Tonight I went out for a few drinks with co-workers after work, to one of those bars with an Irish name and wooden booths and neon signs. We sat outside under an awning with a red-and-white checkered tablecloth and tried to get to know each other better. For those of us who didn’t know what to say, we asked, ‘do you live in the city?’ and then, ‘where?’, but really, what fueled the discussion after that was the question of ‘how do you get to work?’
It’s a question everyone can talk about. Even when someone lives in a neighborhood across the city from you, you still want to know how they do it, as if they know a secret you don’t (and maybe they do). Everyone has a method, a practice, a game. And everyone has an opinion about Muni.
I remember when a former co-worker started work when I was at my last job. She had moved to an apartment 6 blocks away from mine. ‘Oh!’ I said, when I found out. ‘Do you take the N?’ ‘No!’ she exclaimed, making a face. ‘Muni sucks.’
She’d lived here for 2 weeks. And even though I knew she was right—Muni sure can suck—I felt like she’d insulted a sibling of mine. ‘No, it doesn’t,’ came my reply, quickly, without even thinking.
She looked at me, confused. Who was this girl, she was wondering, defending what most people would call one of the worst public transportation systems in the country? (Others, of course, would call it among the best.)
I wouldn’t even call myself that loyal of a person. My tastes and dependencies can be fickle. But Muni? Muni I felt oddly loyal to, even though I, like everyone else, can disparage it until the end of days. It’s unfortunately not uncommon to wait for Muni for what feels like forever, only to get on and have it be so crowded, you’re standing underneath someone’s armpit, crushed up against someone else’s backpack. Once, I was on a train so crowded a woman put her arms around my waist from behind just so that she could hold the pole in front of me. She was legitimately holding me from behind, in a position that would otherwise be
reserved for only people I was actually intimate with. Even for me, a seasoned Muni rider, that was too much.
Yes, I’ve seen—and smelled—sketchy people. Yes, I’ve had to turn up the music on my earphones as loud as it would go so I could try to block out people screaming, or rambling off extremist religious stream of conscious monologues, or to attempt to deter someone talking to (slash hitting on) me. Yes, I’ve been on a bus when someone came on with a gun, and the bus driver made us all wait until the cops came to safely remove him. Yes, I’ve seen the cables interlocking the city skies spark and hiss and fall down; the bus lose power in its tracks. Yes, I’ve been stuck in the underground tunnel for a half hour, with no phone battery. Yes. To all of it.
But I’ve also: Caught the eyes of strangers, who weren’t looking at their phones, and smiled at them. Said thank you to the drivers, who’ve said ‘you’re welcome’ graciously back. Informed newer riders that you have to step down in order to get off the bus. Gotten on the wrong bus, and decided to stay on, just to see a different part of the city. Been asked out on dates that I’ve actually gone on. (Okay, that was a few years ago :)) Given up my seat to older folks or those who just needed it more than me. Once, an elderly man holding a bouquet of flowers took my seat when I got up for him. He said nothing and I went on staring out the window, listening to my music. But when I got off, he handed me that bouquet. ‘For you,’ he said, and smiled. I walked 10 blocks with those flowers in my hand feeling—and I know how cheesy this sounds—really happy. When was the last time you felt that?
Of course, I’m not saying anything close to ‘take Muni and you’ll be happy!’ (I laughed out loud writing that.) Trust me: I’ve lived here long enough to devise as many anti-Muni commute routes as I can.
But I am also saying: Muni is among the heartbeats of this city, troubled as it may be. The people you cohabitate with in this city take Muni. The people you sometimes avoid, or forget are there, or have a hard time looking at. The people who don’t necessarily eat at the same restaurants or shop at the same stores or live, at least in proper apartments, on your block. All walks of the city take Muni. And sometimes it’s nice to be reminded that they, too, are what make this city this city. And how important it is to sometimes, even when it’s easier to hail a friendly stranger’s car on your phone, to support the people and systems that exist here for all of us, including you.
For more stories by Lisa (we LOVE her!) visit her website