Given that the old fares were rarely enforced, I figured it unlikely that I would be expected to pay the new $2 fare just a few minutes after it went into effect at 12:01 on July 1. So I ask the driver – “$1.50 or $2?”

She shrugs, “$1.50.”

I only have a $1 bill, and no change. The driver shrugs again. I’m on–for the next 24 hours.

Later I discover that the 7.8 mile route is the longest trolley line in the city, but now I’m experiencing what that means riding from Daly City to Crocker Amazon, the Excelsior, Bernal Heights, the Mission and SOMA on to the Ferry Terminal. The route, run by trolley cars before the switch to electric trolley buses, has been roughly the same for 109 years, according to Ron Mitchell, a Muni driver of 21 years and one of my many drivers that day.

The 14’s route passes through San Francisco’s largest enclaves of Filipinos and Latinos and businesses, picking up more than 36,000 passengers a day.

It doesn’t take long for some of those riders to note the fare change. Shortly after midnight, the grumbling begins.

“$2 huh? F@#$ that,” says one passenger in Girbaud jeans and a Bluetooth earpiece.

“That’s ridiculous,” the man says, who goes by the name Swagger. He doesn’t blame the drivers.

“They’re good … it’s a stressful job.” He knows. The driver’s his former girlfriend and even though they’re separated, he rides the bus from Daly City to the Ferry Terminal. Hoping.

Charmane Lyons, Swagger’s ex, has the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift on the 14 Mission tonight.

Lyons listens to some, ignores others.

Most riders use a fast pass and those too have gone up by $10, to $55 with another $5 increase scheduled for January 1. But many don’t pay anything at all.

I balance my time between staring outside the bus at the darkened streets and businesses, staring inside the bus, and staring at the inside of my eyelids.

During the border hours between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the bus’s clientele is a mixture between late-night workers headed home and a series of Diane Arbus photos, characters slightly out of kilter.

Most passengers appear asleep, high or both as the bus moves down Mission Street.

At 2:10 a.m., two men get on around 16th and Mission. One, an older white man with a sunken shriveled face, the other a Latino, who appears to be in better shape, but maybe not. He still wears a hospital bracelet. As they sit, the woman next to them gets up and finds another seat.

“You didn’t have to move,” the white guy says softly.

It’s loud. Someone smells like urine. Passengers talk to one another in the intimate tone of those who’ve stayed out way too late.

An old, dirt-caked Chinese man with half-inch long fingernails gets on somewhere in SOMA. He takes his shoes off to reveal badly torn socks. He apparently doesn’t notice or is long past caring because he props his feet against the front rail and lays back to enjoy the ride through SOMA to the homeless resource building at 150 Otis.

Maybe he knows something we don’t. It appears to be one of the hot spots at this early hour.

Another woman has bigger problems than the 50-cent fare increase. “Why the f @#$ won’t my phone go in my pocket!” she screams to no one in particular.  The bus’s handful of late-night riders pretend not to hear.

We’re headed south now, past the commercial heart of SOMA and the Mission, and I’m balancing a desire to doze off with a curiosity of what’s in the southern part of the city. I make a note of new places to explore – Caffeinated Comics (serving Four Barrel coffee!), Zante’s Pizza (Indian + pizza?), Good Fricken Chicken (another place to get my Mideast on) to the more residential Outer Mission, onwards to the Excelsior and way out to Crocker Amazon. Less dense than the Mission, mom-and-pop stores are distributed between rows of houses, complemented by a few bars that seem like the kind of place I’d be given about 30 seconds in.

It’s possible riders are accustomed to fare increases.  They’ve had three in the last six years, doubling the fare from $1 in 2003. The first went to $1.25, then to $1.50 in September 2005, and today we hit the $2 mark.

While in the past riders have attempted fare strikes, many of the 686,000 riders who board one of the Muni’s 79 (for now) routes on a weekday simply don’t have a choice. Some 203,000 San Francisco residents live in households without a car, according to the 2006 American Community Survey. I am one of them. Actually, thinking about it, only two people on our staff own a car. We too are tethered to public transportation.

As daylight begins to break between 5 and 6 a.m. the bus quiets. The crowd has changed. Now, most on board staring at the spot directly ahead of them are on their way to work. They’re quiet and I busy myself by staring at the floor where I see an empty plastic container of pineapple chunks, half a cigarette and a dried stream of sticky liquid.

“That’s too much,” says Jose Luis Gomez, in Crocker-Amazon, a neighborhood on the San Mateo County border, just before the end of the line. We’ve stopped just inside Daly City at the top of a hill between a motorcycle dealership and a paint store. Gomez is headed to his job at a health club further up Mission Street, in Excelsior.

“That’s a lot of money,” he says, in Spanish referring to the increase.

Gilberto Jimenez, waiting at the same stop, complains about the timing. “Maybe one comes at six, you don’t know when the other one is coming.”

As the hours wear on, the Muni increasingly looks like an unlikely candidate for ridding the city of its deficit blues and its own $129 million budget gap.

Sure, each of the 686,000 daily riders will pay 50 cents more, discount riders – seniors, youth and disabled — another 25 cents and those who pay buy a monthly pass $10 more. But that’s all theory.

Many, many riders jump on the 14 Mission and stay on for free. One study estimated that anywhere between 54 to 73 percent of the riders at three stations paid no fare at all—not surprising considering how many board from the back.

While Muni doesn’t have a formal estimate of what fare jumpers cost the system, its been estimated at more than $10 million a year. Riders skip the fee in any number of ways, crowding through the back door at 16th and Mission, promising to pay “next time,” or taking advantage of the rush hour to sneak in the back door.

You’ve done it, I’ve done it. We all play a part.

The driver shrugs, we don’t pay at all or we pay less.  Or, we use the same transfer all day. No one asks.

Danisha, another 14 driver who declined to give her last name, says she reminds riders of the fare as they get on, but Muni drivers aren’t supposed to enforce the fare or to order anyone off if they don’t pay. Instead, as she tells one would-be passenger, “ask the driver behind me.”

“People have been giving me crap, ‘why’s it going up, we’re in a recession,’” says Danisha, “I’m not making the rules.”

“A lot of people don’t like the 14,” compared to other lines like the 41, she says as she steers her coach down Mission Street’s broken pavement.

She laughs. “The 14 you have drug addicts, alcoholics, just stone-cold crazy.”

“I’ve experienced more expensive fares in cheaper cities,” says Sonya Gordon, a lawyer headed to work downtown, who boards near her home in the Mission.

“It’ll make it harder for some people,” she says and wonders if it won’t increase fare jumping.

Maria Cordoba is one of those whose life will be harder because of the 50-cent increase. The 28-year old is heading to St. Luke’s hospital with her two daughters, one sitting next to her, the other, four-months old, in a stroller.

“If you don’t have a fixed income,” it’s hard to predict your budget to get by, she says in Spanish. Calderon makes the trip from Oakland every day to sell artisan goods on Mission Street, a trip that costs her more than $10 on BART and AC transit.

With the declining economy, she says, some days she pays for transit, but then fails to sell anything. But, she’s not the only one, she adds.

“If the city doesn’t have money, the people don’t have money.”

Mitchell, the driver of 21 years says it’s still early to judge the reaction to the fare increase—then he gives it a try.

“People are getting used to it. I think anger’s going to come in when they start cutting lines.” The 26-Valencia will be parked during the next round of Muni service rearrangements in October.

And it all used to be so easy. Up until the 1980s, jitneys whizzed up and down Mission Street and every major thoroughfare in the city. They started in 1914 and disappeared one-by-one, when insurance rates, city rules, BART and private cars put the last of them out of business, according to “Paratransit in the San Francisco Bay Area,” a study by the University of California Transportation Center.

Midday, we’re passing through the peak of the 14’s route – from 24th and Mission through to about 6th Street in SOMA – and it’s standing room only. As the lunchtime crowds thin out, I think about the odd items that riders bring on the bus, little glimpses and hints of their lives.

One woman has a wooden black leopard-print chair. No, wait, that’s a man with the chair.

Listening to conversations on the bus is like reading the front page of a newspaper. Michael Jackson, Honduras and small talk with the drivers about Muni fare increases.

“Sube el precio y no hay calidad,” (the price increases, but not the quality) says Francisco Osorno, who’s off to meet his wife at the Embarcadero. Like many, he says the 14 is crowded, slow and dirty, and points to the graffiti covering the bus’s interior.

As 5:00 p.m. rolls around and we’re back riding on the outbound route through SOMA, the bus regains that unmistakable smell of unwashed, alcohol-soaked flesh.

“If you think about it, there’s a lot of people that don’t pay, they’re losing a lot of money,” says one female passenger with a cane and red Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt. If more people paid, she says, Muni might not have to raise fares as much.

“Who’s gonna pay the cost of it?”

“Poor are gonna be poorer … rich gonna want to get richer,” she shrugs as she gets off the bus at 16th and Mission.

“I don’t think it’s worth that much because look at the quality of the ride,” says Carmina Joi, headed home from her internship at a recording studio. She compares Muni to BART, which she says is cleaner, quicker, safer, more comfortable and a “different crowd.”

It’s well worth the price, she says referring the $1.75 it costs within the city. “But for this I wouldn’t pay a dollar.”

For too many, however, BART’s range is limited and many avoid it because it means also having to pay for Muni.

Fast forward. Time on the bus passes in circuits, as we make our way between downtown and Daly City. Long periods of boredom are broken up with moments from a picaresque novel.

The man sitting next to me is named Tom. Visiting from Hawaii, Tom is headed to Vegas via Amtrak, as shown from the ticket he pulls out from the small bag that contains his possessions. We ride for a bit on my journey and we talk about his travels, his family and LSD, a subject he’s written about, he says. He marvels at how some folks now don’t even know what LSD is.

While we’re talking, two women sit down at the front of the bus. One is in her work clothes. As they talk, one pulls out a large Ziploc bag filled with marijuana and passes it to the other. She then takes some out of the bag, and rolls a large blunt. The woman in work clothes hands the other some money and they exit together, blunt in hand.

At the Embarcadero, a group of yuppies walk by, pink button-down collared shirts, one wearing a sweater around his neck. I get the feeling that they have no clue nor care how much Muni costs. My editor thinks I may be experiencing a form of the Stockholm syndrome and identifying with my fellow captors.

But I’m looking at the pink button-down collared shirts and think that they’re probably among that rarefied group of 54,692 San Franciscans, the census tells us, live in households with three cars or more.

A visitor gets on from the Greyhound station, bags in hand. “Hey, where’s the sunshine!” he asks the driver. “Don’t you guys get sunshine?”

The driver looks back quizzically.

“In San Francisco?”

Again, the bus is fairly empty and silent. I think I like it better when it’s full.

It’s evening. I watch people walking down Mission Street from the BART station enjoying their night out.  I’m jealous. There’s no freedom for me, or the guy in sunglasses at the front of the bus, who’s hunched over his cane making deep grunting noises.

As night falls, the bus begins to fill with characters again. A homeless man in a fur coat sits on the floor. As he scratches his stomach, I see that he’s not wearing anything under the coat.

Looking around, I realize that the inside of the bus is also literally covered with tags. At the back of the bus, I wonder to myself if the drivers watch taggers at work.

I hear a small thud. Looking around, I realize that it’s 11 p.m. and the thud was my notebook hitting the floor. The girl sitting next to me looks over and laughs. Riding back downtown, we talk about the city’s club and bar scene and about life on Treasure Island, where she lives.

The bars along Mission Street and SOMA seem unusually busy for a Wednesday, until I remember the three-day weekend, which would make this the equivalent of a Thursday night, making it Miller Time.

Turning around for the last time, I wait for the bus to take me back home, to the Mission. While making conversation with a guy who installs solar panels out to buy beer for his girlfriend, a man comes up to sell a transfer for some cash.

Headed back, my bus – my last bus – is full but there are only three women aboard. Garbage trucks are headed down Mission Street downtown. Somewhere on the bus, I smell dog food.

“It’s a challenge,” Daniel Hector says of the 14’s route, “going from one end of the city to the other.”

“If you give a little kindness you’re gonna get some back,” the driver of 16 years says as I exit at 26th and Mission.

“That’s the way it is with this job.”

The door closes, and Hector’s bus heads down Mission, to Bernal Heights, the Excelsior, Crocker-Amazon and Daly City.