Jay Allen Sanford 9:45 p.m., May 19
It’s seven o’clock on a Saturday morning, and I’m standing at the Linda Vista Trolley Station, one of two people shivering in the frigid air. My ride’s about a minute late, but it comes as no surprise. That’s because I take this route often, and know exactly what to expect.
Finally the trolley arrives at the station, zooming in like a bright-red bullet. Ticket in hand, I board its rear carriage. Since my journey is short – it will last no longer than eight minutes – I choose to remain on my feet.
Glancing around, I realize I’m inside one of the older U2-style vehicles. I find myself smiling at the familiar décor – the black rubber flooring, the faux wood paneling and the rust-colored seats. It looks exactly the same as it did twenty-five years ago, when I took the trolley for the very first time.
Back then, during my early teens, the San Diego Trolley was my ticket to a larger world. It allowed me to travel – by myself – the long eight miles between my home town (Chula Vista) and what I then saw as the center of civilization (Downtown San Diego). It’s a journey I used to take regularly, at least once every month. And every one of those trips was unplanned. I would just wander the big city, guided along by my own restless curiosity.
I remember getting lost in the post-modern architectural maze of Horton Plaza. Feeding French fries to gangs of overweight seagulls at Seaport Village. Staring wide-eyed at the lines of homeless at St. Vincent de Paul’s. Exploring all three stories of Wahrenbrock’s Book House on Broadway. Hurrying through the Gaslamp Quarter, back when it was best known for its pawn shops and tattoo parlors. Taken together, these moments represented my first taste of freedom, of a world without parents and chaperones.
The trolley starts to accelerate eastward, and I snap out of my reverie. Soon I begin staring out the side window. Most of the scenery consists of a sprawling golf course. Already I can see teams of well-dressed people marching across the grounds, getting a head start on their eighteen holes. Watching them play, I feel wistful. Golf is a sport I’ve always meant to learn. A few years ago, I had the money for lessons, but never the time. Today I have the opposite problem.
After a while I shift my gaze to the trolley car’s interior. What I see is a typical early morning crowd. About twenty passengers, most of them male and working class. Half of them are wearing uniforms and name tags, making it easy to guess their profession. In the seats in front of me, I spot a cook, two cashiers, a grocery employee, and two security guards. All of their faces look either grim or composed. None of them look particularly eager to face the upcoming day.
Then there are the homeless. I glimpse at least four of them, apparently seeking refuge from the early-morning cold. They’re all older men, most of them clutching soiled backpacks and shabby-looking suitcases. They sit low in their seats, their faces stamped with defeat and exhaustion. Staring at them, I realize how petty my own problems seem by comparison.
Eventually the trolley comes to a stop at the Fashion Valley mall. I watch as most of the uniformed workers disembark. Then, from behind, I hear a series of clanking noises. Checking over my shoulder, I watch as a brawny, bearded man boards the back end of the carriage. In his hands he carries two plastic bags bulging with aluminum cans. He lifts them with a triumphant grin, like a pirate showing off his booty. Of all the people I’ve seen today, he’s by far the happiest one.
Again the trolley begins to accelerate eastward. The next stop – Hazard Center – will be my final destination. Slowly I begin move closer to the exit doors. As I do, I spot a sallow-faced woman moving in my direction. In her hand she carries a five-dollar bill. Quietly and quickly, she kneels in front of a passenger who appears to be homeless and asleep. Carefully she folds the money and slips it inside a pocket of the homeless man’s backpack. As soon as she’s done, she stands up and hurries away. Watching her, I briefly regain my faith in humanity’s potential.
The trolley slows to a stop, and I position myself before the exit. Soon I’m joined by a cadaverous looking man with sunken cheeks and a lipless mouth. His loose-fitting clothes are sludge-grey and wrinkled. While we wait, he reaches into his side pocket and removes a skinny brown cigarette.
Suddenly a heavy-set man with a florid-face approaches us. His lip curled back with outrage, he points at the cadaverous man’s cigarette. “Hey you!” he says loudly. “You’re not allowed to smoke here!”
The cadaverous man’s eyes widen with surprise. “But I didn’t light it,” he protests.
“Only ‘cause I stopped you,” says florid-face. “You know, the rules apply to everybody – even a bum like you.”
Cadaverous man flinches at the insult. Then he says quietly, “I’m not a bum.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” replies florid-face. Suddenly the exit doors open, and he hustles out of the trolley car, thereby guaranteeing himself the final word. After a short pause, cadaverous man follows him out, his shoulders hunched and his head down.
Watching them leave, I slowly shake my head. And then I think about how my own life has changed. Not too long ago, I worked in a steel-and-glass skyscraper in Downtown Los Angeles. Back then I drove around in a brand-new Acura, speeding from one meeting to the next. During those heady times, all of my attention was focused on the future, at that brass ring just inches from my grasp.
But now, like many other people, I find myself in a world of tighter budgets and bleaker prospects. The brass ring is no longer in sight. Neither is my brand-new Acura, which I sold off the Internet for a pittance. These days, if I want to make a short trip for groceries, I take public transit. Just like I’m doing today.
The pace of my life is a lot slower now. But I have more time to look around, and to fully absorb what the outside world has to offer. Not everything that I see and hear is pretty – but it’s undeniably real. And I suppose that counts for something.
With that thought in mind, I exit the trolley and begin walking toward the supermarket.