Confession: I’ve never ridden a public bus. It’s not like I go out of my way to avoid it, but I am from Los Angeles and, well, that’s just not how we roll down there. I’m not trying to rip a bigger hole in the ozone layer or anything, but I like knowing that no one is going to throw up on my shoes before I get to work or put their hands in places where strangers really shouldn’t.
All that changes tonight. I’m voluntarily laying down my public transportation V-card and I’m going to be doing it all night long — riding Muni, that is. I’ll get on the 14 bus at midnight at the corner of 16th and Mission and stay on until 6 a.m., all the while writing about my experiences in real time from the bus.
I am not sure where you put the money when you get on, or how much it costs. Is it like the movie theater, where you just shuffle up to the window and say, “One please?” Who rides these buses at 3 a.m., anyway?
The bus stop talked to me. I didn’t know where the voice came from, but some cyborg over my left shoulder told me that the next bus would be along in two minutes. I whirled around, only to find that not one of the 10 other people standing near me even flinched. Am I the only one who heard that?
I’m jumpy already, and it’s barely midnight. Is it the blood-curdling screams of Giants fans all around me, or the human wearing a plush panda bear head standing to my right? Maybe it’s the realization that I’ll be without a bathroom for the next six hours? But let’s not talk about that.
The bus pulls up and I nervously offer my money to the driver, who nods to the machine in front of me. I drop a few coins in the slot, wait for a reprimand and, upon hearing none, slide into the nearest available seat. Bag down, computer out. This is home for the next six hours.
Jun, the driver, and I drop off our last passenger on San Jose, and now it’s just the two of us. We turn the bus around and wait for our turn to head back down Mission. Jun stands, stretches his legs and surveys the damage.
“Crazy night, you know?” he says to me, looking at the crumpled newspapers, napkins and cans. He picks a few pieces of garbage off the seats near the rear of the bus and lets them drift to the floor.
These few minutes are a welcome break from what he calls the “headache” of being a bus driver. Traffic, noise, drunk people, fare jumpers and the occasional screaming homeless person have made his eight years on the job pass slowly. He tells me about life in the Philippines in an accent that is thick but pleasant. He stops mid-sentence to ask if I’ve brought a jacket. He sees my computer and warns me to stay close to him for the rest of the night.
Jun offers me a piece of strawberry watermelon gum and I accept. We continue on our way. I think he’s as glad to have a buddy tonight as I am.
The bars are closing and what has felt like a mobile coffin — empty save for me and Jun — is now filled almost to capacity. The passengers are bleary-eyed and tired, drunk but in good spirits. It’s easy to spot the ones coming from parties, young men in slanted trucker hats with faraway gazes and no shortage of high-fives. It’s even easier to spot the ones coming from work. Their eyes are a different kind of tired, framed with deep lines and graying hair. They have backpacks and rubber-soled shoes, empty lunch boxes and wrinkled hands.
I’ve been kicked to the curb. Jun’s shift was over and all the passengers had to board the bus waiting behind ours. I spent a few moments saying goodbye to my new friend, and by the time I exited the old bus, the new one was already gone.
The air is damp and cold, the bus stop is desolate and I am alone for the first time in hours. A man passes behind me. He stares long and hard, his eyes wandering along every part of my 5-foot 3-inch frame, but I stare back longer and harder, silently willing the next bus to hurry.
Cambria works at Chili’s and she’s going home after a long night of serving Giants fans their Awesome Blossoms and margaritas.
Mario is too drunk to talk but wants to hold my hand.
Jared and Tony are stoned and heading to Subway for a sandwich.
A man is sleeping against the window. He looks cold.
Rafael and his guitar were serenading people at the bars but now there’s no one left to sing for.
George is wearing glasses and looks much smarter than me.
Rick is a philosopher on his way to stock television sets at Costco. He says the best things in life are worth waiting for and that even Costco hot dogs get tiresome after a while.
We are having a dance party.
Rafael was too tired to play his guitar when Raul, a drunk middle-aged man, requested a few bars of Cielito Lindo.
Simon, a younger man in the next row with bright eyes and a quick smile, isn’t tired at all, thanks to the whiskey in his coffee. He takes another sip from the paper cup, tucks it between his ankles and lets his fingers fly across the strings.
Raul starts to dance and he belts another chorus.
A few minutes later, a harmonica joins in from somewhere in the front of the bus.
We’ve moved on to a different song now, a melody I’ve never heard, but it is calming — even when it’s being sung off-key by an inebriated man in the aisle of a bus at four in the morning.
“Thirteenth Street,” someone shouts from the front of the bus, interrupting the music. That’s Raul’s stop.
He hugs Simon, whom he has never met and will probably never see again, shakes Rafael’s hand and then takes hold of mine.
“Goodnight, my dear” were the final lyrics of his song.
The people are older now, and most don’t smell of alcohol. They have coffee cups, umbrellas, closed-toed shoes, judicious eyes and rain jackets in neutral colors. Scarves and hats encircle stern faces.
Gone are the 20-somethings in stilettos and the sleepers stretched across the back seat. With them has also gone the lingering scent of weed and the nervous, searching eyes.
These passengers all face forward. No instruments. No chatter. An older man wears expensive sunglasses even though the sun hasn’t risen yet. He appears to be the only Saturday night left on the bus. Everyone else is Sunday morning.
It’s the home stretch now. I am waiting near the Ferry Building with Thomas and his friend, whose name has run together with the dozens of other names I’ve collected this evening, for a bus to take me on the last leg of my journey.
My last driver didn’t believe I was a reporter. “Right. You just want to ride the bus all night,” she said. “Besides, this is the end of line for me. I am getting off, so you do whatever.”
I got off, having finished the six hours I committed to, but still too far from home to declare victory. My two traveling companions, both homeless and trying to stay warm all night, are waiting for the same bus. But what Thomas really wants is a 40.
“You’re not going to find a store open right now,” his friend laughs. “Just take one more ride.”
The bus pulls up.
I am ending my six-hour trek where it began: at 16th and Mission. After hours in a bright, warm little box, I feel small and cold and vulnerable on this dark corner. My car is parked down 17th Street and I start making my way toward it. I pass a group heading into one of the SROs on Mission, two women and a man, but try not to make eye contact. As I pass by, the man stops and turns. He goes farther inside and emerges riding a bike, which follows behind me at a short distance, neither gaining nor falling behind.
I sense his presence and cross the street, cutting the corner to turn down 17th. His bike passes me at first, then slows, corrects and alters course to follow my turn. A glance over my shoulder reveals the distance between us is narrowing. A glance down 17th reveals nothing but darkness and silence.
It’s not worth it. I am going back toward the light, back toward people and, apparently, back toward breakfast.
I am writing now from McDonald’s on Mission and 16th; it’s well-lit and busy. The sun will rise soon and my car won’t seem so far away. I miss the 14 bus already, and the safety of knowing that people like Jun, Rafael, Simon and even Mario the hand-holder are just across the aisle.
There are some crazy people on the 14, as just about everyone I talked to pointed out. But everyone knows the rules: You can sing loud but not too loud, doze off but not pass out, and smoke a joint or two as long as you leave it outside. The best part, though, is that you’re never alone.
I ponder the irony of it all over my Egg McMuffin — I was afraid to take the bus, but, as it turns out, getting to my car has posed the only real safety threat of the night. I guess next time I spend a night in the Mission, I’ll be taking muni.