Photo by Anthony Barnish

Vickie was on the 14-Mission bus headed north on Monday afternoon when she turned around to see a man hitting a woman in the face.

When she tried to protect the woman, her attacker landed a punch on her cheek, too. “Nobody did anything,” Vickie said.

Finally, someone let the bus driver know what was happening, and he pulled over to call the police. The bus was evacuated.

Within 30 minutes, the woman Vickie had intervened to protect boarded the next 14-Mission to go to work. No matter that she had a big black eye. “You all right?” asked the new driver as she stumbled on her way up the steps. “My mind is somewhere else,” she said, taking a seat behind the driver.

Her attack had happened like this, said the woman, who declined to give her name: An acquaintance on the bus had demanded to see her phone. When she refused, she said, he started hitting her. No one on the bus — except Vickie — did anything. “People were laughing,” she says. “In the back, these teenagers were saying ‘Damn, that b*&! just got beat.’”

“I can’t stop,” she said. “I have to keep on going.” She shrugged.

Her attitude — that violence is normal and life must go on — is, according to bus drivers who work the route, almost a prerequisite.

Crimes reported to the police, as well as incidents called into central command, rose in the latest reporting period, which ended in September 2010, according to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s latest quarterly Service Standards Scorecard. From July to September, 268 crimes citywide were reported on city buses — 43 more than the department’s goal.

In addition, drivers reported 409 other incidents that failed to reach the level of requiring police assistance. These incidents don’t always involve violence — they range from a passenger’s hand getting caught in the door to rowdy teenagers.

No data was immediately available for the second quarter of SFMTA’s 2011 fiscal year, which ended in December.

After an 18-year-old teenager was critically wounded in a stabbing last week, Mission Loc@l went out to talk to other teenagers riding the bus. Given how quickly reporters found teenagers with stories of violence, a reporter returned to the bus Monday to talk to drivers about crimes on the M-14 and to see what would be witnessed on a relatively slow day.

Some drivers interviewed said that in addition to crimes reported by the SFMTA, there are many more unreported incidents — less serious scuffles or arguments that are simply part of the 14-Mission ecosystem.

“You just gotta be on your p’s and your q’s when you get on the 14,” said Chris as he steered an outbound bus past 18th Street.

He’s been driving for five years now, and said of all the routes he’s assigned, the 14-Mission is one of the most dangerous. It runs through a patchwork of gang territory along Mission Street, and invites some unsavory characters. “It’s like a moving motel. It’s just really bad. A lot of the time a lot of the stuff going down is going down on this line — just the area it goes through and the people who get on.”

In the past month, Chris has only filled out two incident reports, but he sees at least two or three incidents a week, he said. Drivers are instructed to report incidents to “central” as soon as any physical confrontation occurs — but often, anything below that he and other drivers shrug off.

“You get a ton of disrespect on this line,” he said, adding that he’s often called derogatory slurs when asking for fares or transfers. As long as they don’t touch him or another passenger, he doesn’t call it in.

“You try to de-escalate the situation as a driver. You don’t want to antagonize the situation, as long as it’s not fighting or someone getting hurt.”

If someone is harassing a passenger or breaking the rules, he said, he usually asks them to get off the bus. “But it’s been awhile — maybe three or four months since I’ve had to do that.”

Chris said he relies on a “gut feeling” to tell him when he needs to step in. He hasn’t witnessed a fight on any of his buses in nearly two years, but there are varying degrees of aggression that stop short of that.

Several months ago, for example, a man tried to start a fight on the back of a 14 bus he was driving. The bus was packed, and Chris couldn’t see far back, but a young woman came up to report the situation. He stopped the bus and presented the man with his options. “Get off the bus or get arrested, it’s your choice,” he said he told the man. The curse words and threats started up, and Chris asked him to leave again. This time the man complied, and the incident went unreported.

“I’m used to seeing things like that,” he said. “I grew up in this neighborhood.”

“Look around you,” he said when asked about what he’s grown used to.

The 14-Mission is, indeed, a world unto itself, even mid-afternoon on a holiday schedule. In the span of a few hours, bus drivers handled a string of distractions, from a man trying to board with a parrot to a woman drunkenly arguing with another about whether she had a right to eat her corn-on-a-stick. A woman wielding an MTA badge assured her that she did not.

Another driver patiently answered when a man, slurring badly, asked him three times whether the bus stopped at 24th Street. The driver later politely asked another passenger, who was vulgarly recounting the saga of President Clinton’s sex scandal, to watch his language around young patrons.

Even when drivers are vigilant, they often have to depend on passengers to be their eyes and ears on the double-coach buses. And as the woman with the black eye found out on Monday, you can’t always depend on others.

The stories aren’t exclusive to the 14-Mission. Donna was driving the 14-L today, but she’s seen a lot of trouble on other lines during her nine years as a Muni driver.

Donna said she sees at least two to three confrontations a week on her lines, but has only reported two in the last month.

In one unreported incident, a teenage girl attempted to hold the bus while her friend caught up. Donna insisted she’d have to catch the next one. “She called me every name in the book,” Donna said.

Donna said she “shut up,” let the girls on, and stayed silent while they continued to make nasty comments. Then she took a break 20 minutes later, because she was so upset. “If it’s not harmful, and it’s just words, you just got to let it go. You’ll just make it more dangerous for yourself and everybody else,” she said.

Sometimes, said Donna, she fears reprisals from passengers she’s reprimanded. “You know sometimes the blood rushes to my head, sometimes my heart starts beating real fast, but I’ve been doing this for awhile, so most of the time I try to stay calm,” she said.

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Christine Mai-Duc, a political reporter and foodie from Sacramento, got lost on her first walk through the Mission-not only in the barrio's backstreets but also in its cultural fabric. It landed her on the porch of those elusive Mission locals who know Philz- the man instead of just the coffee landmark.

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    1. I agree – yet it’s a daunting problem to think about trying to change.. it involves so many things and changing so many people’s attitudes. One of the worst parts is the attitude of tolerance towards the situation from the public, the police, and our city government. When people see crimes being committed in the neighborhood every day without consequence or even anyone seeming to notice, they feel like they can act however they like. And do.