The last time I rode the trolley was fifteen years ago when I was still under eighteen. I was with my friend Regina and it was late at night. A one-way fare cost $1.25 back then and it was so rare to see a trolley cop checking tickets that I had been getting away with not paying for at least a year.

At that time the curfew law in San Diego was 10 p.m. and since we were already breaking it, Regina urged me to buy a ticket. I wouldn’t budge. Before we boarded at the downtown City College stop we stopped at McDonalds on Park Boulevard and A Street—which has been stinking up that corner for as long as I can remember—and I bought a medium size coke to bring along for the ride.
Only one stop in, a trolley cop jumped on to check tickets. I panicked, thought quickly, and knew my only way out was to create a diversion. I poked a hole in the bottom of my soda and let it “accidentally” spill all over myself while jumping up and frantically rushing to the closest exit. I faked it all the way until I was outside to freedom.

There were only three or four stops left before we’d arrive at our destination—the border. Regina told me how lucky I was to have that stupid soda trick work and insisted I buy a ticket for the last few stops. I was far too impressed with myself to consider it, and figured the odds of another trolley cop boarding in such a short time were very low.
When I found out I was wrong I didn’t have a soda or a single thought as to what to do this time. The best I could come up with was to pretend I was asleep while the trolley cop made his rounds. As my eyes closed, images of signs all over the trolley came in haunting flashes: “Penalty for not presenting a valid trolley ticket will result in a fine of up to $1000.” Then I heard the cop’s loud voice, which made me never want to wake up. When I didn’t respond he started tapping me with a newspaper, but I wouldn’t flinch. Finally, he took my hand and bent it backward forcing me to scream in agony.

I told him I was from North Park, which was true. Then I made up some elaborate lie about leaving my wallet at McDonalds. I told him my monthly bus pass, which could also be used for the trolley, was inside of my wallet. He folded his arms. I tried to engage him in a discussion on how the trolley should be free so that our city would be inspired to drive less and spare the ozone layer. He wasn’t interested. I asked him where he was from and tried to relate from one San Diegan to another—“Remember the time that plane landed on top of a bunch of North Park houses in the 80s. Crazy, huh?” He wasn’t having it.
Fear led me back to flat out lies. I gave him my sister's name, that way I could tell him I was nineteen, and avoid a curfew violation on top of the trolley ticket he had already begun to write. I got away with impersonating my sister, but we never did make it to Tijuana because he sent Regina and I on the next trolley back to McDonalds so I could “get my wallet.” I did get a ticket…actually my sister got a ticket, but it was $25, not $1000—a major relief.
Traumatized by the cop bending my hand backward, I stayed away from the trolley for years. But I actually did begin buying monthly bus passes and I rode the bus all over North Park—up and down University Avenue, across Park Boulevard, and down 30th Street. I rarely made it outside of North Park, though, because the San Diego public transportation system was and is laughably inefficient. While nobody was excited to hang out with me in North Park—since it wasn’t the hip and popping scene that it is today—I didn’t mind being stuck there. I loved it. It was my home and I lived on a beautiful yet simple block with lots of nice families and no pretensions. Life seemed completely livable without the trolley and little variety in neighborhoods.
Still there was never a dull moment on the bus. The end to my bus days came when I saw a guy masturbating right there in his seat. And he was looking at me. It was even more traumatizing than when the cop bent my hand backward. I turned sixteen, got a car, and got the hell out of public transportation.
It wasn’t until Trey—a friend of a friend—invited me to his company Christmas party at The Hard Rock Hotel this past December, that I found myself on the trolley once again. Trey told me he couldn’t pick me up, that it was too late for him to rent a car, and that while the hotel had run out of complementary parking, I could pay an $18 valet, but who knew if there would be any spaces left. Trey also instructed me not to show up starving because they weren’t going to have very much food, just appetizers. He said that the company was trying to cut back on costs…I guess he was too.
I ended up on the trolley because there are no buses that go directly to the hotel and there are no trolleys that go out of North Park. Trey’s holiday party, and my reunion with the trolley, fell on the same day that the December rain began. I parked my car at City College, and while clutching an umbrella in heels and a dress, walked to the trolley stop and paid my fare.
The fare is one of the few things that has changed in the last fifteen years; that, and the seats on the buses have better cushions. Other than that the public transportation system as a whole is still a matter of choosing whether to laugh or to cry. This is why I was shivering in the rain even though the total travel distance from North Park to The Hard Rock Hotel is only 4.5 miles.

Perhaps this is why San Diego has such distinct and segregated communities. How on earth is anyone supposed to get anywhere without a car and beaucoup bucks to shell out for parking? Taking the trolley to the Hard Rock Hotel wasn’t so bad, but getting back was about as depressing as the current New York City snowstorm that has made people prisoners in their own homes. Trey wanted to take the trolley back to City College with me because my car was there and he needed a ride home.
As we sat waiting, I remembered that the trolley lines are counterintuitive, and we were waiting for the wrong one. The trolley back to City College actually travels in the opposite direction of City College before it loops back around. When I mentioned this, he told me I was crazy. I told him it is public transportation in San Diego that is crazy.
By cause of his stubborn misguidance we ended up lost at Twelfth and Imperial, in the rain, with the next trolley not arriving for another thirty minutes. It was only in that moment of surrender and desperation that Trey told me his company pays for cabs. “Whaaaat?” I screamed. We were lost, shivering, and wet. I got sick the next day, all for nothing.
I want to get a bicycle now. Between the trolley cop bending my hand backward and Trey insisting the wrong trolley was the right one, I don’t want to imagine what the trolley has in store for me next.
I’m scared to ride a bike, though, because San Diego drivers have such little respect for bicyclists. The lack of respect is probably relatively equal to how inefficient the public transportation system is. I think I’m just going to start walking and stick to what worked fifteen years ago—not going much further than North Park.

Comments

billdsd Feb. 1, 2011 @ 8:45 p.m.

The San Diego County Bicycle Coalition is a provider of the Traffic Skills 101 course designed by the League of American Bicyclists. The course teaches people how to ride a bicycle safely in traffic. I highly recommend it. If you can't handle the $65 fee or or don't have time for the class, the book "Bicycling Street Smarts" is available for free online, and teaches mostly the same stuff. It is possible to ride safely in traffic in San Diego. Some drivers are bad, but most don't seem to have a problem with bicyclists. Avoiding the relatively small percentage of psycho drivers is not worth giving up mobility.

If you start bicycle commuting, you might want to check out sdbikecommuter.com forums. It's a friendly community, oriented primarily towards bicycle commuter issues, though other cycling related topics do come up. Anyone who rides a bicycle is welcome and nobody there will tease you if you have a cheap bike or ride slowly or anything like that. Even if you're just thinking about bicycle commuting and don't have a bicycle yet, I'm sure that people there would be happy to answer any questions you might have. The people there like to encourage new and prospective bicycle commuters.

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