Overtures and Undertows

‘Overtures and Undertows’: Muni Scars – How Public Transportation Toughened Me Up

By Noma Faingold

I’ve been riding public transportation in San Francisco since childhood. As early as age 7, I took buses, street cars and cable cars by myself. For the most part, it was safe. Of course, there were a few dicey experiences, which caused me to grow up faster.

I was groped at age 12 on a crowded 38-Geary bus. Another time, my friend and I witnessed an unspeakable act on a nearly deserted N-Judah as teenagers. It was one of those horrifying displays, yet we couldn’t look away. She thought it was funny and couldn’t wait to tell our peers.

When accompanied by my outspoken mother (who was a stickler for public decorum), Muni memories were, at times, embarrassing. I can picture such combative interactions with strangers like they happened yesterday. (More on those later.)

It has not been the best of times in my San Francisco the last few years. The increase and severity of homelessness is an inescapable illustration of income disparity. The deterioration of buildings and having to side-step trash on the sidewalk also pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This native still loves her charming City, but I am disheartened by what I observe walking to the bus, at the bus stop and on the bus. I have to embody a don’t-f*ck-with-me attitude wherever I go. I must remain alert and be ready for anything, like the time a really scary, sweaty, shirtless man used the metal bars on the 14 Mission as a jungle gym. Without hesitation, the passengers collectively moved to the back of the bus.

Not all my Muni trips are survival tests. Some are just irritating. Others are actually amusing. Of course, some are fodder for a writer like me.

Photos by Noma Faingold.

Personal Space

A young, very large woman wearing a red and black plaid flannel hoodie and matching pajama-like pants, was sitting on one of those long seats against the wall of the 14-Mission heading downtown. I got on and took a solo seat next to her, thinking the vertical metal pole dividing us would be enough of a buffer. 

As she was furiously texting, her elbow kept infringing on my personal space, repeatedly nudging my arm. I shifted to try and avoid further contact but there wasn’t enough room. I tolerated it for a few stops and finally said, “Excuse me, you keep hitting my arm.”

She presented me with a graphic on her phone as if she had it ready. The image was of a woman being hung by a noose. 

I took it as a hostile response. 

I said, “You’re sick. You &*%#.”

She raised an eyebrow. I moved far away from her.

Not Saved

A slight man in a non-descript track jacket was proselytizing at the bus stop on 16th Street and Mission, where drug deals and drug consumption are as commonplace as sidewalk vendors selling household cleaners like Windex and tube socks in bulk. The religious zealot was reading about homosexuality being an “abomination.” 

Not one person stopped to listen or even acknowledged his presence. I had the fleeting urge to tell him to update his dogma and that he picked the wrong city for his “missionary work.” Instead, I turned my attention to the digital display on what’s referred to as “transit shelters,” to see when the next bus was coming.

Two minutes. Good.

He continued by condemning women who get abortions, so as to not be “inconvenienced.” Meanwhile, the pro-lifer stood a few feet away from barely conscious people lying on the street for who knows how long. He ignored them, of course. Not his target audience. 

Speed Dating on Muni

It was late in the evening. A mature, shapely (almost fit) woman, got on the crowded bus. She was struggling with an oversized duffle bag she carried on her bare shoulder. She was the only one on the bus not wearing a jacket on that unusually cold night. Right away, she made herself known to whomever would listen. Once I heard her gravelly voice and noticed that her bra straps unapologetically showed under her tight spaghetti-strap dress, I concluded that she’d done some hard living.  

One man, wearing a 49ers gold satin bomber jacket, seemed game to converse with her. She told him she was 60 years old, almost fishing for a compliment. She offered her name, Jessica, and mentioned that she was on her way to the 24-hour laundromat.

“You can call me Don,” he said. “Are you married?”

Okay. That didn’t take long. 

Making the ambiance stranger, another passenger happened to be playing smooth jazz on his phone for all to hear. 

“Where do you live?” Don asked.

“Heaven,” she said.

“I’ve never been there,” he said.

When Jessica said she started reading the Bible when she was 33, Don seemed to lose interest. 

She then turned her attention to a younger man. She asked him his name. “Chris,” he said.

Jessica told Chris things have been rough lately but she was expecting a windfall soon. “It will be $60,000 times seven, whatever that equals.”

She exited alone at her stop, not relying on the kindness of strangers.

A Not-Coming-of-Age Story

An ongoing grievance I have is when people under 30 are too oblivious (scrolling through social media on their phones) to give up their seats to elderly passengers. The subcategory in poor manners that has become rather personal is teenagers who boorishly won’t offer their seat to a particular middle-aged woman, who may have been on her feet at work all day. 

No one seems able to look up from their social media feeds on their cell phones.

In January, I was boarding the 14-Mission bus just after 6 p.m., when a teenage girl raced past me to grab a solo seat. There were no other seats available. I said to her, “Would you mind giving your seat to an older person, like myself?” 

The misanthrope looked at me, “What?” she asked.

Her male friend quickly responded, “She has a disability. It’s her back.”

They both smiled broadly, mistaking their rudeness for wit. 

What kind of person pretends to be disabled besides people who nefariously obtain handicap placards for their car?

Soon the single seat next to her became vacant. He grabbed it immediately and said to me, “I have a bad back, too.”

They both laughed. 

As I remained standing, I’m not sure what got into me (probably rage) but I snapped a photo of them. I was documenting their audacity.

Two not-so-nice teens claimed they were disabled to avoid relinquishing their seats to an elder, who might need it more.

“I better call my mom,” he said. “I might be going to jail.”

“Don’t bother,” I said. “She won’t care. I can tell by the way she raised you.”

He had no retort.

Get the Funk Out Ma Face

There are people who don’t believe in headphones, imposing their musical tastes on their fellow passengers. The one time I didn’t mind was when a man was playing 1970s funk, including, “What is Hip?” by Tower of Power, followed by “Skin Tight” by the Ohio Players. The vibe was soon ruined by a drunk woman singing along to, “I Miss You,” by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. She was off key and grew increasingly melancholy by the second chorus. It was as if she was recalling her youth, when she was able to stop traffic strutting in hot pants and platform boots. 

In Pursuit

A woman wearing three layers of clothing was sitting on the bus. A man with some gray in his beard sat a few feet away. He dropped his lighter. She noticed and alerted him. He thanked her as he picked it up. 

There was no further contact between them. He was minding his own business. Suddenly, she said, “Quit staring at me. You look like a rapist.”

At first, he ignored her. He wasn’t even sure the unfounded accusation was directed at him. 

“I’m scared of you,” she said.

He did hear that. He got out of his seat and exited the bus.

She followed him. 

Muni and Mom

Let me return to the more innocent adventures of being on Muni with my mother. 

Esther, who grew up in Manhattan, didn’t have a driver’s license while I was growing up, nor did my family have a second car. 

Esther saw no need to learn to drive in a city with what she insisted had an excellent transit system. Even when there was a Muni strike one year, she would hitchhike to work. Imagine a woman in her 40s wearing a jewel-toned Albert Nipon suit from I. Magnin with her thumb out on 17th Avenue and Judah.

She was so averse to getting her license that she once threatened to buy a tricycle to run her neighborhood errands. “Please don’t embarrass us,” my older brother, David, and I said in unison. 

Like our pleas would stop our mother.

When she finally decided to get her driver’s license in her early 50s, she had more than a dozen sessions with a hired driving instructor, before gaining enough confidence to take the driving test at the DMV. 

My father, not the most patient man, did give her an introductory lesson in a large, empty parking lot off of Lake Merced Boulevard. It ended in less than 15 minutes with the biggest argument they ever had. 

The first time she took the driving test, she didn’t pass. She claimed the examiner “didn’t like women.”

I don’t recall what her excuse was the second time she failed the driving test a few months later. 

When she passed on her third try, my brother indelicately suggested that Muni should still be her primary mode of transportation.

However, taking Muni with Esther could be uncomfortable, like the time she spotted a man clipping his nails on the bus, with fragments littering the floor. 

She confronted him. “Public transportation is not a place for personal grooming,” she said.

I wanted to pretend I didn’t know her. 

As an adult, I know she was right. Because I recently saw a woman spreading out on a bus seat, combing her hair, followed by applying full makeup with her fingers and dropping the tissue on the floor that she used to wipe her hands. I thought of saying something. Instead, I took several snapshots to document the uncouth behavior.

Another time, she insisted to the driver that he missed our stop. It turns out she was wrong and the passengers turned on her, telling her to get off the bus. 

There’s one more nostalgic (though slightly traumatic) anecdote tangentially involving public transportation that I’ll share.

I was 3 years old. My father took me, David, and his friend, Norman, to the San Francisco Zoo. I had a tendency to wander in open spaces. That afternoon was no different. I soon got separated from them, while fixated on the lemurs.

I did not panic as I searched for them, until a pigeon randomly pooped on my nose. 

Then I started to cry. 

Somebody’s mom approached me. When I told her I was lost, she led me to the zoo office and turned me over to the staff. This was decades before cell phones existed. Luckily, I had memorized my home phone number and called my mother, who had declined to participate in the family outing. 

She took the bus to rescue me. By the time she arrived an hour later, my father, David and Norman had found me in the office. I was contently sitting in a chair, eating an ice cream sandwich a kind staffer had given me.

To this day, I have no interest in going to the zoo. 

Noma Faingold is a writer and photographer, who lives in Noe Valley. The native San Franciscan, who grew up in the Sunset District, is a frequent contributor to the Richmond Review and Sunset Beacon newspapers, among others. She is obsessed with pop culture and the arts, especially film, theater and fashion.

4 replies »

  1. LOL! Love your stories! I’m turning 60 this year and grew up in the Sunset/Richmond, currently back in the sunset. Remember my mom taking me on those old green and cream buses when I was probably 3 or 4. Started taking it on my own to get to Junior High (as us, uh, “older” San Franciscans remember that’s what they called it back then) in the mid 1970s. Took around 45 minutes and one transfer at Forest Hill Station. I can’t remember the vivid details of crazy stories from that time, mostly just fights between teenagers in the back. The driver would usually stop the bus and either throw the hooligans off himself, or announce to the rest of us “We ain’t going NOWEHERE until the fighting stops” and they usually got themselves off. Never see THAT happen nowadays!
    Most of us MUNI Veterans have a thick enough skin to ignore the egregious behavior that happens now, but it’s getting tougher and tougher :-(.


  2. Wonderful. You capture beautifully the lunatic asylum that is Muni. Sounds revolting. Eeewew. Glad I am too disabled to ride the bus. You are a great writer!


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