As many have regaled us with their infinitely different stories and homage to Muni, I have been at a loss for words when I was reminded that my date to write was around the corner. (So imminent, in fact, that this post was actually completed the day of.) The individuality of inspired tales were more impressive to me than writing something myself; it shows the dedication, despite many complaints, to a transit system that serves a seven-to-eight square mile metropolis.
So what, then, is my homage to this wheeled wonder? I’ve sat here thinking about that with the cursor blinking monotonously at me, trying desperately to compare my interest in Muni to all the others that photograph, write and tweet about, speak of, and regale many a horror story about. Is it the history, the people, the endless amount of epic fail? I haven’t in the slightest.
The earliest memory I have of Muni is in the 1980s, when I was very small. I am not a native of San Francisco, but my mother was born and raised here, my father moved here, and up until earlier this year, my grandparents were still lifelong residents of this city. Somehow, every member of my small family ends up in San Francisco—it’s practically a tradition. When my grandmother was in her spryer years she was never opposed to taking public transit; it got her where she needed to go, and when I was in town, I would most certainly almost always join her. I’d always had a love of trains (but that’s another story for another post), and the orange and white Boeing-Vertol streetcars were no exception. We’d take them to the zoo (back then, tigers didn’t jump out of their cages); we’d go downtown… it was an adventure any child could find exponential amounts of glee in.
Some days, my grandfather would save us some trouble of riding the L all the way from the Outer Sunset and drive us to West Portal Station. (It amazes me that it—to this day—looks exactly the same.) This was around the time of the infamous “Muni Meltdown”, and I can say that if you think service is bad now, be glad you weren’t riding in the ‘90s. But as a child, we’d pull into the roundabout at West Portal and I’d be mesmerized by the overhead wires; the twisted, tangled web of woven cable and current that broke the sky into puzzle pieces. They were so expansive to my imaginative child eyes that even today I am always a little disappointed that they do not look as cluttered as I remember. We’d pile out of the car as quickly as possible, because there was always that bus that crept up behind while my grandfather was idling. These are my first memories of Muni, on the L-Taraval from 33rd Avenue in. As quickly as those metro cars entered the tunnel, though, I forgot how the system worked.
My teenage years were relegated to trips downtown (sometimes coming in on BART) and the occasional cable car ride, something I still treasure as one of my most favored methods of transportation. (Secretly, I want to drive one.) I reverted to being a transit greenhorn, a noob, a complete and utter novice. What I remembered as a child was a hazy mess that would most likely get me lost rather than get me there. I nixed the idea of paying the 35-cent (yes, I remember when it was cheaper, too) youth toll for the safety and comfort of a foam-padded seat in the car. Shame on me.
And then fast forward to college. I ended up at San Francisco State University, begging and pleading with my parents to let me bring my precious Honda Civic to the city, because however would I get around without it? I was instantly quashed and told that San Francisco’s transit system would suit me just fine. Being bitter and resentful at 17 because I didn’t get what I want didn’t help Muni’s case anymore. I was terrified of taking the buses upon my arrival. You would never catch me dead on the 17, 18, 28, or 29; if the M didn’t get me there, I didn’t go. It was a serious detriment to my knowledge of the city, and my social life. Shame on me twice.
I did eventually give in and start put-putting my way around, partially in congruence with buying my first Muni pass. As terrified as I was to begin with, scrounging up the $1.25, and then soon after, $1.50 in change for a poor college student with even poorer spending habits was nearly impossible. I’m pretty lucky I never got a ticket, because I’ll shamefully admit there were plenty of days I didn’t pay. With that growth I was still a little uncomfortable, but somehow, I figured out, I was getting where I needed to go, and I was hooked.
As appealing as it has always sounded to still bring a car into this city for large loads, groceries, and to get out of the city on the days when you just have to see sun, I’ve really never been able to convince myself strongly enough. Granted, if you handed me the keys to a BMW or a Mini I’d probably die a million happy deaths, but that vehicle would sit idle, taking a backseat (no pun intended) to the substantial transit network Muni provides. Why waste the gas?
So now, after I’ve moved 5 times in this city and dealt with new lines each time, I am still questioning what has made me so passionate about my big, lumbering municipal limos. I’m a believer in public transit, yes, but it’s one step further that inspires you to read the local blogs, to share your stories, and to end up writing a page and a half (so far) guest post spewing your unwavering love. Is it the people, the epic fail, the simplification of transit? Is it that it saves me money and provides me with endless amounts of entertainment? Is it the ambiance?
I could go on questioning the exact probable thing that makes me swoon at the sight of a Breda car, or get excited when service runs on time, but all I can sum it up to is that it’s everything about the system itself. Still trying to be the first to pull the cord for my stop brings back memories every time, but it shows that each person who shares the ride has character. Each traffic jam in the tunnel, each driver, each graffiti scarred window and broken cantilever gives this system a little more humanity. When your butt starts to fall asleep in those plastic chairs, the air conditioner drips on your head, and they turn your N-Judah around at 19th instead of taking you all the way home, it’s frustrating, but I know that the next morning we’ll be sharing a ride with our oldest and best (and most of the time trustworthy) friend Muni in those orangey-red seats, and in some way, loving the whole ride.
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That photo of Bredas waiting to go around the loop brings to mind many stories of Muni adventures both on the “N” and elsewhere in MuniLand. I can start with the first time I stayed at the Mar/Ocean View Motel. I asked for a streetside room so I could roll out of bed in the morning and start streetcar watching. This was back when PCC cars weren’t relics; they were the last regular service electric streetcars west of New Orleans. One morning I got up, opened the shades and saw some Muni men rigging a tow bar to haul a dead PCC back to Geneva. It would have been even more interesting if they had called wrecker 0131, but no such luck. Now 0131 is back to its original number, 130, and carries passengers on the “F” line. We used to say that if Muni ever ran out of duct tape and baling wire, it was all over. If you ever need someone to fill the “guest blogger” spot, I could tell all sorts of stories, even though I’m more of a “foreign correspondent”.
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