Here’s what you need to know before I begin this story. (A) I’d spent the week prior to all this camping out at an arts festival at which I’d inundated myself with an alphabet of drugs along with every color and composition of alcohol. The arts festival I attended is held in the desert some hundred miles from Reno, Nevada, and the mood of the festival encourages outrageous costumes; mine was a tablecloth cape and tighty red underpants. (B) I had a broken foot, and along with my tablecloth cape and tighty reddies I wore a black plastic boot, about twice the heft and size of a work boot, on my right foot.
So, it was in this part-medical, part-childish superhero outfit that I stepped from my airport ride, a yellow cab, returned to my beloved home of San Diego. Covered in dust from the desert and plagued by miniscule chrome butterflies zipping around in my vision, from the seven days of booze and chemicals I’d filtered through my face, I waved a thanks to the cab driver, who flipped me off, peeled out, belched a cloud of exhaust onto me and my suitcase, and yelled from her window, “Get a job, hippie!”
I clopped on my plasticized busted foot to my apartment door and dug through my suitcase and purse (yes, I’m a man, and yes, I was carrying a purse) for my keys, which I then remembered I had left 600 miles away on a camp table in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. Because I fit into the psychological-profile spectrum somewhere between “moron” and “idiot” — what my father calls “special” and what my childhood pastor called “touched” — and because I carry a bucket of crippling ADD around with me, six inches above my shoulders, it was in my broken-foot, starved, dehydrated, hallucinatory, hungover, keyless, locked-out, and idiotically dressed state that I thought, “I’ll bet I could go a month without driving my truck, and wouldn’t right now be a great time to start?!”
Since I’m crafty, I formulated a plan to get into my apartment. I had just smashed a narrow window next to my front door and attempted a cat-burglar-like ingress, when my lesbian neighbor stepped from her apartment and said, “Why’d you smash that window? I have your spare set of keys, dumbass.”
“Hand ’em over, sister.”
“Where are your pants?”
“Never mind that. Give me the keys.”
“Why are your eyes doing that spinning thing?”
“Are you going to get me those keys?”
Arguing with a druggie in underwear and cape rarely leads anywhere. My neighbor’s a smart lady. She collected my keys from her countertop and deposited them in my palm.
And that became my first task to complete without the aid of a motorcar: replace my set of house keys. Right after I taped cardboard across that busted window and put on a decent pair of shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with a Space Invader, I hobbled on my big black plastic Broken Foot Boot of Doom up to where University Avenue and 36th Street meet.
I’m reminded of a story I read last year of how this is a “special” block of San Diego. There exists a zoning regulation that requires 1000-foot buffers between adult businesses and residential zones, churches, schools, public parks, and other adult businesses. In other words, you can’t erect (ahem) a nudie bookstore or nudie club next to a church, school, houses, a park, or, interestingly, another nudie bookstore or strip joint. That zoning regulation is wholly ignored at 36th and University. I take a seat at the bus stop. Behind me is a “gentlemen’s club,” to my right is an “adult book” store, across University Avenue and down to Wilson is a Pentecostal church, and I can hear kids squealing as they run to their nearby homes, having just let out of Edison Elementary School on 35th Street. Nowhere else is this permitted, and it’s only allowed here because the two buildings that house the naughty enterprises (bookstore and strip club) were grandfathered in before the zoning requirements (Chapter 14, Article 1, Division 6 from sandiego.gov, Municipal Code section). Oh, yes, we’re quite lucky to have this “special” corner down here in the border town between North Park and City Heights.
Soon, the Number 7 bus zoomed me and several drunk derelicts away — the chorus of their coughs and loud beer belches sounding not unlike “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” glory, glory, hallelujah indeed. Crossing over the 805 freeway, I peered out the front window to check the gas prices of three stations we passed. The lowest price for a gallon of regular was $3.59, the highest price per gallon — a flavor of gas called Super Wham-o-dyne, now with Advancenol!, or something like that — was $3.84. With my tongue sticking out, a borrowed pencil, and an old receipt, I figured my commuting costs for a month.
Lucille the Wondertruck, a tired 1995 Ford Ranger, can get down the road at a fuel rate of about 18 miles per gallon. Because in my youth I enjoyed the combination of ketamine and martinis coupled with long Sunday drives and subsequently banged into a variety of objects that claims adjusters frowned upon, insurance on Lucille the Wondertruck costs me $50 per month. Let’s say registration, taxes, and maintenance (the ol’ girl’s definitely in her declining years) costs another $40 per month. With my California Public Education mathematic skills, I figured out that commuting just 5 miles round-trip each day for work, 20 days of work per month, would run me roughly $350,000 American, give or take, depending on the price of the peso. I showed my jottings to the college kid next to me, who called me a dummy (damn you, California Board of Education), and he said that the real cost of commuting, given the figures I’d written down, would be $109.95 monthly. And that’s 5 miles round-trip, just 2.5 miles each way. Double the distance of the commute to 10 miles, from about North Park to Horton Plaza and back (not a long way), cost of commuting jumps to $130 per month. And that’s just between work and home, not counting trips to the liquor store, taxidermist, or wig shop.
As I typed this, in September 2008, destruction from Hurricane Ike was besetting much of Texas and President Bush cried for Congress to pass a bailout scheme for millionaires who are apparently good at making money but poor at keeping it. On worries over this news, the price of oil jumped $25 per barrel. I doubted a gallon of gas from the pump would stay at $3.59. If in the coming months gas leaped to $5 a gallon, my commute of five miles round-trip would run me $117.77. If, let’s say, some doomsday scenario played out and gas doubled from $3.59 to $7.18, the cost of my monthly commute of just five miles per day would jump to $130. If I doubled the miles covered (down to Horton Plaza and back to North Park per day), my commute would cost $170.
A monthly transit pass of unlimited trolley and bus use was then $64.
In terms of donuts, my doomsday scenario of getting to work and back at ludicrous gas prices added up to 300 original glazed donuts. A monthly bus pass costs roughly the same as 108 of the sticky sweet breakfast pastries. Why donuts? Because they’re yummy.
San Diego Transit provides a commute calculator at sdmts.com/MTS/Calculator.asp (does not include donut exchange rate) for you to figure out your own driving costs. You don’t even need a nubby pencil, receipt, nor college kid to help you out.
[Writer’s note: Here’s how stupid I am and why you should never trust me with things mathematical or economic. Since last September, gas prices have dropped considerably. Instead of reaching the loftiness of $7 per gallon, they’ve landed at about $2.50 per gallon. At that price, a five-mile commute each weekday for a month currently puts my monthly expenses for Lucille at around $103.88. Additionally, since writing this article, the monthly San Diego Metro Transit pass has jumped to $68.]
Back to the Number 7. Looking up from my calculations, I saw that I had traveled too far. The bus spit me out at 30th Street. I clopped my Broken Foot Boot of Ninjas and Death Rays back to Grim Avenue, where North Park Hardware, outstanding experts in the keymaking field, occupies its little division of University Avenue.
From North Park Hardware I wobbled out like a peg-leg pirate — a peg-leg pirate with shiny new keys and a sense of accomplishment — onto the grimy, bubblegum-speckled, piss-and-booze-stained sidewalk. This area of University smells like a bum curdling goat’s milk in his belly button. When a bus stopped, I popped onto it (the Number 7 again), relieved by the contrast between the outside street and the glisteningly clean bus. I think this is one of the reasons San Diegans haven’t really embraced public transportation — they think the buses are filthy and reek of bum BO. But the buses are, overlooking patches of graffiti scratched in here and there, spotless and smelling of lemony cleaning supplies.
A girl in a breezy Lane Bryant top and tight stretchy jeans hit me up for a chat while we rode along.
“You know, I gotta stop takin’ the bus, you know. I gotta start drivin’ again. I hate the bus.” She sighed. She snapped her gum, drank her full-sugar, original-recipe Coke, and fiddled with her gold hoop earrings.
“How come you quit driving?” I asked.
“I don’t have a license. And I got restitutions to pay.”
“Shouldn’t be too tough to get a license,” I said. “How come you lost it?”
“I ain’t never had one.”
“And I got restitutions. You know how they won’t let you get a license if you owe money? I owe money.”
“How come you have to pay restitutions? What’d you do?”
“Drivin’ without a license. They caught me. Several times.”
We chat about TV and movies. I press her on her troubles with the DMV and her experiences with public transit, but she declines to elaborate on the bureaucratic difficulties, nimbly switching topics back to Law and Order SVU and House.
When she got off the bus, I waved and said goodbye, then clomped through the coach of downtrodden masses, looking for my next interview. As I approached, every little pocket of humanity seated on the bus fidgeted and turned away. People engaged in conversations with friends and partners or simply turned to look out the window at the whizzing-past cityscape.
To amuse myself, I tried to get my finger pinched in the swiveling floor joint. This bus bent in the middle, and the joint floats in the center of the floor, articulating the front half from the rear, and it turns out to be impossible to get your finger nipped in the rotating sections. I know; I tried for five minutes, past three stops and over several humps and into numerous potholes.
“Park Boulevard,” the driver called.
Where the hell was I going? The wrong way, obviously. Drugs haven’t exactly left me smarter, and I wasn’t clear on my mission directives. I decided to go home, so I jumped out onto Park, in front of the very modern and lovely green Egyptian condominium complex.
Bolting as well as one can with a Broken Foot Boot of Danger and Romance, I busted across Park Boulevard and sat on a horrendously ugly, brown, curvy bench with a yellow real-estate ad pasted to it. The sun dipped low over the Egyptian, bursting overhead with white-orange crepuscular rays into a turquoise, pink, and lavender empyrean.
“What’s going on tonight?” someone said. Skateboard wheels skritched, chain jewelry crinkled, and a girl in a black outfit, wearing the most creative hairdo — actually, if you can imagine it, three different hairstyles and three different shades of red, all falling from the same head — lowered onto the bench beside me. She looked at me expectantly.
“Nothing going on tonight?” she said.
“Uh. What night is it?”
“Must be something happening,” I said.
From one of the three thousand pockets sewn into hidden locations around her too-large pants, she retrieved a green pack of menthol cigarettes and a yellow lighter, lit a cig, and replaced the pack and lighter into its designated fold. She blew out a cloud.
“Yeah. I don’t know what it is,” she said. “But I’m having the best day. It might be the Vicodin, but I did so great at work today.”
“You work here?” I asked, flipping a thumb toward a nearby fashion and novelty boutique, the Crypt.
“Nah. I work downtown.”
“What do you do?”
“All right, so, like, a good day is, like, 11 ‘approvals,’ and I got, like, 23 today. That’s gotta be the best anyone’s ever got there, right? That’s, like, more than twice what a good day should be,” she explained through a veil of smoke. What she said might as well have been in Kittycat language, Meowish, but I nodded as though I understood.
“You going back to North Park? You taking this bus?” I asked. “Do you ride the bus a lot? How do you like it?”
The good ol’ Number 7 bus whined its arrival and hissed and lurched as the tires halted in front of us. The door opened, and I hobbled onto the corrugated rubber mat floor of the first step, turning to see if my interview subject would follow.
“Nah,” she said, holding her hands up to refuse the offered ride. “Think I’ll cross the street and catch the next one to Lestat’s. Gotta be something going on there.”
“Wait. The next one goes to Lestat’s?” I said, stepping back from the glass doors that were scissoring shut with me inside. “How the hell do you know that?” Out the window I watched her mount her skateboard and push off down the sidewalk, headed toward downtown, opposite the way she’d wanted to go, toward Lestat’s in Normal Heights. I lowered onto a plastic-and-fabric bus seat and huffed, “Goddamn crack-addict kid.”
I decided I knew exactly nothing about public transportation in San Diego, my ignorance resulting from years of adamantly avoiding the buses and trolleys, preferring to drive. When I arrived home, I wanted to look up buses in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
That storied tome rambles on about bus bodies, all boring crap, and different categorizations of the engines and so on and also states:
In 1830 Sir Goldworthy Gurney of Great Britain designed a large stagecoach driven by a steam engine that may have been the first motor-driven bus.
Which does me exactly zero good, in terms of real knowledge, because he may or may not have invented a damn thing. Thanks, Encyclopedia Britannica.
A little farther down the page, though, they get to some juicy stuff. No bus conversation in the United States of America could be considered complete without mentioning an incident on December 1, 1955, when 42-year-old Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, was arrested for refusing to relinquish her seat to a white man. Along with Rosa Parks, a local Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., organized a boycott of the Montgomery Municipal Transit Company and sparked the Civil Rights Movement.
Over the next couple of weeks, I rode the bus to accomplish my menial tasks: video rental (the Number 7 and Number 2), grocery purchases (Routes 7 and 2), to and from doctor’s appointments for my broken foot (Number 10), and round-trips to my gym (the 7). All much more difficult and time consuming than performing the same tasks in a car. (At one point, I decide to rent a Rug Doctor carpet-cleaner from a grocery store, and I schlepped it 12 blocks to my apartment and 12 blocks back again, to the annoyance of several other passengers who banged into the bulky contraption on the way to their seats. Sure, I got it on and off the bus just fine, cleaned my carpet, then took the husky machine back the way I came. But I wouldn’t recommend it.)
In those two weeks, I noticed that my fellow passengers on these short jaunts were overwhelmingly African American, Hispanic, and Asian. As if the whites of the area had heard of the news from 1955 Montgomery and said, “Fine, take the buses; we’ll drive.” On several trips, aboard full coaches, I was the only white male. Which leads me to wonder if there’s still not some racism inherent in the use of city transit.
Checking out the Census Bureau statistics for North Park, I pull up a map for 92104. The zip code encompasses North Park, part of City Heights, Normal Heights, a skosh of University Heights, and the boundary has these fat little ham-hock legs that run into Golden Hill and alongside Balboa Park; all of that is 92104. Which is perfect, as this is where I ride the bus almost exclusively. Now, for this area, the Census Bureau also indicates that the population is made up of 47,688 folks (all facts from the year 2000). Of those 47,688 fine citizens, 44 percent are of races other than white — collectively known in the U.S. as “minorities.”
Glancing around a typically filled bus on a Tuesday morning, I notice that the “minorities” no longer fulfill that definition. Quite the opposite. On this bus, I’m the one who checks the box in the “minority” column, and by a substantial margin. I’m one of 3 white people, out of 25 passengers.
White population in 92104: 56 percent.
White population on that bus: 12 percent.
Owing to the fact that I embarked the bus (Number 7) at 36th and University, the numbers might have been skewed. The 2000 Census doesn’t break down race by city street or neighborhood, only zip code. There’s no denying that 36th and University has more Hispanics and African Americans than other parts of the zip code. This may be why there were fewer white faces. Or it might be something else.
“Takes forever, huh?” a man said to me from a seat across the aisle.
“The bus. Takes forever.”
I agreed, and he and I were off on a bitch-fest of city transit’s worst qualities: buses are slow, there’s a long wait for them at the curb, the homeless and demi-homeless can on occasion really stink the place up with sacks of recyclables. We tempered the complaints with an occasional “Cheaper than a car payment, though.”
The fellow I was discussing transportation with works the swing shift at the shipyards in Logan Heights.
“Do you have to ride the bus?” I asked. “Or do you have a car that you leave at home?”
“I gotta take the bus. Lost my job last year and sold my truck. Sixty-four bucks a month, and I can ride the bus or trolley anywhere, it just takes a lot longer. You know, you gotta have the attitude, like, ‘Whatever, it’s just gonna take me an hour to get to work instead of 15 minutes,’ you know.”
And that’s the prevailing circumstance and mindset of the bus passengers I spoke with in the 92104 zip: no car, the bus sucks, but it’s the only alternative.
I wondered if the bus riders of other neighborhoods had the same racial demographics, transportation needs, and viewpoint. And like that — zang! — I found my next mission: travel out of my financially depressed neighborhood and into a tony, rich area to see who takes public transportation.
You know what that means: TO LA JOLLA! Excelsior!
I disembarked my coach and mounted another one (the Number 2) at 30th and University — near the futuristic corner of “Ray Street and Gunn Street,” in the vicinity of the prickly spooky intersection, “Thorn Street and Grim Avenue.” (I really love those.)
I rode toward downtown via South Park and Golden Hill. I wanted to pass through several regions of San Diego on this trip, and my selected route pierced a dozen different socioeconomic, racial, and geographic zones. From 30th Street, we turned onto Broadway and descended the hill into East Village. Ah, East Village, where the tide of gentrification crashed, left a watermark, and receded. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in this downtown district are new-construction high-rise condominiums; swanky, hip eateries; and singles’ saloons stocked with well-heeled hipsters — all jumbled in with graffittied wig shops, liquor stores, and week-rate hotels offering porticos untidily decorated with beggars engaged in activities that range from sleeping to peeing.
A few stops and a transfer later, I got off, clomping around on my Broken Foot Boot of Glory and Glad Tidings; and then I was onto another bus (the Number 30), pushing its way into Pacific Beach, along Grand Avenue. Glancing up from my journal, I noticed that the faces of the San Diego Transitgoer gentry had been decidedly whitewashed. The paint-stained and tarry novelty work shirts that read “Coed Naked Postal Work” and “Voted Most Likely to Wear a Stupid T-Shirt” had been replaced with tacky floral Acapulco button-ups and shiny, synthetic-fabric “activewear for travel and leisure” V-necks. Instead of the mix of Spanish and English I’m familiar with, German and Dutch filled the air — along with a bouquet indicative of the relaxed European shower schedule.
After several thousand stops, a journey that could’ve been faster had I ridden a three-legged mule, and the slow overturning of my working-class black and Hispanic neighbors for overly ripe Saxon tourists, we were in the weird, wonderful town of La Jolla. Our bus passed an “eyebrow lounge,” a “fiber art” gallery, and (I shit you not) the Ascot Shop.
92104 this is not.
La Jolla’s main zip code is 92037. A quick glance at a map of 92037 shows an odd shape, running in a thick line through Torrey Pines to the north, bounded on the east by Interstate 5, and ending in the south as a chunky ball on the northern end of Pacific Beach. The total population of La Jolla is 42,603 — 82.5 percent white. Compared to the national average of 75 percent, and comparing again with the 56 percent of whites in North Park, La Jolla stands out as a gleaming pearl with a lot of green behind it. The mean household income of La Jolla (in 1999 dollars) was $68,691, more than double 92104’s mean household income, which was $31,139.
So, without prejudice, it’s easy to say that La Jolla is quite a bit wealthier and whiter than North Park. But if you’ve been a San Diego resident for more than five minutes, you already knew that. However, North Park is far superior in at least one aspect: there are no donut shops in La Jolla, the closest being on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, whereas 92104 boasts a full 11 donut shops within a five-mile radius. Why donuts, you ask again? And again, my friend, your answer is tastiness.
In the rich alabaster of La Jolla, the bus emptied of tourists, leaving only me and a high school kid, obviously ditching classes to practice his skateboarding and get a jump on growing out his wispy blond mustache.
“Where’d everybody go?” I asked him.
“They all get off at the last stop and go to the museum.”
“The Contemporary Art Museum?”
“Yeah. And, you know, the shops in the village and stuff.”
Damn, I’d stayed on too long again. I pulled the cord to ring the bell to tell the driver to let me the hell off. She wound the bus further into the exclusive residential areas northwest of La Jolla village and eventually stopped and swung open the door, and I left the high school kid to ride alone. One person to use the public transit service in the lily town of La Jolla. One. I’m sure at the same time, near noon, the buses of North Park were crammed with the indigent, handicapped, elderly, and blue-collar workers, widely Latino and black.
You might take that as a sign that bus routes neatly divide the races, but I’ve come to a different conclusion. It’s the money, stupid: even in times of economic hardship, with rocketing gas prices and increased consciousness for the environment, those who can afford to drive instead of use public transportation still do. Which you might believe is obvious, but should it be that way? Riding through La Jolla, it’s easy to count the number of joggers, yoga mats, and reusable canvas shopping bags. If given an environmental, inexpensive, and efficient alternative, I’m sure those people would choose to leave their cars at home. But that’s just it. Efficiency. That lone rider on a bus winding into the La Jolla hills, and, in North Park, a bench overcrowded with butts, forever waiting, are evidence to that.
Since I’d gotten off the bus one stop too late, I had to hobble back half a mile. By the time I clopped the Boot of Hot Sex and Easy Money close enough to see old women in huge sunglasses supping lightly at the museum cafe, with Andy Goldsworthy’s stone cairn peeking out from the side yard, my broken foot was complaining loudly. And my Vicodin sat on a kitchen counter in my home in North Park. To turn around and get it and then come back to the museum would mean a half-hour trip in a car, but on the bus I would have to block out a good day and a half for the errand. I limped and wobbled on.
For a while, I roamed around the museum, taking in the occasionally delectable but mostly downright awful collection of art on display. After touring the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, I clomped my way to the door. As an apology for the rather thin collection on display, a woman called out from behind the front desk, “That ticket’s good for entry into the museum downtown too. You don’t have to pay twice.”
“For this conceptual crap,” I mumbled, “it damn well ought to be. Ten bucks to see this drivel, the ticket should be good for downtown and a written apology from all the artists and curators.” I swung open the wide glass-and-brass doors.
Out in the bright Southern California sun, I hobbled up the street to the bus bench on Silverado and was delighted to see a gleaming motor coach, the Number 30 again, awaiting my arrival. I flashed my monthly pass ($64) and boarded, and it whisked me (whisk meaning: stopped every three feet and never threatened to break the 35-mile-per-hour mark, and I had to get off and switch to the Number 2 bus downtown) back to my home, nestled between North Park and City Heights. Total time spent riding the bus that day: three hours. Total time spent at the Museum: 45 minutes.
By the time I arrived home, my butt hurt from plastic bus benches that have been molded to fit exactly no body, and I felt bad for the guy who’d chatted me up, the guy who rode the bus every day to the shipyards. I eased into my chair and opened my laptop to dig around in the finances of San Diego MTS (Metropolitan Transit System); I was interested in how the company managed its money.
I saw that in 2007 the transit system gathered $197,681,422 (that’s million) from federal, state, and local taxes, including $16,223,926 in TransNet taxes, which are the local funds that support the San Diego Association of Governments, or SANDAG, projects. Total operating revenue from 2007 was $68,634,694. That’s money charged for those ugly bench ads, charter services, plus the dough you cough up when you step on board a bus. So total contributions — taxes and fares — approached $300 million.
I don’t know if that’s money well spent and invested in the operations of the transit system. Their financial statement is a long, winding sheet, and it’s hard to follow which projects receive a lot of funding and which are paying off. After a month of riding the bus exclusively, I also haven’t found out if there is class struggle or racism inherent to Metro Transit, although I don’t think there is. I do know that at some hours buses are almost totally empty; other times, they are packed to barely enough standing room. And on a Sunday, when the buses don’t run as frequently as weekdays, you can expect to sit on a grimy, spit-covered bench for 15 or 20 minutes before a bus arrives. Waiting that long, it’s hard to see where that $266 million in taxes and fares went.
For the month I spent riding, I saved roughly $80 in commuter costs and easily tripled my time spent traveling around town. The money I saved by giving up my car for a month was then easily expended in extra time and effort. Yes, I got groceries and a Rug Doctor and gym bags and packages for the mail on and off the bus. And, yes, I got to La Jolla, Ocean Beach, National City, and all across the city center. After 30 days, I could even advise other people on the quickest way to get to Mission Valley or La Mesa or damn near anywhere. But frankly, it was all a huge pain in the ass, figuratively as well as literally.
I can only repeat the sentiment of my short-time friend with “restitutions to pay,” and that’s “I gotta start drivin’ again. I hate the bus.”