus. Like Joaquin, an immigrant from El Salvador, most are studying English, learning new vocabulary and how to identify irregular verbs.
Outside, they gather in twos or threes to chat, mostly in Spanish unless another continent enters their realm.
Cindy from China, for example, talks in English with her friendly Latino classmate. Speaking softly, she says she takes classes to use English at her work.
“Packing,” Cindy says.
“For seafood,” she adds before dashing off to catch the 14 Muni.
To simply make it onto the bus, dashing is a common technique. Standing-room-only is a luxury, and many buses reach maximum capacity quickly. Cracked, dry hands stack on top of each other like a totem pole, wrapping the steel posts that have become atypically warm.
The packed, moving hulk of a bus is filled with students like Cindy. There’s Jaime from El Salvador, Luis from Guatemala and Karena from Honduras. Nearly all work more than eight-hour days and take classes at night to get ahead in their jobs.
For others, however, the English language takes on a different significance.
“Without English, I feel trapped. I would like to express myself,” said Esmeralda, 29, in Spanish as she waited earlier that night to go home to the Excelsior. Esmeralda came from Mexico to the United States in 2006.
During the day she takes care of her three-year-old-son.
“When he starts asking me questions in English, I want to be able to answer him,” she says, both hands stuffed inside the warmth of her sweatshirt pockets.
The ESL department is the largest one at City College of San Francisco. Throughout the fall 2010 semester, the Mission campus offers more than 90 English as a Second Language courses, almost all of which are non-credit, meaning they do not count toward a degree and they are free. Of these, 30 are considered night courses. Approximately 4,000 students take the classes, according to Mission Campus Dean Jorge Bell.
The night classes run Monday through Thursday and last approximately two hours, ending at either 9 or 9:30 p.m.
On a Wednesday night at the bus stop, one student says he thinks the classes will help him get a promotion.
“At work, they demand it indirectly,” says Jaime, referring to English. “You feel obligated to speak it,” he adds in Spanish.
Jaime, wearing a black beanie designed with orange flames and a black zip-up fleece, is from El Salvador. He clutches the plaid backpack between his knees. I’ve been taking classes for the past year and a half, he says.
An employee van picks him up every morning at 6:30 a.m., and until 3 p.m. he delivers baked goods in the East Bay.
While some like Jaime will use English in the jobs they already have, others need to learn the language for simple economic survival.
Martin, a 30-year-old day laborer from Mexico, is one of those.
“It’s nothing steady,” he says on a Monday evening.
Minutes later, an elderly woman topples over with the abrupt stop-and-go motion of the bus.
She holds on to the young man beside her and laughs when he jokes, in Spanish, “We’re both doing down.”
Joaquin agrees with Martin. For him, two things make life here difficult. “Language and little work.”
He’s only employed on the weekends for construction in Hayward, he says as the bus lumbers past the intersection of Mission and Valencia streets.
At this point, a young man realizes his stop is approaching. “This is going to suck,” he murmurs before shoving through the crowd to reach the exit door on time.
Time is something the students don’t always have enough of. As a result, some take breaks from school that can last years.
Jaime initially started taking classes in 2006, but stopped for two years because of a conflicting work schedule.
The most advanced students, some of whom have a previous background in English, take no more than two years to become fluent in English, according to Dean Bell. But for others, including those like Jaime with complicated job schedules, it can take up to six years to complete the courses.
Luis, from Guatemala, has only been taking classes for two months, but he is already in level two. In a black-and-white checkered sweatshirt at the bus stop, he removes his earphones to explain that he takes English classes “for work” as a welder in Bayshore. The 22-year-old has been here for two and a half years.
On the bus a different night, another student like Luis puts on his earphones and gazes out the window, leaning over a white-haired man asleep in his seat.
While it may take years for some students to complete their English education, some continue on to other academic programs. Joaquin says that until recently, he was also taking computer classes.
Dean Bell estimates that 50 percent of ESL students go on to take credit classes that count toward a degree.
“Our goal is for them to do that,” said Bell. “We have a large population who are in transition to gain new skills or to brush up on old skills that go back to work.”
Still, for others, the main transition is from speaking in their native tongue to speaking in English.
Karena, a 30-year-old woman with her back pressed up against another’s backpack, holds on tight to the straps above her head as she talks about her routine.
She has spent the last year studying English at night in addition to working as a housecleaner in Daly City from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
From a small town in El Salvador, she is determined to learn how to communicate in this big city.
When she gets home by 10 p.m., she might watch a movie in English to become more familiar with the language. She likes action and scary films the best, she says, awkwardly chuckling as if she immediately regrets her answer.
Like Karena, Jaime will return home and turn on his TV set, except he will be watching his favorite show, “Alarma TV,” an overly dramatic program of Spanish news.
Before that happens, however, he will transfer from the 14 to the 8X on Geneva Avenue in the Excelsior and ride the bus to his home on San Pablo Avenue. There he will go to sleep around 11 p.m. and wake up at 4:30 a.m.
Jaime doesn’t have a favorite phrase in English yet. But just a few feet away from him on the congested bus, Karena does.
“Happy,” she says in her accented voice.
Last names have been omitted to protect the students’ identities.