Friday, September 16, 2011

Resolving Cross-Continental Confusion: A New Yorker's Guide to the SF Subway

It is a well-established fact that I, J-Hizzle, detest San Francisco public transit. Indeed, one of my friend's selling points for my moving to the city was that the transit system was one of the most revolutionary in the country! That I would be impressed by the extent of the network! That I would be able to get anywhere via BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) or Muni (Municipal Transit)! That jerk lives in the suburbs. Of course he thinks it's magnificent in comparison to the absolute deficiency of public transit in California.

On numerous occasions, MUNI or the 'light-rail' (personally, I find it to be a black hole of disappointment) have failed me. So, I feel obligated to dedicate a post (read: rant) to the inadequacies of San Francisco's transit system. Being a New Yorker for my entire life, I now understand how spoiled I was by the labyrinth of accessible transportation both above and below the city streets. Granted, it wasn't always clean or pleasant but it got you where you needed to go. Additionally, let's not forget Metro North and our beloved Long Island Railroad (LIRR)! Despite being in the suburbs, they work like clockwork. Expect the trains there, on time, down to the minute, and in great frequency. The breathing, breeding, violently passionate organism that is New York would crumple without the extraordinary transportation network that spiders out from Manhattan's center up to the pastures of Albany, the vineyards of Long Island, and the trash dumps of New Jersey.

So, on to my--probably incomplete--guide to surviving SF transportation.

A New Yorker's Guide to the SF Subway:

1. Gambling your Commute Away

The first thing you must learn is that, by committing yourself to SF transit, you have just played penny slots at a second-rate casino. The algorithm is off ever so slightly, so you either win big or lose steadily to the point of madness, where you're just pumping money into the machine in hopes it'll fix the damage it's done. When I hit big, the train gets me where I need to go in thirty minutes or less. How delightful!

What you need to keep in mind is that winning big is a rare occurrence, especially at second-rate casinos.  When expecting to commute, always add at least half an hour (preferably forty-five minutes) to your expected commute time because you will likely encounter one of several problems:

a. The driver stops at every street to pick up hordes of morning commuters, effectively packing the train to sausage-like consistency and adding anywhere between ten and twenty minutes to the commute.

b. The driver will stop mid-commute for unscheduled maintenance, 'security' issues, to chat with a train conductor going the opposite direction, take a bathroom break, yield to a broken down train on the one rail line in the city, whatever. What civil engineer decided to make ONE rail line? He should be hung by his thumbs in a prison somewhere moist and tropical.

c. Disgruntled locals have decided to protest some cause or another and half of the stops have been shut down while they vent their agitation.

2. Interacting with the Locals

Expect to be packed like a sausage into a Muni train or bus at one point or another. It will be an experience, for sure. Now, I do not mean to imply that this sort of transit overpopulation does not occur in New York. In fact, it occurs all the time and you can probably expect to be pick-pocketed if you are oblivious to the stranger pressing up against you. But, in San Francisco, you have a few types of people that frequent the overpopulated trains:

a. Really friendly people. They stand out against the general misery permeating the place and everyone hates them.

Advice: Tune them out by turning your iPod up.

b. Really uncomfortable people. They clearly do not want to touch, smell, or feel the aura of anyone for as long as possible. In fact, they hate it so much that they keep everyone else from moving to the back of the bus by standing a ridiculous distance from others in the aisle. Consequently, no one else can get on and a giant plug of bodies develops in the center of the bus.

Advice: Apply mosh strategy and 'accidentally' bump the offending party into correct position. They're too passive aggressive to openly attack you.

c. Really unusual people. These people do things like carry small dogs or cats, smoke marijuana, inject Heroin, rock back and forth, practice Irish step choreography, have interestingly impractical hairstyles, and/or are too involved in their hipsterdom (Note: Have seen all of these).

Part A -- Avoid all eye contact. It will distress them immensely because they will not receive the necessary attention their parents never gave them.
Part B -- Stare at them for the entirety of your trip. They will reconsider their behavior on their next public transit adventure.

d. Inappropriately Sexual People. The other day, a well-dressed businessman came on the train somewhere around Forest Hill. While all of the seats were occupied, the standing room was largely vacant. For some reason, he decided to come stand directly in front of me. Interestingly enough, his man parts were roughly eight inches from my face and tightly packed into his trousers. Now, I was not trying to look at his endowments but, once the car started filling up at Church and Castro, I didn't have much choice; anytime I looked up at his face, carefully positioned right on top of the magazine he was so engrossed in, he looked into my eyes with dirty bedroom eyes. I took the lesser of two evils.

Advice: These people are incredibly difficult to avoid. Their tendency is to hover between appropriate and inappropriate physical space. My best suggestion is to give them a little elbow in the back as you exit the subway. Better yet, you could surreptitiously pinch their ass on the way out and let them feel the warm sting of sexual harassment for once.

3. Evacuating Your Personal Hell

Which brings me to the subject of leaving the car/bus whenever you're on it. Now, I'm going to assume that San Franciscans are incredibly polite people. Because the alternative is that they're stupid and/or passive aggressive assholes. Once the car stops, they tend to stand around with large eyes and slumped shoulders, looking out the door as if freedom were just beyond their grasp. There is no movement except by the floundering assholes trying to work their way through the crowd to the exit. I know, because I am often one of those floundering assholes. I've taken to pushing old ladies out of the way to claim the seat directly next to the door just so I have an exit strategy (Hyperbole. The SF subway actually has seats specifically for old ladies). In any case, they just stand there and no amount of 'excuse me' will persuade them to move their asses five inches to the side of the aisle. The other day (the same as inappropriate personal space man), I was stuck directly in the center of a car and resorted to elbowing three people out of the way and jumping over somebody's luggage that they had left directly in the middle of the aisle just so I could narrowly escape the confines of my own personal hell. Little bothers me more than people not being aware of and failing to adjust to their environment.

Advice: Find a good seat early on or stay parked by the door for as long as possible. Always yield to those exiting and others will learn by example. Worst comes to worst, shout something inappropriate and a space will clear.

4. Exploring the Underground

Now, as a New Yorker, I am used to musicians playing in the subway. Usually, they happen to be ex-Orchestra musicians who went crazy and couldn't hold down a job at the Met or the Philharmonic. Or they're students. My point is, they're really fucking good. Parting with a dollar is a privilege because you have just been so thoroughly stimulated by having the honor of watching them play. In San Francisco, there are several good musicians. The other day, I was passing through when some jazz men were grooving. I am extraordinarily partial to the gentleman at Civic Center who plays the accordion while his dog lies at his feet.

There are also several not-so-good musicians. Their cacophony echoes up the steps and throughout the subway in some sort of ear-splitting dissonance as the out of tune notes collide with each other in the worst mating season since horses met donkeys.

There are also several people that wish they could be musicians. They diligently practice every day, some with chalkboards of music notes and others with instruments they may have picked out of a garbage dump somewhere. In any case, I take my hat off to them for having the gall to try and err in front of a live audience and ask payment in return.

Also, there are tons of homeless people that live in the subway. As a bleeding-heart, I would buy coffee and sandwiches for all of them, but my native San Franciscan friends told me that I'm an idiot for attempting that even once. Use your discretion when dealing with the locals.

5. Avoid suspicious puddles. 


  1. On many levels, not too off par from NYC these days. We have the lovely age of "track improvements," which I am not wholly unconvinced that those are just train shut downs/slow downs to save money.

  2. Before I read this, I've just gotta say: dude, that's hella long.

  3. Very funny Hun. Well written too, can sense the irritation. Love and miss you!