MUNI Diaries: 14 Mission Drama

Dear Readers, this is the transcript of the story I told at the MUNI Diaries Live event at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco. What a blast! It was the first time I’d been to a live show, although it’s been going on for 11 years now. Check them out on munidaries.com and listen to the Muni Diaries podcast where I can be heard telling more MUNI stories.

Have you ever had a young person stand up to give you a seat on the bus? Show of hands.

OK, a few of my boomer cohort is here. Were you looking around thinking the seat was meant for someone else? Like oh no, not me, I’m not old? Did you take the seat or refuse?

See, I think this is a good indication of how we feel about aging.

Me, I’m all about owning old. I’m old and proud. And I’m taking the damn seat. I deserve the seat. Standing up on the bus is hard when you’re old.

So my bus stop where I get on the 14 Mission or the 49 Van Ness is at Richland Avenue. It’s in Bernal Heights at the end of the Mission and just before the Excelsior. You can usually get a seat going down town. But try to catch the 14 at 7th and Mission. Or anywhere downtown. Finding a seat is not easy and most are already being sat in by old people. With shopping bags.

One day I got on the 14 to come home. The bus was packed. No young person got up to offer a seat (it doesn’t happen that often). Then I spied one spot on the far back bench. This was one of those buses whose back seat was just a plastic bench with molded depressions for seats. The empty seat was right between two very large men who overfilled their own seats leaving a narrow slot.

I squeezed in. I’m taking the damn seat.

Now I think of myself as a big woman. That’s my self image. Big and strong. But when I sat down between these two gigantic guys I felt like a pickle slice in the middle of a double cheeseburger.

As soon as I sat down I could smell that one of them had really bad BO but I couldn’t figure out which one. I felt barely able to breathe sandwiched in between these two huge guys. But I thought to myself it’s only BO and I can survive it. BO is natural at least. Not some new men’s scent made from toxic chemicals.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

So I’m taking little shallow breaths of air through my mouth and then holding my breath in between. And I’m keeping the damn seat.

The guy on my right was awake, staring straight ahead. No ear buds. No eye contact. Handsome, brown skin, square head, buzz cut. I thought he looked like a construction worker. I used to work construction and I can usually tell a construction worker by their boots. I’m not talking about those new unlaced Timberlands the hipsters wear with their perfectly ripped blue jeans. Construction workers’ boots are dirty. I can usually even tell their trade by the detritus left on their boots. I pegged this guy as a painter. I asked him where he lived and he said Daly City. But I could see he didn’t want conversation.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

The guy on my left was a bruiser. He was a black guy missing most of his front teeth. He was wearing a baseball cap and drinking from a can. He had several bags of groceries sitting next to him so he was taking up the whole rest of the back bench on the bus. He had frowned as I sat down and didn’t offer to move over or move his grocery bags to give me some room.

I asked him what he was drinking. It had a red and black label and it took me a minute to realize he was drinking beer on the bus. He said, “It’s Miller.” And then I could see that it said Miller on the label but it was some kind of Miller I’d never seen. He said, “It’s high end Miller.” The six-pack sat on the seat next to him.

I asked him where he lived and he said Daly City. Nobody can afford to live in San Francisco anymore. I sympathized. As the bus made its way up Mission Street we talked about development in the Mission. Skateboarders did tricks on the steps of the old armory. Folks hawked their wares from blankets on the sidewalk outside the navigation center near 15th Street.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

His name was Kenny. He said he was 55, originally from Philadelphia. He had been shopping at the downtown Target store at the Metreon. I said you take the 14 Mission down to San Francisco from Daly City to go shopping! He said I really like riding on the bus and being able to sit back here and drink my beer and get kinda drunk and nobody bothers me. Then he said well nobody would bother me anyway. I’m 280 and six foot three.

Kenny told me he worked at the new UCSF hospital in Mission Bay. I never found out exactly what he did. It did seem that he had some contact with patients in the hospital. He confessed that he’d been having some emotional problems lately.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

Kenny wanted to give me something. Take a beer he said. I demurred. At 24th Street a preacher with a bullhorn harangued passersby in Spanish.

Then I was trying to breathe the air in Kenny’s direction because I finally figured out it was the other guy that smelled so bad. And then Kenny could smell it too and so he started talking loudly about the guy and how bad he smelled. This made me a little nervous because, while I’m a big strong woman, I’m not 280 and six foot three. And I’m in between them. Was Kenny trying to start a fight?

Also it made me feel bad about the BO guy. So I tried exercising my empathy circuit. I learned about it from Josh Kornbluth. You know the monologist? He is making a series of videos about brain science called Citizen Brain. Americans are losing the ability to empathize, but Josh says we can turn it around. It’s just about trying to understand how the other person is feeling.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

So I’m thinking that the BO guy is a construction worker and is coming home after work. He can’t help it if he has BO. I could empathize. When I was a construction worker I came home on the bus. But I never smelled that bad. Except there was that one time when the electrical crew I was working with refused to come close to me because of how I smelled. I was trying to beat a cold by eating raw garlic. They said it was coming off my skin. Have you ever had a crew of construction workers tell you to your face you stink? I have. I gave the BO guy a sympathetic look. Still staring straight ahead.

But Kenny wouldn’t let it go. He wanted to prove to me that it wasn’t him, that it was the other guy who smelled. He said loudly, “You know my mom never let me smell like that. She told me when I was 14 that I had to always take a shower and use deodorant every day and of course I couldn’t smell like that working in the hospital because it would not be tolerated.”

I could see he didn’t think I believed him. But I wished he would change the subject.

Then he did something pretty weird. He pulled out the front of his size quadruple X T-shirt to expose his belly and underarm. “Come on. Smell me,” he commanded. I must have looked surprised. “No really,” he said. “It’s not me.” He was holding out the T-shirt, beckoning. What could I do? I wanted to reassure him and I wanted him to stop talking about the BO guy. So I bent forward, stuck my head under his shirt and took a whiff. In fact he did smell pretty good in there, kind of like soap. When I emerged from under the shirt I was laughing so hard I had trouble maintaining my composure after that.

Kenny offered me the beer again and for a minute I imagined what fun we could have riding MUNI back and forth to Daly City and drinking beer in the back of the 14 Mission.

But I was tired of trying not to breathe. Glad to get up and leave when my stop came. But a little sorry to leave my new friend Kenny. He said, “To think that I didn’t want you to sit here.” I said, “Why didn’t you want me to sit here?” He said, “Because I like to do my man-spreading thing on the back of the bus.”

As I was getting up he flashed me a big smile. He said “Hey hey hey” and held up his fist. We fist bumped.

I was still laughing. I was thinking I was glad to be old and glad I took the damn seat.