… in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him…We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.
– Willa Cather
We bound off the evening ferry onto land toward Market Street as fast as our legs will carry us with rush hour rhyme and reason. Across the Embarcadero, over the red brick road to the first major downtown intersection. People zip around in all directions like smashing atoms, and in the middle of it all a middle-aged homeless man with a stubbled grimace stands by the curb wiping his ass with one of those dinky little white napkins they stash in the old school silver dispensers at the diner, right in front of the swank Hyatt Regency and the cable car turnaround which shoots bubbly tourists up California Street, just like you’ve seen on those pristine sunny blue sky day frozen moment postcards. Nobody seems to notice, except two cable car operators who stand and laugh as the next ride loads up.
I walk a block to the Embarcadero Center, a downtown mall and insanely expensive commercial real estate, and wait for a bus due west. About twenty yuppie worker bees from the financial services sector are randomly strewn inside and around the bus shelter. No one talks or laughs or reacts; all eyes are glued to the turn ahead, where our ride will emerge.
The clumped network of wires above that guide the electric system shake a little when the bus arrives. A few people herd like cattle at the door, but most of us are civilized enough to get in line and wait our turn. As I board I hold up my bus pass. The driver stares through me and the formality and on to the next rider. A sign in the front of the bus reads:
INFORMATION GLADLY GIVEN BUT SAFETY REQUIRES AVOIDING UNNECESSARY CONVERSATION
It’s the first stop on the route, so we have a choice of seats. I sit near the back, next to a window, and listen to the low steady hum of the electric bus as it pokes along.
Within a few downtown stops we are jammed tight, the aisles full of feet, hands taloned to the overhead bar. Here and there someone reads, but most just stare into their laps, the space in front of them, or off into the distance. There’s not a lot to see outside: tall buildings, chainstores, and the slate gray sky. Slashing through the silence is the sound of heavy metal in someone’s headphones.
Sitting next to me is a tall man in his early thirties who I’ve seen around town several times throughout the years, but can’t recall where. Through the ride he bounces a knee up and down, shifts in his seat, and puts his head in his hands, his anxiety exacerbated by the snail’s pace at which underfunded and overloaded clean energy can move.
When we come to his stop he escapes out the back door and is replaced by a middle-aged man in a suit. My new companion carries himself with a certain slow exactitude, sitting down carefully so as not to bump me, then reaching into a black sidebag from which he removes a book I recently read, All the King’s Men. I have an urge to ask him what he thinks about the book, but I drop it when he pulls an iPod out and inserts the earphones. I wonder how the hell he can concentrate on long-form prose when listening to music – or is the iPod just a way of cordoning off humanity?
The bus comes to a stop and those exiting thread their way through to the back exit while new passengers file in through the front.
Suddenly a pungent odor drifts through the crowded space. I wonder where it comes from. The man next to me turns the pages of his novel, oblivious.
A few moments later there is a muttering that seems addressed to no one in particular. I search for the voice and find the source of the funk a few seats ahead – a homeless man in his fifties whose face is red-tanned, cracked, and bloated. Dressed in jeans, tennis shoes, a worn black leather coat and a baseball cap, his eyes open halfway in a woozy drunk fashion as he cradles a fifth of Jim Beam like a baby in coarse, leathery hands. The seats on either side of him are open.
“Turn the heater up!” he yells to the driver.
Many of the other riders stare at him out of curiosity, the pornography of raw poverty, then look away when he turns toward them, lest they be lured into listening. To fill the space, he converses with himself, then hums, then laughs.
“Ah, that cracks me up,” he says, and slaps his palm to his head, as if why didn’t I think of that before.
At the next stop a college-aged girl with a natural look – long straight brown hair, no makeup, jeans, jeanjacket – gets on. She winds through to the back of the bus, sees there are no other seats, and sits down next to the homeless man.
“I used to have a girlfriend,” he says. “She was pretty like you.”
The girl looks over and mouths thank you. She is nice, if a little nervous, maybe new to these parts. He feels it and continues to talk to her; she fights the urge to look away.
Just as everything is settling in, the poles that connect to the wires above that power the bus come undone. The driver stops the vehicle, lurches out of his seat, and walks behind the bus to re-attach the poles as we sit in dead air. One minute goes by, two minutes, five, and the driver’s still out there, but no dice. Finally he comes back into the bus and tells us we have to get off.
The electric poles are tucked and tied down when dozens of us pour out on to Van Ness Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. I look up Van Ness a few blocks and see a southbound bus coming.
The driver of the 49 Van Ness-Mission couldn’t care less when I flash my pass; fifteen people just piled in through the middle and back doors without paying and he just closes the front door and hauls ass in his long gas-powered accordion bus, like he just wants to be done with it all.
I see an aisle seat toward the back of the bus. The Latino man in the window seat next to me slides a leg that straddles the dividing line back into his square.
Dead center in the middle of the bus is a big metal wheel that spins one way, then the other, as the accordion that connects front and back crunches up while the bus whips around corners like a snake with no nerve endings at the back, then expands back to its full length on the straightaways. The seats in the wheel are empty; people would prefer not to face one another.
As we come to a stop at the turn onto Mission Street, a homeless woman in a wheelchair with rotted teeth and stringy strung out long hair panhandles window-to-window at a divider. The bus turns right and the buildings become gray and brown brick, like in a black and white movie.
With no human voices to fill the air, public service announcements drone on over the intercom:
“Eating, drinking, and smoking are prohibited on all transit vehicles.”
At the next stop, as the bus is about to take off, a large man with grocery bags in each hand flounders up with a look of desperation; no one wants to have to stand at a bus stop for ten or fifteen or who knows how many minutes. This time the driver waits and re-opens the door. When the bus starts up again, the intercom reminds us:
“Please hold on,”
then, a moment later,
“Remember on a crowded bus, always protect purses and wallets.”
High up and off to the side is a St. Pauli Girl billboard that features a snow white buxom blond Minnesotan of the kind rarely seen in these parts, which reminds me that I’m one of the only Caucasians on the bus. Again I wonder how much social progress emerging polyglot demographics will bring (or will majorities of people of color follow whitey’s lead and become more selfish and short-sighted once they get a bigger piece of the pie?).
I come out of my head into the floor of the bus, strewn with newspapers, trash, candy wrappers, a red plastic grocery bag, blue powder from a capsized capsule, and squiggly spraypainted signatures, when I hear someone say “Spare a quarter?”
Ten feet forward a gaunt and frazzled addict with jeans hanging down past his ass crack bounces from person to person with his pitch. The riders shake their heads; they so just want to be home. The man looks up at me as the bus stops and The Voice comes on:
“Please exit through the rear doors.”
Empty-handed he turns around and bolts out the back door as a young woman gets on with her sons and finds two spots in the front of the bus. The bigger of the two sits next to her, the smaller rests in her lap while she holds a plastic shopping bag with one hand. The younger kid is quiet and subdued, while his older brother turns around, knees on the seat, and looks out the window with mute enthusiasm. Once everyone is on, the driver puts his foot to the floor.
Minutes later I step down and through the rear door onto a corner with a subway station, where people peddle their wares. First up is a bible-wielding Spanish-speaking preacher (with a bible-wielding double stepping in stride, translating in English to the best of his ability), then a Socialist Worker pusher, and an elderly Latina standing back from the subway entrance cooing a soft sell: “Ro-ses, flo-res?”
As I walk along I look at the cracks in the sidewalk old and gray as the day and the few faces that come past me, long and self-contained. A little ways down the block I encounter one of my next door neighbors, who continues to talk into his phone as we brush elbows.
Just before going home, I stop at the corner store for evening provisions. The man behind the counter gives me a nod of familiarity when I enter. We’ve known each other for five years – a decent amount of time by San Francisco standards – and grown increasingly familiar since we discovered we had a shared need to gripe about the dumb and dangerous piece of work that occupies the Oval Office.
I set a bottled water on the counter as we talk about our summer weather (gray, windy, mild) and wonder aloud when the sun will come out again, until another customer steps up and foreshortens our discussion. As I head for the door, the store owner says goodbye, but does not address me formally; he does not know my name.