Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai

Those are the Asian cities I visited, lucky me, and I can prove it: you’ll find photo sets at:




Fellow transit aficionados will recognize these burgs as home to some of the world’s most formidable metro networks, by system length and annual passenger rides.  I spent much of the last decade telling small children that such places exist, usually with the wistful aside that I hoped to see them for myself someday.

Standees in Tokyo Metro

Standees in Tokyo Metro

I’m retired, no longer on emergency call to field tripping TransitPeople classes, and healthy enough for international travel (in my own stoop-shouldered, hobble-kneed, geriatric way).  I’d want to swat myself plenty hard if I lost that health before I saw these cities. 

My Houston trip had also rekindled a dormant interest in transit issues.  It was as car-centric as car-centric gets, and had included major negatives.  Why not visit a few cities on the other end of the spectrum, and see how they work?

So, off I went.

I’m eager to share impressions, but first want to revisit a caveat emptor given in my ‘older and wiser look back’ post: I’m not an expert.  I spent only a few days in each city, interviewed no transit agency staff or local critics, and fired up the search engine only occasionally to dig for Asia-related statistics. 

I am a tourist interested in transit.  You’re sitting in my figurative living room, listening to the old geezer yak about his trip while he shows off Kodachromes.  If that’s enough for you, read on.

* * * * *

Relatively easy international travel for tech-savvy English speakers

The trip was much easier than I’d expected.  The whole shebang went almost as smoothly as my visit to the South.

My guesses why:

(♦)  Technology.  Smart phones may be tracking devices that make phone calls, but they’re also a boon to travelers.  I can download detailed off-line maps, currency converters, city-specific transit apps, phrasebook dictionaries (with audio files that squawk the words) and offline language libraries for Google Translate.  My cell phone fired up in all three countries, albeit at 1G speeds in Seoul and Shanghai.  I could tether the smart phone to my computer for a secure e-mail connection, or use wi-fi to check news sites.  (VPN is still over my head.  Maybe another codger can explain it at the next senior’s bingo.)

Kwangwoon University bound #1 Line  in Seoul

Kwangwoon University bound #1 line in Seoul

Then there’s the internet, and what I can learn before I leave.  Hundreds, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of generous users want to tell me how to ride the Tokyo subway, what itineraries will and won’t qualify for China’s ’72 hour transit without visa,’ how to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo on the N’EX train or a limousine bus.  Some have personal web sites, others create ‘how to’ videos for YouTube.  If I have questions, I can post to travel forums at Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet, FlyerTalk.  Dependence on dog-eared guidebooks is no longer.

(♦)  English as Lingua Franca.  Maybe it’s not right or fair.  Esperanto or another auxiliary language might have made a better world standard.  English is idiosyncratic, unreasonable.  (Try explaining their, they’re and there to a non-native speaker.)

But, justly or not: if a global lingua franca exists, English is it; the internet even offers an acronym for it.  We Americans get a huge, huge break when overseas.  Many restaurants cheerfully offered English menus; I found English subtitles on street signs, in transit systems.  Few Koreans and Chinese spoke English, but quite a few Japanese did.  If I spoke only French or Spanish, the trip would have been much tougher.

Transit cities coexist with cars

If I think ‘transit city,’ I can imagine a woodsy Shangri-La where kids pedal bikes over cobblestones, streetcars meander under bougainvillea boughs and flatulent four wheelers are far from sight.  CicLAvia or Sunday Streets on steroids, 24/7/365!

And ‘imagining’ is just what I’m doing, at least so far.  I’ve never visited a city remotely resembling this arcadia, and sure didn’t in Asia.

Tokyo might be as good as it gets for the transit rider (in some respects), but there are plenty of cars in Tokyo.  I watched traffic jams from my Seoul hotel room, sidestepped Seoul motorcyclists who ride the sidewalks with impunity.  In Shanghai, pedestrians can take their lives in their hands.

Motorcycle and bike commuters in Shanghai

Motorcycle and bike commuters in Shanghai

These Asian cities coexist with heavy traffic as New York does.  You can live comfortably in Manhattan without a car, but do you expect a car free Broadway at rush hour?  Cue the big Sam Kinison laugh: oh, ho ho ho.

It’s tough to beat heavy rail.

This point makes me feel a bit hypocritical.

I don’t want to be.

I feel no less strongly that transit systems should be judged first by how they operate unglamorous, work-a-day bus routes that rank and file customers depend on.

I’m not an accountant, can’t crunch the numbers, and know that the numbers matter.  I’ve already been persuaded that glitzy rail systems make little sense for some mature, already-built-around-the-car American cities, and am willing to be persuaded that they don’t make sense elsewhere, too.  (Although I must note that heavy rail construction costs in China have averaged around 500 million yuan per kilometer, which I calc out to roughly $130,000,000 a mile.  Far less than costs here.)

That said: my Asian travels hammered home that pesky ‘you get what you pay for’ problem.  Sitting in traffic and waiting for the light to change in the Gold Line or N-Judah or Rapid Bus or 14L does not compare to blasting along on your own right of way in the Tokyo, Seoul or Shanghai metro systems.

C-R-O-W-D-E-D subway lines

Subways in all three cities were more crowded than what I’m accustomed to in the Bay Area.  “Rush hour” started earlier and ended later; even mid-day trains carried significant loads.  I never felt assured of a seat.

I remember only center-facing bench seats.  These squelch any opportunity for touristy sightseeing-by-the-window, but allow more room for standees.

Tokyo didn’t live up to its fearsome reputation for crowding, at least not in my limited travels there.  (Although masochistic me intentionally rode many trains at rush hour.)  My guide-for-a-day Hiro — a fellow transit aficionado scheduled by the terrific Tokyo Free Guide program — told me that one can indeed find “oshiya,” or platform pushers, helping to cram passengers between the doors of overstuffed trains.  I did see agency staff direct riders during rush hour, but with polite voices only, and no manhandling.

Early rush hour on a JR East platform in Tokyo

Early rush hour on a JR East platform in Tokyo

Seoul was significantly worse.  (I can’t resist a sidebar: I won’t soon forget a young woman there who dashed down the stairs toward an about-to-depart train, faced a door blocked solid with male torsos, and, with momentum from the stair dash, simply hurled herself into the wall, like Jim Brown barreling over a couple of linebackers.  Maybe she’ll meet Mr. Right that way.)

Some Shanghai subways were worse still.  An Arizona expat told me he chose an apartment near the #10 to avoid the fearsome crowds on the #2.  The southbound #8 I boarded at Shiguang Road — a likely low income neighborhood, judging by what I saw nearby — became the single most crowded subway car I have ever gasped for air on.  I suspect, but don’t know, that Chinese transit imperators don’t dole out service equally.

Frequent service

I rarely waited more than five minutes for any metro in Tokyo, Seoul or Shanghai, and learned to pay little heed to signage indicating waits for coming trains.  Why bother?  The trains felt a bit like airport moving walkways; if I missed one, I could board the next a few minutes later.

Clean trains, clean stations, clean bathrooms

Here’s a photo snapped in the Tokyo Metro:

Tokyo Metro seat

Tokyo Metro seat

(I’ll get to that face mask a bit later.)  I didn’t cherry pick, didn’t try to stack the deck for Japan.  If you ride the subway in Tokyo, you’ll see upholstery like this.

Tokyo and Seoul trains and stations were neatnik clean.  Shanghai’s offerings were shabbier, closer to what I expect on the Red Line and BART.  (Although BART and Red Line customers get to sit on real cushions, unlike the no-trust-no-cushion seating in Shanghai.)

Graffiti?  None.  Zip.  Not one scintilla, not in one train or station.  (I did see some on building walls fronting the train tracks on the way out of Tokyo.)

Hiro attributed this dearth of graffiti to “Japanese manner.”  A Seoul station security staffer guessed that tagging just hasn’t caught on in his city.

I have wanted to wrap a thick sweater around my nose before venturing into some BART bathrooms, and haven’t forgotten bathroom-less rail stations in L.A.  Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai stations include bathrooms, and they’re perfectly usable.

New York City not in first tier

Here’s a photo from a typical station in the 286 mile Seoul metro network:

Seoul Metro station

Seoul Metro station

And, a couple of paragraphs down, a 2011 shot from the Grant Avenue station in the 232 mile New York City network.

(If it’s any consolation, the cars I rode in the colossal 334 mile Shanghai system were only slightly nicer than New York’s, although the stations were more attractive.)

My 2004 copy of Subways of the World anoints New York City as the world transit leader, thanks to twenty-four hour service and express tracking.

Brooklyn's Grant Avenue station in 2011

Brooklyn’s Grant Avenue station in 2011

I guessed author bias, but also assumed that the author wouldn’t be that far off; I left U.S. shores confident that the system I rode in New York City in 2011 would be roughly on par to the best of the Orient — that, in short, the United States boasted at least one world class metro network.

I don’t feel that way anymore.

I wish I could.  Some may disagree, but I also have company.

I was surprised by how often I felt defensive about my country while abroad, how I wanted my good ol’ U.S. of A. to look less shabby.  It really hurt to show Hiro these photos of the squalid interior of a San Francisco 14 bus, and ask if he’d ever seen anything similar in Tokyo.  (The answer: an emphatic no.)

If it’s any consolation: Big Apple straphangers may feel honored to learn that they’re helping to pay for U.S. military bases in both Japan and Korea.  Please throw out your bosoms with pride, New York, the next time you step over years of accumulated filth on a train platform.

Profitable, private sector Japanese rail lines, and land use near stations

This is probably the most important takeaway, and the one I’m least qualified to yak about without a lot of research I’m unwilling to do.

Nearly all U.S. transit agencies require buckets of government funding to break even.  BART fares cover about 2/3 of costs; SFMTA fares cover less than 1/3.  Many Tokyo rail systems, in contrast, are privately owned and profitable.

The bankroll often comes from related real estate operations.  Today the very much in-the-black Tokyu Corporation (Please note the ‘u’ at the end, Tokyu, not Tokyo) hauls in a thumping third of its take on real estate operations, and another twenty percent from retail.  (See page 25 of this .pdf’d article.)

Rail riders in these cities can expect to see some colossal retail complexes adjacent to major transit hubs, at least on a par with Toronto’s PATH Network and Montreal’s Underground City.  I found it much, much tougher to track down individual shops in the Central Tokyo and Shinjuku station retail labyrinths than to navigate the transit system itself.

Mall adjacent to Zhongshan Park station in Shanghai

Mall adjacent to Zhongshan Park station in Shanghai

Angelenos can get a small taste of this kind of next-to-the-Metro-station development at the Hollywood-Highland center and at Wilshire-Vermont.  San Franciscans can get a larger taste at the downtown Westfield Mall.

You don’t need Warren Buffett’s eagle eye for a cash flow statement to recognize this revenue stream as important.  A grade schooler trading Halloween candy out of his trick-or-treat bag would know it’s important.  That said: I’ve never seen an investigation in the U.S. press of who gets to rake in the hay from transit-related real estate development.  (Perhaps reporters know what their bosses own, and don’t want to find themselves moderating the ‘casual encounters’ forum on Craigs List.  If that pays anything.)  I know San Francisco taxpayers will pay for the Central Subway.  I don’t know who owns the land near the new stations, or who will make money from it.

Thanks to my guide Hiro, I watched the change of guard at the Shibuya station between a conductor with the public sector Tokyo Ginza Line and a private sector counterpart with the Tokyu Corporation.  The first stepped out of the train; they exchanged pleasantries; the second stepped in, less than a minute later.  The same train continued west … but on a line now owned by Tokyu, with Tokyu-set fares, to stations on Tokyu-owned land.

I can’t believe that opportunities for this kind of development don’t exist in the U.S.  If they get a generous lease on a passel of property and the rights to put condos and a shopping center on it, Gigantoramus Construction ought to be interested in extending a current metro line to service it.  That’s how Henry Huntington made money on the Pacific Electric system.  And if that metro line is never going to be extended otherwise, well, I’m interested, too.  It’s part of the financing picture, and ought to be done transparently.

(If, of course, the state can offer water to thirsty residents in a new development, and it’s not catty-corner from a San Apocalypse fault line.  And if it’s all desired.  What many communities crave most passionately is to be left alone.)

Tokyo and Seoul don’t leave money on the table

Here’s a shot of a kiosk on a Tokyo subway platform:

Kiosk on Tokyo Metro platform

Kiosk on Tokyo Metro platform

Right on the platform.  I have mixed feelings about this location, but, for the record, there it is.

Ascend to mezzanine level in Tokyo and Seoul, and you’re bound to find someone who wants to sell you something.  I also remember more forms of advertising in the trains and stations, all of it less objectionable than the transit advertising I expect in the U.S.  (Particularly wrap-all-the-way-around-the-bus-or-rail-car advertising, and don’t-get-me-started Transit TV in L.A.)

* * * * *

Some odds and ends:

Tokyo transit misrepresented to the tourist

“So that’s the famed Tokyo rail system,” exclaims the would-be American visitor, after finding a map like this online.  “122 miles!  Not as big as New York’s!”

Nope, it’s more complicated than that.  Tokyo rail offerings are balkanized between public and private lines.  You’ve gotta consider this map, too, which shows the huge, huge rail network owned by JR East.  Tourists might not venture far outside the Yamanote Line circle, but I still took lots and lots of JR East trains while in Tokyo.

Finally, there are what might be called ‘indy’ operators, which may own, operate and set fares on a single line.  These aren’t adequately represented on any one map, although Flickr user Kzaral gave it a much-needed go, here.

Tokyo Waterfront New Transit Corporation's Yurikamome train

Tokyo Waterfront New Transit Corporation’s Yurikamome train

Hiro estimated that a newcomer might need six months to learn the ins and outs of Tokyo’s transit maze.  I shall remove weight from my lazy retired duff long enough to dust off my copy of Transit Metropolis, and quote from Robert Cervero on page 185:

“Tokyo’s metropolitan rail network — counting both publicly and privately owned railways — is, by far, the world’s largest.”

It’s certainly the king of the transit cities I’ve visited so far.

Big isn’t the same as nice

Hiro said he prefers Singapore’s rail network.  I haven’t visited Singapore, but enjoyed Vancouver’s SkyTrain more than anything I rode in Asia.

Lots of station personnel in Shanghai

Suitcases and backpacks have to go through an airport-style metal detector.  Two staffers supervise the detector, and more staff direct comings and goings on the platform.

Get the Seoul Metro hard copy map, or the Seoul Subway app

I struggled with the .pdf’d Seoul Metro maps found online.  The map incorporated in an Android app, on the other hand, clearly shows transfer points between lines.

The free fold out, hard copy map is just as good.  You should be able to grab one for free at a station security office.

Those Japanese face masks

A five pack at the Yasukuni Street 7-11 cost about $5.  I don’t doubt that they inhibit disease, if only by discouraging contact between filthy fingertips and vulnerable lips and nostrils.

I saw few in Korea, fewer still in Shanghai.  In Tokyo, twenty percent or more of my fellow riders were masked.  Some may forget they have them on.  Mine was cozy enough, particularly on a cold morning (until I gave it the heave for steaming up my spectacles).

In Japan, stand on the left in metro station escalators

Asian etiquette guides informed me that the Japanese don’t jaywalk, are put off my public nose blowing, and accept and dispense money in trays next to cash registers, rather than by hand.

I consistently forgot to put the bills in the tray, and was forgiven by polite cashiers.

I also saw nose blowers and jaywalkers.  Not many, but a few.

There is one rule, however, that you must know in Tokyo, lest you be trampled or exclaimed about in a language unknown to you: stand on the left on Metro station escalators, and not on the right.  Just the opposite of BART.

Tim ain’t playing.  Forget this at your peril.

Something up with Shanghai land development

I took this shot next to the catchily-named, rolls-off-the-tongue Xinjiangwancheng station, at the end of the line for the #10 subway.

Construction by the Xinjiangwancheng station on the #10 line in Shanghai

Construction by the Xinjiangwancheng station on the #10 line in Shanghai

Looks like they’ve got a little more on the work order than a couple of kitchen remodels, doesn’t it?

I saw development on a smaller scale next to the Jiading Xincheng stop.  I also spotted a real estate sales office here, encountered a sales crew on the station steps, and found real estate fliers on subway seats.

These are two of the newer lines in Shanghai’s rapidly growing metro system, now the largest on terra firma.  (334 miles total, versus 286 miles for Seoul and 232 miles for New York City.)  Neither line was especially busy.  I suspect, but don’t know, that the Chinese are funneling development around the transit lines that can handle it.

Easy rail riding with an IC card

These are the Asian versions of the TAP and Clipper card known to straphangers in California.  In Tokyo, you can buy a Suica, as I did, or a PASMO; they do pretty much the same thing.  Seoulites travel with a T-Money card.  I bought a Shanghai Smart Transport Card with my maglev ticket at Pudong International Airport, loaded 250 rmb on it and never ran low, although I rode the Metro all over Shanghai.

* * * * *

And finally, a point you might not expect from me:

A wistful look at auto-based development

Get interested in something, study it, become an expert.  Take a un-nuanced stance and defend it aggressively, either on principle or as the hireling of a think tank that wants to push the same view.

Much opining in the American press is done by folk who can be so described, and they often paint life in black-and-white shades.  We can right every wrong by voting for this or that measure, by supporting so-and-so candidate.

Some real life choices are that cut and dried.  Most aren’t.  If I’m eight years old and can only afford one scoop, I’m going to smack my lips on one flavor and miss the rest.

Which leads me to choices about land development:

Maybe I suffer from grass-is-always-greener syndrome, and am attracted to what isn’t in front of me.  I felt a little aghast in Houston, stunned by the colossal swaths of real estate consumed by freeways, freeways, more freeways, the homeliness and environmental profligacy of the frontage roads, Texas U-turns, and so forth.  I left thinking that Governor Rick Perry might really deserve to be President, if he can sweet talk a star programming team into giving up their Noe Valley Victorian on the J-Line for a Katy Freeway office park on his next job poaching trip out west.  Maybe America needs a first class B.S. artist in the Oval Office.

But now I’m in Japan.  There are private cars here, sure, but you have to be well-off to own one.  Japan’s leaders have set up taxes and toll roads to keep them out of the hands of Central Tokyo’s Everyman.  (But likely not out of the hands of bucks up campaign donors.)

Instead Everyman gets a train.  It’s a clean train, and a prompt one, but you get to stand in it with your face mask with a few hundred fellow sufferers, and maybe if someone’s sick and hacking away and the air isn’t circulating, well, you get to get sick, too.  If you’re female, maybe you get pawed once in awhile.

Shiguang Road station on #8 Line in Shanghai

Shiguang Road station on #8 Line in Shanghai

Crowded trains and crowded stations, day in and day out, groceries and briefcases schlepped wearily up and down escalators, absorbing the elbows and brusque shoulders of other harried travelers, and the stale air, and perhaps dreaming of a far, faraway land, where you could put down the convertible top, wriggle your tush ’til it gets a nice bite on a big bucket seat, kick back and hum along with the tunes on the stereo while you motor your leisurely way to work.  In a place where the government doesn’t jam a master plan down your throat, where regular people get to own cars, too.

I know that seems like an odd, odd paragraph to come from a transit advocate (which I still am, that paragraph notwithstanding).  I’m glad to live in a transit first city.  Honest!

But I don’t want to lead anyone astray, even in my little-attended corner of the web.  I have reservations.  Perhaps a topic for another post.

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Travels Deeply South

Photos from a whirlwind trip to the Deep South are online.  Your lucky correspondent traveled in the fourth week of January, and not the fifth; I missed out on the wince-making weather miseries recently described in big fonts on news sites.  The needle dipped below freezing in Birmingham, Atlanta and Asheville, but skies remained clear and dry, and I suffered nothing worse than chilled fingers while touristing about with my camera.  Georgians stranded overnight in snowbound traffic on Interstate 285 won’t have much sympathy to spare for me.

In the mid-nineties I visited New Orleans for a science conference, but that had been the extent of my travels down south.  The press warned ominously of growing polarization between red and blue states, and most of the red states seemed to be in Dixie.  I am retired now, have time to travel.  Why not see the South for myself?

House in Charleston, South Carolina

House on East Battery Street in Charleston, South Carolina

A few newcomer impressions:

Southern courtesy isn’t make believe.

I look, talk, act — and, for all I know, smell — like a Yankee, and had expected my California accent to earn at least an occasional hostile once-over while refueling my rental car in the Deep South boonies.  My expectations had been shaped largely by Hollywood, after all; didn’t I remember how Rod Steiger had snarled at Sidney Poitier over a lukewarm cola in Heat of the Night?

Well, no one like Mr. Steiger snarled at me.  Maybe I was lucky, but I will no longer dismiss posts like this one as wishful thinking.  Even the gas station attendants were nice.

At least superficially, the South is more thoroughly integrated than the North.

This is controversial.

An Asian friend who visited the South frequently in decades past experienced small discriminations never encountered out west.  Mississippi minister John Sanders, met by happy chance while strolling Jackson’s downtown, noted that electorate decisions often break along ethnic lines.  Jackson has a black mayor because Jackson is mostly black.  In contrast, white lawmakers retained the Confederate symbol on the state flag because they had the votes to get their way.  How ‘thoroughly integrated’ is that?

Ministers pose at Fallen Fire Fighters Memorial

John and Daisy Sanders pose at Fallen Fire Fighters Memorial in Jackson, Mississippi

Just the same:

I included the Lakeshore megachurch in my itinerary after reading that it boasts the largest denomination in the country.  I’ll have to fall back on the same homely phrase: the 8:30 a.m. service on January 19 was the most thoroughly integrated I have attended in a lifetime of admittedly irregular churchgoing.  I say this less because of a tallying-up of represented ethnicities than because of the easygoing vibe I sensed while there.  I don’t know much much else about Lakeshore, and don’t want to hold it up as an exemplar of other virtues, but at least give it credit on that score.

At a morning breakfast buffet in Hoover, Alabama, in the cheerful give-and-take at a Charleston delicatessen, in a Birmingham supermarket: the comfort level between the races simply felt different than the norm out west.  In the South blacks and whites seem thoroughly used to each other.

Houston deserves special attention from transit geeks.

This is not because Houston is a transit city — trust me, it’s not — but because Houston may be the leading example of the Other Way.  I have never visited a place so dependent on car ownership.

Highway 290 and Sam Houston Tollway

On westbound 290 in suburban Houston.  Photo by Joe Wolf, Flickr.

To explain why, I will offer two points gleaned from reading Texas author Oscar Slotboom’s excellent, even-handed Houston Freeways:

(♦)  Houston cut back on freeway construction when the nationwide ‘freeway revolts’ struck in the 50s and 60s, but then grit its metropolitan teeth and forged ahead with more freeways in the 70s.  Los Angeles, in contrast, held the line with the Century/105 freeway, opened in 1993.

(Give credit where credit is due here, incidentally.  Houston does seem to have ‘built their way out of it,’ although transit experts have assured repeatedly that this can’t be done.  Houston led the nation in traffic congestion in the early eighties, and is now ranked seventeenth on the Inrix scorecard.)

(♦) Houston encouraged what might be termed ‘freeway oriented development’ with a gridwork of frontage roads, a.k.a. ‘feeders.’

Mr. Slotboom describes this system in Freeway Metropolis, his book’s second chapter.  (The book is available as a free .pdf on the website, although used hard copies go for north of $90 on Amazon.)  If you’re willing to open a new browser window, I’ll be honored to show you:

  • Zoom in on a freeway … say, the Sam Houston tollway, or the Katy freeway.  Zoom in close.  You can do it!  Click that mouse.
  • See how many of the freeways are paralleled by ‘service roads?’  See?  The Sam Houston Parkway runs to either side of the Sam Houston Tollway.  The East Freeway Service Road and Eastext Freeway Service Roads flank the East Freeway and Eastext Freeway.
  • Browse around a bit.  You’ll find your own examples.  Lots of them.
  • Click on a few of those feeder/frontage roads, and drag the little orange Google Street View icon for an up-close view.

Why, my goodness!  Just look at all the businesses on those feeder roads!  Shopping centers, office complexes, vets, barbers, beauty salons, hotels (like the one I slept in) and churches (like the one I visited): on and on and on they go, punctuated by the occasional onramp, so the shopper can jump on the freeway again.  “Texas U-Turns” allow drivers to duck under freeways to change course on one-way frontage roads without dealing with stop lights or signage.

Highway 288 north toward Houston

Highway 288 north toward Houston. Photo by Judy Baxter, Flickr.

The older I get, the more I see wisdom in finding points that disputants in a debate can agree on.  (At least if they disagree sincerely, and aren’t being paid to tote polemical water for a given side.)  So I’ll settle for three points about car-oriented Houston infrastructure before moving on:

(♦)  It exacts a vastly larger environmental toll than transit oriented development.  It’s not earth friendly.  At all.

(♦)  It’s permanent.  Infrastructure can be expanded, but it’s very unusual to tear down megadollar stuff that works and replace it with something new.  Alternative designs for the San Mateo Bridge aren’t ever going to happen.  You built it, you got it, you use it, you keep it, you’re stuck with it.  I’m glad I had the chance to get a good shot of the Houston Red Line, but I can’t see how it’s going to change things much now, unless Houstonians make a colossal, unprecedented commitment to rail infrastructure.

(San Franciscans curious about how such freeway-oriented development might have panned out are invited to swallow hard and look at this map.  Thankfully, the much-maligned NIMBYs protested these plans; that’s why we don’t have a freeway blasting through Glen Canyon.)

Houston Red Line approaches Fannin South station

Houston Red Line approaches Fannin South station

(♦)  It is widely regarded as unattractive.  Houston has Hermann Park and some nice blocks in the Montrose district, but I can’t speak as charitably of other acres there, and the popularity of ‘Keep Houston Ugly’ t-shirts and bumper stickers suggests that Houstonians can’t, either.  One travel web site anointed Houston as the single ugliest city in the country.

But, to be fair: you can afford a house in Houston, and drive your clean, cozy, private car to work on a relatively uncongested freeway, and park your car without taking out a payday loan.  Maybe you won’t get to stroll around beautiful San Francisco, but you won’t have to wrinkle nostrils overwhelmed by the musky, all-natural stench of a drunk next to you, or wrestle your way out of a jammed Muni bus, either.

(Although I feel obligated to digress here, and note that I haven’t ridden a jammed Muni since climbing onto a 29 loaded with 49er Faithful bound for the last game at Candlestick.  When will my luck run out? I keep wanting to pinch myself.)

Southerners are about the same as folk everywhere else.

A few sensed my disappointment, and suggested that I visit much more rural towns in search of the paleolithic types I had half-expected.  In fact, a group of Birmingham atheists quickly identified one small Alabama town that might serve as a last bastion of bad old days racism.  (Which I won’t name, because I didn’t go there, might slander the place, and also might inadvertently reward it with bus loads of tourists.)

I will no longer put the South in a different mental category, or approach travels there with a different mindset.  I was absolutely charmed by many I met.  I hope to return.

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Sign Hill Park

JFK was probably still chasing secretaries around the Oval Office when I caught my first glimpse of the South San Francisco The Industrial City sign from Mom’s old Fairlane on Route 101. I might not have been old enough to sound out the words, but I certainly knew my letters by kindergarten … and there they were, thirty-four of them, starched white and sixty feet high on that short, flat-faced hill north of the airport.

Letter "S" in "South" in Sign Hill Park sign

Letter “S” in “South” and the view southeast

Any trip to SFO included at least a look at that sign. By college I found the ‘industrial city’ part a bit camp, like sequined glasses or a beehive hairdo, and likely smirked at it from the Airporter bus. I saw it again many times after I settled in as a Los Angeles teacher in my thirties, and flew north for family reunions on holidays. Unconsciously, I regarded the sign as a landmark that was, would be and always had been, like an outcrop of Franciscan chert. Perhaps Columbian mammoths had once grazed by the letters.

Not once in all those years did it occur to me that the letters might stand in a publicly accessible place, and that the place and the letters might be visited.

* * * * *

Sign Hill Park” is the name of the publicly accessible place. It includes thirty acres of hillside due south of the 2,300+ acres of San Bruno Mountain. Roaring Twenties South S.F. dreamt up the slogan to promote their turf to visiting captains of industry. The letters went up in powdered lime in 1923 and were cast in cement six years later.

Letter "O" in Sign Hill Park sign

Letter “O” in “Francisco”

If you grew up in the Bay Area and have logged your own decades of idle looks at that sign, I think you’ll thank yourself if you visit at least once. The walk from the South S.F. BART takes about forty minutes. I also counted a few parking spaces off Ridgeview Court, by the park’s west entrance. Expect to be alone, if visiting on a weekday, and nearly alone if visiting on a weekend.

A few advisories:

  • Many Yelp scribes use the word ‘steep.’ Come and you’ll know why.
  • Expect no bathroom and you won’t be disappointed.
  • The Ridge Trail above the letters and the Letters Trail beneath are reasonably navigated, at least by my standards. The smudged tracks between and to the letters are a different story. Expect to sidestep, slip, shimmy and scramble, and perhaps to fall. I nearly did. Navigate at your own risk, if at all.
View from Letters Trail in Sign Hill Park

Looking up from Letters Trail

For photogs: I don’t know what rules might apply and certainly don’t want you to bonk anyone on the head with an airborne camera, but I’ll just betcha that someone someday is going to grab a spectacular shot here by screwing a wide angle on a dSLR, attaching that dSLR to a kite, floating the dSLR high enough over Sign Hill to capture both letters and South San Francisco beneath, and being very, very patient. Perhaps like this gentleman.

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Travels Northwest

Photos from a trek northwest earlier this month are online at Portland, Seattle and Vancouver. I have outed myself as a transit geek, so please don’t be surprised that twelve of the fifteen pix are of people movers.  Why photograph something that yearns for meaning in life when you can point the camera at a Bombardier?

I stand strongly by my view that transit agencies are best judged by unannounced ghetto bus rides at rush hour, but made no attempt to ride any such thing while up north.  I was a tourist.  I traveled like one.

My sightseeing impressions follow.  Please note: I didn’t interview anyone, didn’t study local history, have done absolutely no checking to insure that this post’s observations are off base or on the mark.  Regard these impressions as worth every penny I’ll earn for them.

* * *

(•) Portland TriMet maps insist that a ‘transit mall‘ can be found downtown, but I found nothing mall-like in the two dozen blocks so indicated.  The blocks are exceptionally well served by transit, true, but they ain’t no mall.  The Galleria is a mall.  Malls have muzak and food courts.

If Portland can get away with this kind of linguistic puffery, why can’t PR flacks in other cities?  Why not drape a sign over a snoozing inebriate in Pershing Square and declare him part of the downtown transit esplanade?  ‘Esplanade’ has a nice ring to it, and no one knows what it means; perfect combination.

DC Vegetarian food cart

DC Vegetarian food cart

(•)  Portland seems to have dealt with the great food truck controversy by confining such jalopies to specific blocks downtown.  The trucks cluster in pods, like lonesome elephants, as mapped at Food Cart Pods in Portland.  I let Yelp steer me to the excellent DC Vegetarian.

(•)  Portland’s Aerial Tram is not a tourist toy, as much as it might look like one from afar.  I rode it twice, saw for myself.  The proof was in the bleary-eyed early morning apathy of many riders, who never would have stood so calmly for the ride-over-the-freeway shown if they didn’t take such rides every work day.

Portland Aerial Tram

Portland Aerial Tram crosses the freeway

NPR just posted a nice article about the tram.  I’ll let the author tell you about it; after all, NPR presumably cut her a check.  I will include another shot, though, of the capacious bike racks next to the tram’s South Waterfront terminal.

Aerial Tram bike racks

Bike racks at South Waterfront terminal

(•)  The Seattle Monorail is a tourist toy, albeit a pleasant one serviced by agreeable staff.

(•)   Twenty-three years ago, Seattle completed a 1.3 mile, five station, $455 million transit tunnel downtown.  They must not have figured that we tourists would want to tote our Brownies into a long hole in the ground to ride belching buses, because they did little out-of-the-area hollering about the tunnel once it was finished.  Or at least I didn’t hear any of the hollering.  I would have left Seattle entirely ignorant of the tunnel if I hadn’t happened to spot a sign downtown, and scurried off to investigate.

Train in transit tunnel

Airport bound train at Westlake Station in Seattle Transit Tunnel

The tunnel serves both trains and buses, as these shots will attest.  I wouldn’t call it a showpiece, but it was clean and attractive enough, and had plenty of customers.  I doubt many tourists would trade a visit to the Space Needle for a ride in the transit tunnel, but a visiting transit geek just might.

Bus in Seattle Transit Tunnel

71 bus in Seattle Transit Tunnel at Westlake Station

(•)  With mixed feelings, I confess that the transit highlight of my expedition was certainly my ride on Vancouver’s SkyTrain.  I have met many agreeable train operators over the years, and doubt they would regard such a conclusion as welcome news.

SkyTrain, you see, is an automated, driverless system, the world’s oldest and one of the biggest.  The tram at Los Angeles’ Getty Center is similar, but does nothing more ambitious than haul museum goers up and down a short hill. The SkyTrain’s Burrard-to-King-George run is thirty-seven minutes long.  It is a transit artery, like BART or the Red Line.

Vancouver TransLink SkyTrain

Canada Line SkyTrain approaches the BridgePort station.

I thought it worked exceedingly well, although one online scribe notes that SkyTrain gear is aging, and breakdowns have become more common.  Peak hour ‘headways’ — e.g., the time between trains — are a mere two to four minutes.  Imagine waiting only two minutes for the next airport BART!  Tourists can looky-loo out of front window seats, and enjoy views ordinarily reserved for train operators.

(•)   And finally: I am depressed to report that bus and train interiors in all three cities were in much better shape than what I’m accustomed to in S.F., and also superior to what I remember in Los Angeles.  SFMTA has deployed some new buses in the south end of the city, where I live, but the 14s on Mission are as vile as ever.

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Transit riding tips at random

What follows are one veteran straphanger’s tips, tricks and general counsel on getting about on public transit.  I don’t think they’ll amount to much, and cheerfully acknowledge that you regularly share seats with riders better qualified than me to write this post.  But they didn’t write it, and I have.  So:

In no particular order:

I can depend on the behavior of other riders at transit stops to tell me if a bus or train is on the way. 

If other riders are waiting with me, I don’t have to lean off the edge of the curb to look for an approaching bus.  (I sometimes do anyway, of course, just as I sometimes double check latches and locks that I already know are closed.)  They will do the leaning for me; I need only observe them.

If the bus isn’t coming, the curb leaner will abandon her station and return unhurriedly to wherever she stood before, likely with an expression that faintly limns all that is futile in life.  If the bus is coming, she will remain where she is, and show with body language that she expects to be underway shortly.  Perhaps she will put away a cell phone, or withdraw cash or a transit card from her purse.  She may stand straighter.  The signs are small, but difficult to mistake.

Most of the time, these observations aren’t worth much.  The bus is going to come anyway; the only penalty of finding out later rather than sooner is that I may be one of the last to join the queue.  But occasionally this trick saves me from missing a ride.

Let’s say I’m approaching a stop from a perpendicular street, and can see the waiting riders at the stop ahead, but not the approaching traffic.  I can count on their body language to tell me if an out-of-eyesight bus is about to pull up.  If it is, I make haste; if not, I can take my time about getting to the corner.

The transit card or pass that I don’t immediately return to my wallet is a transit card or pass likely to be lost.

I take it out when it’s time to get on, and return it to my wallet at the first opportunity.  In the days of paper transit passes, I lost one a year to the ravages of the washing machine.

I try to board the first or the last car of a multi-car train, and not a car in the center of the platform.

This might qualify less as a tip than as an extra effort.  I think most regular riders know that the center cars will be busier.  They just aren’t motivated enough to trot to the far platform end to board a less crowded car.

The longer I have to wait for a bus on a frequent-running line, the likelier it is to be crowded.

Subways have their own right of way, and usually run promptly.  Light rail systems compete with auto traffic, and aren’t as reliable.  Buses are less reliable still.  Transit gurus can do what they will: individual buses will be delayed by wheelchairs and passenger conflicts, and groups of buses will bunch up at major traffic jams.

If I have been waiting for twenty minutes for a bus that usually runs every ten, I can make book that it will be teeming with miserable riders when it finally staggers to the curb.  It will ferry not only its own allotted passengers, but the passengers who ordinarily would have boarded the bus behind it.

Before I join this onboard horde, I can try to guess if the delay affects only the lone unlucky bus before me now, or its brethren further back on the route line.  If I think it’s the former, I can let the packed bus lurch away, and wait; a nearly empty bus will be trotting up in a few minutes more.  If I think it’s the latter, I have no hope; I will suffer on any bus I board until the jam is cleared up, and might as well get the suffering over with.

I check cloth covered seats before sitting on them. 

People leak, erupt, have accidents, spill things.  Hard plastic seats may be ugly and uncomfortable, but they let riders spot the spills before they turn, bend knees and commit themselves.

If the seat is cloth-covered, I give it a probing stare or run my knuckles over the fabric before investing my pants bottom on it.  This has saved my backside more than once.

In a city with inadequate bus service, I regard the window seats in the back row as the best in the bus.

This tip only applies in cities like San Francisco, which regularly welcomes riders onto buses jammed to the seams with standees.  Feel free to skip to the next item, if buses in your town are less crowded.  (Although do pause first for a moment of grateful silence.)

Rowdy teenagers are likely to congregate in the back row, true, and I may also smell engine fumes here if the bus is in poor repair.  But these back row seats are still my first choice.  Even in a city that permits rear door boarding, crowding passengers almost always will leave an air pocket of sorts in the very back.  A rear row seat at the window lets me enjoy the view without staring at the belt buckles and coat zippers of standees next to me.

How about a window seat farther forward in the bus?  Wouldn’t I have a seatmate between me and the belt buckles there?

I certainly would, but your scribe is the polite type; in the bus center, I am much likelier to be stood next to by a frail standee.  I will feel obligated to offer my seat, and in that case might as well not take the seat in the first place.

In the back row, I will be in close proximity only to the standee at the back of the line.  He will be unlikely to be very old, very young or feeble; the more vulnerable passengers usually avoid the rear of the bus entirely.  I won’t feel any compunction to give up my seat, and will finish the trip with feet rested and conscience intact.

I take computerized transit planners with a grain of salt.

Let’s say I want to catch a ride at First and A Street in Anytown.  The 60 line stops at that corner, and connects to the 110 line; the 60-110 combination can get me to my destination in a half hour.  The next best route would take ten minutes longer.  Ergo, the 60-110 route is what the computerized planner will tell me about.

But, a problem: the 60 only runs every forty minutes, and the 110 every twenty-five.  And if I were to walk a block to B Street and budget another five minutes for my trip, I could get my traveling done aboard two buses that run every ten minutes.

The computerized planners have improved, but they still take a backseat to practical knowledge of the local transit grid.

I pay attention if a crowd at a bus stop is much larger or smaller than the norm.

Smart phone-toting riders today can access online services that report the real time locations of transit vehicles, and such services make this tip less meaningful.  Still, for what it’s worth:

If no one is waiting at a stop where I have always seen at least a dozen fellow riders, or if the crowd is much larger than normal, I assume with certainty that something is wrong, and investigate.  I do not just join the huge crowd and wait with the rest of them.

On crowded transit vehicles, I avoid arguments by watching what I step on.

Self-explanatory.  Toes are delicate, hurt when stepped on.  Some sufferers of stepped-on toes handle pain and anger poorly.

I expect the transit grid of an unfamiliar city to take a long time to learn. 

The rich regularly ride transit in New York, San Francisco and some other cities, but the poor take transit everywhere.  Because transit is something that the poor do, the better-heeled may assume that it can’t be that hard.

But learning the transit grid in an unfamiliar big city is hard.  It might not be that tough to ride one bus from point A to B, but it’s very, very hard to get a reckoning of the hundreds of routes and dozens of service providers that might be available.  Consider Los Angeles.  The county transit agency, LACMTA, operates 183 bus routes and eight rail lines.  It would be plenty difficult to learn a fraction of them, but that’s just the start of the up slope for the Southern California straphanger: more than forty other city and regional transit agencies also field bus fleets in the county.  You can ride Foothill Transit in the San Gabriel Valley, the Big Blue Bus in Santa Monica, the eponymous Norwalk Transit, Long Beach Transit, Torrance Transit.  You can ride commuter buses, that operate only in the early morning and late afternoon, and commuter trains.  Some buses have short lines: abbreviated circuits that cover only the busiest, central portion of a complete bus route.  Other routes offer local and express service operating side-by-side.

This expectation that a formidable task should be easy yields a predictable result.  The new transit rider is quickly bewildered, and may feel inferior.  If she rides in Manhattan, where her peers get around by subway and transit knowledge is expected, she may roll up her figurative sleeves and grimly start the climb up the learning curve.  In Los Angeles, on the other hand, the bewildered rider may simply retreat indignantly to his car, with the private shame of a parent stumped by a child’s trigonometry homework.

If I travel to a new big city, I assume that the poor learned route idiosyncrasies because they had to, that it wasn’t easy and won’t be easy for me, either.  Expect it to be challenging and you won’t feel inappropriately bad when it is.

To judge a transit agency, ride a rush hour bus in the ‘hood.

I am a long-time spectator of transit doings in Los Angeles, and a spectator for the past two years of transit doings in San Francisco.  In both regions, I can spread a starched linen napkin on my lap at a fancy downtown luncheon and listen to starry-eyed talk about the latest gazillion dollar rail project, often from influential and well-intended folk who ‘don’t ride as often as they should’ or who ‘haven’t used the system in awhile.’  There is always a gazillion dollar rail project that shekels must be seized for, and there also are always — far, far from the luncheon — unglamorous, work-a-day bus lines that unglamorous commuters depend on, that are as invisible to the luncheon goers as gamma rays and that the transit agency may hold at arms’ length, like a bad parent bored by his own offspring.

I am a transit geek.  My Flickr page is full of photos of lifeless transit vehicles.  Only a transit geek would thrill to such shots.  I’ll ride the gazillion dollar rail projects after they’re built, and enjoy them, but I do most of my getting around with a transit pass, and know better than to judge the agencies in question by the pricey projects they want to yak about.  I judge them first by their operation of the prosaic bus lines they want to ignore.

I strongly recommend this perspective to others.  Skip the luncheon.  Travel unannounced to a less monied part of town, at least if you think you can do so safely.  Ride the buses there at rush hour.  If the service is adequate, then the agency is doing its job, and might be trusted to build something new.  (Perhaps like a divorcé who gets to buy a zippy car because he makes all his alimony payments.)  If the service is less than adequate, then the transit agency just showed you its true colors.

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San Bruno Mountain State Park

In the first chapter of the blockbuster referred to so frequently on this blog, my protagonist confides a plan for San Bruno Mountain that probably wouldn’t plump his stock at a Department of Parks meeting.  I hadn’t yet visited this mountain when Hank whispered his nefarious scheme during work on the first draft, but did before I packed the final .pdf off to the printer.

How grateful I am that he didn’t get his way!  It’s beautiful there.

Ridge Trail, San Bruno Mountain

Ridge Trail, San Bruno Mountain

I snapped these shots a few months back on the Ridge Trail, which meanders along the mountain crest for several miles from the broadcast towers off Radio Road to the junction with Harold Road in Brisbane.  See how the trail clings to the very peak of the mountain?  Look north, south, east or west: knock-out views.  You can easily see Hank and Logos’ stomping grounds near Mount Diablo (but not in these shots; sorry).  Internet wags insist that the Farallones can be glimpsed from here, too, but their eyes must be better than mine.

The gentleman shown below was hiking near this fire road gate while I was sizing up a shot, and graciously let himself be drafted as an amateur model.  I jotted his email, sent him a copy of the photo, and never saw him again.

Fire Road 3

View from Fire Road 3, San Bruno Mountain

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Graffiti on the 14 bus

Two years ago in Public Transit in L.A.: an older-but-wiser look back, I grumbled that I have seen graffiti in some San Francisco buses worse than I’d expect in a public bathroom on Venice beach.  Those of you lucky enough to straphang in better governed cities might have thought I was exaggerating.

If only, if only!  I snapped these gruesome shots on an inbound 14 in mid-June.  I had only a 50 mm screwed onto my Nikon, which is why I must offer only close-ups of tagging and stickers you might be happier not to see at all.  It would take a wide-angle lens to do the carnage justice.

Graffiti on Mission 14

To be fair: I have seen graffiti like this only in the rear portions of some 14s — and perhaps a 49 or two; I get the lines mixed up when traveling on Mission.  I don’t remember seeing anything like this on the 8X, the 38, or other Muni bus lines.  Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention.

I spent over a decade getting around exclusively by transit in Los Angeles.  I regularly rode buses in South L.A., the Pico Union, East L.A., Florence-Graham, Watts, and other neighborhoods where some might expect neglect.  I am no fan of LACMTA, but can assure you that I never saw anything remotely like this on any Metro bus.  Not even close.

 Graffiti on the 14 bus

A small, frustrated part of me wishes that a commercial photographer would snap a photo like this for an ad for a natural resource-devouring, climate warming SUV, and print it with a caption:

“What if we treated our customers like this?”

I will connect this post to Brothers of the Milky Way by noting that this is the same line that Hank steps off in a scene near the end of the novel.  The 14 is one of San Francisco’s most heavily used lines, and trod Mission before and after changes implemented in Muni’s five year plan of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

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Remembering Lee Joseph

Twelve year old Lee Joseph’s father beat him until his skin was black and blue from his hips to his ankles.  Lee ran away from home, was befriended by a gay male prostitute, and turned his first trick in Houston before his thirteenth birthday.

This was in 1978, four years before the Center for Disease Control would agree on an acronym for a terrifying new disease: AIDS.

Lee was diagnosed with AIDS in San Francisco in 1986.  I interviewed him in his final months, wrote an article about him that I didn’t sell.  Lee died before his twenty-second birthday.  You’ll understand why I named him as a co-dedicatee of Brothers of the Milky Way if you read the novel.

Lee’s obituary promised that I would one day publish an account of his life.  I cringed when I read this in 1987, but realize today that the obituary writer was more prescient than I knew.  My original article is now online at Transitophile, and that officially makes the promise true, doesn’t it?

I corrected my misspelling of Dilaudid, and would like to change “Mount Rinati” to something Google has heard of, but fear that I’d introduce inaccuracies by wielding an aggressive scalpel on the copy.  The article is as I wrote it in 1987.  I taped my interviews with Lee, and referred often to the tapes as I wrote.  When my memory disagrees with the article, I defer to the article.

Lee was the last of about a dozen gay male prostitutes I interviewed in San Francisco in 1986.  I had wanted to try my hand at non-fiction, and thought the hustlers on Polk Street were well worth writing about, given their suicidal willingness to ply their trade in the face of the AIDS epidemic.  My sister mentioned my interviews to her friend Rebecca, who volunteered for an AIDS nonprofit; Rebecca, in turn, provided contact information for Lee.  She described him as an “AIDS poster boy” — frank and forthright about his illness, and eager to share his story with others.

I called, set up a date, and piloted my old bus to San Francisco for what would be the first of many interviews.  Lee lived alone in a capacious Western Addition apartment furnished by the AIDS Foundation.  Past roommates had moved out or died; he had the place to himself.  We did most of our talking in the living room, seated formally on chairs to either side of the oriel windows.  He wore sweat pants to camouflage his gauntness, and kept the lights dim.

He looked a little like Andy Warhol.  I don’t think Warhol became a national celebrity until his thirties, but AIDS had taken a heavy toll on Lee’s appearance; the twenty year old I interviewed could have passed for thirty-five, even forty.  He was about twenty pounds skinnier than the lowest weight a stranger might attribute to natural variance, but the sweat pants camouflaged this effectively.  I don’t think passersby identified him immediately as an AIDS victim.  He might have had to deal with Kaposi’s Sarcoma at some point, but I don’t remember any visible lesions.

It might sound absurd to admit envy of a terminally ill twenty year old, but I envied Lee for his savoir faire.  I could watch him quietly take my measure as we spoke, and fine-tune his presentation of himself to match his changing estimate of my expectations.  He had been on his own since age twelve, and had depended for support on the mercurial tastes of much older tricks at an age when many teenage boys are still pedaling paper routes.  Before that, he had avoided the belt and blows of abusive parents.  Necessity had made him good at guessing the moods of the caregivers and clients who could pamper him, or beat him, or kill him.

I didn’t envy the curriculum, but did envy the skill.  He struck me as someone who could quickly fit in anywhere.

Lee spoke matter-of-factly about his suicide attempt and depression, as if he were recounting the breakdowns of a mutual acquaintance.  His voice broke occasionally, but he never cried in front of me.  I think this also jibed with the brutal etiquette acquired in his years with tricks and violent parents:  Nobody would want you around, if you made a fuss.  No matter what you were going through.  You kept it to yourself, if you wanted to keep your bed, and didn’t want to get hit.

He came closest to crying when he contemplated his life as a whole.  This was all?!  Was he supposed to have stayed home at age twelve and let his father keep beating him black and blue?  No one had imagined anything like AIDS, when he’d started hustling in the late seventies.  Was he supposed to have anticipated all that when he was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old?  And now he was twenty, and terminally ill.  This was all?!

* * * * *

I don’t remember the trip to help him move described on page 6.  I do remember another errand, when he asked for a ride to buy marijuana.  The supplier was a gay bar acquaintance willing to sell a couple of joints.

“If this stuff is shit, it’s your ass,” said the 112 pound Lee, as he handed over the bill.  The acquaintance blinked, like a prize fighter threatened by a kindergartner.

We spoke shortly after he moved into a new Shanti Project apartment near Dolores Park.  I wrote in the Brothers afterword of how uninterested real life seems to be in keeping non-thespians in character.  Lee could have given me a great close for my article by saying something poignant.  Instead he made a merry joke about gay porn actor Jeff Stryker.

Then he had to get off the phone, or I did.  I never talked to him again. He died a few months later.  Goodbye, Lee.  You deserved a better hand than you were dealt.  I hope there’s another life for you here, if you want it.

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A Job like HM&F

I’ve never worked at a place like the HM&F factory brooded about in Brothers of the Milky Way, but did once have a job that inspired my description of Hank’s miseries there.

I was just out of college, a few years younger than the artsy fellow shown with the preposterous old microbus elsewhere on this blog.  I had planned and budgeted badly, and found myself on my uppers, with rent due and an empty pantry.  My friend Tom said he might be able to talk me into a stint at his cabinetry shop.  His boss said yes; I started the next day.

HM&F is described as pretty villainous, but I feel only sympathy for the fellow who owned this cabinetry shop, even if he might have come close to costing me a few fingers.  I’ll call him Mike.  Mike was no older than thirty, an honest, unassuming, high school educated carpenter who had figured out that he could make money selling cabinetry to Bay Area retailers, and eventually required assistants to keep up with orders.  Abracadabra: a business was born.  Mike had some things to learn about workplace safety, but the labor was honest, and he created employment as he earned his keep.

Alas, like Hank — in this case, precisely like Hank — I wasn’t no William Woodworker.  My friend Tom might have enjoyed his days at the shop, but Tom was a real carpenter.  I wasn’t.  I couldn’t be assigned to pleasurable tasks requiring skills I didn’t have.  All that was left for me was the sanding room.

I will quote Hank: man, was that bad.  Man.

It didn’t seem that it would be that way when I walked in.  I remember a broad table, a hefty shop light overhead, and the face mask I wore, so I would not baste my  lungs with lumber particles.  The work was simplicity itself.  I wrestled pieces of varying dimensions on the table, bore down on them with a hand-held electric sander, sanded the heck out of them.  I probably paused occasionally to load the device with sanding sheets of different grit, or roughness.  Easy stuff.  Lassie could have managed it with her forepaws.  Maybe even Mr. Ed.

How monotonous and exhausting it was!  I had done other repetitive, tedious tasks, but always had been able to set aside a vital fraction of my cerebral lobes for daydreams, and thus could while away the hours without suffering.  I couldn’t in that sanding room.  I don’t remember why not; Carter will still president then, I think; it was too long ago.  I remember only how interminable the hours became, how desolately I pleaded with seconds and minutes to scurry past to morning break!!! lunch!!! relief!!!, and how the seconds and minutes cruelly refused, instead dug in their chronological heels and waddled like drunken old tortoises around the clock face.

Never before or since has time passed so lethargically.  I would pant through my face mask as I hustled around a block of wood, and order myself to stop sneaking glances at the clock.  Perhaps the minute and second hands would unstick and resume their usual canter if I just stopped staring so hard.

That didn’t work.  I grit figurative teeth, tried harder, made a humorless game of it.  Don’t look at the clock.  Don’t look!

One morning I kept my eyes off the dial on the wall for what had to be an hour, simply had to be, as I wielded the sander and puffed through the mask and hoisted one wood piece after another on the table.

Finally I permitted myself a glance.  At least an hour had gone by; I knew that.  At least. I had to look now, didn’t I?  Wasn’t it almost time for lunch?

More than thirty-five years later, I can still taste the bewilderment and despair I felt in that moment when I raised my eyes to the clock.

It hadn’t been an hour.

I had used up only fifteen minutes.

* * *

After the first day, I headed straight home, staggered to bed and slept for at least twelve hours.  Maybe fourteen.  I soon became a little better acclimated to the work, but was always exhausted when I left, and in this exhaustion felt defeated, beaten.  I wanted to write every day back then, in my literary twenties, but quickly gave up any fantasy of that while I worked in the sanding room.  If I had been more practically ambitious, I would have required someone to hold a twelve gauge on me to get me to wash up and drag myself to an evening college course.  I looked with new sympathy at the laborers I saw after work in neighborhood supermarkets.  I finally understood why they looked so gray and grimy and half-asleep.  That was how I looked now, too.

* * *

One morning after about two weeks of this, Mike took me aside when I arrived for work.  He had a new job for me.

Mike wanted me to spend the day with the table saw.

Table saw

Table saw photo by Patrick Fitzgerald

I have scoured Flickr for a Creative Commons-licensed photo of a table saw, as I am too lazy to dust off my camera to take my own.  (Thank you, Patrick Fitzgerald, whoever you are; an excellent shot.)  The table saw shown is much newer than the rickety old monster that stood imperiously by itself near one of the shop doors.  The blade, however, was similar.

Admire that blade for a moment, gentle reader.  A big mother, isn’t it?  Sharp, too.

Imagine that blade at speed.

What do you think that blade would do to your finger, if your finger were to get in its way?  Would the blade politely stop in its mad spinning, do you think, so your finger wouldn’t get a nasty ouchie-wouchie?  Or would it lop off your finger like a match stick, and render you newly finger-less?

If you think it would politely stop, please take a moment to scan one or both of the articles below.

“We’ve got a pile of wood that needs to get cut,” Mike said.  “This should keep you busy all day.”

Mike flicked the ‘on’ switch.  The monster sprang to life.  WHIRRRRR.  HUMMMMMMMM.

Mike fetched a piece of wood to demonstrate the saw’s operation.

I stared at the blade.

I am writing this post in my late fifties.  On the keyboard beneath the screen are all ten of the digits I sprang from the womb with.  My socks might smell a bit, but there are ten toes in them.  I am grateful to still have both legs, both arms, both ears.  I believe that all of us flower into maturity with an inheritance of survival instincts passed on from late, great ancestors.  My portion of survival instincts had generally served me well.

They were about to serve me well again.  As one, in a chorus, the ancient Russkies and Krauts and Limeys and Scots who had contributed DNA to my chromosomal bouillabaisse arose from their fourth dimensional graves, and bade me in unison:


“Isn’t there supposed to be a guard for the blade?” I asked.

I tried to sound only idly curious.  Men much my junior also try to sound idly curious when asking Sports Illustrated swimsuit models if they are free for coffee, or if they have boyfriends.  They’re not idly curious.  Neither was I.

“Well, no.  Sorry.” Mike looked self-conscious.  “If you’re worried about your fingers, you can push it through with a push stick.”

Mike demonstrated, using a short piece of wood scrap to nimbly guide a 2 x 4 through the viciously spinning blade.  (Yes, for you carpenters: a dinky wood scrap.  Not a proper push stick or push pad.)  He was a thoroughly experienced wood worker, had probably spent nearly every work day in the shop for the past ten years.

HE KNOWS WHAT HE’S DOING, TIM, hollered my Russian and Teutonic and British ancestors.  YOU DON’T.  PAY ATTENTION TO THAT SAW, TIM.

“You’ve got to be careful with her, though,” Mike said.  “If you don’t feed the wood through right, she’ll kick it back at you.”

She’ll kick it back at you.  I quickly sought an amplification of this advisory, with no more pretense of idle interest.  Mike explained that the table saw was old and in less than ideal repair.  If unhappy with how it received a piece of wood, it might “kick” that wood back at the woodworker.  Hard.  Fast.  Imagine a newly-wed ingenue with Gloria Allred on the speed dial before the honeymoon starts.

“Does it do that often?”

Mike looked self-conscious again.  I thought he avoided my eyes.

“Well … it happens.  You’ve just got to be ready to duck.”  Mike shrugged.  “Just stay out of the way of it.”

TELL THIS GUY WHERE TO STICK HIS TABLE SAW, roared my ancestors, and waved their cossack hats and teutonic horned helmets.  HIT THE ROAD, TIM.  MAKE WITH THE FEET.

Diplomatically, I expressed misgivings.  Mike looked apologetic, and said he didn’t have any other work for me.  My William Woodworking stint drew to an undignified close.

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Back to Transitophile …

… if you’ve been rudely redirected, and are wondering why the URL in the address bar looks unfamiliar. You’re not on a Russian spam site. You didn’t swallow anything funny at lunch.

This blog now lives at Just like the original, but without those pesky nine extra characters.

No more redirects (I sincerely hope). This blog shouldn’t change names again.

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